Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!

 

 

 

 

When I Die, I Want to Become a Tomato

IMG_0400When I die, I want to be composted. I’d like to come back as a tomato.

When I tell my family this, they just sniff and look somewhere past my shoulder, as if I’ve just farted.

If they picture it all, they envision a long process, maggots, turning my body with a shovel, watching me swell and liquify and, of course, trying not to breathe because of the smell. None are Buddhists. None have contemplated a corpse. They don’t want to begin with me.

Fine.

Here’s the solution. I first learned of it when I read Mary Roach’s wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  She went to Sweden where she interviewed Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a pioneer in the field of ecologically sound burial. After years of research and trying, she has formed a company that will essentially freeze-dry a corpse, turn it into fine powder, remove the harmful metals, and allow the family to mix it in the ground where a tree can be planted above it. To see how it’s done, click here.

I’ve been following this for years and the process is not available in the US. So, I’m working on a low-carbon-footprint way to have my body sent to Sweden and turned into a tree.

How, you might ask, did I come up with this topic for today’s post?

Well, I sat down to write a post that would, in a sparkly, witty way list the top ten things I do with my old manuscripts, rough drafts, and all the paper I’m left with even in this day of keyboards, hard drives, and clouds. I could only come up with five:

1) Grocery lists (when enough white space remains)
2) Pocket notes (instead of index cards when I’m taking walks and am struck by A THOUGHT that must not get away)
3) More rough drafts (when only one side of a page has been printed and can be shoved back into the printer)
4) Foot rest (turns out a rejected manuscript, placed beneath my writing table, is just the right height for achieving an ergonomically correct position).

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5) Worm food.

You read that last one correctly. In my early days as a composter, I invested in set of stacked boxes and a bag of worms so that our kitchen leavings would have a nice place to go and I would have some nice rich worm-generated compost for my gardening. Such as my gardening is.

One of the ingredients for the worm bedding is paper. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a lot of paper kicking around. Manuscripts, all or part, lie around like bodies in a morgue. Cold, in pieces sometimes, carved up with red lines or black. Stained with whatever I was eating or drinking as I worked.

When I was into vermicomposting, I used to shred my used-up, marked-up pages and put them in the worm bin. And there they’d be, my words clinging to the scraps of paper that each day disintegrated a little more, turned wet and slimy beneath the bodies of worms or brown every time I added coffee grounds, or banana peels, apple cores, food scraps. It’s humbling to see the products of hours of work consumed by worms and microbes. A character’s eyes, or voice sinking into the earth.

Humbling, but also just right. The tree that became paper, becomes worm food, that feeds a tomato, or a tree again.

A proper burial.

That’s all I’m asking for. No ashes. No chemicals. No maggots. No trauma. Just freeze-dried Betsy and a tree. Or a tomato. I’m not fussy.

If you have an innovative use for your rough drafts, or your body, feel free to share!

If you are wondering about the tomato, these are the fruits of our more recent composting labors. Volunteers. Happy accidents. We throw the chunks of compost that are too big or hard for my pots along the sandy stretch of our alley fence and sometimes, beautiful things happen. All by themselves. Not a bad outcome for any of us, right?

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Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Love a Loquat

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It’s spring here in San Diego. The sky is blue, the temperatures are nudging eighty degrees, and I am working hard to come up with all the ways we can eat our loquats before they shrivel into black hairy clumps.

I realize that there may be those reading these words who are dealing with highs of forty degrees, mud, losing the bulbs they just planted to woodchucks. There are those too who haven’t seen the sun or blue skies for more than a minute since last fall. And there are those who will have absolutely no idea what a loquat is or why anyone would want to eat one.

I occupied all of those groups at one point. These days, I not only know what a loquat is but I love the fruit from our particular loquat tree. How could I not? It came to us nearly twelve years ago, a bare stick poking out of a little black pot half-full of dirt. It was a time of beginnings for us. I was a transplant and my husband was rediscovering all the things he’d loved and missed about California. He still speaks of his time in New Jersey (where we met) as “doing time.” That first spring, he was striding around a local home and garden show with a smile of a man who knows he will never feel snow sliding down his neck again.

We almost passed the tree on our way to our car after seeing all we’d come to see. The folks of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association were packing their truck to head home. We bought a fig tree (another stick in a pot) and then my husband told them he loved loquats. Apparently not many people tell them that. They threw in the loquat for free.

