Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Squash and Chili Peppers Bisque

I cooked Christmas dinner for six this year. On the menu: mustard-seed-crusted prime rib roast with roasted balsamic onions and horseradish/mustard/creme fraiche sauce—terrific!. Thanks, Epicurious; steamed broccoli with lemon and butter; baked yellow potatoes, and, in my opinion, the star of the show, this squash/pepper soup.
Loads of roasted green and red chilies, chipotles and  jalapenos combined with butternut squash make a savory bisque topped with a dollop of sour cream, roasted conquistador peppers, and a drizzle of reduced balsamic.

I searched the Web for a recipe, and found several that combined winter squash and peppers. But alas, they were all wimpy. Not enough peppers. Not enough heat or flavor. I had to have a roasted-pepper-heavy dish on the menu because one of our guests recently bestowed upon us a pepper roaster, a hand-cranked unit that blasts the rotating peppers with gas flame. We wanted to demonstrate our gratitude by including a dish dripping with flavor and loaded loaded with roasted peppers. 
PK is roasting Big Jim — New Mexico-type peppers. If only you could smell the pepper perfume!
So I improvised on a squash bisque I've made several times (including for our fundraising farm dinner in September). Before I get to the recipe, I must mention a couple other items on the holiday table: chipotle sauce and PK's ground pepper flakes—our ever-present condiments.  
From left to right: serrano, cayenne, anza, jalapeno, and up top, Italian hot.
PK grinds  his dried peppers  separately then blends them.
We garden together, but the peppers? HIS. His alone.

This is a block of frozen mostly green roasted chilies weighing about 10 ounces.
I added  it, partially thawed,  early in the soup prep. 
Other soup ingredients. Those little black things in the front are chipotles.
Conquistador peppers are in the bag, serrano sauce in the pint jar, jalapenos in the bowl. 
Winter Squash and Chili Peppers Bisque
1 whole butternut or other winter squash - about 3 pounds
1 medium to large onion, minced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
2-4 jalapeno peppers, seeded, minced
3 T butter
32-48 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth or stock
1 1/2 cups half and half or heavy cream (go for the heavy cream!)
1/4 - 1/2 cup serrano sauce (more about this later)
8-12 ounces of roasted green and/or red chili peppers
6-8 ounces of roasted red chili peppers (may substitute sweet), sliced 
2-3 dried chipotle peppers
2 tsp sea or kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1-2 tsp. ground cumin
1 T honey (optional)

Bake the squash whole in advance at 350 for 60-80 minutes, or until a knife inserts easily into the most dense part. Poke with a knife a couple times before baking to prevent a squash-festooned oven. After the squash cools, it's easy to scoop out the seeds, peel it, and break into large pieces. You can refrigerate the cooked squash for a few days before using, or freeze it. 
Early stage of soup prep. Veggies have been sauteed, squash, broth, seasonings and chipotles added,
but the immersion blender has not been summoned.
In a stockpot over medium heat, saute minced onion, garlic, celery, and jalapeno in butter until golden. Use a food processor to do the heavy mincing. Add the roasted squash to the pot along with the whole dried chipotle peppers, the serrano (or Tabasco) sauce and the veggie or chicken broth. Reserve some broth to adjust thickness later. Cook for about 15 minutes til the chipotles begin to soften. Add salt, pepper, cumin and honey, if desired. If your squash is super sweet, you can skip the honey. But if you use serrano sauce, it's good to add a bit of sweetness to balance the vinegar in the sauce.

Now you have a big decision: to remove the softened chipotles or not? I removed them, but next time I won't.  Cooking the chipotle early in the soup prep and removing it before blending adds a whiff of chipotle flavor. Blending chipotles with the other ingredients would pack a more flavorful wallop. I like those wallops. Make sure your chipotles are stemless. It's OK if they have seeds. Need more info about chipotles? (Link includes a recipe for chipotle sauce.)

Now that everything is cooked, grab your immersion blender or a heavy-duty food processor. Immersion blenders are inexpensive and SO much more convenient in this circumstance. Blend ingredients right in the pot and add seasoning to taste. (serrano sauce, salt, etc.) 
When you're about ready to serve, stir in the cream, either half and half or heavy cream. You could even add sour cream. Once the cream is added, no more boiling. Place generous amounts of slivered roasted red peppers on top, along with a dollop of sour cream or chipotle sauce, if desired.
This soup is good for a few days refrigerated, and it freezes well for several months. 

I'm so fortunate to have all these peppers in my pantry or freezer—and for a couple months, in the garden. If you're not partners with a pepper maniac, you have other options:
OK. So you don't have him.
Some options if you lack listed ingredients:
  • Roasted whole green chilies: Readily available in most groceries. For this recipe, you'll need 2 or 3  cans, minimum. 
  • Serrano sauce: If you have access to fresh serrano peppers, consider making your own, or you could use a good quality hot salsa. We live in the sticks, so the concept of purchasing serrano sauce locally is remote. It's likely available in urban areas, and may definitely be purchased online. You may also substitute tabasco-type sauces, but in quiet careful amounts.
  • Canning serrano sauce. Pungent and delicious aromas and months
    of tangy summer-tasting goodness.
  • Chiptole peppers: These dried and smoked jalapenos are available at stores that have well-stocked Mexican food departments. 
  • Jalapenos: I seed and slice jalapenos to freeze as we have multitudes in the garden. I wish we had more! Grocery store jalapenos are green and available year round. They're ok, but red are way better. Remove the seeds, unless you're after big heat. They're usually not very hot sans seeds, but even then, they add deep peppery flavor.

