Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Between Books, and after a Re-reading of "Play It As It Lays".

My Chandler summer has come to an end. I am between books, having just finished "Farewell, My Lovely" and a re-reading of Joan Didion's 1970 novel "Play It As It Lays".I had not read the Didion for more than 20 years, and I wondered what time had done to it-

After reading it again, I think time has improved it. It is a wisp of a book that can be read in an evening. It is spare and ironic and pitiless as it tells the story of a minor Hollywood actress, already too old at thirty-one, whose only currency in the film world is her marriage to a working director. Maria Wyeth, the actress, is passive. Painful things happen to her because she is too listless to get out of their way. When she gets pregnant, and not by her husband, it is her husband who arranges the abortion. After a meaningless one night stand with an actor, Maria steals the actor's pricey car and drives away in it. Her husband cleans this up too, for her failures are beginning to threaten him.

For the real story of Hollywood is failure, not success. Here is Maria, worrying about meeting her agent-

"Only people in trouble came unannounced to see their agents.If Freddy Chaikin thought she carried trouble with her he would avoid her, because trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Failure, illness, fear, they were seen as infectious, contagious blights on glossy plants. It seemed to Maria that even the receptionist was avoiding her eyes,fearing contamination".

Of course Maria's husband once more intervenes. He calls his friends asking them to give her roles. But there is only so much he can do for someone who is no longer a fresh, new face. At a meeting about a possible role, Maria finds she is not being considered for the lead. She would be playing the lead's teacher.

This novel is forty years old. No one in it has a cellphone or a computer, but this does not make it less modern. Women still grow old too early and most of us are doomed to be minor. Remember what Robert Frost wrote in his poem "Provide, Provide"-

"No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard".

A Walk along the Greenway, Looking for Signs of Autumn..

This is "Virgin's Bower", our fall flowering wild clematis. I saw it climbing bushes all along the Greenway. And the next photo is of Ironweed, which can grow to eight feet. It is at peak bloom now.

And here are some other scenes along the path, including the Ensworth School. Its carillon was playing "God Bless America".

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Mex-periment, and the Folly of Making Culinary Assumptions

K&S World Market labelled these strange little orange wagon wheels "Pasta Para Chicharron". I found them on a table in the produce aisle, and culinary experimenter that I am, I brought a package home.

Neither Rick Bayless or Diana Kennedy mentioned them, but this did not worry me since they did not mention Mexican vermicelli, or fideo, either, and I had cooked that pasta without a problem. And some research on the web at least told me that "chicharron" was pork skin. So there it was -pasta made of flour and pork.

What condiment would one use on pork skin pasta?

A good one, made with white onions, Mexican chorizo,poblano peppers, queso, crema, and avocado. I was proud of myself.

I threw the pasta into boiling water. I thought eight minutes would be enough. But it was still too chewy. At twelve minutes the chewiness persisted, but I drained it and dumped it in a bowl, fearing that any more boiling might cause it to self destruct. I took a cupful and tossed it with the sauce, and covered it with crumbled cheese. I took a mouthful, then told myself that this, like cactus paddles and prickly pears, must be an acquired taste. The pasta had all the charm of a tasteless gummy candy.

I planned to feed the rest of the wagon wheels to my dogs as treats and bribes. But once again, I found enlightenment on-line. I put a few inches of canola oil in a deep pan, heated it to frying hot, and tossed in the orange wheels. I watched them burst into pork skin snacks, fit for the corrida or a Titan's game. Feed these, salted,along with guacamole or cheese dip to a Super Bowl party, and your husband will have second thoughts about ever leaving you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

False Foxglove

This fine flowering plant is the Yellow False Foxglove ,Aureolaria Flava. This plant is as tall as I am, and I have seen it bloom each fall for the past few years. It is rooted on the side of a woodland ditch on the Main Drive of Percy Warner Park. It is on a hilltop facing southwest.

But this flower, lovely as it is, is of no use to the gardener looking for plants for the edges of the shade garden. This plant, like our spring Wood Betony, is a parasite. It lives on oak roots. The hillside where I saw this plant is covered with oaks, which like the dry hilltops.

Click on these photos to enlarge.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tomatoes Roasted with Garlic, Basil, and Balsamic Vinegar

Some friends treated me to dinner last Saturday at the Turkish restaurant "Anatolia", over in Lion's Head. We all had baby lamb chops, and to thank my friends I gave them this dish.

The prototype for this recipe, which I have been making for a decade, is from Patricia Well's "At Home in Provence". Wells has been a restaurant and food critic for the International Herald Tribune, and a cooking teacher.

She does not use garlic in her version. I do. I also used balsamic vinegar in place of red wine vinegar. And my friends told me they loved the sauce so much that they sopped it up with bread.

