A New Twist on Cole Slaw

You can never be quite sure what’s going to do well in the garden. Last year I had cucumbers galore, this year not so many. Last year the beets were few and far between, this year lots. I planted both red and green cabbage this year. The reds were so pitiful, I didn’t bother even trying to salvage anything from them. But the greens!

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It’s hard to tell size from this picture, but that head is almost as big as a volleyball.  They don’t come one at a time. I had six at once in June. What do you do with six large heads of green cabbage?

I shredded one head and sautéed it with sliced onion and a little bacon for flavor. A little salt and pepper and 45 minutes on a low flame (covered) makes a very fine side dish. I wrapped three heads carefully and put them in the fridge downstairs. That left two. Cole slaw is nice, I thought, but I am not as wild about using mayonnaise in dressings, and I don’t buy bottled dressings. Vinegar and oil would work, but I wondered about lemon, so I experimented.

I chopped up two heads very fine, added chopped red onion and shredded carrot and made a lemon dressing. Yum! Two heads of cabbage make a lot of cole slaw, so after the meal I packed the remainder in wide-mouth quart-sized mason jars and refrigerated it. I found that the flavors got even better the next day and the next. I gave one jar to my neighbors Jen and Quin, and one to Lincoln and Julia, and they loved it too.

A few weeks later I made more, using the last of the garden heads, and we enjoyed it just the same. That was in August. Today I got a hankering for Lemon Cole Slaw again.

Get yourself a nice head of green cabbage. (It’s very cheap!) Chop it fine. I use my 10-inch chef’s knife, preferring to do it by hand because 1. I control the size of the chop and 2. I get a bit of a workout which makes me feel better about dessert 😊

Start by quartering the head and cutting out the core. Slice like this first:

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Then crossways until it looks like this.

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Certainly you may use a food processor or some other chopping device. I like to add red onion and carrot for both color and flavor. To the one head of cabbage I bought and chopped finely today, I added two finely chopped red onions (each onion was the size of a golf ball) and four small carrots from my garden. Use however much of each as seems reasonable to you. Use a big bowl. The biggest one you have is probably best.

For the dressing, I adapted the sweet-sour dressing I use for Carrot-Raisin Salad from a favorite old (1976) cookbook called Bakery Lane Soup Bowl.

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For the lemon dressing I used 1/3 cup sugar, ½ cup lemon juice, ¼ cup olive oil and salt and pepper to taste (for me that’s about 1 ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper). The salad looks pretty once you mix it all up with the dressing and it tastes light and refreshing.

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We had some for dinner and I put the leftover in one small jar and one large jar. Pack it in tightly! It keeps well stored in the fridge. I can’t say how long, but am guessing a week or so. Mine doesn’t last that long!

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The smaller jar here is special to me because Claudia’s dad makes his own honey on their farm in Betzigau in southern Germany and packs it in these jars. I save the jar of course because it reminds me of him and his wonderful gift to me. This jar is from the honey Claudia brought last year. One time when I was returning from a trip there and had forgotten that even creamed honey is considered a liquid and put it in my carry-on so that I could be more careful with the glass jar (do you see where I’m going!?), I had to watch the airline security official throw it in the trash (!!!!) because it was a “liquid.” “It’s honey!” I told the woman, “It’s like gold to me!” She just threw it in the trash… Moral of this story: Put honey in your checked bag!

If you want to make Carrot-Raisin Salad, peel and shred 2 pounds of carrots and mix with this same dressing only using cider vinegar instead of the lemon juice (same quantity). Mix in a cup of raisins (golden or regular) just before serving. Some people don’t like the raisins, so I usually divide it in half and add raisins to only one of the bowls. If you have leftover of the one with the raisins and you store it in the fridge, the raisins will absorb some of the dressing and be soft and all puffed up the next day. I don’t mind this at all, and it doesn’t hurt anything, just know it will happen.

These salads-in-a-jar are so nice to have on hand. No last-minute salad prep when it’s time for dinner. Oh, look, here’s salad!

 

Pink Hands

I love the story of the Little Red Hen. You know the one where the hardworking and foresightful Hen goes through the steps of growing wheat. She asks three other animals on the farm – the Cat, the Pig and the Duck in the version I remember – to help her plant a grain of wheat she found. She says, “Who will help me plant the seed?”

“Not I,” said the Cat. “Not I,” said the Pig. “Not I,” said the Duck.

So she does it herself. She continues to ask for help with harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, and the other animals continue to refuse to help. Finally the bread is ready to be eaten and they sure do want to help with that! Too bad! They didn’t want to help with the work, so they don’t get to enjoy the reward. The Hen shares the bread with her happy chicks.

Today was Harvest Day at Golden Hill. The beets and carrots have been doing what garden vegetables generally do if you leave them alone. (Anyone who has harvested a baseball-bat zucchini can relate!) I just didn’t get to it before now, can’t imagine why. But the beets had pushed themselves pretty much out of the ground and the carrot tops had dried up.

Here are the beets in their bed in May, in June and today:

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And the carrots in their bed in May, in June and today:

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See what I mean? I’m an amateur in the garden, but this I know: It’s time to harvest. And I had little girls happily helping me!

First we did the carrots because you have to pull harder. Little girls get tired, so let’s do the somewhat harder thing first and save the easier task for later. I loosened the soil and exposed those gorgeous orange tubers.

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Eppie didn’t want to get her hands dirty with pulling carrots, so Rise helped with this. Eppie put them in the box. Well, some of them. She found other interesting things to look at in the garden, including two worms. I wonder sometimes if some children never get to touch real worms…

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How fun it was for Rise to pull up some pretty big ones!

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Eppie was more impressed with one that was curled. And with the ants whose home we evidently disturbed. “Look, sister!”

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The ants were none too happy but they will figure it out.

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We got two boxes full of carrots, smoothed the dirt for the next planting, and said Wow! as we looked at our harvest. Rise said we should make carrot soup for dinner. We’ll see about that, but how wonderful that she is not only helping but also thinking about what to make with them.

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Onward to beets. So much easier. You don’t have to pull at all, but practically just lift them out of their nice bed,

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and twist off the green leafy part (that’s for the chickens).

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Beets are fun. Look what you get besides beets – pink hands!

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I like making little girls happy. I like making chickens happy. Look at the box of greens behind the box of beets! I know we could eat the greens too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. All those lovely beets make me so happy I can let the greens go.

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The chickens were soon very happy!

Well, each in their turn. The photo below shows the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island Reds, which I have been lately calling Group A – will someone please help me come up with a name for this group?! They got theirs first – the beet greens and a few tomatoes that the garden turtle (remember him?) chewed off half of because they were lying on the ground because someone (I wonder who) didn’t get around to staking up the tomatoes very high either.

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See the silkies and black copper marans (Group B for Bantam?) looking through the dividing wire, longing for theirs. Hey, where’s ours? Patience, patience!

Ah! Good things come (usually) to those who wait. The chickens like the tomatoes better than the greens. But I guarantee that those greens won’t last long either.

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I think I never had a harvest of beets and carrots like this. Never so many. How blessed am I to share the experience with these lovely young ladies! Later in the week we might plant some more carrots and beets in these beds so that there will be a fall harvest. Something tells me I’ll have two good helpers!

