Thursday, October 29, 2009

The first cold breath of winter

Winds and other weather factors from the northwest have rushed down on us here in the desert, causing the temperatures to drop by more than 20 degrees, with freezes predicted for last night and tonight.  So I picked all the eggplants that remained in the garden--there were more than I thought! I'll make a big batch of eggplant parmigiana and then use the rest in ratatouille, since it freezes well.  This was an excellent year for eggplant, especially the big Black Beauty variety (I've always grown the long Japanese Ichiban before and was surprised to see the Black Beauties out-perform them).
        I'm so happy to see winter coming, and I hope it's as rainy as predicted.  Sweaters and gloves and handknit socks and scarves and hats are among my most favorite things!  I wore a long flannel nightgown to bed (and put on an extra blanket) and then had oatmeal for breakfast. Such simple things, yet they offer so much pleasure.

Monday, October 26, 2009

By the Seaside, By the Beautiful Sea

This past weekend Joe and I flew over to Orange County CA to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in Corona del Mar--it had been far too long since we'd been there and it was wonderful to spend time with them.  Both evenings we all sat out on the back patio and watched the sunset, and Catalina Island in the distance.  I wonder what it was like a century or two ago, when the hills weren't crammed full of houses and people weren't distracted from the natural beauty of twilight by the garish glow of someone's widescreen TV on the next rise - but probably if those folks thought about it, they'd have pulled their drapes. At least I'd like to think so.
My uncle lent us his car on Saturday, so we drove south to Laguna Beach, which is especially nice now that high season seems to be over.  We stayed out of the shops (with one exception) and had a wonderful stroll on the beach. I was busily collecting odd, calcified excrescences that turned out to be the tubes certain marine worms live in (there weren't any at home that day).  Then I saw a sign forbidding any collecting of shells, stones, etc. And that's okay.  Here's a photo I took after emptying my pockets; most of what's in the picture isn't anything I'd picked up. That's a worm tube at the lower right.

A little further on there are some rocky outcroppings; I climbed up on one and took a picture of the surf pouring through this hole in the rock (which is smaller than it might look, only 3 or 4 feet wide but quite dramatic.                                       Looking out to sea from where I stood is a big rock that was covered with pelicans. Unfortunately my lens wasn't long enough to get the kind of picture I wanted, but perhaps you can make them out. There were two young boys--probably 10 to 12 years old--out there in wetsuits with their surfboards, cavorting like sleek young seals.  When they saw me with the camera they waved and grinned and clowned around.  Their joy was infectious and they seemed so at home in the water.

This solitary sandpiper is one of the last pictures I took that morning.  The sun had been coming out from behind the clouds from time to time, but the light in this picture shows what it was like for the most part - more like a day on the north coast, and it made me rather homesick for Arcata. I fantasized a bit about living by the ocean again, but the next day, when we got off the plane, I was happy to see cactus - it made me truly feel that I'd come home, and of course I had.  Still, it's nice to feel connected to more than one kind of environment, to know there's more than one place where I could be content, just in case I'm reincarnated as either a sandpiper or a lizard!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!

I got up ridiculously early this morning to email my comments on her paper to a grad student, but then I discovered I'd left that folder in my office, so instead I made soup.  (Yes, I know a normal person would go back to bed.) This delicious and super-easy recipe seems especially right for this time of year.  I'm a great believer in soup.  It's easy to make, the longer-cooking varieties are especially good at making the house smell wonderfully welcoming, it's usually (but not always) healthy and relatively low in calories, and there's just something cozy and comforting and delightful about a bowl of soup. I always felt that way as a child, when a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup was the ultimate comfort food.  Since then I've lost my taste for canned soup, but since most soups are so simple, I don't miss Campbell's (though I do use canned chicken broth). So without further ado, here's the recipe for:

Pumpkin Peanut Butter Soup (3 to 4 servings)
16 ounces canned pumpkin or 2 cups fresh or frozen pumpkin puree (thawed)
2 Tablespoons butter
1 smallish to medium onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1/8 cup (2 T.) creamy peanut butter, preferably the natural kind
1/4 cup heavy cream or milk (or half-and-half, and the fatfree works fine)
salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco or other hot sauce to taste (I use a good couple of shakes)

In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add onion and sauté until light golden brown. Add pumpkin and chicken broth and heat to boiling.  Add peanut butter and cream and stir until smooth. Cover and simmer over low heat for a few minutes.  Season to taste.  Purée in the blender if you like (I do this if I'm using home-cooked fresh or frozen pumpkin, which sometimes has stringy fibers).

Depending on how much energy I have this evening, I may make cornbread to go along with the soup, corn and pumpkin being such classic harvest partners, and this recipe (which I sent to Sunset magazine several years ago and which they actually published!) is delicious and so easy. It makes a slightly sweet cornbread with a nice, moist texture.

Really Good Cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400; spray an 8" or 9" square or round pan (I use a cast iron skillet).
Mix all the ingredients together, pour them into the pan, and bake 20-25 minutes until it's browned nicely on top and a toothpick comes out clean if you poke it in the center.

 It just occurred to me that you could core some apples and stuff the holes with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a little butter on top and put them in the oven when you start preheating it.  They might not be done when the cornbread is, but it wouldn't be much longer until they're tender and you have baked apples for dessert (especially nice with a drizzle of cream or a scoop of ice cream, or maybe a spoonful of sweetened or vanilla yogurt).

 So there you have it: pumpkin, corn, and apples, the perfect autumn supper, with very little effort.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Woman Made of Flowers

I should be painting.  There's really no excuse; I have a show coming up in January and want some new pieces to put in it. Of course I'll show acrylics, like "Adam's Apples," but lately I've been wanting to do some things in pencil and pen and ink, the media I once used most. Then I gave them up for a long time and now I'm enjoying them again.  Also, I haven't drawn or painted people in many years but suddenly I feel the urge to try my hand at mythic and/or folklore figures.  So here's one, the Welsh Blodeuwedd.

There are at least two ways of looking at Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. This is the first:

The Welsh goddess Arianrhod cursed her son, Llew Llaw Gyffes, saying that he would never have "a wife of the race that now inhabits the earth."  But  the gods Math and Gwydion circumvented her curse by creating a bride for Llew Llaw from flowers, Blodeuwedd, "the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw" (Graves 308).  Some time after the two were married, Llew Llaw went off to visit Math and while he was gone a hunting party came by, led by Gronw Pebyr; when he and Blodeuwedd met it was love at first sight. And so they plotted the death of her husband by treachery, since he could not be killed in any ordinary way, but with the help of Gwydion he was resurrected and took vengeance on Gronw Pebyr. Gwydion then transformed Blodeuwedd into an owl (which is the meaning of her name), that is "hateful to all other birds" (Graves 312).

But consider the story from Blodeuwedd's point of view.  Created by Math and Gwydion to be more beautiful and desirable  than any mortal woman, she is given no choice in how to live her life or with whom to live it. Instead, she is punished terribly when she follows her own heart, rather like the biblical Eve.  According to Barbara Walker, Blodeuwedd is the Welsh goddess of spring, the maiden face of the goddess, and Llew Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr alternate in the role of sacred king, slaying or being slain year after year and then being resurrected to begin the cycle again (111).

Blodeuwedd's identification with the owl is interesting, since that bird is also associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom (among other things) as well as with Lilith, "the witch [Adam] loved before the gift of Eve" (Rossetti), a figure of loathing and terror in the Judeo-Christian tradition (though her actual origins go back much further) who has been reclaimed by feminist theology as a figure of empowerment and strength. It's all quite a bit more complex than a simple story of love, death, and revenge.

I was surprised when I uploaded this photo to see a shadow behind Blodeuwedd's face; it is from another drawing on the next page of the sketchbook, this time of the third face of the goddess, the crone.

