When I left the house, I planned to weed the onion patch. I didn’t make it there. Instead, I harvested four tubs of greens, replanted under the row cover, and set up the new tomato support system for cherry tomatoes.
I grow indeterminate cherry tomatoes, which means the vines grow and grow until they get much higher than the four foot cages and begin to snake around the garden. I ran out of cages this year so I tried something different, a post and lattice method of supporting tomatoes. I like it because there is less hardware. It should make it easier to manage the vines. Time will tell if the new method is successful. If it works, I may use it for all the tomatoes and phase out the cages.
Spring greens, before insects arrive in large numbers, are the best. Saturday I started a batch of vegetable broth to which I added kohlrabi greens, collards, four kinds of kale, wilted spinach, Fordhook chard, and mustard. It produced a flavorful broth which I’ll water bath can in quart jars this morning. In addition, I made vegetable soup, using the best of the greens.
I harvested cilantro, dill, chives and basil. Each of these herbs has a specific use in the kitchen. One of my experiments was to grow chervil, which is classic French cooking as part of the fines herbes that includes tarragon, chives and parsley in addition to chervil. Next year I must grow tarragon. I’m developing applications for chervil and would appreciate comments about how readers use it.
I grow cilantro for a couple of main purposes, mostly to use fresh on tacos. If I have it, it will go into any Mexican-style dish. It’s the tacos.
I don’t know if the weeds are too far gone in the onion patch. When the sun rises, I plan to give it another go. Here’s hoping I don’t get distracted again.
Someone asked me how I make vegetable broth when I posted this photo on Instagram. I wrote an exceedingly long explanation that may not really answer much. The method is centered around using the abundance of garden greens. Here’s how I explained it, although ask me again and the explanation might vary from the simple mirepoix, bay leaves and greens seasoned with salt.
I get out a big stock pot and evaluate how much I want to make depending on available greens. Usually one large onion, a pound of carrots, half a dozen stalks of celery and three bay leaves. Two large onions seems too much, but IDK. I know it’s controversial but I season the broth with salt at the beginning of the cooking. I want the flavor to be ready when I use it. I used to leave salt out completely but changed my thinking on that. Then I pile in whatever greens are available. I like turnip greens best, but they are not ready yet so I cleaned up the refrigerator, using bok choy, kale, collards, and tatsoi yesterday. Next I fill with tap water so the greens are covered and crank up the heat until it is boiling. Once it comes to a boil, I turn the heat to low and cook at least until the onions are transparent, often longer. Couple hours, for sure. Stir often. I use mostly cruciferous vegetable greens, yet would not be averse to adding wilted lettuce to the mix. If I have leeks, I’d add them too. I also put vegetable scraps in the freezer for broth and soup, yet in the spring I keep it simple with mirepoix, and cruciferous vegetable greens. I want to end summer with 3-4 dozen quart jars of broth made using the water bath canning process. No worries about electricity disruption. Thanks for asking.
My spouse remains at her sister’s home, helping her move, unpack and settle in. Sunday in Big Grove the weather was sub-optimal for gardening. With temperatures in the 40s and 50s, intermittent rain, and ground too wet to work, I stayed busy indoors all morning. It was in the afternoon things changed.
The greenhouse is filled with seedlings and once the weather breaks there is a lot to get planted. For now I wait for better conditions. That’s where I found myself, as we find ourselves so often, longing for something that isn’t. It can get the best of us on wistful Sunday afternoons alone.
I moped for a while, then reheated a container of leftover creamed vegetables and chick peas for lunch. At some point I sat in the living room and picked up my mobile device to watch videos. I started with President Biden’s speech at the White House Correspondents dinner Saturday night. Next, I watched Trevor Noah’s remarks there. There was some humor tinged with remorse at what our politics have become.
Around 2 p.m. I went to my writing place and turned everything off, including my desktop. In a roundabout way, I got back to videos.