 

 

Parallels in the Weed World

When I was a kid, my mother used to say she loved gardening because after she got all dirty, she could get all clean. Going from very icky to fresh as a daisy is more thrilling than going from almost fresh to fresh. The same is true for weeding.

Weeding a bed that is overrun (why don’t we call it de-weeding?) has a different, greater level of satisfaction for the weeder once it is decent again. This morning did not turn out to include a train ride to DC and a day with friends as I had hoped, so at 7am I hit the strawberry bed. It was in great need. It was bad.20180711_072715.jpg

Do you see strawberry plants in there among those rotten (but thriving!) tall things? See the spikey grass trying to get some sun? This photo doesn’t reveal the half of what was trying to crowd out my precious fruit-bearing plants. The following photo reveals even less, but I am trying to capture the scope of the situation. The strawberry bed is eight 8-foot fencepost-widths long, or about 64 feet.

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Before it got too hot, I went to town on the mess. See all that fuzz toward the other end. That’s the really bad part.

While pulling out the Bad, I thought about a few parallels to human life.

  1. The Bad tries to push out the Good. That’s the first thing you notice. I had a lovely strawberry bed earlier this summer which produced lovely strawberries which turned into lovely jam.

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The weeds weren’t there then (though now that I think of it I found numerous half-eaten berries out there when I picked them – surely the work of hungry squirrels). Why can’t the weeds just find somewhere else to grow? Why can’t the squirrels eat the gazillion other edible seeds and nuts on this property? Why can’t bad people leave good people alone?

2. The Bad tries to masquerade as the Good, tries to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, tries to fool you as counterfeit among the genuine. The tall, overachiever weeds are obvious, as is the spikey grass, but hidden among the strawberry plants are various weeds trying to look like strawberry plants, trying to infiltrate and blend in – playing their can’t-catch-me game. They think I can’t tell the difference, but pretty doesn’t always win (some of the nasty ones are pretty – does that sound like real life or what?). I’m smarter than that, but they are robust intruders with determined roots that get a foothold in an area by wrapping their strong tentacle-like roots around the (supposed-to-be-there) strawberry roots. I am ruthless. However…

3. You don’t always get all the Bad out. See these horrid little roots?

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You can’t get all that. Insidious is the word. The next time they get water from rain or the sprinkler, they will begin to come to life once again, you can bet on it. They keep their agents hidden but ready to pounce at the first opportunity. Sound like anything else in this world?

But someone has to get the bad guys. Whether you are part of crime dramas in real life or you watch them on a screen in your living room, you notice that the detectives and the police have unrelenting obstacles and are perpetually short on time, facts and help. They bumble, they see false clues, they have their own issues that trip them up. Yet they are determined to expose the wrong, get the bad guys and make it right. They keep going. Our military, God bless them, also keep going despite the danger and setbacks. Strong fights strong. What if it didn’t? What if it just said We’ll never obliterate the Bad altogether so why try? But it is also true that…

4. You can’t save all the Good. Some of the good, healthy, wonderful strawberry plants ended up in the wheelbarrow because they were just too entwined with the Bad. In the bigger world, the innocent are often victims for lots of reasons, and you don’t have to look far for examples. Watched The Eichmann Show on Netflix last week – unspeakably horrendous. Follow the news every day and there are always new, sad images. But just because there will be loss, terrible, sorrowful loss sometimes, doesn’t mean you don’t do what you can. The Good has to keep going…

5. Let the exposed part lead you. With some of these weeds, especially where the situation at ground level is rather thick, I start where I can see and work my way down to the base. Then I pull. If you pull too soon, you just break it midway and that’s pointless — the thing will be back in no time. Same for our everyday. Take care of what you can see in front of you as best as you can, and then move on to the next thing. As you make headway, you can see what you couldn’t see before and you have some experience and can do a better job with the next thing. I like how Jordan Peterson puts it: “Clean up your room.” Clean up your own room before you start addressing the ills of the world at large. Do what’s in front of you first. If you can’t get a small thing under control, if you are inept at the small things, what makes you think you can tackle the big things? If you don’t get the weed you can see out of the way, the situation is overwhelming. One thing at a time.

Along the way, surely…

6. You sometimes encounter nice surprises. Some people would say this fellow is a pest and I should relocate him to the woods. I think he’s nice (to say nothing of funny-looking) and I don’t mind him a bit. For the most part my garden plants are in raised beds which he cannot possibly get to. Then again, maybe he is the one who left all the half-eaten (ground-level) strawberries behind!

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I went to the garden to weed the strawberry bed. I moved slowly from one end of the bed to the other, mostly on my knees, mostly looking down as the job requires. Sometimes though, you have to stand up to stretch or move to a new space, and then you see things from a different angle, you see the big picture a little better, you see things you didn’t realize were there.  Once when I stood up I saw that the lilies had opened! Just yesterday they were still preparing for their grand show. What a nice surprise!

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Do stand up and look at things from a different angle sometimes. It’s amazing what another perspective will reveal!

7. Reuse and recycle has all kinds of applications. What did I do with the wheelbarrow full of weeds? Gave it to the chickens! If the chickens could get in my garden (how they would love this!), they would eat a variety of greens – and mostly not the ones I want them to eat of course. But they do love greens. And they are discerning enough to pass by the less desirables. So I gave it all to them, and I expect they quickly found the good stuff, including forfeit strawberry plants, the ones that were growing in the path or too entangled with weeds. And they have something to play around with for a while. Maybe a worm or two got transferred as well. Happy, happy chickens!

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When the weeds were mostly out (I say mostly because I am not anal about such things) I went and got the old towels and sheets that would serve as a barrier between the earth and the mulch I planned to put in the path to help prevent future weeds. This was another good re-use because what else am I going to do with all those old things? (And again thank you, Bertie!) I started laying them out and guess what I discovered?

8. There’s a comedian in every bunch! As soon as I laid a towel down, Coco appeared out of nowhere.

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What? she says, Is there a problem here? I proceeded to lay out the rest of my cloths and she held her ground, snoozing happily away.

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I said to myself, How long will she stay there? How much mulch does it take for her to get the idea to move? You tell me:

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Okay, a little more. Don’t let me disturb your beauty sleep.

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Fine, then she just moves over to the next bit of soft.

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Coming closer, still no concern.

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Hey, trying to relax here!

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There really is no choice, sweetie pie. You have to move.

Of course she finally did.

9. Sometimes you are the only one who sees the difference. I know that the world is not going to come to an end if I don’t get my strawberry bed weeded. But I’m glad it is, and it’s a far sight better than it was yesterday.

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P.S. The tall plants in the foreground are rhubarb. They do belong there.

Just Keep Going

On Thursdays my mom and I read to a wonderful 100-year-old blind lady named Evelyn. Mom met Evelyn nearly half a year ago, and they started with a biography of Queen Victoria. I love this idea, so I asked if I could too. I read at 2pm and Mom at 3. A few weeks ago I mentioned Coco, the adorable black pug I am taking care of, and Evelyn wanted me to bring her. Today was an especially good day for that because Evelyn got bad news this week. Coco was perfect. She did what she does. She brought joy, comfort, warmth. Oh that fur. For the full hour that we read today, Coco lay wedged between us on the couch and Evelyn’s hands didn’t come off her once.

