Archive for July, 2007

Two successes

July 29, 2007

I went off to town Friday in search of a few groceries, to make a bank deposit, and to do assorted miscellaneous errands. I had originally planned to do laundry as well, but it’s amazing what you can put off if you set your mind to it. One of the benefits of my former consumerist lifestyle is a surfeit of linens (both bedroom and kitchen), underwear, levis, sweats, and all those necessary things. And it does seem a shame to only put 22 lbs. of laundry in a 40 lb. washer, so I’m sure I made the right decision.

Newport is a pain in the butt to get around in, so I had carefully planned my route and sequence of errands (if I’m starting to sound anal, sorry, but I do these things now–too little to worry about, I suspect). The main coast highway runs right through the middle of town, and in the summer turning left except at a left-turn light can be a challenge. I haven’t dented a fender in several decades, and I’l like to keep it that way (part of my bank deposit was a couple of refunds from our insurance company for being such good drivers).

But I got to town a few minutes earlier than the first store I wanted to visit opened. All the way into town I’d be thinking about (fantasizing, really) a truly fine SMALL cast-iron skillet. Good new cast-iron cookware is almost non-existent. The stuff I like was made by Griswold and Wagner, and neither company is still around selling new stuff, as far as I can determine.

The cast iron made in Asia is chancy for cooking–the Asians seems to have a different attitude toward embedded petroleum products in recycled iron than I do. And the new stuff made in the U. S., like Lodge, is hopeless. I have no desire to spend the first two weeks I own something polishing it out to the needed smooth and glossy bottom. So I look for the good old pans that somehow didn’t get totally wrecked.

Being a few minutes early, I thought, what the heck, I’ll go over to the antique barn and see if they have any Pyrex cookware worth buying.

They didn’t, but what I did find was a #5 (about 7″ diameter) Griswold cast-iron skillet in nearly perfect condition for about $12. (When I brought it home, Ben guessed I’d paid about $20). It’s in fine enough condition to be an egg skillet, so I spent partof this morning giving it a good cleaning with steel wool and reseasoning it with olive oil. It’s a fine piece of cookware. I can hardly wait to try it out as an omelet pan. It’s that well preserved.

Last evening I went with a friend to a writers’ meeting up Shot Pouch Creek. The group that sponsored it, the Springcreek Project, maintains a retreat there for people who want to escape and write. They do many other things there as well, including multi-disciplinary projects combining art and science.

Last night was, I think, their “hooray, we’ve survived another year” meeting. They furnished a wonderful salad bar from a local catering company (including a chicken salad that I would have been proud to have claimed), and they asked attendees to provide either an oeur d’ouvre (if I spelled that right it’s purely accidental) or a dessert.

At this point, you may be remembering how many berries I’m trying to deal with, so dessert was a natural. But I’m tired of baking tarts, and frankly it’s been too bloody hot to fire up the woodstove and bake anything. But I did have some very good heavy cream, and in anticipation of this event, I bought a sliced poundcake while I was in town. I had some very good golden sherry, and what my brain settled on (reviewing the options) was what I am henceforth calling a “lazy cook’s trifle.”

It got a 5-star rating from participants (she noted modestly), and although I took what I thought was enough for twice as many people as the 30 or so there, I didn’t bring any home.

For all you adventuresome folks, here’s all it takes:

    • A whole bunch of good berries
    • Some fairly dry cake of some sort, like my pound cake
    • A whole bunch of lightly whipped cream
    • A little sherry
    • A little bit of sugar (for tossing with the berries if needed)

Layer in a big-enough pan to hold everything. Forget the “Make it beautiful in a clear glass bowl, footed ideally” thing. It tastes just as good without worrying about that. Start with the poundcake, add berries (my first fruit layer was blueberries that I had tossed with a tiny bit of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice in a moderately warm skillet just until the berries were wonderfully dark and swollen with juice), cover with lightly whipped heavy cream (don’t whip it to stiff peaks, almost butter, because it tastes so much better if it’s soft) with just a smidge of sugar to sweeten the cream added right before it’s ready.

Then lay down another layer of pound cake, sprinkle it with some good sherry (light-handedness is everything here–I doubt that I used more than 2 ozs. of sherry for my 3-qt. or so dessert) and top with another layer of berries (for my second layer I used some really ripe strawberries that I had cut up and tossed with a little sugar to free up the juice.

Then top with more cream and some fruit that you cleverly reserved for a garnish–a few dozen of those very dark and rich blueberries and some strawberry halves with the stems intact.

