Summer Treats

Tag at Volcano 1995 Oil on canvas, 54 x 72 inches

Summer is full-blown here on Blue Mountain Road. It’s been off and on weather ─ hot and dry, then cool and rainy. Not quite enough rain though. Afternoon skyscapes are dramatic with billowing white clouds building to the west and promising rain but often offering only drama. And in the evening, the sky is veiled with fiery orange, red and violet.

Thank goodness for the beauty of this landscape, a sanctuary in these distressing times.

The garden is planted and provides a few delicious vegetables. Arugula, lettuce, green onions, snap peas and kale are ready to harvest. Tomatoes and eggplant are flowering.

On one of the hottest days, I remembered a cold soup we love. First made for us years ago by artist Robert Kushner, this Indian soup is a Shark’s favorite. Simply whizzed in the blender then chilled, it’s perfect to start a summer meal.

Cold Avocado Soup

Combine in the blender 1 large ripe avocado, 1 cup coconut milk, 1 cup plain yogurt, a large clove of garlic, chopped, 1 jalapeño or to taste, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds, 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, a generous 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro. Add 2 cups cold water and blend until smooth. Add up to another cup of water to make a pourable soup. Adjust seasoning to taste. Chill and serve in small cups ─ this is a rich and spicy concoction. Garnish with cilantro leaves and/or a slice of avocado.

Apricot Crisp

Summer fruits are coming into the markets. I scored some organic Colorado apricots and will make a crisp for friends at a long awaited dinner party.

The topping is a simple one ─ ½ cup each of flour, brown sugar, oats and butter, cut together and then crumbled over 1½ – 2 pounds of sliced fruit, (apricots, peaches, plums, apples), in a baking dish. Sprinkle fruit with a tablespoon or two of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. I like my apricots to retain their tang. Sliced almonds are a tasty addition. Or make the topping gluten-free by using almond meal in place of the flour. Bake for about 40 minutes at 350° until brown and bubbly. Makes six servings. Easily halved for 2-3.

Another nice treat to have on hand to accompany summer fruit or simply a cup of coffee is this more-ish cookie from David Lebovitz.

Pain d’Amande

In a medium saucepan over low heat melt 8 tablespoons butter with 1 1/3 cups turbinado sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/3 cup water just until the butter melts, do not boil.

Remove from the heat and add 2 1/3 cups flour, ¼ teaspoon baking soda and 1 cup sliced almonds.

Line an 8-9 inch loaf pan with parchment and press dough into the pan, smoothing the top. Chill until firm, 2-3 hours.

Preheat oven to 325°.  Remove dough from pan and using a sharp knife, slice it crosswise into rectangles, as thin as possible, 1/8 – 1/16 inch.

Place on baking sheets an inch apart and bake for 12 – 15 minutes, until slightly firm and a bit browned. Turn the cookies over and bake another 12 -15 minutes until crisp and deep golden brown. Cool on a rack. Makes 50 -70 cookies depending on thickness.

The rain finally materialized – in force. The driveway is a mess but the plants love it. Happy Fourth of July.

Conflict Management on the Homestead

by Mimi Hedl

Climbing the stairway to heaven
(Read more about this at https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/1978 )

Aii yii yiii! As summer approaches, the head gardener’s temper has reached new heights. If not for my daughter’s class on conflict management, I may have gone over the edge. I bit my lower lip so many times it looked like a hive of bees stung me. Of course SHE never even noticed my lip. Yes, I know, it’s not about me, it’s about how we see the garden duties differently. And I respect her vision, she can just be so myopic, not give me any slack.

It started when the head gardener saw a “strange woman” mowing the grass, going lickety-split, (her words), showing her up and taking over one of her responsibilities. I’d given her time off while my daughter, Hilary and the boys were here. I thought she’d appreciate some free time but she must’ve driven by at least once a day that I could see. Who knows how often she actually drove by or even if she spied on us. I don’t really want to know, I just want peace and calm and some time off when I don’t have to feel guilty. Her calls would come and the lip biting would ensue.

Exploring Mistaken Creek

When Brady and Logan come, I concentrate on them. I still have to do basic gardening chores, but mostly I cook what they love, take them to the creek, horse around, and soak up their enthusiasms. Brady tries to cream me at Monopoly. I, uhhum, “let him win”. Well, sort of. That’s another story. And Logan’s my bedmate. We sleep, all 4 of us, out on the summer kitchen, listening to the night sounds, watching the flickering of the fireflies, hearing rain on the tin roof, an armadillo scratching around under the house.

Hilary would get up at 4:45 to study for her class or work on a paper. (We three would sleep in until 6:30 or so. Logan would go from eyes completely closed to a sunny “Good morning”. That definitely warmed the cockles of me heart.) Hilary’s getting a master’s in Organizational Leadership and almost everything she studies has psychology involved. It’s fascinating to watch her stretch her mind into new fields after 23 years of flying a helicopter in the military. And she helps me stretch too, finding new ways to think about old ideas and not locking into a fixed way of thinking, hence I WILL deal with the head gardener.

