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A good day for baking cookies. October 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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6 comments

Silence Dogood here. It’s a dark, cold, rainy morning here at Hawk’s Haven. We desperately need the rain, so I’m not complaining, but just looking outside makes me feel cold. This is the perfect kind of Saturday for doing warming indoor things: firing up the woodstove, making huevos rancheros for brunch with our wonderful homemade refried beans, knitting a scarf, reading a good book… and making a batch of cookies.

I love big, chewy, oatmeal-rich cookies, but I’ll admit, during the warmer months, I just forget about them. I guess it’s self-induced amnesia—anything to avoid using the oven when the kitchen’s already hot! But I was forcibly reminded when a friend arranged to host a cooking club at a nearby Barnes & Noble. The first meeting is this coming Monday night, and we’re all supposed to bring a favorite cookbook and a cookie recipe.

Cookies! I’ve eaten lots of wonderful homemade cookies over the years, but when it comes to baking treats like this, I tend to be more of a bar gal, myself: brownies, blond brownies, date bars, and the like are so much easier, since you don’t have to stand endlessly over the stove, watching those little circles like a hall monitor.

But two cookies are so fabulously good that I’m willing to resist sneaking off to read or knit long enough to get them safely in and out of the oven. They’re easy, too. And best of all, the dough for both is simply delicious! (I admit it: Much as I love the finished cookies, to me, the dough will always be the best part.) Here are the recipes. Try ’em and see for yourself!

The first, for Chocolate Chip-Toffee-Oatmeal Cookies, is a recipe of my own invention, while the second, for Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies, is from the good folks at the Stahl Pottery Festival. The Chocolate Chip-Toffee-Oatmeal Cookies have everything I love in a cookie: the chewiness of the oatmeal, the richness of the chocolate, and the buttery flavor of the toffee. Yum!!! The Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies, with their vanilla chips and sparkling cranberries, are especially pretty for the holidays. And bags of them make great gifts! (Consider this a hint, in case you happen to be making some. Our friend Ben and I love presents.)

Both come together in a painless three-step process: mix, bake, enjoy!

            ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

 

         Silence’s Chocolate Chip-Toffee-Oatmeal Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla (or more to taste; we love vanilla)

2 cups unbleached flour

2 cups oats (NOT instant!)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

12 ounces (1 large bag) semisweet chocolate chips

10 ounces (1 bag) Skor English Toffee Bits

Cream butter with sugar; add eggs and vanilla. (I use a big wooden spoon and mix these up by hand.) Stir in dry ingredients. Add oats, chocolate chips and toffee bits. Mix well. (If it’s too hard to stir this dough, add a bit of milk, but add just a dribble at a time. You don’t want a runny batter!) Round out into tablespoon size and drop on a cookie sheet. (Note: Silpat nonstick sheets are wonderful for lining a cookie sheet. Quick cleanup, hooray!) Bake 15 minutes (or less—you want soft, chewy cookies) at 350 degrees F. Makes about 4 dozen, depending on how much dough you eat. (I try to make these when OFB’s not around, since he loves raw dough even more than I do. We’re lucky to make 2 dozen cookies if we’re both in the kitchen!)

 

        Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour [Silence says: I use unbleached]

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups quick-cooking oats [Silence says: NOT instant!]

1 cup raisins [Silence says: golden raisins are especially pretty in this]

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries [Silence says: I use dried cranberries]

1 package (12 ounces) vanilla chips [Silence says: I’ve never found vanilla chips, but white chocolate chips work fine]

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda; add to the creamed mixture. Stir in oats, raisins and cranberries. Stir in vanilla chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto greased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool on wire racks. Yield: 6 dozen.

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Blogging’s hard lessons. October 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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11 comments

Once a week, Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders, and our friend Ben get together to kick around ideas for posts for our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac. Because none of us have the memory of the gods, we jot down post topics, and the name of the blog contributor who’s willing to write each post, on a sheet of paper. Then we check off each post as it’s written. Since we post every day, we tend to go through the topics fairly quickly. But some of them tend to get lost, to linger unchecked on the topic sheet.

Sometimes, this is because we simply can’t remember what we were planning to write about. This happened to Silence a couple of weeks ago. She’d suggested a post called “Cutting into the heart of the harvest season.” Looking back on it, she guessed that she must have been thinking about cutting open winter squash and pumpkins and making delicious, warming dishes out of the autumn harvest. But she wasn’t too sure. As a result, this post just hasn’t happened. Ditto for a post we’d titled “Danticat, looking good.” We love our scruffy old feral tomcat, Danticat, and have been thrilled to see how, since he became a regular here at our outdoor cats’ bowl, his fur has become lustrous and his mostly-naked rat tail has filled out. But we just couldn’t quite convince ourselves that readers would care as much about Danticat’s progress as we did. This post, too, fell by the wayside.

Then there are the posts that we don’t get around to writing because we just don’t have the guts: the hard posts, the risky posts. This is one of those posts. Our friend Ben has no problem with being a coward when it comes to my physical safety. I’d like to stay alive and in one piece as long as possible, thank you, and I make no bones about it. But intellectually, I like to think of myself as fearless, boldly going wherever my thoughts lead me without fear of the consequences. So you can imagine how ashamed I was that I just couldn’t quite work up the courage to write this post for fear of offending someone out there in the blogosphere. “Oh, I’ll get to it soon,” I thought. “But first, I need to write…” Several weeks have passed, and somehow “But first” has pushed this post farther and farther to the bottom of the list.

It might have malingered there indefinitely were it not for Granny Miller. Granny Miller, which is a blog, not a person, appeared on Blotanical, Stuart Robinson’s brilliant compendium of gardening and garden-related blogs, a couple of months ago. Our friend Ben and Silence were instantly captivated. “Granny’s” blog struck us as exactly what a blog should be: forthright and helpful. The blog was all about self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and it took full advantage of the possibilities of blogging in a way we Luddites here at Poor Richard’s never could, including how-to videos for everything from canning to shearing sheep, as well as posting pantry records, recipes, and how-to on every possible aspect of informed, intelligent homesteading.

But there was darkness in all this light. From almost the first Granny Miller post we read, they were threatening to shut down the blog for good. From our observation, there are two kinds of people who behave like this. The first is seeking reassurance and attention. “Please tell me you love me and want me to go on!” they beg. We have a blogging friend who cries wolf in this manner every few months. One of his posts was actually titled “This is the way the blog ends, this is the way the blog ends, this is the way the blog ends…” (presumably, not with a bang but a whimper). It wasn’t by any means the first time he’d threatened to shut down his blog, so we weren’t surprised that, despite the melodrama, he was back posting as usual in a couple of days. We think this type of carrying on is childish, despicable, and a gross disservice to faithful readers, who are bounced like ping-pong balls across the emotional table of the bloggers, smashed into the walls and tossed thoughtlessly into the net. Shame on the self-indulgent types who use their blogs for ego gratification at the expense of readers who might in fact care about them! 

Then there are the Granny Millers of the world, the people who are genuinely trying to help others achieve the same level of intellectual freedom and physical self-sufficiency they themselves have finally managed, often after much trial and error. As with everything genuine, people (including Silence and our friend Ben) can see that this is the real thing. So they develop expectations. Granny will lead the way, Granny will tell them how, Granny will make more and more how-to videos and post more and more how-to directions. And at some point, “Granny,” who has a real life separate from the too-successful blog, begins to drop hints. “I need to take a blogging break. I’ll be back after a month or two. I didn’t take a long enough break. I need some emotional time off.”

