Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sex in the Garden

Please calm down! I'm talking about plants here, specifically squashes and their near relatives: pumpkins, gourds, melons, etc. Up until a few years ago our garden produced bumper crops of all these crops, but as the bee population declines, so do the fruits of these plants. We should all be worried about the lack of bees; without these vital pollinators, our food supply is in serious danger.

As you probably already know, plants in the squash family produce two kinds of flowers - male and female - and the pollen has to get transferred from the male flower to the female flower in order to produce a fruit. We used to be able to rely on the bees for that, but no longer. Therefore, many gardeners have taken on the task of pollination to make sure of getting a crop at all.

It's easy to tell the flowers apart. Female flowers will have a little fruit at their base - a tiny zucchini or yellow summer squash or pumpkin, etc., and a more complex structure in the heart of the blossom - the pistil(s). Male flowers have a longer, slender stem, with a single pollen-covered stamen inside the flower and no sign of a baby squash at the base. Here's a bunch of male zucchini, yellow summer squash, and pumpkin blossoms - yes, they all look alike. The stamen in the middle of the blossom is easy to see.
The last couple of years I've been trying to hand-pollinate by following a method I saw on TV, picking the male flower, stripping off the golden petals, and using the pollen-covered stamen directly to apply the pollen to the female flower's pistil. It hasn't worked very well and I think I may have been overly enthusiastic and forceful. Some garden authorities recommend using a soft-bristled paintbrush to transfer the pollen from one to the other, and this year I'm trying that. Perhaps the female flowers will appreciate the gentler touch.
Before I could try the new approach, though, I found some female blossoms I'd missed, with their attached baby squashes, so I harvested them to make a little  breakfast frittata. I took off the blossoms and sliced the squashes; you can see slices from the siamese twin squash on the left, above, at the front in the picture below:
Then I pulled the petals off the blossoms in the bouquet in the first photo, discarded the stems and stamens,  stacked up what was left, sliced them crosswise into narrow strips, and separated them into a pile of loose "ribbons":
I lightly sautéed the squash slices in my little 8" cast iron skillet (I was only serving 2) over medium heat in a little olive oil, adding in 1 chopped tomato after a couple of minutes. While the vegetables were cooking, I beat 3 eggs and then stirred in 2 thinly sliced green onions and the squash blossom strips, along with a little salt and pepper, poured the mixture over the squash and tomato in the pan, and reduced the heat to medium low.
 I sprinkled it all with an ounce or so of grated cheese, in this case one of those little individual BabyBel cheese balls wrapped in red wax, though whatever's handy is usually just fine (that's what was handy), and some chopped cilantro (parsley or basil would be fine, too), put the lid on, and left it alone for a few minutes till it was cooked through and puffed up a bit. I used that time to make toast and mix up a fruit cup of sliced banana, orange sections, and a few strawberries that had somehow gotten left behind from dessert the night before.
It was a perfect breakfast for two. Though the squash blossoms didn't add much flavor, they looked very pretty, and given the color they must have contributed some beta-carotene and perhaps some fiber. I've made stuffed squash blossoms in the past, which are delicious but also labor-intensive (they do impress guests), but this was simpler and just fine. I'll include the blossoms in omelets and frittatas when I have them, and I think they would also be a nice addition to a salad or tossed into a light, brothy soup at the last minute.

I was out in the garden earlier this morning, making sure all the female blossoms got the necessary attention, and it seems the kinder, gentler approach with the soft paintbrush is working. We'll be harvesting some zucchini tomorrow, and the one pumpkin I pollinated a couple of days ago is plump and healthy and has grown to the size of a tennis ball. So I'm feeling hopeful for a better harvest this year, and if it truly is abundant, I may post some more recipes for using up all those zucchini!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Good Herbs

I was surprised, when we began gardening here, to find that many herbs do very well in Tucson's challenging climate. Some last year-round, while others, like basil, dill, and cilantro, are annuals limited by the season. The basil's doing very well now; I just made a big pot of red sauce to use some that I cut this morning. Dill and cilantro, however, are only available fresh from the garden in late fall, winter, and early spring.
This photo of dill was taken one morning right after I'd watered it. I planted the seeds in a wine barrel around a 4-foot tall chaste tree sapling. By the time we harvested the last of it, the dill was nearly three feet tall, a dense thicket completely obscuring the chaste tree's trunk. So, what to do with all that dill? It was the wrong time of year for cucumbers in quantity and I didn't really feel like making pickles anyway. I love to make a cucumber, yogurt, onion, and dill raita (or mast va khiar, as it's called in Persian) to serve with curries or khoreshes (those wonderful Persian stews that are served over rice), but even if we ate that concoction three times a day we couldn't have kept up with the dill harvest. It was time to experiment.

