In summer we gather, but we don’t gather chocolate

Cucumber Pear Gazpacho with Mint

Cucumber Pear Gazpacho with Mint

My daughter asked her two year old for dinner ideas because she was, yes, that desperate for help.
“Emily, what would you like for dinner?”
“Chocolate!”
If it were the middle of the hectic teaching year instead of the middle of summer, my daughter might have gone along with it.

Ah, but it is summer.

What I am loving about food planning right now is that it is based on what is growing at Maywood. (Or hereabouts!)  Instead of pondering all the choices of all the foods from all over the world that are all on display at Wegman’s, I start with the mound of produce on the counter and in the fridge.

It’s so much easier! Give me three little choices. I can handle that. Even a two year old can handle that.
“Emily, what would you like for dinner: zucchini, pickles, or roasted beets?”
And her answer will be, “Chocolate!”
(Ok, I made that up. Emily would totally eat any of the above, but we discovered Emily’s fixation with chocolate when she spied a closed box of fudge at our house.  She can’t read.  There were no pictures of candy on the box.  “Is that chocolate,” she asked.  “I looooove chocolate!”)

Emily looooves chocolate.

Emily looooves chocolate.

Admittedly, I will not be so optimistic about meal planning when my choices are limited to butternut squash, acorn squash, or pumpkin, and I may be tempted to add chocolate to all of them, but for the moment we are eating really well.
Last night’s meal was as good a meal as one we experienced at an upscale farm-to-table restaurant on vacation recently. In fact, the search for gazpacho recipes came from a delightful Cucumber Pear Gazpacho that was served at the Ebbitt Room in Cape May.  The one I made is not their recipe and I would love to have it!  In the meantime, I will search and tweak.

Here’s what we ate last night:

First Course:

Cucumber Pear Gazpacho with Mint

Entree:

Grilled Pork Tenderloin

 Roasted Beet Salad with Feta,

Corn sautéed with White Wine, Dill and Lime.

Dessert:

 Fresh Blackberry Tart

The cucumbers and mint came from the garden. The pork was already in the freezer. The corn was leftover from a grandkid cook-out/bonfire the night before. And the beets (already roasted!) were from my daughter’s garden. I picked the blackberries in the back yard. My grocery run for that meal was for Greek yogurt and almonds, and I’m thinking I could have used the non-Greek yogurt I had on hand and maybe eliminated the almonds.

Summertime at Maywood brings out the little pioneer woman in me. John hunts and plants while I gather. I gather berries and gourds and then gather recipes online. Instead of scouring the limitless possibilities of “what should we eat?” I ponder “what do we have?” and “how should we eat it?” It’s so much fun to see the abundance of what we already have and make something of it.

And I delight in the time to do it. Once the hectic school year starts, if I do not have summer stored in a jar or a freezer bag, I am likely to join little Emily in eating chocolate for dinner.

Here’s the recipe for Cucumber Pear Gazpacho from Cookthink.com.

Ingredients:

1 cup blanched, unsalted almonds, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup water
3 medium cucumbers, chopped
1 cup Greek yogurt (preferably 2%)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
10 mint leaves, sliced
1 Bartlett pear, diced

In a food processor (or blender), pulse the almonds, garlic and salt until finely ground.  Then add the water, cucumbers, yogurt, lemon juice, mint, and all but 2 tablespoons of the pear.  Pulse until combined.  Top each bowl with diced pear. 

The gazpacho really needs to be served COLD. The leftovers I had the following day for lunch had the benefit of a good chill and blended flavors. So, even though it is quick to make, it is best not made at the last minute.
I bought non-fat plain Greek yogurt but had whole milk regular yogurt on hand. I might try that next time. The recipe called for almonds chopped in the blender. They chopped into a nice fine powder but still gave a gritty feel to the soup. I didn’t care for that, so I wonder about eliminating the almonds altogether or maybe substituting almond milk for the almonds and the water.
Who wants to experiment and get back to me on that?

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I’m Gonna Get Squashed

On a fishing pier Saturday with my mom, watching the waves roll to shore beneath us, I said, “Pretend it’s a tsunami and you have to outrun it.”  Right. The great-grandmother to my grandkids had already walked close to twenty miles with me during our week at the beach. Running was not going to happen.