The tongue seems disproportional to the size of the rest of her, I know.

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Coco put her tongue (mostly) inside her mouth and I picked up where Mom left off last week and kept reading till Mom came and took over. Today’s chapter was rather heart-wrenching. Victoria was in the throes of despair when I handed off the book and took my leave.

Some days are monumental. You accomplish something big, learn something new and very useful, have a great influence on someone’s life, solve a mystery, explore a new and exciting place, have an important meeting, or experience a life-changing event. Or it dawns on you that if you put food in the chicken coop that the chickens don’t want to go into, they might want to go into it! (Thank you, Kim. I know this doesn’t really qualify as brilliant or monumental the way it seemed yesterday, but we are creatures of habit, we are. Never have I had to put food in a coop to entice the chickens to go in it — why should it have occurred to me before? One of these days I will try though. Perhaps I should drape tempting greens on the steps of the chicken ladder. Spaghetti? Maybe that would lure them up and do the trick?)

Today wasn’t a monumental day (nor did I care to entice the chickens – let them sleep on the ground!). Most days aren’t. Today, like most days, I just kept going with this and that. So did Evelyn, as she’s been doing for a hundred years. That’s a long time to just keep going! It struck me today that despite what happens, we keep on eating good food, sleeping as best we can, loving the people we love, figuring out what to do next and most of the time doing it, or trying to do it.

All around me, everyone and everything is doing the same. The lettuce keeps on making more of itself so there can be a salad every night. Oh, a new dressing to try: Mix a bit of yogurt (maybe two spoonsful) with some apple cider vinegar (about ¼ cup) in a jar (same as you would mix olive oil with vinegar). Add a bit of strawberry jam! The batch I made this year came out kind of soupy, so I just pour a tablespoon or so in there. You might need to mush it up a little bit. Shake the jar to mix it all up together. Salt and pepper to taste. Yum! (Those are the carrots right behind the lettuce in this bed, in case you’re wondering.)

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The cabbage keeps getting bigger too, this head bigger than a softball. Somehow I thought the cabbage plants were Brussels sprouts plants instead. I feel slightly disappointed about that. It seems I will have a good deal of cabbage to saute slowly with onions one of these days.

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Speaking of onions, they keep pushing harder to get out of the ground. I planted 300 “sets” (whatever that means) – 100 each of red, white and I don’t remember what the other one was. Yellow maybe. It seemed ridiculous at the time. Now I am thinking this might be a good number. If there are any left at the end of the summer, they will keep well.

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The tomatoes keep getting taller and have started getting red (yay!). I couldn’t find my favorite “sun gold” variety this year, so I don’t have any of those. But these will be excellent anyway and make the sun golds all the more special when I surely find them next year!

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The lemon grass keeps on getting fuller and taller. By the time the fall comes, this plant will occupy the entire raised bed. I am not exactly sure what to do with this other than admire it. The two other times it has grown in my garden, its entire purpose has been to make an incredibly big and ornamental show of itself, which is nice, but there has to be something else to do with it. Another day I will look into this.

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Everything just keeps going.

It was 90 degrees today, but shady where I myself kept going, rock after rock, on my stream bed. This morning I had 23 linear feet. I drove back from Evelyn’s and went very slowly down my road, stopping to pick up a few more set-aside stones from the last outing that were waiting patiently for their own special place in my long puzzle. I gathered some more rocks from around the house and softened the dirt bed before starting to set them in, then kept going to the main curve of the stream, banked those big anchor stones tight against the edge, and decided this was not far enough for one day, so gathered some more rocks and began again, adding 11 feet total today. There’s only 11 to go until I reach the woods and call it done! (I don’t care what happens to the water when it reaches the woods. Let it delta out all it wants.) After all this, I sure hope the water will choose to stay in its pretty channel during the next heavy rain.

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Needless to say, the chickens kept on being ridiculous! It’s hard for me to look at them sometimes and not think they are little aliens. For all I know, this one could have been looking back at me saying You think I’m funny looking?

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A snail in the cabbage!

Turtles we have seen hiding under the cucumber leaves. Once we watched her burying eggs next to the raspberries. Disgusting green horned worms we have seen on the tomato plants. A different, practically invisible (they are so camouflaged), also green and almost as disgusting green worm we have seen on broccoli (almost as because the broccoli worms lack the horns). Japanese beetles we have seen too many of — once they find the grape leaves, they munch so greedily that the leaves disappear fast. Collecting them makes a feast for the chickens. Beth used to find and destroy squash bugs. I did not want to deal with these, so I didn’t plant squash. Potato bugs are also gross; thus no potatoes, at least this year.

Today though, a snail! I have never seen a snail in the garden. It was real, hiding in one of the looser outer leaves of a red cabbage recently harvested. I know a snail when I see one.

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But where did it come from? How did that one snail find its way to that cabbage? Are there more out there that I have not found? Will I be battling snails henceforth?

A quick google search of “how do snails get into gardens” reveals many ways to get rid of the little creatures that are noted as both  “unwanted” and “pests.” I know I am not the most patient google searcher, but in this case I am a bit disappointed in google. I asked How do they get there, and it gave me How to get rid of them. At last count, I had only one, and I got rid of him. But where did it come from? Why is it in my garden? What vehicle did it enter on? (Surely not via its own power– snails being right there with turtles and sloths in the slow lane.)

This question very likely has a reasonable, logical answer that numerous people have taken time to come up with. I appreciate that effort, and the science behind the effort, and I would appreciate ideas anyone would like to contribute to help solve this mystery for me. But as happens (surely it has happened to you), one thing makes you wonder about something else. Today, snails make me wonder about woodpeckers and grass and wasps. As mysterious as “Where did the snail come from?” are the following: Why did that redheaded woodpecker a few weeks ago not realize that the side of my house is not a tree to peck at? Why does the grass grow extremely well in the gravel driveway and not in the yard? (I think we should put gravel in the yard so that grass will grow there!) And why do wasps have to congregate in the corner of my roof when there are countless nooks and crannies in the countless trees in the many surrounding acres that would make excellent home bases for them?

Mysteries serve various great purposes. For one thing, mysteries are at the core of curiosity. They make you ask why, make you ponder, make you think. Snails and horn worms aside, let’s think for a moment about indoor plumbing, cell phones, vaccinations, air conditioning, movies on demand and other luxuries. Most of us take these advances of the modern age for granted, but the fact is that humans did not always enjoy them, nor did they did not fall from the sky as a stroke of luck. Much of what we have resulted instead from the curiosity and subsequent brain power of various individuals asking why and how and what can we do about that. The wonders, mysteries, puzzles, conundrums and challenges that we are confronted with every day make us sharp and keep us sharp. We figure things out. Remember in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas:

“And he puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The wonders, mysteries and puzzles also keep us humble. Smart as we are, capable as we are, outstanding puzzlers that we are, some things are simply unknowable. Where does all that hair come from that dogs keep on shedding? Why do people do stupid, self-destructive or hurtful things? Why does your aunt think mice are adorable and your uncle is creeped out by them? Why are peanut allergies a thing to worry about now (and they didn’t used to be)? Why are we drawn a particular man or woman so strongly that their words are gold to us, their presence a gift unspeakable? How many creatures live in the oceans?