This is a terrific soup, which with quesadillas or another Mexican-themed side dish and a green salad, could easily make a company-worthy vegetarian meal. Go for it!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time is .... too short.

My mother, LaVone Strube, in late 1916.
In response to Facebook birthday greetings on the occasion of my 67th freaking birthday,  I posted something like "another year down the drain" in addition to acknowledging that I had an outstanding year. Well wishers shot back au contraire comments such as:
  • Down the Drain?? I prefer to look at it as "Another EPIC year filled with amazing times with family and friends, music and art, great food and wine, in the most beautiful part of the world.
  • Not down the drain; in the treasure chest of memories!
  • We only have now. Live, love, and grow.
I can't argue with any of these sentiments. It WAS an epic year. I DO have a treasure chest of memories. I AM acutely aware that we only have NOW and not to waste a moment—to live, love, and grow.

But I'm not retracting the "down the drain" comment. Where does time go? Well, it doesn't go anywhere. The present just IS, and the past just ISN'T. It hurts my head and my heart to think about Time—with a capital T, which is something I've been doing since I turned 17 and saw my sweet 16th year vanish like the stupid tears I cried over my lost youth.

I continue to work through this issue, which is to be present in every moment, to enjoy the gift of life. I can't believe I've waded into this subject and keep getting dragged further into my own doubts, fears, internal conflicts, and cosmic questions. It's pathetic, really, to continue to grapple with the mystery of time. What's the point? The truth is I can't help myself.

Here's what I know. When I'm living in the present, time doesn't exist. I think that's true for most people. When I'm writing, gardening, dancing, doing yoga, and am engaged in life, the hours evaporate. Where have those seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries gone? I get the sense that they converge into a whirlpool that circles somewhere in the universe and evaporate without ceremony. One thing I believe is true: the universe is cold and uncaring about us poor little people clinging to our moments.
My parents, Floyd and LaVone Strube, when they were young and beautiful newlyweds in 1936. He died at age 93. 

This morning I was with my mother, LaVone, who was 96 on January 1st. I followed her with a wheelchair as she used her walker to navigate the hallways at her assisted living home. She can shuffle along for 50 steps or so before she has to rest in her chair. Then we talk as she gathers strength for the next 50 steps. She shook her head and said with a wry smile, "I am still your perky mother, but I can't  believe I'm so old. I can't believe I'm in a wheelchair." She pointed to her ears, which have failed her, and her eyes, which are going fast. "I never thought I'd be like this," she tells me.

But she doesn't complain. LaVone and I don't discuss time in any way other than personal linear measurements. Her life, my life, the lives of our loved ones. We're born, move forward in time, then we die. In the scope of the universe, and with all those colliding protons driving physicists to distraction, our individual lives mean little or nothing .
As we grow older, we realize, gut level, that life won't last forever, but we cling to it anyway, grasping at seconds.

My toddler grandson has no concept of Time, and is the perfect model for Be Here Now. The Moment is all he knows, and all he needs to know. Too bad he'll forget it before he rediscovers, like my mother, that the present is all we have.  

LaVone and great-grandson Noah in late 2011. She's almost 96. He'll be two in June. 
I did a little research into time. Turns out that, surprise!, it's been a hot topic  throughout the ages, debated and dissected by religious practitioners, philosophers, scientists, and everyday people. Basically, it boils down to the linear view or the circular view. Christians, Jews, and Muslims tend toward the linear. (Can you believe we all seem to agree on something!?) Time has a beginning and an end. Eastern religions tend toward the circular. Time repeats.

Whatever. I'll go with the It's a Beautiful Day lyrics to their great song, Time Is, which starts like this:
Time is too slow for those who wait
And time is too swift for those who fear
Time is too long for those who grieve
And time is too short for those that laugh.
I have so many memories about that song. But the dominant one is the last: My father died in November 2006, and in March 2007, I took my mother on a Princess cruise, a first for us both. I loved being on a ship that was plunging through deep troughs. One sunny but windy afternoon I plugged into my iPod and walked/trotted around the deck. Time Is came on and I began to run and leap with ocean spray in my face and the ship bucking and diving. Time is too short for those that laugh.
Keep on laughing, and don't think too much about those fleeting but precious moments between when you exist and when you don't.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Dark Season

A typical scene the past couple months. The fog is dense in the morning but gives way to sunny skies.
This winter, so far, has not been too oppressive—except for the usual dim light and more cold. Less light is the biggest problem. We're on the countdown to the winter solstice, and then we'll be on the upswing, which has an amazingly positive effect. The days keep getting longer!
It doesn't seem right that dark arrives by 5 p.m. or that live plants languish for several months awaiting longer days to begin their comebacks. People too must stage comebacks from winter, and some folks have a hard time figuring out how to do that. Me?
Not that I don't suffer, but here's my list of fixes for winter's mental/emotional doldrums:

  • Cook comfort food, and eat a lot of it. This is easy for me, except for the 5-pound gain over the typical winter.
  • Sleep more, 
  • Take long walks. Don't worry about the weather, just dress for it.
  • Do yoga two or three times a week.
  • If you have time, volunteer to help those whose lives you can't even imagine. If you can't volunteer, give money. If you can't give money, be grateful. And forgive.
  • Listen to your favorite music and dance, dance, dance all by yourself, if necessary.
  • Have weekly "dates" with your partner. Use your imagination.

