Friday, August 21, 2009

Whatsover Your Hand Finds to Do

Anyone got tomatoes? Yeah? Lucky dogs. This stretch of the Shire didn't fare well for tomatoes this year. Between the cool--did I say "cool"...nay, I meant to say "cold"--temperatures all spring and summer, the rain and early late blight, not much is pinking up. Sigh. You know that you haven't had much in the way of sunshine when even your squash and cucumbers aren't plotting world domination. But, hey, mark it on your calendars...I harvested my first cuke today! There's so much rain that there's mold growing on the metal items out in the yard. See why I call this the Pacific North East? All summer I planned to do the "wardrobe flip" thing where I clamber up to the attic and schlepp all of the warm weather clothes down and toss the winter stuff up there until we need it again. Didn't happen until August and almost didn't happen at all. I guess this has been a "summer optional" year?

Tool Guy is equally frustrated. He bought a Harley Davidson Sportster "to go back and forth to work." If your Tool Guy comes home with this persuasive argument, run. Run like the wind. He does have the advantage in the argument that the extra "running around" he is doing is cheaper on gas. That has the virtue of being the truth. Fortunate for him. The frustration point is that in the eight years that we've lived here, this is the absolute wettest summer we've had. So he doesn't get to ride as often as he would wish. Pauvre petit cha'... So on the near-mythical sunny day, he's generally to be found at the leading edge of a blur, leaving behind nothing but the rumble.

I'm learning some valuable gardening lessons this year. I had planned for a "snap-back" year. Last year, I inadvertently sabotaged my garden. Then my greenhouse collapsed. I expected that I'd be able to sail into this spring and replenish my empty tomato sauce jars. Tool Guy even trekked up to the greenhouse manufacturer to pick up the replacement for me. I rubbed my hands together with glee and planned for great things.

Alas, cheri, it was not meant to be. The cauliflower never sprouted. The broccoli took two tries before the starts came up. Ditto on most of the tomatoes. Only one of my pepper plants came up. The beans and cucumbers took three tries before they came up. I bent my head lower and persisted.

We did get the greenhouse up and my starts did survive. But that's about all. I think I'm going to manage to harvest enough from each kind of vegetable that I planted to have seeds to plant next year. I unbent and visited the local farmer's market where I acquired twenty pounds of tomatoes. The newly minted jars of ketchup are cooling in my basement now. An expected blessing arrived in the form of a phone call from a friend inviting me to share in the bounty of her garden. Cucumbers and beans galore! For the three days following our thankful swoop through her garden, Bug hovered over the ripening pickle jars on the table, persistently asking if they were ready to eat. When I decanted those pickles, gratitude added an extra bit of flavor to the relish.

She also called me to share--recklessly generous friend that she is--the location of an untapped berry range. And buried in the midst of the blackberry brambles peeked several persistent elderberry bushes. We tag teamed during the weeks of the ripening berries. This was the Hobbits first excursion in berrying and it was quite the lesson in persistence, endurance, fortitude, and delayed gratification. But they were troupers and endured the belated sunshine that finally decided to make August feel like August. Not having a garden to demand our time and energy, we were freed to forage and immerse ourselves in this unexpected boon. "Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might."*

Neither my friend nor I having dealt with storing berries before, we discussed possible plans of attack. Syrup preparations appear to have a storage life of about six months and there was much more bounty than six months of the worst colds and flues would require. The next idea was to dry them. In the absence of detailed directions on line, I launched into a new episode of Dehydrating Dangerously. While I juggled racks in the oven, the impatient clusters that my overstuffed oven could not accommodate hung heavy like grapes from my pot rack, waiting their turns. I set the oven to 115* and made sure that there were trays under the dehydrating racks. Normally, I'm not that scrupulous, but elderberries will shrivel down to the dimensions of a flea. And with all this work, I begrudge any flea that escapes this circus!

And, of course, berries aren't about to be so obliging as to all dry at equal rates and equal degrees. Of course. And I harbor a horrifying vision of investing all of this work into drying all of this abundance, only later to find it riddled with pockets of mold because of an undetected imperfectly-dried berry. (I'm also hedging my bets by storing them in very small batches, paired up with silica packets.)

Sorting through the dried berries fingerful by careful fingerful for the semi-dried is much like panning for gold and equally tedious. I'd recommend an audio book for this process, but the quality of the sound plunking on the bottom of the china bowl became a part of the diagnostic process. A plink is dry, but a plunk goes back into the oven.

So this process does give the mind wide scope for finding subjects of meditation. When doing this, come prepared to think. One of the things I mediated on is that $16 a pound average rate for dried elderberries isn't really as dear as it first seems. Heh. It does, however, provide fodder for discussion with Hobbits about the concept of "sweat equity." I remember Sally Jesse Raphael, when she only had a radio program, sharing her evaluation process: what do you have more of? Time or money? Mostly the answer has been "time," though I have come to the conclusion that, these days, it may be running neck and neck. Still, the idea that I'm putting up food and medicine that I can reach back to even as far out as a few years from now gives me the motivation to press on and bury my hands deeply and enthusiastically in whatsoever they find to do. Even the unexpected. On second thought, particularly the unexpected.