The sharp ones among you are aware that red cabbage — indeed no edible food from my garden — will not last long in its garden state, but will soon be under my knife or in my pots and pans and then in my jars or my fridge before appearing on the table. Now here is another mystery.

Red cabbage from the garden was sitting in a basket on the kitchen counter since yesterday. It’s easy to make — you chop it up fine, steam it, add salt, pepper and some cider vinegar to taste. All by itself, however, this is not a meal (to me). How is it, then, that while grocery shopping today I came across top round sliced super thin — like flounder filets but even thinner — and labeled for bracciole? Who even knows what bracciole is? (It is pronounced bri-zholi in case you were wondering.) How often do you see this in the meat section? But there were four packages there, I promise. I can’t remember the last time I saw beef sliced specially for bracciole for sale. One of the packages, my eagle-eyes-for-bargains noted, was marked down. Hmmm, haven’t had bracciole in a while, would be yummy. So I bought it. Trust me, it relates to red cabbage.

Then Samuel came into the picture. Clearly I did not make this dish often in his childhood because he had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him if he preferred me to make bricciole or rouladen (pronounced roo-lahden). Both use thinly sliced top round. Bracciole is what you do with it when you want something leaning toward your (in this case my) Italian heritage, and rouladen is for when your German taste buds call louder. It truly has been a long time and I was pulling files from deep inside my culinary brain to try to explain the choices to him. “It’s meat, rolled up, with stuff inside… flavors…”

“Not helpful descriptions, Mom.”

I was forced to recall the specifics. “Bricciole has bread crumbs and romano cheese and salt and pepper, and after you sear it in olive oil, you braise it in tomato sauce. And rouladen has pickles and onion and mustard and salt and pepper — best as I remember anyway — and it braises in its own juices.” Did I remember at that point that red cabbage goes well with rouladen? Not at all. Instead, I looked for the recipe for rouladen in my own cookbook, failed to find it there, failed to think of checking the internet for a recipe, and made the one he asked for (the rouladen) from memory. He pointed out a potential problem — that I did not have mustard — and I said Oh yes I do, in that cabinet over there. He said Those are empty, and we laughed at our different definitions of empty. There were three containers of mustard: one that said Dipping Mustard and therefore to Samuel was not mustard per se, and two (one brown and one yellow) admittedly not expelling mustard at a normal rate and in need of scraping the inside to retrieve enough, but there was plenty of mustard for this dish.

After carefully slathering the brown mustard on the filets of beef, placing (homemade!) pickles and thinly sliced onion in a proud row on each, sprinkling with salt and pepper, rolling, securing with a toothpick, searing in oil, adding a bit of water, covering the pan and lowering the heat, I walked away. Those rouladen will be yummy tomorrow, I thought. I checked my wordfeud, played some words, and smiled at funny and delightful texts I received. Some time later, I walked back into the kitchen, and there were the red cabbages, staring at me. Hello! Remember us??  We work well with rouladen!

Of course you do! I was taken in. Out came the knife, the pot. One by one I peeled off the outer leaves of the cabbage to start the process. Alas, a snail, a real live snail came into the picture. I got my phone to take its photo. But where did it come from?

I suppose I will never know, and this will remain among the Unknowables in my life. I’m ok with that, even though I just remembered that rouladen should also have bacon in it (how could I forget the bacon?). Still, I get to eat red cabbage and rouladen tomorrow! And it will be yummy!

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A voice of reason and … crackers!

Hankerings come in handy. Yesterday in the afternoon a colleague called me. “I have a personal favor to ask. I need about an hour of your time. Things with my daughter right now are…let’s just say…I need a voice of reason.” I said How about dinner? We settled on tonight.

Last week we had had a conversation about who pays for dinner when friends go out. We had agreed that the person who holds the ball and runs with it is the one who asks or suggests in the first place. I realized I did just blurt out How about dinner? A case could be made otherwise, but I owned this one.

The simplest, most straightforward thing to do would be to just go out. Most people would just go out. It would be good sometimes to be like most people. I might have been able to in this case if I had not had a hankering for crackers.

Crackers had been a lifesaver for me during a particularly demanding stretch of months some years ago when I was writing my book on my old laptop, comfy on the couch next to a good fire, poring over sentence and paragraph construction and dealing with the too-hot computer resting on my lap which was burning the tops of my thighs more and more as the fan in it became less and less effective over time. I remember the red marks. I graduated to using a pillow between my lap and the steady warmth. It was a happy day when I got a new laptop. Thank you, Mom and Dad!

But not just any crackers. Back in the day I had been one of the lucky ones who got a first edition of King Arthur Flour’s 200th anniversary recipe collection in a smart three-ring binder. And one lucky day Ken Haedrich’s recipe for Cheddar Cornmeal Crackers on page VI-43 had caught my eye. Samuel had fatefully experimented with that recipe one day, found a clear winner (you never had store-bought crackers like these), and obliged himself henceforth to provide them as sustenance when I was too occupied with transcribing interviews or piecing together disparate pieces of text to have time to cook dinner. To be fair, he did enjoy cooking and did volunteer for this service. I will remember his willingness and skill fondly, always. The crackers hit the spot on numerous occasions before the book was done. I especially liked the darker ones — still do. When you make them yourself you can take them out of the oven at exactly your choice of the right golden color. Or you can tell the very kind and loving son who is making said crackers for you the exactly goldenness you are longing for, and he will take them out at the right time. Bless him forever.

For a long time after the book was done and after Samuel left home, I did not make these crackers. Fond as my memories of them were, it was as if they were his crackers, not mine, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I elevated them in my mind to a place where they downright intimidated me. My crackers couldn’t possibly be as good as his. One Christmas I hinted that he might fill a tin of them for me, and oh joy! He came through! But those didn’t last overly long, naturally, being as good as they are, and I finally realized that if I wanted these, I would have to make them myself. And did, now and then, over the last year or so.

So, dinner with a friend combined with a hankering for crackers. The grocery store is not far away, but I like working with what I have on hand. The recipe calls for cheddar cheese, but suggests you can also use swiss, monterey jack or parmesan. How handy that I had just — the very night before — grated (with the very fine grater) a hunk of parmesan enough to nearly fill a quart mason jar. The image of this jar in my fridge triggered my Brain of Debatable Reason to say Well, I’m halfway there already, so why not make crackers?Serve them with some good cheese, a few nice salads, a bottle of wine and a bit of chocolate for afterwards, and voila — dinner!

Anyway, I had had a rough day and there is nothing like getting busy in the kitchen as a means to decompress. I started with the cucumber salad because they were still warm from having sat still attached to their vines in the hot sun all day. Cucumbers don’t get fresher than this, I assure you. I grated them with the not-so-fine grater, layered it with salt and put the bowl in the fridge to cool.

On to the cracker dough. Having already grated the parmesan saved me all of five minutes in this process, but hey, we count our blessings. All I had to do was dump the contents of that jar into the bowl with all the other ingredients and carry on. Thankfully there was a bag of whole wheat flour in the freezer, which is of course where you keep it when you use it infrequently. I tripled the recipe and therefore did not have enough corn meal, but just put that much extra regular flour in instead. It worked out fine. Here is the recipe. I forgot the pepper but it worked.

