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.

Garden Snapshot 7.28.14

The eyes on this bee remind me of an alien, sort of.

There is a drama of birdly proportions going on in my front yard.  The crows are strutting around in the grass, searching for whatever it is they like to eat, some of them panting open-beaked already from the heat even though it is not yet 10 a.m.  The mockingbirds are admonishing them from a distance, perched on power lines.  One crow is bobbling on a branch of the neighbor’s dogwood tree while two mockingbirds ‘greech-greech’ at him, and take turns dive-bombing.  In the war of birds, crows would be the infantry; mockingbirds the fighter pilots.  The crow hops to a lower branch of the dogwood, which makes the mockingbirds even more agitated; do they have a nest there?  There is quite a commotion.  I briefly consider going outside to yell at the crow but, since I’m currently braless and haven’t finished my first cup of coffee, I reconsider.  And anyway, crow needs to eat, too.

The crow has moved on from the dogwood, but still the mockingbirds are going after him; there are three now, they’ve called for reinforcement.  Maybe it’s just a territory thing?  The birds are an opera, and I don’t have the program to tell me what act we’re in.

This summer is shaping up to be a summer of fruits.

The peaches ripened and I savored them, allowing myself one every day until they were gone, and in case you are thinking that there is nothing as self-satisfying as a peach, plucked from a tree you planted & mulched & tended-to, eaten while still-warm from the sun, well, you’d be right.  If I were a peacock I’d fan my feathers out about it.

The blueberries are tapering off, while the figs have suddenly come in with a heavy, honeyed abundance.  It’s hard to keep up with them; I haven’t had much time for baking the last couple of weeks, and even less time for canning, so I may resort to the strategy I used last year: slicing the stems off and popping them straight into the freezer to deal with later (although in all honesty, I never ‘dealt’ with them, I just hid them in smoothies (Andy declares that he hates a fig and will never eat one, owing to some unfortunate experiences with fig newtons when he was a kid)).

The ‘winter’ greens that went to seed (arugula, kale, mustard) have been sprouting where I scattered them; most of them low and slow, staying just an inch or so tall.

The squash are blossoming, but not setting fruit (setting vegetable?).  I’m thankful, at least, that the vine borers haven’t taken them out—yet.

I’ve been getting handfuls of currant tomatoes, those sweet tiny gems, but nothing ripe yet from the slicers or paste tomatoes.  My mom and I both vow that we will get our gardens in earlier next year.  I say that every year, but gardening is like a drug in that way: you are always chasing that first high, though in this case my ‘high’ is the one summer I harvested baskets upon baskets of tomatoes, some of them as big as my face.

I have two melons; both of them appeared overnight.  In each case, I had walked around the garden a day or two before, observing and checking-in, and then!  next time, a melon appeared, already bigger than a baseball.  It keeps me on my toes, and makes me think of writing a children’s book about the melon fairy, only I know that I won’t because I would have the main character exclaim, at some point, “Hot shit!” about her magic melons, and thusly lose my G-rating.

The cowpeas are two feet tall now; I had thought they would be creepers but they seem to want to be climbers.  I think I heard somewhere that the new growth of leaves and stems are edible, similar to spinach if cooked.  I just may try it; they are outpacing my tomatoes in terms of height.

The green beans are blooming, their purple flowers like ladies’ fancy hats, or like snapdragons.

The sunflowers are on a sad listing angle after the hurricane, yet they continue to bloom.  The black-eyed susans & coneflower are blooming, the dahlias still slow to spread their petals.

The flowers keep the garden abuzz in bees and such, and sometimes butterflies.  It means there is always something to look at, and it cracks me up to see the bees practically rolling in pollen, packing their leg-pouches full, ending up with yellow dust all over their bodies and enjoying every second of it.

A Story About a Goose & Also A Blueberry Sauce

I have a recipe for a raw blueberry sauce to tell you about (so simple & fresh; similar to this) but first I have to tell you about a goose, since it’s because of the goose that we became the lucky recipients of a gallon(!) of freshly-picked blueberries.

One of our friends lives in Lake Waccamaw.  Her house is on the lake and it is full of windows and quiet, peaceful views.  And she has a pet goose that lives in the backyard.

Though, it is not really her ‘pet,’ per se, it is maybe more of a mascot?  Or maybe it is just a creature of habit who enjoyed nesting at the base of her tree, and who our friend took pity on and brought her fresh bowls of water and scraps of bread while she was brooding so she wouldn’t starve.

Anyway, the goose became friendly with her, and began visiting her back door on a daily basis, quietly honking to request her bread rations, and—occasionally—allowing herself to be petted in exchange for said bread rations (whole-wheat, preferably; she does not care for white).

