Monday, November 17, 2014

Flower Power

Thinking about flowers and about Thanksgiving, these inspire.

Amy Merrick.  Wouldn't you love to take a class from her?  Or have her do flowers for your house for the holly daze?

Me too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thank You, Thank You

I have a friend who is so good with thank-you notes that I swear they get home before you do.  I think she even has a deal with Santa to drop off the presents and her thank-yous at the same time.  She practically beats him down the chimney.  

Hand written.  On beautiful paper.  She even has birthday postage stamps for birthday cards.  

I am reasonably good at thank-you notes, thanks to my mom (we were not allowed to use our gifts until we had written a thank you note), but now I find out from Have Some Decorum that you are not supposed to use the words "thank you" in your thank you note. Who knew?  

Okay you probably all did, and I'm just late to the party, but I have been scrupulously and purposely saying those words in each and every note for years, and now I find out I'm - I'm what, out of touch?  tacky?  misinformed?  or, with a nod to Nancy Mitford, heaven help us, Non U?   Or is she wrong?

I'm thinking here about how our founding fathers used ain't in conversation and correspondence, and our grammer school grammar teachers had a cow if we said ain't.  Grammar changes.  Afraid of being mistaken for someone fresh off the farm, we conformed.  But really, what's wrong with being fresh off the farm?   With being who you are?

I grew up in a time when being from another country was embarrassing.  Something to be ashamed of.  You ate canned food and TV dinners and not the delicious healthy varied stuff of your homeland.  And our family recipes and traditions got lost, all but a few.  But unless you were a Native American (and that wasn't a good thing to be at that time either) you were an immigrant.  So were you supposed to look down on yourself?

Now is a huge deal, people chat away with great pride about where their people came from, every family seems to have someone digging into their roots.   We compare steerage horror stories and recall with pride those who had the courage to believe there was something better across the sea.  We search for and make with pride recipes from the old countries.   So much got lost, so hard to find.  

I am writing down my mom's stories of growing up during the depression, and going to college during WWII.  Of working as a bicycle messenger at a shipyard during the summers.   Of saving seeds and raising chickens.  Of summer rainstorms and dances at Foster Hall.  I wish I had known her then.  I know we would have been great friends.  I am so happy to know her now, so proud to be her friend and her daughter.  I love you mommy - so much.  You are my hero.

So how  did we get from thank-you notes to immigration?  I have no idea.  I'm off to write a thank you note to my dear friend who came for breakfast this morning and made me laugh.  And I promise not to use those two little forbidden words.  Or maybe I will, and just continue to be myself.  Whee!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November In The Garden

Okay, once again thanks to Dustin and all the smart folks at Sloat Nursery in Danville (and other places), here is your to-do list for November.  Have fun, and don't forget to shop at Sloat!  

November: What to do in your garden this month

  • Look to plant cyclamen in early November. It’s also a great time to plant ground covers and sweet peas.

  • Think fall & winter color: Violas and pansies are perfect for creating mass color in containers or flowerbeds. Available in a variety of hues, they are a terrific ground cover to plant over bulbs in pots or in the ground.

  • For a hardy alternative, consider planting ornamental cabbage and kale.

  • Prepare planting beds for winter. Clear weeds and rocks. Till soil and add soil amendments.

  • Fall is for planting! Get shrubs, perennials and trees into the ground this month. Winter rains will help develop a strong root system.

  • Select bulbs for spring bloom and winter forcing such as hyacinth, paperwhite & tulips.  Refrigerate hyacinth, crocus and tulips 4 to 6 weeks prior to planting.

  • Apply a lawn fertilizer and pre–emergent to control and prohibit annual bluegrass, crabgrass, and other weeds in your lawn and flower beds. Also, aerate and fertilize the lawn with E.B. Stone Nature’s Green.

  • De-thatch lawn if necessary

  • Top-dress perennial beds, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons with Sloat Forest Mulch Plus and feed with 0-10-10 fertilizer monthly until bloom (E.B. Stone Organics).