We went to Mistaken Creek, a creek that runs through our bottom land, three or four times. It’s another world down there. No garden, but wild and carefree, plants of all sorts jumbled together as seed from upstream, overhanging trees, critters and whatnot, find their way into all sorts of nooks and crannies. I feel free, just like the boys must feel. I test myself on the plants, saying one name after another,  while the boys are immediately into skipping stone mode. I’ve watched Brady go from not being able to skip at all (while his dad, Kerry, skipped with such power his arm made a whirring sound) to skipping stones all the way across Third Creek, 100 feet wide, hitting the rocks on the far side. He now has some of the power that awed me in his dad and an arm that never seems to tire. Logan, 2 ½ years younger, has caught on. He’s built like an attractive tank and will someday be a force to reckon with. Now he can’t quite compete with Brady, but we warn Brady, his time will come and it may not be pretty.

Brady roasting marshmallow number 10.

Roasting marshmallows in the coals of the cook stove took us into the evening of fireflies. They restrained themselves a few nights, having only 5 or 6 marshmallows, and then a few other nights they threw abandon to the wind and scarfed down so many Hilary and I felt sure they’d barf. They have stomachs designed for s’mores. And this year they were too tired to catch fireflies, hitting their beds early and zonking immediately.

Patrick, our neighbor, took the boys, one after the other, for a ride on his tractor, racing down the road to Mistaken Creek and back in jig time. It wasn’t a carnival ride but the boys had never been on a tractor and it was big stuff to them. Petra showed them the ponies, including a white Mustang, and offered the boys treats to give the ponies. They demurred saying they didn’t want to get that slobber all over them. That made me laugh as I watched how dirty they got when they play.

I try to remember childhood when the boys come. It’s a bit of a stretch because I also focus on keeping them safe and happy, providing them with their favorite foods, becoming a short order cook as the requests go from one meal to the next, never quite able to fit all the favorites in. We ended with dough gobs, a request from Hilary, remembering Ron making them and how she loved them. They’re a totally decadent treat, pieces of bread dough tossed into hot peanut oil, fried to perfection and eaten with honey and butter. The boys devoured them.  Hilary and I did our best.

Logan the engineer.

One Friday, an old friend from New Hampshire came to spend the day with us. Kit used to visit her parents in a neighboring town and her parents were my friends first. Kit and I met in 1998 and have been fast friends since. The boys took to her right away and we carried on as one big silly family. They even let her have some of their mac and cheese she coveted as we ate our adult meal.

Hilary found a pipevine swallowtail caterpillar as she mowed. Logan had a bug box so she brought it to him. It was a mature caterpillar and looked like it would go into chrysalis soon. We put that caterpillar and one Logan found on the screen door into this jar and in a few days they both had gone into chrysalis as if it was staged. Logan lamented he wouldn’t be able to see the caterpillar emerge, as he had learned in school it took several weeks. I’ll see it all and send him a picture, you readers too.

As we prepared to leave Strawdog, Brady commented that we’d go from the 1800’s to the digital world and video games, all in just a few hours. I felt amazed at his insight and willingness to comment on the two worlds. They’d go to a soccer camp in Saint Louis, staying with a friend of Hilary’s and her family, in what the boys rightly call a mansion. The day will come when Strawdog won’t appeal to them, so I treasure these moments with open-hearted gusto.

Stare down.

After spending a night in the mansion with Hilary and the boys, I came home to the fury of the head gardener. She was fuming in the driveway when I arrived and unleashed her anger at me before I could step out of the Honda. I felt tired and a little sad, the way you do when you leave people you love, and couldn’t quite focus on what she was saying. I asked her to come sit with me on the summer kitchen, have a glass of iced lemon balm tea. Lemon balm has anti-anxiety properties and I do believe the tea along with my new conflict management skills helped ease her tensions.

As we sat on the summer kitchen, a cool breeze blew, the fragrance of the catalpa flowers wafted in, along with songs from the Baltimore oriole and calls of the indigo bunting. I listened to her worries about getting the gardens planted, weeded, the peas harvested, the grass cut and on and on. She was almost frantic at the beginning but as she drank her tea and talked and talked, I saw her softening, opening up a tiny bit. When she quieted for a few minutes, I told her that Hilary cutting all the grass, all 6 plus hours’ worth of mowing, had freed me up. I’d planted all the beans, even some flower and herb seed. In a few short days, the gardens would be ready for summer and we could weed, prune, harvest, plant more beans as the peas finished up. The mowing would slow down, I assured her, as the heat of summer bore down, and we’d have more time for intensive weeding. I then told her how much I appreciated her patience with me as I had my vacation, how important it was for me to spend time with the family and wish that she would spend time with us too. She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no. I hold out hope that she’ll allow herself to blend in with the family, laughing and joking, helping to make delicious meals and maybe even roasting marshmallows with the boys.

Golden Rain Tree
I stole the seed from the Capitol in Jefferson City and sowed the seed in 1991. 31 years old!

Garden Volunteers

The garden beds have erupted with sprouts of volunteer hollyhocks, arugula, dill, cilantro and orach. Mostly red and green orach, (atriplex hortensis), the bosses of my garden beds, growing wherever they choose. According to the website The Laidback Gardener, orach was one of the “first vegetables cultivated by humans, known well before the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, orach was one of the most commonly grown vegetables in Eurasia and by the 17th and 18th centuries it had ‘conquered’ the Americas and Australia as well.”