We've had just a couple rainy episodes so far this winter and a few weeks thus far of what passes for cold in this part of the world, which is well above zero. This "cold" is shirtsleeve weather in Minot, ND, where I grew up. But still, it is not conducive to growing veggies or knocking about outdoors in scanty attire.
Although I do notice, since I've developed a fishing frame of mind, that fishing goes on regardless, and fishing people seem to wear stupid stuff like jeans when they're in drift boats or on river banks. I'm buying my first year-round fishing license in early 2012 and I'm sure I'll develop a suitable wardrobe for dragging aboard salmon, steelhead. No doubt there'll be a lot of interest in my fishing outfit suggestions. (!)
Sheet composting garden refuse in the pasture.
Life isn't entirely dull. The bird life is diminished, but we still see lots of avian activity. A pair of handsome red shouldered hawks have taken up residence,  and we see them skimming the pasture and hunting from atop irrigation stand pipes. The crows are huge and industrious, scrounging beneath bird feeders and apple trees. I covered newly planted leeks with wire mesh to keep the birds from digging up the bulbs, but the towhees are relentless and have actually lifted the wire screen to get at the bulbs. We'll see what comes up in the spring. Also, the finches continue to decimate the unprotected chard. More power to them. Gotta love a bird that enjoys salad, even when it's frozen.

The greens-loving finches have laid waste to the unprotected chard.
I was saddened today to see a finch dead on top of the cold frame. Birds fly into our windows and self destruct year round, but casualties seem more common during winter.  Perhaps they're tempted by all the houseplant greenery and flowers inside.

We've gone to considerable trouble to repel deer from our garden and orchard in all seasons. They're maddeningly destructive. Before we installed a massive deer fence, I was prepared to sleep outside with a glinting blade to stab the ones that gouged tomatoes and trampled entire corn plants. But now I kinda like seeing deer, from afar, of course.  I didn't like seeing this specimen, however.
Despite the fact that he would have gleefully destroyed our garden, given the chance, I'm sorry for this young buck. He was probably hit on the highway, then somehow managed to drag his mutilated self 60 yards or so  to die in the drainage ditch on our property. The ditch was then full of water, and there his body stayed until the water receded and we had to deal with grim reality. There's nobody to pick up road kill on a private road. A neighbor with a road grader solicits an annual fee and maintains the road, but scraping up dead animals is not part of his deal. PK enlisted my aid (mostly unnecessary, as luck would have it) to relocate the carcass. He's way more equipped than I am physically and psychically to deal with blood and guts and decay. 
There goes the buck for  burial in the back of our property.
We'll wait until a neighbor with a backhoe can dig the sizable hole required. 
In the meantime, to keep our spirits from flagging, spinach and lettuce seedlings are inching upwards  in the cold frame, as are a couple of leftover-from-summer chard plants. December and January are super slow-growth months,
but we should be back to using our own greens by February.
The winter solstice approaches, and after that, the days grow longer and maybe we'll have enough snow to get into the mountains with our sliding devices. One day PK and I may join the snowbirds who flee northern winters. For now we're hanging in, looking at spring gardening catalogs and preparing for forays into the mountains with skis, boards, friends, pent-up energy and plenty of southern Oregon vino.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Southwest Turkey Stew

Southwest turkey stew topped with a drizzle of serrano sauce and a chiptole pepper on the side. 
I'm not sure the difference between soup and stew. I think because this dish requires boiling a turkey carcass with onions, garlic, and celery, it qualifies as "stew." Also, it is more substantial than I think of soup as being. Whatever. It is fabulous. As always in my menu suggestions, improvise with what you have on hand. Let's start with a turkey carcass,

Making turkey stock—the base for any great turkey soup, stew, or gravy.
Plunk that carcass and leftover drumsticks, wings, or whatever into a large stock pot. Do NOT cover with water, but add about 3 or 4 inches of water, one large cut-into-eights onion, several stocks of rinsed and quartered celery, four large cloves of quartered garlic. (If you're making a turkey soup NOT leaning toward the southwest, add rosemary and thyme to the stock pot.)
Cover the pot and boil. Turn the bones a few times. After about an hour, turn off the heat and remove the solids to a colander over a pan to catch the drippings. When the carcass is cool enough to handle, strip the meat from the bones and discard stuff you wouldn't want to eat: gristle, fat, bones, slime, etc. Drain all the juices back into the stock pot. Set the meat aside. Discard the large chunks of celery and onion. Mash the garlic cloves.

SW turkey soup ingredients - serves four to six
One to one-half carton chicken broth
2-3 cans diced green chilies (I have the luxury of chilies (frozen) from the garden. )
1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can corn, drained
1 can green enchilada sauce (larger size)
1 cup brown basmati rice, added about 45 minutes before you want to eat (or other rice)
1 qt. pkg. frozen green beans, cut into 1/2 inch lengths (great way to use your frozen produce)
1 can (about 8 ounces) El Pato salsa de chili fresco. (Or use leftover prepared salsa or pepper sauce)
3-4 whole dried chipotle peppers (available at markets catering to Hispanic palates, or upscale markets in cities, or maybe you're lucky enough to have your own.)
serrano (or other moderate pepper sauce) to taste
smoked salt to taste

Cook until rice is done and beans are tender. Add turkey to heat through. Taste and add smoked salt if needed. Serve with chipotle sauce or sour cream mixed with salsa or serrano sauce on the side. The chipotles cooked with this dish are meant as flavoring. They lend a great smoky peppery taste, not necessarily hot. But eating one is another story. Consume at your own risk!

