Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Squirrel's Paradise

Nuts beyond number fall each autumn in Middle Tennessee. This photo is of the acorn of the Burr Oak, which lives here along the Harpeth River in the bottom lands. But we also have walnuts, pig nut hickories and mockernuts. When the bird songs grow distant and plaintive in October, acorns land among the fallen, dry leaves with a new sound of the season. And the squirrels pursue them, and the woods crackle and rustle with the sound of industry. By spring the hulls of the mockernut will litter the park foot trails. These nuts feed turkeys and deer and blue jays as well as the squirrels.

Sadly, the one nut tree that would have me out foraging ,does not grow this far east in Tennessee. I have seen the pecan tree in the woods around Reelfoot Lake, but never here. Why not? That is a mystery, along with the absence of the bald cypress, which graces low places along the Tennessee River- not that far to the west of Nashville. Oh, the vagaries of Nature-

Monday, September 26, 2011

Borscht, with an Italian Twist.

We are approaching the season when our vegetables are dug out of the ground and not picked off a bush or a vine. So what to do with one fennel bulb, a Spanish onion, a yellow onion, and three medium beets?

Make soup. I invented this recipe this afternoon, and the results were sublime- a marriage, if you will, between Russia and Italy. It tastes like a cream soup, but there is no cream, sour or sweet. It uses just 1/3 of a stick of butter. The rest is merely chicken broth,herbs, sauteed onions, and roasted fennel and beets pureed in my food processor.

Here is what you need:

1 large yellow onion

1 large Spanish red onion.

3 medium beets, peeled and diced.

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into chunks.

24 oz chicken stock or broth.

A pinch or two of Italian seasoning.

1 1/2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar.

Olive oil

Sea salt or kosher salt to taste.

1/3 stick of butter.

Dice your onions and saute them in a large skillet in 3 tbs of olive oil and the melted butter. Add the vinegar and cook on medium until the onions are soft and sweet. Be sure to sprinkle them with sea salt to taste. Put the diced beets in a bowl and toss them with some more olive oil and a little sea salt. Then put them in a foil lined baking dish, and wrap them into a packet. The foil will keep them moist. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, at 350 degrees, then set them aside. As you are roasting the beets, roast the fennel, tossed with oil and salt and a pinch or two of Italian seasoning. (Wrap the fennel in a foil packet as well) It should be done in 30 minutes.

Puree the beets, the onions, and the fennel in a food processor or a blender. Add salt if needed. Then put the puree in a saucepan with 23 oz of chicken broth and re-heat. Adjust seasoning, if needed.

Traditional borscht has sour cream added. But I think this soup is creamy enough as it is. It would go well with crusty bread and cheese.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mario and the Measuring Spoons

My measuring spoons are vintage, and I use them so little that they will last forever. They spend their time in comfortable retirement in the knife drawer, except for the winter hours when I use them for making muffins and bread. Woe be to the he or she who tries to bake without precision. Without a measuring spoon-

My mother taught me to bake cookies. But as for general cookery, I am an autodidact. I taught myself- though not without help. I read cookbooks. I read " Gourmet" magazine. I watched Sarah Moulton and Nigella Lawson and Julia Child. And most of all, I watched Mario Batali.

And I cannot remember ever seeing him pick up a measuring spoon. A dash here and there of herbs. A pinch of salt. He had confidence between his fingers, which were his spoons. And I read somewhere about skilled Mexican cooks who call this confidence "weighing with the eye". This is the way I have learned to cook. Remembering that little good is not always lot better, I add my herbs and spices and salt in increments. And unless I am working with raw eggs or raw meat, I taste, taste, taste. One can always add more, but too much means more potluck for the Porch Possums.

Fear and bittiness have no place in my kitchen. I know mistakes will happen, but they will be fewer as time goes on. And although my kitchen is small, it is well used. Many ,luckier than I, have high- end refrigerators and ranges, priceless copper pans, the latest in food processors. But many of them are strangers to their own kitchens. They are afraid to let go. To make a mess and to use every pan in the house. They need to free themselves from their measuring spoons and learn to cook like an Italian grandmother.

Unless, of course, they are scratch baking. Unless you want your corn muffins to have the taste and consistency of a hockey puck, you had better pull out those spoons.

