Sunday, August 31, 2008

Benign Neglect (and a little rough handling)

"One must allow that a certain amount of carelessness in one's nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing."

from Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Here's what the non-paved side of my house looks like.

...and like this.

Yuck! Lola and I joked when we moved in that we probably were never going to earn the neighborhood award for best looking yard. As much as the two of us like plants, we've never been big on yard work.

...and yet...

I find myself looking at parts of the yard now and thinking of things I could do. Most of these fantasies involve ripping out the lawn (more on that soon), but on a smaller, more realistic scale I ponder the side of the house.

My neighbor's side strip faces ours and hers is so beautiful. She has it planted with huge rosemary plants and lavenders. Smart choices for our sometimes droughty periods, and the plants look dramatic and unconventional. For all my container vegetable growing chops she is, I think, someone with the truest of green thumbs. She told me once, in an earnest manner, that "everything grows well here"...which I know is not true since north Georgia is pretty notorious for having very heavy clay soil. Maybe she amends it? I've got to ask her...

...then to the shovel! I have to admit to feeling nervous. Potting soil is one thing. Actual dirt is quite another.

Anyway, I bet that those particular plants do grow well, once they get into soil that they like. Herbs are the hesitant gardener's best friend and benign neglect is what they enjoy.

Here's the pot I'm growing.

That's a rosemary, a couple of basils, thyme, and oregano. All have done really well. I give them some water but they really don't seem to require much else - unlike my very pampered tomato plants. My theory is that these Mediterranean type herbs originated, and thrive, in parts of the world that are hot, dry, rocky. They don't like fertilizer and they certainly don't want to be fussed over. They just want to get down to the the job of growing...

...and growing! I've had to harvest often over the summer just from the one pot. I've used plenty of fresh herbs in cooking, but I've been able to dry a lot too. I actually prefer the flavor of dried oregano to fresh and fresh thyme, though its scent is bewitching, is nothing compared to the dried in taste.

To dry herbs, wash them, and lay on a flat surface that can remain undisturbed for several days. I use a cookie sheet lined with a dish towel covered with paper towels. I put the whole thing on top of the refrigerator. The important thing is that they stay well-ventilated. After about a week, this is what you'll see.

You can shred the dried leaves off of the stems into clean glass jars. Label and store for future use.
This method seems to work best for the more "woody" type of herb that has small leaves. (I'm sure there's a better way of saying that, a formal, botanical designation that I don't know. Yet.) I've found that basil, with its big, floppy leaves, doesn't take as well to flat drying. So I devised this little coat hanger dryer that I put in the kitchen window. Here it is right after I hung it.

Here it is yesterday. Please note that some of my neighbor's rosemary is visible outside the window.

Crumble the leaves into clean glass jars, label and store.

What a comfortable feeling it is to know that deliciousness is preserved and just waiting for you. And with so little effort! Herbs are truly giving, and forgiving, plants. My mint plant is an example of the latter quality (and yes, I know that I'm guilty of committing the pathetic fallacy, or something like it, all over the place here). I planted it with a tomato because, somewhere, I read that it made a good "companion planting". Perhaps it does... if your tomato has co-dependency issues and doesn't want to change. The mint was huge and gorgeous. The tomato was quailing. I had to do something, so I dug the mint up and shoved it into a pot. I didn't think it would survive such rough treatment. After all, I left pieces of root behind, but so far it's thriving. It's so lush that I'm thinking about dividing it and giving a mint plant to my friend Heather who is about to have a baby. Lola has been raising desert roses from seeds and the first seedling is also going to be a gift for the new baby. I love the idea of giving a gift that will grow as the child does.

By the way, the tomato recovered just fine.

