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Sex versus violence. June 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were outraged by yesterday’s coverage of some preacher doing a video rant about how watching the giant HBO hit series “Game of Thrones” was like “crucifying Jesus twice.” We have watched the first three seasons of the show (not having HBO, we won’t see the fourth season until after the fifth has aired in spring of 2015). And it is unquestionably the most violent show either of us has ever seen, with routine murder, death, and torture (physical and mental), as well as the seemingly relentless killing of every noble, virtuous character on the show and corruption of the rest.

To say the least, “Game of Thrones” is not a cheerful, upbeat show, and its point seems to be that morality is doomed and corruption conquers all in a violent conflagration that leaves thousands of innocents dead in its wake. Not to mention that one character does indulge in a mass crucifixion, and others in enthusiastic flayings, both of which Jesus endured. You would think, no wonder a preacher would caution his followers against this show.

But the violence wasn’t what outraged the preacher at all. It was the female nudity on the show, the intimations of sex, that got his blood in an uproar and caused his furious condemnation of the show. Apparently, showing some woman naked crucified Jesus, but endless and endlessly bloody, horrific violence did not. A woman’s naked rump was far more horrifying to this man than someone losing his hand or having his head cut off or his eyes gouged out or a woman being forced to have sex with her own father or having her baby cut out of her womb as she was murdered. Oh, no. It was the naughty bits that got this preacher all riled up.

This reminds us of a wonderful recurring theme in the very great movie “Cinema Paradiso,” where the local priest had every movie screened before it was shown in the town’s cinema, and forced the poor guy who ran the films to cut out everything the priest found unacceptable, such as kissing. (He didn’t censor violence either.) It also reminds us of the notorious trial of the pornographer and publisher Larry Flynt, where Flynt showed photos of his spreads from his magazine “Hustler,” very mild by today’s standards, next to photos of Holocaust victims, and asked which was the true atrocity. Flynt was ultimately acquitted. But the sex/nudity quotient still drives the movie ratings over violence, hatred, bad language, and the like: You’ll get a PG-17 rating for sex or nudity, but a PG-13 rating for horrific violence and mutilation. For shame!!!

As Supreme Court Justice Byron White famously said when ruling on the film “Carnal Knowledge,” “The only thing obscene about this film is that it is obscenely boring.” Our friend Ben and Silence don’t indulge in watching pornography ourselves, but feel that as long as it doesn’t involve children, animals, or sadism, those who do choose to indulge should be left alone. Films and shows that promote and revel in mindless, horrific violence in the name of “entertainment” are quite another matter. What’s a bare bum compared to somebody’s head being blown off?

We certainly don’t think that Jesus would be a fan of gratuitous nudity or pornography. He respected the sanctity and dignity of every human being. But to think that He, the Prince of Peace, would uphold media violence while denouncing media sexuality is blasphemy. Beyonce or Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian in a see-through costume is surely better than the Taliban cutting off a beautiful girl’s ears and nose because she advocated education for women, or someone shooting a Pakistani girl in the head for doing the same, or setting a woman on fire because she declined to marry someone, or stoning her to death for having dared to marry the man she loved.

Preachers, direct your rants to things that matter.

The best saag paneer. June 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve made saag paneer, the Indian dish that combines spinach and other greens with cubed white, mild-flavored paneer cheese and sauteed spices for decades. It’s so delicious and easy to make! And those good-for-you greens have never tasted better, combined as they are with all the healing spices, not to mention super-healthy garlic and onion and lycopene-rich tomato.

I love to serve my saag paneer with basmati rice and plain Greek yogurt (as a baseline raita), sometimes also featuring a vegetable curry and embellished with luscious add-ons like tamarind and mint sauces and a fruit chutney, served with a generous helping of warm garlic naan. But that’s just for special occasions and guests. The simple meal of saag paneer, rice and yogurt is so good and so filling all by itself.