  • Divide the roots and rhizomes of perennials such as agapanthus, yarrow and iris.

  • Store away and clean any unused pots and containers that can be used as hiding places by overwintering insects, slugs and spiders.

  • Lightly prune Japanese maples while still in leaf. Select and plant maples for fall color.

  • It’s time to fill your bird feeders for winter. You can also try a suet feeder!

  • Clean up dead leaves, deadhead flowering plants- diseased leaves should go in the garbage, the rest can go in the compost pile

  • Mulch with compost or Forest Mulch to amend the soil and keep down weeds

  • Pull weeds before they have a chance to drop seeds.  Apply a pre-emergent after fall rains to stop germinating weeds.  Concern Weed Prevention Plus is a safe product derived from corn gluten.

  • Move perennials and shrubs between now and January-prune back lightly first

  • Continue to bait for snails with Sluggo

  • Strip roses Dec-Jan, prune in Jan-Feb

  • Fertilize cymbidiums with 6-25-25 food

  • Fertilize blue hydrangeas with E.B. Stone True Blue now for bluer blooms

  • Fertilize winter color with a blooming plant food (primrose, cyclamen) such as Maxsea 3-20-20.

  • Continue to fertilize citrus with E.B. Stone Organics Citrus Food or Greenall Citrus and Avocado food.

  • Clean and store tools- rub down with alcohol after each use. Grease with white lithium grease to prevent rust. Store shovels and saws in a bucket of sand with a little oil (5 parts sand-1 part oil)

  • If frost is imminent, be sure to water your garden (if it hasn’t rained recently).

  • Use Bonide All Seasons Oil when roses and fruit trees have lost their leaves

PLANT IT NOW! October & November are truly the most advantageous months of the year to get perennials, trees, vines, shrubs and cool season vegetables into the ground. 

Planting now will allow roots to become well established for much stronger, more vigorous plants come springtime. Fall and winter rains mean nature does the weekly watering for you, plus most gardeners see fewer pest and disease problems in the fall.

Happy Gardening!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Music To My Ears

She was determined to give us the benefit of a classical music education...whether we wanted it or not.  

She was the principal violist (and no, that's not a mis-spelling, it's a different instrument) in a symphony in a town in the shadow of San Francisco.  We were the unfortunate few who had taken up string instruments, cello, viola and violin.   

Looking back I wonder if she was looking for the next Yo Yo Ma (altho at the time he wasn't a famous cellist, but really, how many of you have ever heard of Pablo Cassals?)  Or if she was hoping we would eventually feel the joy she felt from playing.  

I had taken up the cello quite by accident.  I wanted to play the guitar, it was Peter Paul and Mary days, the heady summer of love, and although I was too young to participate in the love part, and lived in the suburbs, not San Francisco, those currents blew thru my life.  I was thrilled by the daring, the thought that you could defy your parents and live.   That being young didn't mean being subservient.  That we didn't have to wait to think, that we could make a change.  Heady stuff.  

The local private music teacher knew just enough guitar to stay ahead of me, no more.   I think she was studying the same book I was, just a few pages ahead.  But she knew a great deal more about the cello, and about manipulating children, and so I was shunted coerced convinced propagandized browbeaten into playing the cello.  And eventually into buying more and more expensive cellos from her.  No cello sold in this valley for fifty years without passing thru her hands.

Consequently I found myself, at age twelve, in the District Orchestra.  We were horrid.  Unlike the piano, a string instrument needs to be tuned each time you play it, and sometimes in the middle of playing.  And if you can't hear if you're sharp or flat or right on pitch, then you can't tune it.

Violins and violas and cello also lack frets.  Those are the little crosswise ridges that tell you where to put your fingers.  So we not only  had to hear if we were in tune to tune up, but we had to hear - and adjust - while we were playing.  

Now imagine half a dozen of these twelve year olds (who'd much rather be sleeping in, or playing with their friends, but were too polite or too intimidated to say so), sawing away for an hour before school.  Twice a week.  Frightening.

