Wednesday, October 26, 2011

pimientos from the October garden

Have you ever seen a fresh pimiento pepper for sale in the grocery store? No? That's why, if you have a garden, you should consider growing them yourself. The little jars of diced pimientos that are the only experience most people have of them -- sorry, but they are not to be compared to the fruits you can expect to harvest from your back yard.

I went around the garden this afternoon snapping pictures of the prettiest things, including the peppers.

What first caught my eye was the way the color of the Mexican Sage coordinated so nicely with the Red Russian Kale. Some parsley is peeking up at the bottom.

Arugula (with the white flower) is a real self-starter and has come back up through the basil, and the nasturtiums are still going strong.

But about those pimientos: It was about 30 years ago I encountered a fellow gardener's planting of them, on a sunny hillside growing alongside beans and tomatoes and other more common things. Ellie said, "Pimientos are marvelous; they are good with everything. We just love them!" It was at a time in my life when I was very suggestible regarding any homemaking idea, and the garden was a big part of my homemaking.

Since then, I don't think a year has gone by that we didn't grown some pimientos, though one time we ended up with some plants that had an odd shape and slightly different flavor. That's when we learned that there are different varieties called pimiento. But the shape of the fruits in my photos here is what we think of as standard.

Pimientos have a richer taste than the standard sweet red bell pepper that the supermarkets carry, and the wall of the fruit is probably twice as thick. For 20+ years I would mostly serve them sautéed with mushrooms and/or onions and garlic as a vegetable dish. The skins would often slide off before I got the skillet to the table, in which case sometimes I'd sometimes manage to remove some of them. Mostly the skins got eaten.

But now that I have a gas range I can easily turn them around on the stove with tongs while they hiss and sputter, and have fire-roasted peppers. (I also did this with poblano peppers this summer.) After they are blackened all over, you stick them in a bowl or something with a lid -- I tried a plastic bag but the peppers were so hot they melted holes in the bag -- and let them sweat a few minutes until the skins rub off easily under water.

Meanwhile, the house starts to smell like a Mexican restaurant!

Once they are bare and thick slabs of sweet flesh, it is so easy to chop some up into soups or stews or salads. Lay a pepper on top of bread and cheese, or just bread...or feel really indulgent eating one all by itself. I freeze some flattened between waxed paper to use all year long.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Apples I Have Known - in a book

Janet blogged recently about an apple-picking expedition, with photos that reminded me of excursions to the apple orchard that has been our family's favorite vender for decades. We didn't make it out there this year -- yet.

The number of munching, saucing and pie-baking kids and grandkids that we had around here at times could consume quite a few bags and boxes of fruit during apple season, and our grower friend featured almost 30 varieties of apples, which kept his barn open to customers for a deliciously long time.

My daughter whom I call by the name of a favorite apple gave me a small book that is fun to peruse when the apple farm closes, or when there isn't enough demand for fresh fruit in the house. It is all about various kinds of apples, with bright watercolors of those featured. Some old varieties, some newer.

Above is the Cortland that Janet is enjoying. If you want to read the text in any photo just click on the picture to enlarge it.

The Arkansas Black is one of that large selection on the local apple farm, and I have cooked with it many times.

Another friend and neighbor grew an orchard full of Criterions and sold gallons of the fresh juice out of his barn. Our older kids helped on the ranch, thinning the crop and such like, and no doubt these extra sweet and crisp fruits contributed to their good health.

Jonathans were a favorite of my father, as I discovered late in his life when I was given a boxful of runts. Late in the mountain season I sat in his cabin cutting up the fruit for applesauce, and he ate a dozen while youthful memories flooded his head.

And the Gravenstein -- it's got such a tang that as I write about it I start salivating. Its season is short, but there are plenty of orchards in our part of the country, and it adds the most appley flavor to whatever you cook with it. I have made many a curried apple turkey loaf with Gravenstein sauce.

I like the pictures of all the odd apples that I've never encountered, especially the sort of ugly knobby ones, or those with russeting or bumps, or elliptical shapes.

But my favorite apple of all, and naturally the best-for-me entry in this book, is one that was more available in stores when I first learned to bake pies. After using the same apples for many years, I have to admit that only Pippins make a pie that with my whole being I can rejoice in as Apple Pie. To prove my love, I am feeling a need to make a trip to Our Orchard this week and get a boxful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Swan Lake stories

I really got into the Swan Lake story last Spring. It all started with an recommendation, from which I learned that Mark Helprin had written a book-length adaptation of the tale that was most famously told by Tchaikovsky's ballet. There were surprisingly few reader reviews of his book given that they were nearly all gushingly positive, some saying it was the best book they had ever read.