*Ecclesiastes 9:10

Friday, August 7, 2009

...Back Again

The vacations of my childhood always began in the mystical, pre-dawn hours of the morning. To this day, setting out on the road before sunrise lends a nascent thrill to even the must mundane chore. This has rubbed off onto the Hobbits. Bug, my dawdler, will even put some steam into his morning routine if he thinks that doing so will get us on the road before the sky begins to lighten.

I remember rolling out of bed very shortly after pulling up the covers to sleep. It wasn't that we had such a tight schedule to meet that we would leave so early, but that my parents--my mother in particular--couldn't sleep for the excitement of the outing. This sort of thing seems to be generationally contagious. We had no difficulty wrangling everyone--a task I frequently refer to as "herding cats"--into their seat and we were off.

Too Guy was our cruise director, having planned this entire outing. I nestled into my pillows and promptly went back to sleep, the familiar profiles of this neck of the Shire having exhausted its charms for me. The Hobbits dove into some backseat vidoes, breaking a long, parentally-imposed media fast. No "are we there yets?" here. Heh.

Everyone was suitably impressed when we drove up to our accommodations. The Hobbits swarmed the playscape while I donned decontam gear and tackled the kitchenette. The toaster was the first prisoner of war to be confined to the upper reaches of the cabinetry and I sandblasted the counter top. I washed all of the remaining contents of the cabinets and hung up the Certificate of Inspection. We were in business. A quick pot of pasta and a bottle top opener voila...dinner is served!

Is there any vacation attraction that can rival the lure of a swimming pool? All of Bar Harbor spread before us--or at least a nice chunk of shoreline--and these Philistines want to swim in the pool. What can I tell you? I try. I really do. While they were distracted by the possibilities of cannonballs, Tool Guy played lifeguard and shooed me away to indulge in some "me" time. I slunk away to the Jack Russell Steakhouse, beckoning me from across the street. They never missed me.

Dining out alone can be like slow dancing by yourself: a bit awkward and self-concious. So I brought my own dinner companion. A book. I presented myself to the hostess, anticipating "a booth, in the back, in the corner, in the dark." What I got was the garret at the top of the stairs. All to myself. Is there any felicity in the world equal to this? I admired the original woodwork, the eyebrow windows, authentic glazing and interior plaster work finished in a singular shade of glistening orange. Funky, but it worked.

Not much on the menu was gluten free, but hey, does one come to Bar Harbor for aught other reason than to eat lobster? So I ordered fries as an appetizer--and didn't ask what they were fried in--followed by grilled asparagus and lobster with butter. And solitude. Sheer bliss.

Back at the room, Tool Guy and I tag teamed. While he went to the Jack Russell and duplicated my order, much to the amusement of Adam, our server, I took the Hobbits on an expedition to scale the not-insubstantial shoreline rocks. We scrambled over monstrous boulders, foraged for mussel shells and vacated crab exo-skeletons, and examined the bladderwrack that ebb tide had exposed. Too cool.

The next two days were crammed with a sailing cruise, window shopping, and hiking in Acadia National Park. The Hobbits tumbled into bed, sun-pinked and satiated. At night, when the fog would roll in, we would briefly rouse at the low tones of an incoming fog horn. Yep. We're in Maine.

My farewell dinner at the Jack Russell felt as if it needed a crowning finish. The only gluten free item for dessert was creme brulee. Mmmmm. Don't mind if I do. The first bite infused me with the inspiration for my next the inspiration for my next expedition into Cooking Dangerously.

Casein Free Creme Brulee

8 egg yolks
1 cup thick coconut milk/coconut cream
3 tsp. maple sugar sugar
2 T vanilla extract
Maple sugar for sprinkling

Heat sugar and coconut milk/cream to boiling in heavy sauce pan. Add vanilla extract to eggs and gently incorporate. When the coconut cream is boiling, pour a small amount into the eggs to "temper" them, stirring continually. When the eggs have mixed with the coconut milk/cream, pour the rest of the hot milk into the mixture. Now pour into ramekins or molds and place in a chaffing dish or, for those on a Lobelia Baggins budget, a cake pan. Since my life is lacking in the politer refinements of polished society such as ramekins, I opted to use silicone muffin forms as the container in which to make the creme brulee. Fill the dish or pan with boiling water to about halfway up the mold/ramekin. Place the entire assembly into a 325* oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until center is almost set. When cooked, remove to a clear surface and sprinkle maple sugar over the tops. Return to the oven, now set on broil at 500*. Keeping a close eye for carmelizing--in my kitchen that would be called "smoking"--let broil for 5-7 minutes or until desired degree of lava has been achieved. Brace yourself for the oooooohs and aaaaaaahs.

As a vacation, it was, as all vacations are, too short. The Hobbits brought home from sand from Ogunquit's beach; I refrained from doing any foraging in Acadia, a feat that I want recognition for. The wild roses were extraordinarily tempting. (Does anyone know of a commercial source for these?) Lots of memories. Princess declared it to be her best vacation. Fortunate, that, especially being her only one.

Here's to the next one!