Sunday, September 25, 2011

It's been so long . . .

I haven't posted here in many months, for a number of reasons. First, I hadn't the energy. I thought I was just tired, but turns out I'm anemic. Then there was the fact that I hadn't anything good to say, and as Mama advised in such circumstances, I chose to say nothing at all. To be frank, this has not been a good year. More of a if-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will, what-fresh-hell-is-this kind of year. Health problems, financial worries, family crises--you've all got your own; you don't need to read about mine. But I've been too obsessed with those things to write about books, gardens, cats, or anything else that makes life worthwhile.

The rains returned today, and the weather got cooler. I still have hopes of getting a few more tomatoes to ripen, but I fear the figs will stay green. And I know of no good recipes for unripe-fig anything--no relishes, chutneys, or fried green figs. The fact that the birds haven't bothered them really says it all. It's been a very cool summer here--only a handful of days over 90--so everything is at least three weeks behind. I picked a pound of raspberries yesterday ($1.50 at the u-pick farm near my house). Raspberries! At the end of September! Blackberries are still producing as well, and there may be enough on the brambles near my office to make a blackberry cobbler for St. Michael's day. [When St. Michael battled the devil, he threw the demon into a blackberry bramble, thus the traditional holy day dessert.]

My husband made a terrific harvest dinner last night to share with friends. To accompany two fine French burgundies, he made a vegetarian feast: mushroom and goat cheese pâté on toasted baguette, cauliflower soup, and zucchini pierogues stuffed with a savory bread pudding and finished with a simple tomato sauce. Dessert, served with an excellent Oregon dessert wine from Sokol Blosser, was dark chocolate mousse and fresh raspberries. A lovely evening with friends, and a great start to the harvest season.

Fall is always and forever "back to school" time for me, and usually a beginning for a big reading project. I've spent the summer with the complete Barsetshire series by Angela Thirkell, and I now may return to the original Trollope Barsethire novels, which I haven't read in a decade. The book I read for my book group this month, Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing, has made me think about my favorite books, and about those I want to read. She ends the work with her list of 40 books that would last her the rest of her life, if she could read nothing else. It's fun to work on my own list, and to decide which things I've read, and which things I want to read, should be on it. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Art of Living by Epictetus are the Stoic stand-bys I couldn't do without, the books always on my bedside table. Jane Austen would have to be there, probably represented by Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The former is my favorite Austen. I've always felt a kinship with Elinor Dashwood.

A big decision is what "aspirational" reading to include. Do I use up six volumes of 40 on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past? I can't decide. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (three volumes from Penguin) does make the cut. I've decided to give up the idea of ever reading Ulysses. I finally sent the copy I'd been dragging around through six moves to Goodwill, and frankly, I feel free.

I know there will be non-fiction from Joan Didion and Janet Flanner, and a book on gardening (but which one?). I will have to decide which works by Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Wharton will make the cut. Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love is a given, as is Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being (why does this man not have a Nobel prize yet?) and Garcia-Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Biography/memoir/letters/diaries are another difficult question, as is poetry (though I'm leaning toward John Donne). What an amusing way to spend some chilly, rainy autumn evenings.

PS: Sorry there are no pictures. This summer's disasters included the failure of three--count them, three--hard dives, and I haven't loaded photos onto this one yet.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who would have believed?

Off to market

Had you told me even a year ago that I would be selling produce at a farmers' market, I would have called you insane, but that's exactly what I did this weekend. I have an abundance of invasive perennial herbs in my garden--mint, chives, pineapple mint, oregano, mint--as well as non-invasive but overgrown (as in can't see to get out of the driveway) rosemary and thyme. It's far more than two people can use, and I hate to see anything go to waste, so I asked the farmer with whom I have my CSA share for ideas. He suggested I bring a basket to his booth at the weekly famers' market and split the profits with him. Ever on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, I agreed.


The farmers' market this time of year is on Saturdays from 10 to 3. So after work on Friday, I went out into the garden with basket, scissors, and scale to gather my herbs. The mint and rosemary were easy to harvest, but the more delicate chives and oregano were rather a mess. In all, it took nearly two hours to cut, weight, and tie up the bundles (hope I get better/faster with practice). I put my lovely little bunches of herbs into bowls with a little water and popped them into the refrigerator overnight.

On Saturday morning, I met the farmer at the market at 9:30 to drop off my wares. It was fun being there as the vendors were setting up, and chatting to real farmers. I have the advantage of coming from a farming family and can relate anecdotes of weather-related crop disasters with the best of them. When I got my cut of the takings at the end of the day, I had earned just enough to pay for this week's eggs and two tomato plants I got from other vendors.  If I look at it in terms of hourly rates, I made less than minimum wage, but it was fun and cost me only two hours on a Friday night that I otherwise would have wasted online. Not a bad trade, in my opinion.

