How Green is my Valley… or Dash and Dine

You could argue I live in a valley.   The McKenzie River courses through the mountains outside my window and leaves behind a narrow fertile swath of land I now call home.  Just around the corner, an organic farm has a roadside stand frequented by locals and travelers looking for fresh produce on their way over the mountain.  Small farms and ranches dot the landscape. There are pick your own blue berries, holly and Christmas trees sites, and even a lavender farm started up not too long ago. 
Up early this morning and full of energy, I decide to pass on breakfast before my walk.  As I head out, my neighbor Len is puttering in his yard, watering his plants.
 “Morning!” he says, and drops his hose. He walks over to my herb garden and points out the cute bright red baby strawberries, ripe for the plucking.  We share our tiny crops with each other, and I snag a few for us both.  So French, adorable, and candy-like.
“There are more baby tomatoes,” he advises and hands me a couple which I drop into my shorts pocket.  “Green beans are ready; don’t forget to grab some since I won’t eat them.” It took me several conversations with Len to realize he has no teeth.   
“Great!  I’ll be over after my walk.”  I’m already thinking of a tempting recipe for Green Beans and Salsa I’ve wanted to try.    We chat a bit longer and catch up on the latest gossip.  He mentions one of his buddies wants to walk with me but can’t keep up.  I share that I walk to get my heart rate up, and his pal would rather talk than walk.  It’s time to press on.
This is my first walk since returning from my ten day trip to Texas, and my senses are already approaching overload.  I cut through the tall trees and head toward the path along the property. Normally I would hardly catch the aromatic scent of pine; but now, the perfume is so intense, I can feel it in my throat.  How could I not notice that? 
At the property line, this year’s crop of blackberry vines are drooping dangerously low – weighted down from the extreme mass of fat berries.  I stop in awe; so irresistible, I snag a few for sampling.  Sweet, warm and juicy! This calls for another taste.  I pull off another handful to savor.
I walk along the canal which flows out of the fish hatchery up river from us.  Colorful flowers are abundant on both sides of the levee:  tall stately thistles bloom amid Queen Anne’s lace, yellow daisies, and purple wildflowers.  The hazelnut trees to one side are looking good.  Judging from their husks, it won’t be long before they will be ready for picking.
One of my neighbors is standing on the bank, casting his rod into the canal.  He waves and tells me he has caught several cut throats already this morning.  This is all about catch-and-release, so I heartily congratulate him.  I’d rather hear about a trout with a sore mouth than in someone’s frying pan. 
 Up ahead, noisy crows are perched atop a row of blueberry bushes neatly planted along the organic farm’s fence line. Worthy of investigation, I move closer and note the bushes are loaded with plump, blue globes of goodness.  Clearly, an informational taste is in order, since these are my first of the season.  OMG!  These must be the best ever!  I join the crows and have at it. 
As I slowly get back on the trail, gingerly cupping another handful of berries, I am reminded of my own words uttered earlier to Len. What was that about heart rate, and fast walking?  I’m not even a quarter of the way through my walk!  I’m way behind!  
The good news is that I’m not late for breakfast.

Austin Adventures in Food

The Happy Couple
I’m back, still reeling, from an amazing trip to Austin, Texas and my daughter’s stellar wedding.  
It’s fortunate that Lola and Jameson found each other, for they are both thoroughly adventurous foodies.  Together they have embraced the Austin food scene ― from charcuterie to cheese and Hatch peppers to hot sauce.
They joyously clink their glasses over the most exceptional beer and wine while supporting the impressive array of locally grown fruits and vegetables made possible by the robust farm to table movement there.
So, of course, this trip could only be described as adventures in food on steroids.  We began our ten days of celebration with a quiet family brunch “for the mothers”.   Jameson would not share our destination, but we were forewarned when grandson Nick was advised to step it up a bit and change out of his standard workout gear.  
Nick admiring Pizza
The captivating complex of Soleil hangs on a bluff overlooking Lake Travis with a cool ambiance of re-purposed architecture and design.  The Italian-Mediterranean menu ranges from trout to soft-shelled crab, but since I was still on west coast time, I opted for something ‘light’:  a crusty wood-fired white pizza of prosciutto, figs, taleggio and gorgonzola cheeses, all lightly drizzled with honey and piled with arugula tossed in a lemon based vinaigretteWas it the view?  The company and occasion?  It was all an utterly sublime welcome to Austin!  With a hallmark beginning such as this, I had a hunch I’d best fasten my seat belt and hang on for a wild ride.
  