For many years, my favorite dill product has been Larrupin' restaurant's mustard-dill sauce. Larrupin', located north of Arcata in Trinidad, California, with wonderful food and amazing ocean views, was a favorite place for celebrations when we lived up there, and the owners are considerate enough to bottle their delicious sauce, which can be bought in area markets. Friends and relatives who come to visit us are often kind enough to bring a bottle or two. But could I make it myself? As it turned out, yes, I could!
The recipe I used is adapted from one in The Cooking of Scandinavia in the old Time-Life Foods of the World series, and it couldn't be simpler! Because I had so much dill, I quadrupled the recipe 3 times (but I don't think twelvetupled is actually a word).

Mustard-Dill Sauce (or Gravlaxsas)
To make about 3/4 cup, in a small, deep bowl combine:
4 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. powdered mustard
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
Whisk everything together and then whisk in
1/3 cup vegetable oil,
a little at a time, until it thickens and forms a mayonnaise-like emulsion. Finally, stir in
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill

The sauce will keep in a tightly closed jar in the refrigerator for several days, even a couple of weeks or more, though you may need to shake or whisk it before using.

Alternatively, as you can see from the photo above, you can mix up everything but the dill in the food processor, then add the chopped dill in at the end and pulse a couple of times. I don't recommend putting the dill into the food processor at the beginning; it will taste fine (though not exactly the same), but instead of a lovely golden sauce with flecks of green it will just be a less interesting solid light green.

Now don't get all high-falutin' gourmet and imagine it would be better if you used olive oil and some fancy wine vinegar. Swedish cooks have been making this for centuries and they know what they're doing. White vinegar has the sharpness you need, and anything more than a simple vegetable oil (I use canola) would just interfere with the desired flavor.

As I said, I had a lot of dill. I didn't want to experiment with canning, since it's such a simple, uncooked sauce based on the fresh herb, but what about freezing it?
Yes, it was a success! I'd found these 1-cup Ball freezer containers earlier on a closeout sale at a ridiculously low price and bought all they had, and they were perfect. (I just had to put my Russian nesting doll measuring cups in the picture to show them off! Aren't they cute?) The sauce freezes perfectly and now that we have a year-round supply, it's pretty much replaced tartar sauce or cocktail sauce as our go-to condiment to serve with fish or seafood. So, plant dill and make this sauce. See if you like it as much as we do. If I hadn't moved to Arizona I'd probably never have tried to make it myself, but I'm so glad I did!
This last photo shows some of the rest of the dill hanging in the kitchen to dry (I said there was a lot) - I think you can pick it out from the regular hanging houseplants. Once it was dried and the leaves separated from the stems, I had a cupful to put in a jar in the cupboard. The dried dill actually works just as well as fresh in a raita, I think. Here's my recipe, the Persian version, which is how I learned to make it, but it's equally delicious with Indian food:

Mast va Khiar
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt (nonfat is fine, Greek is rich and delicious)
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 Tbsp. dried dill or 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate for 1/2 hour before serving.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Desert Oasis

Moving to Tucson from the north coast of California entailed both culture shock and climate shock. On June 4, 1992, shortly after 5 p.m. we turned off the interstate onto Speedway Boulevard, which Life magazine some years earlier had called the ugliest street in America. It was rush hour and 104 degrees. I didn't know then about Life's assessment of Speedway, but what I saw was so alien to me, after years of cool weather, listening to the sound of surf from my bedroom window, and seeing green wherever I looked, that I felt like bursting into tears and begging Joe to turn around and head home. Now Tucson is home and I love it, but as we are once more dropped into the blazing mouth of summer, we look for places where we can comfortably be outdoors, rather than staying huddled inside with the air conditioner cranked up.
One such place, which has been there many years but which we recently visited for the first time, is the Sweetwater Wetlands, on the northwest side of Tucson, just off I-10, past Aufmuth Motors, and nestled up against the Carpenters Union training facility. It's an amazing wildlife preserve designed in partnership with the wastewater treatment facility, much like the Arcata Marsh outside our old hometown, Arcata, California, in northern Humboldt County, which served as inspiration for its development. Both the north coast of California and southern Arizona are on important flyways (and are major destinations for birders), and so both these preserves are well-populated with wildlife.
These ducks were the first wild creatures we saw, just a few feet from the parking lot. A little further up the path we met a woman who'd just seen a bobcat, but then a tree-trimming crew drove up and they must have scared it off.  We see bobcats occasionally on our morning walks in the neighborhood, along with other wild creatures like javelina and coyotes, but it's a thrill I never tire of.

