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The bugs of autumn. September 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. Like the bird population here at our friend Ben’s and my cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, the insect population seems to be changing by the day. First the lightning bugs (aka fireflies) blinked out. Then the monarchs passed over on their long migration and bid our meadows adieu, or at least, au revoir until next spring. Then the stink bugs arrived.

AAAAAHHHHHH!!!! Stink bugs!!!!!!!!!!!!! But I digress.

Today, I was staring out at our back deck when I saw something a bit unusual. A bright green leaf seemed to have landed on top of a purple leaf on one of our cannas. It would be odd for a green leaf to have fallen rather than a gold or brown one, but what made this leaf really unusual was the fact that it seemed to be held up on threadlike legs. Hmmmm.

Opening the sliding deck door and stepping out, I dodged the thirteen stink bugs clinging on and around the door. (Yes, I counted them, and don’t think I didn’t feel like I deserved a Medal of Honor for stepping into the line of fire.) I dislodged our four-month-old outdoor kitten, Marley, from his nest in the middle of my rare and wonderful yellow-variegated Boston fern. (Grrrrr.) And then I cautiously approached the canna.

Sure enough, the bright green leaf turned out to be a katydid, only it was the thinnest, scrawniest, most demoralized-looking katydid I ever saw. Usually they’re plump and slightly tentlike, but this one was shaped like a long, thin lozenge, and was somewhat tarnished, to boot. I felt bad for it, but also hoped it wasn’t some kind of portent of a terrible winter to come. We already have enough to think about worrying about the winter’s fuel bills, without having to wonder if we’ll be buried under 16 feet of snow. Brrrr!!!

Since I was outside, I thought I’d take a couple of jars and bottles to our recycling bin. Rounding the side of the house, I saw an amazing slug on one of the slate flagstones. It was an almost fluorescent gold-orange. Now, I’ve heard of the famous banana slugs of the Northwest Coast, but I’d never before seen a slug in the yellow-gold-orange range around here. What was it? Was it, too, an autumn migrant? In just a month or so, it would have been perfectly disguised among the brilliantly colored autumn leaves strewing the path. I hope it makes it ’til then.

Returning to the deck, I once again evicted the incorrigible Marley from my prize fern. Now I just have to get up enough nerve to run the stink-bug gauntlet and try to get back inside…

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Going bananas. September 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. At Hawk’s Haven, we tend to think of bananas as a cold-weather fruit. During warm weather, we bypass bananas in favor of melons, berries, peaches, plums, cherries, and all the other joys of spring and summer. Then as summer turns to fall, our attention turns to grapes, pears, and early apples. Finally, when cold weather settles in around us, we once again look to bananas, oranges, grapefruit, and apples to carry us forward to another spring.

It’s been quite autumnal around here lately—nights in the 40s, trees and shrubs coloring up, field corn bleaching and screeching, fields of soybeans turning a rich, burnished gold. Our gardens are slowing to a crawl, except for the hot peppers, which are thriving, our volunteer ‘Butternut’ squash, still furiously producing squashes as though it were a zucchini, and, speaking of the devil, a golden zuke that’s somehow gotten a second wind. Not to mention a lush fall crop of arugula, our favorite green.

As you may have read in yesterday’s post, “One too many?”, I’ve been slowly gathering up Harvest Home decorations from our local farmers’ market to add to Hawk’s Haven’s annual harvest display, including pumpkins, mums, and colorful popcorn. Our friend Ben and I have been putting out more birdfeeders and getting more serious about keeping them all filled. Our goldfinches have lost their gold, our hummingbirds have left for parts unknown, and the chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, bluejays, and other winter visitors have begun to take up residence.

All of which is to clue you in as to why I literally went bananas last Friday at our farmers’ market. Our friend Ben and I miss bananas during the many months when we don’t buy them. We constantly discuss buying dwarf banana trees for the greenhouse so we can raise organic bananas ourselves. We love bananas.

So this past Friday, I was buying three festive clusters of colorful popcorn, two with rich garnet-red kernels and one with the most luminous orange-gold kernels, enlivened by the occasional ruby or amethyst kernel. Our friend Ben was standing by, grumbling (“I thought we were just going to buy one new addition to our harvest display each week.” “Corn is one thing.” “… !!!” ). I’d hauled my gleaming treasures over to the table where people were paying for their purchases, when my eye fell on a large rectangular cardboard box of bananas.

