Archive for September 2009

hitting refresh

September 9, 2009

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I started working for a summer opera festival while still in college, and have organized my professional life around this summer idyll—if such an intense period can be properly called an idyll—ever since. So I’ve never lost touch with the back-to-school feeling; September, much more than the new calendar year, always feels like a fresh beginning to me.

Over the past few days, I’ve been emptying and scrubbing closets and cabinets. You have to be in the right frame of mind for such a task. The rules vary according to the object—a bag of dried chiles is one thing, a blazer another—but if it has gone unused for too long, whatever that is, it has to go.

Unless it can be used immediately. Saturday I found lots of half-bags dried fruits and nuts, plus a half-can of oats, so I made granola. The basic technique comes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the idea of using some olive oil comes from something I read in the New York Times, the ingredients and proportions were dictated by my pantry, and the seasoning… well, that was just me.

Savory-sweet granola

1. Toast a scant cup of steel-cut oats in a baking pan set over two stove burners.

2. Once they begin to color, add 2 cups slivered almonds and 1 cup walnut pieces. Stir until these color as well.

3. Mix together about a tablespoon each of honey and olive oil, then drizzle over nut mixture.

4. Lightly crush about 2 tablespoons fresh dried coriander, and distribute this, along with some salt, over the nut mixture.

5. Combine so that nuts and oats are slightly sticky all over. Hands are the best way to accomplish this.

6. Bake in a 300-degree oven for 20 minutes.

7. Stir in about 2 cups of random dried fruit (I had cranberries, cherries, golden raisins) and several grinds of black pepper. Taste—maybe a little more salt? pepper?

8. Let cool in pan, stirring occasionally.

Fall cleaning is one way of marking the change of season. The Cherry Valley Harvest Party is another. And since it’s a potluck, it’s yet another opportunity to rid yourself of some excess. It’s tricky, though. Decluttering your garden for a potluck does not offer the easy virtue of packing up your unwanted stuff for Goodwill. For Goodwill, not only is the donator (of Dan Brown novels bought in an airport, of rayon dresses with colossal shoulder pads) anonymous, the recipients are theoretical: someone will surely be very glad for that coat with the enormous lapels. Surely.

At a potluck, no one is anonymous.  It is a performance, and for your neighbors—those who have always had their doubts about you, anyway, as well as those who have shown you so much kindness and generosity that if you sacrificed your few non-blighted tomatoes, it still wouldn’t be enough. If you’re going to get rid of squash in this forum, it better be good.

 Potluck Pasta Salad 

1. Pick all the summer squash that are ready to be picked (this year I have green scallop, along with the regular oblong yellow). Slice, salt, and sauté in olive oil. You only want one layer in the skillet, so you will probably need to do this in several batches. As you remove each batch, place in a bowl and tear lots of fresh basil on top. Continue layering warm squash and basil.

2. Start some water boiling for pasta. Put in a handful of peeled cloves of garlic, as well as some salt. When the water comes to a full boil, fish out the garlic cloves and throw in the pasta. The pasta shapes should be about the same size as the squash pieces.

3. Chop the garlic roughly, then use a fork and some salt to mash to a paste. Scrape into the bowl with the squash and basil. (If you like your garlic extremely pungent, use it fresh, without boiling. If you want it even more mellow, you can leave it to boil with the pasta… good luck finding it, though.)

4. Drain pasta. Add to bowl. Give it a stir. If everything isn’t nice and shiny, add a little more olive oil.

5. I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but I have a nifty pot with a strainer that fits right inside. So I can lift out the pasta and keep the boiling water for the next step. OR you could just start boiling the corn water at some earlier point. OR you could put another pot under the colander when you dump the pasta…. in any case, throw a few ears of fresh sweet corn into salted boiling water, then let it come back to a boil, then drain. When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels and add them to the bowl.

6. Stir, taste, adjust. If your party is tomorrow, put it in the fridge. If it’s in a few hours, leave, covered, on the counter.

7. Just before leaving the house, give the dish another stir, and taste. Do what needs to be done. The basil will have fully infused the squash by now. It will also be wilted and blackish, so add some more fresh green leaves, along with some crumbled feta.000_0920

When I dropped off my stuff at the Herkimer Goodwill, the guy accepting it shook his head. “I don’t know how people do it.” To my mute question, he replied, “Give away books.” Yeah, I don’t know either. For a moment I found myself rethinking my choices—but then I walked away. I had that same flash of the hoarder’s instinct when I tasted the squash—but then I picked up my Pyrex and off I went. Turns out that between the barbeque and the beets and the brownies, I didn’t even have room for my little masterpiece on my plate. And I didn’t miss it one bit. Let the new year begin—I got everything I need!