“What’s a loquat?” I asked my husband as we carried our foundlings home.

“I used to pick them with my grandfather. I ate them right off the tree.”

That was all he needed to tell me. The loquat was like the wild rapini he and his grandfather would pick every Sunday back in the California of the forties and fifties, or the prickly pears that reminded his grandfather of Italy. The loquat was wrapped up in all the memories of being with a grandfather he loved and knew, for a time, better than his father who was away at war when my husband was born.

We waited nine years to pick a loquat off our tree and now they arrive every February or so. When someone asks me to describe a loquat, I struggle.

It looks like it started out to be an apricot and then changed its mind. It’s a little fuzzy like a peach. There is a sweet, spicy, sometimes a tiny-bit lemony taste when it’s at its peak. Loquats start to shrink within an hour or two of being picked which is one reason they aren’t grown for commercial use here. Another reason is that four or five pits form the core of each one, competing with the fleshy, juicy fruit for space inside the skin. The upside of this is that you can eat a lot of loquats before you’ve filled up.

There is no dignified way to eat them. Juice runs down your chin, between your fingers. The pits, smooth and glossy as stones in a brook, fill your cheeks. You must spit them out and there is no polite way to do this. If you are outside, of course, this is no big deal. My neighbor, for example, loves to practice her aim. Her husband, who is usually her target, does not appreciate this.

If you are inside, though, here is a look at how to enjoy a loquat fresh off the tree, along with some wonderful links to resources, recipes, and all kinds of factoids that will allow you to vicariously enjoy the loquat. I encourage you to check them out although the closest I will probably come to doing anything with a loquat other than eating it fresh off the tree is freezing it, skins and all. You can take them out one at a time. It’s like eating a bit of spring all year long.

How To Eat A Loquat

Step 1: pick and wash (although when I’m outside, I just brush it against my shirt and stick the whole thing in my mouth, spitting out pits and skin later. It isn’t pretty but it tastes great.)

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Step 2: Peel back the skin so the globe of fruit is revealed.

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Step 3: Toss skin and admire the perfection of the naked loquat.

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Step 4: Take a bite from one side and then work around in a circle until all the fruit is in your mouth and the pits are tumbling from your checks like quarters from a one-armed bandit.

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Step 5: Repeat.

If you’d like to try it out on a frozen loquat, go ahead. When you are ready to enjoy them, take a couple out of the bag you’ve stashed in the freezer. Let sit for five minutes or less. Peel as instructed above and enjoy. The great thing about the frozen loquat is that the flavor bursts through in an icy explosion that immediately makes you want more.

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A few fun links:

For the uninitiated, loquats have nothing to do with kumquats which is a citrus.

According to UC Davis, the loquat in SoCal is usually just there to look good but they haven’t eaten the fruit from ours!  http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/dsadditions/Loquat_Fact_Sheet/

There is actually a site called Loquat World! And in addition to all things loquat, it provides some interesting recipes.

A wonderful post in the blog Full and Content: What to do with Loquats 

Finally, an anonymous Full and Content reader provided this handy little recipe for loquat liqueur:

1.75 liters of vodka or rum

Loquats

Pour all of the vodka or rum in a gallon jar and then fill it up with peeled loquats. I cut out the bloom end to expose the seeds. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 months and then strain off the loquats. Mix equal parts of the Liquor with simple syrup, e.g. 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup simple syrup.

 

 

Voice: Lost and Found

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Hello again. It’s me. I’ve gone missing since early February, at least from this page. Those who’ve been blogging much longer than I have already know what I’ve discovered: use that voice or lose it.

For a host of very good but also not very good reasons, I’ve not written here for the past five weeks or so. I’ve missed the writing and I’ve missed the visiting that happens afterwards. I’ve missed these things much more than I ever thought I would when I first started this blog. The longer I went without starting or, in some cases, finishing a post, the harder it was to find my voice, my words. They were working full time in other parts of my life and my work and when I called upon them here, they shook their heads, turned their backs on me, and punched out on the time clock.