In the photo, the measuring spoons are obvious. The other two tools are not. I use them as spiders, to corral floating fried things and get them onto the plate. The longer utensil is a mystery, though. It has little claws that open up at the opposite end. I cannot even speculate-

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Porch Diner

The only time I am welcome on my porch is when I put out food for my camp followers. Should I decide to sit down, I am assailed by disgusted chirps from a nearby tree. Or I find myself eye to eye with a hummingbird six inches from my face.

My breakfast and lunch crowd is mostly avian, with a few chipmunks here and there. Titmice, chickadees,house sparrows, cardinals- nothing exotic. Neighborhood birds that stay put throughout the year. White-throated sparrows from the north country visit in winter. Pugnacious little ruby-throated hummingbirds are here in the warm seasons, though they came to my feeder late this summer. I had put out a fancy feeder they refused to visit. When I brought back the red plastic one they returned.

Bad manners are rampant with my day crowd. They are messy eaters. They toss seeds they do not want onto my outdoor rug, and the titmice leave heaps of sunflower seed hulls for me to sweep up. I wish they would take a lesson from the chipmunks, who stuff their cheeks with peanuts then dash off. Some birds do try to help me clean up- the towhees, carolina wrens, and mourning doves peck at the debris kicked off the feeder.

The chipmunks do not appear everyday, for there is a gray-striped cat making rounds. Perhaps the cat is the reason for the tail-lessness of several of my clientele. There is one chipmunk who lost his somewhere, and a carolina wren who barely escaped someone's jaws.

My most popular daytime entree is the peanut. Blue jays will not come for anything else. I wish I could put out a bag a day, but peanuts are expensive, and I ration them. I have tried putting out stale bread, but my birds ignore it. They leave it for the after dark crowd who arrive earlier and earlier as fall comes.

The supper club is purely four-legged. A baby raccoon, a baby possum, two adult possums, three older raccoons.( Fortunately the skunks have stayed away.) One of the big possums has a head that is as large as the rest of his body. I call him "Roman Nose". The raccoons I call the "Brothers", because of their squabbling. One of the brothers, not willing to share, parks himself on top of the dogfood I put out in a pyrex dish. He shovels the food out from under him, and snaps at his siblings. I am happy that all these coons can fit through the porch railings. A fat one came earlier this summer, and smashed several planters when he came in over the top. He also drank all the syrup out of my hummingbird feeder ,and tore up my coralita vine. I have not seen him lately.

They may fight amongst themselves, but the coons are gracious towards the possums. I have seen them eating side by side on many occasions. The possum will sometimes bare its teeth, but this seems mostly for show.

None of them blink when the Shih Tzu yaps at them and scratches at the door. They do scatter if the beagle howls, but he rarely does, since they are not rabbits. And they leave as I open the door to put out more food. Some do not go far. I hear them rustling under the holly hedge. They want to have the first bite. I might have put out a bowl of leftovers. Or lamb chop bones. Or an over ripe nectarine. When a possum finds fruit he runs off the porch with it.

Thousands of years ago a woman threw a bone to a wolf. The wolf took the bone and became a dog and we became his slave. All because we like to feed wild animals, Humans even feed alligators, a practice dangerous to both parties-

I love to watch the birds. I love watching the baby possum try to get his mouth around a peach. I love to see Popette sitting at the door waiting for our first night visitor. I love seeing how many peanuts a chipmunk can stuff inside his cheeks.

At least until a skunk comes. Then my diner will only serve birds.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Postscript to Vengeful Wednesday

Perhaps some of us today are pondering crime and justice and retribution. I heard much "water cooler" philosophizing about these subjects last night. And I would like to tell a brief story.

Sometime in the middle of the last century there was a poor black woman whose husband decided to beat her. She did not want to be beaten. She picked up a pan of hot oil and threw it on him. That stopped him. The complications from his burns killed him. And this woman,who was the wrong color, who had the wrong lawyer, who had no money, went to prison for decades. Toward the end of her life the prison powers- that- be tried to send her home because she was now sick and harmless. There was no home. And so she lived on in a cell in the prison infirmary. She had a stroke, and lived in her bed. Her kidneys failed, and three times a week the nursing techs lifted her into a wheelchair and sent her out to the sally port to go to dialysis. Kevlar clad officers shackled her feet and hands. She would come back late in the afternoon, and her one desire was a Vanilla Wafer. She had bags of them and of peppermint candies in her cell. They were the great pleasure of her existence, along with cartons of watered down juice. She wheedled cookies from everyone she saw. She had to beg, for she could not walk over to her nightstand to get them for herself. She ate her wafers and watched her small regulation prison TV with its transparent plastic casing and its innards naked for all to see. This was her life, which ended a few months back.