Today's twist

Jane Bowles was an American writer who published in the years between 1943 and 1953. Although her output was small; a single novel, several short stories, and a play; many of her contemporaries, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, considered her to be one of the finest and most under-rated writers of the time. She was married to the composer/writer Paul Bowles with whom she had a loving, often long-distance, and very complicated, relationship. In spite of her marriage, her sexual and emotional relationships were primarily with women. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, is, in my opinion, a vastly under-read modern classic. The two ladies of the title, Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering, are both, rather frantically, seeking salvation, although neither seems to have any sort of religious talent or calling. Mrs. Copperfield's path is one of abandonment to dissolution. Miss Goering's is a severing of all that is comforting and comfortable. She deliberately puts herself where she is most fearful and uneasy. Of the two, Miss Goering, seems the most high-minded and moral, and yet she is thwarted over and over, perhaps because she can't, unlike the sentiment that she expresses in the quote above, ever allow herself to be truly careless.
Two Serious Ladies is an intriguing and puzzling novel and worth reading for the beautiful, askew, yet strangely illuminating dialogue if for nothing else. Jane Bowles' stories are just as brilliant and, if you're interested, I recommend the collection My Sister's Hand in Mine as well as Out in the World, a collection of her letters. Like many persistently blocked writers of fiction, Jane Bowles' output of letters was copious and the letters themselves are pathetic, newsy, incisive, and frequently hilarious. Also essential, for fans, - or anyone interested in the fertile literary and social scenes of New York, Europe, and North Africa after World War II - is Millicent Dillon's sensitive and illuminating biography A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Audacity!

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes." She thought a chilly was something cool as its name imported and she was served with some. "Water," she cried. "For Heavens sake, water!"

From Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

So I've been watching the Democratic National Convention...oh wait, I'm mostly listening to the Democratic National Convention - television ablare while I goof around in the kitchen or scrub out a toilet, or whatever I feel like I need to be doing in a multi-tasking fashion - and I think about the the wonderful title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope and it makes me think about...peppers.

You see, I have two containers of peppers growing in the back deck garden. Here's one.

Looks pretty good, I think. I bought transplants at the nursery for this one. I have a jalepeno, a pimento, a chili red, and a cayenne. The plants have produced steadily all summer, giving me smallish but reliable fruit, and I've been harvesting 3 to 6 peppers a week lately.

Here's the other one.

This one came about in a fashion that can only be described as pretty fast and loose. I planted some seeds in a couple of spare pots and forgot to label them. Then I bought this container and decided to dig up the best looking six plants, put them into the container and hoped for the best.

Well...the nerve! Conventional wisdom says that fruiting plants like peppers should not be started outside because the growing season isn't long enough. So what's going on here? Why are my hussy plants so big and flamboyant? (and productive - after a week or two of heat forced dormancy they are blossoming and fruiting like crazy!)

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the growing season in Georgia is long, probably longer than it used to be, but temperatures reach the 70's in early April and continue to do so until late October and even into November some years. The other thing that appears to be a factor in this flauntish foliage is the type of pot that the larger peppers inhabit. It has a trademarked name but I'm going to call it a self-contained watering system which is a pot that has a resevoir filled with water that the roots grow into instead of soil.

My guess is that this kind of container replicates, for a container plant, some of the same conditions that a really happy "in the ground" plant has. I'd been hearing about these containers for years and had sort of dismissed the plaudits as hyperbole, but I think I'm convinced now. I'd love to retro-fit my existing containers to be self-watering. Does anyone have experience with this?

Here's a typical haul from both pots.

What you see here are a mixture of jalepenos, cayennes, anchos, and hungarian wax peppers. What to do with them? I could chop them up and freeze them for later, but what I feel like doing is making pickled pepppers.

Rinse a good couple of handfuls of peppers.

You could leave them whole but I split and seed them because, in terms of heat, seeds are your wild just never know.

Blanch the peppers in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes and drain. In the meantime simmer together -
3 cups of vinegar - I used a half and half of rice vinegar and white
3 cloves of garlic peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon regular sugar
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teasspoon whole black peppercorns
small onion sliced

Put the peppers into a glass bowl or a very clean (as in, run through the dishwasher or washed in very hot water) glass jar. Pour the vinegar mixture through a strainer into the pepper container.

I put a couple of cayennes into the jar. I also used too big a jar and had to do up some extra vinegar solution so I would recommend really stuffing those peppers into something smaller than a jar that once held spaghetti sauce.

This is not a preserve! These pickled peppers are meant to be refrigerated and eaten within one to three weeks. This is not a hot bath canning recipe so I would recommend discarding the pickles if you haven't finish them within the time period indicated.

