Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pasta of the Week

Though I know that I can be an intermittent blogger at best, I'm setting myself the task of posting at fairly regular intervals some of the new recipes that I try; I just posted the second "Muffin of the Week." Joe likes to have pasta on Sundays, and tonight I tried "Maccarun ch'i Hiuce," Cavatelli with Cauliflower, from page 278 of Lidia Mattichio Bastianich's Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, her wonderful recent cookbook that divides its content by region. I've been watching her on the Create TV channel and getting so hungry I just had to order the book!
I meant to make Cavatelli with Cauliflower, Almonds, and Toasted Breadcrumbs on page 279 (I'd watched her make that one on TV) but forgot to buy the right kind of bread for the crumbs.
This "substitute" recipe is so delicious and easy! A generous amount of chopped garlic simmers in a generous amount of olive oil, then you add some red pepper flakes and parsley and a ladleful of the pasta cooking water and let it all simmer and reduce while the pasta and cauliflower boil together. Toss the pasta and cauliflower with the sauce ingredients in the pan (I use a mid-sized nonstick wok) and then toss them again with a good amount of grated pecorino or Parmiggiano-Reggiano. I made the full recipe, with 1 pound of pasta and a whole cauliflower, so we have leftovers for later in the week. Yes, I know pasta dishes are best when freshly made, but it will still be much better than almost anything available from the fast food places in the student union food court.
And I still intend to try the recipe on page 279.

Muffin of the Week

It's Halloween and there've been almost no trick-or-treaters, perhaps because it Sunday night, but there are fewer every year, it seems. Joe didn't think we had enough candy so he bought more - I didn't know that, so I also bought another bag. Seems we'll have quite a bit to take into work - college kids love free food, so it should vanish fairly quickly.
Last week I posted a picture of Cherry Cornmeal Muffins from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café cookbook. This morning, in keeping with the season, I made her Pumpkin Muffins from the same book. In fact, I may just have to work my way through all the muffin recipes in Sunlight Café. These were also yummy, even though I misread the recipe and put in 1 cup of milk instead of the 1/2 cup it calls for. You can find the recipe at: .

We had them for breakfast with a simple potato and sausage hash, made from leftover steamed potatoes and (to serve 2) just one of those big chicken sausages from Costco, also leftover since Joe cooked a few and then we forgot to eat them. Nothing to it. I just chopped some onion and sautéed it briefly in a little olive oil in a nonstick skillet, then added the chopped potatoes and sausage and cooked them over medium heat, mostly covered, for 10 minutes or so, stirring/turning at least once, until everything was slightly browned and crisped and heated through.
You'll notice the potatoes are of different varieties; they're from Trader Joe's and come in a small bag with a few each of red, blue, and Yukon Gold. I hadn't tried the blue ones before and in my opinion, there's nothing special about their flavor, but they do add a little visual interest. The breakfast fueled a very nice day out in the garden, and I'm happy to say that the frequency of costumed visitors at the door has picked up since I began writing!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Season of the Witch

That was my favorite song by Donovan, way way back in the day, and this is, again, my favorite time of year.  What I love most is the way it marks the changing seasons, the turning of the wheel of the year.  Van Morrison's on the stereo right now, singing "I want to see you at the Celtic New Year, " which as you may know is exactly what I'm talking about. The Celtic New Year, or Samhain, the last of the harvest festivals, the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead is at its thinnest, is the origin of what we call Halloween.
I feel my own Irishness strongly in autumn and winter, and this little watercolor pencil sketch pays tribute to my ancestors as well as the season, with the celtic knots along the side.  The crone in various guises - called Hecate, the Morrigan, the Caillech Bheur, Baba Yaga, and many other names - is the deity most associated with Halloween/Samhain and here she stands in front of a bonfire that lights up the night sky reaching out to bless the fruits of the season, represented by (of course) a pumpkin.

Unfortunately, our pumpkins didn't do well this year so, like the rest of the winter squashes we use, they'll come from the farmers' market. Next spring I'll be sure to plant them on Good Friday, which will be later than usual, on April 22. (Easter comes on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox). Planting pumpkins on Good Friday is supposed to guarantee that later, as jack-o-lanterns, they'll be successful at keeping away evil things.  (I also recently read that planting white icicle radishes with pumpkins - and presumably other squashes - helps to keep away the dreaded squash vine borer, which got some of our zucchini this year.)

Though most people acknowledge Halloween's celtic beginnings, in other parts of the world this time of year has also traditionally been reserved for important festivals, in the northern hemisphere, as I mentioned above, it's the last harvest festival.  In Mexico and here in the southwestern U.S., the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, marks a celebration of the lives of those we love(d) who have gone before us.  I wrote about that last October and posted pictures of my own ofrenda or altar to the ancestors.  At this time the dead can return to visit us - many people make them welcome by setting a place for them at the table or otherwise remembering them in a party atmosphere.  One lovely custom I recently read about involves strewing the path to the door with marigold petals to show them the way and invite them in, since marigolds are sacred to the dead.

