Wednesday, April 22, 2015

spring surprises: the wild and the tame

In long dry spell, I touted my high expectations for spring 2015's showing of California poppies: "big drifts of California poppy seedlings have appeared in our cactus and succulent bed and, for the first time, in our parking strip. I have committed myself to keeping them alive until they can bloom and set seed for 2016." To meet this commitment, I have actually started watering our front garden beds for about 10 minutes, using city water from the hose when no saved rain water or 'gray' water is available, in any week when there has been no rain. That is, most weeks, but only ONCE a week!

On April 11, I returned from Idaho to find NO poppy seedlings in the parking strip and NO buds on any of the old or new poppy plants in our cactus and succulent bed. It was obvious that Steve had kept up the new watering regimen, for volunteer sweet peas were sprawling seductively over the phased-out freesias in our bulb bed and the struggling sweet alyssums in the parking strip.

I was not alone in my disappointment over the 2015 poppy season, but I did not know it until last weekend, which is when Antelope Valley's wildflowers are supposed to be at their peak of bloom and when the annual California Poppy Festival takes place. On March 17, a local television station had reported that acres of poppy blooms had been destroyed by a "record-breaking late winter heat wave."

Fortunately, California poppies develop a strong perennial taproot which enables them to survive an annual spring trampling by tourists, followed by a long hot summer when they typically go dormant unless they happen to grow close to the coast as ours do. I hope that at least some of my 2015 seedlings have made taproots and that 2016 will be a better year for poppies.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my best-ever showing of volunteer sweet peas. I have not planted a sweet pea seed since 2011 but they continue to come up because I pick very few of the flowers and then use the spent vines (along with their mature seeds) as mulch. One might fear that sweet peas would be trampled in the parking strip, where people walk to and from their cars every day. No doubt a few have succumbed, but when they start blooming everyone (dogs and toddlers included) gives them a wide-enough berth, even if they're hanging out over the sidewalk to bask in late afternoon sun.

If you're interested in the history of my efforts to grow sweet peas, see you, gregor mendel (2013), paltry in pink (2012),  a plethora of purple (2011), and perennial sweet pea (2010). In the oldest of these postings, I expressed the utterly misguided opinion that: "The frilly, fluttery annual sweet pea is a prima donna with a short, spectacular life. I expect her perennial cousin to be a somewhat frumpy but more dependable companion." So where have all the perennial sweet peas gone? Back to the east coast where they grow wild, I guess.

What flower seems tamer than a sweet pea? And yet it is going wild for me while the quintessential wildflower resists my attempts to tame it.
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P.S. (added April 23): I was so excited about sweet peas sprawling along the ground and encroaching on the sidewalk that I failed to notice one that had climbed up through the lower stems of a five-foot jade plant:

In the photo, the sweet pea blossom looks white against dark green leaves and crispy brown flowers (another heat-wave casualty). It's actually a very pale pink. I'll deadhead the jade plant and everything will look better.

Monday, April 13, 2015

better mousetrap?

In spite of regular visits from a comprehensive pest-control service and a cleaner devoted to rodent control, we often find evidence of mice in our pre-WWI Idaho farmhouse. In addition to the professional interventions, Steve has stuffed openings with steel wool and spray foam. But with an unmaintained  five-acre field (former pasture) just south of the house, we should not be surprised by an occasional mouse, especially in the kitchen.

During my most recent stay in Idaho last week, I spotted a half-full bottle of canola oil sitting in a kitchen cabinet. I noticed that the bottle had no lid. Thinking that the oil must be rancid, I was grateful that I hadn't used it in the home-made banana-nut muffins I'd served at a get-together for in-laws and cousins. Then I sniffed it, and it didn't smell quite right. Finally looking down into the bottle, I saw two small mice snuggled into the bottom. (Maybe there were three, but who's counting?) 

Over the years, I've come upon dead mice in various stages of decomposition, but usually they have been dry and crispy. These were plump and artificially healthy-looking, rather like a friend who was on steroids to counteract the ravages of chemotherapy.

If I'd had a lid for the canola oil bottle, I'd have screwed it on before trashing the bottle and its grisly contents. Instead I improvised a lid with aluminum foil, tied the whole thing inside a small plastic bag and carried all the contents of our tall kitchen waste basket to the outdoor bin that would be picked up the following Monday morning.