I watched Iowa Press where the guest was State Auditor Rob Sand. Being auditor isn’t a flashy job, yet Sand has made something of his position. What he didn’t do was let O. Kay Henderson trap him into the conventional news narrative about the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Here’s the transcript:
Henderson: Your party, the Iowa Democratic Party, is going to have to make a case to the Democratic National Committee that Iowa’s Caucuses should remain first. What case would you make?
Sand: That experience matters in doing this. I talked to a reporter who has been a national reporter for a long time during the caucuses last time and I remember he has traveled all over the country. And he’s like, you know what, you guys actually are, you’re really good at this. I mean, I go to New Hampshire a lot and they’ve got experience with it too, but the quality of the questions that are asked of the person who wants to be the next leader of the free world in the state of Iowa are just head and shoulders above any other state.
Henderson: But that’s not the issue. The issue is participation. The caucuses prevent people from participating because of the mode of the voting and also it has got this weird caucus math.
Sand: Yeah. We can continue to make reforms. I think that’s fine. We can make the changes. But Iowa culturally has that attentive population that is good I think at asking those questions and filling that role and I think it would be a mistake for us to not be going first.
I appreciate Sand sticking to his talking point on the caucuses, even If I disagree Iowa should be first.
The afternoon waned. The main work of the day finished, I picked up my mobile device again and watched a couple of Massimo Bottura’s homemade videos from the pandemic. “This is not Master Class cooking,” he said. “It is home cooking.”
Then I came upon the video linked above, in which Bottura talks about the relationship between art and food. “My kitchen is not a book of recipes, a list of ingredients, or a demonstration of techniques,” he said. “But a way of understanding my terrain.” That gets to the heart of what I am trying to accomplish in my kitchen garden. It was unsettling.
I’d been planning to make pizza for a few days and after 3 p.m. I began making the dough. It begins with a scant cup of hot water taken from the tap. I put my finger in it to make sure it is not hot enough to kill the active dry yeast. I pour it in a bowl and add a teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, a dash of salt and a tablespoon of all purpose flour and mix it together. I add flour, knead it into a ball and put it in an oiled, covered bowl to rise in an oven at the lowest possible setting. It takes about an hour.
Pizza sauce is different each time I make it. My current go-to is a 15 ounce can of Kirkland organic tomato sauce. It is seasoned, yet I add. Sunday the mixture was a teaspoon each of granulated garlic, onion powder, home-grown oregano, and basil. It was a rich, dark red color. About half was reserved for pasta later in the week.
When the dough had risen, I punched it down and kneaded again. I put the ball on a piece of parchment paper laid across the wooden paddle and formed the dough. I learned if the edges remain mostly untouched they will bake to be thick. I’ve been enjoying that the last several pies.
Toppings are a “what’s in the refrigerator moment.” It was capers, spring onions and part of a fresh red bell pepper. Toppings are almost never the same and depend on what’s available. Pizzas are the best once basil comes in from the garden.
I topped it with mozzarella cheese and slid it into the 500 degree oven on the ceramic floor tiles I placed on the bottom shelf. Eight minutes later, dinner was ready.
I don’t know if what I wrote is a recipe. It wasn’t intended to be. Engagement in food preparation was a way of dealing with one solitary afternoon. It’s the same way writing about it from our quiet house this morning is. There are days when we yearn to be with people and others we crave solitude. While we are never truly separate from society, gaining introspection for a while helps us function better in the broader world. Naming what this is is not necessary. It’s expressing a dominion over something that doesn’t need it. Call it what you will, but I’ll use the phrase “cooking in place.” It made the best of what could have been a lonesome afternoon.
On Wednesday I loaded the automobile with obsolete and not working electronics to recycle at the county landfill. Three televisions, a wall-mount telephone, a non-working videocassette player, a laptop computer, and miscellaneous small items fell into bins there after I paid a $66 fee. There were also two computer towers, one of which was the one my spouse bought in 1996 when we dialed up the internet for the first time as a family. The other was a locally made machine built in the last millennium. I scrubbed the hard drives clean before recycling them.
Last week I took three big bags of clothing to Goodwill. One was scraps for recycling. The other two could be tagged and resold. I didn’t ask for a receipt. It felt good to be rid of some of the detritus of a modern life in Iowa. There will be more purging of unused stuff from our home this year.
