Friday, April 9, 2010

Going Into the Week-end

Photo courtesy Flickr
Yesterday got away completely, but Saturday morning looks routine-a couple of hours for the garden (not bad for spring planting time), maybe fifteen minutes to set up the outdoor loafing area, spare time to fool around and detail housekeeping just for sport. Not being on deadline is a vacation.

There’s a TV series about hoarding, although I haven’t watched it. I’ve seen many hoarders in action, and helped an archaeologist, no kidding, excavate a house inherited from one. She was a tender soul, and treated things as carefully as she treated her animals.

Perhaps it's time for a new take on hoarding. With all respect to the research that helps us get a grip on inventory control, it might be useful to manage things with gentle hands that have a good sense of the worth of an object. The trick is to have few enough things to manage well, so the urge to conserve and protect works for the household rather than against it. The most important thing to hoard is attention.

The word “hearth” means “focus”. Consistently, I have found that if I start tweaking the household at the stove, things work for me rather than I working for them.

I've spent the last couple of months dejunking in lieu of spring cleaning. The working artifacts that remain take their places with dignity. Things stack up well, literally. There’s enough room in storage areas to assess the current state of things at a glance.

When we bought our first little house, a wise high school teacher who loved design said, “Leave room for people.” I can’t imagine a better way to approach life under a given roof. A carefully managed space feels huge-er than it actually is. Conscious placement of the most ordinary furnishings can yield a sense of expanding volume rather than of clutter.

A friend keeps his drum set in our living room and welcomes others to use it. A full-time musician stopped by a few years ago on business and exclaimed about the fine old instruments. I invited him to play, he said the owner’s policy was incredibly generous, repositioned things, and brought astonishing sound out of them. I don't know enough to say what it was-perhaps some kind of jazz.

When the drummer left, I went into the living room and found that the drums' corner had been transformed into an elegant assemblage of related forms standing quietly and forthrightly on their own small feet. It was the most breathtakingly beautiful interior I have ever seen. The aged chrome and metal flake instruments caught the daylight at their backs and cast it into the room in a subtle dance of reflection.

Observing the transformation was like standing on the ocean beach at the border of the Quinault tribal lands around 1997. Closed to the general public decades earlier because of abuse, the beach had regained the vast sky and towering natural heights of the wild Peninsula of my childhood, my mother’s childhood, and her mother’s childhood. I could stand at the edge of the road and literally by turning my head shift from one reality to another. Even the sand and driftwood of the tribal beach were once again as translucent and resonant as the leaves, clouds, and surf that surrounded them.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Ecology of Potato Salad

Photo courtesy Flickr
Easter’s potato salad was a potluck hit, so in response to popular demand, here is how it happened. The recipe is an approach, not a set of regulations.

Old cookbooks will have a version of potato salad, usually called German hot potato salad or something like that, that is safe for picnics because it has no egg in it, either hard boiled or as mayonnaise. The salad is seasoned with a vinaigrette. I didn’t want to carry a cooler to my hostess.

New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme has a potato salad in his Cajun cookbook that is like the German version but calls for hard-boiled egg and more interesting seasonings. I dodged the egg, reasoning that there would probably be Easter eggs at the destination.

I skimmed the recipe and decided to wing it.

Choose a boiling potato (there are starchier baking versions with thicker, browner skins) that cooks up yellowish and slightly waxy. My pard brought home tiny yellow Dutch tubers that were smaller than eggs. Yukon gold and yellow Finn are also good.

Plan to steam or boil the potatoes until they are just done. Residual heat will finish the process while you peel them. Set in a big bowl of cold water when you take them off the heat-the shock will loosen the skins.

While the potatoes are cooking, gently heat some sliced garlic in some olive oil. Use only the oil in the dressing. Also gently heat the acidic part of the dressing. I used simple white cider vinegar and dissolved a salt-free vegetable bouillon cube in it, adding half a teaspoon of dry mustard, a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and a good grind of white pepper.

Much of the charm of this dish, I think, came from freshly harvested and chopped green things. Italian flat-leafed parsley has naturalized in the garden, and I used just the leaves of that. I nip the tops of the shallots in the patented growing boxes and use them instead of green onions. Seems to be good for the roots-they’re getting huge.

Trust your instincts on the amount. Just add and taste. This salad ages well, and is even good fried, so I make lots. Add extra olive oil and sour if the prepped amounts aren’t enough.

