Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Foodie Tuesday: Buried in Berries

Photo: Raspberry BonanzaOne of the joys of the warmer seasons is the abundance of fresh produce, not least of all, those little jewels the berries and close cousins like the aggregate fruits. Having grown up in a region known for fabulous berries, in a valley renowned, in fact, for farming them in its fertile volcanic soil in the Evergreen state, I know well enough the labor that it takes to successfully farm, pick, process and sell them, never mind shipping them intact anywhere, given their tender sensitivity and fleeting prime. But I certainly found my way past the sweaty, low wage, arm-aching, thorn-scratched, and slug-tormented frustrations of a short-time field hand to renew my love of fresh berries.

I have long since confessed to you that, despite their being among the easiest to farm and to pick, blueberries remain my most hated fruit, and I dislike pretty equally their flavor, smell and texture despite all attempts to convince me they are Superfood and worthy of desire. I am not a big fan, in fact, of any of the round, popping sorts of berries that are similar in my mind to blueberries in any way—currants, gooseberries, huckleberries, and so forth. I’m not that egalitarian. But the berries that I do enjoy, I gladly indulge in enjoying in quantity when they’re at their peak. I seldom tire of strawberries or of those magnificent rose relatives, the blackberries, raspberries, salmonberries, black raspberries and all of their delicious ilk. Ahhh, berry good!Photo: Blackberry Burst

One of the nicest things about really fine, fresh produce, of course, is that it tastes so good whether you do anything to or with it, or not. Straight out of the field, straight into my mouth. Bright, juicy, flavorful little pieces of heaven. Much as I happily enjoyed that dessert combination of my youth, angel food cake with berries and whipped cream, I think I might consider the berries the angel food part more than the cake. Berries in cream, whipped or not, are also a spectacular treat when I can get my hands on a dish, with or without a cake foundation.

The berries are marvelous as individual sorts or in happy combinations. Whole or mashed, sliced or diced. Superb in jams and sauces or salsas. Fabulous in smoothies. Outstanding when added to salads. Unbeatable in pies. One of the most delicious accompaniments to savory foods, especially something like some magnificent wild salmon or game, whether processed in some recipe or just eaten fresh alongside the fish or meat. Sweet and bright.

Oh, and berries make dandy liqueurs. Berries, sugar, vodka. In that order, in declining quantities, in a sealed jar or bottle. Bunch of weeks or months, shaking it up gently from time to time, while keeping it in a nice cool, dark spot between stirrings until the time seems right; strain the niceness and enjoy. Of course, it works fine without booze, too. Berries, some nice sparkling water and some sweetening.

These little gems are delicate. They are so fine in their pristine state that it would be wrong to over-process them. Don’t be a killjoy. There’s really no recipe here for success; in fact, the best so-called recipes for using fresh berries mostly leave them unsullied by cooking and doing much of anything other than stirring them in with other good things. What are you waiting for? If the season’s on, get thee to the nearest farmer’s market and stock up on glorious fresh berries. If they’re not in season, I apologize for your sorrow, but I must encourage you to make the most of preserves and frozen berries. Yep, they freeze well when properly treated. But my friends, do not slouch. Run, quickly, and get some berries. You can thank me later.

Photo: All Sorts of Berries

Memories are Migratory

A flock of American Robins passing the area through may not seem especially worthy of note to some people. But if, like me, you remember them as one of the prevalent birds around you when you were growing up, you might notice it with a certain eager delight when several dozen of them descend on your holly tree and Indian Hawthorn hedge all of a sudden and dive on the berries like divas on diamonds. I noticed.photo

I had been seeing the signs of the early northward migration already, as the grackles that never entirely leave north-central Texas no matter what the season or weather were in ever larger clouds that swept from field to field and perched in growing masses at those points on the trees, hedges, bridges, billboards and power lines where we come to expect them to collect at dusk. It seems to me as though the sheer volume of grackles in the region means some have to migrate, however slightly, just to stay on the fringes of their preferred climate, so when the seasons change I do see even more than the typical congregation of those whistling, flitting avians hanging about on every corner and post.photo

