Thursday, November 28, 2002

the garden in fall

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

--Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass

A lot of people seem to think that gardening is all over after the last frost. Not true. Things slow down, but there's still plenty to do (besides raking leaves) to take advantage of those crisp fall days, when with just an extra layer of clothes, there's nothing that feels better than to be moving around outside breathing the fresh air. After the initial jolt when every tomato vine withers, the annual flowers turn black and shrivelled, a cool sunny day revives the spirits, and it's the perfect time to clean up the dead and the weeds, and throw it into the compost bin.

It is with mixed emotions this time of year that I watch the progression of leaves. The serviceberry from one day to the next was different: light gold, darkening over days to burnt orange and fianlly burnished red til only a few bright leaves were left like tiny flags waving. The crabapple just outside the kitchen window with the leaves flickering golden lights in the breeze amidst bright red berries, presaging Christmas lights, and darken finally into brown and fall gently into the air, dancing down the invisible currents til they land. The dramatic displays of disease and death. It's true--some of the leaves are spotted with black--evidence of being eaten by other creatures even as they flare up into color before another death. The dying is all around--abundant and silent.

First snowfall. In the afternoon the wind kicked up and soon the leaves were falling in a crazy torrent. Looking north up Cayuga Lake from South Hill, the coastal hills are obscured in the thick gray billows of off-whiteness. Back to work, and minutes later another glance out the window and we are enveloped in a cloud of white sparkles.

It was already dark, and I realized I wanted some fresh dill for the raw vegetable dip. Out into the garden with a flashlight, I shone the light down and wondered what are these small plants full of little white flowers? Crouching down, I see that they are the lacey young dill plants adorned with snowflakes.

The pick is meager in the salad greens, but it's still worth it to go out once in a while on a moderate day, and pick a few leaves from among spinaches and lettuces, brushing aside the leaves so that when the real cold hits, we can cover them with leaves--maybe the arugula and cilantro too. During a thaw the dry leaves can be brushed away, so that the small plants can briefly and the biggest leaves selected for the table. Come early spring we are talking the only fresh food available.

The time has come to cut down the old peach trees that have been in the yard for at least 30 years, many years before I came. Our plan has reached fruition, but it is not without sadness and loss to pull down those venerable trees. It's odd that the Chinese, who first grew peaches around 1000 BC, look on the peach tree as a symbol of longevity, because they are generally known to be short-lived trees. In my Internet search I found they might live only 10-12 years in Missouri due to cold winters and insect pests, but they might live for 30 years in Virginia where they don't have the low winter temperatures that kill or weaken trees, and they don't have some of the diseases in other regions. Here in the flats of Ithaca, New York, an oasis of lake-influenced mildness, the three trees lived for thirty years, I estimate. A woman in the neighbohood remembers when they were planted when she was a kid, and they asked her friend's father, who was planting those sticks, what they were, and they were amazed and doubtful when told they were peach trees. Years later, their twisting limbs danced down the yard, each year growing more skeletal and abstract, as the dead limbs were cut off, and only the essential remained. We planted new young fruit trees between the peach trees a few years ago, and now they are competing with the old trees for space, so the time has come. Will the new young peach tree ever produce peaches with the flavor of the old? No peach has ever reached its maturity from the young tree. The squirrels grab them while still small and green. They could never get all the peaches from the abundance of the big old trees. Probably they just assisted with thinning.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

a good year for tomatoes

This is the year of the tomato in our micro-climate. I used to think I had to grow the hybrid tomatoes and couldn't grow the old heirloom varieties that didn't have all those letters by the variety name. VFNT: verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematode resistance etc.. I know I've gotten some of these fungal diseases on my plants before in wetter years. (And some of those plants were, I swear, the hybrids!) The leaves wilt and turn brown and gradually the plant dies and so doesn't get a chance for maximum production. But not this year. Or at least the wilt is only just starting now to hit some lower leaves. The tomatoes have been great. The Amish heirloom varieties like Pruden's Purple, Brandywine, and Golden Queen make me swoon with the sensuousness of their various shapes and colors, and the depth of flavor. I also grow some hybrids, like Early Girl because it's one of the earliest tomatoes to ripen, and Big Beef, or one of the other BIG main season tomatoes, and Heinz, a paste tomato, to hedge my bets. The hybrids last longer too and are less prone to cracking, so they are what you usually see at stores. The heirlooms you don't find at the big grocery stores. You can find them at the Farmer's Market or a natural food store, like the GreenStar, but there's nothing like the homegrown pleasure of growing those old Amish tomato varieties, and picking them sun-drenched off the vine.