I’d never seen bananas displayed like this before. They were lying individually in neat rows, each banana perfectly shaped and perfectly gold. They were beautiful. But what really struck me was the sign on top of the box: “Bananas $3.50.” “Uh, do you mean this whole box is $3.50?!” I asked the woman behind the table. “Yes, it is.” OMG. Visions of banana bread, banana cream pie, and banana pudding flooded my susceptible brain. Bananas on our Shredded Wheat’n’Bran! Bananas on peanut butter sandwiches! Bananas on sundaes! Bananas in Indian food! “I’ll take them,” I said, trying to ignore poor Ben, whose eyes were starting out of his head. (Fortunately, he was so stupefied that he was, for once, speechless.) 

Ten minutes later, a highly indignant OFB heaved the banana box onto our kitchen counter. “Good grief, Silence! How much banana bread do you think you can make?!” We don’t have a freezer, so freezing batches of banana bread—or even pureeing and freezing the bananas themselves for later use—is out of the question. But I wasn’t about to let a little trifle like that stop me. “But, Ben, I was planning to make banana-bread loaves for all our neighbors,” I said airily. “And of course I have to make some for Richard [Saunders, our friend and fellow blog contributor] and his girlfriend, Bridget. Not to mention a couple of loaves to take to the Friday Night Supper Club. And we surely want at least two loaves ourselves! Hmmm, I wonder if I have enough bananas…”

Clutching his forehead and groaning dramatically, our friend Ben began to stagger from the room. Then he stopped. “Uh, when did you say you were planning to make some banana bread?”

Actually, I made the first three loaves last night, along with homemade pizza (the oven was already warm, after all) and some of the Shibaguyz’ OMG Peach Salsa. (You’ll find their recipe at their blog, Here We Go! Life with the Shibaguyz, http://shibaguyz.blogspot.com/. Don’t tell the guyz, but I’m fantasizing about spreading a layer of cream cheese on a warm slice of banana bread and topping it with some of their OMG Peach Salsa. Yum…. )  

I, ahem, noticed that about a third of one of the loaves had been neatly sliced off and had vanished by the time I got up this morning. I hadn’t realized until then that our golden retriever, Molly, was so adept with a knife. By an odd coincidence, all complaints about the banana box and its contents have mysteriously ceased. In fact, I saw that the loaf pans had been washed, dried, and set side by side on the counter, almost as if someone were hoping that another batch of banana bread would shortly appear in them.

Today, I hope to make a banana cream pie (see my earlier post, “White trash desserts: banana cream pie” for the recipe I plan to use) as well as more banana bread. I posted my banana bread recipe way back in early March, when I felt that a warm loaf of banana bread would provide much-needed relief from the cold weather. But rather than making you search back for it, I’ll give it to you again here. It’s so fast and easy to make, and it’s so luscious, warm with butter or apple butter for breakfast, with cheese and an apple for lunch… mmmmmm! Try it. Maybe you’ll go bananas, too!

           Silence’s Scrumptious Banana Bread

Cream until light 2/3 cup sugar and 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) softened butter. (I use an electric mixer, the little hand-held kind, to make this.) Add 1/4 teaspoon salt if you’re using unsalted butter; otherwise, skip the salt. Add 2 teaspoons vanilla. Add one egg, beating until all is well blended. Peel a banana and break it into about 4-5 pieces, tossing them into the mixture. Using your electric mixer, blend until all the banana pieces have broken down and blended smoothly to make a creamy mix. Repeat with two more bananas. Remove the bowl from the mixer and get out a large wooden or bamboo spoon. Add 2 cups unbleached flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, stirring slowly to form a smooth batter. Once the flour is completely incorporated into the batter, add 1/2 cup (or a small package) pecan pieces, again stirring well to blend. Pour the batter into a greased 8 x 4″ loaf pan. You can press whole pecan halves into the top to make a decorative pattern if you like. Bake at 350 degrees F for about an hour, until a straw or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly, then run a knife around the sides and turn onto a plate to finish cooling. Once completely cool, wrap in plastic wrap.

Let me know how you like it!

          ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

One too many? September 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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9 comments

Silence Dogood here. Lest you assume that the title of this post refers to our outdoor cat population, let me assure you that we have taken the necessary steps to ensure that no further additions are made to the feline contingent. Until, of course, some immoral jackass decides to drop their “problem child” (almost certainly a pregnant female) on our rural doorstep yet again. Grrrrrr. But I digress.

