Fall Cooking Experiments

Fall has arrived, and already I am in cooking mode. I’ve been exceptionally interested in the humble bean lately—kidney, pinto, garbanzo, and refried, along with lentils, black-eyed peas, and all manner of beans and legumes I’ve yet to discover. I’ve also found myself drawn to warming spices—cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, curry, cloves, coriander, cayenne, chili powder.

Since beans are so hearty, I often forgo meat with my bean meals. I think this is a good thing both for my health and the planet. I’m getting more and more concerned about climate change, and cutting down on meat (especially beef) is definitely a positive step. I’ve found using beans to be a really good way to not miss meat.

My first experiment was minestrone casserole in the slow cooker. This is exactly like what it sounds. Minestrone soup, except it’s thick with pasta, chickpeas, green beans, onions, and carrots, and instead of a ladle, you dish it out with a spoon. It was delicious. The singular mess-up: The recipe said add the green beans (fresh from my neighbor’s garden!) and pasta at the same time. Big mistake. The pasta was done long before the green beans. It worked out okay in reheating, but the initial version had very crunchy beans and pasta as cooked as I dared let it go. I will absolutely make this again, adjusting for the green beans. (Recipe from: The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook)

My second experiment was Black-Eyed Peas & Rice One-Pot, and doesn’t that sound easy? Doesn’t it make you think when you’re done, you’ll have one pot to clean up, plus maybe a cutting board, a knife, and a couple of utensils? Well, no. At the end of cooking, I knew if I was the picture-taking kind of person, I’d take a picture of my sink full of dishes from my one-pot meal (and that did not include the one pot, which was on the stove). Uh huh. Let that sink in.

That said, it was delicious; a bit time consuming (for those of us not as dexterous with the knife as we might wish) but not difficult. The one-pot refers to the pot where you bring the black-eyed peas to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them sit for up to three hours. At that point, in a separate pan, you sauté onions for five minutes, then add carrots and green peppers (I substituted celery because I hate green peppers, and they worked perfectly) for three more. Then add minced ginger, garlic, and spices (cumin, turmeric, cayenne, curry powder). Cook for a minute. Add the contents to the one-pot. Add water to the sauté pan to deglaze (one cup)—bring to a boil, and add to one-pot. Then add rice and crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for diced, but I prefer crushed; both the recipe and I concur that fire-roasted are best).

The mess-up: the black-eyed peas took much longer to cook than they should have. I figured out pretty quickly that I should have put a lid on the black-eyed peas as they were soaking. The recipe didn’t say one way or the other, so I opted for no lid. Mistake. Next time, bring the beans to a boil and let them sit, covered, for up to three hours.

But the rice (basic brown long grain) was very forgiving, and the meal was delicious. Here’s something interesting: This is one of those recipes where you don’t add salt until the very end. All the rest of the spices are in there at the beginning. Salt and pepper are last. At the end, I added plenty of pepper, but no salt was needed. So rare, not to add salt to a dish. (Perhaps the acidity of the tomatoes added that sparky edge of salt?)

Two experiments, two successes with minor mess-ups. I think this is shaping up to be an excellent autumn.

Backyard Report: Hops 1, Rabbits 8

I finished harvesting the hops today. A small crop this year, possibly due to rabbits (all of a sudden several vines died, and I wondered if a rabbit had chewed through the bottoms) or possibly to neglect.

Neglect? Yes. Unintended, but In May, I got a case of eczema on my hands. It didn’t get better and then it got infected and I missed the entire planting season. An unplanned experiment: I basically did nothing in the backyard this summer. No weeding, pruning, mowing, deadheading, or harvesting (excepting one catnip harvest).

I have felt guilty all summer. My backyard looks like weeds and shrubs run amok (which it is). But here is what I experienced:

More monarchs than I’ve seen in any year before. Possibly because I had a lot more milkweed. I’ve been trying to get more milkweed in my yard for several years, and this year I had a bumper crop (some even in the front yard!). I love the milkweed because of monarchs, but also because it reminds me of being a kid, finding milkweed pods in late summer and pulling them apart and blowing out the seeds. I still enjoy doing it—every bit as fun as blowing the fluff off dandelions—and your neighbors don’t mind so much with milkweed.

My lack of care didn’t hurt the cactus at all. They had a mighty bloom, and continue to spread. I also continue to spread them, as they encroach on the sidewalk (they are prolific!): Cut off the pad at the joint, take it to a different part of the gravel side-garden bordering the south side of the house, scrape away the stones, set down the pad, pour a few teaspoons of water over it (or not), and forget it forevermore (except to check on it and look at it frequently, which helps ignored plants grow).

The rabbits have been quite fun to watch this summer, and in July there were several babies. After a week away in early August, on our return, I noted only one of the young rabbits left nosing around the yard, and so it has remained. Until tonight, when something startled the backyard denizens: First, the young rabbit shoots out from under the dogwoods, heading east. Seconds later a smaller rabbit follows its path. Two little rabbits! And I consider myself such a good observer of nature….

And speaking of the dogwoods, they have become hugely overgrown and are taking up nearly a quarter of the backyard. But I think by no coincidence, I also added five new birds to my yard list: ovenbird (be still my heart!), Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, Connecticut warbler, and eastern wood pewee. All sighted in, under, or around the overgrown unsightly dogwoods.