There are practices that help discourage the wilts too. Not planting the tomatoes in the same spot every year. A new one I learned this year from a neighbor is to trim off the bottom-most branches that might be touching the soil because, after all, these are soil-borne diseases.

Another success this year are the Kentucky Wonder pole beans. Got them climbing up a pole and they are lush in spite of the heat. I hear the bush beans don't form proper flowers when it's above 90°, but the pole beans can take it. Today I'm going to can a few pints of pickled dilly beans. I like them and I have one relative, who has rhapsodized about someone else's pickled beans; that's a challenge I can't pass up, so I know what to get him for Christmas.

The cucumbers are a bit of a disappointment this year. With the heat and drought, Steve's best efforts to water every day still couldn't keep up with their needs. I got a few jars of pickles canned and there are a few more cucumbers coming on, but we're not getting the bumper crop we were hoping for.

Low to the warm ground, moving from knees to squat, then standing up and bending over (keep that back straight!), as I move along the rows, eyes close to the ground so as to pick the weeds and not the little spinach seedlings that only sparsely came up compared to the generous showing of purslane and amaranth. Wasps buzzing gently around, attracted by the moisture of the just-watered ground. Weeding is extra important this year, what with the drought and heat. The weeds can rob what moisture there is in the soil from the other plants, but, on the other hand, they can help shade the soil and keep the moisture. What's a mother to do? Why follow your instincts of course.

Weeding is most important with the smallest plants. The bigger plants are deeper rooted and can compete quite well, thank you.

Deadheading the calendula is another enjoyable weekly task--so satisfying to see the bed look bright and alive thereafter. I am reminded of the common saying--"damned if you, and damned if you don't" and I see the obverse here. If you do pick off the flowers that are fading away, then more energy will go into producing more flowers, but if you don't pick them, the flowers turn into seed and the birds enjoy them, and what is left is sown in the ground for another hospitable time.

Monday, June 17, 2002

hot honey mustard

Ever since I tasted homemade mustard, I lost interest the store-bought variety; none of which could compare. My housemate's mother made it, but do you believe it? She would not give me the recipe. So I've done some searching and experimenting, and surprisingly enough the best recipe I came up with was inspired by Euell Gibbons' method described in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Though I was surprised by the use of flour, it does temper the hotness of the ground yellow mustard. I find it a more sensible addition than eggs, which I saw in a few recipes. I want something that keeps! Then I can send it in little jars for Christmas presents and not worry about them.

In a large cast-iron fry pan, roast a cup or so of whole wheat pastry flour, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. The aroma is wonderful.

Add the toasted flour to a bowl with an equivalent amount of ground yellow mustard seed. (More flour for a milder mustard; less for hotter.)

Add other dry ingredients you like--my favorites are dried crumbled tarragon and garlic salt. I plan to try some turmeric one of these days.

Stir in vinegar (balsamic is special), water, and honey until you get it to the right consistency and taste. Put in those cute little jars you've saved.

It tastes smooth with the bit of sweetness from the honey, and then suddenly you're hit from behind with an intensity that makes your eyes tear. That's good mustard.

Saturday, May 18, 2002

burrito dance

In my excitement, I got up too early this morning. By late morning, the inspiration of my dreams was reduced to commonplaces. Under the intense scrutiny of the afternoon sunlight, I gave up the thought that I could ever be a writer or would even want such a foolish, ephemeral thing. Bending to the practical, I decide to make dinner.

Looking around, I survey the possibilities. I hunt through the refrigerator. I wander around the garden, along the fence where the weeds grow among the raspberry bushes. I look in the lawn. Better use up what's in the refrigerator first, but also look to see if there are bitter greens I neglected to pick this morning. Soon they'll be blooming and not so good to eat.

When I don't know what else to make for dinner, I find solace in the thought of making burritos. The zip-loc bag of tortillas subtly evokes the dense marketplaces of Mexico, piled high with food riches. Like the Mexicans, I like to feed my compatriots with the simple food of dried beans started early in the day, even better soaked overnight, scrawny chickens butchered lovingly in the dust, and the weeds that grew so opportunistically on neglected ground.

I can put whatever I want inside a burrito, and no one needs to know. If I do it with thought and care, they will eat and enjoy. While clearing some of the leftovers out of the refrigerator, I imagine what tastes might meld successfully. The system of making burritos is well-rehearsed. I have the basic ingredients always on hand--the tortillas, salsa, cheese, sour cream or yogurt. I struggle to keep cilantro growing as much as I can.

When I don't have it, I use something else. All I need is the complex of interior ingredients to add to the simplicity of the system.