Spring marches on, and one of the rhododendrons finally burst into bloom, thought the others are nowhere close. I saw a hummingbird one evening at dusk, testing out the dogwood blossoms.

Feeders for hummingbirds and other birds have been cleaned and filled by my darling husband, and the fountain is back in service, provided a birdbath and a drinking fountain for birds and kitties. Now the challenge is keeping Baxter the Mighty Hunter from using these amenities to ensnare victims.

One of the things I love is seeing the daily changes in the garden. This year they have come more slowly than usual, but the pace is beginning to quicken. I realized today that one of the most difficult things about winter in the sameness day to day. In our valley, winter means grey skies and rain, with temperatures generally hovering within about 10 degrees of 40° F. Let me be the first to admit that this is in no way a bad winter by any stretch of the imagination. It's just boring--nothing changes for what seems an age. Spring, summer, and fall, there is near-constant change in the garden: seeds sprout and grow, flowers bloom and fade, fruit ripens and is harvested. I love that.

The garden path, with bluebells
Sundays are special days to me, a day to pause and take a deep breath before the cycle of the week begins anew. When economy made it necessary for me to give up my daily pot of espresso for tea, the "sacrifice" had an unexpected benefit. My Sunday morning coffee became a special treat, something to look forward to and to savor--usually with a croissant from the local bakery.  Since present circumstances require frugality, I find myself more mindful of what I have, what I do, and what I buy. Wasteful and unnecessary expenses have been cut out, and far from miss the way things were before, I find I get more satisfaction from daily life, small pleasures, and simplicity.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Provincial Life


Finally, finally it feels like spring is really here. The daffodils and tulips are finishing up, the bluebells are blooming, and the iris have buds. The garden is waking up after a long, wet sleep. We have entire days of sunshine occasionally (last week on a weekend--unheard of), and it's slowly warming into the 60s during the day. My darling husband is home after two looooong months in Australia, so the heavy yard work is finally getting done. Also, we no longer have the most disgraceful lawn on the street--it's neatly mowed, even if it is mostly dandelions (excellent crop this year) and moss.

I, too did some traveling for work, to New York for the Antiquarian Book Fair. I'm just too old for that. Even with non-stop flights, getting there and back was exhausting, and except for seeing friends and some lovely books, it was pretty miserable. I am no longer an urban person. Too many people make me nervous and claustrophobic. I dislike being surrounded by huge buildings and miss the lovely greens of Oregon. It was good to get home to the provinces and resume my provincial life.

Baxter straddling the fence like a politician

With all the stress in daily life and world events, I have been taking refuge in the Provincial Lady books and other works by E. M. Delafield, and the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell, both full of sly wit and social satire. The comedy of manners is one of my favorite types of novels, and both of these writers continue in the tradition of Jane Austen, only in 20th century England. I know many "serious" readers look down on books like these, but I find more of value there than in most so-called literary fiction. À chacun son goût. I could no more face wading through Thomas Pynchon at the end of a stressful day or week than I could rise and fly. So I'll stick to my provincial, middle-brow reading and let better folk than I deal with James Joyce or the latest David Foster Wallace. 


This weekend has been the kind of slow-paced, simple time that I love. Yesterday was marketing, picking up CSA veggies, and arranging with my farmer to sell some of the herbs that are taking over my garden in his booth at the market. Desultory cleaning and gardening next, followed by a nap. Today has been all about the kitchen: baking bread and cookies, making chicken stock to freeze, preparing rhubarb compote to have with my yogurt and granola for breakfast this week, using leftover rice and assorted CSA veggies to make fried rice for lunch today and to take for lunch during the week, and finally, making beans & greens for dinner. Nothing complicated or intensive to prepare, just a steady day of puttering about the kitchen. 

Cocktail corner is ready and waiting for warmer weather

It has rained--sometimes torrentially--off and on today, so it was a good time to be indoors, cooking, reading, and puttering. Tomorrow it's back to work and deadlines, but it's lovely to have a peaceful day of rest in order to recharge for the challenges in the week ahead. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Little Sunshine Makes All the Difference

Is there anything more contented than a cat sleeping in the sun?