These lovely little sprouts will grow to be over five feet tall with seed heads holding hundreds of potential plants. In spring I happily uproot baskets full and cook the small leaves in tarts and soups. Somehow, (I do admire their persistence and the beautiful seed stalks), many escape my harvesting and provide seeds for next year’s crop. I am ruthless after they attain their height but leave some to self-seed, however maddening they will be as they blanket the beds in spring.

On a recent phone call with Mimi she described a dish she was making for dinner. Her visiting friend Jesse had requested enchiladas made with foraged lamb’s quarters. (Jesse delights in finding edible wild plants.) I haven’t got lamb’s quarters but the orach will serve in their place. Mimi gave me her recipe – a some of this, some of that kind of recipe. Here is my version ─

After steaming the picked over greens with just the water clinging from washing, I squeezed out excess water, (save the juices for soup or as a chef’s treat). Chopped them and sautéed with several cloves of garlic (from the braid that was Mimi’s gift last year) in a tablespoon of oil.

I made a simple ranchero sauce with tomato sauce I had frozen last fall, (or use a 15 ounce can of chopped tomatoes), half an onion, chopped, a home-pickled jalapeño or chilé of your choosing, and a handful of chopped cilantro stems and leaves. I pureed these in the blender then fried the sauce in a bit of safflower oil until darkened and thickened – 10 minutes or so.

With a baking dish at hand, I softened six corn tortillas rubbed with a bit of oil on my comal then rolled  them up with a couple tablespoons of the greens, a dollop of sauce and a small handful of grated Catamount cheese, (use cheddar, jack or whatever you have), and arranged in the dish topped with the rest of the sauce and grated cheese. 

I baked them in the toaster oven, covered with foil, at 350° for about 20 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes until hot and bubbly. Garnish with cilantro, sour cream, avocado, a fried egg or whatever you fancy. They’re delicious on their own too.

If you would like to grow orach, send me a note and I will save seeds for you this fall. Beware – this beautiful plant is very vigorous and will cover your garden with maroon sprouts. They’re easy to spot, so pull them out and EAT them.

French lilac

It’s the Little Things…

by Mimi Hedl

One chilly, rainy spring afternoon, the sofa invited me to rest. I settled down, all nice and cozy, with a favorite spring tonic, Barbara Pond’s A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, given to me 35 years ago by my sister Barbara, with an inscription, “I love these familiar little plants with the lovely names.” I never tire of reading that inscription, spring after spring, with the knowledge Barbara found charm in wayside herbs like I do. If you’ve never looked at an old herbal, you won’t understand the fantasy and magic these herbals give to those who dare enter within.

Identify these please.

A few days before, Brother Cadfael and I stood where his garden meets the Cottage Garden, both of us with hoes in hand, standing with them as a support of sorts or perhaps as a badge of honor. We smiled at each other when we stood up from our hoeing and admired the cool day, the fragrance of the first iris, and the lushness of the hillsides. He thanked me again for allowing him to take over what was the butterfly garden. He has a dozen monkshood flowers growing well now and many spring ephemerals have shown their sweet faces.

 He had hoed down the elderberries explaining that they grew in other gardens and shrub borders and wouldn’t I agree this would make a far better location for special herbs for his remedies and of course flowers for the altar and for the infirm and ? “Without question”, I replied. He knows the uses for so many of the wayside herbs that creep into any area that doesn’t get mowed excessively or that grow under a tree with leaner soil, and I can come to him with my queries. He’ll show me a tincture he’s made or explain what part of an herb to use to treat an ill. I could listen to him all day but we both feel anxious to return to our labors and probably find more comfort in just knowing the other one works the earth in much the same way, with bowed head and contented mind.

My love of plants makes most people yawn or say something like, “that’s nice.” Kinda like what I do when the locals start talking about who’s related to who and so and so is their second cousin twice removed. I go into a trance at such talk and can never keep track of it all. And I’ve been called on it. “I told you she was my mother’s own cousin’s aunt.” Don’t quote me. I never repeat it quite right and my genealogical-minded friends just shake their heads. When they say, “It’s history!” I’ll say, yes, just not the variety I want to dive into.

Carolina allspice.

As the years went by and my interest in plants increased I began studying the flora of Missouri. I wanted to know all of the plants in one family, just because it fascinated me to know which ones were intimately related. The most fascinating discovery was when I learned poison ivy, cashews, mangoes, and pistachios all belong to the same family. (Anacardiaceae for you plant nerds.) My mind expanded by several magnitudes. Wow! I said to myself.

On hot summer days I’d sit under the fan with Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri and make lists of all the plants in the buttercup family – for instance, clematis, columbine, anemones, delphinium. And get this, they’re all poisonous to some degree or another, especially in early spring, to both man and animals. (Think of all the times we put a buttercup under our chins to see if our skin would glow, which meant we liked butter…) I’d go from one family to another, making these lists, then studying them. As soon as I see a new plant, I look for something to recognize its heritage. So I understand folks into genealogy.

Find the agrimony.

I sit among the wayside herbs under shady trees taking note of how the agrimony has spread. (Remember? It has flowers that smell like apricots, belongs to the rose family.) Or I watch this fight for survival by the noble frog. (He won, I might add, after 5 minutes or so of struggle. I was tempted to intervene but firmly believe, mostly, we should let nature go about its changes.)

Someone’s in trouble.