Actually, I’m talking about pumpkins. If you live as our friend Ben and I do in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, where pumpkins are an important fall crop, you might think that local farmers would fear that they’d grown far more than one too many. The stunning autumn pumpkin fields—a glorious sight that has to be seen to be fully appreciated—and massive mounds of pumpkins at every farm stand, garden center, and farmers’ market would tend to support this conclusion.

But I’m not talking about the pumpkin population any more than I’m discussing the population of outdoor cats. In fact, I’m talking about one particular kind of pumpkin, a kind our friend Ben and I encountered last year for the very first time.

Now, our friend Ben and I are fans of all kinds of pumpkins. We love to make autumnal tableaux of large, medium, and small, round and flattened, red, green, grey, white, gold, and orange pumpkins. We think that pumpkins are the ultimate symbols of Harvest Home. And we love the harvest season so much that this year, we decided to prolong the pleasure as much as possible by buying just one new addition to our autmnal bounty display each week when we shopped at our local farmers’ market. A pumpkin or gourd, a chrysanthemum, a cluster of colorful ears of dried popcorn—week by week, our display will build to its glorious Thanksgiving culmination. The anticipation!

Prior to encountering this particular pumpkin, I’d given my heart to the round white pumpkins, the strange grey-green and blue-grey pumpkins, and above all, the brilliant red, flattened pumpkins, with plenty of other pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash playing supporting roles. But when I saw this one, it supplanted all others in my fickle heart. It was a large, imposing pumpkin, with a cream-white background covered by a lacy fretwork of red-orange veining. The effect was spectacular beyond words. Our friend Ben and I spent exactly one speechless second staring at the pile of this miraculous new pumpkin before rushing forward to grab one.

This year, too, the red/orange-over-cream/white pumpkin was the first item to appear on our doorstep to kick off this year’s Harvest Home display. I was so excited to see them at our local farmers’ market. Of course, they were unlabeled, but this didn’t bother us; we have no room for pumpkin vines here at Hawk’s Haven, so we’d have to buy them, anyway. It was only after our dear friend Sarah passed through here this past weekend that my interest in the pumpkin’s identity sharpened to a need to know after Ben and I sent our precious pumpkin home with her. (We know we can pick up another one at the market this week, after all, and, like us the year before, Sarah had never seen one of these before and was instantly smitten.)

A consultation with our good friend Google revealed that the most likely contender is a pumpkin with the outrageously inappropriate name of ‘One Too Many’. No way!!! There could never be one too many of these amazing pumpkins. Mind you, the ‘One Too Many’ pumpkins in the photos we saw did not exactly resemble the pumpkins we find here. The picture-perfect ‘One Too Manys’ were too heavily coated with the red-orange filigree veining, too round, and too perfectly ribbed. But they’re the only pumpkins we’ve seen that have even come close to our ideal of pumpkin perfection. Unless one of you tells us otherwise, we’re going to assume that ‘One Too Many’ is indeed our dream pumpkin. 

Can you bake with ‘One Too Many’? If so, how does it taste? Is it a good keeping pumpkin? Clearly, we have much more research ahead. But I can tell you one thing: We’re counting the days until Friday’s farmers’ market, when we can get another ‘One Too Many’ for our front stoop. Maybe we’ll get a second one for the back deck. There will never be too many of these glorious pumpkins for us!

            ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

Frugal advice from Dr. Franklin. September 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to help you hold off financial disaster with some useful tips from that font of frugality, our hero and mentor, Ben Franklin. With the current economic crisis and the specter of the Great Depression on everybody’s minds, there couldn’t be a better time to turn to old Ben for some words of wisdom.

Of course, to make it more fun, I’ve included one quote that’s not by Dr. Franklin. Can you guess which one it is? I’ll give you the answer at the end. But no cheating, now! Here we go:

“Necessity never made a good bargain.”

“No gains without pains.”

“If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone.”

“He that is rich need not live sparingly, and he that can live sparingly need not be rich.”

“Creditors have better memories than debtors.”

“Buy what thou hast no need of, and e’er long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.”

“Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee.”

“Beware of little expenses: a small leak will sink a great ship.”

“The way to be safe, is never to be secure.”

“He that can have patience can have what he will.”