I made this little pendant from a picture on a lotería board (lotería is a game often described as Mexican bingo, though it's more colorful and, I think, more fun, as well as a good way to practice or learn  Spanish - kids love it).  I drilled a hole through the top of a domino from side to side, then painted the plain side of the domino with Mod Podge, affixed the picture, coated the picture and the front and sides of the domino generously with Mod Podge again and glued on tiny beads around the edge of the picture and on the eyes of the calavera or skull. The Mod Podge acts as both glue and sealer.  Then I just strung it on a black leather cord and knotted it to hang at the desired length.  There's no need to bother doing anything at all with the spotted side of the domino.

When I was a child my friends and I roamed our small town without supervision (after a certain age, about 8 or so, I think) feeling totally safe, at least from other humans.  Some grownups passed out homemade cookies or popcorn balls or apples, and no one gave a thought to the idea anyone might use those treats to harm us.  In fact, those were the most popular houses, since the women were all good cooks! Mrs. Ford, for example, a retired teacher who lived on our block, invited everyone in for cocoa and cookies and parents reminded us to be sure to stop at her house (and to say thank you). It makes me sad to think about how things have changed, how so many of us don't know our neighbors, how we have to worry about someone giving children "treats" that might harm them.  Tomorrow night we'll give out factory-sealed candies to the kids who come to our door and hope they enjoy them as much as we did the candied apples and cookies of the past.  My enjoyment at seeing the kids come to the door in their costumes hasn't changed - even the ones some people think are too big to still be trick-or-treating. I think if a high schooler can access her or his inner little kid for that one night, it's wonderful.  We have to be adult for a long time!

The dangers to animals on Halloween are unfortunately real, so I hope everyone remembers to keep their pets indoors on Halloween night for their own safety, especially cats, and especially black cats like Angelo, above.  But I just learned a while ago that in the British Isles, black cats are thought to bring good luck! It's when a white cat crosses your path that you want to worry!

Here are a few bits of Halloween lore, just for fun:
* Eat an apple before going to bed on Halloween night to ensure good health during the coming year, and eat a slice from each of 3 apples for good luck.
* 9 hazelnuts strung together into an amulet and hung in the house on Halloween will attract good luck and protect against evil and negativity.
* Always burn new candles at Halloween, but don't burn Halloween candles at any other time of the year, or you risk bad luck.  Guess that means throwing away the Halloween candles after blowing them out - sounds like time for tea lights.
* This one's really important: if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, don't turn around to see who it is. It may be the Grim Reaper himself, and if you look him in the eye, you hasten your own demise!

Above all, have fun on this most ancient of holidays, and try to capture a little of its magic.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Charm of Making

The origin of my title today has little or nothing to do with my topic (it's from the movie "Excalibur," and is critical to the relationship between Merlin and Morgana). Actually, I could have titled this post "The Joy of Creating" or maybe "The Joy of Cooking," but that last one's already taken and would also be incomplete.

One of the characters in Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang" complains about being tired of people who "don't do anything or don't make anything, except babies," and I have to agree - I know some of those people, and lest I sound like a right-wing wing nut, the ones who "don't do anything or make anything" come in all income brackets.

I do know that most people are busier than they should have to be, just trying to hold down a job or two or three, take care of their families, and otherwise keep body and soul together, so "making things" can seem daunting - just another task in days that are already over-full.  It seems easier just to plop down on the couch and watch TV.  I was fortunate to grow up with a grandmother who loved watching TV, but while she watched, she turned out yards and miles of knitted and crocheted lace and other projects. Her hands were always busy.  Maybe, like me, she saw needlework and crafts as a way to justify those hours in front of the tube.  In any case, she made beautiful things that were always appreciated by their lucky recipients.
      This afghan and sweater went to a friend who's expecting a little girl on November 10.  The afghan is just a whole lot of granny squares (I finally learned how to crochet the squares together as I go along, after more years than I'm going to admit), and the knitted sweater is from a pattern readily available online. Just google one-skein baby sweater.  It's knit top-down, from the seam of the hood, and is really, really easy.  And yes, that's my Cabbage Patch doll, a gift from my daughter, several years after I gave hers to her.
     I love giving gifts like this (it's the second baby afghan in less than two months) when I know they'll be appreciated.  And even though they take time, I have the pleasure of creating them before giving them away - a much greater pleasure than just going to the store or shopping online.  And shopping also takes time and is not always a pleasure, especially if I'm feeling pressured.  Confession time: sometimes when I'm shopping I just feel aimless and spacey, nothing seems very attractive, and it's not much fun.  Of course, at other times I find wonderful things and have a great time.  So it's not that I feel superior for sometimes making things instead of buying them; I just like having and creating options.
    On to the joy of cooking.  I'm trying to have a slow, relaxing weekend, and for me that often involves cooking.  Joe's observed that it makes me happy (unless it's 6:00 on a weeknight and we default to frozen pizza and a salad).  These may be the best muffins I've ever made.  They're the Orange-Cherry Corn Muffins from Mollie Katzen's "Sunlight Café" cookbook.  Well, okay, they're a tie with the Atomic Bran Muffins from the Northcoast Co-op in Arcata, CA, a recipe that I've seen elsewhere as 6-Week Bran Muffins.
     Yesterday I also made soup, no recipe there, just a basic vegetable soup with half a bottle of a low-salt mixed vegetable juice that we didn't like real well in a glass but that mixed well with chicken broth as the liquid in this tomato-ey vegetable-rice soup with white beans.
     Then today I used the last of the current batch of dough from one of the recipes in "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" to make a loaf of olive bread by mixing in chopped olives, a little chopped onion, coarsely grated Parmesan, and a little finely chopped fresh rosemary (could have used more rosemary).  What a nice lunch it made!
The bread looked better after it was sliced, though, since I forgot to slash the top.  Oh, well, I like the crusty, rustic look.  And it won't last long, anyway.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Autumn at last, celebrating the desert