As I sit, or kneel, or lie down amongst it all, I inevitably find seedlings of every sort of tree, (it’s under a tree, no less), and what do birds do but perch and purge. It still astounds me to find 5 or 6 cedar seedlings in less than a square foot.

Summer has kicked in now. No time for idle ramblings or thoughts, it’s all about getting everything planted, seeds sown. Idleness will come during the dog days. These photographs show some of the beauty and variety of plants on Strawdog. I see Cadfael out and about in the cool of the evenings, strolling around, bending over to smell or taste, sometimes picking small bouquets. Of course that delights me as did a surprise visit the other evening.

Dwarf Crested Iris

I was pounding T-posts in for the tomato cages with a heavy tool that fits inside the post and has handles on the sides to bring home the post. When you heave down on it, the sound travels far and wide. Petra heard me across the road and sent her knight in shining armor, Patrick, to assist me. I’ve never had anyone stop by, out of the blue, to help me, so I felt flabbergasted. He insisted on helping, loyal to Petra’s wishes that I not do such a chore. I demurred and actually enjoyed watching his effortless labor, sending each post in with two strokes instead of the four I required. We carried on pleasant, happy banter and before I knew it, all twelve of the posts stood tall and proud. As Patrick began to leave, I eyed the asparagus, another spring tonic, and realized I hadn’t picked it that day. So with Patrick on one side of the bed, me on the other, we picked enough spears for them to have a meal. There will be more asparagus and I see cookies in his future too.

Monarch on valerian.

Spring Celebrations

When Zoë was a child she awoke on Easter morning to find a wicker basket full of chocolate bunnies, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and jelly beans. Now for our spring celebration, Bud makes small paper baskets out of discarded prints, one for each guest at Easter lunch. Over the years we have saved them to hang in our china cupboard, a reminder of the artists who made the prints and the cheerful call of spring.

This year he used discards of Kara Maria’s new print for the baskets I filled with chocolate and sour jellies. Zoë, my sister Susan, Charles, Corey, Liz and new addition, Lilikoi, joined us for lunch on Sunday. This was three-month-old Lilikoi’s first outing for a party. And our first in-person sight of our sweet grand-niece.

I set the table with a tablecloth, linen napkins and my mom’s china, a pattern of gold leaves encircling the plates. For lunch, we ate a smoked salmon tart, an asparagus frittata, a kale, beet and carrot salad from Zoë, and for dessert, homemade pound cake and strawberries from Susan. I wrote about the tart here – https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/1985

The frittata recipe is from The Smitten Kitchen. I particularly like this method of preparing the asparagus. Enough for 2 – 3. For our Easter lunch I doubled the recipe and used a bigger skillet.

Asparagus Frittata

Wash 1/4 pound or so of asparagus, thick stalks work best. No need to snap off the ends. Lay each stalk on a cutting board and shave into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, starting from the tough end. Discard tough stalks. Beat together 4 large eggs, a tablespoon of cream or half-and-half, a good pinch of salt and fresh pepper. Add a thinly sliced green onion. (I didn’t have these so add chopped dill. I prefer the onion.) Stir the asparagus into the eggs, coating each strand.

Heat an 8-inch skillet over medium heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil, swishing the oil up the sides. Add the egg mixture and nudge the asparagus to spread out evenly. Cook gently for about 5 minutes until edges are set but center is loose. Top with crumbles of goat cheese (1 – 2 ounces) and transfer skillet to the broiler. Cook until top is set, 1 – 3 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The wild plum trees along Apple Valley Road are breaking out in fragrant blossom. Each year I await this intoxicating bloom to breath in the fleeting aroma and store for a year’s worth of scent memory. Enjoy the new growth and promise of spring.

Messengers from the Sky

by Mimi Hedl

Father 1995
Oil on canvas, 40 x 36 inches

On one of Dad’s early trips to Strawdog, he told me when I saw the first robin in spring, to think of him. He loved that bird. We were sitting on the bench under the crab apple tree where he’d go to roll his cigarettes and sit to look out at the world. He sat and looked a lot, overcome by beauty and appreciation so that joy would burst out of him in a shit-eating grin. He’d laugh, smile that crazy smile, and shake his head in utter disbelief and say something like, “Gee-sus Mariah!”

This year, a few days before spring arrived, I felt confused. Early in the morning, before the sun appeared, I went out to hang the bird feeder and the suet and was bowled over by sound pouring from every direction, in volumes so loud I needed earplugs. Everywhere I looked I saw robins. Not ten or twenty, and surely not that one to remind me of Dad, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were in the trees, on the ground, flying, quarreling, trying to steal the holly berries from the mockingbirds, drinking out of the bird baths, carrying on as if they owned the place and had called Strawdog home for years and years.

Robins in deciduous Holly tree

This has continued, every morning, early. More and more robins arrive, the expanding chorus becoming familiar.  By 9 am they’ve moved on, a few remaining, scattered here and there, perhaps the ones who’ve won nesting rights. In the evenings, I see some in the cedars and other trees, bedding down for the night. I wonder how long I’ll have these visitors and what message Dad sends me and why I can’t decipher it. I also think of all the fertilizer they’re leaving behind and the pounds of meat they devour. Whatever the exchange, it seems more than fair because I have the pleasure of witnessing an amazing phenomenon.

