Sunday, September 27, 2009

The gathering in

by June

The day always comes. The light is so clear that every leaf, every petal seems lit from within. The few clouds enhance how blue the sky is. If the day were distilled into syrup and set on the kitchen windowsill, it would glow like honey all winter. But this is a day that cannot keep; it is the day before the first frost.

The girls and I work in the garden, disbelieving frost will happen. We remember cold. We chose the seeds when this ground was frozen. We sorted the packets and started the seeds growing on windowsills. And the year finally turned, oh joy. When the sun was higher in the sky every day, we planted the seedlings out into the warming soil. We tended the plants, harvested what budded and bloomed and turned to fruit. Rain came, and sunshine, and we were out in the garden every day. But, somehow, now, the year is turning again. Tomorrow, these supple, shining leaves will be blackened and crisp. Strong stems will look charred. One cold night will shrivel these plants we have tended for months. It will shrink them to nothing.

Our lives, too, are beginning the slow evolution of shrinking to the size of the rooms where we spend the winter. We are gathering in the last of the beans and the sunflowers and the cosmos blooming wildly. We bring as much of the outdoor bounty inside as we can manage; we don't want to be alone in there.

Maybe it's because I'm a bookish gardener, but I'm helpless against the metaphor. The earthworm burrows deeper in the compost heap and probably doesn't consider why. I do. I can't help myself. The last day in the thriving garden, as I clip the buoyant peas and search for the hidden cucumbers and roll nasturtium pods off the plants, I am wistful. Gardening is participating in the life cycle, getting our hands dirty in it, our knees sore with it, our hearts too. What comes will go. And each year the bright blue day does come that will end the season, and my girls and I go out on that day and gather in as much as we can, hoping to savor its simple goodness for a little longer. Working to bring in those few tender things, even as we feel change in the air, we pause to admire that beautiful sky and still cannot quite believe what the night will bring.

Monday, September 21, 2009

If a fairy went for a walk...

by June

She might tread lightly through a moss forest...

or climb a giant birch...

...or scramble over pebbles by the river.

She might hover and swoop over the riffles...

...then pause to admire the fall colors...

...and a bird's feather...

...and play things left behind by the elves.

Sunset would loom.

Sometimes it happens that we go out for a science walk, but we find ourselves borrowing a pair of wings and going instead on a flight of fancy. Yesterday, we explored our favorite woods, alongside our favorite river. With fairy wings, every familiar thing became magical.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pizza oven part 4: The dome

by Birch

Most of the the work on our wood-fired pizza oven has been about the supporting structure—the foundation, the stand, and the insulating platform. Necessary stuff, but it doesn't have much to do with cooking a pizza. Last winter was a long one and when I was ready to start building the dome this spring, there was more delay as rain fell for a month solid.
It gave me time to consider the firebricks stacked on a pallet in the yard. A firebrick is larger and heavier than a regular clay brick and perfectly at home in temperatures that can reach 700 degrees. What makes them so unique at holding the heat is a heavy dose of aluminum oxide and silica.

There were no mishaps in transporting 200 firebricks home—just two trips to protect the suspension in our beleaguered vehicle. Along for the ride were three-50 pound sacks of heat-proof cement and a sack of fire clay (basically firebrick dust). Don't forget a shiny new diamond-tipped saw blade for cutting the bricks on a power-saw. (Yes, some use a special water-cooled brick saw, but I was going to try to use the tools I already had on hand.)
I set the oven floor first. I mixed one part fire clay dust with one part sand and enough water to make a thick slurry. Down went a two inch layer of the stuff on top of the insulated top of the stand, and before it dried, I fit together twenty bricks in a herringbone pattern tapping them in tight with a rubber mallet. This was where the actual pizzas would go! I'd be sliding those pizzas in any day now. (Right!)

Not so fast: There was a dome to build. The first course is half-bricks set on end, gently curving to conform to the diameter of the oven. I had cut a 40-inch round template from plywood and used the diamond blade to cut a half-dozen bricks through the middle. (I wore a respirator and safety glasses, and cutting the bricks wet helped keep the dust and flying particles down.)

With the first circular course in place, buttered together with a smooth heat-proof mortar, I began to shape the dome. I replaced my plywood template with a slightly narrower diameter to help support the first course of dome bricks and spread a thick wedge of mortar on half a brick. I set it with the finished edge tipped into the interior of the oven. So sitting on the four-inch tall vertical half-brick was a horizontally oriented half firebrick. It held. I set another one next to it, gradually moving around the circle to form the dome. So far so good.