The garden tsunami beginsReturning home I encountered the first wave of our garden tsunami. Cucumbers. And yellow squash. And zucchini. With blossoms on the patty pans, acorn squash, butternut, watermelon and pumpkins.  My farmboy (oh, fahmboy!) husband loves to say, “As you wish” to his Princess Bride, but the profusion of squash plants in our garden is most definitely his wish.  His 100 x 100 foot fenced garden is about half filled with squash plants, including seeds from a ginormous pumpkin that promised to produce more ginormous pumpkins.

In addition to blueberries, the wild blackberries,  brambles, and raspberries are ripening.

In addition to blueberries, the wild blackberries, brambles, and raspberries are ripening.

When the blueberries ripened, I was pleased with the pacing of the harvest…just enough every day for us to eat. As the blueberries waned, the wild raspberries ripened. What a God treat to have the berries coming in delicate succession like that, like little waves lapping at our ankles.

Ah, but the squash. How to keep ahead of the tsunami of squash.  To be precise, what we have is a tsunami of cucurbits, or gourds.  Cucumbers and melons and summer squash and winter squash and pumpkins belong to the family of  cucurbits.  And here’s a little etymological tidbit to ponder while scooping the innards and adding fillings, dips, and soups: the word came into Middle English by way (of course!) of the Old French cucurbite which came from the Latin cucurbita, meaning gourd or cup.

So cucumbers are not squash.  They are cucurbits.

We picked four pickle cukes the day before vacation and immediately made two jars of pickles. One jar was gobbled on vacation and the other when we got home. But we came home to eight cukes plus about four that my in-laws saved for us with our mail. (That does not include the ones they ate while we were gone.)

Monday I began running to beat the tsunami.

The paletas are cucumber lime ginger popsicles.  They are amazingly good and just as amazingly simple to make. Daughter, grandboy and grandgirl joined me in sampling them.  There is enough ginger to provide grown-ups with a pleasant gustatory zip, but not so much to turn away a three year old and his one year old teething sister.  Follow the link above to the easy recipe at Bon Appetit.

The pickle recipe began with a refrigerator pickle recipe from Allrecipes.com, but after comparing a few recipes with ingredients I had on hand, I ended up with this. I share it here so that I will not lose it!

Refrigerator Pickles

The measurements for the brine make enough to cover 4 cups of pickles.  Adjust quantities according to the amount of cucumber you have.

  • 4 cups pickles, sliced in rounds or in spears, whatever you like
  • 3 1/2 cups water
  • 1 1/4 cups white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt

Bring water, vinegar, sugar, and salt to a boil.  Let cool completely. (Pouring hot brine on the cucumbers will soften them a  bit.  We want crisp cucumbers!)

Fill quart size mason jars with cucumbers.  To each jar add:

  • 1 tablespoon dill seed
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • sprinkle of dried dill weed or sprigs of fresh dill (for effect!)

Pour cooled brine into each jar to cover cucumbers.  Put lids on.  Store in fridge 3 days  before eating.  Pickles keep 6 weeks in the fridge…if you don’t eat them first.20140723-143512.jpg

So, I have used up all the cucumbers… for the moment. Now to outrun the zucchini…

 

 

 

Making room for a new season of venison… and football

We know it’s hunting season when friends show up with gifts–a heart and a liver that they just harvested from a doe in our woods.  While they might normally toss them, they know that John will use them to make an amazing venison liverwurst.  The new heart and liver will join what John has in the freezer and will soon appear as John’s redneck pâté.

With bow season upon us and guys outside climbing into their tree stands, we’ve been inside noting a lack of freezer space.  We still have venison from last year.  One reason for this is that venison lends itself to stews and chilis and other slow cooking dishes that I don’t tend to cook in the summer.  However, the main reason we still have so much is because John stored it all in the man-cave freezer.  I had no idea it was down there!

Quelle bonne surprise– a freezer full of white butcher paper wrapped packages of ground meat and roasts.   Bring on the venison pasta sauce.  Let’s eat some pulled venison sandwiches. And absolutely, positively John gets busy making venison-jalapeno sausage  and Italian venison sausage.  So the freezer goes from  being full of raw venison to being full of sausage.  Not a problem.  The hunters often stop in for a beer after an evening in the woods.  A jalapeno sausage is the perfect post-hunting snack to go with a cold beer.  It’s also the perfect snack food for a Sunday afternoon Ravens game.

MomMom & little John fixing chili in their matching Ravens jerseys. Photo by Mario.