Unlike our ego-stoking friend and the bloggers like him, the Grannies of this world aren’t looking for fame and fan reinforcement. It’s because they know that lots of people are counting on them that they can’t bring themselves to come right out and say: “This blog is too much work. It’s taking up too much of my time. I have a life, and I have other things to do. See ya.” So they struggle on, dropping the apocalyptic hint here and there, trying to stop blogging but feeling too guilty, too responsible, not to keep on keeping on. Until finally, they just can’t. “I’m putting Granny Miller in mothballs,” today’s GM post announced.

When Silence and I read this, we felt abandoned, devastated, like we’d found a new Helen Nearing, only to see her leave us minutes after we’d finally discovered her. This is one of the hard lessons of blogging: That even the best bloggers come and go, you can never assume someone will be there for you simply because you like them and what they have to say. 

But, astute readers, you’re right if you’re thinking that this wasn’t the hard lesson our friend Ben had originally planned (and failed to find the nerve) to write about. It was simply the boot I needed to find enough courage to talk about what I wanted to talk about. And that was blogging’s other hard lesson, the hardest one for us: That readers come, and readers go.

Having read blogs long before we actually started our own blog, we realized that this was a reality of blogging. Other bloggers spoke frankly about the phenomenon of readers commenting faithfully for days, weeks, or even months at a time, then simply vanishing, never to be seen again. We read these posts about vanishing blog faithfuls and thought, geez, that must really hurt. But we didn’t know just how much it hurt until it started happening to us.

We’ve been blogging since February here on Poor Richard’s Almanac, so we’ve been up and running long enough to attract some blog friends that often leave comments on our daily posts. And of course, we love that. We get a good feel for who these folks are, and we feel that we’ve made some virtual friends, friends we may have more in common with than our flesh-and-blood friends. Then, every now and then, one of them vanishes. They’ve been commenting on every post, appreciating our humor, agreeing with our take on life, and then… nada. Poof! They’re just gone.

“What did we do?!!” we ask ourselves. We check each post for comments from our old friends. But no, they’ve moved on, they’ve left us. This hurts, how it hurts. And one reason it hurts is that we don’t know why they’ve left. Have they simply lost interest? Did we somehow offend them? Or is this just something that happens in the blogosphere?

Whatever the cause, it’s humiliating to admit that you’ve lost someone you thought you could count on as a blog friend. And it’s especially humiliating when you don’t have a clue why it happened. This, too, is one of blogging’s hard lessons. We miss each and every one of our MIAs, because it’s not just about us, it’s about relationship. To all of you, we say a heartfelt, “Come back!!! Come back anytime.” To everyone, fellow readers and fellow bloggers, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

A room with a view. October 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Our friend Ben returned home to our little cottage, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, yesterday to find that the farmers had begun cutting down the corn in the field behind our property. (Typically, they cut the back field first before turning their attention to the one in front of our house.) You might not think that the steady roar of the corn-cutting machinery would bring joy to the heart of one who loves peace and quiet, but our friend Ben was ecstatic. That’s because cutting the corn restores our view.

If you’re a gardener, you’re probably familiar with the concept of borrowed scenery, things (hopefully attractive things) that you can see from your own property and therefore incorporate in your garden’s design. This concept can backfire when the scenery you’re unwittingly “borrowing” includes such delights as telephone poles, billboards, rusting automobiles, hideous lawn art, fast-food restaurants, and the like. But we’re lucky here at Hawk’s Haven: Our borrowed scenery includes a ring of mountains that completely encircles the back of our property. Standing by the greenhouse, veggie beds, Pullet Palace, compost bins, grape arbor, or fruit trees, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood can look out at a view that goes on forever. This view was one of the reasons we bought Hawk’s Haven. It’s like going on vacation every time you go into the backyard.

Unfortunately, our vacation view turned out to be a sometime thing. The year we bought the property, the farmers behind us were growing alfalfa, which is low-growing, giving us a panoramic view. The following spring, they planted corn. Not all corn grows 15 feet tall, but theirs does, reliably. Or taller.

Corn is a scary plant. It grows so fast, you can come home from work and actually see a difference in the height of the plants from when you left in the morning. If you work at home, you think you can hear the corn growing. Someday, I’d like to see a pitched battle between kudzu and field corn. Given a head start, my money’s on the corn. 

What all this means is that, before we even knew what was happening, Silence and our friend Ben found ourselves staring at a solid, impenetrable wall of green cutting off our view in the back. The mountains had vanished behind Curtain #1. In the front yard, it was the same. Curtain #2 had been pulled over our view of the woods across the road. Despite having almost an acre of land, we felt completely enclosed, shut in, shut down. We couldn’t wait for the game show to be over.

Then fall arrived, and one fine day, we heard a horrific, steady roar. Like a plague of locusts, it moved inexorably over the land behind Hawk’s Haven. And like locusts, as it turned out when the harvesting machine finally came into view, it brought the corn crop down before it. Swath by swath, sweep by sweep, the insatiable machine gave our view back to us. By nightfall, we could see the ring of mountains once again. We’d been freed from our green prison.

Unfortunately, corn is more profitable than alfalfa. In the years since that first horrific revelation, we’ve probably managed to keep our view about three times. And now, with corn in demand and bringing premium prices as a biofuel and alternative source of heat for “wood”stoves, we fear that the farmers will be unable to justify rotating their crops in the time-honored manner (corn-winter wheat or rye-alfalfa-soybeans-corn) anytime soon. We may have only a winter view of our mountains for many years to come, and without crop rotation, the soil will suffer even more than we do. 

We have new neighbors on one side of Hawk’s Haven. One of them tentatively asked Silence just the other evening about the farmers’ cornfield. “We bought this house because of the view of the mountains,” our neighbor said. “And then we couldn’t see anything because of the corn! Do you think they’ll grow something lower next year?” Uh, don’t count on it. And believe us, we know just how you feel.

What is genius? October 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Obsessed as our friend Ben is about winning a MacArthur Fellowship (a Nobel Prize would not come amiss, either), I perhaps spend more time thinking about genius and geniuses than your average Ben. (See my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses,” for further thoughts on who rates as the greatest geniuses of all time.) Generally, however, I’ve given little thought to what a genius is. I suppose I’ve always assumed that a genius was simply someone who was more fully alive, more fully aware, perhaps more fully awake, than the rest of us.

However, I was catapulted out of my complacent assumptions earlier this week when Silence Dogood and I were having dinner with a good friend. “I recently read a definition of genius that I really liked,” she announced. “It said something like ‘a genius is someone who does something very slowly, a tiny bit at a time’.”

Silence and I aren’t usually telepathic, but in this case, we didn’t have to look at each other—in fact, we didn’t dare look at each other—to know what we were both thinking. If we’d been rude enough to speak our thoughts aloud, we’d have said something like, “Didn’t you say you were defining genius? Couldn’t any moron do exactly what you described? Where on earth is the genius in that?!!”

Silence, who is truly gifted in the art of conversing, said something bland and pleasant and turned the conversation easily into other channels. Our friend Ben stared at my salad and brooded. Half an hour later, I waited for our friend to reach the end of a sentence, then blurted, “I think I’ve arrived at a definition of genius that satisfies me.”

Silence and our friend, who had apparently been discussing traditional Amish quilts, stared at me. But our friend Ben is nothing if not undaunted. “I believe,” I said, “that a genius is someone who sees something we all see, but observing it, sees something no one else can see.” I looked round for a reaction. “Hmpf,” said Silence. “But everyone can do that,” said our friend.