Then, my friend Sue called me up and asked me if I wanted some greens from her garden. I said sure. When Sue calls and asks me if I want anything from her garden, I always say yes. I’ll have more to say on this subject very soon. For the moment, though, let me show you the “few greens” that Sue brought me:

Sue doesn't just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Sue doesn’t just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Lettuces, fennel, kale, celery, arugula and arugula flowers which turn out to be delicious as well as pretty.

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

A little later she brought me some sweet peas which are not edible but sure smell nice.

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Today, my friend Polly gave me a dozen eggs. They were tan, perfect, and freshly laid by her four hens. “The girls have been busy,” she said when I wondered how she could spare so many.

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My friends didn’t just give me food, they gave me tonight’s meal and tomorrow’s breakfast and enough eggs to make a ricotta pie this weekend.

The gifts are like my friends: generous, beautiful, and so nourishing to body and soul. Without realizing it, they gave me everything I needed to write this post. The words came easily. There are only two that really matter:

Thank you.

Here’s how I dined tonight.

I turned some of Sue’s greens, fennel fronds, and the arugula flowers into a chopped salad. I chopped up some of my own mint and basil to add to the mix. Chunks of avocado, a little squeeze of lime, a drizzle of olive oil and some of the nasturtiums that finally showed up this year in my backyard.

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Notice the arugula blossom waiting for my first bite:

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The kale and what Sue calls her “spicy greens” made a great sautee. Olive oil, a little garlic and a bit of shredded parmesan:

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Lunch With Friends

IMG_0322I ate some old friends for lunch today.

It’s the only way to get rid of them. They keep coming back like relatives you miss until they come and stay for months, or the chatty kind of people you try to evade at parties but just can’t. Everywhere you turn, there they are, all bright, happy, and softhearted — the kind you just can’t say no to — and they know it.

I’m talking about nasturtiums. I planted a few one year – I don’t know when. It doesn’t matter. If you say yes to a packet of nasturtium seeds, you will be living with the results for the rest of your life and beyond. The generations springing from that one packet will thrive long after you’re gone.

The term ‘invasive’ does not begin to describe the goings on among the nasturtiums in my backyard. These guys have no respect for boundaries, they sprout, climb, spill over the retaining wall, and completely smother the diedes I planted to add a little structure, a little class to the place.

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Nasturtiums thrive on neglect which is, as it happens, is the cornerstone of my gardening strategy. Then, just when they’re really getting out of hand, they do something charming, like blossom. First a yellow one, then an orange, sometimes a red. They hide among the leaves and then peek out like flirts until one morning you wake up and the whole tangle is ablaze. It’s kind of like a slow-motion floral fireworks display that marks the coming and going of spring here in California. Plus, they hide the weeds.

How can you hate that?

I don’t really. I’m just not comfortable with what they tell visitors about my gardening habits. Clearly the nasturtiums are in control of the landscape, not me. But I tell people I planted them for food. Each blossom harbors a sweet, juicy burst which somehow goes perfectly with the peppery petals. Harvest happens when I let the dog out or when I feel like making a salad.

So, for a few months every year, I let them have their way. The first leaves sprout in December or January and they just sort of poke along, getting bigger and greener. The blossoms start to appear in March and by the end of April or early May, they explode into color. I eat as many as I can and then yank them out.

They don’t care. They always come back.

Lunch:

I added my friends to a salad of greens, fennel, goat cheese and toasted pignoli nuts. Chop up the stems too – they are delicious!

Lunch with my friends

Lunch with my friends

PS: Turns out there are all kinds of ways to use these babies. Here some of the ones I found. If you try any, let me know how they turned out!

Nasturtium pesto!

http://bloomsandfood.com/2012/05/31/nasturtium-pesto-lower-food-miles-version-recipe/

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/05/nasturtium-flower-and-pistachio-pesto-a-story-in-pictures/

Soup!

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-potato-nasturtium-leaf-soup

Lots of other ways to eat ’em
http://www.yummly.com/recipes/nasturtium

Seduction by Artichoke

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.

Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.

You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.

Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.

My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.

Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.

Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has  been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.

Prepping The Chokes

Or, for another perspective, read Neruda’s “Ode to An Artichoke” via Edible Gardens Point Loma. 

Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Fruit-Salad Family Tree

Deep breath. Here goes.