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If you decide to make these, remember olive oil is the best. And add enough water (which might be a little more than the recipe calls for) to make the dough just shy of sticky. It has to hold together when you roll it out, and there is a fine line between too much water and not enough water. I tried a new way to roll these out this time to save myself time. It was, after all, 7pm already when I started all this. I cut two pieces of waxed paper as big as my sheet pan, laid them flat on the counter, floured the center area, and rolled the dough right on the paper. Then I was able to slide the whole big flat piece of dough up and over the lip of the pan, trim the edges, brush with beaten egg, cut shapes with my little zigzag wheel, salt them and pop it right into the oven.

This is my cutter. My mother had marked it GRANDMA when she gave it to me because it belonged to my grandmother. You can see that the letters are wearing off, but that only makes it better.

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The recipe calls for a 375 oven, but as I said, I like them dark, so I bumped it to 400. Two of my three pans have the silicon liner,  which did not by the way affect the crackers or the clean-up in any perceivable way. Tripling the recipe gave me a lot of crackers. Having a lot of crackers is not a problem because 1. They keep. 2. They do not last long anyway. This is half of them:

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While the crackers were baking, I used the not-so-fine grater to shred the beets that Sandy had pulled from the garden the night before. They had been rinsed, boiled in water until soft (skins and all),  put in a bowl, covered with water and chilled until I decided what to do with them. It was handy that they were there waiting there in the fridge for such a time as this. I love sticking my hands in the water and easing the skins off. The beets are smooth as velvet underneath. Now shredded, they again sat and waited. Next thing was to squeeze the water from the grated cukes. It’s a good thing vegetables are patient.

I smiled as I thought about this upcoming dinner that would include cucumbers and beets from the garden made into yummy salads and crackers that brought fond memories. As I grated the veggies and squeezed the cukes and rolled out the stiff dough, I looked at my bare arms (it is summer after all), realized how much they were working, and thought This is how women burned calories in the old days. Who needs a gym when you have an agenda like this?  

Over the weekend, in my favorite grocery store in Charlottesville, Food of All Nations, I had bought two items that also evoked fond memories. Beemster is a hard cheese with little pockets of salt and sharp, delicious flavor. It used to be a staple on the cheese board during Villa Lunch at Keswick Hall. Quark is a German dairy product that makes the best cheesecake you ever had. It’s like a cross between yogurt and sour cream. This one comes from Vermont besides. Be still my heart.

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The word here is Providence. There is not a lot in my fridge, but there was Beemster and there was Quark. Slices of Beemster would be handy to go with the crackers along with Jarlsberg and Manchego. Quark would work in the dressing for the cucumber salad. Quark plus lemon juice and a bit of salt, pepper and sugar. The beet salad I dressed with olive oil, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano which, shame on me, I did not go get fresh from the garden (it was dark by then, really).

Into an old tin went the crackers. Into a basket went said tin, two plates, two forks, two knives (for pushers), two wine glasses wrapped in white cloth napkins, a wine key, a bottle of pinot noir (always keep a bottle of red on hand), and a small cloth for the tabletop.Into the fridge went a small container of cut up cheese, a mason jar of cucumber salad and a mason jar of beet salad.

I am ready for dinner. There is a park in town that has a pavilion with picnic tables. It will be quiet there and hopefully a good atmosphere for good conversation.  I hope I can be a voice of reason for my friend. One could argue that I did not demonstrate much reason in the preparation of this dinner. It would have been easier to go out. But I had a hankering. 

My galette

I never heard of a galette before yesterday, but my mom led me to think about it. We were talking about being stuck in a food rut, and that made me think about food. Thanks, Mom.

Some people, as they think about food, eat some. But yesterday was the kind of day when, as I thought about food, I wanted to make some. A week ago I bought a bag of plums — beautiful purple plums. I had a hankering for Pflaumenkuchen, a wonderful German plum cake made on a sheet pan. This is not your ordinary sheet cake, especially if you have 9×13 with gooey frosting in mind. This is a sweet yeast dough (like a giant, flatter hot cross bun without the candied fruit) rolled out to fit the big (true half sheet size) pan, then topped with sliced fresh plums and a crumbly streusel and baked till it is golden. Heaven.

Pflaumenkuchen  was on the docket. It’s very tasty, and it’s been a long time since I had it. The bag of plums sat patiently in the refrigerator all week, waiting, as perfect plums do, knowing that glory is to come. Then, surprise! Thirteen (13!) cucumbers appeared before my eyes when I went to the garden to get lettuce on Friday night.  There was nothing to do but pick them.

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You don’t need 13 cukes to make a cucumber salad for dinner. Two will do, and did. (And it is really easy to make, by the way: Grate the cukes, squeeze the water out, and mix in a bowl with half an onion, very thinly sliced. For a dressing use lemon juice, sour cream, S&P and a little sugar to taste.)

After dinner, eleven gorgeous cukes remained in a row on the counter, rejected for salad but nonetheless happy to serve. I know it is not what every person would think of when faced with this image, but what came to my mind was pickles. There was nothing to do but make more pickles. I’ve made pickles three times this season already, once at Millicent’s and twice at home. Last year when I made them with my sister Lynn, I discovered how easy and yummy they are. Thanks, Lynn!

Here I am with Millicent’s pickles. I would be surprised if she has any left.

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Yesterday was beginning to look like a busy Saturday. I won’t get into the sewing, or the flipping of the cottage for new guests, or the long overdue brushing of Bridget. We’ll get right to the kitchen. I have a huge white Pfalzgraff bowl that I have used a thousand times. It is the only bowl for eleven sliced up cucumbers — one of which was a whopping 13” long on account of having hidden itself under massive leaves — all layered with salt and topped with super thinly sliced red onion. The salt draws out the water from the cukes and the red onion adds flavor and makes the pickles prettier in the jar. Millicent’s pickles had red pepper in with them, which is prettier than red onion in my opinion. But we work with what we have.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to put the sugar in the brine, which I almost did one time. Bread and butter pickles are not the same without the sugar, you can take my word. I remembered the sugar this time, and was grateful to Millicent for having gifted me with a jar of pickling spice last weekend in Charlotte.  So I had everything I needed, mixed together in a pot waiting for a flame: vinegar, salt, sugar and spices.

But you have to let the cucumbers sit a while in the bowl with the salt, and a person needs breakfast.

Three critical factors conspired and led me down The Road to Galette.

  1. It was Saturday.
  2. I was by myself in the house.
  3. Fine Cooking magazine came this week (thank you, John).

If it were not Saturday, I would not be sitting with a leisurely breakfast.

If I had not been alone, I would not have been reading while eating.

If that particular magazine had not come, I would have been reading something else.

This month’s issue has a wonderful article on both sweet and savory galettes, and wouldn’t you know, the featured sweet galette was “plum, ginger and poppy seed galette.” Well, well. So much for Pflaumenkuchen.

Seriously though, who ever heard of a galette? What is it? If you are a chef, you know these things. My chef friend Danny didn’t miss a beat when I told him what I was doing. “My favorite is an apple galette with a little almond paste in it,” he said. “But I love all of them.” The rest of us have a thing or two to learn. A galette is basically an open, free-form pie. You roll out the pie dough, lay it on a flat sheet pan that has a short rim to it (to catch any oozing goodness), put the filling in the middle of the dough, and bring up the sides any way you want, fancy or not (in my case clearly not). The dough holds (almost) everything in and has that tender/crispy/flaky combo going for it. In the case of “plum, ginger and poppy seed galette,” poppy seeds are mixed into the dough, adding a texture you don’t encounter every day, which pairs perfectly with the sweet plums touched with the flavor of ginger and cinnamon.