When the neighbors arrived on their tractor, the bucket loaded with a gift of horse manure, Patrick said, “Your robins have come over to our place. I can’t believe how many there are! I don’t know what’s going on, but thanks for sharing.” I laughed as he emptied the bucket and asked them if this would be a good time for them to get starts of some shrubs and bulbs. Yes, they said, as they pulled out their shovels and jumped down from the tractor.  We spent the rest of the afternoon going from bridal veil to forsythia to lilacs and everything in between.

Little Beauty Daffodil

Petra dug carefully and with respect. Forty years ago I could’ve been her, digging things from abandoned farm yards, along the roadways, from Eunice’s yard – a cranky old woman who ran a rototiller at 85 and who Ron would help in every way possible only to have her find fault. Petra kept saying how generous I was. “It’s not me who’s generous, Petra, it’s the earth. Gardeners love to share. Mostly! You may see my greed if you ask for a start of the Roman hyacinth.” Oh the fragrance of that early flower. I couldn’t choose between it, lily of the valley, lilac, mignonette and of course old fashioned roses. So what does someone with such a decision do? She grows them all, of course. Petra says she wants one of everything that grows on Strawdog and I smile at her enthusiasm.

Roman Hyacinth

She texted me that night at 9 pm and said they’d put everything in the ground and Yippee! I wrote back that I was impressed and hoped they’d take a long soak in their super-sized tub. They had done in five hours what would now take me more than several hard days to transplant, forty years after coming to Strawdog. Time moves on and reminds us, in case we hadn’t noticed, in not so subtle ways.

Ice Follies Daffodils
Ice Follies naturalized

Having young neighbors move in right across the county road feels like a gift. I like hearing Patrick working, calling the dogs, driving the tractor down to the barn. It’s nice to call and ask them to help me move a cold frame or to troubleshoot a problem. Somehow the sounds of human life close by feels comforting after these years of the pandemic, isolation and a strange mental state from it all. 

Don’t tell the birds this. I know they think of me as their main friend, and I certainly would feel lost without them. If I forget to put up the feeders, the birds let me know. When I’m stuck inside on a rainy day, I need to look out and see life. Watching their antics pulls me out of myself, especially when I start worrying about the state of the world. As many wise people have said, the world hasn’t changed, only our awareness. I celebrate the human spirit when I hear a Ukrainian say, “Yes, I may not survive this day, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a coffee with a friend or get my hair cut. We have to keep on living as long as we are.” Amen and hallelujah. I offer up my joy and every seed I sow to those brave people.

Maybe that’s the message Dad sends me via the robins. Celebrate life. Celebrate spring. Revel in the cheerful colors, the buds, the nest building, the return of old favorites and all the memories they hold. Forty years ago we cheered when we saw one bird and now “we planted it and they came”, a favorite adage of the native plant movement. Everyday I reinvent myself – or find myself. It’s an easy thing to lose, to forget who I want to be. I look across the road and see Petra’s forsythia shrub blooming! yes blooming, and I smile that same smile of Dad’s and exclaim, in his honor, “Gee-suss Mariah!”

Electric Blue Squill

Almost spring

Our March weather has varied from warm, sunny days to cold, snowy ones. All winter we have watched from the dining room table as birds storm the feeders ─ finches, juncos, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, magpies, and nuthatches.

Now, on spring-like days, they flock to the feeders in the cool of early morning but as the day warms are beaten out by mobs of bees. Yes, bees. We have a new mixture of birdseed and with nothing blooming something in it attracts bees. What a sight – bees swarming in and around the feeders. The juncos hop around to eat seed on the ground and sometimes attempt to land on the feeder perches but when it’s warm, the bees win. We’ve watched deer chowing down on the dropped seed and two grey foxes regularly visit in the evening to clean up after the birds and bees.

A lesson in accepting the unusual, the unexpected. Much like the state of the world.

My mood has been up and down with the news and the weather. I haven’t been inspired to cook and our meals include easily made dishes from my repertoire. Not that they aren’t tasty meals, just not brilliant.

I wrote about a favorite soup from my childhood, Campbell’s Bean with Bacon, in my book. I still make something similar and during the latest snowy days made a pot of Spicy Bean Soup.

I got a new variety of bean in the last Rancho Gordo bean club shipment, the Whipple, and cooked them to use for our soup. Use canned, drained pinto or black beans if that’s what you have. Need I mention how exceptional home-cooked beans taste?

Sauté a chopped, medium-sized yellow onion and a large diced carrot, in a couple tablespoons safflower oil or bacon fat. Cook gently for 10 minutes then add a handful of minced cilantro stems (save the leaves for garnish) and 4-5 slivered cloves of garlic and cook for a minute. Stir in 2-3 cups of cooked beans and 3 cups of the cooking liquor, or however much you have. Add water or veggie broth to make 3 cups of liquid. Stir in a generous tablespoon of tomato paste and one of chipotle puree. I couldn’t find my usual chipotles en adobo but bought a nice jar from Frontera. Easy to use and delicious.

Cook over low heat until veggies are very tender. Cool a bit then puree half the soup in the blender and add to unblended half. Thin with water or stock to desired thickness. Taste for salt and additional chipotle. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and chopped cilantro leaves.