 Robert Graves. The White Goddess, Amended and Enlarged Edition. 1948. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "Body's Beauty."
Barbara Walker. The  Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.  1983. New York: Castle Books, 1996.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October's bright blue weather

I'd been so enjoying autumn and now summer's back, at least for a couple of days, with temperatures in the mid-90s.  But to paraphrase Dickens, I will keep autumn in my heart.  This is the time of year, here in the desert, when earth seems to heave a small sigh of relief.  It is my favorite season in the way it signals beginnings and endings.  It's the Celtic New Year, and I wish I were more computer literate so I could post Van Morrison's song by that name. It's the time when I find dead butterflies at the side of the road, pick them up carefully and take them home to keep them safe until I find some artwork into which they can be incorporated, and I find myself quoting Yeats:

. . . and wisdom is a butterfly
and not a gloomy bird of prey . . .

Here also it is the time before el Dia de los Muertos, and I set up my ofrenda to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, although according to some traditions at this time the veil between the worlds thins and they can either pass through to visit us or at least see how we honor them.

The photographs are of parents, grandparents, and our sweet little cat Cleo.  The skeletons let us laugh at death (and the writer at her typewriter lets me laugh at myself).  The brides and grooms (there's another set not shown in this closeup detail, of  a calavera bride and groom driving off to their honeymoon in an open jeep) were actually wedding presents!  We love them.
          It's traditional to set out things the dead enjoyed, and probably I could have put out a pack of Pall Malls and a pint of bourbon for one grandfather, who died of emphysema.  The fruit is for my maternal grandmother, in the sepia wedding picture just behind the Golden Delicious apple. During the Great Depression she worked in the fruit-packing sheds at Emmett, Idaho, a town once known for its wonderful orchards that have since been turned into subdivisions as Emmett itself has become a bedroom community for Boise.  She loved the work and continued there as a seasonal supervisor even after the economy improved.  She especially loved apples.  The workers could take the culls home, and my mother remembers Grandma coming home after a long day at work and staying up until the wee hours of the morning, canning applesauce, cherries, peaches, all sorts of things.  She also made sure to buy at least one pomegranate each year as a special treat, and I do too.  The pomegranates remind us of Persephone, who descends into her husband Hades' realm at this time when the world turns colder and darker.

When it's cold and dark, it's lovely to snuggle up in warm sweaters and quilts.  I made this quilt last year for el Dia de los Muertos.  It's a small one, lap robe size, just right for an evening with a good book and a mug of hot cider or mulled wine.
I hope you all enjoy this season and everything it brings us, especially the promise of rest and renewal.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pesto and Salad Dressing

All weekend I kept telling myself I needed to harvest the basil and make some pesto. The Genovese, purple, and Thai varieties were all beginning to bloom, though not the spicy globe basil--it was just getting bigger.  Since I didn't get to it over the weekend, I harvested a basket full when I got home after work today and whipped up a big batch of the rich, cheesy, garlicky green stuff.
Here's the recipe I've been using for about 20 years.  I pack the finished pesto into 1/2 cup plastic containers for the freezer, for a taste of summer even in midwinter.

Basil Pesto (makes 1 to 1 1/3 cups or so; I double, triple, or quadruple the recipe if there's enough basil)
2 cups fresh basil leaves, stripped from the tougher stems and firmly packed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 T. pine nuts (traditional) or walnuts (an acceptable substitute with just a slightly different flavor)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup + 2 T. grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (I've also used Asiago, with good results)

Put everything in the food processor and process until it's the consistency you want. I like it finely chopped or ground, but still with little chunks of cheese, etc. visible.  The pesto will keep its color better if you don't over-process it.

Pesto has uses beyond just tossing it into hot pasta.  It's good spread on bread (my daughter loves that) or on a bagel, over a thin schmear of cream cheese.  It's also a nice addition to an omelet filling, and I love grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto and sliced tomato.

