If My Song could Last Forever

Photo: Well Seasoned 1Hours into Seasons

There’s a sweetness in the morning when the sun has yet to rise

And the blooms lie, still unopened, under sleeping butterflies;

When the stars still wink and glimmer, while the frogs yet softly sing—

There’s a sweetness in the morning that is like the breath of Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 2

There’s a graciousness at midday when, amid the racing streams,

All arise and put in motion yesterday’s profoundest dreams;

When the past its chains has loosened on the race of all alive,

That in joyful forward motion we, like Summer, grow and thrive.Photo: Well Seasoned 3

There’s a calm amid the evening when the birds come to the trees’

Respite from the day of flying, echoed by our evening ease;

When the cares of noon have lessened as the dusk swept into place—

There’s a calm amid the evening, peaceful as the Autumn’s grace.Photo: Well Seasoned 4

There’s a beauty to the nighttime, glorious and peaceful bliss,

Treasured for the kind renewal of the souls that rest in this

Cradling darkness and this languor, in this place of mending rest

That, like Winter’s dormant healing, lets us wake refreshed and blessed.Photo: Well Seasoned 5

I would take these hours’ presents as my guide through seasons long,

Through a lifelong path that’s pleasant as a choir’s finest song;

I would be a seasoned traveler, happy above everything,

If my song could last forever,

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 6

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

I Fall for It Every Time

Autumn, that is. I’m kind of a sucker for all seasonal changes, but there’s something a little romantic in the sweet melancholy of seasonal natural decay and the nostalgia brought on by the beginning of each school year and cultural season that catches at my heart every year anew. Even here in the Texan climate, where autumn is likely, as this year, to arrive no sooner than winter is appearing farther north, once the Fall comes it’s a welcome joy.photo

I love the bold colors of the wild grasses and the few leaves that turn to flame before falling off the branches, and the flocking birds pausing to fill a whole grove of trees with raucous whistles and laughing chatter on their way south. I adore the loamy scent of the finally cold air tinged with wood smoke from nearby chimneys, and the perfumed indoors redolent of clove and cinnamon. I am enamored of the grey spray that airbrushes the sky on a frosty morning and the crunch of dry stems and seeds underfoot during an afternoon’s ramble. And I feel the sting of pure joy in me whenever I look up at the blazing blue of the bright autumnal sky stretching brilliantly in the spaces between the craggy oak and the spiny acacia and the hedge-apple festooned bois d’arc branches as they reach up to draw back those cerulean velvet curtains and reveal that winter’s just ahead.photo

Call me sentimental, but maybe it’s precisely this sense of brevity that makes the autumn seem so desirably rare and refined to me. Carpe diem, I think, for only in the very moment can I hope to revel in such ephemerally earthy happiness. Still, while the moment may be infinitesimal, the falling for Fall appears to be endless, and repeatable, for as long as I live.

Peaceful Shadowland

Fall and Winter have a stealthy benefit that’s often overlooked. They lend themselves, more than the ebullience and exuberance of Spring and Summer, to a sort of calming melancholia, to meditation and contemplative times. In Autumn and wintertime, the chaos of the world can be lessened and untangled without the palisade thrown up by the warmer seasons interfering with the endeavor.photo

In part, it’s simply that we are increasingly encouraged by colder and often less amenable weather to stay indoors. Indoors, where the hearth beckons, where our books lie in wait, where our writing tools stay safe from the tempests outside. Indoors, where it’s easy to keep a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa hot and handy while we spend the hours tending to those tasks of repair and renovation that have lain unnoticed when the longer days of sunlight kept pulling us away. The birds flit south and abandon their choir-lofts around the house and the other creatures begin to line their dens and curl up under porches with greater urgency, leaving the airwaves to the less inviting, darker sounds of passing traffic on wet pavement and wind whistling down the fence lines, sounds that urge us to follow our instincts and the local wildlife to seek shelter and keep quiet while the forbidding cold and darkness of the ‘off seasons’ roar through town.