The BEST quesadillas
One tortilla per person:
1 hand-made style corn tortilla from La Tortilla Factory
grated cheddar or other cheese
cut-up jalapeno or sweet pepper
cut-up sweet onion
good quality salsa or pepper sauce
cilantro for garnish

Pre heat oven to 350
Use a pizza pan, one with holes, if possible. Smear tortillas with salsa or pepper sauce. Sprinkle tortillas with cut up onions, peppers, and cheese.
Heat in oven for 10-12 minutes or until cheese is melted and onions are fragrant.
Top with cilantro, if using.
Cut into quarters. Don't fight over them!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving—Can We Make the Moment Last?

We're a ridiculously festive group at Thanksgiving.  But could we have this much fun every week or two? 
Steve Lambros photo.
Just before turkey day, I met a Columbian woman at an upscale women's consignment shop.  Somebody wished me a happy Thanksgiving, and I responded enthusiastically. The Columbian overheard my gushing and wanted more info. I told her that my family and friends were planning three days, three nights at a remote rented ranch in Southern Oregon, where we would endlessly feast, play games, and party. This got her attention.
Fine-feathered Ferron presents his fabulous fowl.
Steve Lambros photo.
This is what we do in Columbia! she exclaimed. Except we do this every week, not just for special occasions! Upon questioning, it came pouring out that Colombians, at least in her family, live differently than we do. They start work between 8 and 9 a.m., retreat for several hours in the afternoon, return to work around 5 or 6 p.m. and stay til 9 p.m., then they go out for dinner! Families congregate to feast and party most every weekend. The culture, she told me, is geared to the notion that life revolves around family and friends, not around work. Kids are included, and so are old people.
Spirited game of pole bangin' ensues while another group plays baci ball during Thanksgiving weekend.
Steve Lambros photo.
We work to LIVE! Not live to WORK like you Americans!
She said that numerous family members migrated to the USA to attend top-flight universities, but returned with advanced degrees to gratefully live and work in Columbia to be near their families and resume their "work to live" family-centered lifestyles.
You people are crazy! she said. Way too much work without enough enjoyment. She also related, after my questioning, that old people are cared for within the family. Old people don't live alone, and we don't have those retirement homes! she sputtered.
So. I have just returned from that three-day Thanksgiving celebration, which was as wonderful as anticipated. As one of the "family" wrote:
I am always in awe of the unscripted synergy and harmony of this group of diverse, single-minded, creative, intelligent, philosophically quizzical, spiritually hungry and purposeful livers of life. . . .From the bounty of the barnyard, gardens, river and culinary inspiration of the chefs, the endless varietals (homegrown especially) and brews to be enjoyed, the innumerable dance moves (and lack thereof...) to the seamless prep and unscripted cleanup teams, this annual gathering is AMAZING!!!!!!
Ok. There's no question that Thanksgiving is fabulous in general and especially for this group. But could we celebrate in like fashion every week or so?
Yes. We could.
But does the fact that we can't due to geographic distance and obligations mean that our priorities are screwed up and we are living to work not working to live?
I believe that we, and another 20 or so friends and family who were not present, are tuned in to the way of life described by the Columbian. Not that a lot isn't screwed up in the USA. 
We who are retired, or close to it, live a different reality than our kids. We're at least financially stable. We have health insurance. We have pensions and promise that we won't be destitute in our dotage. We have worked hard for decades, but don't feel it's been in vain. 
Our youthful family and friends have no such assurances in a hyper-competitive work culture where job benefits disappear as jobs migrate out of the country. However! They're better off than many of us were at their age. Our two sons certainly are way farther ahead of the game than PK and I were around age 30. The young people we know are fortunate, for sure.
 Mother and son dance action in an accidental triple exposure. Party down!
I'm sure the Columbian idealizes her culture. But I'm also sure she doesn't realize that many of us in the crass and work-crazed USA  have forged friendships and families to ensure that Thanksgiving isn't an oasis as much as a model for multiple gatherings throughout the year. Not every week, perhaps, but we're already planning for the next great time. Our young people can't join us as often as we'd like, because they do have to work and raise their kids and so on—and they live too far away—but I'm confident that we're setting a great example for how to proceed once roots are established and a foundation is set.
Acting goofy on a hike in the hills around Whisper Canyon Ranch, Thanksgiving 2011..
 All I can say is that when I gave thanks at Thanksgiving, I really meant it. And on and on it goes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Old friends..... like bookends

Here were are with some of our "old" friends after a spring Rogue River trip in 2008 (PK and me on the far right). Some of us are getting grey around the gills, long of tooth, and short on synapse. I'm not naming names, except for me. Our kids are grown and gone, many of us are grandparents, and we're advancing reluctantly into the next stage.
Do you remember this great Simon and Garfunkel song?
Old friends, old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends A newspaper blowin' through the grass, Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends . . .[ Ls from: http://www.l Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a parkbench quietly?  How terribly strange to be seventy. Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears
When I first heard that song (and wept) I was just 20-something living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my best friend was Marcy. I imagined the two of us as crones in voile dresses with wispy hair staring down the specter of 70. And here we are, lookin' at it.  Marcy lives not far away, although I rarely see her, but I remember and value the intensity of our youthful alliance. I dare say that neither one of us considers ourselves "old." Marcy has developed an incredibly creative life and business, and I can't imagine that she's obsessing about old age. Or is she?

