Saturday, July 2, 2005

parable of the potatoes

I confess to being a food fascist. Not the kind who tells people what kind of food to eat, but the one who can't bear to throw food away and tries to find a use for everything before it goes bad. It's not so bad when I'm home and can keep better track and encourage my two family members on the things that they might like to eat, but I get into trouble when I am on vacation and we're ready to go home and none of my extended family members (who bought most of this excess food) wants to carry any of it home with them. So it's triage for me—deciding what can fit into my cooler and what must go into the trash. At least at home I can compost the remains or feed it to the worms, but I'm not going so far as to pack the car with smelly food for the compost.

I should be thanking all of the others for their leftovers instead of complaining; I just feel sad about the wasted food that goes into the trash.

Every year for the past seventeen years my family has taken a vacation together spread across three or four cabins on a lake in southeastern Ohio. It's a venue that everyone from old to young enjoys. The first night we always eat at the lodge restaurant and the rest of the week each family takes a turn to cook in the cabins.

On the last night of the week, we have leftover night. In the last few years I've taken over organizing just because that's my thing - it gives me great satisfaction to make good out of leftovers. My aunt wanted to take us all to the lodge for another dinner, but to me and at least one of my sisters, that would be a shame. I said it would be a sin! to waste all this food. My Irish aunt calls missing Mass a sin. Each to her own.

Food is often connected with religion: just for starters the bread and wine of the Catholicism I've been trying to leave behind; nevertheless I appreciate the potent metaphor of the deep dark association with body and blood. We do ultimately eat our ancestors (or somebody else's). My own home-grown religion is grounded in the very soil that nourishes the seeds, and the whole cycle in which there is no waste, thanks to compost. Anything that we let go bad goes to the compost, so there is less guilt then. "Waste not want not", my mother always told me, and it sunk in deeper than she might have expected; eventually, I think I now believe it more than she does, and appear a bit fanatical. My daughter finds it a foolish saying, but I bet it will sink into her too. She's already picked up my nutritional ideas (though she was very fussy from age 5 to 14 or so, similar to my own fussy food age); also she's starting to pick up on the environmental value of my aversion to cars, and encourages her friends to walk whenever possible. I suppose what I have to learn is not to preach to people, but to care about their feelings and merely to subtly inspire them. They surely inspire me with their thoughtfulness about many other things for which I am at a loss.

This is the first year that the kids' cabin took a turn to cook—now that the kids are all teenagers and some in their twenties. We've only had a separate cabin for the kids the last two years or so. Since we already had so much food accumulated, we encouraged them to use some of it, but could certainly understand that they wanted to make what they wanted to make. So Mikie got chicken breasts which he marinated in Italian dressing, and barbecued brilliantly even though it started pouring rain. Fortunately he was under some trees and got finished before the leaves became full of water and dropped it all.

My aunt Ethel, who had wanted to bring us to the lodge, had also nevertheless gone grocery shopping earlier in the week when my sister wanted to go after Mass, and she bought ingredients for a rigatoni casserole. Plus she had brought two bags of salt potatoes with her from Syracuse because my Mom raves about it every time she makes it. Just in case.

So we encouraged the kids to use the potatoes and they decided to use the rigatoni too. Jamie came in that day to my cabin, and asked if I had a potato peeler. I told her that there was no need to peel the potatoes—the peel is the best part. Well, she was intending to use the peel; she just had another idea. She and Ricky peeled the potatoes and she cooked up the peels in butter and onions and garlic, and then boiled the potatoes and planned to mash them and add in the potato peels. I respected her creativity and initiative and didn't give her anymore advice though it seemed a lot of work for all those little potatoes. But hey, they don't have much to do while on vacation. And Ricky probably doesn't get involved in the cooking chores too often; so that was his contribution. It beats watching TV! Joey cleaned the dishes that had accumulated over the days in the sink. Rachel put together the salad or made the rigatoni or something. They all contributed.

The kids were doing the final cooking and we were relaxing at happy hour when Aunt Ethel caught wind that they were mashing the salt potatoes. "You don't do that! Didn't you read the directions?!" She got right up out of her chair and went into the kitchen. After the dinner was all ready, we found out that she must have told Jamie to add the salt bag. Well, the salt bag is for adding to the water when boiling the potatoes. The potatoes were already boiled; nevertheless someone added the entire bag of salt to the potatoes. I wasn't there to witness this. I don't think anyone one could do more but peck at the final salty product.