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But there’s another great appeal to Fall and Winter, another aspect that captures the gentler and more introspective angles of the imagination, and that is the way that these seasons strip away their frills and wash out any fripperies that might distract us from the most basic parts of our existence. It’s the way this time of year seems to contract not just the length of its daylight hours so that we see things dimly, palely and in lengthening shade and shadows, but even the spectrum of visible color, which becomes thin and subdued in the leanness of winter light. The water recedes from the fruits and flowers and stems of summer’s abundance and leaves them slightly parched and leads them to bend and fall. The slightest breeze, now colder, finds us clutching at our lapels and jamming our raw hands as far into pockets as they can go.photo

In this beautiful world, with the color rapidly draining out of memory, the stillness of hiding and hibernation weighing us into lassitudinous introversion, and the brisk chill of frost settling around our ears and shoulders like lead, we can at last let go of the impetus to run and shout and do, if only for the joy of rediscovering what waits in the seasons of shadow. We can see the world in a sort of refined simplicity if we let ourselves. We can take these moments of clean-slate clarity to listen to our innermost selves for a bit and sort out what does and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of our lives. And we can go to sleep knowing that when the glad excesses of Spring and Summer return we will see them through new and more appreciative eyes and perhaps, yes just maybe, even find that in the midst of all that bloom and warmth and celebration we may long for the stringent joys of Fall and Winter once again.

I Don’t Mean to Scare You, But . . .

Even though Halloween itself has never been a huge event in my life, you may, just possibly, have noticed a rather dark tinge to my humor (if such a thing exists) that pervades the year regardless of its official celebrations. So I’m hardly above taking advantage of the approach of a publicly sanctioned excuse for some of my own cheap brand of funereal jocularity. I plan to shower you with gloomy silliness as the holiday nears, so if you’ve any fearful tendencies, pull up the covers and plug your ears.digital illustration from a photo + text

A Grackle
May cackle

Creeping down into October and its necromantic nights,
thrilling, chilling masqueraders revel in the season’s frights,
both imagined and uncanny, sweets in surfeit, pranks and scares,
work to raise each other’s hackles, catch out courage unawares–
And the bat and spider, ghostly visitors and ravens reign;
even crows can briefly boast the power to enchant the brain
with a Halloweenish horror, freeze the unsuspecting nape
the suggestible door-knocker turns to sky while dressed in crape–
All a-cower, cowards wander in the dim light of the moon,
hold hilarious their hauntings lest they all prove true too soon,
everyone immersed in darkness, celebrating cyclic fear
as the month and season trickle, bloodied, off to end the year–
All this rampant spookiness, however, leaves the Grackle cold:
black and iridescent bird, she perches, watches, and of old,
knows the crows‘ and ravens’ moment passes, quick as life, is gone,
and her rule o’er earthly foment, like her tail, goes on and on . . .

 

Foodie Tuesday: Un-, Ex-, De-, Out-

We are leaving one season and entering another. Time to divest ourselves of pretense and the impulse to be over-elaborate when making a change. I see people all around me worrying that their Thanksgiving menu isn’t finalized, their Fall-themed altar of mantel decor not as impressive as the next neighbor’s, and their Halloween costumes not thrilling and polished enough to accompany their hundred handmade sweets for the twenty-seven tiny Monsters who will come knocking. Better, sometimes, to enjoy simpler approaches and simpler pleasures! Autumn can be:

Uncomplicated.

Extricated from fussiness.

Demystified.

Outrageously edible.

photoAt the change of each season I do have a tendency to shift in my flavor preferences. When it’s been summer-hot out and finally becomes cool, those warming, earthy, old-fashioned and evocative spices and scents of Fall–cinnamon and cardamom, roasted roots and mushrooms, sweetly freckled pears and chalky-skinned, slightly scabby McIntosh apples (not the electronic kind, mind you) begin their annual siren songs of woodsy, sit-by-the-hearth allure. And I can go a little crazy.

[I can see you out there rolling your eyes at my gift for stating the obvious.]photo

It’s easy to go a bit wild, to be the over-swung pendulum flying to opposite extremes, when one has been long immured in the cooling pools of summer’s lovely seasonal foods and beginning to long for something different. But of course delicious flavors needn’t be exaggerated to be glorious. Sometimes the over-the-top approach is indeed precisely what I desire, since I’m a more-is-more kind of person in general, but sometimes a little subtlety is also a welcome thing. A restrained hand in the kitchen can allow a smaller assortment of lovely notes to interplay beautifully, and the pleasure of savoring one gorgeous individual taste at a time, too, can provide moments of sublime happiness that stretch well beyond the culinary.