I rarely use the entire tin of tomato paste in a recipe so I store the extra in the freezer. Place tablespoon dabs on a piece of wax paper. Fold over and freeze in a plastic bag . Easy to peel off the paper and toss into a soup or sauce.

Keep your winter jacket handy in the changeable weather and watch for those green sprouts. Spring is on her way.

Odds and Sods

by Mimi Hedl

Snowdrops in February

On a warmish February afternoon, the head gardener and I got together, outside, (the pandemic still rages in this rural area) to discuss our coming spring duties. It was good to see her after the huge snow and ice storm, well, to see anyone, as visitors have seemed scarce. I pulled a Job’s Tear seed out of my pocket and asked her if she knew this bead was a grain crop too. I told her I’d done some research after admiring the curtain I’d made from the seed, first sown in 1987. I’d vaguely recalled the seeds made a cereal but I couldn’t imagine eating such a cereal as the husk on the seed was so hard. In my research, I discovered there were seed varieties that produced softer shells and the shell could come off simply by squeezing, that it would cook up as a large barley grain and wouldn’t it be fun to try that?

Oh my. That sent her on a tear. “There you go again. You’re always coming up with some harebrained project like when you had me drive my Jeep over the black walnuts to take off the husks, or the hours we spent shelling those tiny hazelnuts. And then there’s the devil’s claw! Who in their right mind would even consider shelling those tiny seeds. Then…”

Devil’s Claw and seeds

“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I do come up with some crazy schemes. They arrive because of curiosity, that wonderful gift that opens up the world, shows us what our ancestors had to do to make a life, and keeps me engaged in growing varieties from all over the world. Do you…”

“Really? This is how you want to approach our spring work? You want to waste our time thinking about such a trivial thing as Job’s Tears making a cereal? I thought this would be a serious work meeting. We still have plots to burn, copses to thin, bamboo to cut. And we haven’t decided what varieties to grow this year and there you go talking poetry. Get out your clip board and let’s get to work.”

And we did. She IS the head gardener and no doubt I’m the dreamer. I should’ve learned my lesson by now, that the two will tangle. But she’s good for me so I humor her and don’t let her caustic remarks do anything but amuse me. It was a productive session. We still have 5 weeks before we’ll begin serious sowing of seed. She took the clipboard and made lists that will keep me on track, away from dreaming, at least in her presence. But with you, I can express a few of my trivial thoughts, my poetic gestures. If you laugh, it will be with a sense of camaraderie ─ don’t most of us have a bit of poet in us?

The Job’s Tears have disappeared from the gardens but I’ve decided to sneak a few seeds into the cottage garden. They’ll mix nicely with all the other perennials and should the head gardener spy one, I’ll simply say, “Oh my, the miracle of longevity. Seeds can endure for centuries” and continue weeding, head down, giggling.

I do admire the curtain I made probably 30 years ago. The ends of the strings, each with 144 beads, come at the perfect height for our little rodent visitors to sample when food stores dwindle. Then I have to take down the strand and restring the beads, much easier now as the hole, through drying, has enlarged so the needle pierces them easily. And I do want to try to shell one of these seeds, just one, to feel what it feels like, knowing there’s a machine to do that task now, though early on, 4000 years ago in India, the job probably fell to women as they sat in circles and visited.

Devils’ Claw became part of our seed collection when I learned the Pima and Papago basket makers used the fibers in these claws for the black decoration in their coiled baskets. My fascination with all things limber enough to make a basket came early on, in junior high, in an art class with Miss Winecke, though I didn’t have sense enough to pursue my interest then, something about hormones. The class was in the basement at Malcolm Price Laboratory School, a corner room. There was a potter’s wheel and lots of art supplies. A wood and metal shop was close by. I tried that too and made a cool wooden table lamp I still have.

It wasn’t until coming to Strawdog and walking the woods, the fields, that I touched everything to see if it would bend. I’ve only made a couple coiled baskets and never pounded the fibers in the claws to make weaving material, but I use the claws as a frame for a soap dish or a Spanish galleon, braving all weather, to hold treasures from a snapping turtle’s shell and stones from the beach at Cardiff by the Sea, laden with fond memories.

If the head gardener saw the washtub filled with Devil’s Claws, collected over the years, she’d gasp with alarm. These claws are virtually indestructible. I use them in hanging sculptures and made this one, called Somersault as a fun tribute to the agility of these claws. The birds pick out the seeds but a few always end up somewhere in the gardens. I allow one or two plants to grow, as the flower looks beautiful, like an orchid, and everyone who sees the plant wants one. I only caution those who have horses, as one of these claws lodged in the horse’s hoof would be painful.

Somersault

And yes, it was laborious picking out the meat from the seed. Such tiny things. I made this simple jig to hold the seed and used a small tack hammer to crack the shell. Not only did the head gardener help me, but I remember sitting by the fire with my daughter-in-law, Lynda, doing the same. She enjoyed it as much as I did.

We used the same jig for the hazelnuts. The nuts would vary in size, never the large nuts like they grow in the Pacific northwest, but small ones, squirrel-sized. And delicious. The husks so frilly and wonderful. Now the squirrels claim them all, something I should point out to the head gardener to garner a few points on the practical side of her ledger.

On a very cold, icy day, I made new shelf paper for our shelves, inspired by Ma in Little House On the Prairie, though she wouldn’t have had the paper punch I did and would have had to use a nail to make the starlight. Frivolous beyond words, no doubt.

