I spoke too soon…

grapes

As if to proclaim me a liar-liar-pants-on-fire, the arbor vine has decided to put on one heck of a show and gift us with a bounty of grapes.

If you’ll recall, just a few weeks ago I bemoaned those dried, crumbly bits of “grape dust” that came off in my hands as the days got longer, hotter and drier and the vines grew increasingly desperate. Quite suddenly after that initial disappointment, tiny grape clusters began popping out everywhere, growing larger and plumper with each passing day.

The jays and others of their ilk have taken notice now. One day last week as I sat beneath the arbor pecking on my laptop, a jay swooped in, landed on a vine, and took a good look around, as if sizing up his future dining prospects. He didn’t eat anything then, but he eyed the grapes with a “What ho?! I’ll be back for you soon, my pretties!” kind of expression. Then he flew away.

With competition like that we may not get enough grapes to do anything other than gratefully munch them straight from the vine, but if you find yourself with a bumper crop, this is a pretty cool way to prepare them for a party. Just be sure your grapes are seedless and that you’ve rinsed and dried them completely so the coating will stick:

grapesFIN

Crumble 4 ounces of your favorite bleu cheese into 4 ounces of cream cheese (both at room temperature; regular cream cheese works better than low-fat or whipped) and stir to blend completely (this amount will coat about two dozen grapes, give or take). Add in a bit of cracked black pepper if you like.

Take a generous pinch of the mixture and press it around each grape. This is messy business, so be sure your hands are really clean and then give yourself over to the oodginess (if you loved playing in the mud as a kid you’ll love this too—plus you can lick your fingers!) Put the coated grapes on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper and pop it into the fridge for an hour to let the coating firm up.

While the grapes are chilling, toast a cup of walnuts, pecans or almonds and chop them finely. Then roll the grapes in the chopped nuts (any leftover nuts can go over your ice cream or into your cereal or yogurt). For a really showy presentation, arrange them like a big cluster of grapes on a platter covered with grape leaves.

Prepare to collect all the socks you’ll knock off your guests! This is a great do-ahead, but leave the coated grapes in the fridge and wait until just before serving to roll them in the chopped nuts. This way the nuts won’t get soggy and sad.

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Note: Since our grape vines aren’t yet thick enough to provide adequate shade from Mom Nature’s klieg light, we fashioned an adjustable blind, a cotton Indian bedspread in a paisley that goes nicely with our arbor furnishings, to which we clipped curtain rings. We attached a bunch of screw-in hooks to the arbor and slipped the rings onto them. No matter the sun’s position, we can adjust the spread to provide coverage and better take advantage of our outdoor living space. Sweet!

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A Fistful of Spaghetti

My mother died on the Winter Solstice, for whatever you make of that, and we buried her two days before Christmas on a stunningly beautiful afternoon. Both Andy and I spent the rest of this winter being sick with one ailment and then another, prolonged and enhanced by the bone-depth of fatigue that accompanies grief. I frankly haven’t felt much like writing.

I spent December back home in Tennessee with her as she completed her journey on this earth, every day resisting the urge to go out and buy her a Christmas gift. In those final days she looked so much like her own mother that I caught myself twice calling her “Grandmother.”

Her death was not a surprise. Fourteen years of dementia had taken their toll, and I’d mourned each milestone in her decline. First it robbed her of her short-term memory, with her lapses alternating between frustrating and funny—until the first time she forgot my birthday. I cried as if I’d just been orphaned. Then it took away her capacity for sound judgment, which brought its own particular season in hell. Then it took her physical health. And then it took her life.

So it was not a shock when she was gone. What I felt instead was a deep, cavernous sense of loss, that this amazing person just wasn’t around any more. Even though it has been years since our last coherent conversation, I still expect her to call on Sunday afternoon. When we recently got rid of our landline, part of me couldn’t shake the feeling that she wouldn’t know to call my cell phone.