There was a whirlwind day of shopping in preparation for a pre-wedding ladies gathering.  Jameson was again leading the way and brought us to Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop.  Yes, one could cry out of sheer happiness:  a shop solely dedicated to the thrill of locally made hot sauce.   Tongues hardly recovered, we blasted on to Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, where we literally got in line for a flight tasting of legendary cheeses and first rate smoked products.  On top of our selection of aged gouda, creamy gorgonzola, goat cheese, chorizo and prosciutto, we added ciabatta, crunchy caramelized walnuts, and a little tupelo honey for ramdom drizzling. 
We were forewarned about a planned storming of the downtown food trucks.  Apparently there are two favored locations, and we opted for the smaller site:  a wise choice.  Right on the colorful old town city strip, as the searing sun finally shifted below the skyline, we jostled between Thai food, snow cones, mega cupcakes and other delights.  At The Mighty Cone, I struck a somewhat conservative choice with venison sausage in a cone, with mango slaw and horseradish mustard sauce.  What’s not to like with that combination?  The bread was eliminated and cleverly served in the cone-like cup with a bed of crunchy mango-jalapeno slaw, the perfect foil for spicy, juicy sausage, and topped off with the sweet-hot horseradish mustard sauce.  
A volume could be written on the wedding: it was unforgettable, stylish, and hilarious.  The reception took over three floors of the mythic Steiner Ranch Steak House with delicious flowing hors d’oeuvres, specialty wedding drinks, and a fabulous sit-down dinner.  Best part: a stunning bridal cake complete with a surprise layer of pineapple upside-down cake.
Another trip highlight which deserves mention was a visit to nearby Georgetown and a re-connect with high school classmate, Rory.  We smartly made no further plans and were happy to talk, laugh, and roam the historic downtown square of shops that surround the stately courthouse.  Situated in tree-covered foothills and home to Southwestern University, the surrounding community is classically charming― but still trying to find its way in the shadow of Austin and other threats.  Restaurants and shops seem to rotate in and out without much warning and the challenge of competing with invasive malls is taking its toll.  
We found our way to the Monument Café and Market.  In spite of hardships, they have managed to prevail and expand their operations.  In a new, larger location, they have added a garden to continue their philosophy of fresh organics.  Since they have long been supporters of local farms and suppliers, there’s also a beautiful well designed market on site for artisans and producers.
Shannon’s Kobe Burger

There was another brunch; this one a farewell with close family members.  Lola suggested the Roaring Fork, which proved to be the perfect ending, as folks went on their separate ways.  Somehow I never had an occasion to try Kobe beef, and this was it.  A rare burger with thick slabs of smokey bacon, arugula and avocado, seemed the right over-the-top note to end on.  And so it was; like dreamy buttah. 

I could go on, and likely I will continue to make mention of the amazing food scene in Austin.  It’s important to note that while there, the temperature managed to stay at a record breaking 107 degrees, with no reprieve in sight.  Under severe drought conditions, the ground is blistered and cracking and fields are dead and brown.   Buildings are shifting and house foundations are sinking.    But, in true Texas spirit, they take it all in stride, and know they’ll get through this one, too. That’s how they roll.

Market Farewell

Friday ended my tenure working with the volunteers of Springfield Farmers’ Market. I completed my projects and I have finally turned my position over to Sarah, my replacement.

It’s not that I won’t visit again, but it’s still bittersweet, because I will miss my weekly involvement and the bond with friends I’ve made there. Each week I have returned home from the market with special memories and treats that would make me smile for the next several days – and remind me of the folks from which they came.

My heart goes out to our regular farmers and vendors who work long hours to follow their dreams, and in turn, make the market a magical place. I wonder if shoppers think their some times slim offerings mean that the vendors don’t care – or perhaps they simply had better things to do.
It has been an exceptionally cool summer so far, and crops have been slow in ripening. Tomatoes  tend to look a bit puny and lack their normal brilliance. Blueberries that should have been completely picked by now are still on their branches.

For our farmers, the planting and constant vigilance over their crops is only the beginnning.  Week in and week out they contend with the pre-market picking and careful packing. There’s the transport to and from, plus the set up and creation of attractive displays that will draw shoppers in. They wait, in hopeful expectation that there will be enough shoppers to sell what they have brought. I respect their tenacity, their commitment, optimism and drive.

Our bakers arrive with trays piled with their specialties; for me it’s an indication of the long hours they have worked in order to provide the freshest products possible. Barbara, our French baker, takes pride in creating mouthwatering tarts, molded cakes and cookies – she tirelessly fusses and fills her platters, not a crumb is allowed out of place.

I will miss our shoppers who return regularly and support our small market. Some pick up their weekly CSA’s; they give a preliminary peek inside their box, and share their appreciation and excitement. Others arrive, shop and linger, chatting up vendors and friends; they may find a table and sample the food, have a cool drink, and enjoy the music. There’s a much needed sense of community generated here, thanks to them.