At the risk of sounding even more immodest than I already have, I must say that it was wonderful. I might even do it again.

But now I have to go off to e-Bay, where I’m fooling with some Pyrex (I only buy cast iron I can see).

I grew up hating zucchini

July 27, 2007

My mother, God rest her soul, was an amazing woman. It’s a rare week that goes by that I don’t think about some gift she gave me.

But among the things she was not was a cook.

I’ve thought a lot about this. I think the truth of the matter was that she had no sense of food. She loved chocolate. But beyond that, her imagination failed her.

She got married not knowing how to boil an egg. Her mother, a farm wife, was too busy to teach her children. It was easier just to get it done herself. My father’s mother, who was a fabulous cook and ran a famous (in Oregon) cafe for decades, tried to teach her. I’ve heard all of the stories.

But I still have trouble accounting for my mother’s particular deficiency. I don’t think that strictly speaking it was a failure of imagination. She just seemed to have no real sense of what went well with what. For years she made a shrimp and macaroni salad that drew rave reviews. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but I cheerfully stole it. It was one of my favorite dishes.

But I know she didn’t understand what made it good, because one time she decided to make it more elegant and added a can of pineapple. It was inedible.

My mother only knew one way to cook zucchini–she boiled the shit out of it until it was this sort of mush or gruel or something really disgusting. When I was a grown woman (more or less), I moved to San Francisco and discovered that it could be sauteed in olive oil or baked with cheese and bread crumbs or all sorts of other things.

A long time friend (now long time dead), a bachelor guy at the time, taught me to toss it with egg and cracker crumbs and cheddar cheese and onion and throw it in an oven and produce an ambrosial vegetarian main course. I still make Tumwater’s recipe.

I think what brought this on was tonight’s dinner. I threw a couple of chicken breasts rubbed in very good olive oil and sprinkled with lemon pepper onto the barbecue grill. I had picked a head of cauliflower earlier (a week or so ago) and forgot about it in the crisper, so it was borderline. But I made the first quart of dill pickles today, so I had lots of left over brine from brining the cukes. So I brined the cauliflower (not for too long, just a half hour or so), which refreshed it immensely, and then I steamed it.

I sliced a nice zucchini and a nice Sunburst (yellow Peter Pan) squash rather thin and threw them in a frying pan with some of that same good olive oil and a little summer savory and cooked them until they were just tender. They not only tasted terrific, they were very pretty together.

We ate it all.

My mother would have been incapable of this, and I’m still trying to understand why. She made it a point to teach me the basics of cooking, so that I didn’t suffer from the same problems she had dealt with as a new bride. But she never really got food herself, and I never really got it until I left home and found how other people did things.

After he retired, my dad took over the cooking, and he had the same knack his mother did. It was much more fun to go visit after that, at least from a culinary perspective.

One of the things I’m enjoying the most about my new-found free time and my rather fabulous garden this year is the freedom to experiment with food. I’m the spitting image of my father’s grandmother. I seem to have got the right set of genes for this.

Now if I could just be 35 again. . .

Summer on the back 40

July 26, 2007

This probably comes under the heading of “Be careful what you wish for.”

Gardening in coastal Oregon is an interesting endeavor. You prep the soil, plant things, watch the weather, try to second-guess what’s going on, pull the undesirables, water, and watch as things struggle with the early spring conditions you struggled with trying to get an early garden. Then, Nature waves a magic wand and things explode.

Today I picked blueberries, zucchini, the first pickling cucumbers, and enough green beans for dinner. I was very excited to be out here for the whole growing season. But I hadn’t planned on being laid up for two weeks in the height of activity.

God bless Ralph. He’s watered and weeded while I was limping around feeling sorry for myself. I don’t deal well with idleness. Much as I enjoy a good read or a good puzzle, sitting in a chair for long periods of time just makes my sciatic nerve act up.

But Ralph and Brenda left today for 2-3 weeks of family stuff out of state, and now it’s mine again. And there is suddenly more food coming out of the garden than we can possibly eat. I’ve given a lot of it away, will give away much more.

But I’m getting around pretty well, was able to water everything today with only minor twinges. I slept in my bed (instead of one of the LaZBoys) last night for the first time since my fall, and it worked. But I’ve got enough cucumbers for the first quart of pickles, and behold, there are exactly three dill heads (the appropriate amount) ready to be picked. So tomorrow I will pack the first quart of pickles.