During a visit last spring I arrived at her assisted living facility at lunch. She was sitting at a table by herself, a mass of spaghetti clutched in her fist. She didn’t know what to do with it. The attendants were helping other residents, so I got a napkin, cleaned her hand, and then took up the fork and began to help her eat—the first time I’d ever fed my mother.

Feeding ourselves is so elemental that once we get the hang of operating a fork, a spoon, a pair of chopsticks or even just our fingers, we’re good to go for decades to come. But when this ability fails us, it’s clear that things are going downhill fast.

What was stranger than feeding her was the contents of her plate. The food choices were clearly not her own. She seldom made spaghetti and never ordered it in restaurants, for it wasn’t something she’d grown up with. On those rare occasions when she did make it, she always broke the noodles into small pieces that could be eaten in tidy bites. No fork rolling or slurping in our house. What I found in her hand that day looked like a strange knitting project gone awry.

Also on her plate were cooked carrots, another food that was as foreign to my childhood as it was to hers. (Instead, I ate enough raw carrot sticks in my youth to build a city of towering orange skyscrapers.) But I fed her cooked carrots that day, and ever so slowly she ate every bite.

My final trip back home to see her was precipitated by a phone call from my brother, who said, “She failed the swallow test.”

I almost laughed when he said it, for my mother was at the top of every class she ever took. She’d never failed a test in her life, not that this was one she could have studied for. But it signaled that the end was near.

* * *

In about nine months’ time there have been eight deaths among my friends and family. In deference to the privacy and feelings of their kin and ours, I won’t go into any particulars except to say that most were way too young, and they died in some terrible ways.

It seems like the sheer volume of tragedy around me recently has made it even more difficult to sort out my feelings, for how do you compartmentalize grief? How do you decide to cry for one person now and another one this afternoon or maybe tomorrow after breakfast?

I couldn’t figure this out the last time it happened either.

Almost 30 years ago, my father died in my arms of a heart attack. His passing was one of four close family members who died within just a few months’ time. What did I learn then? If anything, it’s that mourning has no finite rules or time length.

What has sustained me lately is this quote I found in an Iraqi cookbook:

“Sit at dinner tables as long as you can, and converse to your hearts’ desire, for these are the bonus times of your lives.”

I have fond memories of sitting around the table with all these people who have recently departed. Those are some of the best memories of all, for they recall times when we were at ease, and breaking bread together, sharing stories and relishing each other’s fine company.

Suspended in those golden moments, we were all immortal.

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Plan B & Volunteers: Dinner is Still Served

grapevine

All’s well until you look closer…

Tiny grape embryos flecked off the vine and into the palm of my hand today, as miserly and insubstantial as grains of sand, victims of a one-two punch: an unseasonably hot spring and ongoing drought. Just a few days ago they were wee but promising, and it looked like we’d see our biggest grape harvest yet. (This is nothing too grand–we have a single vine in our backyard arbor.) But my diligent watering wasn’t enough to give them the fighting chance they needed to become the coveted prize in a battle between the birds, the squirrels and me.

grapebits

So much for this year’s grape harvest!

We probably won’t get many grapes this year, but now that the leaves are big enough, and while they’re still young enough to be tender, I’m  snipping a few dozen to roll up several batches of dolmates. Let’s call this Grape Vine: Plan B.

grapeleaves

Even if the grapes don’t produce, we’ll still feast well on the leaves.

 

I’ve shared this recipe for making dolmates, a.k.a. dolmas or stuffed grape leaves, with you before, but I just wanted to remind myself, as well as you, Hungry Reader, that we can make a meal on things we often don’t think we can. At least we can augment our meals with gleanings from our yards, as long as chemicals and doggie indiscretions don’t corrupt our free food supply.

Remember as a child how you used to pick dandelion puff balls, make a wish and blow? I still do that, my wish being for each seed to yield another cluster of greens. Last week I rounded up quite a haul of dandelion greens from the yard, along with a few stinging nettles (carefully!), and cooked them up with the beet greens and kale from the CSA box and the chard from the garden. And I discovered something about dandelions–when you pull the entire plant out of the ground slowly and carefully you can get the root, too, and it’s sweeter than the greens.

dandelions

Yes, that’s dirt on these dandelion roots. No, it won’t hurt you. Just wash it off.