Everyone can do that. “Perhaps everyone can do that,” I said, “in the sense that all of us technically could see every hair and every pore on another person, every thread of their clothes, and know how many there were, but unless you’re an idiot savant, you’re shielded from awareness of that so you can function and think. Some savants can see and recount these numbers, which means all of us technically can. But only God can see and recite them and still have room in the mind to think of other things, perhaps to think at all. In the same way, all of us see the fruit fall from the tree, but only Newton sees the falling apple and arrives at the concept of gravity. Only Franklin sees the lightning and perceives electricity. We all see, but only geniuses really look at what they see.”

“Hmmm,” said Silence. “I wonder how other people define genius?”

This conversation has remained with our friend Ben. The idea of genius has haunted my waking hours, much as Ben Franklin and seashells have apparently haunted my dreams. And finally, this afternoon, I took 5 minutes and consulted my good friend Wikipedia to see what it had to say about defining genius.

As I suspected, there was a good deal about the intelligence quotient, or IQ, test, and the IQ cutoff that technically separates geniuses from the rest of us. Our friend Ben knows better than most, however, that IQ is just a number, since according to Wikipedia even I would qualify as a genius based on IQ alone. (I’m sorry to say that I don’t think this would carry a lot of weight with the MacArthur nominators, but if you happen to know any, feel free to mention it to them.)

But I was pleased to see that IQ was not the only—or even the primary—definition of genius that Wikipedia had to offer. In part, their definition reads, “A genius is a person who successfully applies a previously unknown technique in the production of a work of art, science or calculation, or who… shows an exceptional natural capacity of intellect and/or ability,especially in the production of creative and original work, something that has never been seen or evaluated previously. Geniuses always show strong individuality and imagination, and are not only intelligent, but unique and innovative.”

In other words, a genius is someone who sees something we all see, but in observing it, sees something that no one else can see. But if the rest of us are fortunate, and the genius is highly artistic or highly articulate, he or she can translate that unique vision into words or music or sculpture or drawing or dance or some other form that, finally, we can all see. Light into lightbulb. Wings into flying machine. The play of shadow and light into the Mona Lisa or the Little Street in Delft. A line of poetry that forces us to view an entirely familiar phenomenon, such as the emergence of a flower stalk, in an entirely different way (“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”).

Can all of us do this, as our friend maintained? I have no idea. But I do know that I cannot hear symphonies formed entire in my mind as Mozart could, or even play an instrument competently. I cannot transform something I see, an actual object or an inner vision, onto paper as recognizable art. I cannot consider physics and mathematics and deduce E = mc2, or even how long it will take train A to intersect the path of train B.

But I can, sometimes I can, take wing and fly from something long known to something unknown, something newly known, on the wings of pure thought. And nothing on this blessed, beautiful earth can approach the exalting, transformative power of those few, brief moments of transcendent thought, that sudden, unexpected knowing. The inward knowing, the insight. The greatest gift.

And always, in my experience, it is an immediate transformation, a sudden realization of a truth, a poem handed down complete. The groundwork may be long in the laying, the scaffolding slow in the building, but the insight is instantaneous, lightning shooting through the hundred-year-old tree. This is the explosive lift and dive of the falcon, not the inching of the worm. The flash of light from crystal, not the fossilizing of clay.

Perhaps, if I had not been so appalled by our friend’s definition of genius, I would have asked why it resonated so strongly with her. I missed an opportunity to learn something new. What do you think? What does genius mean to you?

A conversation with Ben Franklin. October 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, pets, wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Silence Dogood had gone into town to run some errands, and our friend Ben decided to use the couple of hours she’d be gone in the most productive possible way. Wasting no time, I pulled out our handmade afghan and proceeded to settle down on the living-room sofa for a nice, long nap.

But it seemed I’d barely closed my eyes when my peaceful siesta was rudely interrupted by a sharp rapping on the front door. In my sleep-fogged state, it almost sounded as though someone were tapping on the glass with a metal-tipped cane. Lurching to my feet and sending cats flying in all directions, I stumbled into my slippers and staggered to the door.

You can imagine my astonishment when I opened the door and there, on our doorstep, stood none other than our hero and blog mentor, Ben Franklin, many-buttoned vest, cravat, knee breeches, stockings, buckled shoes, and all—including a brass-knobbed walking stick, still raised for knocking.

Our friend Ben: Uh—Doctor Franklin!!!

Ben Franklin: My dear boy! Good day. May I come in?

OFB: Er, uh, of course! Please! [Steps back so old Ben can come in.] Let me pull this rocking chair up to the woodstove so you can get warm…

BF: Ah, the rocking chair! I invented that, you know. One of my favorites. And I invented the woodstove, too! Did you know, they actually call it the Franklin stove! I wonder why they didn’t call the rocking chair a Franklin rocker. But it’s probably just as well. It would have given them the perfect excuse to say “Old Ben is off his rocker!” [Chuckles. Settles down in rocker.] Ahhh. That’s better! I, ah, don’t suppose you have any refreshments, by any chance?

OFB: Uh, of course, of course! Would you care for coffee or tea? Silence just made banana bread, and we have some honey-glazed cashews, and cheese, and apples…

BF: That sounds delightful, dear boy! But, ahem, as for coffee or tea, I don’t suppose you have anything a bit more, ah, medicinal on hand, do you?

OFB, trying to think what Ben Franklin might recognize: We have port. And [remembering the case of Yuengling Porter in the mudroom] porter!

BF: It’s a bit early in the day for port, but a draft of porter would be most refreshing. As I always say, beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!

OFB: Didn’t you say that about wine as well?

BF: Um, yes, now that you mention it. Perhaps I should have been a bit more general. But “fermented beverages” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Hmmm, nice little bust you have there on your mantel. Why, it almost looks like me!

OFB, reddening: It, uh, is you. 

BF: Really! How very kind. But, in that case, don’t you think it should be a bit, well, bigger? More imposing, you know? I hear Tom Jefferson’s having a lifesize version carved for that palace he’s built himself down in Virginia. Have you been to Monticello?

OFB: Several times.

BF: Hmpf, really, I didn’t know you were a friend of Jefferson’s. Haven’t managed to get down there, myself [taps walking stick], but I hear it’s very grand. I’m sure my bust will look quite splendid there. I do hope he puts it in the rotunda where guests will see it the moment they step through the door… Ah, did you say you had a glass of porter for a thirsty old man?

OFB: Oh! Sorry! Just a minute…

[Our friend Ben rushes around between the mudroom and kitchen, collecting supplies. Sounds of plates, glasses, chopping, the fridge door repeatedly opening and closing, and general chaos are heard. Out of breath, he staggers back into the living room to find Ben Franklin engrossed in a copy of the Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog.]

OFB: Here you are, sir.

BF, waving catalog: Look at this! An entire general store available for order through the mail! My, I wish I’d thought of this when I was Postmaster to the Colonies! Such ingenious products, too! [Samples goodies on plate.] Mmf, did you say this was banana bread? Delicious! These glazed nuts, though. A bit hard on the teeth, wouldn’t you say? Ah, apples. “An apple a day,” as I always say. Mmm, cheese…

OFB, interrupting: Uh, is there something I can do for you, Doctor Franklin?

BF: Do for me?! Oh, I see. You’re asking what I’m doing here, is that it?

OFB: Er… [reddening]

BF: It’s quite all right, dear boy! No reason to get yourself into a pickle. Pickles… hmmm… you wouldn’t have any pickles on hand, would you? They’d go so delightfully with this cheese…

OFB [suppressing groan]: Would you prefer dill, sweet, or hot and sweet?