The pickles happened while the galette was baking and I was wishing for a bigger kitchen. Soon the jars were cooling and the aroma of sweet baking plums filled the house.

My galette is not as pretty as the one in the magazine, but for a first try, I was pleased. In fact I was so pleased that I immediately took a picture of it still on its baking sheet.

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Then I wanted to stage it better, so I slid the galette onto one of my favorite glass cake plates. I always loved the ring of hearts etched into the glass on the bottom of this one. In my mind, hearts = love. When you make delicious food, you present it with love to those you love. Anyway, this made a better photo.

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But it was a bad idea. I did this same thing a long time ago, but the lesson sat in a dusty file too far back in the recesses of my memory. I hereby pass along a simple rule to keep in mind in such situations: Don’t slide hot objects onto cool glass plates. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my mother, some time back, off-loaded some cake plates she no longer needed. The crack I heard a few minutes after the fateful transfer told me in an instant that henceforth there would be a shorter stack of cake plates in my cabinet. I then transferred the galette to a different, flat (metal!) surface and in we dug. Oh, how I wanted to share with everyone I love! Of course if they were all here, this one galette would not be enough. But that is a problem I would love to have.

This morning as I put the pickles in the fridge, I discovered two half-full jars of yeast, and proceeded to combine the two into one to be efficient with space. Two did not quite fit into one, however, and I had a little yeast left in one jar. Lo and behold, there was just enough for… a sweet yeast dough! I used the plums yesterday, so Pflaumenkuchen was out of the question, but while getting the vanilla for this delectable dough, the box of currants in the cabinet caught my eye.

These sweet rolls aren’t exactly hot cross buns, but with a little honey and butter, I am very happy. It’s a good weekend!

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A “recipe” for strawberry jam

In the early homeschooling days, someone gave me a bit of advice that can apply to just about anything we do. Take a few minutes, he said, and write down why you are doing it. Make a list of your reasons. Make sure you think it through and make a good solid list. One of these days you will be tearing your hair out and asking (seriously) What was I thinking??!! (i.e. What was I thinking when I thought this was a good idea!?) Post your list where you can see it (so that you know just where it is!) because on those days when you are tearing your hair out, you need to look at your list and let it do its good work. Let it remind you why you decided to do this, whatever it is. Chances are good that your list will bring you back to a good place.

It seemed like a good idea to me, so I made my list. Its title was something like: Why I choose to home school my children. One of the reasons had to do with joy. I very much wanted to keep the joy in learning. If I can find a way to keep it fun, I thought, keep them engaged in the process, keep them hungry to learn something new — then (the hope is) throughout their lives they will always be excited and happy to learn new things. I was homeschooling because I wanted to make sure that my kids became lifelong learners, and one way to do that was to keep it fun. I suspect that John Holt’s Learning All the Time played into this, but there were other factors. I just didn’t want my kids to ever be bored or uninterested or think they had nothing yet to learn in this life. There is always something to learn in this life. Too many people think learning is over when you finish school. Oh, how much they miss!

Therefore, when I meet someone who is hungry to learn something, to explore something, to be challenged by something, I am both impressed and happy. If that someone wants to learn something from me, I’m over the moon. This is one reason I love Millicent. She has thrilled my heart time and again by saying things like “Next time you make a quiche, can I come and make it with you? … Oh, please teach me how to make pizza — can I just do it with you next time?. … How do you do that? Can you teach me?” Millicent has a nursing degree and a law degree, plays the harp, sings like an angel, and makes me think deeply and laugh out loud in all of our conversations, and she is hungry to learn something new. These days Millicent is learning how to ride a horse. I am sure she is doing it with enthusiasm and joy, and I could not be happier for her.

Last week one of my airbnb cottage guests reminded me of Millicent’s spirit and her joy of learning. It was all about jam, strawberry jam. As the berries came ripe during the month of May, I began to see that there were many of them, more than last year. They were gorgeous and bountiful and delicious. Look how beautiful.

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I learned last year that these garden-grown berries, untouched by anything except sun and rain and the human hand to pick them, are not like the kind you buy in a store. If you have never picked a strawberry off a vine, it may be hard to imagine the very particular sound they make as they pop off the stem that holds them. To me it is downright musical. The flavor sends you to heaven then, far exceeding any berry on a plastic box. Their being untouched also means they do not last days and days. Freeze them or make jam within a day or they will not be the same.

The first batch looks like and feels like a treasure.

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A few days later there were enough to make jam. (The stuff laying on top is rhubarb, yet another taste marvel…)

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My good friend Sandy was game to help me, and together we made a batch, and a week or so later there were this many again, so we made another batch. There might be 15 jars or so total, I didn’t count. But it came out really good.

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At about the same time, my airbnb guests Sara and Scott (of grilled salami fame, two or three posts ago) had invited me to have dinner with them. During my visit with them, they gave me a good sized hunk of some amazing bread they had bought in town, and I took it back to my house later and had some with that lovely strawberry jam on it. Fresh jam on fresh bread — does it get better than this? So I brought them some in a little bowl so they could enjoy it with their own hunk in the morning for breakfast. After they left I found a note in the cottage that told me that had enjoyed it on cheesecake besides. Sara called it incredible. I smiled. That would have been enough for me. They completely endeared themselves to me.

A couple days after they left, I got the following note:

Hi Patricia – Scott and I enjoyed the last of your strawberry jam this morning.  We have been milking it – literally!  Anyhow, we are just getting strawberries in our neck of the woods and I plan on picking at the orchard nearby this coming week.  Would you share your jam recipe?  It was superb and just the perfect amount of sugar.  Hope all is well with you.  We sure do miss the Charlottesville Area.   

Kind regards,  Sara

Not only were they perfect guests who also invited me to dinner. Not only did they call my jam incredible. Now she wants to make her own! I was thrilled — and worried! I admit it, I am not a good recipe-follower, and here she is asking for a recipe! Having made jam in the past, I knew it is a bit involved, and I had no way to know if Sara had any idea what she was getting into. I had no idea if perhaps it was a fluke that mine came out the way it did, seeing as I was not overly precise about amounts and timing and technique. For example, I am not even really sure how much fruit I used. I just cut up what I had and eyeballed it. How could I possibly give her a recipe? I decided to just tell her what I had done as best as I could which doesn’t look like a recipe to me, but the following is what I told her.

You have to really want to make jam to follow the following.