And so go the fading days of winter. He has begun to lose a bit of his grip though we will have more cold, more ice and more snow. The promise Gertrude Jekyll wrote about in Wood and Garden stays with me: “There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” Maybe just maybe, I should write that thought on a card and send it to the head gardener. Does that not seem like a piece of pure brilliance! If the grand dame of gardening can have such poetic thoughts, why not a humble acolyte in these Ozark hills?

Books and Cookies

Thinking 2010, oil on board, 12 x 12 inches

Books have been my life-long passion, from the orange-bound biographies in the Lincoln Elementary school library in Superior Wisconsin to (again orange-spined) Penguin editions in England.  For the last two years reading has been my dependable refuge from disease and politics.

I’ve been patronizing our wonderful local library, the Lyons Community Library, where friendly librarians make recommendations and order books for me through inter-library loan, a fascinating system that schleps books around the state via dedicated book couriers. I am impressed with the hidden workings underpinning much of our daily lives.

On snowy days what could be better than a promising, thick volume and a cookie?

During the latest storm I perused my ring-bound book of recipes and found several I hadn’t made in years. Each holds a sweet memory for me.

Coffee Shortbread, is a rich, fragrant morsel first encountered many years ago at Treats bakery on 9th Street in Boulder. The baker, Andria Bronsten, shared her recipe with me after we worked on preparing a memorial tea for dear friend Clare Forster, for which Andria baked 100 cookies.

Andria Bronsten‘s Coffee Shortbread

Combine 3/4 cup (6 oz.) soft butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 cup cornstarch, 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee. I use the Cuisinart to do this. A stand mixer would work or use some arm muscle.

Form dough into small, 1 1/4 inch, balls, then flatten slightly with a fork. (I added a few flakes of Maldon salt to the tops.) Bake at 350° for 12 – 15 minutes, until very light brown and firm.

Makes 2 dozen.

The recipe for Coffee Cookies comes from Linda Quick who baked them for us in London on the evening before Zoë was born.

Linda’s Coffee Cookies

Cream together 1/2 cup butter and 2/3 cup sugar. Add 1 large egg and 2 tablespoons instant coffee.

Stir in 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Then add 1/2 cup raisins and 1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped.

Drop by tablespoons onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Space the mounds two inches apart as these cookies spread. Bake at 350° for 12 – 15 minutes, until set. The cookies will be a bit delicate until they cool. Makes 2 dozen.

Some of the books I’ve enjoyed include The High House by Jessie Greengrass, a sweet tale of life after ecologic disaster told in a loving and tender manner. Louise Erdrich takes on the current state of affairs via a story of books, ghosts and memory, in The Sentence.

The Loft Generation … Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011 by Edith Schloss was an unexpected pleasure. Schloss was a young artist in 1950s New York and hung out with artists like Elaine and Willem DeKooning. She writes in an engaging style about life and art, including the story of a wonderful visit to Morandi.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanigihara was a daunting proposition, a big fat book, but oh how I enjoyed her three-part, three era saga. It was easy to suspend belief and enter her skillful and riveting versions of 1893, 1993 and 2093 New York.

I stumbled on Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, a beautiful tale of a fig tree and the family that lived near it on the island of Cyprus. At the library when a fellow reader was contemplating this book, I jumped in to say, that’s a terrific read. She offered me a recommendation of a book she had loved, Sankofa by Chubundu Onuzo, and I immediately put it on my list.

I read Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead and was engrossed in the life of a man caught between identities in 1970s Harlem. And Deacon King Kong by James McBride took me to the housing projects of Brooklyn.

I have just begun Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses and am completely engaged in her meanderings through George Orwell’s life and writing and the connections she makes to other artists. Her mind is a wonder.

Here are links to other cookie recipes that I have posted. Biscotti and Ginger Cookies are in Book Release. Make peanut butter cookies at Peanut Butter Cookies. Or Date Bars in The last of summer.

So bake some cookies and grab a book.

Learning to Split Wood

by Mimi Hedl

Winter and cold weather! Nothing feels better than to sit on the sofa and become hypnotized by the blazing fire. I could sit there all day but sooner rather than later the wood supply talks to me, my reverie stops and the morning chores begin. I size up the wood supply in the house. Ice and lots of snow can make the short trek to the woodshed seem like a gargantuan chore. Without dry, cured wood fires become an impossibility. No meals could get cooked or pipes kept from freezing, the inside garden would protest and canned goods would threaten to freeze. And so would I. Therefore, part of my morning chores involves splitting heating wood into cook-sized wood, carrying it inside to the wood box, and bringing in enough heating wood for the day and night. Once this critical mission gets accomplished, I can think about gardening duties.

Splitting wood has become second nature to me. It’s like washing dishes or doing laundry, a simple routine using tried and true techniques to achieve good results. It wasn’t always that way. And when friends ask me to teach them how to split, because it looks so easy, I’m reminded of my apprenticeship years ago and understand their frustration.

Early in Strawdog years, Hilary would fly back to Boulder for the Christmas school break. She felt eager to be indulged by the glittering lights of the city, her cousin Zoë, aunt and uncle Barbara and Bud, and her dad. Ron became her gladiator, risking life and limb to deliver her to the airport in St. Louis and seeing her onto her flight.