My ex-husband, the oldest of six, is also my stepbrother. In my birth family, I am the oldest of five. In the family that formed after my mother married my-then-husband’s father, I became one of eleven. All my in-laws, in fact, are now my siblings. Except for my ex-father-in-law who is now my stepfather.

And that leaves out, of course, the marriages formed by the former spouses of my mother and stepfather. And the fact that my son could, I suppose, be viewed as his father’s nephew.

It is at this point in the “begats” that someone usually makes a crack about Appalachia or, as one former acquaintance did, starts air-strumming and humming the tune from “Deliverance.” I try to forgive. They know not of which they strum.

All this is top of mind because I recently embarked on a quest to understand more about the families we forge outside our families of origin – our circle of friends.

I asked, “Are friends really the families we make ourselves?”

The responses are still coming in and they are amazing, unique, and are forcing me to revisit every assumption I have ever made about the ties that connect us to other human beings. I look forward to sharing them in future posts and sparking a conversation we can continue.

I’ve learned one thing already, though. Our first families seem to guide how we go about building those families that come next. These “first families” are the ones into which we are born but they can also include the ones made for us in the wake of divorce and remarriage, the so-called “blended family.”

Ours was thrown into the processor around the time that most of the kids were still in their teens or just verging on them. A slash of legal blade-work and siblings suddenly lived in separate houses or separate towns; teenagers who may have been classmates, friends or strangers were suddenly sharing the bathroom, competing for the keys to the car and parental attention, and carrying wounds and questions that go unspoken or, if asked, unanswered. Who were we now? Who were our parents? What were we supposed to feel about these other people thrust into our lives, never mind the ones that were suddenly and completely absent?

Nearly four decades later, most of my sibs and steps can recall those early days pretty clearly. As one stepbrother puts it, “there are wounds that don’t heal completely.”

But time has been kind in many respects. For one thing many of us are older now than our parents were when all of the big changes went down. Life, we’ve learned, is not simple and it goes fast. My stepbrother who speaks movingly of wounds he can remember also says, “with age comes perspective and, I hope, wisdom, and I now have more empathy in my heart. Two grown people, each married with children, fell out of love with their spouses and fell in love with one another and made some extremely difficult choices so that they and those they love could have a chance at happier lives.”

“Being forced to have new brothers and sisters is always a tough sell… no one likes to be forced to do anything, but I guess we all just conceded at some point that it “is what it is” and, wanting to support those we love most, we just went along for the ride…for the most part.” – My stepbrother

He points out that the ride has been both individual and collective. We’ve all grown at different rates; geography, experience, and personality continue to make clear how different we all are. But, as one of his sisters says, “that is family” no matter how it came into being.

Although alliances are generally strongest among the siblings born to one side or the other, we rarely describe our family solely in terms of the one into which we were born, except to keep things simple for the uninitiated. As one stepsister puts it, “When asked about my family, my response usually involves a a quick rundown of my immediate family and then with my hands waving — step families here and there and the other.”

Within those who are “here and there” are a grandmother who loved her her son’s stepchildren as she loved her own grandchildren, a stepsister who has never hesitated to use her legal expertise, not to mention her clear-eyed sense of humor, to help any of us or our kids, brothers from both sides who have roasted pigs together, cleared land, and solved the problems of the world over the round oak table in the kitchen of our parents. There are the survivors of 12-step programs whose perceptiveness and caring have touched us all whether we were ready for them or not, an engineer, self-employed contractors and small business owners, a marketing executive, a woman who has made her living doing for other families what their own can’t, musicians, a singer and actress, mothers, artists, fabulously-fun aunts. The compassion, intelligence and resilience of this group shine, perhaps all the brighter for what it took to achieve them.

“I kind of brag about being from a large family, and all the practical experience it provides. I used to think that we were unique in the level of drama that took place. Turns out, not so. But still, it is our story. Unique to us.” – My sister

As I consider my family these days, the blender metaphor fades and our family looks more like one of those odd but beautiful “fruit salad” trees. These don’t spring from a single seed; branches are grafted in place. Each branch bears its own unique fruit but weathers the same elements, draws sustenance through shared roots.

What does your “first family” look like? How about your currently family/families? Do you agree that friends are the families we make ourselves?

First in a periodic series on friends, family and how they are sometimes the same

(For a look at a real “fruit salad tree, go to http://www.fruitsaladtrees.com.)