Spare and have is better than spend and crave.” 

“Many have been ruin’d by buying good pennyworths.”

“If you’d know the value of money, go and borrow some.”

“He that can travel well afoot, keeps a good horse.”

“Haste makes waste.”

“Look before, or you’ll find yourself behind.”

“Rather go to bed supperless than run in debt for a breakfast.”

“All things are cheap to the saving, dear to the wasteful.”

“A penny saved is two pence clear. A pin a day is a groat a year. Save and have.”

“Idleness is the greatest prodigality.”

“The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.”

“For Age and Want save while you may; No morning Sun lasts a whole Day.” 

“Pay what you owe, and what you’re worth you’ll know.”

“Forewarn’d, forearm’d.”

“Every little makes a mickle.”

“He that waits upon fortune, is never sure of a dinner.”

And last but not least, a timely reminder:

“The use of money is all the advantage there is in having money.”

 

Did you guess which quote wasn’t old Ben’s? If you picked “The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging,” you guessed right. That one’s from the modern master of money-related sayings, Warren Buffett, and it means you should stop throwing good money after bad.

Linoose on the loose. September 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in pets.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, we had a jailbreak here at Hawk’s Haven when our cat Linus escaped from the house because, ahem, someone was standing in the open deck door talking to the outside cats instead of stepping onto the deck and shutting the door behind him. (As a result, our friend Ben has been assigned litterbox cleanup duty until further notice.)

Now, Linus is the most beautiful cat you could ever hope to see. Majestic in size, with long, luxuriant fur, lustrous black mackerel tabby markings, a white chest, underbelly, paws, and muzzle, and enormous seagreen eyes, Linus is the Errol Flynn of cats. Unfortunately, he inherited the brains of Errol Flynn as well as his looks, which means he’s not only not the brightest bulb on the string, he’s not even on the string. He’s such a loose screw that, more often than not, we refer to him as Linoose.

Poor Linus. He likes to squeak at us in a soft, tiny, high-pitched voice just to let us know what he’s up to: “Look, I’m over here. Now I’m walking over here. I’m going to stretch out on this rug so that I’m six feet long. Now I’m sitting up. Wait, what am I doing here? And who are these other animals?!” But what he lacks in IQ he more than makes up for in looks and a loving temperament.

We recognized Linus’s mental deficiencies, as well as the hazards his long coat would pose outdoors, soon after his feral mother first deposited him on our deck. Our outdoor cats are generally content to lounge on the deck or patrol the yard, keeping away from the road. But Linoose? He’d probably make straight for the highway, then stop in the middle of it because he’d forgotten what he was doing, not to mention who he was and where his home was. It was clear that he had to come inside.

Linus’s super-smart sister, Layla, was damned if she wasn’t coming inside with him, so after some consultation and hand-wringing, we welcomed them both indoors. Lucky for us, their only bad habit is nonstop talking. Layla is by far the smartest cat we’ve ever had. Linoose takes the prize for rock-dumbness. Go figure.

So of course it was poor Linoose who ended up bolting out onto the deck when OFB provided an opening. And, once out there, he clearly didn’t have a clue. (Shock surprise, as Ruby Ann Boxcar would say.) His lamplike eyes twice their normal size, Linus looked around him, ignoring our frantic attempts to entice him back inside, and finally lurched over the side of the deck, disappearing underneath. Our calls failed to bring him back up from his subterranean hideout, though we could hear a nonstop squeaking in response.

Our friend Ben has been forbidden to post on the remarks made to him by certain extremely irate parties in the wake of this negligence. Like the brilliant baron of commerce or genius physicist who falls for the dumb blonde, I love our Linus with all my heart. The thought of him getting hit in the road or lost is unbearable to me. Despite attempts at reassurance on the part of our friend Ben, I was beside myself while Linoose was on the loose. I rushed out onto the deck, calling pathetically every five seconds. Usually Linus would make a brief appearance, squeaking all the while, then dive back out of sight before I could get anywhere near him. My last nerve was in shreds.

Actually, it was Layla who finally came to the rescue. I was once again calling Linus, who had emerged from his subterranean lair and was staring at me blankly. “Who are you? Where am I? Is that my name?! What am I supposed to do now?!” Then he saw Layla, who was basically sitting there glaring at him. “You moron! Now look what you’ve done!” Turning a fascinated eye upon this obviously superior creature, Linoose inched nearer to the door. I, having had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother), simply got far enough out of the way to let him amble back inside.