This Sunday got off to a promising start with all the kids and grandkids coming over to watch the Ravens-Eagles game.  Sixteen-month-old grandson John, whose first word was “cook,” was most eager to help whip up a huge pot of venison chili.  We were too wrapped up in the game ( and nibbling jalapeno sausage) to eat the chili until afterwards, at which point it served to console us in our loss.

Unlike liverwurst, which has a select group of devotees, chili is eaten by pretty much everyone.  It’s a good first way to get used to venison.  Substitute ground venison for ground beef and then don’t tell anyone.  They’ll love the flavor and then you can tell them what it is!

Here is one way to use up a bunch of ground venison:

Chili for a crowd

  • 5 lbs. ground venison
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 large cans of dark red kidney  beans
  • 2 large cans of  diced tomatoes
  • 1 can of tomato sauce
  • 1 small can of tomato paste
  • a fistful (or two) of dried oregano, crumbled
  • chili powder  to taste (for me, that would be several  tablespoonfuls or maybe half the jar)
  • cumin to taste (a little less than the chili powder)
  • salt and pepper

Before the game starts, brown the onion and the meat in a large stockpot.  Puree one can of the kidney beans (drained first) in a food processor and add the ground paste to the pot.  Add the second can of kidney beans whole (but drained).  Stir in the remaining ingredients and let simmer until half-time.  Serve with garnishes of grated cheese and sour cream or Greek yogurt.  Eat as a dip with tortilla scoops or as a dinner with corn bread.

I personally like to add green pepper with the onion, but a certain son-in-law doesn’t eat green pepper.  (Plus I didn’t have one.)  The batch of chili I made for the pathetic Ravens-Eagles game did not use my usual spices either.  I was out of chili powder so I used Black Dust Coffee & Spice Rub that I bought at Savory Spice Shop in Boulder, Colorado last June.  The interesting combination of ingredients (coffee,  black pepper, cumin, Alderwood smoked salt, brown sugar, cocoa, mustard, coriander and chipotle) made for a mellow chili.  Wanting more zip, I added some red pepper and dried jalapeno flakes.  (Don’t tell John I used his dried jalapeno!) It still wasn’t very zippy, though, and every time Kristin came upstairs the aroma tricked her into thinking that I was baking brownies.  I should have used the rest of the jar of dried jalapeno, but I might have gotten in trouble with the resident sausage maker.

For a zippier chili, I could have used Savory Spice’s Red Cloud Peak Seasoning.  I used it Saturday night to coat a round roast.  Mmmmm.  It has hot chili powder in it, but no cumin.  But I do have cumin, so I could have added that to the chili myself.

What did I learn from today’s chili?  If you want the home team to win, don’t eat mellow chili and don’t flavor your chili with seasonings from the Denver area (as good as they may be).  From now on, for Raven’s games at least,  I’ll stick with hot chili powder from the home team–McCormick.

Tending the herb garden, with thoughts toward school

Innocent fuzzy little fennel plants grow up to be prolific seed producers.

One advantage to ignoring the garden for awhile (like the entire ridiculously hot month of July) is that when you finally attack the chaos, the results are dramatic.  Getting started, though is a daunting task.  Where to begin?

My philosophy on tackling overwhelming tasks is to start with one big thing that is really bugging me and that will make a huge difference when it is done.  You can’t just start at one end of the garden and pick every little weed until you get to the end.  You’ll never get to the end.  There are an infinite number of weeds in there.

This philosophy is one that I presented to one of my daughters when she was in middle school and had a disaster area for a bedroom.  If she tried to tidy it, she would spend an entire afternoon and have one tiny tidy corner to show for it.  I  finally said to her, “Do you need me to write out directions on how to do it?”

“Actually, that would be really helpful,” she replied, without a hint of sarcasm.

So I did.  “How to clean your room in less than 10 steps.”  She posted it on her mirror, where it stayed until she got married.  This does not mean that the room was clean.  It just means that if she decided to clean it, she had a 9 step process to get it done.

But I digress.  It’s my garden that is a mess.  The fennel arches over the oregano like Snoopy the Vulture.  A bazillion seeds are poised ready to bomb the garden with an explosion of more fennel.  The oregano, meanwhile, is creeping back to the chives.  Chocolate mint bullies its way past the pineapple sage and into the chamomile.  The chamomile,which had its glory day in the sun weeks ago and is now turning brown, hangs over the thyme which makes a pathetic attempt to lean forward over the rock border to get a sunbeam or two.   Spearmint is getting much too friendly with the basil.  Lemon verbena has overshadowed the tarragon.  Weeds pop up with audacity and gill-over-the-ground wends its serpentine trail through it all.