Scenes like this one are common in more temperate areas like the north coast or west-central Idaho, where I grew up. Back then I took tules and cattails for granted, though we didn't have pink-flowered tamarisks, a lovely but unwelcome and invasive non-native here. I also took for granted yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, both of which can be found at Sweetwater. We didn't see any yellow-headed blackbirds - it must be too late to catch them in their spring migration - but red-wings abounded, even if they didn't want to sit still long enough for me to take their pictures. At least this fellow was temporarily cooperative!

Sweetwater seems smaller than the Arcata Marsh, but it hasn't been around as long, and perhaps it will expand, if developers don't snatch up all the surrounding land first. Some of the paths are paved but even those that aren't are smooth and flat enough to make them accessible to some people who might find many trails too challenging. Benches appear frequently, and as birders know, if you stop a while and sit quietly you're likely to see things you'd miss if you just kept pushing ahead.  The viewing platform below, extending out into one of the ponds, lets you get up close and personal with the frogs and toads.

I only wish there was some way to photograph the sounds the creatures who live here make, so as to share them. The amphibian voices vary in depth but all share a rich, wet, fleshy resonance, in counterpoint to the higher, sharper songs and speech of the birds, so that all together they create a piercingly lovely natural cantata. Of course there are CDs of nature sounds - I like to put one on when I have trouble getting to sleep - but nothing can duplicate the magic of being there, wherever "there" is.
When I was a graduate student teaching composition, one of my advisors observed that the art of writing is the art of paying attention, and I agree. I've also noticed that many people can only see what they expect to see. For example, if the car keys are on the table but two feet away from where their owner expects them to be, sometimes they might as well be in another room! In nature, I think it's especially important to approach our surroundings without expectations, to be childlike and open to wonder, so that we can see what is there, like the duck in the picture above, scooting through the water with his bill slightly open, sucking up not just water, but bugs and algae and whatever other nutritious goodies float in this pond.

For my part, I've been paying particularly close attention to reflections the past few years, perhaps because, living in the desert, I like to be mindful of all facets of the experience when I'm near water. After all, water makes up most of what we are, so it's hardly surprising that our bodies and spirits are drawn to it. And reflection is such a lovely, multi-faceted word. The surface of the water reflects the plants and topography around it, the birds who fly over it, the animals who come to drink from it; the mirror reflects back to us who we are, at least on the surface; and what we say and write reflects who we are beneath the surface. Within the privacy of our own minds and spirits, we can reflect upon our experiences, our place in the world, our relation to and inter-relatedness with the rest of that world.
Since we spend so much time indoors, it's especially important to be outside when we can, appreciating and reflecting upon the things we did not create, that continue to exist without us (or in spite of us), that were here before we arrived and will be here long after we are gone. That frog in the pond with his rich baritone voice is, I imagine, just as important to the world as any one of us, and since his life is less cluttered with complications of his own making, he may enjoy it more. I find that perspective comforting and liberating, since it helps me take myself and my (mostly self-made) problems less seriously. Mary Hunter Austin expressed this idea well in The Land of Little Rain (1903):

Wheeling to their stations in the sky, [the stars] 
make the poor world-fret of no account. 
Of no account you who lie out there watching, 
nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you 
and howls and howls.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Celebrating New Life

I went to a baby shower on Saturday afternoon, expecting the usual, food, chat, presents, and that a good time would be had by all. I expected a lot of plastic things, Diaper Genies, etc. chosen from the registry at Target. I knew that she and her husband had chosen not to learn this baby's sex beforehand, so the quilt I made is mostly yellow. They think it will be a boy, but in spite of the blue, it should also be fine for a girl - I'm getting awfully tired of the sea of nothing but pink that little girls seem to swim in these days!
The invitation said there would be a "blessing way," though neither of the parents and none of the participants are Navajo, and I wondered what that was all about, hoping it wasn't going to be some half-baked New Age rip-off of indigenous tradition, but I didn't need to worry. What actually occurred was lovely, and although it contained echoes of various traditions from around the world, it did not feel exploitive or appropriative at all, but rather filled with respect for the traditions we borrowed from, for women, and for the wonder and mystery and beauty of birth. The hostess gave the mother-to-be a copy of the book that inspired the ritual and the overall mood of the celebration:
I love the cover image with the beautiful henna tattoos!