Let me just say that I couldn’t slide the door shut fast enough. I consigned the sodden, burr-covered Linus to our friend Ben, whose job was now to remove the burrs and towel off the worst of the wetness. I don’t know who hated this experience most, Ben or Linus, but at least I feel certain that Linoose had completely forgotten the entire episode before he was even released from the towel.

             ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

The saga of Sprout and Snout. September 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets.
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6 comments

No, our friend Ben is not alluding to last night’s presidential debate. However, this post does have something to do with last night: the appearance at our outdoor cats’ food bowl after dark of two youthful opossums, christened Sprout and Snout after their predecessors of a couple of years ago. 

I should mention that our small, venerable round oak dining table—a stunning silver color from having been consigned to the patio for years by our friend Ben’s parents, who considered Colonial-era furniture to be antique and spurned Arts and Crafts items like the table as latter-day trash, but I digress—sits under a chandelier, also Arts and Crafts vintage, in front of the sliding glass door to our deck. (The previous owners of what would become Hawk’s Haven also had a small, round oak table under the chandelier, a flea-market find. Clearly we had found our future home!) Our friend Ben would like to go off on a rant about how perfect a small round table is for two people, and how impossible it is for more than two, but I think I’m already off-topic enough.

Point being, when Silence Dogood and I sit down for a meal, we have a wonderful view out onto the plant-laden deck, illuminated with chile lights along the deck railing and, often, with a fire blazing in the firepit farther back in the yard. While the light remains, we see a panoramic view of our backyard and, when the neighboring farmers’ corn is not too tall, of the beautiful ring of mountains that encircles our valley home. We see the delightful little stream, Hawk Run, that burbles under the bridge that connects our deck to our backyard. And we see our five outdoor cats (plus two regular visitors) disporting themselves on the deck, sleeping, or staring back at us with that “stop-eating-and-get-out-here” look.

So last night, as our friend Ben was enjoying another of Silence’s superb repasts, I glanced out the deck door and saw, gleaming disturbingly in the darkness… a long, pink, hairless rat tail. Yuck! Fortunately, I know from long experience that rat tails are not pink. It had to be a ‘possum. Heading over to the sliding door, I saw a very small ‘possum enthusiastically enjoying the cats’ food.

Then I saw that our black cat, Aloysius, was lying on the doormat facing the ‘possum and watching it with his eyes starting out of his head. What the—?!! I flipped on the deck light, which has never in my experience phased any ‘possum. And then I saw… a second small ‘possum. Like its sibling, it was enjoying the cats’ food, but had positioned itself at the far end of the bowl. Snout and Sprout, redux. No wonder Wishus was dumbfounded.

This reminds our friend Ben of a question I’d like to ask any and all of you, if you have any acquaintance with ‘possums yourselves. Growing up, our friend Ben was constantly hearing the phrase “playing ‘possum,” i.e., rolling over and pretending to be dead until danger had passed. Well, our friend Ben has now seen plenty of ‘possums, and except for those flattened on the highway, which could hardly be said to be playing, I have never seen the slightest vestige of this behavior.

The ‘possums around here are quite bold. Even when all five cats are present on the deck, they maintain a repectful distance from the long-snouted, sharp-toothed marsupials, whose toothy mouths look more like an alligator’s than anything else our friend Ben can think of. Brrrrr! Adult ‘possums are big, too—way heftier than a football. Those cats aren’t stupid. Abandoning their typical mighty hunter stance, they’re the ones who are likely to “play dead” when a ‘possum appears on the scene.

Oh, yes, the question: Have you ever seen a ‘possum “play dead”? If so, our friend Ben would like to hear about it. Meanwhile, Silence and I will see if Snout and Sprout remain with us for the winter, becoming larger and larger as the months go by. I guess we could take the cats’ dish in once it gets dark to discourage them. But it wouldn’t feel right, eating our supper every night while five pathetic, hungry feline faces stare in at us like the orphans in Oliver Twist. “Please, sir, could I have some more?!” Oh, all right.