We gave concerts.  Only the parents came, and it was painful to watch their faces.  

This was at a time when schools had music programs, closets full of instruments to lend, music for us to play, space to practice and perform.  And music teachers.

A few of us kept going, partly because we were obedient children, partly because we got better and began to enjoy playing.  By high school we were pretty good, and having fun.  I wonder how many are still playing?  

I can still distinguish the sound of a clarinet from an oboe, a French horn from a trumpet.  I can pick out - and hum - the cello line in almost anything.  I know what the open strings are tuned to (and yes I know you do not end a sentence with a preposition.  Deal with it).  Heck, I know what an open string is.  I know which instruments are tuned to A, and which to B flat. 

I still love Vivaldi and Bach and Mozart, and pretty much any music up to and including Beethoven.  I have a mad pash for 
Medieval music , the stern structure and the complicated harmonies.  

So I did get a gift from her, just not the gift she thought she was giving.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Troubled Relationship With Napkin Rings, or How Not To Set Your Thanksgiving Table

I have a troubled relationship with napkins.  Not that I don't use them - I do, lots of them, and only cloth.  Those little paper squares?  Please God, no.  Like trying to dry off after a shower with a kleenex.

Washing?  I'm a fanatic.  Every time they're used.  Ironing?  Not so much.  And my staff is not much help.  (That would be Ally the dog who, while willing, is lacking opposable thumbs and consequently is not adept at ironing, and Wally, who, while he is not deficient in the opposable thumb department has zero interest in ironing, or anything to do with laundry other than how his is folded - by someone else, natch).

And here's the crux of the problem:  Napkin rings.  

Every article about cooking for Thanksgiving has advice about setting the table, and they're all hip-happy about napkin rings, talking about how they make the table much more elegant, and show how much you care.  Puhleeze. 

You know the history of napkin rings, right?  They were invented so you could tell your napkin from other people's, and use it again.  For a week.  Since laundry was only done once a week.  The mind reels. 

While I appreciate that I'm not wiping my lips with someone else's greasy used napkin, probably crawling with germs, I'm not keen on wiping my lips with my own greasy used napkin, either.  

Now that you know their history, when you put napkin rings on your dinner table, what message do you think you're sending?  Are your guests thinking "Hmmm, I wonder if I'm using someone else's old napkin...or if someone else will use mine after I'm done?"

It's not about decor, darlings, it's about decorum. 

You can read a history of napkin rings here.  Not a scholarly discourse, no citations, and I'm not sure how much is fact, how much conjecture, how much rumor. 

So much of what we take as truth is not.  Remember the story of the newlywed woman who cut the ends off her ham before she put it in the oven?  When her newly minted husband asked her why, she said, "Oh, but that's the right way to do it!  It's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom (his mother-in-law), and she said, "That's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom, his wife's grandmother, and she said, "I had to cut the ends off.  My pan wasn't big enough."

Moral: be careful what you take for granted,  what you take as truth.

Oh and please don't get me started on vintage napkins.  Some are beautiful, well bleached.  Clearly clean.  Some are full of stains and gross.  

New napkins: polyester?  No thank you.  It's like trying to mop something up with a plastic bag.   100% cotton please.  Or well-washed linen.  And for God's sake don't starch your napkins, they are for dabbing your lips, not exfoliating them.  

Some yahoo recommends in his Setting The Thanksgiving Table article (in a fancy decorating magazine that really should know better) that you use paper napkins in napkins rings to save on laundering.  If you really want to save time and effort at Thanksgiving, tell people to stay home.  

But if you're having guests, treat them like guests.  Real napkins, real smile, real joy in your heart.  Really.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Dog Days

If you read the last post about our dog Ally, you're hoping when you come to visit she doesn't go ballistic upon your arrival.  That would besmirch your character in ways from which it's hard to recover.  (No dangling participle!)  No, you're hoping she will lick your outstretched hand, and snuggle up to your leg.