Incidentally, if you’re a saag paneer fan who buys it frozen and you’ve been confused by palaak paneer, which somehow seems just like saag paneer, the difference is that palaak (aka palak) paneer is made solely with spinach, while saag paneer has multiple greens, including methi, fresh fenugreek leaves. I’ve been able to find both dried methi leaves and fresh, frozen, cubed methi leaves at a nearby Indian grocery. As you’ll see, I try to keep the frozen cubes on hand to put in my saag paneer, but if I’m out of them, I’ll substitute dried.

I thought my saag paneer was perfect until I saw a recipe called “Authentic Saag Paneer” on Allrecipes.com. It had an ingredient I’d never seen in a saag paneer recipe—a half-cup of heavy whipping cream. Say what?! That would certainly raise the calorie count while lowering the health quotient considerably. But would it really make for an even more delicious saag paneer?

Turns out, the answer is a definite yes. This is mostly because of the luscious sauce that will permeate the rice you serve it over. (In this case, definitely serve the saag paneer over the rice, not alongside it, to catch every drop of the delicious sauce.) I find adding cream and simply serving the spiced greens over rice to make a perfect lunch, totally flavorful, totally satisfying. But unlike the Allrecipes.com version, I make no claim that my saag paneer is authentic, just that it’s great. And a great way to get your daily dose of supergreens.

Saag Paneer

1 large bag chopped kale
1 large bag chopped collard greens
1 large bag chopped spinach
2 cubes frozen methi (fenugreek leaves)
1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia or WallaWalla, diced
2-4 tablespoons ginger and garlic paste, to taste
1/2 to 1 package paneer, cubed (I like lots of paneer, you may prefer less)
1 tomato, diced
1 tablespoon powdered turmeric
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black or brown mustardseeds
1 tablespoon Trocomare, RealSalt, sea salt, or Himalayan salt
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
canola oil for cooking

In a very large, heavy pot (I use my very largest LeCreuset Dutch oven for this), add the bag of kale and sprinkle a little water over it. Cook, covered, over low heat until the greens have cooked down, stirring occasionally. When the greens have reduced, add the collard greens and repeat the process, adding a bit of water if needed and stirring the collards into the kale when they’ve cooked down. Finally, add the bag of spinach (again, with a little water if the pot seems dry), and stir the wilted spinach into the other greens, immediately turning off the heat.

In a second large, heavy pot (I use my next-largest LeCreuset Dutch oven), pour in canola oil to coat the bottom. Saute the onion with the salt until it clarifies, then add the spices, sauteing ’til fragrant. Add the diced tomato and the cubed methi (fenugreek leaves), stirring until broken down and incorporated. Now pour in the heavy cream. When it’s warmed, add the cooked greens and stir well to incorporate, then gently mix in the cubed paneer. Once the dish is hot, serve it over basmati rice and prepare to be blown away! It keeps well and reheats well, too. I make a big batch of basmati rice and stash it in the fridge, then prepare an ovenproof dish with some rice (and a little water) in the bottom topped with a helping of saag paneer, and tuck it in the oven at 250 degrees F. until it’s heated through. Yum!

Try it and see what you think.

‘Til next time,

Silence

There’s a dog in my soup. June 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

Thus begins the hoary old joke we’ve all heard so many times. But it’s not so funny when it comes to some real-life object in our food that shouldn’t be there. Just today, two news items on Yahoo news featured unintended items that ended up in people’s food.

Over in England, a 7-year-old boy bit into what he thought was a fried piece of boneless chicken breast from KFC, only to discover that the crispy fried coating concealed not chicken but a blue kitchen towel (the kind made of paper, not cloth). Our friend Ben figured that KFC would quickly offer his family free chicken for the rest of their lives to avoid a suit, but no: The franchise offered the boy and his mother one free meal, and that only after the distraught mother had returned to the restaurant to complain and been told to call customer service instead, and the story had gone viral. Oliver, the little boy involved, declined this generous offer.

