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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Is It Worth It?"

Back in June
That was my husband’s question, when I told him I have an idea for next year’s garden and how I can combine straw bales with the first stage of raised bed constructions. “It’s worth it to me,” I answered, and he did not push me further. 

Before the olives
I tell the dog, as I choose vegetables from the garden,  that my Greek salad contains “all things bright and beautiful.” Cucumbers are soft green, peppers soft yellow and bright orange, tomatoes as red as red can be. Since we don’t live in the south of France (let alone in Paris), I’ll need to buy olives at the store in town, but it pleases me to look at my own garden’s bounty in a bowl. In the garden, stiff training supports that held heavy peony heads earlier in the summer now bear aloft fat purple fingers of eggplant. A few of those split in two and brushed with olive oil can go on the grill next to a couple of chops, and with salad on the side, that will be dinner.

eggplant this morning
Yesterday’s forecast of “scattered showers” for Wednesday and Thursday has been downgraded to “partly cloudy,” with hope for rain pushed back to next Monday. Having to water my garden every morning and evening, though, keeps the daily status of that riotous jungle clear in my mind.

“Is it worth it?” 

In terms of what? Given the cost of plants and straw bales and fertilizer and the time spent watering, am I saving money over buying the same vegetables at the store or the farm market? Well, they wouldn’t be the same vegetables, would they? Not to me, they wouldn’t. It is worth it to me to feel that I am inhabiting my own life, rather than simply commuting to and from a house and visiting the country as a tourist. I am living, here and now, on my home ground. 

The piper must be paid in any life. Is life worth living, with all its work and troubles and woes? I say yes. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

From My Michigan Garden to My Paris Kitchen

A few little organic holes don't bother me
My home version of “farm to table” requires no transportation by air, sea, or land, unless you count walking from the garden into the house. If my tiny kitchen were in Paris, France, my only “garden” would be a row of pot herbs on a windowsill, but in Leelanau County I am not that limited, and the vegetables are doing well this summer in my garden's straw bale beds. Above, with parsley between the two plants, you see chard, glorious chard! Years ago I discovered chard as the answer to my problems with growing spinach. Spinach doesn’t work for me, chard does. Our grandchildren adored it, too, baked in a cheesy cream sauce (music to my ears: “Is there any more chard?”), which I have done again this season. Grated Parmesan sprinkled on top, baked until brown — but I didn’t photograph it, and you don’t need a recipe for anything that simple. 

Nightshade family but very edible
Eggplants are still small but coming along, as are their garden neighbors and near botanic relatives, the peppers. Acorn squash look promising. We’ll see if the tiny melons make it to eating size before frost. I hope they do.


Lots of growing to do!
I’m not finished this summer with tabbouleh, but you’ve seen that already, so here is something else to make with cucumbers: a refreshing cold summer soup. Pick the cukes while still tender (before large seeds develop), and peel, cube, and puree in a blender with as much chopped fresh onion as you think you’ll like, plain yogurt (I prefer yogurt made with whole milk, because what is the point of vitamins if the fat that makes them soluble has been removed?), and enough chicken or vegetable broth to achieve desired consistency. Curry seasoning is transformative. Chill in the refrigerator until serving time, and when serving garnish with fresh nasturtium blooms, parsley sprigs, chopped chives, or any other attractive, edible, summer-appropriate note.

Cold cucumber soup with nasturtium garnish
The flowers in my garden give me as much pleasure and satisfaction as the vegetables — purple stars preceding eggplant, large yellow squash blossoms and smaller, lighter yellow blooms on the melon vines. My straw bales are arranged in a square, with entry on two sides, but most of the weeds inside the square are safe from me, because — why remove them? They’re not in the bales, competing with the vegetables for water and nutrients. Besides, wild clovers attract and feed pollinators, and the beautiful milkweed beloved of monarch butterflies — how could I uproot and toss aside such a banquet for beauty?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Personal Best

This is going to be your personal best tabbouleh, the perfect summer lunch to take to work. Get up early and add ice cubes to yesterday’s leftover coffee. Your caffeine jolt doesn’t need to be hot to get you moving on a warm, still morning. Last night you poured boiling water over the bulgur and let it sit, so that’s ready. Now add olive oil, chop cucumbers and tomatoes and onions (use a good, sharp knife — don’t saw!) and stir them in gently, then squeeze fresh lemon juice over everything and stir again. The vegetables are all from your own garden or the farm market, of course. 