No one will remember her. That is the story.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mike Whitney's Must Read Article at

I suppose I should admit that I am not a linker. I cannot master it. But if you came here, you can type, and is not outside your reach.

Economics is the "dismal science" to me. It makes my head nod. It makes my eyes cross. I had no idea what was causing the financial meltdown in the European Union. Nor did I think I would be able to understand it.

Until I read Mike Whitney' "A Short Fable of The Eurozone" at I read it. I understood it. Succinct and pithy, it uses a simple story to explain what is happening in the 17 countries of the European Union. And what happens across the Atlantic is going to affect us all. I recommend it

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I found this blooming along the Harpeth River Greenway this morning. Had I a garden, I would plan to come back in a month to get the seed heads to plant. But I must be content just to see it here.

I am not certain which aster this is. I know what it is not, but there are thirty six species of asters in this state, and from what I have read it seems they are promiscuous plants- ready at the slightest wind to send their pollen over the fence to cross-breed. This plant looks like the New England Aster, but the ones I remember seeing in New Hampshire were taller. Whatever it is I am certain it would make a good garden plant. If it lives in Tennessee it is hardy and drought tolerant and tough. And it has the virtue of lateness. When it fades out of bloom it will not linger through the summer looking worse for wear the way peonies and irises do.

Autumn Scenes and Wildflowers on the Day before the Equinox

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Last Saturday of Summer

Had I waited another three minutes to take this photo this field would be full of teenagers, for there was a cross country meet at Percy Warner Park yesterday. The park was anything but peaceful. But I did find two of our fall wildflowers while dodging the hordes-

This is the White Snakeroot, which blooms in our autumn woods, It is a relatve of the Blue Boneset. And below is the Virginia Knotweed. A pedestrian name for an airy and elegant plant of the wood edges.

And the recent big rains have conjured up mushrooms overnight. Whether these are edible or homicidal, I do not know, but I have to assume the latter.

Click on these photos to enlarge.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spoon-Tender Lamb in Pomegranate sauce, with Garlic, Dates,Golden Raisins, Carrots, and Dried Apricots

I have wanted to cook slow-braised or "Seven Hour Lamb" since I read Melissa Clark's recipe in the New York Times. But leg of lamb is expensive, and I have had trouble finding the three pound cuts I used to see. Publix had only five to six pounders this week, all for over $40. I stopped at the Belle Meade Kroger, hoping for something smaller. More big legs, but wonder of wonders, all wore the "Manager's Special" label and were marked down to $26. I bought two, since lamb is my beef. As a friend of mine would say- I will be "eating on it" for a year.

I cooked one leg right away, but only after hacking and prying and sawing it in two, for I had no Dutch oven large enough to braise six pounds of meat. One half I slow braised, the other half I cut into chunks and soaked in red wine for twenty-four hours before using it in stew. My second six pound leg is packed into my increasingly full and dangerous freezer. A pork loin hurtled out at me last week during a frozen food avalanche and almost broke my foot. Every time I open the freezer door I have to retreat.

The recipes I had looked at all called for wine. But I decided to use a 15 oz can of chicken broth mixed with two tablespoons of pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate juice would have been too sweet. And instead of using potatoes, I kept the carrot and added a handful of dried apricots cut in half, half a dozen chopped dried dates, and half a cup of golden raisins. I also added a medium yellow onion, sauteed to golden and sweet.

I dried the lamb leg half, then seared it on all sides in olive oil in a big skillet. I seasoned it with sea salt and a dusting of cumin. Then I put it in a dutch oven. I surrounded it with the vegetables and fruit, added a tad more salt, then poured in the broth. I added a tablespoon of honey and five peeled whole cloves of garlic. I put the cover on the dutch oven and put it in the oven at 300 degrees. I knew 7 hours would be too long . Clark's recipe had warned me. My lamb was done at two and a half hours.

And yes, I checked it frequently. And yes, it was tender enough to cut through with a spoon. I paired it with couscous . And I used some of the braising liquid from the dutch oven to cook the couscous in- .