Temperatures returned to near freezing so I have to bring seedlings indoors again. I don’t know what’s up with the lingering cold, rain and snow making it impossible to get into the garden. My onion starts are to arrive next week and I haven’t turned a spade in the garden yet. I find other things to do yet there is a certain stress lingering in the background because of the delayed season.
My impression of the political scene after candidates filed to get on the ballot is Democrats are teed up to take a shellacking in November. We have good people running for office yet there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for politics. Likewise, a certain laziness permeates recent events in which I participated. I’m not seeing any fire in the belly to win an election among regular Democrats like me. Republicans in control of the state legislature and governor’s office are driving the narrative and making their points. They are highly motivated to tear down the long-standing culture of the state and replace it with something I don’t recognize. Democrats have been forced to play defense.
At a Zoom political event last night, I changed my political donation strategy while listening to Christina Bohannan and Elle Wyant speak. I budgeted $100 per month in donations and switched them around to candidates I believe will have the best prospects of being elected in November. In the big races, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor my $100 per month split three or four ways will be of negligible impact. Even my state senator’s race will be a big money campaign. The only political fund raising phone calls I received this cycle were from Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn, U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken, and county attorney candidate Rachel Zimmermann Smith. Even with the small number of requests, my $100 per month doesn’t go far. I’ll revisit the strategy after the June 7 primary.
I’ve been keeping the thermostat at 58 degrees while my spouse is away helping her sister. This morning I donned three layers to retain body heat. I have also been making non-vegan vegetarian dishes while she is away. It’s not fancy food, just simple fare in an Iowa life.
Home alone, I made a spicy dish for dinner: red beans and rice. There is no recipe, yet it was everything to which decades of kitchen and garden work led me. Supper was life, as good as it gets. The process of anticipation, planning, and pulling items from the freezer, ice box and pantry culminated in deliciousness. The meal was why we pay attention to flavor rather than the names of dishes or ingredients.
I didn’t know I needed spring break, yet here we are. The combination of my spouse helping her sister move to a new home, 45 mile per hour winds and cold temperatures for two days, and a form of isolated winter exhaustion led me here. Break will continue until I see my doctor later this week. I already have my blood test results and the key numbers improved from six months ago. I noted Earth Hour last night and feel rested and ready to get into the garden and yard. The winds subsided overnight.
Saturday I spent five hours participating in the county Democratic convention via Zoom. I don’t like virtual events, yet they are efficient. I’d rather be talking to political friends and acquaintances in person. The upside of a virtual convention is when it is over, there is no need to use an automobile to get home. A couple of notes.
1984 was my first Johnson County Democratic convention. Most people were nice, although I was frustrated with the process. The county convention revisited decisions made at the precinct caucuses and walked away from what voters said they wanted in favor of special interests. That burned me on politics for a while. Since then we spent six years in Indiana. When we returned to Iowa, I was not active in politics for ten years, until 2004. The virtual event was reasonably organized, yet kinda sucked. What’s a person to do? An old Polish proverb applies, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Age is not treating some of my long-term cohorts well, at least from the images presented on Zoom. There are a number of new people, likely more than half. I’d rather step back from organized politics. I volunteered to be a delegate to the district and state conventions to make sure enough people were available to fill 74 slots. The district convention is at a nearby high school across the lakes. When it was time to ratify the slate, all slots weren’t filled. People don’t seem that engaged in politics this year, even if they should be. That may be bias created by the virtual format, yet I’m seeing the same thing in every segment of local culture.
There were ten platform amendments submitted at the convention. The platform is irrelevant, mostly because Democratic candidates for office don’t support every plank, even if they acknowledge a platform exists. Why does the county party spend time on it? The answer, I guess, is it is a way of life for party members who want a shared experience in articulating their beliefs. As a writer, I get plenty of that from elsewhere. As long as we keep the platform’s irrelevance to formal policy in mind, and don’t expect candidates to fully support it, let platformers platform.