BF: Oh, hot and sweet, I think! [Calling after our friend Ben’s retreating back:] And don’t be sparing, young Ben! I worked up quite an appetite coming here!

OFB, returning with the very last precious jar of Silence’s hot sweet pickles: Here you are, sir. Uh, you were saying?

BF: Oh, yes, about why I’m here. Well, it’s the economy, don’t you know. I’ve heard that things aren’t looking too good around here, and after all, we didn’t found America just to watch you all end up in debtors’ prison!

OFB: We don’t have any debtors’ prisons.

BF: What! No debtors’ prisons? Then how do you persuade people to pay their debts?

OFB: Well, generally, we don’t. People who can’t afford to pay declare bankruptcy, which, as I understand it, clears them of any obligation to pay and lets them start over from scratch.

BF, sputtering: Clears them of any obligation?! But what about their creditors?

OFB: I guess they’re just left holding the bag.

BF, bemused: Holding the bag? The bag of what?

OFB: I mean, they get the short end of the stick.

BF: You moderns have the strangest expressions. Imagine being left holding a bag of short sticks! I suppose they’d be useful for kindling, but I still think the creditors are getting a very bad bargain. Hm, speaking of kindling, don’t you think this fire could use a bit of building up? There’s a good boy!

[Our friend Ben, eyes rolling back in head, adds more wood to the stove.]

BF, holding hands to blaze: Aaaah, that’s more like it! As I was saying, I thought perhaps you latter-day Americans could benefit from a bit of my homespun wisdom. Even with no debtors’ prisons, the main thing as I see it is to get out and stay out of debt. And doing that takes a simple combination of discipline and common sense.

OFB: Discipline is in pretty short supply these days, not to mention common sense.

BF: It’s worth looking around for some before you’re all impoverished, dear boy! Poverty, after all, is the strictest discipline there is.

OFB: So what would you advise?

BF: It’s quite simple, really. It comes down to this: Spend less than you earn. Always put a little bit by for a rainy day. Don’t buy what you can borrow; don’t borrow what you can make yourself; don’t buy on impulse; and don’t buy what you don’t need. Learn to do it yourself or do without. Take those slippers you’re wearing, for example.

OFB, looking down hastily at his battered fleece-lined suede moccasins: Urk?!

BF: I notice that you’ve worn a hole through one of them and your toe is sticking out. But otherwise, they look strong enough to last for years yet. Rather than tossing them out because of a simple hole and buying a new pair, why don’t you just patch them?

OFB: Gee, you don’t miss much!

BF: It’s these specs. I made ’em myself. I cut a far-seeing lens in half and did the same for a near-seeing lens, then put half of the far-seeing lens in the top half of each eyepiece and half of the near-seeing lens in each bottom half. Works like a charm! I’ve been having some trouble coming up with a name for this invention, though.

OFB: How about bifocals?

BF: Bifocals! Now there’s a thought. Clever young fella, aren’t you?

OFB, hastily changing subject: But Doctor Franklin, what if people can’t spend less than they earn? 

BF: Obviously, some people don’t earn enough to cover even the most basic necessities. But for most people, it’s simply a matter of looking at their current lifestyle with new eyes. Does a family really need more than one conveyance? Must you buy a new carriage—ah, that’s just “car” now, isn’t it?—every single time, when sales lots are littered with used models? What about public transportation? Perhaps your house is too grand for your actual needs. Sell it and buy a cheaper one! And really, do you people need all this stuff?! [Eyes our friend Ben’s overflowing coffeetable with disfavor.] Look at that! You have enough here to open your own shop!

OFB, mortified: Uh…

[The mantel clock chimes the hour.]

BF: My heavens, look at the time! I really must be going. I promised General Washington I’d attend a soiree this evening to discuss affairs of state with him and those young cubs, Alex Hamilton and Tom Jefferson. The young hotheads can’t see eye to eye on anything! If I don’t get down there and spread some oil on those troubled waters, there may be duelling in view before sunset! [Heaves self out of rocker, clutches walking stick.] But don’t worry—I’ll be back!

OFB, gasping: That’s what I’m afraid of—I mean, that would be delightful!

BF: Good-bye, young Ben. Please give my regards to the charming Ms. Dogood. And don’t forget to mend that slipper!

[OFB, completely exhausted, staggers back to the sofa. But no sooner have his eyes closed and the cats settled back in place than the rapping begins again. Feeling like Bilbo Baggins at the Unexpected Tea Party, our friend Ben again tosses the cats to high heaven and staggers to the door.]

OFB, throwing door open: Did you forget some—oh, hello, Silence!

Silence Dogood: What’s the matter with you, Ben?! You look like you’ve seen a ghost! What on earth have you been doing while I was gone?

OFB: Well, actually, I was having a conversation with Ben Franklin.

Silence, eyeing the rumpled afghan, outraged cats, and deep depressions in the sofa cushions with a knowing look: I’ll bet you were. And what did old Ben have to say for himself?

OFB: He told me to patch my slippers.

Silence, viewing the slipper and protruding toe with distaste: Good idea. [Seeing carnage in front of woodstove, wrinkling nose:] Ben, I can’t believe this! How could one person eat an entire jar of pickles in a single sitting! Eeeewww!!! What on earth were you thinking?!

OFB: It wasn’t me! It, uh…

Silence: Right, it was Benjamin Franklin. How did I guess?! I had no idea ghosts could eat real food! [Eyes sofa again.] I can see you’ve had a very busy afternoon.

OFB: Urk.

Silence, brightly: But no worries! I have a carful of supplies, and I think you’re just the man to bring it all in for me. [Looks meaningfully at empty plate, pickle jar, and beer glass, then pointedly at our friend Ben’s waistline.] It will burn a few calories, anyway. Unless, of course, you’re trying to look like Ben Franklin as well as think like him… [Sinks into rocker.] Aahhh… that feels better! Say, Ben, you probably didn’t realize it, since you were sleeping, but this fire’s really burned down. Would you mind throwing some wood on it? And I’m starving! As long as you’re up, why don’t you make me a snack like the one you’ve been gobbling?

[OFB groans.]

Silence: Geez, why are you acting like Magnus Martyr? I’ve been running all over town doing errands while you were here sleeping! You should have seen the traffic! You have no idea what I went through coming back here!

OFB: AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

[Curtain]

Pumpkin chili, glazed carrots, and sweet potato souffle. October 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. With the leaves falling and autumn’s chill in the air, everybody’s thinking orange—usually the black and orange of Hallowe’en. But cold weather makes me think of a trio of hearty orange vegetables: pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and carrots. This is a great time of year to get your vitamin A while enjoying some rich, warming dishes, and I have three doozies for you here.

Let’s start with the carrots. The easiest way to enjoy a side of carrots is to slice them, boil them in a heavy lidded pan, drain off the water, add butter and salt, put the top back on, give the pan a really good shake to distribute and melt the butter, wait a few minutes, and serve. Yum! But we also enjoy carrots in our vegetable curries. I guess eventually I must have put two and two together, because a couple of winters ago, it occurred to me to make an almost-as-simple side dish that I call Glazed Carrots Indian-Style. Trust me, this easy dish turns plain old carrots into a whole new critter!