In praise of rice cookers. September 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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9 comments

Silence Dogood here. Every cook has his or her hurdles—things that ought to be easy, but that you just can’t do well to save your life. Mine (besides an unfortunate and occasionally fatal tendency to wander off and start reading when things are in the oven) is cooking rice. Boil water, add rice, right? Wrong, at least in my case. As faithful readers know, I’m extremely texture-sensitive. I don’t want hard rice, soggy rice, gummy rice. I want perfect, fluffy rice, and I want it, reliably, every time. I want, in short, Chinese-restaurant rice.

To make matters worse, our friend Ben and I love rice. We use it as a base for many of our dishes, be they Mexican or Indian, stir-fries or sautees. And we love it as a side dish, too. Take the word of one who knows: Nothing can ruin a meal faster than a panful of soggy or otherwise badly cooked rice. I finally resorted to making a run—or, often, sending poor Ben to make a run—to nearby Chinese restaurants to buy rice. And our friend Ben, after one or two rice runs too many, began agitating for a rice cooker.

Of course, I resisted. First of all, we’re Luddites, and we prefer not to load up on plug-in gadgets of any kind. We already have plenty, thanks. To buy a big pot that just cooked rice seemed stupid.

Then there was the whole aluminum thing. Most rice cookers are made from aluminum, and just as with cast iron, when you cook with an aluminum pan, some of that aluminum migrates into the food (unless, of course, the inside is clad with another metal or enamel, not the case with thin-walled rice cookers). As all of us now know, Alzheimer’s is characterized by a buildup of aluminum in the brain. No one yet knows if this is a cause or effect of the disease, but I’d prefer to do everything in my power to keep what few wits I possess about me, thank you very much. I’d long ago refused my grandmother’s thick, marvelous aluminum cookware, choosing instead my own much-used, much-loved LeCreuset enamelled cast iron pots and pans. 

After ongoing badgering on the part of Ben, I did some online research and discovered that there were a few rice cookers out there with stainless steel rather than aluminum inserts. But aaarrrgghh! Unlike the $20 aluminum models, they cost more like $200—a high price tag for a bowl of rice. Even so, I’d almost decided to start saving up for one when our good friend Cole delivered the coup de grace. I was visiting Cole and his partner, Bruce, in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia, as I do every Hallowe’en, and complaining about the whole rice situation one night when Cole and I were making dinner in their fabulous kitchen. Cole said, “You know, Bruce and I got one of those stainless rice cookers. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as our old aluminum one.”

Good grief. This little conversation taught me two things at once: First, that in this case, cheaper was actually better; and two, that even accomplished cooks like Cole and Bruce used rice cookers. However, I was still on the fence about the whole aluminum business when our friend Ben finally took matters in hand.

“Come on, we’re going to buy a rice cooker,” he announced, grabbing the car keys with one hand and my arm with the other.

“But, Ben! What about the aluminum?!”

“Look, we’ve all got to die from something, right? And besides, what do you think those Chinese restaurants cook their rice in?”

Oh.

We went to a nearby department store and bought an Aroma rice cooker for a whopping $19.95. We have used it several times a week ever since. We now have perfect rice, every time, to accompany whatever dish I care to concoct. If I’m cooking a meal that involves rice for our Friday Night Supper Club, I’ll even pack up the rice cooker and take it along with the other ingredients. So far, my memory doesn’t seem to be suffering.

Last night, I decided to be brave and attempt to create a Chinese dish for our friend Rudy. I’d beeen thinking about it ever since our local CSA began offering Asian eggplant. Eggplant with garlic sauce is one of our friend Ben’s and my favorite dishes when we go to Chinese restaurants, being sweet and spicy at the same time, a nice complement to salty-spicy dishes and, of course, to rice. When it’s done well, the eggplant is practically caramelized, with no bitterness or mushiness. I was dying to try to make some version of this at home.

I’d already created a warming Chinese-style soup that I could make ahead of time in the Crock-Pot (aka slow cooker), so I made that in the morning before heading out to Curves, then enjoyed the gingery fragrance until it was time to get serious about cooking dinner. Fortunately, Rudy loved both dishes, so I’ll share them with you here. You could doubtless do a one-pan version of the main dish if you’re adept with a wok, but I made it with ordinary pots and pans, so if you don’t have a wok, don’t let that stop you. I made my soup in the Crock-Pot, but you could certainly make it in a heavy pot on the stove, as well.