Improvise the seasoning. Things were looking a little boring after I peeled the potatoes, cut the larger ones into bite-sized pieces, and set each hot piece into the warm vinegar mixture. As I worked, I tossed the peeled potatoes in the dressing so they would absorb the flavors. Repeated gentle tossing worked up a creamy texture on the surface of the potatoes that held the dressing. That procedure is the secret of this dish.

I found some celery heart in the frig and chopped that finely straight across. The pale green crescents were elegant. A few pickled red peppers turned up, so I rinsed off the salt and minced them. A small slug of vermouth finished things off, and that’s all there was to it, except to add the oil and pack it into disposable plastic containers.

You can suggest a vegan whiff of bacon with a drop of smoke seasoning and a very small pinch of pie spice, that contains the spices used to season smoked pork.

Steer the seasoning of this salad in any direction you like. Omit the vegan bouillon for a lighter, clearer flavor.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A New Kind of Garden

Photo courtesy Flickr
The inspiration for last year’s truck patch was Tam Mossman’s Gardens That Care for Themselves. Last spring I pulled the 2008 vegetable seeds out of the refrigerator and decided to broadcast them in a spot where I’d been mulching debris with the lawnmower for twenty years. I reasoned that there might not be much risk of disease if I simply strewed mixed seeds around and let them regenerate themselves as weather and circumstances permitted.

I also reasoned that seeds past their pull date that sprouted under conditions of no care at all might be interesting plants.

Two edibles made it as far as September: a lettuce that put itself to seed, and a baby collard that sprang up hours after the summer drought broke. The lettuce gave us half a dozen salads before I decided to let it have its remaining energies for itself and its offspring.

I wouldn’t try this approach in a part of the garden I wanted to look carefully tended, but since I’m letting the ornamentals go to native plants, the pioneer veggies look pretty much like native weeds. There’s a careful balancing act involved here, so the property does not look neglected. Like an aging beauty, it must be carefully, but not overly, groomed.

Summer was very dry, and we had record heat early in August. The first rain arrived two weeks into September, and the response of the garden was astonishing. I water only fruit trees and vegetable containers, so most of the landscape had faded to crisp gold. A few days after the rain, the plants burst into life. One tea rose growing on its own roots put up a couple of three-foot stems. That’s faster than bamboo in the spring. Herbs increased geometrically.

So far this spring, a few edible greens have appeared in unexpected places, just as I had hoped. The varieties are unexpected, too. I'll pull up any edible plants that have sown themselves too close to the house, where there's a risk of heavy metal in the soil.

I garden to save trips to the store. Between eight patented plastic rectangular vegetable planters, the herbs in the sward, and the chickweed and corn salad that grow themselves here and there, I can usually come up with something green to supplement the main course at dinner and do so with no effort or attention to speak of.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Photo courtesy Flickr

The music DVD It Could Get Loud has a scene where guitarist Jimmy Page is seated on a lawn holding a mandolin.

He’s on a Windsor chair, a parlor staple in traditional American interiors-but Windsor chairs were originally garden furniture. The ubiquitous director’s chair was originally a portable throne. The earliest known one was found in King Tut’s tomb. It influenced Fifties Scandinavian design. Sheraton made one, and the hardwood versions produced in the upper Midwest are the best I have found. Look for legs that are thicker at joins and a small brass plate under one of the side rails.

Each of these chairs is comfortable for a wide range of bodies. The one that folds keeps space clear until guests arrive, a feature that speeds maintenance and fosters flexible use of a room.

(Note the straightforward curtain behind the Windsor chair.)

More after the jump.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Cordial

Photo courtesy Flickr

It seems to be called a liqueur these days. Originally, women produced fruit alcohols in conjunction with their kitchen gardens, and even the most temperate household would serve a tiny mid-day glass of strong, sweet wine to a visitor along with a cup of coffee or tea and a bite to eat. Early twentieth century cookbooks include cordials in their menu planning sections.

In the spirit of exploring and reviving old kitchen practice in my old kitchen, I’ve been researching fruit liquors. A refined version of loganberry wine was just right following yesterday’s Easter afternoon potluck.

A cordial is easy to keep on hand, and it rounds out a simple, carefully prepared meal of pantry staples accompanied by fresh fruit, vegetables, and a bit of animal protein.

-30- More after the jump.