A delicious dish, though perhaps too exotic for the young or the provincial.It should feed four.

Here are the ingredients:

2-2 1/2 lb lamb leg

15 oz chicken broth

1 medium yellow onion, dice and sauteed in olive oil

5 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 large carrot, peeled and diced.

6 dates, chopped.

8-12 dried apricots, cut in half.

2 tbs Pomegranate molasses.

1 tablespoon of honey.

1 teaspoon cumin- half sprinkled on lamb, half added to braising liquid.

1/2 cup golden raisins (Sultanas)

Olive oil for searing lamb and cooking the onion.

Sea salt to taste. Add a dash to onions when you are sauteeing them. Add to taste in braising liquid.

One last word- should you have a dutch oven large enough to fit a six pound leg- double the ingredients. But I would urge that you not abandon it for seven hours in the oven. Four hours should be enough.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Cookbook from Another World

When I opened Silvena Rowe's "Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume", I felt as though I had stumbled into strangeness. Had I found a guide to the Bed and Breakfast Inns along the canals of Mars, I would not have been more startled. Picture after picture, recipe after recipe- mysterious, yet at the same time familiar. Here was the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean and here were the foods of the Bible and antiquity. Pomegranate seeds.Figs. Phyllo. Pistachios. We all know these-

But the herbs and spices? Sumac. Black Nigella seeds. Za'atar and Aleppo Pepper? I had never heard of them. Nor had I encountered Kataifi, a shredded dough. And what could I use as substitutions, since I doubted I could find sumac in Nashville. Had I spent over thirty dollars for a beautiful, but useless cookbook?

I suppose I could have ordered Nigella seeds online, but I have become leery of this, since I had my credit card number hijacked earlier this summer. I decided to look around at K&S World Market in the Middle East aisle. I looked over the spice jars, and found the Aleppo pepper and the Nigella seeds. But there were no bottles of sumac. It was only on my next visit that I decided to look outside the jar. And found a one pound bag of sumac.The wonders kept on. I found a bag of Za"atar, an herb mixture,at the Belle Meade Publix. And on Monday, back at K&S, a box of Kataifi, in the freezer section. A woman in line ahead of me gasped when she saw my box of dough."Oh, my God, where did you find that? "

I think we had both underestimated Nashville and its immigrant community. Thousands of Kurds live here . They were not going to give up the taste of their far away homeland for barbecue and fried green tomatoes. Nashville is a world city now, and Silvena Rowe's recipes are not impossible here. I will be making her Basil and Kadaifi Wrapped Shrimp this weekend. And I am going to roast tomatoes today and flavor them with Za"atar and sea-salt.

And below are two photos of treasures from K&S.

Our Wild Hydrangea

Anyone who has grown the cultivated Hydrangeas knows how thirsty they are. Dry spells do not improve them. Yet here in Tennessee we can find Hydrangea arborescens clinging to dry limestone ledges and enduring this state's summer droughts. Our other native hydrangea is the more garden worthy Oak Leaf Hydrangea. I have seen it in gardens all over the state, but never have I seen it in the wild. I grew the double-flowered cultivar "Snowflake" in my old garden, and I gave it to my neighbor when I moved.

Click on these photos for a better view.

Monday, September 12, 2011

American Cucina Povera

Nurses keep strange hours. I was up early this morning and at Kroger at 4am.
I needed trash bags and laundry soap. And a package of 100 watt bulbs. I took the scenic route through the produce aisles and saw that one red bell pepper would set me back $2.50.

Yet, there was something edible I could buy for 19 cents. Hundreds of packages of Ramen noodles bundled into a bin in the center of the aisle. With the Wednesday senior discount, the aged poor could shave off another two cents. If they gave up coffee and vegetables and meat they could eat three squares at under 70 cents a day. Governor Rick Perry's Social Security diet. I have mentioned in the past that poor single mothers I work with pour pickle juice on the noodles to get their kids to eat them.

We are the new Techno-peasants, and White Castle burgers, ramen noodles, and 50 cent cups of macaroni and cheese are our cucina povera, though the only cooking involved is turning on the microwave. Unless NES has turned off our electricity.

If we had any sense we would buy rice and dried beans and polenta and tortillas and eat as well as the have nots in third world countries. But we do not.