Meanwhile, back in the States, a family ordering fries from a Sonic drive-in discovered an unexpected item in their take-out container: a bag of marijuana. “Free pot with every purchase!” or “Get high on our fries!” would probably do wonders for the franchise’s bottom line, but our friend Ben suspects that the fries just went to the wrong customer. There probably will still be an uptick in patronage as customers hope to get lucky.

Given how many meals fast-food restaurants serve, and the emphasis being on speedy service, it’s amazing that stories like this don’t hit the news every day. (Well, maybe not the pot story.) Which means that most fast-food franchises must be doing a darned good job of monitoring their kitchens.

Not that there aren’t the occasional scandals caused by other actions, like substituting, say, cat for chicken a few years ago at KFC franchises in China. (Though cat might be a perfectly acceptable meat source in China, just as the very popular dog stew is in Korea.)

Nor are the alien objects limited to fast-food restaurants. Years ago, our friend Ben accompanied Silence Dogood to one of the few vegetarian restaurants then extant in the South. We had barely raised our forks when a little boy at a nearby table announced that there was a cockroach in his food. Far from expressing outrage, his parents suggested that he simply stop complaining and order another dish from the menu. But for some reason, like little Oliver in the UK, the child had lost his appetite. And so had we.

Being an omnivore, after all, shouldn’t involve eating dish towels. And being a vegetarian, by definition, means not eating insects. Or dogs.

Trading time. June 25, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have always loved our handymen. Neither of us is the least bit handy—screwing in a lightbulb and flipping the switch is a major accomplishment for us—and this trait runs in both our families, so it must be genetic. Our handymen (and our parents’ handymen, and presumably their parents’ handymen), by contrast, can do pretty much anything, professionally and affordably. From building a deck to repairing a leaky roof to replacing a faulty electric circuit to making a stone firepit to getting the clothes dryer back up and running, handymen are the best. We salute you!

But hey, what if your handyman worked for free? Most of us choose handymen rather than pros because we can’t afford professional service fees. A free handyman would be a huge boost to our tiny budget. So would a free tree pruner, petsitter, and auto mechanic. So you can imagine what a shock our friend Ben had this morning when I happened upon an online article from All You Magazine called ‘We Make Ends Meet Without Money’.

The trend to supply time-valued services for free in exchange for free services is apparently nationwide, but the article focused on five Vermonters who were connecting through a local time/service exchange, the Brattleboro Time Trade. Residents who sign up for the Time Trade can ask for services, such as lawn mowing and stacking wood, in exchange for babysitting, homecooked meals, dog walking, and clothing repair. Or, say, financial advice, massages, elder care, weeding, and music lessons. The possibilities are endless.

The article suggests checking out two websites, timebanks.org and hourworld.org, to see if there are already time banks, as they’re called, in your area, and if not, how to set one up. They suggest starting with at least 10 members and appointing a paid coordinator/administrator to take care of the online and phone work. They recommend that the members have clearly defined skills, post them on the site, and have the exchanges put in writing so both parties are clear on what’s expected and when.

In our case, that would mean exchanging our own highly honed writing, editing, vegetarian, cooking, gardening/horticultural/herbal, archaeological, paleontological, historical, collecting, art, chicken-raising, and in-depth knowledge of literature skills for some hands-on work. It would be so great!

But our friend Ben has a question: When will Big Brother, in the form of the IRS, show up and tax this classic form of barter?! Barter has always been popular with the underclasses, who are just trying to get by, and hated by the upper classes, who feel robbed of additional income, through taxation, of the goods/services being exchanged. Our friend Ben fears that this initiative will find itself taxed in a Hunger Games scenario, with The Capitol pouncing on the impoverished and helpless Districts and forcing them to give every last drop of blood in exchange for a crumb of food or a rag of clothing.

Barter is a time-honored means of exchanging goods and services the world over, from the earliest human history to the present. It enables those who couldn’t otherwise afford goods and services to have them. (Another Hunger Games reference: Those who know the books and films may recall the heroine, Katniss, exchanging a squirrel, destined for the stewpot, for a ball of yarn and the mockingjay pin on the black market.) Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood wholeheartedly approve of the barter system, and especially since it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors and make new friends.