Not bloody likely.  

You may be able to touch her - briefly, and only under the chin - when you've known her for half an hour.  Like an old society matron, she has her own notions of what is appropriate, and she's not afraid to tell you when you're overstepping.  Although I would not advise chuckling an old society matron under the chin, no matter how long you've known her...

But here's the weird thing:  Wally can open the garage door (it rumbles as it goes up, so loudly you can hear it in our bedroom, about half a mile away).  He can open the back door (beep! beep! that's the alarm that tells us when a kid is heading for the pool.  Or for freedom, but that's another story) and not a peep out of the dog.  She doesn't even raise her head.  

In contrast to a rat climbing the drainpipe who gets the entire anvil chorus in barking, or an amorous squirrel who really must be out of the mood after listening to Ally carry on, Wally gets the silent treatment.  Just a wag of the tail.  Nope, he can walk right into the bedroom and she won't even come out of her house.  

Is it scent?  Or sound?  How does she know it's us?

And here's the other weird thing:  Ally rarely wags her tail.   She's not unhappy, she snuggles up to my leg and demands petting at breakfast, and she can be quite demanding.   Many mugs of tea and spoonfuls of cereal have landed on the rug thanks to her shoving me with her nose because I got engrossed in the newspaper and forgot to keep scratching. 

She hops up on the bed in the morning and burrows into the warm down comforter, pressing her back against me, then turning over to wash my face.  So as you can see she's not intimidated, or unaffectionate.   But that tail?  Mostly reserved for other dogs.  I'm feeling a bit like I'm in the cheap seats, at least where the tail is concerned.

Maybe she knows we don't know the code.  Maybe she's noticed we don't have tails.  Apparently our noses are not the only parts that are not up to snuff.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seriously Eating

I have a new secret passion - Serious Eats.  Seriously, check it out.  Sign up for their daily emails.  Their great recipes always come with thought-provoking history, details of trials and errors, and some zippy discussion.  I'm passionately addicted. 

Don't you hate it when someone swears the recipe they're sharing with you is the best recipe ever, and when you make it, it tastes like the bottom of a dirty pan?  What a waste of time, and how can you ever trust that person again?  About anything?  No worries here.

Their treatise on chicken stock - pure gold.   Love the way they get down in the weeds with the sizes of the aromatics (read the recipe, I'm not  your dictionary) the toast of the chicken, and which tasty parts (and unsavory parts - I am so not using the feet!) make the most deliciousness.  
Having had some epic fails in the chicken stock department (too much celery, not enough chicken flavor, tasted like muddy boots) I am soooooooo happy they spent weeks - and millions - demystifying all the conflicting advice.  

This is from their discussion of the very best ever slow cooked tomato sauce for pasta.  
I can't wait to make it, and I completely agree about cooking with olive oil.  Plus, if you have read the book 'The Big Fat Surprise', you will know that vegetable oils are poison (olives are a fruit.  Pickypants.)  

So here's what they have to say about cooking with olive oil: "Some folks will tell you that you should never cook with extra-virgin olive oil, as it ruins its flavor. Poppycock!

"Yes it's true that some of its flavors will break down. But then again, a neutral oil like canola or vegetable has pretty much zero flavor to begin with. You do the math. Or let me just do it for you: A Lot - Some > None. Sauces made with good olive oil will have noticeably better flavor than those made with neutral oil (of course it doesn't hurt to drizzle some fresh olive oil in at the end as well).

"Texture-wise, fat adds a rich, mouth-coating feel to a sauce, both when it's broken out of the sauce on its own, and when it is emulsified with the sauce's liquid phase, making the whole thing creamier.

"Olive oil on its own does a decent job of this. But here's a trick:

"Add a bit of butter in there as well. Butterfat emulsifies much more easily with liquids, and it adds a creamy, fresh flavor to the mix."

See what I mean about the zippy discussion?  And about getting down in the weeds?  As soon as I'm able to stand I am so making this.  Come for dinner.  Bring your appetite.