I know this stuff perfectly well in my head, but my heart frequently scarpers off with my stomach quick as the dish with the proverbial spoon, and once again I have to calm myself and remember that there’s plenty of time in the season for me to slow down and savor the flavors before the next change arrives. It happened again last week, and I had a narrow escape from the annual autumnal overkill. I pressed aside my rabid plans for the sort of dangerously delirious feast that would’ve kept me comatose right up until the next fit of wildness did hit me at Thanksgiving. Fanning myself thoughtfully with a big spatula, I got busy making a much less complicated, sautéed and simmered, soup treat and found it as satisfying as could be.photo

Hearty Cauliflower & Mushroom Soup

Simmer 1 bunch of fresh sage leaves in 1/2 lb of pastured butter (I use salted–I’m very fond of my salt, thankyouverymuch) until the butter’s golden brown and fully infused with the herb and the leaves have given up their moisture. Strain out the leaves onto paper and let them crisp up nicely, giving them an additional sprinkle of salt if desired for crunch. Sauté 2 cups cauliflower florets and 1-1/2 cups sliced brown mushrooms (both can be fresh or frozen) in plenty of the sage butter until they’re soft and caramelized. Add a little liquid–water, dry sherry, broth, buttermilk or cream as you blend it all with a stick blender. No need to get it thin or even quite smooth: this is a rustic Fall soup, after all. Garnish it as you wish: a swirl of buttermilk or Crème fraîche, some crumbled crispy bacon, some deeply caramelized onions, or just a generous toss of those crisped sage leaves.

There’s only a little bit left to complete this recipe: take your bowl of prepared soup, curl yourself in the arms of a big, well-worn overstuffed chair, bundle up in that wonderful old afghan lap-rug your granny crocheted for you in your youth, crack open a musty classic book, and lap up your thick soup with a big, deep spoon. Sigh, turn page, sip, repeat. Winter’s just a few chapters away.photo

Fly by Night

graphite drawingBeguiling Moonlight

Every autumn evening, at the end of day,

The moon’s pale eminence sends out a silver-shining ray

A-glinting through the branches and glimmering on leaves

And shimmering on spiderwebs tucked underneath the eaves

And calling all the kitty-cats from shadowed alleys out

To torment all the night-birds still fluttering about,

And drawing from their houses the dogs behind the slats

Of shuttered sleepy windows to torment all the cats,

And pulling on the heart-strings of every sleepy child

To call each one to play out in the moonlight, in the wild,

To dance among the cat-kins and soar among the birds

And leap among the moon-mad dogs and sing the magic words

That cast a spell of loveliness on creatures so, and soon,

We’ll fall asleep, each one of us, under the autumn moon.

A Change of Seasons

digital artwork from a photoAutumnal

Faint as the smoke from a fir-branch fire

far off on the foggy shore,

Where salt-stung sea choruses a choir

as the tide rolls more and more

Of the oyster shells in its back-and-forth,

tumbling them to pearly dust,

I can hear the birds winging from the north

as each Fall they surely must,

And I watch as they darken the silver skies

in a wave of shivering black,

Sailing south toward warmth with their anguished cries,

to bid the sweet Summer backdigital artwork from a photo

A Little Autumnal Magic

I can’t help it: autumn brings out the nostalgia in me. Something about the solemnity of nature’s visible procession from summer’s excesses into a more profound state, one clearly aware of death yet always moving through its dormancy toward the revival of spring–it all calls forth recollections of seasons past, of holidays I’ve floated through without being quite conscious of how few of those loved ones around the room and around the table will be there at the next or the next one after that . . . .

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The emptying-out that comes with the end of a season is in preparation for newness yet to come . . .