I’m preparing to write about my senior year in college when I lived in a small house on Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Artist Pat Dooley rented it from a local businessman and managed the many residents who came and went during that six month period. It was a small, decrepit three-bedroom structure built on a stone foundation. According to Google maps, it has now been demolished.
Dooley was part of a group of writers and artists loosely referred to as “Actualists.” He did the cover art for The Actualist Anthology edited by Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray. Gray overnighted with us for a brief period before leaving Iowa for California. Many Actualists visited our house at Dooley’s invitation, where we socialized in the common room. Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, Dave Morice, Sheila Heldenbrand, John Sjoberg and Steve Toth stopped by more than once, as best I can recall.
By 1974, I finished required coursework for a major in English and needed to fill out the total number of required hours. My coursework during that final undergraduate semester included French conversation, separate classes in ancient and modern art, Harry Oster’s American Folk Literature, and early modern philosophy. I hadn’t prepared for a career during university, although the Oscar Mayer Company, for whom I worked two summers, called to offer me a job as a foreman in the Davenport meat packing plant. I declined.
There are a couple of additional days before I must get to work in earnest. Spring break, while unexpected, is not over.
We have plenty of recipes in our household. When I’m cooking, I rarely follow any of them. No worries. The end product has always been edible.
Every cook understands following a recipe exactly can be a disaster. A recipe functions like a tool in the kitchen, not a computer algorithm. Recipes are also the starting point for developing one’s own cuisine, not the end result. Cuisine is about actual dishes created and eaten from a kitchen, not some abstraction of design.
An example is the recipe for lemon chicken my maternal grandmother prepared from time to time. I asked her to write it down. Somewhat reluctantly, she did: on the back of an envelope, in front of me, from memory. There was an omission. Lemon was not listed in the ingredients. I had watched her prepare the dish and saw her squeeze the lemon. The interplay of memory with cooking is an underappreciated aspect, and little to do with written or printed recipes.
When baking, I follow ingredient amounts in a recipe carefully because the science is more specific. Even so, actual temperature in the oven, what kind of baking dish is used, humidity, and elevation above sea level all play a role and can create variations in the end product. Learning how to cope with variations is part of being a cook.
Variation on a recipe is expected and usually welcome. Chef Jacques Pépin explains it better than I in this short video. As he might say, “Happy cooking.”
A variety of dried chilies waits for me in the pantry. Yesterday I made chili sauce with the rest of the Guajillo chilies I grew, and some Hatch chilies from the grocer. It is a bit of a production yet this chili sauce is great on just about anything.
First put a kettle of water on to boil. Stem the chilies and split them to remove most of the seeds. Place them in a bowl and pour the hot water over them to enable them to hydrate. Cover with a plate to hold them under water. Soak for at least an hour or until they are flexible.
Place the chilies in a blender with a cup of the soaking liquid. Add whole garlic cloves, at least one large head. Add pepper and Mexican oregano. Blend until it is as smooth as possible.
Place a tablespoon or so of peanut oil in a frying pan and heat. Using a strainer, pour the sauce mixture into the frying pan, pushing as much through the mesh as is possible using a spatula. Set the strainer with bits of chili skin aside and stir the strained sauce.
Add a dash of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to bring out the flavor of the chilies. The idea is not to sweeten the sauce, but to make the chilies taste more fruity.
Stir and mix, mix and stir over medium low heat. Reduce the sauce until it is the consistency of a thick tomato sauce or tomato paste. Use the soaking liquid to dilute the sauce if it gets too thick. Make it the consistency you want.
Put it in a jar, refrigerate, and use it like you would any hot pepper sauce. If I had summer greens, I’d make a taco filling with it along with black beans. I’m the only person in our house who eats spicy things. All the same this Hatch chili sauce won’t last long.
Like most people, I want a decent meal when it is time to eat. In 2012, I launched a major study of the local food scene and was not disappointed in the results coming into and out of our kitchen. By working at a number of farms, growing and expanding our home garden, and participating in legislative advocacy, I learned so much about where food originates and conditions which engender growth of a variety of fruit and vegetables.