Years ago in Florence, Italy, I stood with three college friends on a hill with a view of the Cathedral—the Duomo. Four million bricks and sixteen years of construction just to build the dome. Well, the whole idea made us all hungry—we were always hungry, and in Florence there was always pizza. Along the winding back streets of Firenze we discovered cheap wood-fired pizza made with buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. Somehow the Duomo and pizza became forever linked in my mind.

By the time I reached the third tier of my own Duomo I realized I was no Renaissance craftsman. Bricks slid apart as the angle of the dome increased. I cut scraps of wood to use as props for each brick to hold them in position. But I could only place a few bricks down at a time to keep the weight from shifting them. I worked my way around to a keystone that I had cut to an exact fit using a cardboard template. The keystone "locked" the bricks in place on the row.

As I made my way around the dome, I left an opening for the archway into the oven. I had stacked four bricks on each side as a placeholder. The arch would have to be finished before the dome. Now if I thought tipping bricks up was hard, the arch would teach me just how hard it was to go fully-vertical with a brick!

Next: The Roman arch takes shape.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stillness: September

by June

September is change: the lengthening of the shadows across the bright grass, the daily deepening chill in the air, the melancholy scritch-scritching of the crickets. This month will bring frost and flaming-red trees. The screen door will disappear. The windows will go down at night and not come so far back up during the day.

And, too, September ushers in such a rush of responsibility. All around us friends head back into their routines of work and school. We struggle against deadlines and obligations. We harvest what we can from the garden and work to save some of the abundance for colder days. I make and re-make a mental list of chores: Which plants need to come in the house? Which need to be blanketed with pine boughs? When will we find the time to put the shutters up on the screen house? Is there enough wood split and stacked? When will we move the almost-pullets into their new coop?

Yet, against the urgency of winter-coming, there is something in each day that whispers: Be still. Listen. Feel the sunshine.

It is a treasure in my life that my daughters are home with me on these days tilting hard toward autumn. It is a treasure that they too can be still. They seem unafraid of quiet, of listening to nothing but the thoughts flowing through their minds. What a comfort it will be to them all their lives to know how to hush themselves and let a moment seep into their memory. Young as they are, they have been struck already by that deeply human recognition: This cannot last. Gather it while you may.

One day has distilled this September for me. We chanced onto solitude at our favorite beach. We read. We floated. We watched the sandpipers and the seagulls and the ducks and the loons. We felt the sun on our skin and knew it wouldn't last but also knew that our memories of these hours would keep through winter. We were still and took it all in, gathered every precious sensation to hoard against the cold.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Savoring the harvest: Sungold tomato nuggets

by June

Usually this time of year I'm so overrun with Sungold tomatoes that I resort to throwing them into a zipper bag and throwing the zipper bag into the freezer. This deep into September, I've usually slow-baked tray upon tray of cherry tomato nuggets, and by this point, I'm just in a frenzy to get my bigger tomatoes sauced and frozen for the winter. I almost always have one pot of diced tomatoes being softened on the flame, and another pot of sauce that's been through the food mill and is now cooking down into a thick sweet paste that I freeze into cubes and use all winter. This year...well, you know what happened this year.

We certainly do not have any bags of Sungold in the deep freeze for tossing into soups and sauces. But we do have a little of our January mental-health remedy: Sungold tomato nuggets. They ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder, which in our case would be brought on not only by lack of sunshine but also by lack of sunshine-y tomato flavor-burst nuggets to sprinkle on our pasta, pizza, and even the occasional hot bubbling cheese spreads.

A few tiny jars represent our entire winter stock, but what a comfort it is to open the freezer door and see them preserved for when we most need them.

If you are in a part of the world where tomatoes are abundant and if you don't mind a little up-front labor, here's a recipe that will be a remedy for most all that ails you in the deep-darks.

Halve Sungold tomatoes (or another flavorful cherry tomato). Scoop out the seeds (and feed the seedy slurry to the chickens...)

Place the tomato halves cut side up on a baking tray.

For two quarter-sheet trays of tomatoes (or one regular cookie sheet), mix together a fluid paste of:

3/4 cup good olive oil
4 tablespoons of grated parmigiana cheese
2 (or more, to taste) cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
fresh thyme leaves stripped off the stems (or oregano if that's more to your liking)
sea salt
ground pepper

With a little spoon, dribble the paste into each of the tomato cups.