The key to making this is to sear the sliced tomatoes on both sides in a very hot pan with a small amount of sea-salted olive oil. The tomatoes will begin to blacken slightly on each side. Use a slotted spatula to transfer them to a baking dish. Deglaze the pan with a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and scrape it and the brown bits and olive oil over the tomatoes. Put some very finely diced garlic on each tomato slice, sprinkle with a little sea salt, then scatter chopped fresh basil on top. You could also sprinkle the tomatoes with some Herbs de Provence. Bake for ten minutes or so at 400 until the herbs are crisped . As the picture shows, I used only one very large Amish raised heirloom tomato. One big tomato will serve two, but one could easily double or triple this for a crowd. I will be eating this with lamb with citrus sauce and roast potatoes. Wells suggests serving it with roast chicken.

This is a summer recipe, and now is the time to make it,. There are so many wonderful tomatoes out there-

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Saddest Day of Summer

From the first of August on, when the heat begins to pall, I begin to long for signs of autumn. The ironweed begins to bud, and dry spells leave leaf litter along the roads. Darkness comes earlier and earlier. And I begin to find dead cicadas- our out-sized Tennessee summer cicadas. The one in the photo was already being eaten from the inside out by dust sized brown ants which fled all over my hand when I picked the cicada up.

These are welcome signs of fall, but there is another passage not so welcome. Two days ago, as evening came on I heard an absence. The sky above my apartment and its parking sheds was empty of swallows. They had gone. They came April 7th. At 4pm there were none. At 6pm I heard their chittering cries. I watched them return to their nests under the eaves of the parking sheds. I saw them mob the bluejay who tried to steal their eggs. They have gracefully dipped and soared their way through the sub-tropical Tennessee evenings.

It is still hot. There are millions of flying bugs still ripe for eating. Frost is two months away. I do not understand why the swallows must leave so early. But they do not live by our calendar. They join the barn swallows who leave the flaming swamp maples of New England. All must go. All over the world. In great flights to Africa and Natal and South America. Their instinct is to leave. Ours is to stay. And if we, in this provsional life, are fortunate to see another spring, we will meet them again in April.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Best Soup, and an Evening at The Big House

Sunday evening I left The Free World for 8 hours. If I wanted to eat decent food at the place I was going, I had to bring my own. I had to put it in a clear container so the officers could see I was not hiding contraband cigarettes or a cellphone. I had to send the soup through an xray scanner as well.

I was lucky the other nurse I was working with had a plastic spoon, otherwise it would have been soup drunk bottoms up from one of the six styrofoam cups in the cupboard. Conditions in the clinic are spartan. A coffeemaker with no coffee. A cupboard with no sugar, no sweetener, no salt, no pepper. A miniscule refrigerator with someone's two forgotten hardboiled eggs inside- slightly cracked and resting on a paper towel. Drop a leftover in a wastebasket here, and you will see the quick moving shadows of mice that come out after the inmates go back to their guilds for the night when we have finished Med line and diabetic line and any left over treatments.

I could have gone over to the kitchen to pick up a tray. The inmate servers are always polite. "Hello, Miss Nurse", they say. I might have been lucky. They might have had eggrolls or a piece of cake, the only two edible things they offer there, outside of breakfast. Of course they would be disappointed to see me walk in, for they would be seeing me later at medline and I was no PYT, or "pretty young thing". One night I overheard them muttering outside the clinic window. "Who's in there tonight?" I heard one ask, and someone with a view replied "Some ol white girl-".

"I heard that", I said, "I know I'm old".

"Ma'am, we didn't mean nothing by that", they all said together.

But back to this soup. That the ambience at the clinic only made taste better. And that time improves, since the fire roasted tomatoes become more garlicky and tasty the longer they swim with the beans in the broth.

This soup takes under a half hour to make. You will need:

2 15 oz cans of good chicken broth

2 15 oz cans cannelloni beans.

2 cups diced fire roasted tomatoes

3 cloves of garlic. More if you love garlic.

1 medium yellow onion,diced.

Olive oil

Sea salt to taste

Italian seasoning to taste

As always, begin with the onion. Salt it lightly, then saute the diced pieces in olive oil till they are soft and golden.

Put the beans, broth, and tomatoes in a sauce pan, then add the cooked onion. Dice the garlic cloves or send them through a garlic press and add them to the soup. Now add Italian seasoning to taste as well as more sea salt. Forget the measuring spoon. Start by adding a little seasoning, and taste and taste until you have it right.

This will be enough soup for 4 or 5 people. It can be eaten cold, and as I already said, improves after a day in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Blue Boneset-Eupatorium coelestinum

Blue Boneset is a harbinger of Autumn. It blooms in Tennessee starting in late August and on into the fall. I see it along the Harpeth River Greenway on the field edges and in other damp spots. I think that it is Middle Tennessee's loveliest wildflower. When I had my house and my garden, I had it blooming in every border. It spread by fibrous white roots and by seed, but was no where a nuisance since it was such a fine filler, and not hard to thin out. And since it bloomed so late, the plant looked fresh all summer.