monday evening

September 8, 2009

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undaunted

September 8, 2009

000_0923I pulled up this plant a month ago… it’s STILL producing!

transitions

September 4, 2009

After a summer of being pulled in many directions, I’ve finally had the luxury of spending a week mostly at home. And after months of yearning for some relaxed time to putter in the garden and kitchen, I suddenly found myself craving foods some distance from the ground. I made macaroni and cheese (more than once). I enjoyed assorted pastries at the coffee shop. Coconut shrimp. Grilled cheese with bacon. An ice-cream sandwich with neon green mint filling.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, at least once in awhile. But what of my beloved garden? Was I just getting bored? (It is, after all, the season of squash…)

I think it’s actually something more complicated, something not unlike the semi-conscious self-protective distancing that can come to summer romances when participants fear a terrific new habit of being will not survive the winter. I know, of course, that I can maintain some contact with my soil in the cold months ahead—there will be shell beans and potatoes and winter squash, and if I get my act together there will be a freezer full of pesto, gleaming jars of beets, and who knows what else. But there will be no more lettuce growing outside my kitchen window. I’ll have to find my elbows and learn to shop at Fairway again. This is not a bad thing, but it is a little sad. As all transitions can be.

But why anticipate the chill ahead? Yesterday evening I determined to devote myself to the garden, and what began as mere duty immediately felt both comfortable and thrilling.

Time to bring in the coriander.000_0904

The green beans don’t produce much anymore, but I’ve left the plants because they provide an occasional slim, sun-warmed pod for snacking. As for the shell beans, there are dried pods on just a few of the plants, but I went ahead and brought those in, too. Starting the bean-bowls makes me feel better about the winter ahead.000_0905

Brussels sprouts still aren’t ready, but they’re fun to monitor.000_0899

The beets and carrots are thriving, but they can be left for later. The squash, on the other hand, cannot. I grilled a pile of them in the shadow the sunflowers, which are finally coming into their own, then layered them, warm, with lots of basil and a feathery fennel-tasting leaf that is part of my patch of salad greens.000_0908

Summer is on its way out, to be sure, but all the more reason to fully embrace its last days.000_0888

first shell beans

September 4, 2009

I don’t know if garden hygiene is more of problem this year, what with all the damp, or whether I’m just more alert to it. In any case, last week I walked out and saw one of my cranberry bean plants beginning to collapse upon itself, so I pulled it up immediately.

Shell beans are a blessing for the gardener who wants to extend her home-grown eating over the long, cold winter. Not only are they delicious and versatile, they require almost no processing. Thus, it feels a bit like cheating your own future to eat them in full summer, before they’ve had a chance to dry out.  Best to make the most of it!

The beans made one layer on the bottom of my saucepan. I poured in enough olive oil to just cover them, then added a splash of white wine. Also three large cloves of garlic, roughly chopped. And laid a few branches of thyme on top. Then I covered the pot, turned the burner to the lowest heat possible, and left them for a little over an hour. I think of it as sort of a bean confit.

While the beans cooked, naturally, I made bread. Because I was not just having a bowl of beans for dinner, I was having a bowl of beans and olive oil, and an appropriate vehicle was needed to convey that delicious shiny stuff to my mouth.

This super-rich bean preparation cries out for a hit of lemon zest & juice before serving, but I didn’t have a lemon. I did, however, have a handful of cherry tomatoes. I placed them on top of the beans, rolled them about so they were covered all over with the now unbearably fragrant oil, then replaced the lid and let them soften. All in all, I probably let them sweat for about half an hour, occasionally rolling them so that a different surface sat in the oil. They promised to be delicious, but not particularly effective at cutting the richness. A handful of peppery old arugula solved that problem just fine.000_0882

improvised capers

September 3, 2009

I was in need of something sharp-flavored to perk up yet another plate of squash…. and craving olives. But not craving them enough to make the trek into Cooperstown. Hmm.

It is well-known among the kind of people that know such things that pickled nasturtium buds can serve as a substitute for capers. My plants were mostly past the bud state, alas. However, some of them had proceeded past the flowers into fruit.

I know I sometimes go overboard with my anthropomorphic descriptions of plants, but these little seed sacs…. well, I’ll just post a picture of a pair and leave it at that.000_0893

I’ve never read or heard anything about eating nasturtium fruits, so I tried one raw. Kind of sharp and watercressy–seemed worth sacrificing a bit of vinegar on an experiment. I brought some to a boil, added a little honey and a lot of salt, then threw in the little green fruits, which are about the size of a pea. After steeping for a bit, they tasted pretty good. Not as distinctly caper-y as the buds (I did have a few of those), but they made an interesting enough contrast with the smooth, bland squash.000_0895