Shit My Guy Says: The Old Rocker Edition

Andy: Oh my god, they’re so old, Fleetwood Mac.  They’re older than your mom.

Me: I’m putting that on the blog.

Andy: No, don’t, it might not even be true.  We should find out how old they are first. [A few Wikipedia searches later:] Well they are older than your mom.  But you still shouldn’t say it, that’s an insult to your mom.

At least one reason to look forward to daylight savings time

It’s dark in the mornings now, so I guess that’s as good an excuse as any for why I’ve been wearing my underwear inside out all day.

Simply Delicious Fried Eggplant

If and when you first start thumbing through cookbooks (or the internet) for eggplant recipes, you are going to be faced with a question: To Salt, or Not to Salt?

What I mean is: some recipes call for salting your eggplant after you have sliced and/or diced and/or peeled it and letting them sit in a colander for 20-30 minutes to drain off the juices.  The theory being that the salt draws out the bitter juices and/or keeps the eggplant from absorbing too much oil when you cook it.

I used to Not Salt, simply because I had no idea that there was a whole camp of people out there telling you To Salt.  When I found out that I was (maybe) supposed to be salting my eggplant, I was wracked with guilt.  I had been cooking it wrong!  It could have tasted so much more delicious!

I usually continued to Not Salt, however, because I couldn’t be bothered by the extra steps, by the extra planning ahead.  I still cooked it the same as before, only now I got to feel guilty about it!

Did it really make that much of a difference? I wondered.

Well I’m here to tell you: It depends.

I made some fried eggplant the other day, and I salted the sliced rounds because I had the time and because The Victory Garden Cookbook told me to, saying that it would keep the eggplant from soaking up too much oil.

Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but when I fried them they did seem to not soak up as much oil; when we ate them they did seem to taste sweeter.

So I guess the verdict is: if you’re going to fry them, Salt them first (or just don’t add much oil to the pan).  If you’re baking them, don’t bother.

These are good as a side dish to pretty much anything (pasta with marinara especially), or leftover on toast as an open-faced sandwich.  The breading is barely-there; just enough for extra flavor, but not so much that you feel like, “Hey!  I’m eating breading!”

Simple Fried Eggplant Recipe
1 eggplant, sliced into ½” thick rounds
salt
~1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
vegetable oil

Place your eggplant slices into a colander, salting each layer of eggplant well before adding more slices.  Let sit 20-30 minutes, then rinse well and let drain.

Dump your flour out on a plate.  Add plenty of salt and pepper and stir to combine.

Heat about 2 Tablespoons of oil in a large pan over medium heat.

Press each side of sliced eggplant into the flour mixture, making sure each side is evenly coated.  There shouldn’t be any clumps sticking to it.  Shake off any excess flour, and add eggplant to the frying pan, adding as many slices as will fit without crowding.  The oil should be hot enough that the eggplant sizzles lightly when you add it, but not so hot that it crackles or spatters—adjust your heat as needed.

Fry 4-5 minutes, adding more oil if the eggplant seems to be sticking to the pan.  Flip each slice over when golden brown, and fry on the other side until cooked through, adding more oil as you go (just enough to slick the pan).

Place the cooked eggplant on a paper towel-lined plate while you cook the rest of the slices.  Serve while warm, with additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed.

How to Make a Pesto that Doesn’t Turn Brown

For as long as I’ve been making pesto, I’ve always been annoyed by how quickly the pesto turned brown.  The flavor was fine, but as soon as you stirred it into pasta, or left it out in a bowl, it would turn an unappealing, unappetizing shade of brown.

I tried putting saran wrap on top.  That didn’t work.  I tried adding lemon juice; that didn’t work, either.  I tried freezing it immediately; that worked while it was frozen, but as soon as it thawed…back to brown.

But then: I learned that I should blanch the basil first.  And that worked.  My pesto stayed a vibrant, healthy shade of green.

Anyway, this isn’t really a recipe; it’s just to say: blanch your basil before making your pesto.  Dunk it in boiling water for about ten seconds, rinse it in cool water (or dunk it in an ice bath if that doesn’t seem like too much work for what has now become such a small amount of basil) and pat it dry.  Put all the leaves in your food processor, add your garlic, olive oil, pine nuts (or walnuts) and parmesan (optional).  Blitz it all together until well-combined, adding more olive oil if needed to reach desired consistency, and adding salt to taste.

Voila.  Pesto that doesn’t turn brown.

Garden Snapshot 9.29.14

September seems to be the time of year that the garden sighs with ease: after suffering through the heat of August, the plants begin to blossom and set fruit again.  There are several green tomatoes; green beans; tomatillos; peppers; watermelon.