For leftover night, (among many other things) we boiled more potatoes (with no salt!) and added them, lumpily mashed, to the salty potatoes, and eventually the right balance was found and they were most delicious. I just wanted to bring to realization the potatoes that Jamie had intended (and not waste anything, of course.) Ethel did like them in the end, even though they weren't done in the traditional way. Unfortunately there's a hugh amount of them, and I will try to fit them in the cooler and find uses for them at home. Potato pancakes, potato pie with cheese….

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Living with the weeds

The plum tree is loaded this year; branches are bowed over filled with little plums, and today I noticed the June drop has begun. When you don't use poisons to control disease, clean cultivation is one way to help prevent problems. Getting rid of rotting fruit all over the ground will provide less nourishment for those bugs who like to feed on the fruit. After the first five minutes or so of sitting and kneeling on the ground, picking up one hard or sometimes shriveled little plums scattered below the whole circumference of the tree--millions of them--in the grass--it's one of those activities, when I start to wonder if I'm nuts! But then I start to get into it. At first I barely can see all the little plums, but soon my eyes focus on their purplish green oval forms hiding in the grass. After a bit I start noticing more all the varied little plants that are growing. This is not just grass, but white clover, which is currently flowering, and gill-over-the-ground, which has some little purple flowers still blooming. Fortunately Steve cut the grass before the magnificent thunderstorm yesterday that shook so many of the littlest plums out of the tree. The plums are a bit more visible iin the short grass. Even little tiny wild strawberries have managed to set fruit here and there in the short grass. When I crawl close to the tree trunk, I start to notice the activity of insects going up and down the bark. Besides ants there are a number of another insect that I don't recognize. It is black with two orange stripes going the length of its back. It crawls onto my hand too with many legs. It's maybe 4 mm long and 1 1/2 mm wide. Back into the grass I start to see more of these critters and others--a ladybug, and another triangular orange insect and I wish I knew all their names and whether they are friend or foe. And soon I am grateful for this seemingly insane task that has taken a half hour so far and I am only half done. What a good excuse to crawl around the grass and look at everything. I can even look up occasionally from my task to see the yellow mustard flowers and the fava beans in the garden waving in the breeze, and the blue sky and white clouds above, and still feel productive.

So much of gardening is a good excuse to play in the dirt and be outside. When I put transplants into the ground, like the tomatoes and peppers which I recently planted, it reminds me of playing in the dirt as a child, making hills and rivers and pouring water through them. For each plant I dig a hole, throw in some compost and then gently place in the plant, and pat back in the dirt. I raise up the soil in ring around the plant four or five inches or so from the plant, so that when I water it, the water does not flow away but stays within the rilng and percolates downwards into the roots.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Lambsquarters are everywhere but small yet. Nevertheless I need to pull out a bunch now to make room for other things. And they must drain out some of the nutrientrs from the plants they appear with. They're all over spots of the garlic, and the irises! I'm always glad to see them: #1 they indicate a good soil, at least it's high in nitrogen, #2 they make the most delicious cooked green. And they're good in salads too! They take a bit of work processing but it's fun and medative. The leaves are small but with a compost bucket at hand, the good parts can go into another bowl for washing. Or sometimes, if I pick them in the morning, but don't have much time, I just fill a bowl with cold water and stick them in roots and all; that evening when I have more time I can pluck the leaves and wash them.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The peas are growing and I finally got around to putting up the trellis netting. What a wonderful invention that was. It's a heavy duty nylon mesh that you can hang between stakes. I guess you can staple them to wood stakes, but they are most conveniently used with the metal stakes that those little grippers that you can hang the mesh on. I bought the trellis netting at least seven years ago and have re-used it every year for peas, snow peas, and cucumbers. It's so easy to work with--it's quite amazing. It helps to put it up when the air is fairly still. Well, I always enjoyed untangling things, and they do get a little tangled in storage though I try to fold them neatly at the end of each year. On an unwindy evening like today, I took the pieces out of storage and laid them in the grass, so as to pick out pieces of the best length. On previous years, I've cut off extra ends with scissors. Last year I actually used little bits of twine to tie together two shorter pieces. I might actually have to buy more trellis netting this year (or use more stakes?) but I still think that's pretty good. Growing the tall types of peas and cucumbers up vertically saves a lot of space, and gives the veggies plenty of air to deter some diseases.