When you enter into a friendship, you never know where it will lead or how long it will last. PK and I have lived for nearly four decades in the same spot (except for 4 years when we  defected to a nearby town to spare our youngest kid the local high school.) Anyway, we've been rooted in rural Southern Oregon since 1973. We didn't mean to stay, and were, in fact, planning an adventure to South America, but baby Quinn! came along, then jobs and entanglements, then baby Chris! and lo, 38 years passed. Thirty-eight years.

When you're young, you have no idea how this can happen, and probably don't believe it will. But it does, in an appalling flash, and the days and months and years form a dark distant cloud to which you have limited access. You look into the mirror, into your photo archives, and the faces of your adult children and say, What?! 

Except, of course, if you have had the same friends for nearly 40 years, and maybe even a few going back to high school, and you can sit around like old-timers and rehash the shared memories of when you were young, your kids were small, or maybe before you had them, or when you did this or that river trip or camping excursion, or when you shared meals and games and adventures that helped to shape the kids into who they are today. And also you into who you are today—we're all still works in progress.

Our now-adult children are amazing, of course. Even kids who have struggled share rich common experiences that helped to lift them into adulthood. I recognize that PK and I and our two sons have been incredibly fortunate to have long-term family friendships and live on the edge of so much accessible wilderness and a piece of land that has fed and sustained us through many seasons.

But there's more to old friendships than reveling in those great times. There's the going forward together, whether we want to or not, and honoring in one another the inevitability of gray hair and wrinkles and, dare I say it? physical decline and maybe even cognitive lapses.
 Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.
There's the continued joy in sharing with one another our adult children's lives and the sweetness of grandchildren, as well as the maturation of our friendships. Same goes for our childless friends. We're all sharing now the transition from middle age to seniorhood, and for me, frankly,  it sucks.
I'm adjusting to this inevitability with my old friends. We're all in various stages of denial and acceptance, and riding our bikes, walking our butts, and doing yoga like crazy. We'll stave this off, right?!

I never thought I'd be here, climbing the hill to 70. Or is that descending the hill? Of course it is descending. I need to stop kidding myself. At age 66, I have lived more than half of my life.

Spending quality time now with my almost-96-year-old mother reveals how it is to be really old. All her "old' friends have died, or have been left behind as she's moved from independent to assisted living over three states during the past decade. Her dearest friend, my father Floyd, died in 2006 at age 93. She has no deep ties to anyone but family, but she has new friends, a handful of wonderful people who do what they can to enhance their own lives and hers. New friends are good!

But there's no replacing old ones. For at least 20 years, PK and I, along with some others, have kicked around the idea of establishing the Purple Sage retirement home, where we could live commune-style, take charge of our aging selves, and kick some butt. Despite lively conversations, we have yet to make a move. It's too complex, and besides, we're not there yet. It seems unlikely the Purple Haze will ever happen. For now, my friends, let's stay connected, hold hands into the future, and ski our withering flanks off this winter.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gardening in November? It's the leeks.

Leeks in November. They were completely ignored for three years. PK thought they might be goners. But no.
Mucking around in the dirt a couple days ago, after the rest of the garden had been yanked up and spread  into the field to melt down, I decided to dig up a clump of leeks, just to see what they look like. Several years ago, a gardening pal gave us clots of leeks, which we stuck into the ground and ignored. I noticed this summer that they had gorgeous white flowers and made a note to check out the action below the soil.
A clump of leek bulbs striving to reproduce.
Here's what I found about a foot down. Numerous leek bulbs, all the way from small onion-sized to thimble-sized, full of vigor and sprouting. Not at all expired! I broke up this clump and saved the largest bulbs for cooking.
Leek bulbs seem a lot like shallots. They're very delicate and best eaten cooked rather than raw.
To the right, a couple of jalapenos and tomatoes All went into a chicken soup.
 The smaller bulbs I gave away at my yoga class, along with advice that they could be planted now in the deep trenches advised by gardening gurus. Truthfully, I haven't found any info about planting leek bulbs, just info for sowing seeds or baby leeks. But why wouldn't leek bulbs work? I plan to dig up another clump and establish a real leek bed, trenches and all, before the rains begin. That means I need to hurry. Wet weather will arrive any day now. I'll have to wait til spring to see the results, but waiting and patience is what gardening is all about, especially in November. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Final fall harvest, another great dinner and —looking forward to winter?!

Last night—one of the most opulent dinners of the late-harvest season: homemade chili atop Basmati rice, and on the side, fresh San Marzano tomatoes and smoked/grilled sweet peppers, onions, and zucchinis.  OMG. I will view this photo during lean months for inspiration. I will especially miss the fresh tomatoes and peppers. Some peppers will make their way into the freezer,  but it won't be the same. We are so fortunate.
Already we're several days past the average first-frost date of October 18 for southern Oregon's Rogue Valley. It has been such a glorious fall! We had a couple days of "winter preview" but mostly, the weather has been perfect, and garden veggies and flowers have responded with continued growth. We've had a second flourish of roses and volunteer cosmos, and a repeat crop of dill is coming forward. Beans and cukes continue to produce, despite yellowing leaves, and we've also harvested late strawberries, raspberries, green beans, and even basil, with gratitude and amazement.