But the robins, well, they are not so often seen in my own back garden. To be sitting at my desk and hear that familiar liquid warbling is to be transported to when I was climbing the backyard apple trees of my childhood. I looked up on that more recent afternoon from the predictable digital ‘pile’ of email and saw the unexpected flash of russet on a bird’s breast as it streaked by my window, then another and another, and suddenly felt I was in the midst of a happy storm of robins as they dashed and dove, a modest flock perhaps but enough in number to nearly strip the hedge and the little tree before retreating to the woods of the ravine behind for the evening. By next morning, there were fewer that came back for a final pit stop before the whole collective took wing to continue north. They came and went so fast, and moved so quickly and stealthily in the shrubbery in the meantime that I had no moment to grab a camera and commemorate the welcome moment.

The moment will, however, remain, just as the childhood pleasures were revived in the first chirruping calls and those quick glimpses of rosy feathers: robins will stay in my heart as long as the memories remain.

I Made a Wreath

I did make a wreath, really–well, two. And as usual, they got a little more complicated and veered from the original plans all along the way, and the wreaths sort of made themselves, with a little elbow grease from me. That does seem to be my modus operandi most of the time, doesn’t it. I like to think of myself as an artist and the chief inventor in my colorful little universe, but when I’m being honest with myself, it’s more like I’m the cheap labor. Once the particular puzzles announce themselves to me, I may be able to offer the valuable skill of problem solving to make them possible (or as nearly so as I can), along with the effort required to bring them into existence, but in truth I’m often as surprised by the end product as anybody.P&IThat’s not entirely what I meant to say in this little post, of course. What I intended was to say that my time among you makes me think wreath-making a particularly purposeful thing to do, regardless of its utility or lack thereof as an object. Because to me, they represent all of the good and cheerful things contained in holidays and celebrations, and bring fine and flexible attractions to the decoration of home and garden. But further, and more significant in this difference to me, a wreath is a way to publicly express personal happiness through a small creative act. I make no claim that this is deep stuff. It’s a small pleasure and a minor artistic outlet, a rather insignificant creation even among the doings of a humbly insignificant artist. But as a token of well-being, contentment and hope, and no less, a mark of my understanding that I am privileged to feel all of those and know that I do so in large part thanks to the fine company I keep, this is enough cheering reason for me to make such playful little artworks, and even make artworks about making the artworks. Odd, I know, but in that alone, well suited to represent me too.digital illustrationI confess, silly as it is, it kind of leaves me wreathed in smiles just thinking about it.

The Peace Police

What does it take to make us civil? A good upbringing helps, but it’s not enough. The law contributes its part, but that’s a pretty small piece of the puzzle–those who are unlikely to be civil are unlikely to care all that much about the law either. Education and experience are necessary to making us capable of civility, let alone willing to exercise it.photo collageThe flip side of this is the darker compulsion within that drags us into rudeness, insults, argumentative attacks and other such ugliness. Sometimes the wonders of the cyber-world convince us that we live in a moral vacuum where anything goes and we can think, speak and live completely unfiltered realities as we invent them, but it’s no more (and perhaps far less) true in the ether, where we don’t even know the people with whom we interact long-distance, that it’s permissible to tread heavily like that.