Been picking radishes which I always sow together with the carrots. Carrots always need some thinning, so picking the radishes starts off the thinning. The radishes grow quickly and are so cheerful to see coming up. They're a nice touch in the salad.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Yet another reason to allow deer hunting: "In places that have had very limited or no deer hunting, native plant losses are four times greater than those open to deer hunting," Dr. Rooney [Tom Rooney of University of Wisconsin] said. "The deer population has been growing steadily since the 1960's. They are having a profound effect on the spring ephemerals and other wildflowers." ("Forest's Colorful Jewels in a Fight for Their Lives" New York Times, May 17, 2005)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Found a horde of little dill plants that had re-seeded themselves from last year. Most of them are right in my path. Pulled up a few all the way to the roots, and then inside put them in a little shot glass with water to keep on the counter and remind me to use dill on this and that--sandwiches, salads, omelet, asparagus, whatever.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Living with the weeds

More salad greens all the time now! Lambsquarter are sprouting thick on certain beds. They're fantastic when they're big, so why not pick the biggest of the sprouts now to add to salads. Keep doing that until you need to put something else into that bed. By early June almost everything will be planted, so just pick the lambsquarters by then, and the biggest ones before that.

Which is also what I do with the lettuces and other greens that I sowed in early April.

Reading the news or hearing it on the radio. I got a question: the reporters report that when some guy (usually a guy) gets pulled over for some minor traffic infraction, or the police come knocking at the door (without a search warrant), and the suspect gives them permission to search their house or car. My question: why do they give them permission? My suspicion: there is a threat involved.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Redbud Woods


Yesterday, I took a walk up University Avenue, looking for the disputed Redbud Woods. Cornell students have been demonstrating and were hauled out of Day Hall by police; two others chained themselves to a little sycamore tree outside the administration bulding in symbolic protest of Cornell's plan to pave over this small woods. Cornell claims that they can only attract world-class freshman students if they can park their cars near to their dorm. The neighborhood association and the city's Landmarks Preservation Committee have been against the idea, but Cornell sued, and the state's Supreme Court ruled that it was an appropriate use of land under the zoning laws in existence. Though I've done plenty of walking to and from Cornell, and all around, I didn't recall ever walking through Redbud Woods, so I decided to check it out.

It's perfect timing to take a walk up University Avenue. Past the gorge entrance at the east end of Court Street, up the hill, the old cemetery looms to the right and the forsythia cascade all along the road in abundant bloom. Large houses full of student rentals and year-round residents are on the west side of the street overlooking the city. Before the four-way intersection with Willard Way and Gunhill Road, the entry way to Redbud Woods is on the right. A crumbling asphalt path winds through the woods. Lo and behold, a pink haze comes into focus as I walk and I see that the woods is indeed full of redbud trees coming into bloom. A deer crossed my path. This is the ideal way for people living on University Ave (as we call it) to gather their thoughts while making their way to the campus without a car. Such pocket parks are so essential to a quality urban life. It seems terribly regressive that Cornell wants to create another ugly parking lot that just encourages more driving. I'll be adding my voice to let Jeffrey Lehman (president of Cornell) know that this is not sustainable.

I took another route back downtown--a way I had gone many times in the past. Out of Redbud Woods, I headed south on Stewart Avenue past the new West Campus dorms, where freshman would live with or without their cars within a block away. The safety walls built around the construction site had "No parking" signs splashed on them. Graffiti artists added "in Redbud Woods." In a few minutes, I arrived at the bridge over Cascadilla Gorge. Right before the bridge, there's a walking path that heads down the hill overlooking the gorge. I wanted to see what spring flowers were blooming. The small gardens nestled in beds on ledges amid rocks by the old European-style houses as the path winds down the hill overlooking the gorge and rushing water far below. At one spot in the path I noticed a patch of garlic mustard budding out, just getting ready to bloom. I turned around and decided to pick them all, as there were only about 15 or 20 plants amid the vinca. But if they were left to go to seed, they would probably be taking over by next year. Pulled them by the roots and carried the bundle home and stuck them right in the bucket along with the dandelion greens I had picked earlier in the day at home. I had filled the bucket with water so as to keep the greens fresh until processed later in the day.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The spring is too busy. Trips south to DC area and NYC give a foretaste to the spring coming here. After seeing cherries and crabapples in bloom down there, and trees lit in pale green lining the streets, it's exciting to come home to barer branches and be able to still watch the slow development.

Indoor gardening. Keeping all the little seeds watered and transplanting to bigger pots as needed. Getting more regular about giving a 1/2 strength fish emulsion fertilizer to the seedlings.