Yesterday, it was sunny!! On a Saturday!!! I can't remember the last time this happened, but it's been weeks. The cats and I spent some quality time sitting on the swing in the backyard, soaking up sun like lizards. I did a bit of long-postponed garden clean-up and found quite a bit of new growth coming up. The only bulb actually blooming is the small snowdrop below. I planted 50 of these, and so far this is the only one to make an appearance. The drifts of snowdrops in my neighbor's yard are mocking me.

50 bulbs, one flower. I blame the squirrels.

I saw dozens of snowdrops, along with purple and yellow crocus and a yellow primrose on my walk to the library. The daphne and camellias have buds about to pop open. Spring really is on its way. I need to get my peas (both sweet for flowers and shelling for eating) planted soon.

There was baking, too. The regular weekly loaf of bread and a loaf on banana bread on Saturday (half off over-ripe banana at the grocery is a great excuse for banana bread), and today, these sinfully delicious  whole lemon bars, so called because you puree a whole lemon for the filling. Extra lemony goodness!

Tomorrow I turn 50, which quite frankly I never thought would happen. I struggled with the black dog of depression for many years, and when I was in my 20s I was sure it would defeat me. Thanks to my friends, my siblings, my shrink, and Celexa, I've made it to the half century mark. I'm living in a beautiful place, have a dream job working with antiquarian books and medieval manuscripts, and most miraculously of all, I'm married to a beautiful man who loves me and accepts me as I am, warts, depression, and all. I will not be one of those women who won't admit her age--I want to shout it from the rooftops, because I'm so grateful for making it this far.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Spot of Bother

So far, 2011 has not been a good year. Family emergencies and illnesses, unexpected travel, large unplanned expenses--it's been a recipe for major stress and depression. At the end of this month, my husband leaves for two months abroad (for work). And in just over a week, I turn fifty. All I can say is, "Bartender! Another round!"

Daffodils by the front steps

Fortunately, little bulbs are beginning to poke their heads up in the garden, promising spring just around the corner. Meanwhile, the rain continues to keep me indoors (November through April showers bring May flowers!) so I've been sorting through closets, chests, and cabinets looking for garage sale material, should we ever have a sunny Saturday.

Books have been treasured companions and welcome respite from life's trouble these past weeks. I've particularly enjoyed Debo Mitford Devonshire's Wait for me!, which I won in a drawing at Stuck in a Book---thanks, Simon! I love the cover shot of the 90-year-old duchess holding two of her beloved hens. As always, I find enormous comfort in mysteries, preferably psychological thrillers. Andrew Taylor's Roth Trilogy was a fascinating series tracing the making of a psychopath.

There has also been baking--brownies, scones, banana bread. I continue to bake a loaf of no-knead bread every weekend. The budget will be a bit tight with just one income for the next couple of months, so I've been adding to my repertoire of inexpensive vegetarian recipes. I've been trying to be a more mindful consumer, so this will be a very good exercise.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year in the Valley

We got SUNSHINE for New Year's. You have to live with two solid months of rains and grayness to really appreciate that. I was able to walk to the library without getting soaked, to tend to a few outside chores, and to join the cats in basking in the rays shining through the windows.

New Year's Eve was quiet for us. I had the day off, so I finished cleaning the house for the new year. My husband was a waiter for 15 years, and not having to work in a restaurant on "amateur night" is something we celebrate every year by staying in. He cooked some wild-caught steelhead trout (similar to salmon) and we had a lovely bottle of prosecco. After dinner, he watched the Flaming Lips show streaming live from Oklahoma City, and I retired upstairs with a book and a large glass of wine. We toasted the New Year at midnight, to the accompaniment of the neighbors banging pans, drums, and blowing car horns--a traditional way of scaring off evil spirits. That part was rather charming. Their drunken arguments out in the street every half hour until after 3 AM was not.

As a consequence of being awakened repeatedly in the night, I started 2011 tired and grumpy. Apart from baking a loaf of bread and making hoppin' john (black-eyed peas with rice) and greens for New Year's dinner like a good Southern girl, I did nothing. I spent the day curled up by the fire reading the marvelously eerie The Little Stranger, or watching old Miss Marple mysteries on Netflix.

After a peaceful night, I woke to sunshine and experienced a burst of energy. I made coffee (OK, some of the energy was caffeine-related), scrambled eggs, and toasted homemade bread with homemade strawberry jam (my smugness over the "homemade" part makes it taste so much better). After cleaning the kitchen, I peeled and roasted assorted root vegetables for soup. I love making soup and bread for Sunday night dinner, thereby having leftovers for weekday lunches. While the vegetable were roasting, I conducted another wardrobe weeding, pulling out things I haven't worn in forever to donate, and organizing the remaining items.