Now the garden is reminding me less of my daughter’s bedroom and more like a school filled with teenagers.  I ponder my students as I hack and harvest and weed.

In this photo, the herbs had not yet run amok.

1.  Boundaries.  Certain boundaries are set in my garden.  Rocks and flat stones create the border.  Small fences establish perimeters for plants within the garden.  It’s really easy to cut back the mint because I know exactly where it has overstepped its bounds–the little white fence.  My students need boundaries too.  If I create clear boundaries, then it will be easy to keep behavior under control.

Unlike the lemon verbena, which is happily dominant in its spot, the lemon balm could more aptly be named lemon “bomb”–it ends up everywhere! Hmm…like the contents of some students’ backpacks!

2.  Space to grow.  Some herbs in my garden are bullies.  Some are over friendly.  Some are just so happy and thriving that they dominate the landscape.  I like my herbs.  But I like all of my herbs.  Lemon verbena is absolutely my favorite scent.  But I really really want tarragon too.  My students need space to grow too.  In the classroom, certain personalities often dominate at the expense of others.  If I give the overshadowed students space and attention, they have a chance to  thrive, too.

3.  The right spot in the garden.  I’m thinking that perhaps I need to grow tarragon someplace not so close to the lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is great, but my big thriving verbena is not great for the struggling little tarragon.  You know where I’m going with this.  Some students need to be separated for their own good.  Even if they are friends.

4.  Weeds.  When the plants are under control, I can see the weeds better.  This is definitely where the “10 steps to a clean room” comes into play.  I have to address the big ones first.  Which ones are the most problematic and/or unsightly.  There are some big, tall weeds that take up a lot of space but are easy to pull.  (Some big, tall boys come to mind here.  They can drive you crazy but respond to discipline.) Yanking them is like making the bed–it doesn’t take too much effort but yields big results.  The sneaky vines aren’t quite as dramatic, but they choke everything.  They are not hard to pull and a good weeding produces a gratifyingly large mound of debris, but you have to keep at them.  They never really go away.  And it only takes one to get the whole  garden back into a tangled mess.  (Certain girls with their gossipy ways, or sneaky rule-breakers, or cheaters seem to be like this.)

Taller fennel, but still not its full 3 ft. height or loaded with seeds.

5.  Eliminate excess.  Because I actually do not have a green thumb (it’s more like the Black Thumb of Death), I am very reluctant to rip out plants that volunteer to grow for me.  “What!  You want to grow in my pathetic little garden?  Why, bless you!  Welcome!”  This is why I have a ridiculous amount of fennel–I think I have to harvest every single seed, even though a bunch of them escape.  It is part of why garlic chives are everywhere–the flowers are so pretty but often go to seed  before I snip them.  In the classroom, as in the  garden, I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything.  In my desire to not have wasted class time, I tend to assign far too many tasks and then can’t follow-up on them all.  Focus, focus, focus.  That’s not just for the students; it’s for me.

Here is a “volunteer” that I’m glad to have!

6.  Rip out unwanted growth.  You know what?  I don’t like chocolate mint.  Oh, I like the flavor.  It’s the plant I don’t like.  For starters, it doesn’t really taste that chocolatey.  When it flowers, the blooms are a silvery green that look like they would like to be something prettier but are not.  Stupid ugly little flies are attracted to its flowers.  And it takes up a lot of space.  I think I would rather have orange mint.

Oh…  I can rip it out and plant orange mint.  It’s my garden.  Just because it has been in the garden for ten years doesn’t mean it has to be there forever.  Huh.  I’ve been teaching for a long time.  I wonder how many things I’m doing that I don’t want to do but continue to do just because I’ve always done it that way.  I’m not talking about ripping out the whole garden and starting over (ugh!), just a thing or two.

7.  Room for more.  With the bullies cut back and the weeds eliminated, I find I have space for some fall color.  I never thought of putting ornamental cabbage in here before, but now it seems like a fun idea.  As I ponder the personalities who will be returning to my classroom, I know that if I keep the dominant personalities  and the over-exhuberant students from taking over, there will be space for the new students and time for the fun stuff.

FYI, in  case you were amazed at how together my act seems,  the fact that I have this tidy little list of observations does not at all imply that my garden is under control yet!  (Or my classroom, for that matter.)  After an hour of hacking and weeding, my ponderings got the better of me and I ran up here to the computer.  So don’t look for any ornamental cabbages quite yet.  In fact, if I don’t get them planted before school starts, you may not find them ever.