While I don’t think my Mother ever ate dandelion greens–she never served them to our family anyway–they fall into the category of plants she called “volunteer.” Any plant she didn’t dig a hole and put into the ground with her own two hands was a volunteer–except for weeds, which were volunteers she didn’t want. So in the case of dandelion greens, her weed would be my volunteer. This designation extended into the animal world, and any pet that wandered up to our farmhouse on its own was a volunteer. We had dozens of cats and dogs over the years, and almost every one of them fell into this category. When I was really small and didn’t know what the word meant, I thought it had to do with the fact that we lived in Tennessee, which is the Volunteer State. Those plants and animals that volunteered were Tennessee plants and animals. Simple.

Okay, back to greens. Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you snip away and discard the stems? And how many of you cut away the leaves on the beets and chuck them into the trash? Not all greens–or all stems–are quite so delectable, but it’s worth giving them a taste test to make sure. I’ve recently discovered that the tiny, tender leaves on small radishes are quite good. And radishes with their leaves make one of the prettiest garnishes I’ve ever seen, so I’d say leave them on for both aesthetics and good eating.

stems

Giving the stems a head start…

We sometimes get as much as a couple of extra servings out of our fav Meatless Monday dish of garbanzos and greens because I add the stems, cut into bite-sized pieces, to the pan. When I’m cooking greens I give their stems a few minutes’ head start before adding the leaves, so that everything finishes cooking at the same time.

beans&greens

Ta-dah!

Hmm, now the purslane is just starting to emerge from our dusty yard. I’ll be plundering that soon. I wonder what other free food is out there that I just haven’t discovered yet…

purslane

Purslane in progress…

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Romanesco Romance

Right now there’s a deluge going on here in Southern California, something we should be happy about, seeing as we’re in the midst of a beastly drought that threatens to destroy crops and livelihoods. But rain like this is troubling because the ground can’t absorb it all at once, causing the roads to morph into fast moving rivers and the mountainsides to lose their grip and slide down onto whatever is below them, be it a neighborhood, a school or a business district.

While I love rain, this kind distracts me. So rather that focusing on the writing I need to do, I’ve been in the kitchen today, roasting every vegetable that will allow it. Lettuce doesn’t need it, so it’s safe for now. Even the radishes will eventually get their turn in the heat, thanks to my friend Molly’s brilliant idea for glazing them. (Okay, so she got the recipe from the cookbook of another amazing Molly.)

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But then there’s this head of romanesco cauliflower, with all those florets that look like the tops of a lot of the Buddhist temples I’ve seen in southeast Asia. (I’ve decided I don’t like the word “floret.” It sounds like something you put in your shoes to make them smell better. Ick.)

Confession time: The first time I got a romanesco in my CSA box I let it go bad.

This sounds stupid, but I was intimidated by its beauty and exoticism. So I let it sit until it was unfit for consumption. By the time I threw it out, it was clearly inedible but still pretty in a creepy Miss Havisham way, if Miss Havisham had been a cauliflower.

I resolved not to let that happen again. But another romanesco arrived a few days ago, and once again I have let it sit. I glance at it every time I open the fridge door, giving it a sidelong peek as I reach past it for the yogurt, as if it were the handsome guy in class who couldn’t possibly ever be interested in me, so why should I bother trying to make eye contact and speak?

So today as I prepped turnips, squash, garlic, beets, both red and golden, and potatoes, both sweet and not, slathering everything in olive oil and blessing it with flaked sea salt, I spied that lovely romanesco sitting on the top shelf of the fridge like a perfect wedding cake left in the detritus of a picnic. I pulled it out and cradled it in my hands for a couple of minutes. How could I take a knife to those lovely regiments of whatever we must agree to call them instead of florets?

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That’s when it hit me–I’d have to make my assault on the back side of this thing. So I took a knife and cut down the stem to halve and then quarter it long ways. Each quarter made a perfect serving size, and the peaks remained intact.