 

             Silence’s Ginger Snap Soup

1 large sweet onion, diced

1 or 2 leeks, halved and sliced (white and light green parts only) 

2 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced

1 large carton veggie stock (every brand I’ve tried is good)

1 carton super-firm diced tofu

sliced mushrooms, mixed (as in button and shiitake mushrooms), about 1 cup sliced or more to taste

1/2 cup wild rice mix

1 T ginger paste

1 T ginger chutney

1 T fresh ginger root, minced, or more to taste

2 T red miso, or more to taste

1 T Thai curry powder

hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa), to taste

Real Salt, Trocamare, or Herbamare, to taste

extra-virgin olive oil for sauteeing

Saute all ingredients except green onions, rice, and veggie stock in olive oil. (Add diced tofu just before taking sauteed ingredients off heat.) Add saute to slow cooker with veggie stock and rice. Cook on low 6-8 hours. Top each bowl with sliced green onion before serving.

 

               “Chinese” Eggplant and Rice

4 Asian eggplants, sliced

1 head broccoli, stem sliced and florets separated

small box button mushrooms, quartered

1 large or 2 medium sweet onions, diced

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 T minced fresh ginger root

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1-2 T Chinese five-spice mix

Real Salt, Trocamare, or Herbamare to taste

soy sauce, orange-ginger sauce, or General Tso’s sauce, to taste

olive or canola oil for sauteeing

Sautee garlic and onion in oil in a heavy pan. Meanwhile, steam eggplant and broccoli until just tender; set aside. When onions have clarified, add ginger, mushrooms, Chinese spice, and salt; cook until mushrooms have cooked down. Add red pepper, stirring for a couple of minutes, then add steamed eggplant and broccoli, stirring to mix. Turn heat very low and cover pan.

Just before serving, add soy sauce, orange-ginger sauce, or General Tso’s sauce to taste, stirring to coat all ingredients. (I used the orange-ginger sauce, available at our local grocery, when I made this. Don’t use more than a couple of tablespoons of whichever sauce you choose to start; once it’s heated through, taste it and add more as needed.) Allow the sauce to heat through, then serve over rice.

I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think!

             ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

The king of someplace hot. September 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Now is the time when the monarch butterflies are migrating over our friend Ben’s little piece of heaven, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. They are on their annual 2,500 mile journey down the East Coast to the Oyamel fir tree groves of Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before beginning the long trek back. (West of the Rockies, they “only” have to go as far as Southern California.) Our friend Ben can’t go anywhere—to the backyard, to Hawk Mountain, to the grocery—without seeing monarchs drifting by far overhead, like airborne flakes of fire.

One of the startling things about the migrating monarchs (at least, if you’re used to seeing monarchs flitting around your garden at plant-height) is how high they fly. To conserve energy, they ride the thermals, those warm updrafts of air that bear vultures effortlessly upward in their dizzying spirals, or that carry migrating hawks, eagles, and other raptors over the ridges so they often don’t actually have to flap their wings until they’ve passed from view.

To be up at a major raptor migration site like Hawk Mountain and to see monarchs floating past at raptor-height is a disorienting experience, given their brightness and the seeming laziness of their meandering flight. It’s as though, watching them, the world has inverted and you’re looking up at a great stream, watching brilliantly colored autumn leaves drifting past, floating into eddies, slowly but inevitably passing out of sight.

In an inverted world, normal rules don’t apply. Magic can happen. Anything is possible. You might even believe that a paper-frail butterfly could make a 2,500-mile journey, then return in spring to visit the milkweed plants you grow just for it and others of its kind. Looking up into that infinite, orange-flecked blueness, it’s easy for once to believe in miracles.

 

         Rite of Passage

 

Firedrake,

Each slow beat of your wings

Shatters the sky,

The silent thunder

Of a single tear

Or unborn alien suns.

 

You bear the spun blue banner overhead,

Caught in your wings,

The color of the sky

Vanishing, despite our pleas and cries 

Diminishing to embers as you drift

Until the last spark flickers and goes out.

 

Dazzled and lost, we search the empty air,

Your unshed ardor burning us like tears.

There must be some mistake. September 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Last night, Silence Dogood—apparently still smarting from our little misunderstanding about stinkbugs (see her post “Stinkbugs 3, Silence 0″ for more on that unfortunate episode)—snidely informed me that the 2008 MacArthur Fellows had just been announced. “I don’t know how it happened,” she said in a tone of voice that can best be described as smugly sarcastic, “but you weren’t on the list again.”

Well, I don’t know how it happened, either. There must be some mistake.