But the loveliness in this is that that knowledge of what lies ahead is not only the foundation, the underpinning, of awareness at the end of the year, it is indeed the purpose of this cooling down, going to ground, this tempering of high spirits. In part, it’s what adds piquancy and sharpens the joys of the winter holidays, whatever they are in one’s culture or part of the world. For us in the northern hemisphere, the descent into winter has begun and brings with it the knowledge of our mortality–but those of us among the truly fortunate know that it’s precisely that gift that leads us to live more vividly in the present. So we sing and dance and feast and laugh a little more wildly, and it brings out the imaginative child in us all.

Thanksgiving has always been a welcome celebration to me. I come from a family that counts its riches and revels in its blessings very readily, and certainly not just on the Official date designated by the state but with perhaps renewed vigor on that day. But sixteen years ago on Thanksgiving weekend I was gifted with a particular reason for deep thanks, and so the whole festivity took on a yet more personal tone. That was when the man who would become my beloved asked me out on our first date.

You all know by now that I am not very quick on the uptake, so I’ll just say right off that I didn’t even know we were going on a date. I just thought this interesting person was being wonderfully collegial. He’d asked me to collaborate on a project at the university; we’d had a meeting or two with other colleagues to begin the planning, and I’d already started work on my part of the process and was only very dimly aware that when he’d check in on my progress his questions were less germane than personal. I was delighted to go along with the plot when he invited me to go with him on Thanksgiving weekend and have dinner and then attend a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Company’s production of ‘Dido and Aeneas‘. What’s not to like! We had a fabulous salmon dinner at a local bastion of Northwest seafood excellence and discussed, among other things, whether either of us intended to have children; you will begin to understand the true depth of my obtuseness when I tell you that I have no idea how that topic arose on a first dinner outing, let alone did I twig to it that it might indicate the dinner as something more than collegial.

So there we were, eating and chattering and–oh yes–almost being late to the performance. For which Mr. Smooth Operator had in fact prepared the pit choir. His choral group was singing along with the orchestra for the program, and I came that-close to making him late. And found out we were sitting in the front row, center, of the sort of theatre where you can not sneak in surreptitiously. I was in a mild panic. I also had no clue at the time that a conductor might prepare the singers but not conduct the performance (as in this case, where the orchestra’s conductor took the helm), so I was both worried and mystified that my companion was calmly clambering over knees right alongside me to the middle of the stage-apron row. But suddenly there was a tiny, sneaking thought that this person was intending to sit with me throughout the performance and therefore might–just possibly–not have invited me strictly out of co-worker friendliness.

Well, I’ll just cut to the chase and end your suspense. Oh, that’s right, I already told you the fairytale ending! Opaque as my love-goggles are, and slow as I am to order my facts and realize the truly obvious, once I got the hang of all of this I wasn’t particularly behindhand in taking advantage of the situation. I may be silly, but I ain’t stupid!

So I got this ethereal dance/concert date under my belt and wandered a little foggily through the Christmas holidays, dodging my fears of the unknown rather handily for such a big scaredy-cat if I do say so myself, and by the beginning of the year was engaged to build a lifetime of ridiculously happy adventure with Mr Sparkly. And I call him that not just because of our shared last name but because, dang it, he brought and brings enormous amounts of sparkle to my every day. I can’t think of anything for which a person could be more thankful, at this or any time of year.

Now, I’ve been all mushy and reminiscent on you, and I owe it to you to say that it’s entirely the fault of the season. HAH! Of course that’s pure nonsense. But I must reiterate my thesis that Fall encourages such things in me. It brings out with its chill and darkening the contrasting warmth and light of home, hearth, holidays, and hope, with all of their spices and sweetness, their inviting doorways and gates to adventure, and all of the beauty that living in a time of Thanksgiving can bring. I wish for you all the same!

digital photocollage

Can't wait to see what newness and graces lie on the other side . . .

Foodie Tuesday: Everything in Due Season, If You Happen to Have That Sort of Thing

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Don't you just love autumn, with its colors toasted by the long summer sun, its air wafting with spice and earth . . .

I am very fond of autumn, at least what I think of as autumn. It signals the waning of the full ripening cycle of living and fruiting things on the earth, an anticipatory time when wind should be sweeping out old leaves and old habits and letting in the last cracked-open windows and doors an air of things to come. I’m having a little trouble getting my personal clock synchronized to believe it’s autumn right now, though. Sliding ever so gradually out of a blast-furnace summer so that temperatures in the middle of the night are still too warm for a coat and the roses and cosmos decide they can finally get into bloom–in October–contradicts my sense of logic when juxtaposed with being back in the school-and-concert season. And don’t get me started on the two-week “winter” thing!