We have yet to build a fire in our wood stove. Thanks to passive solar heating, we've have had only a few early-morning warming toasts from the thermostat-controlled gas fireplace.

Tonight's the night, however, that the first serious frost is predicted. It's not that I welcome it, exactly, but I accept it as the natural order. PK has covered his peppers, which continue to mature, but I've abandoned the tomato plants. At least half are already on the compost heap, and the others sport only hard green globes that promise scant hope for maturing. Besides, we have three boxes of green tomatoes inside awaiting the blush of maturity. From experience, I know that only half will make the cut for the dinner table—or the cooking pot. I haven't mentioned apples, but we still have about 25 trees. Yikes.
Final harvest? Lots of sweet peppers and some zukes await attention.
Apples dry in the dehydrator, and a few boxes of apples will be processed into sauce or apple butter. 
I almost hate to say this, but I look forward to wintery days. When the sun shines, I can't make myself stay inside! It's been months since we've had several crappy days in a row. Those days are coming soon. I know how the season can change in a single day. I hope that when it does, I will remember the projects that I've been itching to tear into and my motivation will be accessible. As I've mentioned, weather matters. Sunshine feeds energy and dark grey days deplete it. Inside, I hope to make my own light with creative projects. Let's see what happens.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Death check at Grocery Outlet

I saw a friend in the wine section of my favorite grocery store. She was standing in front of the chardonneys when I came up behind her and put my hands on her shoulders. She turned, and fell into my arms for a serious hug. Long story short: her husband is dying of liver cancer. He's in hospice care, and she is his full-time at-home caregiver. She looked tired. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she clearly wanted to talk, which we did for at least a half hour, edging back and forth so the wine shoppers could examine the goods. Our subject was the inevitable, which most people choose to ignore until it is looming. What me, die? No way, or at least, Not anytime soon.

It is looming for her husband, and they have been working through the details: wills, finances, and, most importantly, I believe, Oregon's Death with Dignity provision. It is legal in this state for a terminally ill person to check out under his or her own power. She described the extensive steps they've taken so he can do this legally, if he chooses. So far, he has not chosen death, although death  has chosen him, and he feels weaker and more miserable every day, she says.

I don't know her husband, but I guess that he is depressed and fearful. He holds his death in his own power. Imagine that. I mean, anyone can commit suicide, a desperate lonely act that few condone and is difficult to understand and so often leaves a dreadful wake of sorrow, guilt, and questioning for survivors.

But to be able to end your own suffering with full support of your loved ones and in a deliberate planned way, well that is something else. It is a gift, of sorts. But I wonder if he'll be able to look death in the eye and say, I'm ready. I wonder if he'll gather the courage to tell her, It's time, and ask her to set the scene for him to take the steps to put himself into into his final sleep. Imagine staring down death from over a handful of sedatives and saying, Ok, come and get me.

I don't know if I could do it. But then, I'm in the "not anytime soon" category. Or am I? As my friend pointed out, you never know what's going to happen. 

In the meantime, I immensely enjoy everyday things, like this bumblebee in the flourishing cosmos on a cloudless and warm late October afternoon. No matter thar the adjacent sunflowers have turned brittle and brown, all but abandoned by hungry birds and nectar-seeking bees. Winter is, after all, almost upon us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Weather matters, don't you think?

Harvested October 17, 2011.  Latest garden harvest in memory.
A mess of green beans is already in the pan.
I was so wrong in my last post. It was a childish reaction to just two days of winter-like weather that I believed meant the end of the garden, and especially, tomatoes! How foolish, how unbelieving, how premature! The past several days have been gloriously summer-like, and the forecast is for more of the same. PK and I have been in a frenzy of picking and processing apples, dismantling the summer garden, preparing for winter, and, most amazingly, continuing to harvest tomatoes, zukes, peppers, flowers, and berries as late fall has turned summer-like. A bowl of strawberries in mid-October? No way!

It was 34 degrees this morning, but 80-plus this afternoon. The tomatoes that were green a few days ago are ripening, and peppers continue to color. What an amazing October! Two winter-like days last week hit us with what we know is just around the bend—dreadful dark and wet. But for now we're wearing shorts and sunglasses. Last night it was 68 degrees at 9 p.m. On October 16!

Weather matters. Have you noticed? When conversation slips into weather territory, we may think, How trivial. How challenged we are to come up with meaningful discourse that we stoop to discussing the temperature and humidity. But weather may be the single most important element of our daily lives. I'm sure the Weather Channel would agree, as would people who work, exercise, garden, farm, or live outdoors. Or those who are subject, as I believe most of us are, to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Even my mother, who rarely gets outside, can see through her apartment window overlooking the fair city of Rogue River, Oregon, whether it is fair or foul. The light comes in, dim or bright. Somehow, it matters to her. It matters to me, for sure. Long live the light! And when it is gone, any minute now, I will remember and long for its return.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

So long, tomatoes. I'll miss you!