I will miss our loyal volunteers, who show up with smiles on their faces, rain or shine. Each week, they do whatever it takes to make the market a pleasure for shoppers and vendors. They bring their enthusiasm and willingness; their energy, too, is reflected in the ebullient spirit of the market.

Thank you for the joy you have given me each week. I will miss each and every one of you.

The Rock Garden

My mother’s rock garden has taken many forms over the years. No doubt it began as a way for her to accommodate a semi-shaded space in the back yard where no grass would grow. She always loved rock gardens. When I was little I remember her industriously working with a difficult slope on the rocky edge of our small front yard. I suspect it made perfect sense to a woman who loved form, color, and natural settings.

I didn’t spend much time dwelling on her latest rock garden when I visited her on summer vacations, because it was always there. In fact, she loved exploring the nearby river banks, and I suspect many of the smooth, polished rocks were finds brought home from those walks. There were also pitted and jagged lava rocks relocated from the volcanic flows further upcountry.
Early on, I remember she thoughtfully planted an angular juniper bush to one end of the garden, which became part of its basic structure. About the same time she also dragged home a weathered Douglas fir log, which she carefully positioned near the juniper for added focus and texture, and with these simple elements the garden gained a graceful kidney shape. The larger rocks spilled out from the elevated juniper and drew the eye at an angle along the odd shaped stones that tumbled and flowed downward.
She loved her hens and chicks, and the succulents were abundant in her early garden; a wise choice because they require little watering and maintenance. Overnight they wantonly pop up among the rocks in surprising spots; mom called them her volunteers.

On one of my trips home from Florida, where I was likely living on the water, I thought her garden needed a water feature. We spent much of that visit locating a tub suitable for a small pond, plus the circulation pump, electrical cords and all the other odds and ends to make it happen. We tore into her nicely defined rock garden, trading off while we dug an enormous hole deep enough to hold the tub.

My mother never talked about this major disruption to her plan. The tub sat there for years, an odd appendage that made no sense. Perhaps she was hoping I would return someday and correct the awkward mess that only served to collect leaves and attract mosquitoes.

Over the years the hens and chicks grew and multiplied and she tucked a few new plants into the rocks, but it didn’t change much after that. One year my brother took up the cause and presented her with two tall hand crafted copper flowers to add to the mix. On visits, we would stand out by the garden and move the copper flowers, as if they might multiply at will when placed in the right location.

In the final months of her life I spent considerable time at her home. One of the tasks I finally took on was resurrecting her rock garden. I’d tinker there and add my own touches. I planted herbs among the rocks: oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage and to my amazement, they took hold and settled in.

One day, when I could avoid it no longer, I tackled the removal of the bizarre brown tub. It was firmly embedded in its hole, but with unrelenting resolve, I finally yanked it out. I eyed the cavity left behind, and with waning strength I wandered about the yard and gathered up all the loose rocks I could find and filled it in. Amazingly, it formed a gentle dry river bed that looked as if it had come to an end, of its own volition. Over the top I scattered a collection of memorable stones she had set aside and never used.

It was later that same summer, and we had scattered most of Mom’s ashes about her favorite haunts: along her beloved river, and at a private waterfall closed to where she was born. One night, when the moon was full, I took one last handful of her remaining ashes outside and sprinkled them over her rock garden, where I knew she would have finally approved.

It’s no surprise that the herbs now flourish, and for me, the garden has become a mysterious attraction and a source of tremendous renewal. On any sunny day, if you were to look out onto the rock rimmed herb garden, you’d likely find butterflies and birds darting and dancing about the rocks and hovering over the lush beds of rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme.

Summer

Maturity no longer in doubt,
It is here.
Voluptuous youth:
Seductive, undulating, juicy,
Ready for the plucking.
No  dream,
This dazzling truth.
We endure frustration and defeat
No earthly lovers can compete,
Tempting, barely beyond reach.
When regained,
So sublimely sweet
Exceeds any wild wet breach.
When again,
At last, we are complete.
Satiated, fueled, restored.
The promise
Sustains, remains, stains
 our lips evermore.

Excerpts From the Gardener’s Notebook

“It appears we have turned the corner on a very long winter and finally, spring is more evident with each warming day…”

Returnees
The shade loving Foamflower has rallied from a long winter retreat; it has spread out and is filling an essential corner quite nicely this year! 

 
Wildflowers
First volunteers: Vibrant Columbine has popped up literally overnight and is a massive purple haze! 
Rhodondenrons are preparing for a vast showing very shortly…  

Early Edibles

First-of- the-season tomato plant is in the ground: Stupice, another unique find from the Springfield Farmers’ Market. Due date: 52 days and counting. Be still, my heart! Can this be true?
 
“Extremely early potato-leaf Czech heirloom that bears abundant very sweet, flavorful 2 to 3” deep red fruit. A 1988 comparative tasting in the San Francisco Bay area gave it first place for its wonderful sweet/acid, tomatoey flavor and production.”
 