Seasons aren't quite the same in the desert as in other places - some of you will snicker at that understatement.  But it does finally feel like our version of autumn; in fact, I actually wore a sweater to work yesterday! It was a cardigan, and I took it off fairly soon after arriving, but still - a sweater!  And since today's predicted high is only 70 degrees, I'm going to do it again!
The last couple of months have been very hard on the garden and yard and now we're playing catch-up, trying to get things looking respectable again.  A few crops thrive in the heat, so we took most everything out except those - okra, chiles, and eggplant.  This year I planted a packet of mixed eggplant seeds from the Cook's Garden; certainly those on the dish earn the name of eggplant.  These white ones, and some of the long pale lavender Asian-type, were the best of the lot, lovely to look at, not too seedy, very tasty.  But I won't do that again.  The most prolific were a bush of round mottled green ones just bigger than a ping pong ball, lovely to look at but very seedy, though the flavor was okay.  I've had the best luck in the past with good old Black Beauty and Ichiban, and I think I'll stick with those and maybe one new variety next year.  And I'm going back to burgundy okra, which have always produced well and are gorgeous to look at.  Joe turned his nose up at okra when I first planted it years ago but was seduced by the beauty of the plant and has learned to like its fruit, though he likes it best breaded and fried, which is my least favorite way to fix it.

As I spread bags of manure on the gardens and turned them over I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soil; it's come a long way from the dead, packed clay of ten years ago.  Our house was built in 1984, in a development that was scraped and denuded of all life to make it easy for the builders, and most of our neighbors yards are still pretty barren.  I don't blame them.  It takes a lot of effort to coax life out of soil that's been so brutalized.  There's only one small front lawn in the neighborhood and the front yards are generally landscaped in desert or desert-adapted plants, including ours.

When we first drove into Tucson, during rush hour on June 4, 1992, at 104 degrees (we'd come from Humboldt County in northern California, where it might reach the 70s on an especially warm day) I felt like crying. We had all our worldly possessions in a 22-foot Ryder rental truck, towing our car behind it, and had given up our apartment and our lives back in California so I could go to grad school at the University of Arizona - I had a teaching assistantship and we had enough money for the summer - and all I wanted to do was turn around and go home, back to where it was green and wet and cloudy most days and the wild blackberries threatened to engulf everything else, including roads and buildings.  But we stayed and soon learned to appreciate the beauty and variety of the desert.

Many people think the desert is brown and lifeless, but that's not true.  There are so many shades and shapes of green, you would quickly get tired trying to list them all, not to mention the flowers, like those buds ready to burst into bloom on the barrel cactus above.  The blue agave with its sharp, serrated, sword-like blades thrives in the thin soil and blazing heat.  We now have a mini-tequila plantation on one side of our driveway, at least half a dozen blue agaves, all offspring of one plant given to us by a friend about six years ago (and we've given away many more).

Here's an up close and personal look at a saguaro. Those spines are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, and this particular plant, in a neighbor's front yard, is about 15 feet tall, truly majestic, but not at all unusual.  According to the mythology of the Tohono O'odham people of the area the saguaros are or were people, and it's easy to see how that belief developed, especially the way they often grow together in pairs or groups, sometimes with their arms intertwined like friends or lovers.
And we have many different trees, like this palo verde with its green bark - there must be over a dozen varieties of palo verde alone - fast growing with tiny leaves so as not to lose too much moisture to evaporation.

Just look at that intense blue sky behind the ocotillo.  In spring those ten-foot ocotillo branches will be tipped with blazing scarlet flowers.

I had a friend whose grandmother married a miner and moved to the Nevada desert.  She told Sally that if you lived in the desert long enough to wear out a pair of shoes, you'd never want to live anywhere else.  I've worn out a few pairs of shoes in the last eighteen years, and especially at this time of year, having once again survived the summer, as plants and animals (including us) are rejuvenated by the turning of the seasons, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.