Hi Sara,

I am so thrilled that you liked the jam that much!! We are really enjoying it too  🙂 As far as the recipe, it is going to sound like a crazy amount of sugar, but every recipe uses a lot. I read five or six recipes in my cookbooks and online (since it had been some years since I made jam) to get an idea of the proportions of fruit to sugar, then cut up the fruit (halved or quartered depending on the size of the berry), which (eyeballing the same amount of water in my pot right now) seems to have been about 3 quarts. I then added a 4lb bag of sugar and 4.7oz Ball Real Fruit pectin (1 container of it) and brought it to a hard boil. It develops foam, which you methodically skim off little by little with a long handled spoon. It continues to make more foam. Just continue skimming it off (a relaxing exercise actually, if you can look at it that way). All the recipes I read said it needs to get to 238 degrees F on your candy thermometer, but we boiled the first batch (not the batch you got, but the one we did the week before) for a long time, half an hour I think, and finally decided that my thermometer had to be faulty because it never got above 220. With your batch, I drew the line at 15 mins (the thermometer was still faulty apparently because it did no better), skimming all the time. Good enough, I said, let’s jar it. Before we jarred it, Sandy mashed it with a potato masher, which broke up the fruit a bit more.

In the meantime, you have a big pot going with boiling water (your canning pot), and you sterilize the jars this way. Have you canned before? If you are not familiar with this process and want to bypass it, I think you can freeze jam too. But the canning is easy, and every canning pot comes with instructions. You sterilize the jars, take them out of the water with tongs (carefully), put the hot jam into the hot jars, wipe the top rim of the glass where the lid will meet it, put the lid on, screw the screw cap on (not too tight) and lower them into the water carefully (again with the special tongs) and boil for 7 mins. Remove from the water and set on the counter; wait for the center each lid to pop down as they cool. This assures you of the seal.

Hopefully I have not in any way discouraged you.  I am delighted that anyone would want to make jam! But if you prefer, send me your address and I will simply mail you one of my jars 🙂

The poor young woman, I thought. She has to make sense of that! But if she had thrilled me by asking, she thrilled me more by her response to my “recipe.”

Thank you for this!  I have canned before (not jam- and it’s been a few years) but I am sure I can do this.  Looks like I will be digging out some of my jars this weekend.  And thanks for offering to mail some jam, but I will attempt this work of art.   It is a labor of love and one I can appreciate .  I will let you know how it turns out.
Kind regards,
Sara

Oh, may the joy we have in learning something new never be squashed!

A mermaid story

I’ve been an airbnb host for more than a year and a half. My little Golden Hill cottage is occupied every weekend with guests from here and there. It may not look like it, but the cottage is kind of like a mermaid. And I don’t mean just any mermaid.

You say the word mermaid and many people immediately think Disney. A few might recall The Secret of Roan Inish. Both of those mermaids are a far cry from one particular mermaid who made a great impression on me. Mine doesn’t have a long, sexy fish tail. She doesn’t entice men. But she is set apart from her fellow creatures — she is unusual, nice in her own way, comfortable being who she is. I’m guessing from the story that she’s about five or six years old.

My neighbor Marty gave me this story not long ago. He lives at the next farm. If you don’t turn left onto my driveway, you come straight to his house. There’s a sign at the end of my driveway that clearly says Golden Hill. See?

Golden Hill sign summer 2015

But people go past it sometimes when they are supposed to be coming here. Last week I discovered why. I was coming home from Richmond, and was unfamiliar with the part of the city I was in, so I had used my GPS to guide me out of the city. Once I was on the highway, it stopped talking to me, so I forgot about it. But it didn’t forget about me. As it started guiding me on the last stretch of the way, I decided to let it. I wanted to see what it would say so I would know what my guests experience. Correctly, at the beginning of my road, it told me to go another three-quarters of a mile, which of course I did. Then I saw my Golden Hill sign, but it did not tell me to turn left. Instead, when I turned left (because I know where I live), and went maybe 30 feet more, it said, “In 900 feet, turn around.”

No wonder my guests sometimes drive past my sign. They are listening to a device that is not telling them to turn. Of course they all find the cottage eventually. There isn’t too far to go. They get to Marty’s and figure it out. Once in awhile, he is outside when they drive up. They explain about being lost and what they are looking for. He points them in the right direction, and tells them in his very dry way, which let’s hope most of them see as humorous, “But you don’t want to go there. She’s weird.” He has done this at least twice. He says this to them because I have said to him (one too many times apparently) that I am weird. When they tell me what he said to them, they are laughing. It borders on a please-tell-us-he’s-not-serious kind of laugh. For what it’s worth, Marty is weird too, because who says that to people? But I can’t mind — he’s right.

Some people are weirder than others. For a long time, my measure of weird has been television. I think I’m weird (or weirder than most) because most people have at least one TV and I don’t. At various times I have had one (and even had one for about two years and didn’t know it, but that is another story). Mine shorted out, or something, maybe half a year ago, and stopped turning on. I didn’t replace it yet, though I expect someday I will. There are numerous other reasons why I have considered myself — and to Marty and others, proclaimed myself — to be weird. Examples are not necessary here. Just trust me on this.

Not every neighbor would give you a story to make a point. But Marty did. It spoke to me.

The Mermaid Story      

by Robert Fulghum

            One rainy Sunday afternoon I found myself in charge of 70 or so school age children.  We were in a gymnasium, and I knew that if I didn’t come up with an idea before long – pure chaos would ensue.  At that very moment I remembered a game – an old roll playing game called Wizards, Giants and Goblins.  So I got my charges to calm down (no easy feat, thank you very much), and I explained the rules of the game:

“Now,” I proclaimed, “if you wish to be a Giant, stand at the front of the room.  If you wish to be a Wizard, stand in the middle.  And those who wish to be Goblins stand toward the back.  All right,  let the play begin.”  I allowed the children several minutes to confer in huddled masses until the action resumed.

As I was standing there I felt I tug on my coat.  When I looked down, there was a little girl with blue, questioning eyes.       

  ” ‘Scuse me.”

  “Yes, what is it?”

  “Scuse me, but where do the mermaids stand?”

  “Mermaids? Mermaids?” I sputtered.  “There are no mermaids.”

  “Oh, yes there are.  For you see, I’m a mermaid, and I wish to know where to stand.”

  Now here was a little girl who knew exactly what she was – a mermaid, pure and simple and she wanted to know where to stand.  And, she wouldn’t be satisfied standing on the sidelines watching the others play.  She had her place, and she wanted to know where to stand.

But, where do the mermaids stand? – all those children we try to mold and form to fit into our boxes.

Sometimes, I have moments of inspiration.  I looked down at that child, and I held her hand -“Why the mermaid shall stand next to The King of the Sea.” (Yeah, King of the Fools would be more likely.)

  So, we stood together – the mermaid and the King of the Sea – as the Wizards, Giants and Goblins roiled by in grand procession.  It isn’t true, by the way, what they say about mermaids not existing.  I know they do for I’ve held one’s hand.

Now I may have a soft spot for little girls, but no way is this one weird. She’s just different, and knows it, and is happy with it. She doesn’t try to be something she’s not. No molds for her, no boxes, no convention. All she needs to know is where to stand. If Robert Fulghum’s story is nonfiction, then somewhere in the world there is a five-year-old who helped me know that where I was standing, apart from the rest in numerous ways, was really ok. And not only ok, but good. She gave me a new perspective on something that had nagged me for years. I still call myself weird sometimes, but now I mean it more in the sense of unconventional, which is probably the same thing but somehow more palatable. As never before, I am ok with being unconventional. The beaten track isn’t for everyone.