Outdoor gardening. Weeding: it's always a meditation on whether or not to pull what. Today was perfect conditions for weeding. After a long dry spell we got some gentle rain, and so much easier to pull out the newly vibrant plants. Many so-called weeds are desirable—they're just volunteers, after all—seeds in the wind, on hoof and alimentary system of birds and other creatures. Some are encouraged and others are yanked. I pull with regret the red dead nettle, with its purple flowered umbrellas, which looks delightful now, but it's better to catch it before it goes to seed. I need the room and into the compost pile it goes.

Competition is stiff in the plant world and life is often brief. Few species manage to survive to old age. Ancient trees inspire us with awe. Old people are honored but more so in the past; that respect is decreasing as the old become less rare.

Each year different plants manage to survive the winter. Last year, I had spinach and lettuce come back in the spring after having been covered by leaves during the cold of winter. Those so covered this year did not survive, but others that were not purposely covered are now offering small leaves for salads: radicchio, cress and arugula. Gathering greens for a salad in the early spring is like a miracle. There doesn't appear to be enough of anything, but little bits pile up. It does help to go out almost every morning to get some more, as things keep growing even in these cool temperatures. Also you always find more on each foraging trip. In addition to the greens that survived over the winter, there is corn salad that has seeded itself all over. Wild violets I have encouraged in certain areas to seed out and are now spreading under the crabapple tree and provide vitamin-C rich greens. Their main competitor now is lemon balm. I use some of their leaves too, but will pull some of that out, as I prefer more violets. There's also still some garlic mustard that I missed earlier. A bit of spearmint is good. (Another thing that is spreading and I have to pull out some.) Dandelions are getting bigger and I will dig those for cooked greens, but some of the smaller plants, I pick to throw into the salad. There is a great abundance of garlic chives now, as well as regular chives. Garlic chives are another rather aggressive plant which looks charming when in flower but seeds mischievously everywhere, and the deep roots are hard to pull out without a hand spade. So I will use them liberally and dig some out later.

Asparagus is poking up a few inches in purple. Next week's dinner!!

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The teeming activity of spring! Let me categorize the activites:

Indoor gardening. Started seeds last week of tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and some flowers: zinnia and calendula, and a couple of herbs I am short of: sage and hyssop. The sage died last year, and the hyssop is so lovely, and it doesn't always come back like it should.

Soak parsley seed to sow outside!

Outdoor gardening. Pick dandelions. Weed! There's so much grass in the paths of the garden that never got dug up last year, and it's just too narrow to mow in the paths, I believe. I had been hoping Steve would do that for me as a regular practice, but he seems to be more absorbed in other activities, so I should just do it myself. Good exercise!

When the ground is dry enough, sow seed of peas, snow peas, fava beans, lettuce, spinach, mustard, arugula, carrots and radishes. Plant sets of onions, and finally this year I have gotten hold of Egyptian onions! I love anything perennial, and these should supply instances of onions, green or otherwise, at different times of the year. It's hard to always have a supply of green onions handy just when you want them for that batch of peanut noodles or tabouli, so I'm hoping the Egyptian walking onions will help. Yes, I suppose their walking habit will be a little irritating but I'm that kind of casual gardener who can sometimes be led by the plants and not be so controlling that everything must be in its place where I want it. That's too exhausting! I see the strawberries that Margaret gave me last year are spreading into the next bed; even worse the wild raspberries by the fence are bending over and taking root in my flower bed! Should that be allowed?

Cook. Dandelions! First time this year. Today I did the meat version with bacon. (Next time vegetarian for Rachel [and me] I promise.) Yes it is a lot of work, and I always feel slightly crazy but that's when I meditate. I'm trying to explain this in the checkout line of the grocery store, when my mother asks me about echinecea and tobacco.

Observations. It is essential to sit on the beautiful days, at least for a little while, perhaps in the sheltered sun of the south-facing patio after the rocks have absorbed the sun for a few hours. Listen and look. Last week I saw a single cedar waxwing in the crabapple tree-the scout. Today there are maybe a hundred. They come in for a few minutes, eat the crabapples and flit around, then all fly off, usually to the top branches of the big walnut (?) trees behind the Red Cross shelter. Then after a while swoop down again for another visit to the crabapple tree. Each one is like a miniature painting.

Take a walk! That is something that I tend not to do enough of once garden season starts because there is always so much to do here at home, but it is so good to walk and get away and observe other people's gardens and just do that walking meditation and stretch.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Time to start sweet onion seed soon...

Our favorite for several years has been Ailsa Craig Exhibition sweet onions. Can be ordered from Pinetree Seeds among other sources. Impatiens are a good annual to fill in the semi-shady spots on the front (north) side of the house, and they need to be started in January to get flowers starting in June. Other seeds that I will start in late January or early February: cilantro, spicy globe basil, lobelia, pansy, and coleus..

