Garden Mystery Solved

spittlebugs

For ages I’ve wondered what force of the Universe was leaning down and spitting on my herbs when I wasn’t looking. Something hateful and spiteful (and spitful?) and totally jealous of my expert herb-growing abilities, I was sure.

You’ve wondered this too, right? You’ve strolled out into your yard with your morning coffee to admire the evidence of your healthy green thumbs when suddenly you’ve been completely grossed out by the sight of globs of white spume on your parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

“Ewww! NastEEEEEEEE!” you screeled as you slammed your morning cuppa to the ground, the pitch of your voice in the range of a three-year-old on a tricycle. Just not the gleeful holy-jeebus-I-have-a-tricycle kind. You danced around the yard doing an embarrassing little number called “The Gross-Out Shimmy,” looking more like a goober who’s afraid of a little foam on a plant and less like a boss on a Big Wheel. And God help you if any of it got on your hand….am I right?

For ages I’ve wondered what that stuff was. Turns out it is the evidence of “spittle bugs.” Can I get a “Duh?!”

Just in case your herbs look like they’ve been spat on (and let’s hope that, like me, you have them planted in the backyard where the general citizenry won’t see your humiliating little dance), let me enlighten you on what I’ve found, because it makes me as happy as a person can be who finds spittle on her herbs.

Turns out it’s completely harmless. The foam comes from the plant itself, in reaction to the bugs attaching themselves to it and laying their eggs. They’re harmless, too. The foam obscures the view of all that nesting and reproducing going on. Probably a good thing, because who wants to watch bugs mate, especially on something you were planning to eat?

Anyway, just snip that part off and use the rest of the plant. It’s as simple as that.

It’s amazing what you can find online when you finally get around to looking it up, isn’t it? If you happen to find a cookbook for spittle bug lovers, please let me know.

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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.

detail

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.)

rom1

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?

rom2

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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