Saving the best for last: A few weeks ago I was writing at the table in the kitchen, and I glanced out the window (this was early evening), and just winding around the corner of the flower bed, a—what are you?? My mind scrambled, searching. Big (not squirrel or rabbit) with a snout like a pig! What?? And it was white (not all white, but whiteish).

This is an animal I have never seen before, and I am seeing it here, right in my back yard in Minneapolis. I could only think it might be an opossum, even though in my mind they were brown and much much smaller.

It moseyed around the flower bed. after which I moseyed to google, to find out I had indeed had an opossum wend its way through my untended yard. This, to me, is the royal flush of urban wildlife.

Maybe won’t clean up my backyard so much come spring after all.

Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

June Reprise

June was your basic lazy summer month. I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction and 3 poetry). The theme for the month was award-winning books (any award will do). There was a pinch towards the end of June as I tried to finish up multiple books at once (the one drawback of having a monthly reading theme), but I managed to pull it off (even though I perhaps gave short shrift to the last 100 pages of Slaves in the Family).

There were two major league standouts: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (fiction), a novel that takes place during WW2, from alternating perspectives of a young French girl who is blind, and a German boy who becomes a soldier (at age 16) even though he doesn’t believe in the Nazi creed. Short compelling chapters made for several fine afternoons of reading on the front porch.

The other particularly notable book of June was Things That Are, by Amy Leach. One could call these nature essays, or one could call them flights of fancy. They could also qualify as prose poetry; the writing is often playful and sometimes humorous, delightful and whimsical. I also learned a lot about sea cucumbers and jellyfish.

I’ve been tending the garden, harvesting rhubarb, blueberries, and calendula and just starting to see raspberries. I opted out of growing any vegetables this year, since with the exception of tomatoes I tend to fail miserably. More room for rosemary and chamomile!

A major highlight of June was seeing South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater. I had never seen it before (either the play or the movie) and it was wonderful! I knew many of the songs, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” which I associated with Clairol hair coloring, but not a musical. Good humor and great dancing. I Love the Guthrie; it rarely disappoints.

Minor highlights: I got rid of several more bags of books (what a good feeling!); of course this makes room for more books, which is also a good feeling. One of my favorite restaurants closed—Le Town Talk Diner. A sad day. And I continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, sent on postcards to my friend in Montana)—nearly three years now! Here are some of my favorites from June:

another bag gone
gently used books seek new home,
a new adventure

adieu Le Town Talk
you have loved and served us well
I will miss your quiche

out the front window
two swallowtail butterflies
in the lilac tree

award-winning books
just a few days to finish
six hundred pages

Happy summer and good reading!

Early Summer Harvest

Summer officially arrived last week, and I’ve now had my first official harvest of summer, small though it may be. Yesterday the blueberries started to peak. Last year I got about three blueberries (first year of the plants). Yesterday I harvested 10, and several more today. I expect I may get at least 30 blueberries this year. I find this trend (can it be a trend with only two data points?) very encouraging and plan to add one or two more blueberry plants to the patch. Perhaps in a few years I’ll get a few pints of blueberries.

But I have to say this: Even bringing in just 10 blueberries, grown in my ownimgres yard, is a fine feeling.

I’ve also harvested my first round of yarrow, and maybe a dozen calendula flowers. The calendula are just starting to come in strong, and soon I’ll need a basket rather than my hand to hold the blossoms. (I always feel a little like Morticia Addams when I snip off the brightly blooming flower.)

The hops are finally starting to hop. They’ve been growing and spreading marvelously, and finally today I saw the first incipient hop flower. Yes! The hops are coming! I have grown quite enamoured of hops—primarily as a sleep aid. (Wake up at 2:30 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep? Try a wee bit of hops tincture.) Hops are also good for aiding digestion and queasy stomachs, and they can produce a calming effect in a highly anxious state. A lovely plant that I have found unbelievably easy to grow.

The currants are also in harvest mode. Happily, the birds have left me enough this year to enjoy (last year, they completely beat me to it). Currants fresh off the bush are exceptionally good with rye bread, cheese, and olives.

Slightly off the harvesting theme: My prickly pear cactus flowered last week! It has never flowered before (I’ve had it about five years)—they were beautiful yellow flowers. I saw two of them, but in the end I saw there had been five. This is a lesson to me: Pay attention when the cactus blossoms; it all happens within just a very few days. This is an exceptional and beautiful thing. You can’t put it off to the weekend.

But that’s the thing about this time of year. Everything is happening. An embarrassment of lushness, so much fecundity, it is impossible to appreciate it all. Every moment. Every moment something miraculous is happening.

Tonight I was watching the bees on the hydrangeas. First I saw the large bumblebees, then smaller bees, then other pollinators that looked more like flies. For most of my life I’ve been unreasonably freaky-afraid of bees. Tonight as I was watching the bees on the hydrangea, they clearly had no interest in me. They were all about the flower. And the patterns were so interesting, and I kept leaning in closer and closer, quite proud of myself for acknowledging how unconcerned these bees were about me. When one of the larger bees left the bush to fly around my head I took little notice, knowing it would shortly return to the flowers.

Except I was wrong. It did not return to the flowers. I stepped back a couple of feet, knowing it would return to the flowers then. Wrong again. I kept stepping back, it kept following me. Circling me. Possibly darting at me. My old fear returned, and I ran to the house.

But I’ll go back tomorrow. There were so many different bees, I want to pay more attention. I like to know what’s in my backyard.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?