One thing I know was borrowed was the Navajo custom of introducing oneself to the group in terms of ancestry, in this case, each woman's matrilineage: "I'm Victoria, daughter of Patricia, granddaughter of Nettie and Iva, mother of Deirdre. . . ." It's a beautiful way of reminding ourselves to celebrate the people we come from. Each of us lit a candle as we introduced ourselves, and then we each shared a wish, a quotation, or a blessing for our friend, her baby, her family. I hadn't read the invitation carefully enough, because I wasn't prepared for that, but as the sharing moved around the circle I had time to think, and what came to me were these lines from The Prophet
          Your children are not your children. 
          They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
          They come through you but not from you,
          And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
So often, in this over-complicated, over-scheduled, over-controlling world, we forget that, but I don't think this mother will. 
      The midwife attended the shower and guided the ritual beautifully. The mother's other friends are, like her, graduate students in the same department at the university, smart, focused academics, but we are also all women, and it was marvelous to see the professional shell that we construct and wear in that academic context melt away so we could just be women, sharing, learning (the midwife taught us much) and enjoying our time together. 

      This birth will take place at home (it's their second child) and it should be peaceful and wonderful. The midwife said, "Your body knows how to give birth. Your baby knows how to be born." I believe that, but we've so complicated and compartmentalized all aspects of our life that it's hard for us to relax and "do what comes naturally." How could the human race have survived so long, if these weren't things our bodies instinctively know how to do? Certainly situations can arise that require more medical assistance, and it's good that it's available at those times. But the perpetuation of our species is not rocket science, though too many of us have been persuaded that it is, and babies don't need a whole lot of expensive gadgets and potions and lotions, though our consumerist society wants us to think they do.

I feel privileged to have been part of our friend's blessing way, to have  shared the joy of welcoming this new little person into the world in the best possible manner, not just with a lot of "stuff" but with genuine love and support.  It was an experience that enriched each of us who shared in it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Okay, I admit it, I've never seen Scarface. Too much of a wimp. But I'm not afraid of snakes, except the ones any sensible person should be afraid of, and this common kingsnake is welcome in my garden. He's just a baby, no bigger around than my index finger and maybe two feet long, but he's definitely got attitude. I stumbled upon him, figuratively speaking, about half an hour ago while watering and called Joe to take a look. By the time we got back, the tip of his tail was just disappearing under an overturned flowerpot. I got the camera ready and Joe lifted the pot.  The little snake shook his tail like a rattler and, as you can see, raised his head as if to strike. I got the picture and we got out of there to leave the little guy in peace.
Yesterday was the last day of the semester, a good semester that seemed to pass more quickly than most. Many students are leaving for faraway places--home to China or Portugal or Kazakhstan, off to do fieldwork in Chile, etc.--while others will brave the desert summer (we've already settled in to temperatures in the 90s and yesterday it hit 100 in Yuma) and stay here, either because Arizona is home or to attend summer school. Joe and I have about a month off before we go back to teach in a 3-week intensive writing program for grad students, then a couple of weeks off again, then back for a 3-week program for high school students that I half-jokingly describe as writing day camp. It's one of the best parts of the year--the students are so diverse, from all over the Tucson area and all kinds of schools, public, charter, private, with widely varying backgrounds and levels of writing skill. I love watching them develop their skills and friendships with people they might otherwise never get to know, and because some of them have kept in touch with me and told me so, I know they keep those friendships going. Anyone who has a negative opinion of today's youth should spend just one morning at our Summer Institute for Writing and Thinking; they'd quickly change their tune.
Right now I'm happy to have more time in the garden, though the time I spend there will be fairly early in the morning, before it gets too hot. (I have plenty of indoor projects for later in the day.) This is an outdoor project, on the west wall of the garden. The handprints belong to family and friends and we'll continue to add more as people come over and are willing to cover their hands with paint. My next step, though, is to paint the leaves on the tree, and some birds and butterflies, etc. Bahá'u lláh, whose words are painted at the top of this Tree of Life, was the founder of the Baha'i faith. I agree completely with what he says here. It is a sentiment that in our fractured and fractious world is all too easy to forget, and I like being reminded of it whenever I go out to my backyard.