Meditations from the herb garden: Graduating the seniors

My goal Saturday morning was to weed around the screen porch in order to find room for the flowers I bought last week, but by the time I slept in and enjoyed a mug or two of coffee, the sun was blazing in that part of the yard. The wise weeder seeks shade, and shade was by the herb garden.  Shade is usually over the herb garden by the time I get outside, which is why the herbs are looking pretty good and the screen porch is surrounded by grass stalks.

After some weeding, the chives emerged

After some weeding, the chives emerged.

The herbs are doing amazingly well.  Too well.  The oregano is boldly going where no oregano has gone before.  The fennel is popping up in the midst of all the oregano.  Garlic chives are settling in firmly everywhere.  And the lemon balm overshadows everything.  The regular chives are in there somewhere…I see a bloom or two peeking up…but they are dominated by the other happy aggressive herbs around them.  If I don’t give the chives some space, they are going to disappear.

So Saturday’s task was to open up the chives.  Give them room to grow.  That meant clearing out quite a bit of oregano.  Step one was to snip them and harvest them.  Step two was to pot a few manageable chunks into pots for gifting.  Step three was to rip what was left in the no-oregano-zone with reckless abandon. Ditto for the garlic chives and the lemon  balm.  Twisting and winding amidst it all were vines of gill-over-the-ground needing to be aggressively pulled.

When all the snipping and potting and ripping was done, three chive clusters stood blinking in the daylight.  Three wonderful little chive clusters who will bring me joy when snipped onto my morning eggs.  Three modest chive plants that will grow into impressive blooming plants with an abundance of purply-pink blooms for making chive vinegar.

Sprinkle a little mulch and they won’t look so forlorn.

Those tentative little chive plants reminded me of my juniors in French IV class.  Now that the seniors are gone, they are the class.  All year they were overshadowed by the dominant personalities of the seniors.  They were content to let  those personalities dominate.  They were content to hide behind the upper classmen: the next generation’s leader of the free world; the compulsive talker; the “you know you love me so don’t notice I haven’t  done the homework” schmoozer;  the quiet but practically perfect one; and the pathologically lazy hence always  getting yelled at one.

This week the juniors had oral projects to record.  As I listened to their projects, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they did.  These are the timid ones.  When they speak, their voices barely project to the end of their pencil. But  on the recorders (placed right up to their soft-spoken mouths  and with a volume dial so I can crank the decibals up to human auditory level)  their thoughts and their pronunciation were really quite good.   Like my little chives, there they were –quietly and invisibly competent.   And now, with seniors gone, they are exposed.  And now that they are exposed, they have no choice but to grow.

My herb garden looks a little sparse where I  cleared it.  School looks a little sparse these days too.  There is a gap where the seniors used to  be.  It’s not that they were “weeds” to be yanked.  My overgrown herbs  aren’t weeds–they were planted and nurtured because I wanted them.  But like the herbs taking over the garden,  it is time for the seniors to go.  Their personalities were outgrowing the space.

If senior-itis didn’t announce the need for seniors to move on to bigger and better, the spandex-clad Santas who ran screaming through the school the other day certainly did.  Teacher tolerance for the prank was in direct proportion to how much exposure they have had to seniors–the more exposure, the less tolerance.  Senior pranks are a lot like poison ivy–most teachers are allergic.

The seniors have new gardens to explore.  They will be a little tentative until they get established but then they will thrive.  In the meantime,  they have left space for the juniors to rise up and flourish.  And in two more weeks, even the juniors will be  gone for a bit, giving me some room to flourish.  I’m making no promises about what time I will be rising, but I’m hoping to get the rest of my weeding done.

Friday Night at the Hunting Lodge

I must begin by saying that we do not run a hunting lodge, bed-and-breakfast, boarding house, retreat center, target practice range, catering service, or wedding reception venue.  It just feels that way.  If we really were doing all those things I would not have to limp into work everyday and deal with sleepy teenagers who are completely unproductive until the end of quarter when they will literally interrupt a life-and-death conversation to ask for extra credit points.   So I resist the urge to beat the student over the head with my cane until I can drive my weary self home, where the hills are alive with the sound of…black powder rifles.