I've long been curious about Helprin and the many books he's written. Some of my family and friends have read his novels, stories, and non-fiction pieces. I had a feeling that I should appreciate him more than I did, and I planned to try again to read his fiction. I was sure his Swan Lake would be good, and I nearly ordered it without previewing it. But then I saw that it was first of a trilogy, and people were less thrilled with the sequels, so I got it from the library instead to see for myself before investing on behalf of a grandchild.

While I was at it, I borrowed three other juvenile versions of the story, so I would have something to compare with. On the first day of Lent I read all four of the books -- I know, it was an odd thing to do that day -- and scratched out some thoughts. After returning the books to the library in the interest of focusing on more appropriate matters, I forgot all about the subject, until today, when I decided I should gather everything up finally.

Helprin's version (©1989) would have to be counted my least favorite of the four. It's the length of a short novel, and his story is fleshed out with several characters who don't appear in the more common tellings. It's the most changed, interesting and complex story, but maybe too complicated. The story’s flow is interrupted with goofy details and sidetracks that detract from the moral weight. The narrator’s voice is not that of a believable old man, not that of the man who has enough wits about him accomplish what he does. Yet he's supposedly a sage.

I also did not like the loosed morals of the characters, who literally "shack up" together and have a child, who figures in the politics of the realm in the sequels, as I understand. The prince never does behave in a very noble fashion that I can see. And what's the good of a fairy tale if the prince is at best only a foolish boy?

I'm really not competent to even know what it is about Helprin's fictional style that puts me off. Probably it's only a personal preference or lack of foundation that makes it hard for me to enjoy him. But I think that I'm through trying.

My next-least favorite of the bunch of Swan Lake tales that I read was Swan Lake, retold by Anthea Bell, illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki (©1984). I liked the watercolors, but there weren't enough pictures of swans for my taste. And the story line was thin.

Swan Lake, adapted and illustrated by Donna Diamond (©1980) was second-best of my stack. It was thorough story-telling, including more motives and complications, with nice black and white, dreamy paintings.

My favorite was Swan Lake, retold and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (©2002). The illustrations were pleasing to me, and after mentioning several versions of the ending, the author makes it into a happily-ever-after story.

After all my literary wanderings, I'm left wondering if perhaps this tale is best told through a ballet performance. I know that even in that form there have been widely divergent versions of the story, but I can't help thinking that the rich visual and musical elements would make the whole experience more satisfying than did any of these books.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Candy: Fake, Fruity, or Drunken?

Fruit snacks are yummy treats. The Candy Professor thinks so, too, but she writes in The Atlantic about how the idea that they may legitimately be touted as something other than candy is under question in court. In her blog this week the professor, Samira Kawash, also treats the semiotics of candy:

"Candy as simulacrum cuts loose from the chain of origins and descent. It’s fake, and unashamed of its fakeness and therefore not in need of connecting itself to some legitimating narrative of ancestry and origin.

"So candy as fake food is more true than food that disguises its fakery. Candy, perfect post-modern food."
And she does her own experiment to find out if gummy bears can really soak up vodka without dissolving in it.

I've always enjoyed this woman's blog, but never more than this week, because I love science experiments using food, even junk food. I do like many forms of candy, but I mostly try to feed myself and my family truly nutritious food, which doesn't include sweets. I haven't indulged in any fruit snacks lately, but I wonder if the food police will require their being shelved with the jelly beans in the future?

By the way, candy is a topic of conversation I sometimes fall back on when talking with my grandchildren, most of whom will become engaged on some level at the mention of it. Now I have even more threads of talk with which to lead them on.

At the same time, these latest discussions are getting tangled in my mind. Are fruit snacks real? Are drunken gummies liquor or fusion cuisine? I hope I am right in this at least, that the philosophers are telling me that my sweet tooth is merely a healthy preference for honest food.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Heavy or Lightweight Books

The other night when I came to the last page of The Fountain Overflows, I turned right back to the beginning and started it all over again. I couldn't bear to leave the Aubrey Family, or Rebecca West's lovely writing. I kept my pen in hand so that I could note even more phrases or passages that were notable examples of her masterful style, or of the psychology of children. And this time through I mean to circle words I don't know from the very start, to look up in the dictionary sometime -- maybe. Most of the time I forget to do that.