It doesn't take long to throw the burritos together, but the roots of the preparation go back in time--to the tradition of making them, to the planting of pepper seeds in April, to the early morning ritual of gathering whatever greens are abundant. It can be an act of absorption, as there is a basic system, within which a new combination of ingredients makes a new burrito. Much of the work is solitary and nourishing for the cook. Yet it's done for other people too. When the ingredients are ready and the system has been rehearsed, you can be drunk and still perform the burrito dance.

In the refrigerator, I find some black beans I cooked another day so as to be ready for whenever I need them. Often there are barbecued potatoes that didn't get eaten. A half of one chopped up would make a good filling with eggs and greens. If I'm lucky, there's leftover fish or meat.

Picking greens and other vegetables in the morning is a ritual--like the peace that enters in a church Sunday morning when voices soar. It's the sabbath that comes after all the efforts of the growing season. It doesn't come regular like a Sunday, but when the weather is right you are out there like a farmer picking what is ready. Finding edible "weeds" is one of those graces that grow out of mere awareness without expectation. There are free dandelion greens for a while in April and May; lambsquarters and purslane pop up throughout the garden and along the fence all summer. I pick the largest plants, leaving the small ones to grow some more, if they are not competing with a carefully nurtured tomato or pepper plant.

I lay each plant gathered in the same direction in a blue-wire-mesh harvest basket. That will make it easier to render off the roots back in the kitchen. As I develop these patterns of doing things for whatever reason, the effect is a sense of order, of practicing a ritual--where certain actions are prescribed and the mind is free.

In a previous existence, it was a necessity of survival to gather food when available and to process it immediately. Now it feels a like a deep luxury to have the time to act on the produce the day it is at its freshest. To others perhaps it is an eccentricity. Yet, though no longer a physical survival need, it has become an inner necessity. To some, it is drudgery to pull weeds and sort them according to what goes to compost and what will be saved to eat, and then to pull the small lambsquarters leaves off the stems and wash the leaves. I have become the housewife I never wanted to become in my youth, and then some. In the fifties, my mother was just escaping drudgery. Washing machines and convenience foods were a godsend. I do use a washing machine. Selecting useful technologies and avoiding others is a constant effort. Everyone picks their area of delving deep into the primitive, doing something from the ground up.

Some people need to build their own house from the ground up (maybe I'll do that some day too). Some people have to design bridges and make lots of money to spend on other people's goods and labor. I have to design and grow gardens, gather more food from the wild and spend as little time and money as possible at the supermarket.

My mother taught me the principle of trying to use leftovers. One Christmas she gave me a rubber spatula. "Waste not, want not," she told me, picturing me cleaning out peanut butter and mayonnaise jars in my dorm room. Though I initially scoffed at the inanity of this gift, I've grown to appreciate the meaning behind it and its actual usefulness, now that I'm facing the limits of reality, of myself. It's a growing sense of the necessity of being thoroughly practical, of using what I already have--to have some control, as I try to keep from being strait-jacketed by the systems of modern life--I create my own systems.

The taste of a burrito is a complex of different tastes--the warm wheat tortilla wrapping the rich, spicy filling, sparked by salsa and smoothed out by sour cream or yogurt. Some fresh lettuce is welcome for its fresh crunch. The list of ingredients for a complex Indian curry or a traditional Chinese meal may look daunting. The complexity of such sophisticated cuisines shows a highly developed sense of flavor as well as nutrition by utilizing a wide variety of foods and healthful herbs and spices. With leftovers and whatever is available, complexity is attained by the instinct that comes with experience, and by smelling and tasting while cooking. Following recipes is useful when teaching oneself to cook, but becomes debilitating if the instincts are not developed to begin to improvise. The excitement of cooking unites all the senses into the consideration of what will work--an intersection of economy and maximum satisfaction for all who share in the meal.

The process of making a burrito is part of the practice of moving smoothly and gracefully through life. It's a balancing act--tossing a tortilla on the hot pan, turning to work on loading up the tortillas already heated, turning back to flip the tortilla. Somene walks into the kitchen, and the dance has a subtle shift, but the central burrito dance continues. It's a conversation with more parties, animate as well as inanimate. We move through space; we deal with objects at the same time that we are relating to other people. Everything we do has an effect, not just the work we do, but the effect we have on other people as we move through space, not only to be efficient, but to be graceful and not spill the beans all over whoever walks into the kitchen.