         Glazed Carrots Indian-Style

Slice and boil the carrots in a heavy pan. (I love my LeCreuset enamelled cast iron.) Our carrots are organic, so we wash but don’t peel them before cooking. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, melt enough salted butter to thoroughly coat the amount of carrots you’re cooking (at least half a stick). Once the butter has melted, add your spices. I like to use whole cumin, garam masala, curry powder, and Trocamare. Other options are turmeric, a little cinnamon, Thai curry powder, ground cumin, ground fenugreek, and black mustardseed. Frankly, I’ve tried all of these in pretty much every imaginable combination, and they’re all good. If you want, you can dice a little sweet onion (‘Vidalia’, ‘WallaWalla’ or ‘Candy’ type) in as well; saute until clarified. Minced mushrooms are good in it, too. But mushrooms and onions are optional! This dish can definitely stand on its own.

How much of each spice should you add? Well, that depends. First of all, it depends on the amount of carrots you’re cooking, and second, on the amount of spicing you like. If you’ve made enough carrots to use a whole stick of melted butter, I myself would use at least a tablespoon of whole cumin, a teaspoon of garam masala, at least a teaspoon (or two) of curry powder, and a teaspoon of Trocamare, and/or at least a half-teaspoon of the other spices (more Thai curry and ground cumin, less cinnamon). But I’m a big fan of spicing. If you start small and taste, you can always add more, while taking away is not an option. Proceed with caution until you find a combination and quantity you like.

Once you’ve added your spices (and diced onions and/or minced mushrooms, if you’re adding those), you’ll find that you quickly need to add a little water or veggie stock (bless those boxes of veggie stock in the grocery soup aisle, they’re all good) to keep it all from sticking to the pan. Once you’ve stirred that in—not too much, now, you’re not making soup!—check your carrots and make sure they’re not turning to mush; as soon as they’re almost completely tender, turn them off (they’ll finish cooking in your heavy covered pan while you finish the glaze). Now, your job is to reduce the butter/spice (onion/mushroom) mixture over low heat to a thick, luscious glaze. When it’s there, drain the carrots, pour the glaze over them, stir to mix thoroughly, and serve.

Note: You’ll know if you cooked the carrots too long if they start to break up when you stir in the glaze. Never mind! They’ll still taste good, and next time you’ll know to cook them for a shorter time. If they’re underdone, you can always pop them into the microwave, glaze and all, until they’re cooked through (assuming that, unlike us, you actually own a microwave). If you don’t have a microwave, the easiest thing to do is to taste a slice before you drain off the water and add the glaze, then cook longer as needed.

A warming fall and winter carrot side dish, hooray! But let’s move on to sweet potatoes. Folks, I realize that lots of you grew up eating sickeningly sweetened sweet potatoes covered in marshmallow goo. Eeewww!!! There’s a reason this delicious veggie is called a “sweet potato”: It’s already sweet enough. My favorite way to eat a sweet potato is to bake it at 350 degrees until the flesh is literally coming away from the paper-thin peel (the flesh will naturally caramelize where it peels away), and then eating that luscious sweet potato with lots of butter and salt. OMG! This is heaven on earth! Our golden retriever, Molly, and parrots, Plutarch the Parrot and Marcus Hookbill, also think they’ve died and gone to heaven when they get the leftover (cooled) peels.

There are two tricks to perfect baked sweet potatoes (three tricks, if you count cooking them long enough to make sure they’ve peeled away from the skin and are silky-soft through and through). The first is choosing sweet potatoes that are long and comparatively thin. Not sausage-thin, of course, but you don’t want short, fat sweet potatoes, or those monstrously huge ones that sometimes turn up in grocery bins, either. Go for the ones that are as thick as your wrist and about an inch (or two, if you’re tall) shorter than the distance from your wrist to your elbow, and you’ll do just fine. The second trick is making sure your sweet potatoes don’t explode in the oven while you’re baking them. (Trust me, you do not want this to happen!!!) To avoid explosions, first wash your sweet potatoes, and then, without drying them off, stab a fork’s tines into them (to a depth of a quarter to a half the width of the sweet potato) all the way down each sweet potato. Set them pricked-side-up on aluminum foil on a baking sheet, and those babies are ready to go. Mmm-mmm!

However, as you may have deduced from this post’s title, I have another sweet potato recipe in mind. In fact, this whole post happened because my friend Amy said yesterday that she wished she had a good recipe for sweet potato souffle. Praying that she wasn’t in fact referring to the horrid, marshmallow-laden sweet potato casserole mentioned earlier, I assured her that I had a fabulous recipe for sweet potato souffle and would e-mail it to her immediately. It’s a specialty of my very favorite restaurant, the Landis Store Hotel.

“Landis Store Hotel” may not strike you as an especially promising name for a restaurant (for some reason). People often ask me where the restaurant is located. “Why, in Landis Store!” I reply. Say what?!! I’ll be the first to admit that the Landis Store Hotel is located, like us, in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, or in their case, the tiny crossroads of Landis Store (named, in fact, for the hotel). The Landis Store Hotel is no longer either a store or a hotel. But it is the best restaurant I know of, and the fact that people regularly make the trek down from New York City into the dark, backroads country of Pennsylvania to find it (not to mention that it was featured in Gourmet magazine) is testament to the fact that I’m not the only one who thinks so.

I had to memorize the rather tortuous route from our home, Hawk’s Haven, to Landis Store, which fortunately lies on the road to our friends Rudy and Carolyn and Gary’s homes. (Carolyn and Gary are hosts of our famous Friday Night Supper Club, so we take this road often.) But if you live in a more civilized place, you can find directions on their website, www.landis-store.com. They’re only open for dinner from Thursday through Saturday, and they don’t take reservations. But even if you have to wait to be seated, they have a beautiful old bar in their exquisite old stone hotel, and you can relax with seasonal artisanal beer, a selection of local wines, fabulous spiked ciders, or your drink or wine of choice while exploring the local art quilts, art glass, and artworks that adorn the walls and are for sale.

Go to their website and you’ll find a whole selection of favorite recipes, including longtime favorites of ours like corn fritters, corncakes with red pepper sauce and chevre, coconut creme brulee, and apple tart. (Now, if only they’d list the recipe for their amazing house salad dressing, a mustard vinaigrette, and my favorite dessert of all time, fresh blueberry tart in a shortbread crust. But I’m not begging. Well, maybe. Yes. Definitely.) And there they have a recipe for another of our favorite sides, their luscious sweet potato souffle. Incredible, and incredibly easy! Here it is:

         Landis Store Hotel’s Sweet Potato Souffle

2 lbs. sweet potatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks butter

1/2 cup cream

1 egg     

Peel and cook sweet potatoes until soft. Drain sweet potatoes and put them in a food processor, adding salt, butter, egg, and cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bake in six buttered ramekin or souffle dishes at 350 until light brown. Serve hot in the ramekins. Serves six.

Darlin’s, this is good stuff. With a Landis Store salad with beets and walnut-encrusted chevre, their famous corncakes, and one of their extraordinary mushroom pastas, it’s a rare treat (I have to take most of the pasta home and order a slice of the fabulous blueberry tart—with tons of whipped cream on top—to take home for breakfast). Our dear friends Huma, Edith, and Cole visit us so often just so they can eat there, we swear. And each of them has a favorite dish: Huma loves the filet mignon; Edith always orders the rack of lamb; and Cole can’t keep away from the calamari and soft-shell crabs. Even our friend Rudy, who seldom splurges on food, could never resist Landis Store’s amazing duck in port wine and cherry sauce. You may not have the opportunity to visit Landis Store in person and soak up the old country inn atmosphere, but at least you can enjoy their sweet potato souffle next time you make pork loin, pork or lamb chops, baked chicken, or even the Thanksgiving turkey.