The upside is that I’ve had a lot of time to think, and that means a lot of time to hear the music of poetry running around in my head, so I’ve got some pretty terrific new work. Maybe the cracked ribs were someone’s way of saying “Slow down. Listen.”

The other thing I have in incredible quantities is fresh basil. A couple of nights ago we had what I can only call an experimental dinner. I had a little leftover medium-hot green sauce from the enchiladas. I used it to marinate a pork loin which I then stuffed with garlic and threw on the barbecue. Yummy.

To go with it, I cooked some linguini, drained it and set it aside. Then, in a fortuitous accident, I grabbed the wrong oil bottle and had several tablespoons of sesame oil in my skillet before I realized it was the wrong color, grabbed my designer olive oil to augment it, sauteed some garlic in the combination, and when the garlic was ready, added the pasta, a couple of cups of chopped roma tomatoes and a couple of cups of fresh chopped basil, and got everything to hot. Then it just took a liberal sprinkling of good Parmesan to make a heavenly pasta. When I was prepping it, I almost panicked. I realized I had enough pasta for 12 people. But the four of us cleaned it up.

This year I again planted what for me is a favorite corn variety–Bodacious. I’m not totally sure whether I like it for its flavor and robustness (plenty of both) or because I’m a big fan of Hank Williams, Jr., and the name always invokes rowdiness in my brain. But today I noticed that some of the stalks have started as many as four ears each (normally two). All that bullshit makes a difference.

The blueberries are slowing a bit, thank God, but the raspberries are just gathering their second wind and the whole late summer crop is coming on. And here I am bitching when I should feel so blessed. . . 

Icepacks and ibuprofen

July 16, 2007

Barbara wrote to commend me on my bravery. There is absolutely no truth to that whatsoever. But icepacks and ibuprofen have worked wonders on my wrenched knee, so I’m getting around pretty well again, can even come upstairs to my office to blog. My ribs are still incredibly sore, but the ibuprofen helps, and I think the only other remedy is time. I even got very brave and barbecued again last night. It was far too hot to light the wood stove.

I made a test run to Corvallis today, spent a small fortune at a couple of stores, managed to get around OK and restock some needed supplies. I also bought fresh halibut filets and shrimp, so it’s barbecue again tonight. Ben and Ralph would do some of this stuff for me, but I do it so much better than either of them that I’d just as soon go myself.

The garden is going nuts, which is part of why I can’t be laid up. Yesterday we harvested cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, the first tomato, the first long cucumber, and the first zucchini. The patty pan squash is only a day or two away, the first beans no more than a week. And of course, the berries didn’t hear there was no one to can them, so they continue to go wild, too.

I’m once again my own worst enemy. But I found today at the grocery store a large and very healthy trumpet vine. My grandmother had a huge one very near her fishpond, and I’ve always wanted one. I bought this one and I think I’ll put it in the corner of the garden. I’d love to have it near the house, but we have very few spots with enough sun around the house, and the few we have Ben keeps threatening to build a porch on, so I’m not supposed to plant there.

I also found a couple of woodland orchids. These are very beautiful and need shade and moisture, which is a perfect description of the spring overflow garden where I’ve planted mostly Japaness and Siberian irises and several kinds of hostas and hellebores. So I bought the last two they had, and as soon as I can climb the bank, they’ll be taking up residence there. They are a brilliant light purple in color, and it was love at first sight. The slugs may love them, too, but I’m going to chance it.

It’s a lovely summer day here, 70 degrees or so, intermittent clounds, but mostly very pleasant. So I think I’m going to quit this and go outside for a little while.

Curses, itinerary, garden update, and other miscellany

July 14, 2007

Remember the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”?

(If you are Chinese and this is not an old Chinese curse, please don’t write to tell me so. I’ve had enough interesting times this week.)

Tuesday was one of those days when the universe says, “Go with the flow, but don’t get caught in a rapid.” I got up in the morning with my whole day planned, did nothing I had planned, but had an interesting day anyway.

When my writing appointment got cancelled by the other person’s ill health, I finally made 6 quarts of sauerkraut. Then I drove into town to have dinner with Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney (and 4-5 others) and to hear Debra talk about writing the memoir. Great evening, but I had forgotten to take my ibuprofen, and by the time I got home, my pleurisy was acting up big time and I barely made it to bed.

Wednesday I got up feeling a little better, picked 3 quarts of blueberries and did assorted miscellany, figuring I’d drive to town in the morning to get the size canning jars I wanted for the blueberries (the same size I gave away dozens of earlier thinking I’d never use them again). But I tried to cook dinner on the barbecue, and somewhere in the process I stepped on (I think) a big rock that had wandered onto the patio from the driveway, and it sent me flying.