All the ingredients are laid out and ready. The filling is hot. Cilantro and garlic chives are chopped and ready. The large cast-iron fry pan is hot and the first tortilla goes on. It only takes a minute or so to do each side. Put the next tortilla on when you take the first one off. Put the filling in, grate some cheese on it. Add salsa, sour cream or yogurt, some fresh greens and herbs and wrap it up. In the meantime, keep those tortillas cooking and do it all at the same time. Like juggling, it takes practice. You start doing it in slow motion, and pick up speed with each attempt. Doing something for the first time invariably involves a certain humiliation: movements are awkward and jerky; there's a fair amount of back-tracking and correcting mistakes. It all takes so much longer than expected. But without going through such trials, we never get to the joy of doing something well.

The joy can dissipate through too many repetitions. At times, the effort that goes into it all seems wasted. Sometimes it just doesn't come out good, or no one is hungry when you thought they were. Another time, food rots in the refrigerator while people want to go out to eat. I lose the will to cook; other activities are more pressing. The compost pile forgives and makes use of all our failings and the cycle of life and death goes on.

It's getting richer, it's getting thicker--this melange, this unity, this taste. From the complexity that those who share in this meal taste, there is a peace, a sense of unity, of being nourished. That's a start.

Friday, April 5, 2002

Cooking without recipes

The proliferation of cookbooks and recipes is daunting. Printed in magazines and newspapers, on the backs of boxes and demonstrated on TV, the endless supply of recipes has to make one wonder how much people actually use them. Everyone has their favorite recipes that they use over and over. Some people actually do like to try new recipes. For years I cooked with recipes and I still refer to them and read them, but over time I've come to enjoy cooking from memory and imagination. Starting from basic forms, I use the ingredients at hand and meditate on what to combine and how.

Following a recipe can be fun, like looking at a map when you don't know where you're going and the terrain is unfamililiar, but it sure slows you down. You have to measure everything and dirty many measuring devices and containers. Continually referring to the instructions in the recipe, you don't really know what's ahead and make mistakes. The old grandmothers of our memories threw in a little of this and a little of that to make it good. And they tasted and smelled, til they knew it was right.

There's often a lot of waste involved with using recipes. At the grocery store you pick up all the ingredients you need for the recipe. For some ingredients, you invariably get more than you need. After a couple of days of following recipes, you have quite an assortment of odds and ends in the refrigerator. How much of this ends up in the compost?

The cookbooks I admire the most have some flexibility as far as ingredients and amounts, often offering suggestion for variations, and ideas about using up leftovers. Use It All by Jane Dieckmann--the title tells it all. Recipes are organized by the main food that is in them, or by the food that you want to use up. Another favorite is Tassajara Cooking, a vegetarian cookbook by the cook at a Zen monastery, Edward Espe Brown. There are recipes with variations for every vegetable, basic recipes for soups and casseroles where the variations are long lists of possibilities and the amounts are vague.

The greatest joy in the kitchen comes when you can let go of the books and move freely and follow your own instincts and the ingredients that you have gathered yourself. I read recipes sometimes for inspiration and ideas, but it's rare that I will follow a recipe slavishly without making any adjustments.

The key to developing your own recipes is to cook gradually, with thought, and taste and smell at different stages to decide what it needs. You can add, but you can't take away.

Acting out in the kitchen allows me to release the tension--the back-and-forth action of my mind. I used to worry about the efficiency of my movements. Now I let my body learn the efficiency through trial and error and some thought too. But I let my body move as smoothly and relaxed as possible, so even if I am making extra movements, I am doing it like a dance--smoothly.

I am not the first woman (person) to recognize the contemplative possibilities of working in the kitchen. Julia Child talked about wanting to get back to the contemplative life of cooking and writing. The act of peeling requires some patience and care that can lead to contemplation, or maybe a form of hypnotism. Whatever--my intuition requires that I do these tasks. Certainly all kinds of manual work can lend to a quiet serenity.

Better than peeling asparagus or chopping vegetables is seeing a vegetable through the whole process. Digging the dandelion out of the grass with a trowel and get out all the root...

My method of cooking usually starts with the question: what ingredients do I want to use up? And I go from there...

In spring, summer and fall, it actually starts further back. I check out the garden, maybe go for a walk and find something to collect in the wild. If I don't use these fresh foods that day, I'll want to use them soon, or freeze them.

After a long winter, the dandelion days are coming!

Anytime of year, I can fall back on the burrito dance and combine various leftovers with staples and a few fresh ingredients that happen to be available.

Cooking without recipes is an art form. Form is important--you work within a form and make variation, like a certain kind of poem. The art comes from imagination of the cook and the appreciation of the sensual components--visual, olfactory, as well as gustatory.

There's a time for following a recipe and seeing into another's creation, and then there's another time for exploring, for a more meditative cooking experience, when each ingredient is appreciated. It's particularly valuable for the deepest appreciation when you know where each ingredient came from, most valuable when you grew it yourself and you know its whole history so intimately that the miracle is clear.