An attractive native plant enhances a garden because it is well-adapted to the weather and the soil. It will be hardy. It will be persistent. And unlike the beautiful, but ephemeral woodland plants of spring, it will not fade to a bare patch. It will cover ground till the freeze. I am certain there must be native plant nurseries that sell it. Or you could pick the flower heads after they have faded and dried and seed it into your garden. Of course you must take pains to study the foliage so you do not weed the seedlings out.

Jack B. Carman, in his" Wildflowers of Tennessee" gives Blue Boneset a range from New York west to Kansas and points south-

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Scene of a Crime

This quiet spot with its hut and picnic table is just off Highway 100 on the Main Drive of Percy Warner Park. Yet once, in the 1980s, a young woman who was out sunbathing was murdered here. The son of a nurse I worked with came across her body. He was out collecting leaves for a high school science project. He ran out to the highway to flag down help. When the Metro Police came they saw a shirtless man fleeing down a road at the Steeplechase course. They cornered him, and he went to prison for shooting this young girl. It was a random crime, but as the police learned more they found that William Dugger, the murderer, had tried to kidnap another woman earlier that year, but she had fought him off. That diminuitive woman was Andrea Conte, the wife of the future governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen. At the time, Ms. Conte owned a cookware store in a mini-mall off White Bridge Road near Belle Meade. Dugger tried to drag her into his car, but Ms. Conte broke free.

I walked past this place this morning. How peaceful it was. Squads of young men from high school and prep school cross-country teams ran by oblivious to history. But I remember. I came to this city 30 years ago this week, and this was just one of the stories I have to tell.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What I brought to Work

I made this coffee cake the other night and tested it on the people I work with. I made it with ricotta cheese, fig preserves, and crushed pistachios. I glazed part of it with apricot preserves, and part with fig preserves. I garnished it with pomegranate seeds.

Everyone declared it good, though one person thought it a little "dense". I thought it a success, for a coffee cake should be both tasty and substantial. And the pomegranate seeds give it a festive, holiday look-

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pistachio Ricotta Pudding

Last winter I brought an egg-less pudding of Ricotta and crushed almonds to a carry-in (potluck) at work. Many people liked it, including Mitch, our maintenance man extraordinaire. The people who did not care for it had a built in bias against anything that did not come from McDonald's or their meemaw's kitchen. I never expect to please them. I will leave that to Miss Connie, who is a specialist in french fried onions and green bean casseroles.

Yesterday I made a variation on the original. I mixed 7 oz of ricotta with just over half a cup of pulverized pistachios. I added 2 heaping tablespoons of fig preserves for sweetness and 1 1/2 tablespoons of crumbled feta for saltiness. I had a tablespoon of greek yogurt left in a carton, and I put that in as well. I spun it into a pudding in the bowl of my mixer, then topped it with pomegranate seeds.

All these ingredients were from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. And I wondered where, and in whose cuisine, might a pudding such as this be found? What country or island might change hands over and over through the centuries, a prey to any neighbor who could put a fleet into the water?

Sicily, of course. Ricotta, figs, feta, pistachios. Fusion food.
How I would love to travel to that island one day!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Elliston Place. Where Nashville meets the Vander Bubble

Here are some random views of the Elliston Place/ West End/ Vanderbilt area. I meant for the photos to be in sequence, but Blogger has its own rogue ideas, so random is the word.

I had to go downtown for a mandatory staff meeting last night. It was short, and since the place I work is only a parking garage away from Elliston Place, and since there was still good light, I decided to walk around. Some call Elliston Place a neighborhood, but I call it unexpected. A small island of street life and shops between Vanderbilt University and the giant hospitals that perch like vultures over and around West End and Centennial Park. People walk around here. They sit at outdoor cafes. And in the evening they may order pizza or go to the Exit Inn, where an impressive number of singers once sang live when they were young and hungry. You can visit a hookah bar as long as you leave your Ak-47 in the car. You can window shop at a Republican bookstore. (I did not know one existed). Eat Indian, or Mexican, or just waddle on over to the Krispy Kreme, just across the street from St Thomas Heart and its cardiologists.If you want a guitar you can buy one. Or you can practice hot yoga. Go pray at the West End Methodist Church. All in one or two blocks. And then you can walk back to the parking garage from whence you came, and look downtown to the skyline.

One note- The photo on West End looking toward four buildings that look like either dominos or bad Eastern Bloc architecture, is of the Vanderbilt University dormitories.

Click on photos to enlarge. It will make them more entertaining.