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June 22nd, 2012

Canning Can Do

When I was younger…so much younger than today, I never thought I never needed anybody’s help in any way. In fact, I was only too happy to look for help as I steered my little family craft through the rocky shoals of life. Him Indoors and I were both freelance (a.k.a living life on a wing and a prayer), raising our son, creating a beautiful garden (for me to write about) and much else. One thing I did was bottle, or can, my own produce and the tons of fruit I gathered at the local Pick-Your-Own (strawbs mostly) or from the old hedgerow round the garden (crab apples, damson & gage plums,blackberries, mulberries and such). Then, with my greenhouse-grown tomatoes, pickling cukes and anything I grew that would freeze, jam, pickle or butter, I’d retire to the kitchen range and for hours on end, pick over, slice, chop, measure, and stir — that was the lengthiest bit — turning the harvest turned to preserves. My mother (Irish farmgirl that she was and so resident know it all) helped from time to time with advice and (mostly) admonitions. That jangled my nerves, but the steam did wonders for my complexion, and the goods were, well, good. Amazingly so. To think about it now makes me tired.

Thus, I am full of admiration for the next generation of jam-makers, sweating their toil over a hot cauldron. Or are they? I just encountered the latest bit of technology to ease it’s helpful way into our existence. Check it out: The Fresh Tech Automatic Jam Maker from Ball. Watch closely. One of the selling points is that it will allow the user to “Brag to your Mother-in-Law.” Well, this MiL wants one herself so she can start her own bragging rights  about her homemade chutneys and such.

A little salt added to sweet jam punches up the flavor, but now I can add tang with a pinch of the real thing, rather than from the sweat of my brow. Oh Yes! this is help I can use.

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June 13th, 2012

Colonial Williamsburg Rocks. Gently.

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Him Indoors and Herself

Earlier this year … on my 33rd wedding anniversary to be exact… Him Indoors and I traveled to Colonial Williamsburg. I was on the roster for the annual garden conference. In my book, that has been, and remains, one of the highlights of the garden year, and I’m not just saying that for obvious reasons. They have always attracted top notch speakers (ahem…) and the focus is on practical gardening. But given the location, garden history gets a look in, too.Yay!

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My ideal garden.

It was fab. The whole thing. We were staying at the Williamsburg Inn, which is the sinecure of homely elegance. Imagine please. You walk through the door and the staff (oh the staff!) say “Welcome home.” It may sound corny, but when you travel as much as I do, it’s terrific. The room was not palatial, but who needs palatial when there is room to kick your shoes off, read the paper, noodle on the internet and NOT have to do it from a supine position on the bed. The bathtub is 6 ft long. And nicely deep. Need I say more? I suppose the only gripe would be the food, which comes from central casting…or kitchen…with a few exceptions. But, when you get to sit on the Inn’s terrace and wallow in the peace and quiet. Who cares? We weren’t there for the grub. But I do recommend the Spa…

I won’t dwell on the excellence of the garden symposium: if you’ve been, you’ll know, and if you haven’t you ought. The thing was, as Him Indoors and I shambled around…we walked everywhere…we delighted in the tranquility. There was NO PIPED MUSIC on the street. I mean! Piped Musak in elevators is bad enough — trapped with the wailing of some godforsaken wannabe rock star — but to be bombarded by it as you walk along a public thoroughfare (okay, malls are privately owned, so they are fully responsible for this wretched noise pollution) is more than a body should have to bear. SHUT UP!

Time out. Deep cleansing breath.

No matter what your generation (or demographic), there is a music track for you. But, these days, when we are all so besotted by knowing where our food comes from and what noxious additives are going into our bodies, spare a thought for the old lugholes. Our auditory sense is being assaulted day in, day out.

My ideal home.

My ideal home.

Enough I say. Musication without representation! Time for a revolution, methinks.

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June 10th, 2012

Frontier of Flavor

Cleaning the kitchen cupboards is not my idea of a thrilling weekend, but that is the task Him Indoors set us, and I have to say, not before time! Tackling the spice and seasonings cupboard was akin to an epicurean archeological dig. Some of the chili mixes went back to the Austinscene era. Seriously….ten years plus. Gads. It also revealed a trove of Indian curry spices and herbs that clung to their flavor by their fingernails. That stuff was O.L.D. No wonder my curries pack not the punch they ‘ere once did.

The upside: Getting rid of all that foodie flotsom made more space for the Frontier spice blends that have been my default for evening meals when I need a flavor boost but can’t face the old grind with the pestle and mortar. Which I do have. Huge ruddy great thing made by Wedgwood for pharamacists use in the days when they called themselves apothecaries. All very handmade, but really. Life is too short to grind fenugreek seeds.

So,  these blends are all you could hope for: ORGANIC ! Fresh, authentic — I’ve been futzing with blends for curry and tagine and harissa for long enough to know when something is not quite the thing. Frontier has it down (although their coriander dressing/marinade never quite lost its dried powdered lawn-clippings taste). Probably the key to their success is the lack of adulteration. But the spice mixes. Oh yes. Especially the Mexican mole mix. Norma Garza, my opera-singing BFF who knows about such things (La Paloma in Austin had the best mole last time I consulted Norma), would be, I think, impressed with my culinary acumen to have prepped such a succulent sauce.

Hey, cheating is okay if the ingredients you are playing with are the real deal.  At this stage of the game I abide by having someone else do the pulverizing for me. Thank you. Frontier! Can’t wait to try the turkey brine blend: I’ll bring the bird.

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June 8th, 2012

Monet’s Garden Lessons

Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

The current floral extravaganza at the New York Botanic Garden is devoted to a celebration of Claude Monet’s famous garden at Giverny, just north of Paris. I was fortunate to be there at the opening event as a guest of the photographer and author, Elizabeth Murray, who spent her formative gardening years assisting in the restoration of this garden. With her subsequent books, lectures and photography, Elizabeth has established her credentials as one of the leading authorities on the hows and whys of Monet’s horticultural “painting.” For that is what his garden-making was all about; painting beautiful landscapes with flowers and so creating a world in which, with his eyesight failing, he could continue to find the inspiration to render a three-dimensional world in two. Monet on the footbridge crossing the lily pond.

And what a world it was. Anyone who has created a garden knows how intimately we connect with each plant and benefit from the diversity they create for us to enjoy. Even a handful of soil, rich and loamy from years of feeding and mulching and working speaks to our hearts.

The exhibition begins properly in the NYBG library building where two Monet paintings face each other across the room, framing the centerpiece display of his wooden paint palette. Blobs of color intact — smears of rose madder, iris mauve, watery yellow and delphinium blue — speckle the old, gently curved board. Behind, from an enlarged photo the old artist peers back at us through bottle bottom glasses. I could imagine his hand on the palette, his thumb poking through the grip. What I can’t imagine is being an artist slowly losing my eyesight. Yet, Monet serves as an example of how such adversity can be turned to advantage, and his last works, monumental collages of vividly colored shapes, show that even in the dimming light of his world he could express an inner vision of beauty.

I’ve been to Giverny several times, but thanks to this wonderful exhibition, I have seen it for the first time. It runs until 21 October and the garden display in the Enid Haupt Conservatory will change with the seasons.Claude Monet (1840-1926) in front of his paintings 'The Waterlilies', in his studio at Giverny, 1920 (gelatin silver print) (b/w photo) by Henri Manuel (1874-1947) Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ The Bridgeman Art Library

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