I don’t dislike the virtually perpetual bathing in sunlight, no, you’re never going to hear a serious complaint from a SAD-sack like me about too much light, but I find the whole thing just a little confusing. I didn’t come from a land of perfectly defined, archetypal seasons, either, but there was a certain rhythm and temperature change that even in the temperate northwest tended to make me think seasonal thoughts with relative ease. So I could really get behind the whole logic of eating seasonally as well as locally. Up to a point. See, out there I had, admittedly, an overabundance of a whole range of foods available fresh and nearby for a bigger chunk of the calendar year than those living in more truly distinct seasonal climates could have. I might have to trade out one fish or vegetable for another, even one fruit for another, from month to month, but having a truckload of choices at all times spoils one for having to think very hard.

Here in Texas it seems there’s an even finer line between when you can and can’t get foods at their peak. So if I’m not getting clues from the outside temperature or the scent of the air, I’m having to rely more heavily on more artificial indicators of What It’s Time to Do, culinarily speaking. Frankly, it’s still picnic-and-popsicle weather around here when we’re practically hitting Midterms and the first big flurry of constant recitals and concerts of the year, and I feel, well, a little weird wearing sandals and short sleeves to attend those things. I’m almost grateful that most indoor events tend to be overenthusiastic with the air blowers so that the air conditioning requires my bundling up indoors, at least, even if I can’t do so outdoors yet.

Meanwhile, all of the food writers I love and all of the sitcoms and stores and advertisers are conspiring to tell me it’s long since time for pumpkins and braised lamb shanks and don’t forget, Talking Turkey, because as well all know, Thanksgiving has already happened in Canada and that means it’s headed our way! I just can’t quite reconcile the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t find pretty much everything not nailed down quite delicious regardless of time of day, month, or year if it’s available–sometimes it’s all about whether it seems right.

So I leaned ever so slightly off the summer chuckwagon when I made lunch the other day, because even if the weather refuses to cooperate with my sense of seasonal propriety, I’m darned well going to have a touch of autumn. I don’t suppose, when it comes right down to brass tacks, that there are limits to what tastes good at any given time, so if I can lay hands on it and it’s not so artificially shelf-stabilized as to have the half-life of radium, I guess I need to just make my own seasons here.

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Duck breast with wine sauce, carrot chips and bok choy

I kept the preparation simple both because it’s my M.O. and because anything more demanding would’ve taken enough time to kill off my urge for something a tad autumnal, as I’d break a very unladylike sweat in these temperatures if I got the least bit hyperactive in the kitchen. Duck breast sous vide is, I must say, a dandy and handy fix. I figured if the maximum time recommended for medium-rare duck breast s-v was about eight hours, the same temperature for a lot longer could bring it to the edge of confit, and so it was. All that remained by the time I’d put together a dish of quick steamed bok choy in light ginger-lime-soy-sesame dressing and reduced a handful of blackberries, a cup of Merlot and a knob of butter to a syrup and strained it and sweetened it up with a spoonful of Texas red plum jam was to sear the duck skin and plate it all up. As usual I took an exceedingly casual approach to the latter action (as you can see above), which was just as well because those pieces of duck hadn’t a hope of staying in neat perky little slices by the time they’d been virtually melted. In that condition, they would in fact make pretty fabulous tender shredded duck tacos, the direction I suspect I’ll take next time I lay hands on el pato fantástico. If it looks like a taco and quacks like a taco . . . .

So at last I’ve started edging my way toward eating something that at least sounds more autumnal to me than all of the stuff I’ve felt right eating up to now. Perhaps feeding my sense of the season by the forkful will have a better chance of getting me in an autumn frame of mind than what the relentlessly summery weather has managed to do so far. Otherwise, I’ll wait too long and it’ll be winter I’m having to invent, so I’d best get moving on this or I’ll hardly have myself ready for all of the necessary delights awaiting me.

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All seasons have their gifts . . .