And yet: it’s a shifting time, too.  I’ve started seedlings for the cool-weather crops (lettuces, kale, carrots, beets and collard greens; this year I’m going to try overwintering onions), and it’s time to start thinking about where in the garden all of them are going to go, time for jockeying space & needs so that the fall veggies can already be in the ground when the summer veggies die back from frost.  The mums are full of buds and about to bloom.

The standout of the garden this year, the winner-winner-chicken-dinner, were the whippoorwill cowpeas.  They grew like crazy and produced endless clusters of pods crammed full of 16-20 peas.  The other day my neighbor called out to me from his car as he drove past: “I can see those beans need pickin’ from all the way out here!”  Which was true; they did need picking.

I’ve gotten nearly a pound of dried beans from just six plants, not to mention the fact that they’ve been adding nitrogen to the soil while they’re at it.  I’ve tried growing shell beans in the past, and every time they have failed, miserably.  Most times I don’t think I even got back as many beans/seeds as I’d planted.

I guess I learned that there’s a reason that cowpeas have always been a staple in the South, and it’s because they not only survive in heat and poor soil–they thrive.  These things grow like damn kudzu. [Cowpeas are also known as field peas, and include black-eyed peas, among other varieties].

The whippoorwill peas are a slightly mottled brown; we’ll be using them this winter as a substitute for pinto & kidney beans in soups and burritos.  They cook up much quicker than other beans would–no soaking, no pressure-cooking, no hours-on-the-stove–I made a pot of them in about 30 minutes.  I’m already planning, next year, to grow also a white cowpea and a black one; I’m envisioning a future where I’ll never have to buy dried (or canned) beans from the store again. Bean self-sufficiency!  I’m working on it.

Anyway, before I wax too rhapsodic about the cowpeas and make you think I’m a bean-lunatic or something, let’s move on.

It hasn’t been all delight and easy-growing in the garden this summer.  Behold, the list of problems (failures? challenges?) I’ve encountered:

  • The cucumbers all came down with (what I think is) mosaic virus, and died.  In the past week or so one of them has started growing back from the root, but I don’t have much hope for it.
  • The melons have had a similar problem (not the watermelons, just the cantaloupe/honeydews)–maybe powdery mildew or something from all the rain?  I’ve lost three different melon vines, two of them just before the fruit was ripe.  It was pretty disappointing.
  • There is a mole (or two? or three?) in the yard/garden.  Most recently he consumed a perfectly lovely coneflower, but previously he has eaten sweet potato plants, celery plants, flower bulbs and I forget what else, but I’m sure there were many others, things I’ve blocked from my memory. Anyway, this was the last straw; I’m off to Harbor Freight to buy some of those solar mole-chasers.  Fingers crossed that they work (online reviews have been mixed).
  • Bugs!  These black-and-orange things have really done a number on whatever cool-weather plants I had left in the garden–cabbage, arugula, brussels sprouts, kale.  At first I thought they were neat-looking, then I realized they were eating everything the hell up and decided to kill them.  The battle is ongoing.

    I'm a horrible person.

One bright spot, though, is the tomatillo.  I’ve tried growing them for several years running, and every time they’ve grown tall and spread-out all over–but.not.one.tomatillo.  This year I actually have some, their papery husks like chinese lanterns, but there still probably won’t be enough to make a salsa.

The sunflowers have all gone to seed, and the birds are delighted.  I sit at my window and watch them flitter around, balancing on the dead flowerhead and snatching seed.

The blackberry vine made its way to our front door, did a U-turn in the siding, and has grown back across the front porch and returned to the yard.  By this time next year, I’m sure it will have reached the street, hopped the bus, and gone across town to see a movie.

Andy and I have been playing the ‘Hot or Not’ game this summer.  How it works is, I harvest a bunch of peppers that I have no idea what they are, hand one to him and say, “Try this.  I don’t know if it’s hot or not.”  Usually he answers ‘not.’  One of the mystery peppers, I recently learned, is a cubanelle (I think.  I may have already forgotten and be making this up completely).  The others, I have no idea.  But they are going gangbusters, especially this purple one.

The garlic I neglected to harvest this summer (what’s new) has sprouted; just a reminder that it’s time for you to start getting yours in the ground now too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’m enjoying it while it lasts, this tapering-off of summer; I’m planting cilantro and making final batches of pesto, letting the season slide.

hashtag Dogs hashtag Great Ideas

Gonna write a book of scary stories for dogs.  It’ll be called: And Then the Vacuum…

Also will include a story titled: The UPS Man Only Knocks Once…Before he Steals Your Soul with his Truck.

In other news, I vacuumed the house today.  And now Snooki has the shakes, pretty sure these two things are unrelated.

You Should Probably

Write a note like this to someone you know.

Sign your own name, though.  And also probably don’t give it to a coworker, I’m pretty sure that would be considered sexual harassment.