The cottage that Bradley built is one of a kind. Search the world over and you will not find another. You might find a cottage with a wood stove and a deck facing the mountains and a 12/12 pitched roof, but will it have custom cherry windows and coffered ceilings? You might find a cottage in the country where there are 15 chickens, but do six of them lay greenish eggs? You might find a cottage that has a big garden with deer fencing all around because of the many deer that live in the woods, but is one of those deer white?  The Charming Cottage at Golden Hill is set apart from all other cottages, from all other lodgings, just like that little girl who fancies herself a mermaid — it’s unusual, comfortable, nice in its own way. 

And I get to share it. I get to be part of a movement that celebrates uniqueness. We all have a general sense of what goes into a good, comfortable, safe night’s sleep, but I get to interpret that in my own unique way and be a host in my own unique way. Because Brad and Beth built this amazing little house, I get to be part of a wave that says: Take the road less traveled. I’d say they are part of the wave too.

Take a good look at the people around you, and you will see some similarities. We all eat, sleep, breathe, void, move, and wear clothes in public. Keep going with this list. What else do we have in common? You may be able to generate an extensive list, but I am hard pressed. We certainly don’t all eat the same things, like the same music, use the same vocabulary, prefer the same activities, travel to the same destinations. Not everyone cares for dogs or cats (or snakes or ferrets or turtles or fish or parakeets) in their homes, but some people would be lost without their pet. Some people look forward, some look back, some mainly live in today. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. And some like it hot.

My cottage is in the country. What do you see when you look out of those custom windows along  the back wall? This is what you see:

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Trees. You see trees and more trees. Some sky as well. A range of foothills in the wintertime when all those trees have lost their leaves (which you cannot see in the photo but is there, I promise). You will not see buildings. Ugh to all that nature, I am sure some say when they look at the listing. Not everyone likes green. Some really do prefer concrete (my brother-in-law Fred comes to mind). Also, there are steep stairs that lead to the main bed in the cottage. Some people don’t want stairs of any kind. I have a drip coffee maker and a french press. Maybe Keurig is your thing — or maybe you don’t even know what a french press or a Keurig is, and all you want is a cup of coffee, for crying out loud! Why do there have to be so many choices!??!

There have to be so many choices because we are all so different. We don’t get everything — in general or when we travel — but we make choices and align our have-to-have’s and wish-to-have’s to come as close to (what for us is) perfection as possible. We continually juggle reality with desire and try to get the weekend or the vacation just right. And what makes anything perfect for you is different than what makes it perfect for me. This is why I think airbnb is enjoying tremendous success, and why it is so cool to be a part of it. The options are practically unlimited — size, location, decoration, ambiance, amenities, price, etc. Bungalows, cottages, condos, yurts, mansions, apartments, etc. Take your pick.

I love that there are lots and lots of choices. My little cottage is not for everybody, and that’s ok. Like me, it’s unconventional in various ways. Like me, it doesn’t have to fit a mold. I am glad it doesn’t. I’m glad I don’t. Granted, not fitting a mold is a pain at times, and you are misunderstood at times, but overall (and I can hardly believe I’m saying this after struggling so long about it), unconventionality is an asset. The success of this cottage, I am convinced, is at least in part because there is nothing else like it. The little mermaid of this story tells me to celebrate my unconventionality and I can choose to make the most of it. And the success of Golden Hill shouts loud and clear: Don’t be afraid to be unusual, nice in your own way, comfortable being who you are. Pick your passion and run with it. Nobody else can do what you can do the way you can do it. 

Potato and onion

Tonight my airbnb guest delighted me. She surprised and delighted me. I am surprised at myself for being so delighted. And then I’m not. It’s perfectly reasonable that I should be delighted, I say to myself. It isn’t every day — in fact it has never happened before — that a guest asks for potato and onion.

That’s right. She asked for potato and onion. They were out to dinner. I got a text. “Keswick Hall is beautiful,” Erika wrote. “Thanks for the recommendation … one question, do you happen to have a potato and onion? Or is there a little grocery store nearby that will be open after dinner?” I had sent them to Keswick Hall because you can bring your dog to dinner there (in the part of the hotel they call Villa Crawford), and these guests have a little dog. They seemed quite attached to their dog, Chuleta is her name, plus the Villa has amazing parmesan truffle fries, and it is worth the trip just for that. I was watching a movie when the text came in, and I did not look at it right away. It was a good movie. Then I had to get up anyway, so I paused the movie and looked at the message. Do you happen to have a potato and onion?

Perhaps I should explain two things.

One: Assuming I have chickens (which I didn’t for a while last summer, so this is not to be taken for granted), there will always be eggs waiting in the fridge for my guests. I have also taken to leaving a stick of butter because an egg fried in butter with a little salt and pepper is pretty close to perfection in food as far as I’m concerned, though I know some people prefer olive oil, and to each his own. This is available as well, standing where a bottle of olive oil should stand, just behind one of the gas burners, ready should you need it.

When these guests arrived this afternoon, I explained about the wifi and the stairs and the eggs in the fridge. In response to my eggs statement, Alex said, “Is there oil?” I smiled, feeling my heart soften (he’s planning breakfast, I said to myself, I like these people). Why, you may ask, is it significant that they are planning breakfast? Why does that matter? What does it say about them? It says they cook. Not everyone does. Many cannot. Or don’t have time. Or cannot be bothered. These people would take time to make their own breakfast.

Alex kept going. “I’m excited about your eggs. I guess they are really fresh.” Oh, such welcome words. “You can’t find fresher,” I say. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” Then I said the rest of what I ordinarily say about letting me know if you forgot anything or if you need anything and to have a nice night and enjoy yourselves. And off they went to dinner.

Two: It is a rare day under the sun that there are no potatoes or onions in my pantry. Anyone who knows me will verify this truth. I keep them in baskets so they can get air. I use them frequently. I love them. I cook them in numerous ways, but most often I slice up an onion, saute it in olive oil, and add thinly sliced potatoes (skins on) and salt and pepper. The onion gets soft and sweet and a little brown as the flame does its work, and the potato crisps up just a bit as it, too, softens to peak doneness. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this works for me. Simple and delicious.

Now you see why I am delighted. This man is not only going to cook eggs for breakfast, he is going to fry up potatoes and onion as well. Who does this?

When guests come, when you first meet them, you don’t know what’s coming. You can get an inkling, and you may or may not be right. I had a good feeling about Alex and Erika and Valerie when Alex asked about the oil. Now I will never forget them.

I know it’s not usual for someone to get excited about potatoes and onion. I know I am unusual in that way, and perhaps I will talk about my unusualness another time. Tonight I’m just smiling. Oil. Potato. Onion. And more.

Truly it’s a magical night. In the distance, I hear fireworks – must be a wedding at Keswick Hall. All by itself, that would add to the potatoes and onion delight. But as I write tonight, I am facing the new windows Bradley put in for me a month or so ago. It’s May, one year since another very special guest left me a note saying he had woken to a ballet of fireflies, and he had never seen real fireflies before. I wrote about this in my ‘People love surprises’ post. A year ago, I had questioned and then dismissed whether or not those were really fireflies, as I myself had been used to seeing them in August but not in May. But if he says he saw fireflies, he saw fireflies, and far be it from me to question that. Tonight, guess what is dancing on my windowpane. — fireflies

How can it be? In one night: Oil. Potato. Onion. Fireworks. Fireflies!