I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
As is usual, I’m learning, at this point in the year here in north Texas, though I do have a tolerably alive outdoor property (thanks to probably over-watering it), it looks a bit tired and stressed. Everything plantlike is wilting gradually before the season-ending genuine drop in temperature will give it a short revival. Assuming everything continues to go as usual.
In the meantime, I will let our mowing crew change their usual routine this week and dig up some of the lawn they ordinarily mow, putting in a stone-lined gravel path from porch to road so that guests don’t have to traipse quite so far out of their way in the dusk when heading from their cars on the street to the dining table on a visit. But I’ll still feel a little bit wistful when I look at my fainting ‘nursery’ of clearance-sale plants, where they huddle in stolen bits of shade and get thirsty for their next watering an hour after the last one because of the continued high temperatures.
So I will cheer myself up with a little imagined wandering through the garden at earlier and cooler times by sharing with you a few vignettes of some of our plants in happier, hardier moments. If I can’t quite ‘stop and smell the roses’ without them or me getting roasted to a crisp, I’ll inhale the memory of their sturdier selves and hope to nurse them back for a smaller second-coming before winter actually arrives.
Having Gotten some Stuff Done around the house is high on my list of everyday joys. It should be noted that I don’t say ‘getting some stuff done’–that, to be fair, would be slightly disingenuous, as I’m lazy enough at heart that I prefer the finished product to the process much of the time. Not always; I can get off of my haunches and get active, it’s just a rarer occurrence than that I’m pleased to perch on them surveying my handiwork as an end in and of itself. So I’ll just show off a few of those chores and projects that have given me that sort of pleasure, and perhaps inspire you as well: after all, some of the enjoyment, as you’ll see, comes from the knowledge that each of these items succeeds in making my daily work simpler, and thus, my laziness more tenable. Which, not to be too tautological about the whole thing, is the point of the Doing in the first place.
Some people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.
Simple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.I like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved tool.
The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere sight.
Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New York.
All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme necessity.
Best way to have a head start on preparing a meal: keep lots of shelf-stable or frozen flourishes convenient–they don’t have to be artificial or toxic, you know–and be kind to the best of your leftovers. It’s important to have the usual dry goods in stock; flour or thickeners, if you use them; spices; rice or oats or that kind of thing, but small prepared items are just as crucial for time and taste’s sake. Yesterday it came in handy to have stashed a few servings of easy-to-serve chocolate dessert items like my homemade nut truffles and almond-flour brownies. Today it was an assortment of fresh fruits that rounded out the meal with no cooking and virtually no prep, unless you count washing and cutting just enough for two plates; I certainly don’t find that onerous compared to prepping and cooking actual side dishes. Tomorrow, who knows? If someone pops by unexpectedly and we sit to lunch or dinner, it’s just nice to know that there’s almost always something in the pantry that can be served up in a trice.
Or in a casserole, if one prefers.
You’ve no doubt noticed in any previous food posts, especially if I’ve referenced my pantry shelves, that I’m mighty fond of pickles and toppings and condiments of many kinds. I tend toward the salty, savory and sweet rather than extremely spicy ones, though I’ve been known to crave some good north Indian lime pickle with my Palak Paneer or pickled jalapeños with my Tex-Mex treats. Mostly, I like a fairly wide assortment of olives, vinegar-pickled vegetables like green beans and carrots and asparagus, preserved lemons, mild pickled okra or clove-scented beets; relish, chutney, sweet watermelon rind pickles also tickle my palate, as do pickled ginger and preserved sauces, and so forth ad mortem. Because I do concede that it’s just possible I could eat myself into a happy coma followed by cheery death, given constant proximity to such dainties. Nearly all of these delights, not to mention those aforementioned (okay, I did mention! deal with it) garnishes and toppings, like the ubiquitous southeast Asian fried shallots, salted and unsalted nuts, fried herbs, candied peel and ginger, shaved coconut, and so much more, can be nicely preserved to be either shelf-safe or freezer friendly without too much difficulty.
And yes, there are commercial preparations of those and other easy-to-keep foods and edible accoutrements that I willingly stock and use. Perhaps one of the most favored is tinned tuna, but I admit I don’t like many of the commercial brands, preferring those that can only the tuna itself, usually with a little salt, and simply let it be preserved in its pristine glory and its own juices. There are more and more good guys out there who are trying to do right by the tuna and our tastes, so it takes very little effort to find them out, and the boost in flavor and concomitant decrease in artificialities are well worth it. Canning fruits and vegetables does commonly act as a killjoy, destroying much of their texture and flavor and, not surprisingly, nutrients as well. Now, I know that much of the destructive character comes from mass production and that many people are able to home-preserve beautiful specimens of both fruits and veg, but frankly, that’s almost always too labor-intensive and plodding for my energies and attention span.