In retrospect, or while experiencing "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" ala Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, I was able to put two and two together. If mice liked canola oil so much that they would crawl into a small opening and drown in it (finding it "to die for" as people say), why could I not use an open container of canola oil as a mousetrap?

So it was that I set  a bistro glass half full of canola oil on our sink counter when I left the farm last Saturday. An attached note asks anyone who finds dead mice in it to empty and replenish the glass from the large bottle at hand. A stainless steel mixing bowl with about 2" of canola oil in it is sitting outside in a spot where our pest-control specialist has trapped a number of mice. Finally, I placed a small, half-full canola oil bottle between a heavily infested shed and the spot where we park our car.

If this is, in fact, 'a better mousetrap,' I welcome the hoards at my door.

Friday, April 10, 2015

bread pudding: an edible time machine

A couple of days ago I made some bread pudding. Here's a photo of it, as 'staged' for use in a workshop on re-purposing later this month:

For purposes of the re-purposing workshop, the idea here is that the stale bread on the left may be re-purposed into the bread pudding on the right via the recipe on the card. The knife has also been re-purposed. Steve's brother Al made and attached the hand-carved wooden handle after their mother partially melted the original plastic handle. I love this knife and use it often in our old Idaho kitchen. It fits my hand perfectly and feels much better than a plastic knife handle.

Now I have to admit that the photo is a bit deceptive. There's no bread in the 'bread pudding' on the right. The carb component consists entirely of banana-nut muffins I had made the previous week. They contained enough sugar and butter that I was able to cut back on those ingredients.

Whenever I make bread pudding, I think of my Grandma Talbott. As I learned years later, what she made was actually 'bread-and-butter pudding,' where the bread is not cubed but thickly buttered, and each slice cut into quarters before being placed in a pyrex baking dish and covered with custard ingredients (milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla) before going into the oven. Grandma performed some special twist of the wrist when she put the buttered bread into the dish, and every time I make bread pudding I visualize this ritualistic movement.

Grandma Talbott assembled her bread-and-butter pudding on an enameled kitchen table, where she also rolled out pastry and noodles. In retropect, I think Grandpa Talbott must have shortened the table's legs for her. She was 4'11" tall, and he (a six-footer) adapted many things to her size. These things included her car, where a carpeted wooden box, made to fit the space exactly, enabled her to reach the pedals.

These reminiscences of the 1940s are the first to come to mind when I make bread pudding, but they're not the only ones. During the 1990s I sang in a choir which offered a lavish dessert reception  after their annual Christmas concert. My contribution was usually a persimmon bread made with fruit from a neighbor's tree. Steve would slice the bread very thin and arrange it on a platter in beautiful concentric circles. One particular year, probably 1995, the bread began to curl as soon as it was sliced. By the time we reached the concert site it was absolutely inedible -- dry as a bone and hard as a rock. Retracing my steps, I realized that I had not put in any fat. I'm not sure why I didn't just throw the bread away, but later I was glad I didn't.

The day after the concert, I attended a committee meeting where I told some friends about my persimmon bread disaster. "Make bread pudding!" said Marilyn. She went on to tell about a recent visit to New Orleans where she and her husband had attended a cooking demo by renowned chef Emeril Lagasse. He told his audience that any baked goods (cookies, cake, biscuits, etc.) could be used in bread pudding along with fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, or whatever one had on hand. New Orleans being New Orleans, Emeril probably topped the pudding with a bourbon sauce.

That night I made bread pudding with my failed persimmon bread and it was wonderful. There was enough fat in the recipe to rejuvenate the dry persimmon bread, and there was enough spice in the persimmon bread to flavor the bread pudding nicely. Chopped nuts enhanced the texture. I shared the bread pudding at a holiday potluck the next day and received rave reviews. Re-purposing, indeed!

I have to say something about the word pudding here. Americans generally expect pudding to be a viscous dessert, always served cold in a small bowl, and usually made with a Jello or Royal pudding mix (instant or regular). Bread pudding is pudding in the British sense of the word, which, in the U.K., is a synonym for dessert.

So I've been enjoying re-purposed banana-nut bread pudding for breakfast, and thinking about the theme of my blog. It occurs to me now that the theme I've been belaboring in my recent series of posts on Chayote Chaos does not have to be my only theme. A wide range of topics can and should express a wide range of themes. I'm thinking about how things happening in the present so often evoke the past and how, when this happens, my blog becomes an evolving memoir with a focal point that shifts from present to past and back again.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License