October tomatoes. Pitiful!
This sorry batch is now cooking as the last marinara sauce of the season. 
The annual garden shutdown is a woeful certainty. We haven't had a frost yet, so the cold-sensitive plants haven't blackened and gone into final meltdown. Those plants would be, in order of their intolerance of cold: basil, zukes, peppers and tomatoes. With the exception of the peppers, they are all behaving badly, cranky in their old age with curling leaves, refusal to grow, and developing age spots like crazy, as if to say, Let's get it over with! 
Me too, especially as far as food preservation goes. However, I absolutely mourn garden-fresh tomatoes once ours are gone because I know it will be at least 10 months!! before we'll have them again. I always break down in the spring and sneak a store tomato into a salad. I can fool myself into believing that it grew somewhere hot and will taste like a tomato. But it never does, and PK can't refrain from curtly observing that I've once again weakened. I promise never to purchase a commercial tomato that must have been picked green, "ripened" in a chemical fog, shipped for thousands of miles, and is exorbitantly overpriced. Hard tomatoes, I've learned, are inedible, even if they're blushing red.
This is how our tomatoes looked in mid September. Perfect. 
We'll have to make do with the quarts of canned tomatoes and salsas and jars of dried ones in the pantry, plus bags and bags of marinara and salsas in the freezer. It will be tough, but I know we're up to the challenge. Goodbye to a great garden season. (With a fond nod to the much-smaller fall/winter garden coming soon.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

About the aging part..

I recently added "gardening, cooking, aging and adventures" to my blog title. As "Ordinary Life," I didn't have to refine. Any old thing would go, and it's easy to see how cooking and gardening fit in as those are frequent topics. Tonight's dinner! Made almost entirely from scratch! The garden! Wow!
Yes, we enjoyed another great feast tonight. Clockwise, smoked peppers, caramelized onions, garlic/pepper sauce and rice; a bit of marinated grilled steak; steamed green beans with butter  and lemon; the very LAST brandywine tomato, and a cucumber, onion, and pepper salad. See, I can't help myself!
Here's LaVone today washing up. She's almost 96, but I think she's still good looking

Here's LaVone on her exercise 'walk." I'm right behind her with her wheelchair, just in case.
Adventures? I have them, most often close to home and sometimes far afield, and have blogged them with photos and words. But I've generally shunned the aging topic, except when it applies to my mother, who quickly approaches 96. She seems blissfully oblivious. She's not an Alzheimer's patient, and does not suffer from severe dementia. But she is in a twilight zone. Her needs are simple yet complex. Her physical requirements are fulfilled, mostly, by assisted living. But there's no substitute for a loving daughter stopping by nearly every day to put her through her walking paces and attend to the details that the overworked caregivers can't fulfill: hearing aid issues; seasonal clothing; intimate items, hand holding, reassurance, etc.
I quickly approach 67, which, to people in their 90s is a fresh age full of promise, but to me, seems dangerously close to 70, very old indeed. If you don't die, then you grow old, so I just need to get used to it. I would rather not contract a deadly disease that would kill me slowly, or even a sudden event such as a car accident, a stroke, or a heart attack. So I guess I'm resigned to going with my genes and seeing what happens. I'm processing the approach of age 70. In the meantime, I'm engaged with LaVone as she approaches 100. Is she resigned? She is. She definitely is. She is the very picture of be here now. Thanks, Ram Dass, but of course, she's never heard of you.
In coming months I intend to chronicle her life, especially the past few years. I know that if someone had told her she would be where she is and who she is now 30 years ago, she would have scoffed and maybe prodded them with her crochet hook. Who, me? I won't ever be in a wheelchair, in "briefs", and in an endless cycle of bingo and dice. You know what? It's not so bad. At least not for her. As for me, I'm getting older too.  And I do not like it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Change-of-season madness

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I awoke to the sharp smell of the gas stove firing up,
warming the kitchen and heating the tea water. Dang. Summer's gone!
Given the date, it shouldn't be a surprise that fall crept in after just a few days' warning. Sunflowers, cosmos, and cornstalks have been leaning toward the compost, longing, I think, for restful rotting after a summer of boisterous growth and the recent marauding of feasting birds. The sweet smell of rain has been in the air, leaves have crackled underfoot, and honking geese have swirled noisily overhead. What a great elongated summer we've enjoyed! But still. saying goodbye to the garden and fresh food in magnificent abundance is sad, as is depositing into the memory bank soft summer air and lazy barbecues. Sigh.
 Outside, fog drapes across the hills like a swath of cotton batting, cooling the forest and fields and settling in for the long winter ahead. Variations of this scene will be evident beyond the garden for the next six months. Eeek. It'll get a lot wetter and colder and the vegetation in the foreground will soon disappear into compost. Not a bad thing to become, really.
I spent yesterday holed up in the kitchen with tomatoes and peppers, onions and herbs, making salsas and marinara sauces.
Marinara sauce bubbling on the stove.  Wow. It makes the heart race!

On the brighter side, at the kitchen counter son Chris tapped away on his cranky computer and plotted logistics for his next adventure. He's home for a few days after returning from Brazil, where he does crazy stuff like this. Don't be deterred by a foreign language—Portuguese. The link is to a trailer for a popular Brazilian adventure/reality series in which Chris is one of three "stars." He's headed back to Africa soon, then back to Brazil.  His is not at all an ordinary life!

Back to my world, currently dominated by tomatoes. Not too exciting, but I will be so jazzed this winter opening jars of salsa or thawing marinara sauces for quick dinners.  Maybe I'd rather go to the Congo with Chris?
Hmmm.  I don't think so.