Finally, let’s move on to that strangest of recipes, Pumpkin Chili. I picked up a card for this recipe at Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm outside Bowers, PA last weekend. I stared at it for several minutes before taking it, since “pumpkin” and “chili” had never occurred to me as going together in the same recipe, but suddenly, I could see it. Autumnal, warming, all right! The pumpkin puree would add a rich undertone and thick, silky texture to the chili. Truth in advertising: I have not yet had a chance to customize this recipe a la Silence and try it out. But I’m going to go ahead and give it to you, so all you chiliheads and pumpkin fanatics can get a jump-start on what could be an amazing dish. If you try it first, I want to know what you did to make it your own, and what you thought of the results. Originated by Bonnie Mortimer of Mount Pleasant, PA, it was a finalist in the 2006 Pennsylvania “Simply Delicious, Simply Nutritious” Vegetable Recipe Contest. Being a vegetarian, I would leave out the sausage and add more spices, but I’ll give it to you all as written, since the sausage would definitely enhance the recipe. (Vegetarians, add extra oil and maybe some diced zucchini to compensate!) Note that it serves 10.

        Pumpkin Chili

2 lb. sausage (without casing)

1 c. onions, grated

1 c. green peppers, diced

1 tsp. garlic, minced

29 oz. chili-style diced tomatoes, canned

15 oz. extra thick and zesty tomato sauce, canned

4.5 oz. green chiles, chopped

2 c. pumpkin, cooked, pureed, or 15 oz. canned pure pumpkin puree

1 T. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

 1 1/2 c. corn, fresh, cut off the cob

31 oz. kidney beans, canned, drained

32 oz. pinto beans, canned, drained

2 c. Cheddar cheese, shredded

Cook sausage until it is no longer pink. Add next 11 ingredients. Stir in corn, kidney beans and pinto beans. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Serve with Cheddar cheese.

I’d of course serve this with hot-from-the-oven cornbread, liberally buttered, and a really robust salad that could stand up to the competition. Search this site for cornbread and salad and you’ll find plenty of suggestions. For less unconventional ways to use pumpkin, search for “Curried Pumpkin Soup” and my earlier post, “Time for pumpkin bread.” Go for it! It’s definitely the time of the season.

         ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

Time for pumpkin bread! October 21, 2008

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

Silence Dogood here. It’s October—and that means it’s time for all things pumpkin, including my luscious Curried Pumpkin Soup (search our blog for this, you’ll be so glad you did) and hot-from-the-oven homemade pumpkin bread. This one’s so easy and fast, you won’t believe you’ve made it from scratch until you taste it!

I love pumpkin bread, but I had to develop my own pumpkin bread recipe after sampling one too many versions that were simply soaked with oil. I’m not dissing the flavor and texture cups of oil add to the typical zucchini and pumpkin bread, mind you, but if I really want to eat that much oil, I’m going for French fries or onion rings (and don’t try to stop me). This is bread, not fried chicken, people. I’m not planning to eat it plain, either. So I’ll save all those oily calories and enjoy a few of them on top of my hot pumpkin bread, or in the form of a mug of hot spiked cider to savor with the pumpkin bread before a roaring fire. Care to join me? 

       Silence’s Pumpkin Bread

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 stick softened salted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste)

1 egg

2 cups unbleached flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 small (16-ounce) can pure pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1/2-2/3 cup broken pecan pieces, to taste

1/2-2/3 cup golden or dark raisins, to taste

Whip the sugar, butter, vanilla, and egg until light. Add 1 can pumpkin and whip into the mix. (I use an elecrtic eggbeater.) Using a wooden or bamboo spoon, stir the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and baking soda slowly into the pumpkin mixture. (SLOWLY! The pumpkin splatters.) I like to pour the flour on top of the batter and mix the baking powder, soda, and cinnamon into it before stirring it into the batter, but you could always mix them in a separate bowl before adding them to the batter. Then add the raisins and pecans, stirring well to distribute them throughout the batter. Pour or spoon the batter into a greased 8 x 4-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. 

Yum! Our friend Ben and I think this pumpkin bread is best served hot, spread with apple butter and/or lowfat cream cheese, cream cheese and apricot jam or marmalade, or, for a little heat, with Alma Weaver’s amazing Apricot/’Lemon Drop’ or Blackberry/’Czech Black’ hot pepper jams. It’s also good plain with sliced apples and Cheddar on the side, and is excellent for breakfast toasted with butter. (Southerners, try this with grits and fried eggs. It holds up really well with hot sausage patties and links, too.)

As a late-night snack on a cold night, nothing beats hot pumpkin bread with spiked cider. Consider it the perfect fall dessert. When we’re having it with cider, we tend to eat it hot but plain, but let me just note that everyone who knows how to make hard sauce for their plum puddings has the perfect topping for this. We heat our cider in a pan on the stove rather than over the open fire. Once it’s just simmering, we add a half-stick of cinnamon and three or four whole cloves. When the pumpkin bread’s ready to slice and serve, we add dark rum (Gosling is our hands-down favorite) to the cider, remove it from the heat, pour it into mugs, and serve. (Not into alcohol? Just leave out the rum.) Then we settle down in front of our fire and warm ourselves inside and out. What a great way to celebrate the harvest season and welcome the crispy nights! You can’t fight ’em, so our view is, you might as well create some rituals that let you revel in them. Right?!

Oops, I almost forgot: We’ve discovered that our cats love pumpkin bread as much as we do. (Don’t ask, we don’t know why.) So if you have cats, share a few bites of the cooled-down bread and watch them savor every morsel. Needless to say, our golden retriever, Molly, also loves pumpkin bread, but then, with the exception of undressed lettuce, we never met a food she didn’t like. Our parrots enjoy it, too. So if you have pets, share a bit with them and then everyone will be happy!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Vandals strike, off hook again October 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

In breaking news, the vandals that ransacked the Hawk’s Haven birdfeeders have struck again. (See our earlier report, “Newsflash: Vandals strike, off hook for now” for coverage of the original incident.) Called to the scene by a distraught Silence Dogood, Feline Bureau of Investigation special agent Linus Beaumaine at first could find no sign of the missing feeder, only the dangling hook where it had been just the previous night.

“I just bought that hook on Saturday so we could hang the feeder again!” wailed Ms. Dogood. “I can’t believe the villains struck again!”

A thorough search of the premises revealed the feeder, empty but unharmed, lying in a clump of pulmonaria some yards from the house. “These are desperate times,” Agent Beaumaine cautioned. “It’s unwise to hang feeders within reach of these vandals. You’re lucky the feeder managed to survive two such vicious assaults. Few feeders would have escaped unscathed.”

Ms. Dogood confirmed that, just last week, she’d heard a horror story about plastic tube feeders being ripped to shreds by squirrels as they hung innocently on their hooks in a suburban North Carolina yard. The Hawk’s Haven feeder, a cheap little Droll Yankees all-plastic Bird Lovers model, was, against all odds, still in excellent condition.

Declining to take Special Agent Linus’s surprisingly sensible advice, Ms. Dogood insisted on returning the feeder to its hook on the rose-of-Sharon shrub. “I can see these feeders while I’m working on the computer,” she explained. “If I move them, I won’t be able to enjoy watching the birds nearly as much, since I’m in our home office most of the day. Besides,” she added, turning an accusing look on the unfortunate FBI agent, “What about this other feeder?! It’s the same kind of feeder, also filled with black oil sunflower seeds, and it’s hanging in the same shrub, barely a foot away from the plundered feeder, yet the vandals don’t bother it at all!”