Now go out to your garden while everything is cool and beaded with dew and gather nice, big, beautiful, dark green parsley. Chop and add. 

There’s only one ingredient missing now, so on your way to work (tabbouleh packed in a cooler, with a container of yogurt on the side), stop by a swiftly running stream and gather fresh mint. When you get to work, you’ll rinse the mint well, chop it and add it to the mix, then refrigerate everything until lunch announces itself. Hunger is the announcement. 

When you get home after work later in the day, finish mowing grass and have leftover pizza from the night before as your evening meal. (You had your salad for lunch.) Check the garden for more ripe cucumbers before you turn in for the night. Tomorrow you can make a cold cucumber soup to serve and enjoy with meat from the grill.

I used the silly word “leftover” twice above. Edit that out. Planning ahead makes life easier. You don’t throw out good coffee when you can have it the next day over ice. You order a medium pizza rather than a small for two people so there will be enough for another evening. Because if you didn’t plan ahead, how would you ever keep up with and survive the busy summer season?

“Time goes on slippin’, slippin’ / into the future….”

And eggplants are coming along. Those will be good on the grill, too.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Chestnuts Won't Be Rushed

It isn't home without a little clutter

The Artist and I no longer travel on holidays, not wanting to chance heavy traffic and possibly treacherous driving conditions. My son and a couple old friends were with us for Thanksgiving, which was very pleasant, but December brought winter in full strength, and all I wanted for Christmas Eve and Day was time at home in front of the fire. So after our holiday breakfast of waffles, and after I’d treated Sarah to a morning holiday bath (“Some treat!” she seemed to say with her eyes) and settled her in front of the fire with a good, fresh beef bone, and after I’d made the cranberry-orange relish and stashed it in the fridge for later, I settled down to work with chestnuts.

If there is a faster way to prepare fresh chestnuts for soup or purée, I don’t want to know about it. The slow, repetitious cutting with a knife of that little x on each nut, very carefully, one at a time, and then moving them, again one at a time, from the waiting bowl to the x’d bowl, ready for roasting, can be either meditative or sociable, depending on what’s going on in the cook’s immediate surroundings. In my case, on Christmas Eve, I was very aware of the Artist cheerfully working away in the bathroom to replace a faucet washer (he was wonderfully good-natured about it!) and our dog lying contentedly on a towel in front of the fire with her bone. I felt surrounded by and filled with love and contentment. Who would want to rush on from such a feeling?

While chestnuts are roasting in the oven, and afterward, while they’re cooling, the cook is free to do something else for a while -- and if it’s a holiday, and the rest of the family doesn’t need her attention or assistance, she may just pick up a book and read! Because, just as there was no rushing the preparation for the oven, so there is no rushing the roasting or cooling processes, either. It takes the time it takes, that’s all.

Peeling can be a little messy, but it can be done sitting at the table, and again there is no hurry involved. It’s interesting to see variations in color as roasted chestnuts emerge from their shells. Some are like ivory, veined with brown, others darker all over as if by a deep stain. The nuts are buttery soft, even before boiling.

Looks like a squirrel has been at work here

Finally, as the nuts simmer in chicken broth (simmering almost always gentler for anything than boiling, unless “a full rolling boil” is explicitly called for), the water gradually turns a soft brown, almost a cocoa color, and this will be the color of the eventual soup or puree, lightened with the addition of cream.

Somehow I neglected to photograph the final chestnut product in white china bowls. Instead we move from empty bowls to main dish prep to plated shrimp and sesame noodles. The important thing is that it all came together as planned, despite the leisurely pace of the day, and that made it an ideal holiday for the cook.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Memory's Lasting Perfume

When snow arrived this week, I brought my rosemary plants into the house. Rosemary is a tender herb, native to hot, dry climates like Provence, and will not survive a winter outdoors, so one of my Friday projects was to strip the fragrant leaves from the longest stems for winter drying. Because the resident Artist, in his home office, has the only south-facing window in ou4 old farmhouse, that is where the remaining trimmed plants are resting for the time being.