I don't research those words as I go along because I am usually lying in bed and can't handle something as heavy as a dictionary; most books I buy these days I get in paperback so that I can read them while curled up or generally horizontal under the blankets. Sometimes, though, I fail to notice that a particular book in the catalog has 800 or 1000 pages between its paper covers, and when it arrives at my door I realize that it can't be accommodated at bedtime.

Vacations don't seem to include the long afternoons I'd require to enjoy the big books in a lawn chair next to a lake or under a tree. That's what I thought I would need if I were ever going to start The Cypresses Believe in God: Spain on the Eve of the Civil War (806 pages), by Jose Maria Gironella.

But last week, after leaving the library, of all places, my foot folded over at a curb and my ankle was sprained -- voilà! Here was my chance! -- and for three days I've been living in the world of Spanish culture and politics in the 1930's, at the same time I am lying in the recliner with my foot up.

I was going to tell also about the paperback copy of The Brothers Karamozov, and Stephen Lawhead's Hood (first book in the King Raven Trilogy about Robin Hood), who are both waiting on the shelf, but as I look at them more closely I notice that they are not at all in the same weight category as Cypresses. They are smaller in cubic inches, nearly the same size as each other, though Hood is under 500 pages and Brothers K about 700. Dostoyevsky is much heavier physically -- the book, I'm talking about now -- and I am confident in other ways, too. No taking that one to bed.

c. 1923
But maybe when I finish Fountain I could manage to heft Hood or at least have it lying next to my pillow. Unless I feel the need to read Rebecca West's The Birds Fall Down again. When I came to the end of that novel I also had that urge to read it again soon, for somewhat different reasons.

The first time I heard of this author it was for her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. That title captivated me right off, but I thought the subject of her famous book would be helpful to me in understanding Balkan history and culture.

I borrowed it from the library, a hardback and huge book with small print, when I still had plenty of teaching and childraising to do, and I don't think I ever got through one chapter. But now that I've read two other compelling books by her, and see that these three I've encountered are completely different from one another....I wonder if I can get Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in paperback?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Big Sur

Mouth of Big Sur R. - Andrew Molera Park

Many years ago at the spot in this first photo, Mr. Glad and I watched a group of waterbirds playing. We were having a weekend at Big Sur to celebrate a wedding anniversary.

Here the Big Sur River flows into the Pacific Ocean on California's central coast. On that day in March way back then, the birds would float down the riffles of the river, then fly back up to the jumping-in place and wait in line behind their fellows until their turn came; jump in, float down, fly back up, over and over. We watched them a long time, and they were still at it when we left.

This week we had made the trip to see family and friends. It was a very short visit, but we managed to take in aspects of both Andrew Molera State Park and Soberanes Canyon.

The Big Sur area features such a profusion of plant forms, not to mention the animal life that I mostly ignore, that it is easy to understand why so many people want to live there where the ocean and trees and flowers make a dramatic but not agitating backdrop for solitude.

Everywhere we went for three days, the air was thick with the aromas of a casserole of natural ingredients, seaweed and sagebrush, redwoods and damp soil, a thousand essential oils in microscopic droplets bombarding my senses and reminding me that I should get out into the woods and the fields more often just to inhale this kind of nourishment.

If I did live near Big Sur, I'd want to go regularly to Soberanes Canyon, where the plant forms overlap in an unlikely and seemingly chaotic way.

Old cactus with baby on Soberanes Canyon Trail

I've never before seen redwood sorrel and poison oak growing together, or ferns next to cactus. Those are the most surprising things that jumped out at me, but if I went every month or so along the same canyon trail, other wildflowers or shrubs might eventually get my attention with the changing seasons and blooms. Whether I saw a scene or a tiny part of it in mist or sunshine would also make a difference.

Redwood sorrel with poison oak and nettles
This is a coastal steppe zone, my guide and son told me. The cactus were old and weather-beaten, some of their trunks resembling thick board platforms, but still producing new and fresh green sprouts.

one of the smaller lupines
Venerable lupine "trees" five feet across stood alongside the trail, with trunks four inches in diameter, still blooming mid-October.