Recently added to the list of features our dream home would have: a pond.

So that we could keep baby turtle as a pet!

Seriously, this guy was smaller than the palm of my hand (and I have pretty small hands, just ask Andy, who likes to wonder out loud how I made it this far in life being so small and weak-limbed).  My mom and I had much discussion over whether he was a water turtle or not.  He’s totally a water turtle, look at his arms!  He’s trying to swim across bricks!

I don’t really have much to say about this except: the moss; the light!  Late September’s slanting rays are here again.

And finally: I wouldn’t mind having this as a tableau in my backyard:

But on the other hand, I dunno, you’d kinda be staring at lions’ butts all day and wondering where your bird flew off to.

These pictures all would have been so much better if I hadn’t taken them with a phone.  For the record.

Feeling Like a Drowned Rat

I know it may not have been 40 days of rain yet, but I’m really wishing I had started building my ark a lot sooner.

One of the Best

I always thought that as I got older, losing pets would get easier.  Or maybe not easier, but more bearable, somehow.  Well, in some ways it has and in some ways it hasn’t.  Because they are still a pet, dammit, still that wet-nosed, soft-eyed face of love that greets you everyday—multiple times of day, even, every time you walk into the room—with happiness and a thumping tail, still the creature that believes in you with utmost, unceasing trust and turns to you with a soft underbelly.

Lily died a few weeks ago, and as far as dog deaths go I suppose it was the best one could have hoped for—she was her same old self, active (though slower) and not appearing to be in much pain.  Her appetite waned and so my mom boiled her a chicken and fried gizzards for her, and at the end she simply walked across the house, lay down in her bed, and stopped breathing.

She was a good dog.  In my memory bank, filed under Dogs I Have Known, she will remain one of the best, one of the most dog-ly.

She was a golden girl, a sunlight basker, a mole-killer, a deep hole-digger.  She once ran across the (busy) highway to roll around in some shoulder road-kill, and we didn’t realize it until we heard some semis suddenly downshifting and thought to wonder why.  When I ran out and saw her there, across the highway, my heart dropped and—as a friend of mine once said—“I had to reach down and pick my heart up outta my shoe”.  I crossed the road in a panic, barely noticing the cars, and when she saw me she wagged her tail, dropped her shoulder and wallowed once more in dead animal, and ran towards me grinning wildly as only a part pit-bull can.

She was a front-seat-sitter, a bed sharer, a gentle-mouthed treat-taker, a patient beggar.  She did this thing where, when you were standing, she pushed her snout between your legs until her entire muzzle disappeared up to her eyeballs.  She would close her eyes and stand there while you rubbed her ears, occasionally pressing her face more insistently against you if she thought you were slacking off in the ear-rubbing department.  We called it Face-time, long before the iPhone even existed.  She would stand there for what seemed like forever, quietly enjoying her ear massage.

She was a fireworks-fearer, a (brief) thundershirt-wearer, a cat tolerator (she liked the soft feel of their fur on her nose), a beach wanderer, a bad-weather barometer.  When a thunderstorm was on its way (or present), she would try to find a safe space where she could pant incessantly and shift positions often, never able to get comfortable.  Often she would sit, facing into a corner like a child being punished, but sometimes she would crawl onto the floorboards of the car, curling up around the pedals, her face by the accelerator.

She had an unequivocal dislike of trash trucks and UPS men, and an enthusiastic joy in crunching the bones of dead animals.  She fully inhabited her life as a dog and, thusly, ours.

So long, Lily.  You were one of the best.

Sorry about that time I ran over you with the truck.*  I didn’t know you were napping there, but I’m glad you never realized that I was the one who was driving.

*She had no injuries, for the record.

The Art of Noticing & A Wild Cherry Spritzer

For three years now I’ve been walking the dog on the same path through the woods.

For three years we have walked through a litter of leaf and pine-straw, the seasons melting together like butter; the chorus of frogs in summer, the hushed early-darkness of winter.

And for three years I haven’t really noticed the woods, not really: they’ve been merely a blurred brown backdrop that we’ve clobbered through, stopping occasionally to sniff (the dog) or tie a shoe (me).

But this year I’ve been paying better attention: noticing, in spring, the one tree with clusters of white flowers arranged in a way that made me hope it was, perhaps, a mulberry; noticing, in June, the patch of wild blueberries, knee-high and with powder-blue fruit.

If it weren’t for the noticing, I wouldn’t have remembered that the tree I saw two weeks ago drooping with tiny black fruit was the same tree I thought was perhaps-a-mulberry in spring.  I wouldn’t have come home to research it (i.e. google ‘tree with small round black fruit’) and, when I researched it, I wouldn’t have remembered the shape of the leaves (oval and edged with tiny teeth), or the texture of the bark (grayish-brown and semi-smooth; reminiscent of my mom’s Yoshino cherry tree), or how the flowers hung in racemes (the technical term I learned via ‘research’).