We were out of salad dressing so I made some of that, too.  I don't really like very many bottled dressings, but that's not a problem. This homemade vinaigrette is as easy as they come, tastes great (I like my dressing a bit tart rather than oily), AND it only has 9 calories per tablespoon.  I've adapted the recipe from one in Julee Rosso's wonderful Fresh Start cookbook; I often make it with white balsamic vinegar instead of the dark variety, for a lighter, somewhat fruitier (but not sweet) flavor.  I usually double the recipe and since it has such a high proportion of vinegar, it keeps well without refrigeration. As Julee Rosso says, "Don't worry about the hot water--it works."

House Dressing (makes about 3/4 cup)
2 tsp. finely minced or pressed garlic
1 T. sugar
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 T. olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (white or dark, or some of each)
1/4 cup hot water
pinch of salt
pepper to taste

Just pour it all into the blender and blend well, then decant into a clean bottle or jar. Store at room temperature; shake before using.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Of rattlesnakes and ruins

This morning we went for a hike on the David Yetman trail in the Tucson Mountain Park west of the city (and less than 5 minutes from our house!). The trail signs have been refurbished and there are some new ones, so there's no risk of wandering off in another direction, unless, of course, you want to. There were several tiny butterflies, like miniature Painted Ladies, but they refused to land in any place with good light or to hold still long enough for me to  take their pictures.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


The backyard is our green space; the front is pretty much desert landscape (except for a small flower bed by the front door).  Early this summer Joe cleared out this space in the front yard for a small labyrinth, something I'd been wanting for a long time. There was no room for it in the backyard because much of the yard is on a slope and most of the rest was already taken up by trees, raised beds, and the patio.  He pruned some big cassia plants to make a short path between them  to the entrance and after I'd laid out the stones we "paved" the labyrinth itself with sand.  If I keep it swept, the next morning we can pick out the tracks of the birds and animals who've come (mostly during the night and early morning) to drink from the water bowl at the center.  When you walk to the center (barefoot is best, to feel connected to the earth)  you stop facing east, toward the morning sun. I like to stay there for a moment, looking at the little world in front of me, between where I'm standing and the hedge of untrimmed Texas Ranger that divides our yard from our neighbors.  It almost always makes me smile.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Morning Glory Guerrilla

Why morning glory garden?  Well, when we first moved to this house and began planning what to plant, I was dismayed to find that the seed catalog companies wouldn't ship morning glory seeds to Arizona.  So I got some from a friend in California. The next year when we went on vacation our housesitter was shocked to see them in our backyard. "You do know those are illegal, don't you?" she asked in a tone that reminded me of Sister Angela many years ago. I was almost afraid she was going to call the garden police (she didn't, but we didn't ask her to housesit any more). For a few years we smuggled the seeds in from California, but recently I've found them for sale in stores right here in Tucson. I must admit, it was more fun growing them when it felt like a subversive act. But they're still lovely.

Here's one of those male zucchini blossoms that we had so many of earlier in the summer and that we need now!

"Winter" Garden

It's a glorious day here in the Sonoran desert. The recent 100-degree-plus temperatures are becoming a dim memory and our 70- and 80-degree afternoons remind us why we live here.  The vegetable seeds I planted on Sunday have almost all sprouted and popped up their little green heads.  The turnips and radishes were first, with full rows in view by Wednesday.  The only things that aren't  up yet are the nasturtiums (they always take longer), beets, cauliflower, radicchio, and cilantro.

All that's left of the summer garden are the eggplant, zucchini, and tepary beans.  The eggplant was the summer's best performer.  As for the zucchini, with the reduced number of honeybees I've gotten very good at vegetable sex.  Early in the season there were so many male flowers but no females, then for a short time there were equal numbers and as long as I made sure they got together, plenty of zucchini.  But now there have been mornings with female flowers but no males - so sad.  All those lovely golden blossoms doomed to spinsterhood!