My friend Helene referred to her dining room windowsill of plants, fresh herbs and a few pots of blooms, as her garden, and early on during my stay with her we established our mutual love of growing things. Years later (and years into our transatlantic correspondence), when I came to live here in the farmhouse, I would sometimes sit out by my vegetable garden at sunrise and write a description of the scene to my faraway friend, who was kind enough to praise my laborious essays — truly, attempts — in French. 

At last one year I received no answer to my last letter for a worrisome length of time and got a disturbing recording when I called her phone number. I telephoned her downstairs neighbor, heart pounding. Yes, Helene had died. She was then, after all, 90 years old by that time and had had health issues for all the years I’d known her, but the shock was no less painful for being unsurprising. And Mme. Lamy could not help telling me, over and over, that Helene had “suffered terribly.” Each time she said it, I recoiled from the painful stab of that awful phrase. But Mme. Lamy also told me, several times, how happy Helene had always been when the mail brought a letter from me, and I take comfort still in knowing I gave her some little bit of joy now and then. 

Rosemary is good for flavoring vegetables and meats, especially suckling pig, veal, lamb and game. It keeps its pungency well when dried. Use this herb with moderation, as it has a very strong aroma and flavor. - Ginette Mathiot, in I Know How to Cook

Never in my life have I prepared suckling pig or veal, but I do love lamb, and there is no cooking or even living without vegetables. 

The New Putting Food By (not that “new,” actually, as my third edition has a 1982 printing date) cautions that rosemary must not be dried at higher than room temperature and dries best away from light. Just as well. Moving the rosemary-drying operation upstairs means not adding one more project to our crowded downstairs living space, where my apple-drying project continues in full swing evening after evening. 

Rosemary is one of the flavors (un des parfums) in the beloved French mixture called “herbes de Provence,” which sometimes includes lavender, too, along with other herbs. It was in Paris that I came to know and love and require herbes de Provence in my cooking on a regular basis, and so for that reason, along with my memory of my friend’s windowsill garden, Helene is very present to me as I handle these sharply fragrant leaves.

Is there someone in your life whose day would be brightened by a letter from you?

Her letters brought joy to me, too

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Evening Called For a Treat

For more than a couple years after I planted them, my little apple trees bore no fruit. Should I have fertilized and watered the trees? A friend from an orchard family said they shouldn’t need such coddling. Then one year they produced not only spring blossoms but summer apples, ripening at the weeks went by. And now the crop is so heavy, I’m glad I only planted two trees, because what would I do with more? Especially since I still can’t resist gathering wild apples, too, when I come across them.

Only the beginning!
Most of the apples I harvest go into the dryer. It’s a slow, laborious process but also pleasingly meditative work, and the keeping of dried fruit is a snap. Apples seem forgiving rather than fussy, too, when it comes to thickness of slices to be dried, and I like a fruit that accommodates me rather than making its own demands.

On Halloween, however, with a fire in the fireplace and the wind howling around the old farmhouse, a departure from usual routine was indicated. Something simple and rustic. Out came lard and flour and two knives. A pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of cold well water. Then to roll out a single piecrust and drape it into a small casserole. Into the deep declivity went sliced apples with a little flour and sugar, cinnamon, and (last but not least) small bits of butter. Finally the crust drapery was pulled over the top and pinched together, snugging the apples cozily inside. No recipe, just old peasant grandma at work in her farmhouse (Paris) kitchen.

Hot from the oven
We do not have dessert every night, but certain times of year bring on cravings, and cravings that unite so well with harvest should never be denied. Dinner was delicious chicken gumbo, and that deserved noting, but I'd made it the night before and couldn't find my camera.

My bedtime reading on Halloween was Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard. That was cozy, too. And who knows? Some of the recipes sound so good they may inspire me to pay more attention to this blog, which I have shamefully ignored since May.

Cream would be nice poured over this, too....