Herbs and Such

Outcropping of nearly invasive Greek Oregano and a tiny spring Strawberry is in bloom!

Weekly Forecast
“Cooling temperatures with intermittent rain. Sigh. What happened to’April showers bring May flowers’?”

Tabletop Garden

In the darkest days of this past winter when it was endlessly cold and rainy I decided I needed a project to bring me out of the creeping dreary doldrums. I recalled my mother must have felt the same way at times too, because when I was a teenager we regularly had a mini-indoor garden. We were big on terrariums – my mother preferred a giant brandy snifter in which she would artfully arrange her pint-sized plants. We were into the bonsai movement for a while, too – then she would patiently clip and mold tiny trees into elegant works of art.

It took a full week to locate and gather up all the necessary elements for my planned terrarium – which, in itself was an injection of pure entertainment. In the clearance aisle at TJ Maxx a tall hand blown speckled vase caught my eye.

One rainy afternoon looking for herb candidates I stopped by Gray’s, my local nursery. Too early, I was told, and instead was ushered to their dwindling indoor plant section where I prodded and debated until I narrowed it to three: a curly grass that apparently loves moisture, a charming purple-tinged shamrock plant, and a small sturdy fern. I even found a bag of activated charcoal to keep the soil sweet.

Back at home, I rooted through my arts and crafts box and came up with a bag of colorful glass baubles that would work for drainage on the bottom – instead of pebbles. Outside in my storage locker I discovered an old bag of potting soil and set it aside, too.
By the following weekend I was ready to assemble my terrarium. In short order I had my hands deep in the soft, moist dirt and was puttering and fussing – and before I knew it, I felt my spirits shift. I hummed as I gently nestled my charges into their new digs. In no time I had created my own tiny serenity garden – pretty enough to deserve a place of honor in my kitchen.
Through those long dark winter days my terrarium became a constant source of revelation and entertainment. There were times I would move it about the house – and wherever it landed it graced the space with added life and color. Mostly though, my winter garden has stayed in the kitchen – where it shoots out brilliant flashes of green that sparkle and dance as the light shifts from drab and dull to crisp and bright.

Where Big is Beautiful…

“Phillipe Excoffier, the executive chef at the US Embassy in Paris, comes to Kitchen Stadium to challenge Iron Chef Flay. Will Chef Excoffier’s Parisian culinary flare impress the judges and beat out Flay’s southwestern spice? Tune in to see whose cuisine reigns supreme.”

That’s the on-line teaser for the current week’s Iron Chef America on the Food Network. I stumbled across the program while channel surfing prior to crawling in bed for some last minute studying – and it looked like a completely acceptable diversion. My brother enjoys Iron Chef and I watch it occasionally as a point of conversation with him.

The subject of the evening’s competition is the sea bream or dorade, a mild fish with lovely texture and endless possibilities. The early part of the show is wild and chaotic. After much mayhem and running about the kitchen the chefs settle down and ultimately present their flurry of finished plates to the judges.

Ironically, this episode encapsulates the cultural disparities between the American appetite vs. the European approach to food. The French presentation offers carefully composed, small artful portions. The US plates are colorful splotches of unstructured boldness. The flavor profiles are mild to bland for the European plates and robust to highly-spiced for the American versions.

Chef Excoffier presents his own variation of classical items such as a seafood forcemeat in a pastry cup, and a fillet covered with scale-like potatoes – with considerable focus on overall composition of textures, colors and flavors.

Bobby Flay counters this approach offering fillets adorned with 2 to 3 sauces per plate – all soaringly brilliant. There’s carpaccio covered with a piping hot spicy sauce that would surely mask any possible dorade texture or flavor; and ceviche – which one of the judges suggests is overpowered by citrus. Another is a dorade fillet poached in butter and perched atop a lovely cioppino. The soup is presented in mega-enormous white salad bowls, easily 10” in diameter, and the judges appear dwarfed and cartoon-like behind them – as they peer into these vast super-structures.

Finally, the judges have spoken.  The decision is a crowding pleasing conclusion:  It’s a knock out.  Once again, Bobby Flay takes home the gold.  I am disheartened as I flip off the TV and head to the comfort of my bed. 

The program message is another a bleak reminder of what America has come to represent:   Where big is beautiful and more is better.

Award of Distraction

Instead of Blog Awards at the end of the year, I call them as I see them. 
In the Hilarious Category, visit Cake Wrecks for a good laugh. 
  • http://cakewrecks.blogspot.com/
  • On the New Year

    Life as a Garden

    “To know someone here or there
    With whom you can feel there is understanding
    In spite of distances or thoughts expressed…
    That can make life a garden.”
                                   
                 – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)