Driving ‘Ol Red in snowy December required the constitution of a trained fighter. The ‘62 International did well as a farm truck, but what a sight it made on the interstate and how horrified Hilary must’ve felt to be seen in such a truck. As it happened, this time they left Strawdog in a snow storm leaving me behind to keep the home fires burning and worrying about them on their journey, 120 miles from home.

The fire did not burn brightly on that day. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get a blazing fire going. I realized I needed smaller wood and eyed the ax. Oh boy, why didn’t I pay more attention when Ron split wood. As the snow came down softly, gently, I picked up the ax, lined up a piece of wood, and tried to make little ones out of the chunk. The scars on the poor ax handle testified to my inexperience.

I figured that splitting wood resembled throwing a ball or catching one. It involved good eye/hand coordination. You had to eye the spot you wanted the ax to strike, keep staring at that point and then let the ax fall right there. What I didn’t know was how to hold the ax, how to let your hand glide up and down the handle, how to let the ax do the work and not your arm. All these skills had to mobilize at the exact moment of contact.

The cold didn’t bother me until I quit the exercise, then I’d go shivering into the house and stand by the fire, my hands, my feet freezing, nothing to show for my efforts. Then back outside. When I finally heard the satisfying cleaving of the chunk, I felt elated. I didn’t quite know what I’d done, but something had come together to pull the log apart. I managed to make enough small pieces to activate the fire and my enthusiasm for splitting. An equal or greater number of testimonies remain on the ax handle. I continued to practice most every day, on at least one or two chunks of wood, and after 40 years, I feel competent.

Funny how we remember those trials and tribulations. I can see the piece of earth where I began to learn how to split, now where the summer kitchen stands. I can see the bareness of the land. I can feel the fear and trepidation I had on so many levels in those early years. But I also remember the feeling of a small victory, like all pioneers must have when they accomplish one small task to keep them afloat a little while long.

And I can remember the phone call from Ron, outside of Belle, as darkness began to fall, that he’d delivered Hilary to the airport, but Ol’ Red broke down and he’d leave the truck along the side of the road, and as soon as he could hitch a ride home, he’d be here.

A few months ago my friend, Josh, brought me a gift, this stump from an ash tree on his land devastated by ash borers. Sad to see so many beautiful ash trees dying, but grateful to have such a powerful ally in the splitting process. To be able to set a chunk on this stump makes splitting such a pleasant task. I have this taller oak stump another neighbor brought me that I use for splitting small pieces into smaller pieces for the cook stove, using a hatchet instead of an ax.

I told Josh I’d like to go to a county fair somewhere that has a wood splitting contest. As a septuagenarian I would not look like a promising opponent. I’d slump a little bit and everyone would dismiss me. When I’d go to split a big chunk, everyone would look at each other in astonishment as I cleaved the wood like a professional. I’d stand tall and proud and wait for the next challenger. (Doesn’t everyone have a fun fantasy or two?)

Both of these stumps remind me of the partially rotted stump I used as girl, in a field by Lou Ann’s house in Superior, Wisconsin. There was an indentation from the rot, like a bowl, in the stump and I used it to pound berries I’d pick off a shrub close by, probably a honeysuckle. It was a place I could go when I wanted to be alone and get away from the large gang of kids Barbara and I played with. Now I have a mortar and pestle and still enjoy pounding herbs and spices into wonderful pastes and potions. How could I have known as a young girl that the stump in Superior prepared me for my future.

And in frigid Superior, I watched Dad go down into the scary basement, the steps covered with dust bunnies and spiders, to feed coal into the furnace. The house never got warm, but back in the ‘50s we didn’t expect to run around in shorts in the dead of winter. We put on more clothes, let our mittens dry near the radiators, and went out skating or sledding once we’d warmed up.

Now I get up in the middle of the night and feed my furnace. I think of Dad going down to shovel the coal and what a responsibility that was and I think of Ron. We’d set the alarm clock for every few hours on the coldest below zero nights and take turns going downstairs to feed the fire. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear the alarm when it was my turn and Ron would get up and feed the fire in my place, never saying a word. This became a habit of mine and when I confessed to Ron, he said he didn’t mind, he had to get up anyway, and it wasn’t a big deal, and then he laughed, because of course he knew I was faking it. Believe me, it is a big deal, to be roused out of your sleep and what a sweet memory to remember how he pampered me.

The witch hazel blooms and this bouquet scents the house, like oranges I say. Soon the Yellow of Parma onion seed will arrive from Seed Saver’s and I’ll sow the seed in an onion box I made from scrap gathered in the Museum. The native forb seed has been cast onto the fields, the red buckeye and dogwood seeds selectively planted around the homestead with my friend Agnes as helper. She was delighted when I had her smell a sassafras twig, “My grandmother’s perfume! 4711!” she exclaimed and was immediately put in touch with her long departed grandmother from Dresden. You should’ve seen the smile on her face as she traveled back in time.

The head gardener found the first snowdrop blooming. We both fell to our knees and admired the welcome flower, soon to be followed by many more. The days lengthen, our spirits lift ever so slightly and we realize the wonderful progression never stops, just keeps on movin’, movin’ into the future. With a well-supplied stock of wood and kindling, a sharp ax and eye, we will too.

Witch Hazel