So I tend to lean toward decent quality fast frozen green-groceries if I’m keeping some around for quick use. These are often perfectly delish in soups, cooked dishes and quick pickling, where they take up the dressing and seasonings more readily than raw foods because of the slight cellular breakdown inherent in freezing. And there are, for that very reason, also a few commercially canned things besides jam or jelly or pickles that I will concede to stock on my shelves and eat. For example, I wanted a speedy picnic sort of salad the other day, so I took out tins of cut green and wax beans and baby carrots, all of which I admit would be strikingly unappealing to me for straight-from-the-can eating, and bathed them in a light dressing of plain rice vinegar, vegetable oil, orange juice, orange zest, salt, pepper and snipped dill, and had myself a tasty little salad that has fed me all week long, gaining in flavor as it sits but having been quite edible right from the ceremonial Opening of the Tins.
Salmon is something I generally prefer fresh or smoked over tinned as well, but having a couple of cans on hand does have its moments. If, as with the tuna, it’s prepared well enough to not taste of the tin rather than of the sea, why it too makes a very useful salad when mixed with good mayonnaise and seasonings and can sit lightly on crackers, in a sandwich or stuffed into hors-d’oeuvres plenty well. I’ve made mine up with Asian-grocery wasabi mayo (another good condiment to keep in the refrigerator, mind you), minced gari, and a splash each of ginger juice and soy sauce, and enjoyed it even more for those uses. When the salmon is not tinned but instead left over from yesterday’s dinner, it can do similar things. We’re not overly enamored of leftover seafood, my spouse and I, in its previously served form, always feeling a bit like it’s sure to have gone bad. But a little change-up can rescue that leftover fish too: the oven roasted salmon, smoked salmon, and a few cooked prawns from the other night’s dinner got mashed to a pate with the stick blender, using some mayonnaise, and then spread on a small Romaine leaf and topped with slivers of yellow capiscum, a curl of gari and a dab of that nice wasabi mayo–whose squeezable bottle charmingly arrives with its own built-in star tip for decorative application–and voilà! Snacks.
I’ll grant you that any amount of ‘trim’ kept in the kitchen guarantees nothing like conferring gourmet status on what I make of it. And it’s a virtual miracle when I bother to gussy up my food as much as even that last little snackable item, so presentation isn’t instantaneously improved either. But having the stuff right here at my beck and call is the only way either is likely to happen, even by accident. And who says I can’t eat all of this tastiness right out of the box, bottle, jar or tin, anyway?
My friends, Texas gardening is a ceaseless adventure. I sense that Round One of the growth season has already closed and Round Two is beginning. The first batches of blooming goodies have quickly baked to dainty crisps and their leafy greenness gotten rather scrawny and lean looking. Yes, my darlings, it’s gettin’ hot around here.
The pavement and patio concrete have a certain handily dense solar mass that lends itself to emitting mirage-like rays of shimmering hottitude that fry up whatever seems to have escaped the downward dash of the sunlight as it fell burning from the sky in the first place. Hand watering with a hose, even in the cooler parts of the day, is an exercise in futility to a certain extent–you can practically see the spray evaporating as it comes out of the nozzle, and anything with full sun exposure makes me wonder if the roots of the plant in question will in fact be boiled in the water I’m trying to give it. Gives me a different perspective on the old saying about ‘killing with kindness’, to be sure.
The first burst of the rose blooms has passed and the buds are in place for their second coming after a couple of weeks of being pruned back and nurtured through their little rest period. The boxed herbs and vegetables are very thirsty and rather root-bound, so I shall have to ease their pain by some gentle dividing and see if they can continue to show their heroism in beating the heat. Even in their potted distress, the borage plants are putting out large trusses of those glorious blue, refreshing-flavored starry flowers, so I will hope all the more that a little judicious division or removal to allow them a little loosening of their too-tight pants will make them happy rather than prove an additional challenge.
I know that the garden creatures are happy. Besides having me to chew on, the insects have all sorts of plants, not least of all those greens that are heat-stressed and have their defenses down. Some of the little bugs are still shy, like the one just barely peering out of the peachy zinnia above. Most of them are quite happy to be a bit more brazen, though. My little green friend came to the window and hung out with me the other night quite willingly–or was it just staring and spying on me? The prize for showiness this week goes, though, to the handsome Carmine Darter (correct me if I mis-identify) dragonfly that calmly came and posed on my little homemade tomato cage so long that I could come out of the house and get up close and macro-personal with him.
Whatever else happens in my little playground here, the main development will likely be somewhat delayed by the depredations of my intended full-yard rehab and my entirely predictably inevitable mistakes and faux pas. And, of course, getting overheated. For the time being, I am enjoying the begonias, the silverbeet, the sweet potato vine, and the cyclamen; the marigolds, the basil, and the blue sage.