Special Agent Linus appeared to be at a loss for words. Not one to let a chance for free publicity escape, President Ben took advantage of the momentary pause to say a few words. “Let’s try to keep this unspeakable outrage in perspective,” he said, while refilling the plundered feeder. “True, the perpetrators remain at large, despite our friends at the Feline Bureau’s best efforts. But we remain undaunted. We still have the feeder, and at least they didn’t make off with the hook this time.”

Smiling confidently (at least, until he realized that cub reporter Marley had failed to bring a camera crew with him to the crime scene), President Ben attempted to assure Ms. Dogood that all would be well. “In addition to the ongoing efforts of our worthy special agent here, I’ve retained the services of Private Investigator Danticat, who will continue to skulk unobtrusively in the nearby evergreens while waiting for the fiends to show themselves. Justice will be served! Nobody’s getting off the hook during my tenure in office, unless they show up with some really tasty bribes or, say, a bottle of very expensive port or bourbon.”

Attempting a conciliatory tone, President Ben added, “Uh, Silence, I do think we should consider hanging that feeder a bit higher up in the rose-of-Sharon. You could still see it from the office window, and after all, not everyone who fills the feeder is 5’5″.”

Unfortunately, this attempt at reasoning did not appear to have the effect the president was seeking. When last seen, he (along with P.I. Danticat, Special Agent Linus, the police, and your faithful reporter) was running for cover while pursued by a torrent of abuse from a highly incensed Ms. Dogood, who seemed to feel that “heightist” comments were uncalled for, especially during a traumatic time like this. As your reporter was fleeing the scene at the time, I can’t verify this, but I believe I saw a few spruce cones being hurled at President Ben’s rapidly retreating back by the enraged Ms. Dogood, whose aim was, all things considered, surprisingly good.

Further reports may be forthcoming, if I can find another reporter who’s willing to fill in. Meanwhile, the criminals remain at large. Readers are encouraged to bring their birdfeeders in at night to avoid a similar fate.

What keeps YOU from crying? October 20, 2008

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

Silence Dogood here. No, I’m not referring to the economy or the upcoming election. I’m talking about onions. As anyone knows who’s ever cut into one, the sulfur compounds in onions, which volatize when exposed to air, burn your eyes and make you cry. And the more pungent (i.e., oniony) the onion, the more sulfur compounds, and the more it burns when you cut it.

AAAHHHHHHH!!!! This hurts, even if you don’t wear contact lenses. If you do wear contacts, the effect is sheer torture, as the burning compounds fix themselves, vampire-like, to your lenses, apparently determined to burn holes in your eyes. Fortunately, thanks to the miracles of laser surgery, I no longer wear contacts. But I remember the feeling well. And to say the least, I still don’t enjoy having my eyes burn while chopping onions, tears blurring my vision while I’m wielding a sharp knife, or having to drop everything and rush for some Kleenex mid-dice. Dammit, if I’m gonna cry, there should at least be something worth crying over! Sliced onion, like spilt milk, just doesn’t qualify.

Because I’m not alone in my loathing of this phenomenon, plenty of advice has been handed down over the years about how to handle onions to keep them from making you cry. My own beloved mother, an accomplished cook, assured me that refrigerating onions prevented the crying effect. And, since I treated every word that fell from Mama’s lips like gospel, I spent my entire adult life wasting a good half of the crisper-drawer space in my fridge storing onions (and even garlic bulbs, just for good measure).

Then, one day, the inevitable happened: I wanted to make something and didn’t have enough onions. Rushing out to the store, I returned with a bag of onions and had to cut one, unrefrigerated, on the spot. The fear! The trembling! The outrage when I realized that somehow I wasn’t crying any more over the unchilled onions than I had been over their refrigerated cousins. Grrrrrr!!!!

Now I keep my onions on display in the kitchen in a big bowl, where their tan, yellow, white, and purple colors look gorgeous, contrasted with the paperwhite garlic bulbs that wouldn’t fit in my new ceramic garlic keeper (a gift from our friend Ben from our recent trip to scenic West Virginia). And you can bet I’m revelling in all that extra crisper space!

These days, I try to keep the crying under control by buying sweet onions, such as ‘Vidalia’, ‘WallaWalla’, and ‘Candy’. And yes, it does help. Often, I can make a dish without a single tear, and still get that luscious onion flavor. But one just never knows. Every onion is different, and I’ll still be ambushed by a tear-inducing onion once or twice a week.

As a result, I’m still on the lookout for tear-preventing techniques that actually work. Recently, I read that if you simply didn’t cut the end off the onion until last, it would keep you from crying, because all the crying compounds were concentrated at the root end. Hmmm. I typically cut the top and bottom off an onion before slicing and dicing it. These people sounded so definitive, it seemed worth a try, so I left the root end on the onions I was chopping for a whole week to see if it would make a difference. Ha! I had to resort to the Kleenex box just as often as before. Tricked again!

I was cursing the perpetrators of this latest culinary urban legend up one side and down the other when it suddenly occurred to me that I had a vast panel of experts out there in the form of you, my fellow bloggers, who have no doubt suffered from Crying Onion Syndrome (COS) yourselves. If you’ve found a cure for COS, please let us know here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Believe me, the world will be a better place! Not only will people be encouraged to cook with more onions, which, after all, are really good for you and make food taste better, but you personally will be responsible for reducing the number of tears that fall in kitchens nationwide.

         ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

The frost is on the pumpkin… October 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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4 comments

And our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are on our usual “OMG, we have to get all the plants into the greenhouse and plant the bulbs and harvest the potatoes and hot peppers and” marathon, somewhat hampered by the fact that Silence returned from our West Virginia idyll as a snivelling wretch, having picked up a cold of truly epic proportions somewhere in the course of our travels. Nonetheless, despite keeping our friend Ben awake night after night with long stretches of lung-wrenching coughing, sneezing, and snivelling, Silence has bravely soldiered on in our desperate attempts to get everything battened down before the growing season crashes to its end. (And yes, she has tried to keep away from other people, even passing up a long-looked-for treat, this weekend’s Berks County Quilt Show.)

To think, non-gardeners consider the prospect of frost on the pumpkins as a peaceful time. Light a fire, heat some fresh-pressed apple cider and spike it with dark rum (Gosling is our hands-down favorite), and kick back with a good book, your knitting, or a favorite (or new) movie. For our friend Ben and Silence, the first heavy frost warning is more like the siren has gone off signalling a national disaster.

We knew the jig was up when our good friend Delilah sent a warning e-mail that hard frost was expected here this weekend. We checked weather.com and verified that temps in the 20s were predicted, beginning tonight and continuing through the week. No more procrastination: Silence popped a couple of decongestant pills, we metaphorically girded our loins, and leapt into the lengthy ordeal of battening our hatches.

Heading first for our CSA, we smiled politely as our friend Heidi enthusiastically described how she had carefully sprayed all her plants with insecticidal soap and water the week before, so she could bring them inside without any greeblies coming along for the ride. This is in fact exactly what you’re supposed to do. Maybe some year we’ll even do it. Typically, however, we have the mad last-minute scramble to load up all the plants that have spent a peaceful summer (assuming our wicked little kitten, Marley, hasn’t decided to nest in them) on our deck or front stoop, haul them to the greenhouse, and get them safely stashed inside before subfreezing temps turn them to instant compost.