One Good Thing by Jillee is the marvelous namesake blog of a woman who is exceedingly creative and thoughtful and consistently gives us readers masses of useful ideas that we can use every day in the operation of our homes and lives. Want to consider making your own detergents and skin treatments? Find out how to do DIY projects to make and fix things all around the house and garden? Learn a new recipe or two? Our Ms. Jill is here to help. More than anything, her posts always get me thinking up further ways to make, do and use all of the delightful things she’s introducing, and how to tweak the things that I like but can’t use as-is–say, one of the lovely creams and potions she likes to make with lavender essence, which I agree smells nice, but I’m sensitive to it and can’t be around it for long. Even though this excellent blogger rightly touts the various medicinal qualities, aromatherapeutic uses and topical applications the fabled lavender blossom can offer, none of it’s right for me when I can’t tolerate any kind of significant presence of the stuff, so I have to use these posts as inspiration, a jumping-off point, rather than as carved in stone. I know when I arrive to read her posts that I may or may not find what she presents entirely applicable to my situation or taste every time even if it were practically infallible, nor does she ever claim such a thing.

So I was more than a little taken aback to see the comments that came in response to her recent post about reducing the calorie load in various recipes and foods by substituting alternate fats, sweeteners and the like. My own preference in my eating is to try to eat less processed foods rather than lower calorie foods, so if I wish to use any of the suggestions from this particular post, it will be because I think they’ll make the foods taste better rather than that I expect them to improve my health. But when I came to the comments made by other readers, there were a number of those correspondents who not only criticized her suggestions as though she were publishing them in a medical journal but, in some cases, got rather mean-spirited and began verbal fisticuffs amongst themselves. It struck me as not only exceedingly ill-mannered but was about as far from germane as possible, given the forum of that blog. All quite uncivil, if you ask me.photo collageBut of course, you didn’t ask me, so it’s not only not incumbent upon me to express my opinion in this matter, it might in fact be just a little bit uncivilized to take any other readers to task. Tricky business, this etiquette stuff. It’s certainly not up to me to ‘fix’ what I think is not ideal in others. I am not the law or the arbiter of good taste for anyone else, to be sure. I just hope that I don’t forget myself how to be at least as civil as my parents, teachers and betters have worked so hard to help me grow to be. I’ve got enough to keep me busy just remembering how to write a semi-civilized daily blog of my own and mind my own life’s business. But I don’t mind sending you over to the Good Thing blog so you can also have the benefit of its excellence–and perhaps skew the tenor of the comments back to more fittingly responsive–since I happen to know my readers have such gracious manners!

Hanging around in Trees

photoThere are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.

Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.photoBut if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.photo

When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.

photo

The titular king of Finca Drácula is a dramatic orchid that can haunt your dreams . . .

Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!photoFor one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety,  was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.photo

It’s Beginning to Look a Little Like . . .

Now, I don’t know if I’d call it exactly Christmasy, but in the relative scheme of things, it is beginning to look a tad more wintry around here than it’s been up until now. In my nordo-centric upbringing I was never exposed to such stretches of overheated weather that I’d begun to disbelieve in winter altogether by the time the second week of December was commencing. So it’s kind of a relief to hear that we’re about to drop down to freezing temperatures overnight within a couple of days here. To see some turning leaves actually, really, truly drop off and leave a tree or two naked; berries lighting up as rosy as Rudolph’s nose; to hear the branches both leafy and bare whispering cool secrets in anticipation of the frost that may or may not arrive before the clock’s run out on potential wintertime.photoThe embarrassing thing about this is that, having had seemingly all the time in the world myself to prepare for this winter thingy, I’m still not exactly ready. I’ve got a whole big, fluffy list of stuff I can–and maybe should–get underway, if not completed, before this mythic seasonal happening arrives, and no, said list is not small either. I did get a small few things done in the long, sloping stretch leading toward this change of the weather, but it’s never quite so much as I would have liked to have accomplished. Story of life, isn’t it. I guess if I’m honest I should say that it’s beginning to look a lot like every other year I’ve known, every other change–or lack of change–of the seasons. And you know, I’m okay with that. Life’s been mighty good to me, and if it can be this nice even when I’m so far from perfectly keeping up with it, lay it on me.

Oh, and I’d appreciate it if I can have a sweater to go along with the seasonal change too, just in case. Thank you.photo