I dappled the quarters with olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and put them into the 450°F oven with all those other vegetables, which I poked and prodded every so often to determine when something was ready to come out. When they started to char just a bit (after about 15 minutes), I tented them with some aluminum foil to keep them from burning. When I could easily slip the knife tip into the thickest part of the stem (about another 15 minutes later), I knew they were done.

rom3

Romanesco really doesn’t need anything else, although a light vinaigrette would be good on it. So would a dab of hollandaise. But while I’m here alone (Himself is off in the wilds of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on a writing retreat), I may eat it all with just that touch of sea salt. With my fingers. Standing at the counter. And listening to the rain.

rom4

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In Praise of the Sides

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/1917-12-01-The-Country-Gentleman-Norman-Rockwell-cover-Cousin-Reginald-Catches-the-Thanksgiving-Turkey-no-logo-400-Digimarc.jpg

“What do you MEAN, you don’t like turkey?! No wait….Never mind…”

I hate turkey.

There. I’ve said it. Does this make me a Thanksgiving Grinch?

When I was a kid my family only ate turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we ate it at a relative’s house. I was never impressed with it. And since my mother never cooked it herself—meaning there were no leftovers to endure in the weeks following—I didn’t have the repetition of, well, turkey gobbling, to make a turkey lover out of me.

Each year I’d find myself dodging the bird-of-honor in favor of foods with more flavor and better texture. And GIVING THANKS that in the space of about a month’s time I’d be done with this wretched turkey business for another year.

“Here hon, have some white meat!” I’d flinch as a well-meaning relative would fork a whopping dry-as-dust shingle of turkey onto my plate, taking up precious real estate that I’d intended for country ham (yeah, ham!), dressing (hold the gravy), blackeyed peas, wondrous ambrosia and those ubiquitous brown-and-serve rolls. And a slice of can-shaped cranberry gel-stuff. If only I’d known that the dark meat had better texture and more flavor, perhaps I could have learned to like it a little.

As an adult I’ve made my peace with turnips and lima beans, but turkey still leaves me cold. So I’m always the one signing up for anything-but-turkey for holiday meals at church and at friends’ houses. If I’m bringing meat, it will be a beef roast or a ham, because I’m sure there are others who are similarly unimpressed by turkey. And those meats always disappear, so I think I’m right about this.

But usually I sign up for a side. I’m no traditionalist on this score either. Typically I’ll bring whatever I’ve just discovered in the pages of Saveur or my new favorite cookbook (last year it was Maria Speck’s fabulous Ancient Grains for Modern Meals). This year for church–and for tomorrow’s feast–the side of choice is one I cobbled together on my own, featuring swiss chard, roasted squash, red quinoa, Israeli couscous, toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries tossed in a golden balsamic vinaigrette.

And not only do I bring a side, but I fill my plate with them. Vegetables. In season or not, I don’t care. Just bring on those veggies, baby! Salads. It’s amazing the sheer variety of ingredients and their combinations that can make a dazzling salad, either savory or sweet or both. Casseroles. Ditto. All so varied and wonderful. (Usually wonderful. Some people are so phobic about salt that they don’t use any. Not even that merest breath of salt required to balance flavors.)

Sometimes a side will suffice for dessert. At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner at church my dessert was my pal Chuck Taggart’s amazing Pork ‘n Pork ‘n Pork ‘n Beans. It was just that decadent. (Chuck, God bless you and your Aunt Faye with the recipe!) This dish represented servings #2, 3 and 4 of pork for me that day. Yes, I dodged the turkey and fell face-down on the ham straightaway.

It was a lush and satisfying meal, replete with the variety flavors, colors and textures that make me happy as a clam. (mmm, clams…) If this aversion to turkey makes me a Thanksgiving Grinch, I’m sure there are others of my kind out there. And to all of you I say,

“Happy Thanksgrinching!”

 

 

 

 

The Rockwell image comes from http://blogs.houstonpress.com, although I’m sure they pinched it from someone else, too.

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