As a postscript, I will mention that I bought 4 red bell peppers today for $2.50 at K&S World Market, whose clientele are the immigrants who came here with hope. They know what to do with squash and tortillas and some queso. Maybe we should learn from them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer Vegetable Custard

I had planned to cook all last weekend, but shifts came open at my second job, and I had to opt for the money. This left eggplants, banana and bell peppers, and three kinds of squash marooned in my refrigerator. I had to do something with them Tuesday before they underwent the Big Shrivel. I planned to cook them up separately. I would freeze them for later.

I put two 7 inch regular eggplants in a baking dish and roasted them at 375 for an hour. This gave me 1 1/2 cups of pulp. I ground up 3 five inch zucchini and 2 small yellow squash in my food processor. Then in went 3 sweet banana peppers and 1 large red pepper, all ground to just this side of a puree. I thought I would saute them. And then I realized that I had the makings of a Ratatouille custard. I sauteed a medium yellow onion in olive oil, and sweated it with sea salt. When it was golden it joined the other vegetables in a big mixing bowl. And then I added 1 cup of diced fire roasted canned tomatoes. I put in some more sea salt to taste and a dash or two of Italian seasoning. And 4 minced cloves of garlic. I grated up a cup of Romano cheese and added it. This was the last chance to taste and adjust before I beat in 6 eggs. I put the custard into a 9 inch ungreased Pyrex baking dish. I baked it at 375 for a little over an hour, but keep your eye on this. As soon as the center is set and a test fork comes out clean, this custard is done.

I took this dish in to work to repay a couple I worked with who had taken me out to dinner. They are adventurous eaters, and I knew they would love it. They did. But a young, new nurse was not so sure. She hated eggplant, she said. But she decided to try the custard.

"This is great" was her verdict, "This is off the chain. I can''t even taste the eggplant".

Well of course she could. She had no experience in tasting eggplant used well.

This was a fine dish. A quiche without a crust A custard, if you prefer. We ate it up to the last molecule.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Autumn's Lonely Star.

It is overcast this evening, but if the clouds break I may go outside to where the apartment lights dim to see if I can see Fomalhaut the Lonely, one of the astrology's four royal stars. It rises alone, and sets alone, and I start looking for it in late August, knowing it is the harbinger of fall and more temperate weather.

Once people walked outside at night and looked up. Now they stay indoors and look down. The sky of stars is a land lost to us. Once it was the home of great serpents, of heroes and their hunting dogs, of pole-stars that guided us.It was the great ever- changing river of seasons and time. But now it is the darkness we endure passing from lighted place to lighted place.

Had I a grandchild, I would take her outside to see Orion, and the Twins. I would buy her "The Friendly Stars" by Martha Evans Martin and Donald Howard Menzel, if I could find it. My copy came to Nashville with me when I moved here 30 years ago. I have owned it since I was sixteen. Dover Books published it.

Happy the child who turns over stones to look for salamanders. Who wants to know the name of each wildflower. And I hope he is out there some clear autumn night standing behind his new telescope, looking for Fomalhaut.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Cooper's Hawk at the Bird Feeder.

My upstairs to- the- right neighbor at these apartments has a plastic cylindrical bird feeder outside his window on a tree branch. He refills it by pulling it inside with a hooked pole. He is protective of the house finches and titmice that come, and I heard him one morning giving the maintenance man an earful about a cat that hid in the foundation shrubs under his feeder. Cats come and go here. We had a feral colony about a year ago, but they have all disappeared. But now my neighbor's feeder has a new threat.

Put up a feeder and the sharp-eyed Cooper's Hawks will find it. They eat songbirds, and they explode out of nowhere. I had one almost hit me once as I was going out to my old vegetable garden. Hell-bent is a good word to describe them, and I have read that some die through recklessness. I have seen one in the trees around here in the early mornings, and this morning as I came home from work, one flew out of my neighbor's feeder tree. He did not go far, but landed on the iron stairway rail on the landing of my apartment. He carried nothing in his claws, nor was he likely to in the near future. He saw me, and then the bluejays saw him. His cover was blown.

I doubt he would fly under my porch to my feeder for a meal, but that does not make my porch safer. Big, leafy trees abound. And there will be other mornings and more mourning doves, and a careless towhee or two. We read about animals and birds that resent the closeness of humans and avoid us. But there are many who thrive as camp-followers. Raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes, and Cooper's Hawks.