Bake in a 250 or 300 degree Fahrenheit oven. Use your judgment. You want it to be a slow heat that will slowly caramelize the tomatoes into something like a tomato raisin -- a tomato raisin, that is, with an additional little explosion of juicy, savory olive oil.

Freeze them in jars and keep them in an easily accessible bit of the freezer because you'll want to grab a few now and then to give a flavorful lilt to toast with ricotta cheese or a broiled slab of French feta or zucchini pizza or... The possibilities are truly endless.

Oh, I do miss the tomato sauce bubbling away, especially the aroma that drifts all the way up to the attic and out to the garden itself. But at least we have our little bit of captured tomato essence in six little jars on the freezer shelf.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Savoring the harvest: Steamed mommy beans (a.k.a. edamame beans)

by June

Family celebrations around here often involve sushi (or shushi as the girls say). For Birch's first Father's Day, we took the baby girls to our favorite restaurant, and I will never forget the two of them with huge squares of nori seaweed clutched in their dimpled hands. As they grew, they developed a passion for another Japanese-restaurant delight, edamame beans, which Fern and Blossom dubbed Mommy Beans. The name stuck.

Edamame beans (Glycine max or garden soybeans) are known as mao dou in China and have been grown there for 2200 years. In Japan, they are a favorite snack eaten with beer, which is where they get the nickname "beer bean." In Asia, the crops are often harvested during the celebrated full moons in September and October.

They are easy to grow -- if you can get them past the slugs as they sprout. This washout-year, I must have lost a third of my crop to the slugs. I use inoculant slurry on the beans and plant them thickly in a raised bed. They are beautiful sturdy plants about two-feet high; they flower all along the stem. The pods spend all summer plumping up, and it's best to pick them right before the beans fill the pod and start turning brown. Every pod on a plant is ready at the same time.

No matter how many edamame beans I grow, when harvest rolls around, there never seem to be enough. Because there never could be enough. Next to popcorn, this is our top go-to winter snack.
We've got the freezer loaded now with family-size packets. We blanched the beans in their pods for one minute, then plunged them into a bowl of ice water. Then into zipper bags they went. When the snow blows, and we want a warming snack we'll steam the frozen beans in the bamboo stack for five minutes or so, sprinkle them with flakes of sea salt, scrape the beans out of the pods with our teeth, toss the pods and...yum!

One of our favorite winter meals is oyakodon, a hearty egg-and-chicken rice dish I grew to love in a pocket restaurant on 47th Street in New York. Japanese businessmen gathered there for noodles and soup. The windows were so steamy and the food so authentic that it was difficult to tell whether it was lunchtime in Tokyo or mid-town Manhattan. One of the things we'll be doing with our frozen edamame beans is steaming them as a starter when oyakodon is on the menu. In fact, we grew so hungry for that meal as we worked to put up our winter stores of edamame beans that we had to have it for supper right then.

We sat on the back porch in the soft falling evening light of September. With the stripped bean plants still in a heap by our feet, we ate our favorite winter comfort food: steamed edamame beans followed by oyakodon. It tasted as good in September as it will in January.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Savoring the harvest: Crunchy kale

by June

Our family's favorite vegetable is kale. There. I said it. We would marry it if we could.

Winterbor kale fresh from the garden

We batted our eyelashes in delight when it appeared as a baby green crunch in spring salad. We oohed-and-ahhed over it melted into Tuscan bean soups. But we were ready to throw away all caution and elope with it when we discovered how to make crunchy kale.

We have friends who participate in a CSA. They bring home lots of kale. They complain about it. They try to foist their kale off on others (who often foist it right back). So we offered to introduce them to our beloved technique. Just as we suspected, they surprised themselves and swooned (all except for a certain sweet six-year-old who doesn't even, gasp, like chocolate).

Maybe you will swoon too. Kale deserves all the love it can get.

Here's all you do:

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash and thoroughly dry some kale leaves. If they're too big, tear them off the stem into, oh, four-by-four sections.

Massage each leaf with a nice quality extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle them with equally nice sea salt (though not too much because if you're like us, you'll want to put some on again at the end). Pop them into the hot oven. Watch them carefully. In our oven, they are done in about four minutes. In our friends' it was more like nine minutes.

You want them to look see-through green with just a hint of char around the edges. They should crunch like the most ethereal potato chip ever.

the same leaf after crisping in a hot oven

Stay tuned for our continuing series of harvest recipes. We're in full-tilt delight as our vegetables make their way from the garden to the table. Next up, edamame beans.