If it weren’t for the noticing, I would have never known what a wild black cherry tree looks like, or that its fruit is edible.  I would probably have never known that they existed at all.

Once I knew what it was, I began seeing them everywhere—five, six more along the same path, two more in the overgrown thickets between houses.

I think that the art of noticing is a practice I’ve cultivated through gardening, that gardening is as much about noticing as it is about sowing & harvesting.  That is, if you don’t notice the flea-beetle holes in the eggplant leaves, or the frass below the stem of a squash, or the yellow veining of a cucumber leaf, it’s all too easy to lose the whole crop, to let pests & disease spread.  Likewise, if you don’t notice which varieties of vegetables are most productive, or best-flavored, then you set yourself up for garden mediocrity, year after year.

And I guess what I mean by noticing is: taking note.  My Uncle Bert has a notebook for this; I started one, too, but can’t seem to remember to sit down once a week (or even once a month) to jot things down.  I suppose my camera and occasional ‘Garden Snapshot’ serve that purpose, although I do really prefer the physicality of a notebook to the ephemera of a computer; I like something I can take a gluestick and colored pens to and leave sprawled out on a table without worry of spilling tea or breakfast on.

Once I knew about the wild cherries, I began to harvest them.  I noticed that one of the trees bore fruit in tighter clusters than the others, making it so much easier to pick.  That is the tree that I think I’ll be taking cuttings from, and seeing what takes root.

Wild cherries are full of anthocyanins, the antioxidants in deeply-hued veggies that are so good for us.  Which is not such a surprise considering their blackish-purple tone, or that the juice it makes is a shade much deeper than even red wine, or the fact that your hands & kitchen will look like a murder scene after picking and processing them.

I turned my wild cherries into a simple syrup; just a shot of it in a pint glass of seltzer turns the whole thing crimson; with a bit of lime and some rum, it’s the perfect end to a late-summer evening.

Wild cherries are not as sweet as cultivated cherries; they have a slight bitter undertone to them, similar to a cranberry.  Let’s call that ‘complexity.’

I would be remiss here, if I didn’t warn—like every other site I consulted—that the leaves and the pits of the wild cherry are full of cyanide (or more specifically, a cyanogenic substance that converts to cyanide during digestion), so don’t eat them.  I mean, it seems like common sense that one would NOT eat cherry pits, or cherry tree leaves, but I guess I ought to mention it since everyone else has.  They made such a big deal out of it that I was fairly certain that I was going to poison myself accidentally somehow, by perhaps inadvertently cracking the pits in my food mill, or something.  I’m here to say I’m still alive. But still: don’t eat the wild cherry pits.  Or the leaves.

If you are new to foraging (and I’ll admit it, I am), I’d say it’s best approached with one part bravado to two parts caution.  Do your research first to identify the plant, and spend time noticing it: when does it flower?  When does it fruit?  What color do the leaves turn in autumn? Any chance you could be mistaking it for something else?  The cherry laurel, for example, has leaves nearly identical to the wild cherry, and produces small black fruits the same size, and at the same time, as the wild cherry.  But cherry laurel fruits are poisonous, they are dull instead of glossy, and slightly oval and pointed at one end.  Once you’re reasonably sure you’ve correctly identified your plant/fruit and are ready to harvest, I’d also advise you to sample just a small amount the first time you eat it, just in case you have an unknown allergy.  Like I said, two parts caution.

And don’t eat the pits.

Wild Cherry Spritzer
1 oz. wild cherry simple syrup (recipe follows)
juice of ½ lime
1 oz. light rum, if desired
8-10 oz. seltzer or club soda

Combine all ingredients over ice in a pint glass, adding the cherry syrup last as it tends to settle.  Stir and serve.  Garnish with a mint sprig if desired.

Wild Cherry Simple Syrup
adapted from this recipe
2 c. wild cherries
water to cover
4-6 T. sugar

Put the cherries in a pot, and add just enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20-30 minutes until the fruit has released most of its juices.  Run the mixture through a food mill or another method of straining out the pits (cheesecloth, strainer, jelly bag, etc.).  Add sugar to taste, stirring to dissolve.  Store covered in the refrigerator up to two weeks.  This makes about one cup.  If you’re feeling ambitious, you could probably also can this as a juice, using more water and less sugar.  Consult a reputable canning book for a recipe for berry juice and process accordingly.  You’ll probably also need to have A LOT more cherries to make the canning process worth your while.

Another way to use wild cherries would be simply to soak them in liquor—rum, brandy, or vodka—for several weeks, and then strain out the fruit.