Fortunately, we’ve never had a problem bringing pests and diseases in from outside, quite the reverse: Whiteflies, aphids, and scale (the Big Three of greenhouse gardening) tend to take up residence on our greenhouse tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil, water plants, and/or orchids during the summer, and must be evicted (along, sadly, with said tomato, pepper, and basil plants, orchid spikes, and affected leaves) several weeks before welcoming the outdoor plants to their winter home. Thanks to Silence’s foresight, the in-ground greenhouse bed was cleared (except for our huge lemon grass plant, our ‘Violetta’ artichokes, and our Aloe vera/barbadensis colony, which are permanent residents) and ready for its seasonal guests.

So here was yesterday: Silence makes her famous Ginger Snap Soup for lunch in the hope that its warming spices will clear her air passages enough to promote life for another day. (And yes, it is yummy; search our site for it in the search box at upper right and give it a try when it gets good and cold where you live.) Then she insists that we head out to James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, “where they have the best pumpkins in the whole area,” according to Silence, so we can complete our Harvest Home display. You all may recall Jim Weaver from my earlier posts about the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival and about going out to Meadow View to get heirloom tomato and hot pepper transplants this past spring. He’s the regional expert on all things heirloom and, especially, hot pepper, and is responsible for introducing the legendary ‘Bhut Jalokia’ hot pepper (the world’s hottest) to the area. Needless to say, Mr. Weaver is one of our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders’s heroes.

Mind you, we harvested quite a collection of hot peppers from our CSA’s U-Pick garden the day before, since (forewarned by Delilah) we figured the plants weren’t long for this world. And we were, after all, heading out to Meadow View to pick pumpkins, not peppers. So imagine my surprise when Silence first grabbed boxes of red and green jalapenos (“Richard and Bridget are coming for supper, so we need to make jalapeno poppers!”), then a bouquet of stems festooned with beautiful orange chile peppers (“Think how gorgeous they’ll look when they dry”), and finally jars of Alma Weaver’s incredible blackberry/’Black Czech’ and apricot/’Lemon Drop’ jams (“We’ve run out, and you know nothing’s better for brunch”), as well as a jar of pickled hot yellow wax beans and, since she was obviously on a roll, another of pickled green beans (“They are so good!”).

I couldn’t exactly complain, though, since Silence’s strategy of stretching out our harvest decorating this year to prolong the pleasure had an unexpected benefit: All of Meadow View’s pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash were on sale for half price. We reluctantly passed up the most incredible green/black pumpkin we’ve ever seen (too big for our space), but managed to acquire a bright red, a classic orange, and a glowing creamy yellow pumpkin, a gorgeous ribbed white ‘Acorn’-like winter squash and similarly sized round orange-and-green squash, two flattened orange mini-pumpkins to replace the ivies in our shepherd’s crooks at the front door (the ivies go to the greenhouse), and two simply amazing mitre-like gourds with varying patterns of orange, dark green, yellow, and white.

On the way back, Silence insisted that we stop at Weaver’s Hardware (Weaver is a common Amish and Mennonite name locally), where she wanted to buy a wrought-iron hook to replace the one that disappeared during the vandals’ assault on our bird feeder (see the post “Newsflash: Vandals strike, off hook for now” for a humorous take on that incident) and some suet blocks to set in our suet cage feeder now that it’s finally cold. Inspired by Frances of Faire Garden (http://fairegarden.wordpress.com/), who had some very useful suggestions after reading our post “Be prepared, part two,” Silence also bought a washboard, wooden clothespins, and a clothespin bag.

Then, of course, she just had to look at the bags of fall bulbs. “You know, Ben, I’d love to have some more crocuses,” she said, ominously eyeing a bag of 50 mixed corms. “They’re so cheerful. You know how much we love the ones we already have, and we’re going to have to plant the tulip and daffodil bulbs, anyway.” (This was undeniable.) “Might as well put in more crocuses while we’re at it, don’t you think?” Uh, right. What’s 50 more bulbs between friends?! Our friend Ben has learned when a battle’s not worth fighting, however, through long and painful experience. At least she passed up the bags of daffodils (“Look! Isn’t that gorgeous! Oh—‘Mount Hood’!”).

Now we were racing against time, for several reasons. Richard Saunders, a Penn State football fanatic, and his girlfriend, Bridget, were coming over to listen to the game and then have supper. Silence was planning to make her delicious Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce, broccoli from the CSA, and a salad featuring the CSA’s late-season bounty in the form of arugula, mixed greens, salad turnips, and bell peppers, enlivened by green onions (scallions), fresh watercress from the farmers’ market, cilantro just-picked from the CSA, and our very own hard-boiled chicken eggs, along with some sunflower seeds, shredded Parmesan, and Silence’s signature vinaigrette. (Search “Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce” on the site; I know Silence has posted this rich, easy recipe.)

And we still had all the plants to haul into the greenhouse, not to mention a few more winterizing details to deal with (like putting the outdoor cover on our lone air conditioner and weatherstripping one of the lower greenhouse windows, which has become a bit cranky about completely closing over the years, as well as taking the great pole and closing all the upper windows, a hazardous procedure to say the least). Amazingly, Silence took our new bounty and, using our previous weeks’ stockpile as a base, transformed the front stoop and the shepherd’s hooks that frame it into a perfect pumpkin tableau in the blink of an eye. (Now, if the cats can just refrain from bowling everything over.)

Meanwhile, I brought out our beloved and battered but unbowed Rubber Maid garden cart and began the arduous process of loading and hauling the deck plants back to the greenhouse. Once she’d finished her Harvest Home tableau, Silence headed for the greenhouse, where she quickly placed the plants on the in-ground bed, in hanging baskets, and on the raised bench between the many plants that spend the entire year indoors.

Silence is nothing if not decisive. Before I could say “Jack Frost,” she’d finished hauling in the plants and was headed back to the kitchen to make jalapeno poppers. (See her earlier post “Homemade jalapeno poppers,” and you may soon be making your own.) By the time Richard and Bridget arrived, we had a fire roaring in the firepit, the pepper lights on the deck provided a joyful sparkle, and there were platters of jalapeno poppers hot from the oven, with our choice of Manhattans, bourbon and Coke, or chilled wine to keep us cozy on the deck while we listened to the game (Penn State annihilated its old nemesis, the University of Michigan, 46-17) and Silence cranked up the music in the kitchen and made one of her legendary dinners. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

Now, however, a new day has dawned, with the prospect of a 29-degree low tonight. It’s time to get all those bulbs (including the @#!%&$*!!! 50 new crocus bulbs) in the ground, dig up the potatoes, harvest the hot peppers from plants we’re prepared to sacrifice to our compost pile and attempt to transition the ones we’re not pepared to relinquish to pots in the greenhouse, transfer our outdoor goldfish and prized papyrus and other water plants to greenhouse accomodations, and water the bazillion plants in the greenhouse and indoors, one miserable milk jug at a time. Thank God for the faithful Rubber Maid garden cart, waiting ever so patiently to transfer the filled jugs to the greenhouse, the empty jugs back to the kitchen sink, and the refilled jugs back again.

Then there are a few other tasks awaiting us: Covering the Pullet Palace with a tarp to keep rain and snow off our chickens, since the bizarre spring hailstorm shattered the translucent plastic roof that had given them cover and light these many years. Getting more straw bales to keep the chickens warm and cozy. Hauling our lawn art, urns, gazing balls and the like under cover in the garden shed. Not to mention making sure we appreciate the glorious end-of-fall spectacles, such as the bold and beautiful bluejays, cardinals, and woodpeckers, and our redbud’s incredible clear yellow leaves blazing over our little backyard stream, Hawk Run, or our incredible ‘Aconitifolia’ Japanese maple in the front yard, with its unsurpassed display of red-orange-purple fall foliage. Thank goodness we got back from West Virginia in time to see them!