Spatula in one hand, grilled bun in the other, flailing, I flew across the yard (I think I actually collided with my truck in the driveway, causing most of the damage) and landed hard, resulting in a bunged-up knee and several cracked ribs.

So I’ve been pretty much out of service the last couple of days.

Today, I can actually put some weight on my knee even while I’m flexing it, so I have high hopes that I’m recovering there. My ribs still feel like someone is sticking knives in me every time I move wrong, but I’m sure they’ll get better also if I just give them a year or so. What some people will do to get out of hoeing in the garden. . .

So for the last couple of days I’ve spent most of the time reading the new library books I had the good sense to check out when I was in town on Tuesday. I got a book about the thirty-mile fire in Washington, Susan Sontag’s last book of essays and speeches, and a wonderful book of poetry by one of the members of one of my writing groups.

The garden is coming on hard and fast, so I can’t afford to be laid up. I picked another quart or two of blueberries today, Brenda got me the jars I wanted in town, and I’ve been canning. Of course fresh blueberries are far better than canned, but we will have these long after the fresh ones are gone.

The lettuce is almost done, but the summer squash is almost ready. The first baby green beans are there (that’s a canning marathon I’m not looking forward to, but I love my canned green beans), the first tomato will be ready within a day or two, also the first cucumber, the dahlias have buds, the roses and snapdragons have exploded, and once again I’m really sick of berries. It’s definitely summer.

Now, Ralph and Brenda are here for burritos, and I must fly.

Today’s tally

July 6, 2007

Today I did not make sauerkraut as planned. Ralph showed up at the door early this morning witha humongous quantity of pie cherries that he had just picked. I think he liked the pie. I certainly did.

So tonight I have 5 pints of blueberries, three quart of Royal Annes, and three quarts of pie cherries freshly packed and sealed in glass jars.

Sauerkraut tomorrow. Tonight I’m wiped out.

But today was very special. While Ralph was down picking pie cherries, a happening I knew nothing about and would have put an instant stop to, I was watering and working in the garden. Two great blue herons flew right over head, higher than I’ve ever seen them, and the first time I’ve seen two together. I think it must have been a mating flight. They were headed for the top of Big Creek, and it was truly amazing. Then I started noticing that all of the birds I saw were in pairs.

It must be summer.

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy? and other Americana for the 4th

July 5, 2007

First of all, the answer to the question posed:


This may not look like the cherry pies you’re used to. The pie cherries didn’t look like what I’m used to.

Some years ago, long before I had anything serious to do with this place, Ben had an Ag-science grad student living in his pig sty (not as bad as it sounds, it had been converted to a guest residence by the time I saw it) and charged her with selecting some fruit trees for what is now our orchard.

I don’t know how much you know about cherries, but they thrive best is there are a couple of different varieties planted to cross-pollinate. Debra planted a pie cherry next to a Royal Anne (really next to it, for years I thought it was one tree). I used to nag Ben about not watering one side of the tree enough. Then I tasted the cherries and discovered we had pie cherries. Whoopee!

I don’t know what variety they are. When ripe, they are a dark reddish black like Bings. But they have an intense cherry flavor. I’ve never seen them before. But tonight we’ll be really taste-testing them for the first time. Ben’s “pigeon abatement program” succeeded wildly, and he said if he didn’t get at least one cherry pie (weird in itself–he doesn’t even like sweet stuff although he maintains he will eat anything I grow and so far he’s been true to that), he’d be really disgusted.

Here’s what our crop looks like this year. Pie cherries:


Royal Annes: I was going to show you these as well, but Adobe is not cooperating and I’m out of patience.

Here’s the current state of the blueberry crop:


There’s nothing for scale here, but most of these berries are about the size of a nickel.

And here are the raspberries:


Again, nothing for scale, but the last two days I’ve picked a quart or so each day in my miniscule patch, and there are that many more out there now. I’m giving them away as fast as I can. I baked a raspberry-custard tart and took it to my writing group yesterday. It disappeared in an instant.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this now, except for the fact that I’ve been uncharacteristically silent. As a result, some people that I really care a lot about have written to see if I’m all right. And of course I am, I’m just totally overwhelmed by the garden and the produce and so on. It’s summer on the Big Elk.

My largest and most enthusiastic cabbage heads are spitting, so I’ve got to go make sauerkraut. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the sauerkraut will actually be ready in September for Oktoberfest, a first.