After lunch, I mixed up a batch of cookie dough and put it in the fridge to chill while I walked to the library. I had forgotten that I usually cut this recipe for "Cowboy Cookies" (chocolate chip with pecans, oatmeal, and coconut) in half--I got it from a friend who makes batches for after-church coffee hour--so I ended up with five dozen cookie. Hope none of my co-workers have started diets for the new year, because I'll be bringing treats to the office.

No pictures today, partly because there was nothing new and interesting to photograph, and partly because it takes too much time. I'm far less likely to write something if I need photos for it. So I'm sorry it's just plain ol' text, but that's all I can handle right now.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Comfort & Joy

Last weekend, I made my very first loaf of real bread. Oh, sure, I'd made quick breads--banana, zucchini, etc.--but never anything requiring yeast.  I decided to try the no-knead bread from the New York Times, which is perfect for the lazy. It requires only flour, salt, yeast, water, and about 20 hours rising time, in a room that was at least 70 degrees F. This presented the only obstacle: our 1927 farmhouse does not have central heat, is not well-insulated, and is rather drafty. We use the woodstve in the fireplace and lots of down comforters to stay warm. There are small space-heater-like units in the wall of each room, but none of these is capable of getting and keeping the room at a balmy 70--except for the one in the bathroom.

Cat and dough enjoying the warmth

Yes, I know: food in the bathroom. Ewwww. But, I reasoned, it's in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and I'll put it up on top of the hideous, laminate cabinet (bathroom was sadly "renovated" in the late 70s/early 80s--all 20s charm is gone, gone, gone). With the door firmly closed, it was possible to keep the windowless bathroom warm enough for the yeast to do its thing. My bread got a little more than 18 hours rising time, because I got confused calculating times and started the bread at 9 AM, which gave me a choice of getting up at 3 AM, or letting the bread rise for a few extra hours--you can guess which I chose. The extra time didn't hurt it at all, and it baked up beautifully in my cast iron Dutch oven. I was so proud and excited you'd think I'd discovered penicillin. The bread was enjoyed with soup, and the remnant used to make the "Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good" on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, date of the Winter Solstice and lunar eclipse, was our first wedding anniversary. The rainy weather on the west coast made it impossible to see the eclipse, which was huge disappointment, and a family illness put a bit of a damper on anniversary festivities. We decided to wait and celebrate on the 22nd, when the loved one was out of danger. My dear husband bought me books because, as he noted (to my amazement), the traditional gift for a first anniversary is paper.  I, jumping inadvertently ahead to the traditional fifth anniversary wood gift, got him a wooden cutting board made by the farmer from whom we buy our vegetable out of wood from a white oak on his farm. We had dinner at the wonderful Bistro Maison, a marvelous French restaurant. The rain stopped long enough for us to walk there and back--a great way to justify the calories consumed in the baked Alaska we had for dessert.

As I've noted previously, Christmas is not my favorite time of year and I try to ignore it as much as possible. My grinchy-ness was alleviated somewhat this year by a number of examples, some local, some far away, of generous and unselfish giving that offset the annoying orgy of consumerism I associate with the holiday. I made it through five hours(!) of Christmas music on Christmas Eve before I snapped and started throwing things. And on Xmas day, though I lost my ambition to make the full turkey/dressing/cranberry sauce dinner I'd planned, I did manage to roast a turkey breast and make a ginger-pear upside-down cake while recruiting my ever-indulgent husband to make the sauce, mashed potatoes and green beans with almonds.

We even had a minor Christmas miracle: two members of the household managed to catch fire Xmas day, and neither of them was the accident-prone moi! My husband was sitting on the hearth in front of the fire, watching a basketball game online, and I was in the kitchen peeling pears. Suddenly, I heard him shout "Fuck!" and I ran to see what was wrong. A couple of sparks from the crackling fire had landed on his fleece pullover which, being basically plastic, promptly began to melt onto his skin. I helpfully observed, "Oh, you're on fire," as he wrangled his way out of the smoldering, smelly mess.

Later, we were sitting at the table, candles lit, when our long-haired cat Baxter (pictured above) decided to saunter across the table to see if any stray turkey might come his way. Sadly, his magnificent fluffy tail brushed against a candle, causing a shower of sparks and the ever-so-appetizing smell of burnt hair. Kitty was luckily unharmed, although he kept looking at his tail and trying to figure out if it was the source of the extremely unpleasant odor.  As my husband said, it's not a successful party until someone catches fire. And so another Christmas is survived--this time with the comfort and joy of a partner who is understanding of my neuroses about the season and who will turn off the music when I just can't bear another note.