Salsa!  And it only took ALL DAY to make!
But we also prepared a dozen quarts of sauces for the freezer thus justifying an entire day in the kitchen.
Today's garden take could be the last as frost is predicted tonight. The green beans, cucumbers, basil, and peppers can't tolerate frost, and the giant zucchini leaves will blacken overnight. So sad.
I love gardening and cooking and all the rest of my little Southern Oregon reality show. It's just that when Chris alights for a few days, I become restless and wondering. What if I had diverted 40-some years ago from the well-beaten path into middle-class life? What if I had followed my heart into travel and adventure? And then I worry, what if Chris doesn't do this?  What if he finds himself 20 years from now stranded on a bridge between his youth and an unsustainable level of risk-taking?
I'm not too worried. Just wallowing in the usual over-protective mama kind of crap. He'll be fine. Won't he?

All those veggies I harvested today are sitting in the kitchen awaiting attention, as are several boxes of tomatoes on the back porch. Should I dehydrate some, or just stick them in the freezer whole? More sauces, salsas? I admit I'm so ready for harvest and food preservation to be over! In a couple weeks, it will be except for apples, which are just now coming ripe out there in the wind and rain. Applesauce? Dried apples? Pies? Cobblers? Decisions, decisions.

What if like Chris, I was deciding whether to go to the Arctic or Angola—or both, plus several other possible destinations on his ever-changing schedule. It's certain that he'll provide ongoing vicarious thrills plus ample cause for maternal angst as I remain here in the cool and indifferent landscape, so recently spilling over with vegetables and berries and now so close to shutting down for the winter.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An all-local menu— how to host a (fun)draising dinner

First, have a cause
Mine is Women's Crisis Support Team, a progressive grassroots organization in Southern Oregon devoted to preventing (and helping the victims of) two of the most shameful criminal acts: domestic violence and sexual assault.
Second, recruit a friend to help plan, cook, and serve. Make sure his/her culinary instincts match your own. In this case, I got a twofer with Jeanne Schraub, a wonderful cook and prodigious gardener, whose mate, Gary Clarida, looked great in his black and white serving outfit. PK, of course, was the bartender.

Gary the server explaining the fine points of waiting tables with guest Dave Frank.
 Who is that ghost in the garden? 

Here's Jeanne arranging flowers for the dinner table.
Third, get a theme. Ours was not original, but authentic: all local. This was easy as we pulled produce from our overflowing gardens and one 17-pound salmon from the Rogue River. (Not quite as easy. See previous post.) We also enjoyed some great donated Applegate Valley wine, thanks to Steve and Louise Rouse, as well as wines purchased from Del Rio Winery and Michael McAuley. Michael donated a portion of his proceeds to WCST, plus he delivered the wine to our house!
Fourth, pick a date a few months in advance and invite guests. It isn't that difficult to round up eight people (or more) who are willing to pay for a fancy dinner with good wine, all for a great cause. 
Paying dinner guests awaiting delivery of the next course.
We moved our dining room table outside to take advantage of perfect weather  and to
get the guests out of the cooks'' corner. 

Fifth, create a menu worthy of the price. (We asked $50 a person, but got some big "tips" which together made $550 for WCST.)

And now, what you been waiting for, The Fancy All Local Harvest Dinner Menu!
If you want any of these recipes, please email me or respond via Facebook. I need to figure out how to get rid of the stupid hoops you have to jump through to comment on this blog.

The starter - Paul's frescatini - a martini made with vodka, fresh mint and cucumbers.
PK and I rarely drink cocktails (we're actually winos) but discovered this potentially addictive drink in South Beach, Fl. that time I won a cruise and we had to fly to Miami to get on the ship and decided to see how the other half lives by spending a couple nights in pricey South Beach. The martini calls for quality vodka, and we used made-in-Oregon Crater Lake vodka plus some Absolute that I infused with sliced cucumbers for a month.
Mark Goracke, with beer-swilling-martini-avoiding Susan by his side,
passes judgement on the Frescatini. He liked it!
The appetizers:  Jeanne's deluxe marinated, pickled, or grilled garden veggies and Sicilian-inspired caponata served with crostini, plus a wedge of Rogue Creamery's world-famous (really!) blue cheese and a slab of Willamette Valley Creamery's smoked gouda.
Jeanne with her veggies and crostini.
The salad: Burrata caprese with brandywine tomatoes and basil-infused olive oil, a drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar, and fresh basil. Burrata is a silky and rich blend of mozzarella and cream, available at the Rogue Creamery and other speciality cheese shops. Don't look at the price. It's worth the splurge for a special occasion.
The soup:  Squash bisque. Made from butternut squash, vegetable broth, cream, and a slew of subtle spices and herbs.
The main course: Jeanne's French potato salad made from her red spuds, oil, vinegar, and herbs. Steamed green beans with sauteed-in-butter chanterelle mushrooms. The beans came from our garden, and the shrooms were gathered in the forest by Jeanne's colleague who wanted our dinner to be a hit. The marinated grilled salmon was served with chimichurri, dill, and chipotle sauces on the side.
Nasturtium-bedecked dinner plates ready to be served. 
Jeanne's incredible tarts, one pear and the other, a blackberry-topped marvel appropriately dubbed PET—positively erotic tart.
Remember, if you want any recipes, email me or use Facebook.
I'll post the recipes in a week or so. 
Consider hosting your own small-scale fun(D)raiser dinner. It's a great way to get together with friends and test your culinary creativity with another foodie. You might even impress yourself—or catch a fish!
And the non profit of your choice will be super grateful you made the effort.