Friday, January 21, 2005

Roast turkey

Although the days are getting longer, January seems the darkest month. The warmth of the Christmas lights has dwindled away. Still need those brisk walks outside--no matter what the weather, but it's really a time to turn inward, or at least inside and do some baking. Baking bread is indispensable. Roasting meat for a long time is a good one too.
A turkey roasting provides warmth during the day, good smells, a wonderful stock for various uses, a special treat for the cat, and lots of leftovers. Taking full advantage of the carcass turns the turkey feast into a very economical, and ultimately labor-saving process. There's a fair amount of work at the beginning, but the delicious stocks and packages in the freezer provide a basis for many meals into the future. What seems like a big project becomes more leisurely when done bit by bit over days, rather than all in one long day.
Preparation begins long before for the stuffing. Ends of bread are saved in the freezer. A day or two before turkey day, the bread is thawed and cubed and left on cookie sheets to dry up. Attention turns to the preparation of the giblet stock. The innards and and neckbone are removed from the turkey cavity. Reserving the liver temporarily, the rest is put in a pot covering it with fresh water, along with a few pieces of onion, carrot and celery, some herbs. Gently simmer for a few hours and there is the beginning of the gravy and some of it can be used to moisten the stuffing. Add the liver the last hour, so it doesn't get too tough. Strain the giblet stock, and chop the liver and heart into little pieces. Give a bit to the cat, along with pieces from the neckbone. The bread is now dry. Add a beaten egg, chopped onion, celery, pecans, apples and raisins, a bit of sage perhaps, and mix it up with the dried bread, along with some stock. Add some of the giblets and save the rest for the gravy. Sometimes I use some turkey stock that was saved from a previous occasion, so as not to have to wait for the giblet stock to be ready. I've been known to throw in chicken stock sometimes too, but don't tell anyone.
On turkey day, rinse and dry the turkey. Paint it with a paste of stock, oil, crushed garlic, and paprika. Fill it with stuffing and put it breast-side up on the roasting pan. A cup of water and a chopped onion goes on the bottom, and the whole thing is covered with a tent of aluminum foil. This keeps it from drying out. The foil can be removed the last hour or so of cooking to darken the skin. Bake at 325° for as long as it takes to get to an internal temperature of 180-185° in the thigh (about 20 minutes per pound of turkey) . Thanks to Jane Brody's Good Food Book, whose Roasted Stuffed Turkey provides the basic recipe that has been my starting point.
If there's no gravy leftover from previous occasions, the turkey should come out of the oven well in advance of eating. Once the turkey is out of the oven and with care is transferred out of the pan to a platter, the drippings are poured into a can, which disappears into the freezer for hardening. After an hour or so, the fat is scraped off the top. About 1/4 cup is heated in a pan and an equivalent amount of flour is added and stirred in gently and continually to avoid lumpiness and scorching. After the flour has cooked for a few minutes, pour in the giblet stock gradully while stirring, and then the drippings that were in the freezer. You don't want to introduce much more fat at this point, so be careful to have removed all the fat from the can first.
I take some other short-cuts sometimes. If I can't wait so long for the drippings to separate, I might use bacon drippings or oil for the fat and turkey stock from a previous occasion.
There was a mystique to carving the beast when I grew up. It was a man's job--one of the few times you saw a man working in the kitchen. It does take some skill and patience to carve out multitudes of thin slices onto a platter. My slices tend to be of variable sizes. After the bulk of the slicing is done, I resort to the oldest best tool--my hands--to tear remaining pieces of meat from the bones. Invariably much meat is leftover and is roughly sorted by grade and bundled into plastic bags. The carcass is returned to the roasting pan, covered, and stored safely out in the cold, like in a shed where no animalsm can get to it.
The next day the carcass is covered with cold water and brought to a simmer. Throw in chunks of onions (pierced with a few whole cloves), carrots, celery, and bay leaf. Over the course of the afternoon, between doing other things, I throw in other things: a bunch of parsley, peppercorns, halved garlic, tarragon and thyme. Simmer for hours. The smell will warm the house. Strain and cool into a big pot. Even then I still save some of the bits of turkey left for the cat and to be thrown into soup or stews. The pot of broth is covered and again goes out into a cold safe place so that the fat can separate. The next day, the fat is scraped off and discarded; the broth is gently heated to the point where it can be poured out into smaller containers, so some can be frozen for other occasions.