We’re full swing into hunting season here at Maywood.  That means the Lodge is open and busy.  We don’t take reservations.  This is strictly a pop-in-if-the-lights-are-on place. (Leaving me this option: The lights are OFF but somebody’s home.)   The Lodge mainly acts as a post-hunting bar, although I must say it’s a classy one–no dead animals on the walls quite yet.  We’re not full-service.  There’s always coffee and beer, but alas, soda is hard to come by. ( I keep forgetting that the lads are hunting with their dads now and they are too young for beer.)  We don’t serve dinner, but snacks are sometimes available.  It gets a little awkward when hunters show up as I’m serving dinner, which is often the case on Fridays.

Last Friday night the place was hopping.  Everyone was out here: Mike and Tim and their boys and cousin Don.  John got a tender doe, Don gutted it, and they all came down to the mancave to tell their hunting tales over a cold drink while having text message arguments with their wives.

“We just popped in to have a quick beer.”

“I know what that means!  You’ll be there another hour!”

This particular Friday I had planned to cook up a big batch of corn chowder.  While John and the others were off in various corners of the woods, I busied myself in the kitchen.  When they all came in, there was a huge stockpot of soup ready to eat.   Shelley and I sat on the sofa with our bowls of chowder.  The lads entertained Harper with new phone apps and the old guys gathered ’round the bar slurping chowder and brewskis and out-yapping each other.  It was fun.

And I won the amazing wife award for pulling off a delicious soup at the end of a grueling week–just to make John happy.  I’ll tell ya…it’s amazing what the right pain meds can do for you.

Here’s the chowder recipe.  I got the original recipe from Allrecipes but have made some changes.  The original recipe was rather bland.  It truly does make full stockpot of chowder.  After feeding six adults, I still had plenty to tuck away in the freezer.

Corn Chowder

2 lbs of  bacon, cooked til crispy and then chopped.  (Or you could chop and then cook til crispy)  Set aside some of the bacon to use as a garnish.

1 onion, chopped and cooked in bacon grease til translucent

4 large baking potatoes, peeled, diced, and boiled til soft ( just barely cover the potatoes with water to cook, and save the water to add to the soup)

3 cans of creamed corn ( I used creamed corn I had frozen from summer corn–about 6 ears worth.  If using plain corn, I would increase the flour and a bit of bacon grease with the onions in the soup.)

1/4 cup flour

8 cups  milk

fresh dried thyme leaves

Tabasco sauce

salt and pepper

Heat the cooked onions and the flour in a stockpot until hot and blended.  Add the milk, and heat until hot and steamy.  Mash 1/2 the potatoes and stir them into the milk along with the potato water.  Add the remaining potato chunks, the corn,  the bacon, a fistful of crumbled thyme leaves, a few shakes of Tabasco sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer to allow the flavors to blend.  Stir frequently or the milk will burn on the bottom of the pot.  Serve garnished with remaining bacon pieces.

Under less fatiguing circumstances, I would serve this with a fresh sweet cornbread and crispy salad.

Butternut Squash Soup

Miller Lane in Hereford, Maryland

“The sun’ll come out…next Thursday.”  That was the weatherman’s snide remark on the radio the other morning as my windshield wipers swished away.  (And the song from the musical Annie is still stuck in my head.)  By Saturday I am finally able to sit out on the café porch, surrounded by deep green leaves backlit by patches of chartreuse where the September sunlight filters through the trees.  Hints of yellow and orange emerge in the foliage.  Dogwood trees present their bright red berries for the doves.  Nearby in the woods, a young deer nibbles contentedly, too naive to be afraid of the humans.

Wet brown leaves stick to the porch.  A mustiness is in the air.  Somehow, the musty smell pairs well with my snack of apple cider and cheddar cheese.  Crickets drone.  Cars whoosh on the highway.  White noise.  This is the moment to let the week roll off my shoulders.

Out in the garden, the late-starting volunteer cherry tomato plant is loaded with tomatoes.  Three of them have actually managed to ripen in limited sunshine.  Garlic chives have bloomed and faded and now threaten to cast seeds everywhere.  Out come the scissors to snip away the flowers.  I harvest the chives in order to find the rosemary and sage.  Fennel seeds are ready to be snipped and saved.

Tonight calls for Butternut Squash soup.  And the crazy busy-ness of the recent weeks means that a double batch is in order–some for now and some to freeze for a hectic evening later.  There  are times when all you need is a bowl of soup, some crunchy bread and a salad.  It’s so satisfying.  Add a glass of chardonnay and life is good.  Sometimes I make this soup elegant with a “garnish” of lump crab meat.  (By garnish, I mean a nice big plop gently placed in the center of the bowl.)  Other times, I’ve added sliced hotdogs.  Most of the time I eat it simply as is.

