Thursday, August 26, 2010

Loving my olive oil jar

This week while granddaughter Hailey and I were on slug patrol in the garden, she found a mini-potato that got away when I harvested. “It’s a baby,” she told me. “It got lost from its mama.” Pointing to the ginko tree above us—“that’s its mama.” Then she looked doubtful, since there isn’t a lot of family resemblance between a ginko and a spud. In Hailey’s world, any small version of a bigger thing is a baby. She puts her capital and lower-case letter magnets together on the fridge so they won’t miss each other and be sad, and she worries about the ones that don’t look alike—such as Q and q—because they don’t fit the pattern.

This got me thinking about the scope of human ability to anthropomorphize. I buy my olive oil and tamari in bulk, and I have been using the same two bottles for at least a decade. They still have their increasingly faded original labels, but other than that they are just plain old glass jars. But I realized the other day while washing out the tamari bottle that, like Hailey, I am busy generalizing in ways that don’t always make sense. I feel affection for that piece of glass. It’s been a partner in hundreds of meals and I like having it around. I would be sad, at least briefly, if I lost or broke it. I’ve read a lot about people who hoard compulsively. Some of them collect objects from dumpsters because they feel sorry for them. Or they can’t throw away a worn-out shirt because they don’t want to hurt its feelings.

That’s crazy thinking. Those of us who have experienced hoarding up close know that worrying about the feelings of old clothes is more likely to create a festering, moldy mess than a closet full of cheerful Disney-style clothing, murmuring affirmations behind the door. (Well, the clothes may indeed be alive, but not in a good way.) Still, those crazy thoughts spring from the same epiphanies that lead—I hope--to wiser choices. John Muir wrote: “Anything you pick up, you find the whole universe is attached.” I have that quote on my wall, in my dad’s handwriting, because it reminds me of his habit of collecting quotes and phrases he liked, and because it reminds me to pay attention as I pick up and then toss away pieces of this universe. I also like another quote that is supposed to come from Northwest potlatch culture: “the gift must always move.” Maybe I’ll put that one up too, to remind me that we don’t always serve our attachments best by hanging on to them. But I’m keeping those bottles.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hazily hectic

In this last week before schools starts up, the garden and the weather seem to mirror my mood. The morning light is hazy and it's hard to get things in focus. In my house, that manifests as a slew of little projects that have reached the now or probably-not-till-winter-break stage--my mending, a mostly crocheted hat, a book proposal for my parents' wartime correspondence, repainting the bathroom where my granddaughter experimented with tinted moisturizer as a fresco medium. Along with those piles and notes are the lengthening list of school-related notes and ideas. A couple of friends sent a youtube link of a three-year-old reciting Billy Collins. What a great way to start off AP lit, but I need to do some research on the poem. I came across an audio download of one of our students being interviewed about his record-breaking running (go Oli!). Can I play that in journalism class so we can analyze the questions and come up with better ones? We need to establish our website for the online school paper. But I want to go kayaking again too while the weather holds. And I need a haircut. It's really not that I'm busier than usual; it's the transitional feeling that makes it hard to prioritize. Plan for the future or live for today? Late summer feels a little like being a teenager again.

The garden is in a similar state. I bought some indeterminate tomato varieties this year, and as usual was too cheap to buy cages for them, so they are spilling over and around their little stakes and brush supports. That's a kabocha squash climbing up the overgrown California lilac and threatening to swallow the new blueberry bush. The blueberry will get enough sun--I hope-- when that last upright branch is pruned, which I guess I won't do until the squash is ready, since it is reaching for the light anyway it can. My yard really doesn't get enough sun for happy squash and peppers, but I am compelled to grow them. The big round flowers are last year's leeks, starting to droop as their seeds get heavier. Maybe I'll remember to cut the heads and save the seed this fall, or maybe they will selfsow where they will. On the right is a little seedbed for lettuce and kale. I'm thinning them for salads now and will transplant some to the pots on the deck once the eggplants and cherry tomatoes are out. Over on the left under the ginko tree is some endive and a bunch of arugula that I don't remember planting. When the ginko drops its leaves, that little patch will get what winter sun there is, assuming I remember to clear out the leaves. They tend to fall all in one night, responding to some ancient signal know only to ginkos, and form a slick, impenetrable mat unless removed.