Fast and easy strawberry-rhubarb pie. June 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s the end of local strawberry and rhubarb season here, which makes me want to cry. The local strawberries are so much more delicious than those store-bought, hard, tongue-curdling whitish berries you get in the store. You can smell the homegrown berries the minute you enter one of the Old Order Mennonite farm stands in our area. (They’re horse-and-buggy people like the Amish.) And the rhubarb is slender-stalked and tender.

Do our friend Ben and I grow strawberries and rhubarb here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA? You betcha. But we have a little problem. Every year, the birds—who apparently know to the second when our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and elderberries will be ripe—beat us to the crop. In the case of the strawberries, chipmunks (who invariably eat half a berry and leave the rest in plain sight just to torment us) and slugs also eat their fill. As for the rhubarb, ours grows into such huge, gorgeous ornamental plants that I can’t bear to harvest the stalks. Thus, on to the Mennonite stands.

I’m going to guess that rhubarb plants don’t flourish in hot, humid climates, since I’d never encountered rhubarb in any form while growing up in Nashville. But up here in scenic PA, it’s one of the first fresh treats of spring, along with strawberries, asparagus and young dandelion greens (unsprayed, please). I quickly fell in love with rhubarb’s distinctive flavor, stewed and spooned over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt, made into pies (I actually prefer an all-rhubarb pie to the famous strawberry-rhubarb pie), or made into rhubarb jam.*

We’d had such luscious strawberries from a nearby Mennonite farm stand that we ate the entire box plain, then rushed back for more. But this time, the girl who took our order dumped the box of ripe berries into a plastic bag. By the time we got home, the berries were mushed and pouring out juice. I quickly put the bag in the fridge. We returned for more berries (in the box this time), and I saw the slender, tender rhubarb stalks on sale, so I bought a bunch of them as well.

To make the most of that luscious but mushy bag of strawberries, before they got moldy, I decided to try my hand at making strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was my first try at making any pie but pecan pie. You see, in the South of my childhood, pies were a lot different than they are in the North. There were pecan pies, chess pies, banana cream pies, chocolate icebox pies, and for super-special occasions, rum pies. Fruit (with the exception of bananas) was baked into cobblers, not made into pies as it is up here. Cobblers are so easy, so delicious, and so accommodating that it seemed ridiculous to put a blueberry-peach, raspberry-peach, blackberry, cherry, peach, or [your favorite fruit here] filling in a piecrust.

At this point, I wish I’d made strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. (In case anyone reading doesn’t know, a cobbler tops a jammy fruit filling with a crumbly, crunchy mix of flour, oatmeal, salted butter, and often spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom.) We’ll get to why in a minute (I have to take the blame for actually asking OFB to do something without supervision, but that’s another matter).

To get started, I consulted my good friend Google to check out strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes. Yuck! Every one of them had you make a piecrust, and either a second piecrust for topping the pie or enough extra dough to make a lattice top. Making a piecrust involves cutting very cold, chopped-up butter (or lard or Crisco) into flour until it’s totally incorporated, then rolling it out on a chilled marble slab or your counter. Eeewww!!! If you hate touching greasy things like I do, much less cleaning up a floury, greasy counter, making piecrust is not for you. (This is also why I don’t buy delicious, locally made rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies: I’m a vegetarian, and the crusts are all made with lard.)

Then, the recipes all had you cut up the rhubarb and strawberries, mix them with a cup of sugar, dump in flour or cornstarch to thicken the filling, and dump it raw into the piecrust before topping it with the second piecrust or latticing and baking it. Everyone warned that, without the thickening flour or cornstarch, the juices would destroy the bottom crust.

At this point, I decided that I was going to create my own recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household that considered the addition of flour or cornstarch as a thickener was simply blasphemy. Either one drastically degraded the flavor and texture of any food—soup, gravy, sauce, macaroni and cheese, you name it—to which it was added. No flour-or cornstarch-enhanced recipe ever passed our lips. Instead, our home rule was to use top-quality ingredients like cream and butter and simply take the time to cook them to the proper consistency.