To quickly recap, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards fellowships each year to people it feels to be deserving, in any field, based on their future potential. The Foundation’s website (www.macfound.org) sums up what it means to be elected a MacArthur Fellow: “The MacArthur Foundation today named 25 new MacArthur Fellows for 2008. This past week, the recipients learned in a single phone call from the Foundation that they will each receive $500,000 in ‘no strings attached’ support over the next five years.”

$500,000 in “no strings attached” support is something our friend Ben could really use. And, geez, nominators, if anybody fits your criteria, it’s our friend Ben: “The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Yo, nominators! Over here!!!

Unfortunately, there’s no way of contacting the nominators for this so-called “genius award” in order to press your case. That’s because they’re all anonymous. For all our friend Ben knows, they could all be Wal-Mart greeters. (Yet another reason to be polite to everyone.) The number of fellowships awarded each year varies, depending on how many recipients the nominators find worthy, with an eye towards each recipient’s “promise for important future advances.”

“Too bad, Ben,” Silence offered in mock-sympathy. “Back to beans and rice for another year, until the world—or at least someone besides you—finally acknowledges your genius.”

Grrrr. Nobly ignoring this taunt, our friend Ben rushed to the computer and called up the MacArthur website to check on the 2008 winners. This year’s list was heavy on physicians and scientists who specialized in neurobiology, with some physicists and astronomers thrown in. Rounding out the list were a saxophonist, sculptor, violinist, stage lighting designer, fiber artist, instrument maker and composer, urban farmer, and music critic. Notably absent were any freelance writers-poets-editors-organic homesteaders-heritage chicken enthusiasts such as yours truly. What were they thinking?!!

However, our friend Ben has not given up hope. Looking closely at the pictures and descriptions of the winners, our friend Ben noticed that, instead of centering the 25th winner under the others, his photo and description were in the left-hand column, leaving an empty space on the right. It occurred to me that this could only mean that someone was missing from the list, someone who had, perhaps, been attending a local festival or going to Hawk Mountain or grocery shopping when that “single phone call” came.

Should you wonder where our friend Ben is for the next unspecified period of time, I’ll be within arm’s reach of the phone. But please don’t call me. You might tie up the line.

What’s the scariest disease? September 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here to ask you all a question I was just wondering about: What’s today’s scariest disease?

As a history buff, I’m familiar with most of the scary diseases of the past: the black plague, aka the Black Death; leprosy; diphtheria; smallpox; tuberculosis; Spanish flu; cholera; typhoid fever; polio; bubonic plague; syphilis. Of course, all these diseases would be plenty scary if they were rampaging everywhere today, as the continuing flu scares remind us. But fortunately, most of them remain under such good control that they’ve become a part of history rather than a present threat. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many Third World countries, where diseases like cholera still kill.)

What I was wondering was which of today’s dreaded diseases most people considered scariest. I’m not asking which one is the worst, but which is the one that’s most likely to give people nightmares: the most frightening, the horror movie of diseases. Is it cancer, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s? Or maybe HIV/AIDS, mad cow disease, West Nile disease, Ebola virus, malaria, avian flu, emphysema? Is there a top candidate based on its symptoms, or do we simply fear most the disease we think we’re most likely to get? (Cancer runs in my family, so it is the disease, or I should say, disease group, I most fear, while my grandfather was terrified of getting Alzheimer’s like a disproportionate number of his numerous siblings; mercifully, his fears proved ungrounded.) What do you think?

By now you may be wondering what put such a morbid topic in my mind to begin with. Was it reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel? Was it all you bloggers out there already getting excited about Hallowe’en and posting scary-cute photos of jack o’lanterns and other decorations?

Well, no. It was, believe it or not, finding a really great parody T-shirt about the plague. It’s a takeoff of the tour T-shirts rock groups sell at their tour stops. The front shows a giant rat with the words “Black Death: European Tour 1347-1351,” and the back shows a list of all the “tour stops.” Much as I love the shirt, it did start my mind wandering down this path. I wonder what the Londoners of Shakespeare’s day would think if they were transported to our world: no plagues, no typhoid fever, no smallpox, no syphilis, but instead rampant cancer, heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s. Most of their diseases were spread by crowding, ignorance of the causes and treatment of disease, vermin, and grossly unsanitary conditions. What’s spreading ours?

Now that I think of it, that may be the scariest question of all!

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