Peppers are native to the Americas but they are excellent travellers. They've been embraced and cultivated all over the world ever since Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of what was dubbed at the time Hispaniola. So giving. So delicious. So, dare I say, audacious?

Today's Twist

Vanity Fair
is a much over looked classic. It features an enormously attractive heroine, the very audacious, Becky Sharp. She overcomes many obstacles, time and again, to gain a comfortable place in life. As she is written by Thackeray, she also seems like a classic example of a sociopath. I think industrialization might have set genuis writers like Thackeray and Dickens, his contemporary, toward portraying examples of this sort of unnerving individual. Input? Anyone?
In the quoted scene, Becky has, in the lingo of the time, "set her cap" for Joseph Sedley, a boring and bluff, colonial who has no idea what he is up against.

The pepper served to Becky was probably pickled as the fresh chili pepper was a garden novelty at the time.

Thackeray himself, a product of a family who helped to colonize India, had a propensity toward heat. His love for peppers was well documented and described. He died of a stroke at 53.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do I Dare?

"It was one of those exuberant peaches that meet you halfway, so to speak, and are all over you in a moment. "

from - The Talking-Out of Tarrington by Saki

We have a peach tree in our back yard. It came with the house and it sits at the very back and under a good bit of shade. I don't know how old it is but my guess is..old. One thing that we like about this neighborhood is the old growth trees and the shade and beauty that they provide. I want to think that whoever planted the peach tree did it years and years and years ago before the other trees around it grew so tall. Peach trees need full sun and ours isn't getting it.

Still, this valiant tree bears a lot of fruit every year. The problem is that as the fruit grows it starts developing rusty brown spots. The spots actually look very pretty against the blushed yellow of the fruit, but even I, in all my neophytness, know that they shouldn't be there. The little bit of research that I've done indicates that this might be some sort of virus and that there isn't much to be done. Of course, this brings out all my stubbornness of which, believe me, there is an almost inexhaustible store. I want to save this tree, I dare? I wonder if I would be taking on more than my still slim knowledge and skills can supply. In the spring I did prune out some water sprouts and cut away some of the wisteria and rambling rose vines that had invaded. The tree seems happier but I know that this isn't enough.

In the meantime, the squirrels love the ( fallen) peaches and I love the flowers. In the spring, it seems that you just look away, and when you turn back around more blossoms have burst out of the air and settled onto the branches, each one a visible promise which fulfilled or not, provides a moment of pure pleasure.

Georgia, in spite of its moniker "The Peach State" doesn't supply the best conditions for growing peaches. Most fruit trees need a yearly dormancy period and our winters just don't stay cool enough for long enough to supply it. Still, something went right this year because the local peaches were wonderful. I bought bags and bags of them from the farmers markets.

I wound up freezing most of them.

The ill fate of much of what I've frozen in the past is almost too sad to contemplate, but happily, the freezing of the peaches coincided with a new purchase.

I was standing in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store. All I wanted was some vanilla ice cream for a dinner party and I was trying to decide between the most local product (Tennessee) versus the product with the least unpronounceable ingredients (California). I kept picking up cartons, studying the label and putting them back, Opening doors and closing them. Arcticish air swirled around me and I saw that I was drawing glances from other shoppers who I decided were probably annoyed that I was compromising the quality of their own frozen treats by selfishly opening and closing and opening and closing the freezer.

"I should just buy an ice cream maker," I thought.

Well... I've fallen in love. My darling machine churns up a quart of ice cream in no time and that's just enough for a smallish dinner party or for Lola and I to dip into through the week. I've made delicious lime sherbets and a wonderful watermelon sorbet, but the best has been the peach ice cream.

Wait! There's some now.

Rita likes the extra mint garnish, but I like the chunks of peaches I add in at the last second of churning.

I've been using the recipe that came with the ice cream maker. It's delicious, but it's cream based, not custard based, and so has a sort of lingering fatiness on the tongue which I've dubbed the "smackiness factor". What I discovered with this last batch is that a tablespoon of alcohol not only cuts through some of that but also smooths the texture. I used amaretto and I swear that the faint almond accent brings out the "peachiness".