So we stopped at the grocery and I asked OFB if he’d prefer a standard, Graham-cracker, or shortbread crust (all ready-made and pressed into their aluminum pans in the baking aisle). OFB chose a Keebler shortbread crust. Sounded good to me.

Once home, I chopped the rhubarb stalks (rhubarb leaves and roots are poisonous, only the stalks are safe to eat) and put them in a heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens) with a little water to keep them from sticking and burning as they cooked. Then I got out that bag of runny, yucky strawberries and totally grossed myself out by pulling off the stems and then chopping them and adding them to the rhubarb. When I’d finally chopped them all, I poured the juice into the pot as well. I also chopped some of the fresh strawberries we’d bought and added them.

As the rhubarb and strawberries cooked down, I added a ten-ounce jar of rhubarb jam to both intensify the flavor and thicken the filling. You could add strawberry jam if you wanted, but then you’d totally overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Or you could add apricot preserves or apple jelly or even marmalade or what have you, but you’d definitely be changing the flavor.

Everything cooked down perfectly into a rich, thick, jammy pie filling, full of fresh fruit and with no yucky thickeners. I was very happy, but by that point, I was also very tired. So I asked OFB if he would spoon the filling into the shortbread crust and put it in the fridge while I got ready for bed. HUGE mistake, as I found out the next morning. OFB admitted that he’d put the filling in the crust, then attempted to pick up the aluminum-foil pan, at which point it had apparently folded in on itself and distributed a supernova of shortbread crumbs into the filling.

I still can’t imagine why this could have happened. That the crust might have broken in half is one thing; that it imploded all over the filling is implausible to me, yet, in the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The results of my wonderful pie now looked like vomit. I was devastated. I can’t eat something this gross, so I’ve made OFB swear that he’ll eat it with ice cream and whipped cream.

Before writing this post, I stuck a finger into the filling to make sure it actually tasted good and wasn’t gummy. And yes, make this and you’ll be so very, very happy: It’s delicious, fruity, fresh, and just the right texture, juicy but not runny. But if you make it, do what I’ll do next time: Put the crust and aluminum base on a plate before filling the crust, and put the plate into the fridge along with the plate so it can all set.

Fans of rhubarb, rejoice! And don’t forget that Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.

‘Til next time,

Silence

* I’ve only found one source of rhubarb jam, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA. Fortunately, you can order it online at http://www.kitchenkettle.com or call to order at 1-800-717-6198.

Should you try to grow tulips from seed? June 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben has been fascinated by this question since Silence Dogood and I ordered a gorgeous pastel tulip mix from White Flower Farm last fall. We also ordered their famous daffodil mix, The Works, and interplanted the tulips with the new daffs. This spring, we had the most gorgeous show of daffodils and tulips that Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, has ever known. (And our daff display, thanks to the previous owners, has always been pretty spectacular.)

We felt good about spending the gift certificate from Silence’s beloved brother on The Works, because we know that daffodils will multiply every year and keep the show going and growing, almost certainly outliving you. But we felt guilty about getting the tulips, since, in contrast to daffodils, most tulips bloom for a year and then decline. Even the so-called perennial tulips like the Darwin hybrids typically only bloom five years, max. Only the tiny species tulips are true perennials, and their blooms are more crocus-sized and look nothing like what you and I think of as tulips.

Yikes. Our tulips were stunning this year, but we expect to see foliage and no flowers next year, and nothing thereafter. However, many of the plump, healthy bulbs produced not just gorgeous flowers this year, but huge, plump seedpods that are continuing to grow and ripen. Our friend Ben wondered if there was any hope that we could grow more tulips from the thousands of seeds in those plump pods.

I checked in with my good friend Google, and quickly realized why people bought tulip bulbs instead of growing their own. Obviously, the carefully bred hybrids you bought would look nothing like the seed-grown tulips you raised. But getting potentially thousands of free tulips every year would certainly console us for not getting premium hybrids. That wasn’t the reason people don’t grow tulips from seed. It’s the time/care factor.