The goose has had sort of a sad life, I’m sorry to tell you.  One spring she sat on her nest for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks, and though she grew weaker and skinnier, nothing happened within the nest.  Her mate kept a watchful eye on her from the water, never straying more than 50 feet away, but still; it became clear that nothing was going to hatch from her nest, though she would keep sitting there until she died.

So Andy and his friend took pity on her; they picked her up and carried her to the water, where she was met with much honking and excitement by her mate.  They looked in her nest only to find…a golf ball.  The goose was trying to hatch a golf ball.

And then the goose’s mate died. (Andy’s theory is that someone shot him because they were tired of his honking.  He may have also used the word ‘redneck’ to describe that someone, but I am not here to name-call).

The goose was sad, you guys, to have lost her mate, and maybe also a little bereft to not have been able to hatch her golf ball.  She swam around by herself honking, calling for her lost mate and generally looking very lonely.  There is a children’s book story here, I am sure of it.

Later that summer she ended up adopting a small flock of ducklings whose mother had died, and everyone was happy: she herded the little ducklings around and honked at them, and they swam behind her in the lake.  And it was so freaking cute!  I can’t even tell you, but it was.  The ducklings were trying to be a goose, and the goose was finally a mom, and she had purpose and companionship.  I told you there was a children’s book story here!

The ducklings grew into ducks, and still they stayed a companionable flock: after all, how much difference is there between a duck and a goose?  They both swim, they both have feathers and can fly if they have to.

You may notice the duck following the goose into the house. I am pretty certain that what is going on here is illegal.

Well, things were fine, and then: one morning our friend woke up to find the goose had a broken wing; bent somehow and twisted backwards, the bird in distress.

So she did what any mascot-caretaker would do: she took the goose to the wildlife rehabilitator.

I’m really regretting that I didn’t ask for more details, because how does one capture and transport a 30-lb. injured goose 50 miles in a car without a crate?, and I am partly imagining the scene from Forget Paris with the pigeon, but mostly imagining a lot of distraught honking and possibly only minor hair-disheveling.

There was good news and bad news from the wildlife rehabilitator: The good news was, the goose would survive.  The bad news was that they might have to amputate her wing, and, if they did, they would likely release her to a nearby farm that had a pond and a few other aquatic fowl.  Which is not so terrible, really, if you are a goose, but it is a little saddening if the goose has been your friendly mascot for several years and have grown quite fond of her presence, and her honking personality and requests for bread.

To console herself, and because it was nearby, our friend went blueberry-picking.

And I think that goose must have meant a lot to her, or maybe she just had a lot of time on her hands, or she is a really fast blueberry-picker, but she picked a lot of blueberries.

She showed up at our house with a gallon bucket-full, saying, these are for you, and I said, Are you sure?  Did you save some for yourself? and she said Oh yes, I’m actually going to stop by and visit all my aunts and give some to them, too.

So I guess she is a very fast blueberry-picker, or maybe that goose kind of meant a lot to her, or maybe a little of both.

We have several of our own, by the way: blueberry plants. (Though: I really want a pet goose now, too).

Andy & I bought a foreclosure and, while hacking away at some overgrown shrubs, we found out that it came with several mature blueberry plants; six-foot tall shrubs drooping with berries and producing just fine in spite of a stranglehold of vines.

What I guess I’m trying to say is: we’ve been swimming in blueberries, which is a lucky fate indeed; twice a week I harvest a half-basketful and freeze them for smoothies.

On top of that, I’ve found a copse of them in the woods; they are wild berries, small and with seeds that crunch beneath your teeth, but a flavor oh-so-much-greater, a flavor like the truest-blue that a blueberry could ever be.

I’ve been making things with our windfall.  Besides smoothies there have been whole-wheat muffins; a pie similar to this but with added cream cheese; and a blueberry sauce, to serve atop ice cream or shortcake, or, I bet, delicious over a slab of toasted pound cake, still warm from the oven.

Blueberry Sauce Recipe
adapted from Lee Bailey’s ‘Soup Meals’
The original recipe was for a blackberry buckle with blackberry sauce; I subbed blueberries and the buckle ended up being nothing special (sort of dry & crumbly, like a coffee cake), but the sauce is a keeper, and easy, too.  I reduced the sugar as it seemed too sweet for me; adjust to your personal preference.
1 cup fresh blueberries
5 Tablespoons powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Mash all ingredients together or puree with a blender or food processor.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Shit My Guy Says: In Which he Explains the Differences Between the Big Box Stores

My Guy: The next time you go to Sam’s could you get me some Goop [hand cleaner/degreaser]?

Me: Yeah. They don’t have it at Costco?

My Guy: No.

Me: I wonder why not?

My Guy: Because people who shop at Costco don’t work on their own cars. They pay people to do it for them.