Once upon a time I had an actual recipe.  But now it’s something I throw together sort of like this…

Butternut Squash Soup

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into pieces

1 carrot

1 stalk of celery

1 medium onion or 2 shallots

1 potato (preferably russet), peeled and cubed

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

crumbled fresh dried sage to taste

crumbled fresh dried thyme to taste

salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot sauté the vegetables in a bit of olive oil until the onions are soft.  Add the broth and seasonings and simmer about 45 minutes until all the vegetables are very soft (mashable with a fork).  In small batches, blend the vegetables and broth in a blender until smooth.  Serve while still hot.

I  think I may have added an apple to this.  Or I might be getting confused with a different squash soup I’ve made.  But I wouldn’t be averse to adding an apple next time I make it.  And at least for me (who does not have blood-pressure issues), this soup tastes really yummy with sea salt sprinkled on top.

Gouttières and Dutch boys’ suits

Lemon verbena by a goutière

This is transition week.  Next Monday teachers report back to work.  This is the week I’m torn by what to do.  Do I sit and relax?  Do I frantically finish summer projects?  Do I “set my face toward Jerusalem” and dig into school work?  All of the above?  None of the above?  (None of the above involves emotional paralysis from the inability to choose.)

So far I’ve been combining tasks.  All summer I’ve been soaking up books.  The past couple of weeks I’ve been priming my brain for the classroom by soaking them up in French.  I’ve finished two novels and am currently working through Suite Française.  I had read it in English a few years ago.  It affirms me to be able to just pick it up and enjoy it in French.

Last night I had a linguistic “ah-hah” while reading.  In the book, a cat had exited a bedroom and was walking along the gouttière.  Being a good lazy reader (don’t pull out a dictionary unless you really, really have to), it wasn’t hard to figure out that a gouttière was a gutter.  And if you know that a goutte is a drop, then it’s even easier.  Hah!  Who needs a dictionary for that?  But just because I’m now curious and want to prove myself right, I look it up.  Voilà!  The English word dates to the 13th century, coming by way of Anglo-Norman which came from the Old French goute which got started way, way back with the Latin gutta which, interestingly enough, is how they pronounce it today in New England.  (Part of my back to school transition involves thinking of my colleagues, especially my buddy from Maine who is mad at me because I am being relocated into his spacious classroom and he is being put into my closet of a room.)

This morning we awoke to gouttières whooshing with rainwater.  We drove down to Towson, our arrival at daughter and son-in-law’s house coinciding with a deluge.   One of their goutières, experiencing a leaf cloggage, spilled rivers of water out front, flooding the front walk.  I should have just removed my sandals, but I deluded myself into thinking that my umbrella would keep me dry.  We all pondered the weather.  What to do?  Enjoy a cup of tea or brave the rain?  Sit it front of Doppler radar all day?  Is it worth going out in to go to the library–with a baby?  Will I be able to plant my fall seeds?

Enough blue to make a Dutch boy's suit

We did have a cup of tea.  On my way home the rain had stopped, the sun was trying to shine, and there was enough blue to make a Dutch boy’s suit.  Back in the day, my grandmother Noona didn’t need Doppler radar to make her plans.  She always said that the weather would clear if there was enough blue to make a Dutch boy’s suit.  Admittedly, that’s a little vague.  How much blue do you need to make this suit?  And how big is the Dutch boy?  Is he, to use another Noona-ism, “the size of a minute”?  That boy wouldn’t need a very big suit.  But that’s the charm of it.  If you are sure you have enough blue, then the weather is surely clearing.

There is definitely enough blue.  I can now safely harvest some lemon verbena without floating through the yard.   Then I’ll make the lemon verbena sherbet that my mouth has been watering for and I will savor some while I continue with Suite Française.  Planting seeds can wait ’til tomorrow, along with a trip out to purchase school supplies.

Lemon Verbena Yogurt Sherbet

I found this recipe, from Jerry Traunfeld, at www.herbcompanion.com.  It is amazingly delicious.  And easy!

2 cups lemon verbena leaves

2 cups whole-milk yogurt

1 and 1/2 cups sugar

1 and 1/2 cups lemon juice

1 and 1/2 cups water

Purée lemon verbena, sugar, and water in blender on high speed.  Whisk together yogurt and lemon juice in a mixing bowl.  Strain lemon verbena mixture into the yogurt mixture through a sieve.  Whisk until smooth.  Process in ice cream maker until slushy.  Transfer to storage container and freeze until scoopably firm.