In spring and early summer this is the flower garden, and who knows what the anenomes and scabiosas and lilies are up to under this onslaught of vegetation. And what ever happened to the purple amaranth? I sowed it, it came up, and then it vanished.

The bare patch of fence in the back will be taken over by hardy kiwi next year if trends continue, and I think I had better build a higher support or it will march on over into the raspberries in the alley.

Summer's end.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Romanian food, part 1

Happy hogs at the sheepfold where we had an epic party. This is a long way from factory farms.

I spent 16 days in Romania in June and July, singing, dancing and eating with the Kulshan Chorus.

Nearly every meal featured soup. One night we had lamb soup followed by mutton stew. After a few days I started keeping a soup diary. Here are some of the combinations:

In Botiza –Moldavia

Vegetarian cream of potato with green and yellow beans, served in the priest’s pavilion

Carrot, cauliflower, green pepper, in beef stock with small pasta

Pork stew

At the sheepfold outside Gura Humurului (say that 3 times fast)

Soup—lamb shanks, lamb broth, onion, carrot, red sweet pepper, potato, amaranth (maybe), sour cream

Mutton stew with a rich tomato meat stock

In Transylvania

Chicken broth with potatoes, slivers of carrot, tarragon, ham hock

Potato, carrot, broth, with sausage

Leek, potato, and maybe a bit of squash

Meresti Village

Potato soup

This is only a sampling. It took me awhile to start writing them down.

The soup I would love to try and only heard about, from Dan our mensch of a guide, is Nettle Ciorba.

I've made ciorbas. They are a Romanian specialty that is a bit like Greek egg lemon soup, with sauerkraut or sour cream instead of the lemon. Dan said in his family it was an early spring dish, using

young nettles
sour cream

Nearly every Romanian household that is not stuck in one of those depressing Soviet-era apartment blocks keeps a small laying flock, so a fresh egg is easy. The nettles can be gathered at the edge of the woods. Carrots, and onions are long-keeping garden staples, and at least the country households make their own sour cream in quantity. Except for the rice--and you could substitute potatoes--most people could make this without a trip to the store. During the 1970s and '80s when food was increasingly scarce, this was no small benefit. Mushroom ciorba, another classic, makes use of the giant boletes found in abundance in the Transylvanian mountains.

Another reliable serving was cabbage: fresh cabbage with a bit of salt; occasional sauerkraut, which becomes a staple in winter; cabbage salad with cucumbers and tomatoes, and of course cabbage in soup. It was excellent cabbage, fresh and crisp, although I did start to wonder what was happening to all those beans we kept seeing in gardens. They didn't show up in our meals and a change of pace would have been welcome.

Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Potato salad at breakfast. Fried potatoes, roast potatoes, potato soup.

Romanian food, part 2

The Standard Cheese Plate

This basic combination was repeated many times in our trip to Romania, most memorably at a sheepfold party where we walked up (and staggered down, many glasses of palinka later) a steep hill to the shepherd's worksite, where they make the daily fresh cheese, feed the hogs, and milk the cows before dispersing again to the pastures with their flocks and enormous mountain dogs.

The more textured cheese is caş, made daily from sheep's milk. It is tangy and moist, with a flavor like dry cottage cheese. The more uniform looking cheese is urda, made from the liquid left after the caş solidifies--the same basic process used for ricotta. Like ricotta it is very mild, but more solid and richer. Sometimes it is made from a combination of sheep and goat's milk. Either way, It's wonderful stuff, served at all meals and also used to stuff savory pastries such as plăcintă, a filled bread that also has dill.

Parsley and smoked pork fat round out the presentation.