Only a couple of minutes up from Highway 1, the trail takes you through dry hills with spreads of cactus all around. We got hot and sweaty pretty quickly, as it was mid-afternoon on what was probably the hottest fall day, but we didn't grumble, being quite glad that the usual fog wasn't dampening our spirits.

Soberanes Creek

Before we knew it, we were descending to the creek, stands of tall, thick redwoods and carpets of sorrel, and after twenty paces the temperature had dropped ten degrees.

At the base of one of those huge specimens of Sequoia sempervirens, Mr. G pointed out to us the sponginess of the ground. It was not dirt, but many inches - or feet? - of redwood needles, making a duff that we all took turns bouncing on before we went on down the grade and back to our car.

I just love the way the Father creates these playgrounds for the delight of His children.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Spiders and Winds

I never think of spiders as devils, at least not the garden spiders that are so busy all over the place this fall. This one is between the cherry tomatoes and the bottlebrush bush. I went with my camera into the yard before the sun was very high, hoping that some of the critters had mended their nets after the rains, and I did get good shots of a few.

Then I read George MacDonald's verse for the day, from A Book of Strife in the Form of The Diary of an Old Soul. He wrote a section of this long poem for every day of the year; the lines for October 10th use the metaphor of a spider to warn about how the devil works at entrapping us every morning. We do need to continually pray for the Holy Spirit to break our selfish crust, I know that. O Heavenly King, blow into us and fill us and make us a refreshment to everyone around.

With every morn my life afresh must break
The crust of self, gathered about me fresh;
That thy wind-spirit may rush in and shake
The darkness out of me, and rend the mesh
The spider-devils spin out of the flesh—
Eager to net the soul before it wake,
That it may slumberous lie, and listen to the snake.
I don't like to end a post with reference to that snake, so let's look at our situation from another angle before we finish the contemplation:

I consider no other labor as difficult as prayer. When we are ready to pray, our spiritual enemies interfere. They understand it is only by making it difficult for us to pray that they can harm us. Other things will meet with success if we keep at it, but laboring at prayer is a war that will continue until we die.  --Abba Agathon

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Looking and Sniffing Around

runner ducks
The rain brought out the good smells of the earth and plants, like the junipers lining the broad sidewalk along which Pippin and I walked for a long time yesterday. We were on our way to the park so that Scout could feed the ducks. Dozens of ducks, geese and even some coots came to sample our bread -- but I focused eventually on the backs of the geese, and dreamed of a skirt in those colors and patterns.

More species of birds live by the lake and sleep on the lawns than last time I was here. Even runner ducks, and several types of geese in addition to the Canada geese, who were not interested in us at all.

I loved these khaki-colored guys with their topknots.

pimiento pepper
After we got home, Pippin looked out the window and said, "Oh, you have a phoebe!" I was so excited to hear that, but it took me a while to see the little bird on the fence after it was pointed out to me, and not just because I wasn't wearing my glasses. If a large goose gets in my face the way they did at the park, I notice them, but otherwise the details of my environment have to be fairly stationary if they are going to get my attention.

This morning I went out to take photos of the wet and more stationary garden. Quite a few pimientos are ripe red now, and I'll be snapping them off soon to roast over the gas flame of the stove.

In the front yard the verbena is still blooming away, and contrasts nicely with the variegated leaves of the shrub whose name I can't remember right now.

Cécile Brunner
The mister and I are Glad that our nest will be ready against the winter cold: At this very moment a man is installing a brand new furnace in the garage, and yesterday we laid in a supply of oak firewood. Those logs make for another yummy scent of Fall. Stay warm, Everyone!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Scout in the garden and the toolbox

Seventh Grandson showed himself to be a boy after my own heart this morning, as we were out picking vegetables before the rain came on strong. First the tomatoes. It didn't surprise me that he liked popping most of the fruits he picked into his mouth.
But the pole beans were just as much to his liking. He even dropped the tomato he was working on so as to attend to the job of getting the beans off the vines and quickly into his mouth to savor and munch on for a while. He didn't spit them out, either.

When the rain began in earnest we had to come inside. But there were Grandpa's drums to play.

For hours Scout played with his tool-themed birthday presents: a put-put weed-whacker and a lawnmower, saws and a drill and more.

And at lunchtime he asked for one of the decorations from last night's tool box cake that his mom had made, the chocolate pliers.