Smelling the roses…

Oakleaf hydrangea

“Life comes at you fast.”  We all love those insurance commercials because we could all have our turn starring in one.  Sometimes it even involves a big insurance claim, like for my daughter who recently went through labor with their first child while her husband dealt with a massive basement disaster.  Other times, we get caught up in the tornado twists of just living–there’s no insurance check for that one.

Saturday was a catch up day for me.  Ah…a day at home and all was calm.  It was a day to (a) stop and smell the roses or (b) do all the things I have not gotten around to because I’ve been busy.  Well, since I do not actually have any roses, that presented a logistical problem for option A.  Option B was overwhelming enough to send me into paralysis mode.  I  decided to follow the advice someone gave me years ago when I was in overload:  Don’t do anything unless it makes you happy.  Ok, this is not a mantra for all of life, but it is pretty helpful at keeping me from shut-down mode.

Chamomile

Since I have no roses (note to self:  buy some roses), I decided to just walk around the property, take stock of what was going on out there, and enjoy what I could.  There was a lot to enjoy.  In front of the house, the laurel are blooming like never before.  In the herb garden, big beautiful clusters of chamomile pick up the flowering where the sage blossoms left off, and feathery fennel fronds tickle my legs as I walk by.  In the back, the hydrangea bushes are preparing another stunning display.  It made me happy.

Mountain laurel

The rains of May have produced lush growth.  It’s looking more jungle-like than usual for June.  The weeds are very happy.  The weeds threaten to overwhelm everything, including me.  I chose to focus on the lettuce beds.  It would be nice to know what really is in my salad.  I pulled weeds until I had nice neat rows and my back was telling me to quit.  Then I took a water break in the lounge chair until raindrops shooed me indoors.

A rain shower is the perfect time to sit on the screen porch.  Unless it is covered in pollen.  Since it would make me happy to sit on the porch if the porch were clean, I wrapped a kerchief around my face and got to work.  I swept the screens. I swept the floor.  I swept and washed the tables and chairs.  All the while I thought of the bunny we used to have.  Lucy lived on the porch and in spring would hop around in circles mopping up the pollen while her feet turned green.    I appreciated her effort, even if she didn’t know she was making one.  She was just happy to hop around the porch.

Now that my porch is clean, I can stop and smell…oh, raindrops on fresh-cut grass,  citronella candles keeping the mosquitos away, hamburgers on the grill.  This was a day where a to-do list would have backfired on me and I would have accomplished nothing.  Giving myself permission to do nothing resulted accomplishing more than I expected.

Sage Blossoms

Sage blossom

Sage blossom–it sounds like a paint color that my daughter Kristin would pick, except that she picks variations on sage green.  Sage blossoms are purple.  I didn’t even know that sage got flowers until two years ago.  (Just shows how “expert” a gardener I am.)  At that point my plants had decided they were mature enough to handle flowering and they were not in imminent danger of garden death.  I was surprised at how intricate the tiny blossoms were–like little bitty Siberian Iris.

The sage is blooming in the herb garden now.    It seems like just the other day the garden was waking up from winter, and now the sage is in bloom, chives are thinking about blooming, and the lemon balm is threatening to overshadow the chives.  Gill-over-the-ground is creeping all over the ground and slithering its way to world domination.  After all the rain we’ve had, the garden has blasted into being.

This weekend I finally planted my annuals.  It was good to finally have a day to myself to play in the dirt and re-create.  And ponder things…like whether the adjective sage is named for the plant, or the plant named from the adjective.  When you’re a language teacher, you ponder things like that while you garden.  So I looked it up.  As I suspected, the word sage comes from Old French with roots in Latin. (If you’re Greek, you think all words originate in the Greek.  If you’re a French teacher, you know that over half the English vocabulary came to us from French with Latin roots.) Anyway, the plant and the adjective come from two completely different Old French words with their correspondingly different Latin roots.   The herb has its linguistic root (salvus) in the meaning of “healing” or “uninjured.”  The adjective has a different root (sapere) referring to having good taste or being wise.   Interestingly, it was once thought that the plant could help improve memory and thus help make one wise.

Well, that’s all well and good, but the best thing I found out about sage was that in merry Olde England it was believed that sage grew best where the wife was dominant.  No wonder I have such a beautiful display of sage blossoms!