Mmmm. It's all over me.

Today's twist

The post heading comes, of course, from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot a brilliant work with which I have many problems.

"Saki" is the pen name of Hector Hugh ( H. H.) Munro who was active as a writer of mordant, yet insightful, short stories in the years prior to World War I, roughly 1902-1908. He is considered by many (myself included) as one of the masters of the form. His stories often feature an aristocratic smart-ass whose target is either a conventional stuffed-shirt or some social- climbing parvenu. The speaker of the quote is the imperturbable Clovis Sangrail, a louche, yet lively-minded, young man-about-town. In the story, he effortlessly exhausts, via conversational derailment, the plentiful reserves of flattery and specious connection that the famously boring Tarrington attempts to employ.

With the start of WWI, Munro enlisted in the army. At 43 he was well over enlistment age. He was accepted. He qualified for a commission, due to his aristocratic family connections, but he refused it and became, basically, an ordinary soldier.

Clovis, in the stories does not suffer fools, and neither, I think did Munro. He was killed in a crater trench by a German sniper. His last words are reported to be "Put out that damn cigarette!"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tomato Revelations

Hence it was not unnatural that Mr. Mannering while in his bath should be full of the most exalted visions of the blossoming of his heart's darling, his vegetable godchild.

"Green Thoughts" by John Collier

If anyone had told me five years ago that I would become an avid gardener, I would have laughed. A lot. I used to mention my inability to grow plants in the same off-hand manner that some people mention that they don't cook, as a bald statement of fact followed by the unspoken question "and why would I want to?" Unlike the non-cooks though, I've always been interested in cooking (and eating!) and dedicated to good ingredients. I suppose it was inevitable that my passion for food would eventually lead me to the garden.

My moment came about seven years ago when Lola and I made our first visit to the Morningside Farmers Market. One of the farmers was selling the weirdest looking tomatoes I'd ever seen. They were dark brownish-purple and lumpy as hell, but they had an off-beat charisma and I knew I had to have some. The farmer told me that they were Black Krims, an heirloom, and that the flavor would knock me out. I didn't know anything about heirloom tomatoes at the time, but his enthusiasm convinced me to buy a bag. Later, after tasting one, my only regret was that I hadn't bought more. Like all he had. The essence of "tomatoness" burst through my mouth with each bite. It was ravishing and I was suddenly aware of a tiny thought, an alien thought.

"Maybe I could grow something like this."

I kept buying at the farmers markets, but put off gardening. We were living in a rented house with an uninviting back yard that got maybe two minutes of full sun a day. Three years ago, we bought a house in Decatur and one afternoon I looked out at the large, gloriously sunlit back deck. I smiled. Desire, long nurtured, had finally found its home.

I think I'm finally starting to get some things right. I started out the first year with two tomato plants in five gallon paint buckets and a single pepper plant. Nothing did very well, but I was as proud and pleased as any new parent with my scanty yield. The next year, I added more plants and used bigger pots, especially for the tomatoes. This year I had a spring garden (peas and lettuce mostly) which did well, but the summer garden is really taking off. Take a look.

Here's another angle.

And an arial view.

Now, I can't imagine ever living in a place where I couldn't grow something. That Black Krim tomato opened a door for me into a vital part of my spirit.

Today's twist -

The name of this blog is borrowed from a short story by John Collier, as is the quote at the top of the post. John Collier was a British author active in the 1930's through the 1950's. He began his literary career as a poet, but he's best known for his fantasy-tinged short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker. In later years, he worked as a screen writer in Hollywood sharing writing credits, most notably, for The African Queen and Sylvia Scarlett.

He was nothing if not modest about his talents. "I sometimes marvel," he said. "That a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer." I think he sold himself short. Or perhaps he was deploying the same sly wit that makes his short stories so delicious. I'm a huge fan of his collection Fancies and Good Night and I devour it anew at least once a year. By the way, the story "Green Thoughts" concerns an orchid enthusiast whose passion becomes his undoing. So far, my gardening passion has brought me some frustration, but mainly pleasure as, I trust, has yours.