The impact of local food systems on our home life reached its peak in development of the kitchen garden idea. Now that the work is finished, I have less interest in writing regularly about food. It is an assumed part of a background against which I pursue other interests. I’ve learned what it means to know the face of the farmer. I maintain an interest in doing so. I just won’t write about it as often. Mainly, others are doing a better job of writing about our food system.
Food is basic to a life. It is not the most important thing. I am glad for the work I did, yet I feel it is finished. It is time to concentrate on more important aspects of life. It is time to keep a focus on life closer to home.
It’s the end of apple season and with a vegan in the house, using butter in a dessert is out the window. I took the apple crisp recipe from my hand written cookbook and modified it after reading a couple of vegan recipes. The first test batch didn’t meet standards so I tweaked it and came up with this keeper.
Vegan Apple Crisp
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shelf positioned so the baking dish is in the middle of the oven.
8 good sized apples
2 tbs wheat flour
2 tbs lemon juice
1/4 cup apple cider or juice
3 tbs arrowroot (mix together with lemon juice and apple cider)
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger (fresh if you have it)
a few grates of nutmeg
Grease the baking dish. Reserve the arrowroot mixture and mix everything else in a mixing bowl. Don’t beat it to death! Add the liquid and incorporate. Pour into the baking dish.
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup each of wheat and almond flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
dash of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Using a pastry blender mix everything together and make sure it is well incorporated. Don’t beat it to death! Sprinkle on top of the filling and bake for 30-35 minutes, making sure the topping starts to brown.
Philosophy of cookery. Peel and slice enough apples to fill whatever baking dish you want to use. Mine is 9 x 13 x 2 inches. Adjust the amount of topping to match the amount of apples. The batch can be doubled or halved. It would likely freeze well in an airtight container.
We often co-exist with an illusion we have unlimited time to live our lives. Living each moment, our fundamental outlook is there will be another. Many of us believe that each new moment has the potential to be better than the one in which we find ourselves. It may be true, yet there are limits.
When I retired April 28, 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I wasn’t ready. I looked forward to getting dressed in my uniform (jeans, a shirt with the company logo, and hard-toed boots), driving across the lakes in my 1997 Subaru, and working an eight-hour shift that had a unique yet recurring set of variables that demanded something from me but not a lot. It was a retirement job to pay bills until Social Security kicked in at the full rate. I exited the work force with eyes open to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
I want another source of steady income.
If I return to the workforce, it will be on my terms, avoiding any public-facing job because of infectious diseases living in members of the public. That was a lesson of my last employment. I spent a lot of time sick before the pandemic because of contagious people.
While transferring files from my 2013 CPU to the new one I found file folders with ideas for earning money. Some of them brought income, yet not enough to rely on them without other sources. Having retired from my main career in 2009, I spent time exploring alternative forms of employment that would help pay the bills. It was a mixed bag, the best part of which was meeting so many people. A fellow couldn’t live on it.
We have a decent home life. I improved my gardening and cooking, and I’m writing more. I am focused on being a better photographer. I don’t view any of these activities as sources of income. If I have an abundance from the garden I may sell it at the local farmers market or donate to the food bank. Freelance writing brings something in, but it is lowly paid work. I would rather enjoy this creativity for what it is: a regular decent meal with ingredients I grew, and a legacy of writing. From time to time a subject gains a broader readership, as in the recent school board election coverage. There is personal satisfaction in it and that’s enough.
I resist commercializing our home life. A life worth living has some privacy. I enjoy creative outlets provided by gardening and meal preparation, opinion pieces to newspapers, and posting photos on Instagram. I attempt to refrain from stupid stuff on Twitter, which is my main place to mouth off. I am careful about what I say and depict about our private lives on those platforms.
What will I do with this moment? Write a few more words, edit, then hit schedule so it posts at 5 a.m. comme d’habitude. I look forward to breakfast as it’s been 11 hours since eating anything. There are onions and garlic from the garden… and a half used jar of Guajillo chili sauce I made. I’ll concern myself with breakfast just as soon as I finish this post. The anticipation makes life worth living.