This is the same reason most people don’t grow another bulbing plant, onions, from seed. You can get a lot more onion varieties if you buy seeds rather than sets or starts. But almost everyone buys sets or starts instead. That’s because, if you grow onions from seed, you get tiny, thin, threadlike seedlings from the seeds. You have to nurture them like the most delicate preemies, eventually setting them out into a carefully watered and weeded garden bed until, at the end of the season, you get not onions but onion sets, those thumbnail-sized round bulbs you generally buy and plant in spring to harvest onions in fall. You have to carefully dry your homegrown sets and store them through the winter, then plant them out in late spring to get onions the following year.

Most people aren’t willing to go to the trouble, especially when planting storebought onion sets is the easiest thing imaginable: Push the set into the soil until only the top protrudes, firm the soil around it, put the next set in about an onion’s width away, and so on. Before you know it, you have onions.

Not so with seed-grown tulips. Yes, you can let those fat pods turn from green to brown, then cut them off and harvest the seeds. But if you’re serious about growing them, you need to stratify them all in moist sphagnum moss and sand in plastic in the fridge or a coldframe, then carefully monitor the seedlings through the SIX YEARS it takes for the bulbs to reach blooming size. Yowie kazowie! No wonder everyone buys their tulip bulbs every year.

We loved our White Flower Farm pastel tulip mix, but damned if we’re buying it every year. Nor is our friend Ben about to sacrifice those perfectly splendid, plump tulip seedpods. Instead, once they’re dried and brown, I’ll scatter the seeds everywhere we want tulips. Winter will stratify them every bit as well as a refrigerator. Maybe they’ll grow and maybe they won’t. I guess we’ll know six years from now. Why do daffodil bulbs live, multiply, and bloom year after year, and tulip bulbs decline and die? Our friend Ben has no idea. But the tulips have given us a chance, through their seedpods, to keep them alive, and our friend Ben is going to take it.

Dead wood can be good. June 20, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our wonderful tree pruner decided to switch over into landscaping about ten years ago, and I’m ashamed to say that we haven’t had our trees pruned here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since that time. (I should say “voluntarily pruned,” since our local electric utility has taken to scalping and shaving whole sides off trees, including evergreens, in an attempt to preempt storm damage. It might have occurred to them that evergreens evolved to resist snow and ice damage, but nooooo.)

Our former pruner had everything we wanted: horticultural knowledge, so he only pruned out dead and diseased or damaged wood; affordable rates; and commonsense (so he took all the safety precautions and didn’t end up flying). We had him come twice a year to keep our friendly forest of trees shipshape. And we’ve been agonizing over his career change ever since.

We’re not eager to bring in an unknown pruner who charges thousands of dollars and believes that trees should be “topped” into hideous balls, like so many pruners around here do routinely. (One of our favorite bumper stickers says “Topless Trees Are Indecent.”) And since we want all downed wood chopped to size for our firepit and woodstove, rather than hauled away or chipped, we fear the costs would skyrocket.

What to do?!! We don’t own a chainsaw, much less know how to use one, and damned if we’re putting ourselves in harness and climbing trees. Some things should be left to the professionals. No point in ending up like Bran Stark. We prefer enjoying our trees from below the leaf canopy.

However, over ten years of not having pruners come attend to our trees, a lot of big branches and many smaller ones have died. This past bizarre winter did in a couple of large shrubs, and hurled forked branches onto the limbs of others. There’s a lot of dead wood around here that needs to be taken down and cut up. So we finally decided to bite the bullet and find a new pruner to clean things up.

Then, this noon, something happened to make me reevaluate a large-scale pruning sweep. I love sitting out on our deck with OFB and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, surrounded by colorful, fragrant, blooming container plants, with our deck water garden brimming with plants, fish, snails, and sometimes frogs, and our creek, Hawk Run, burbling away just beyond the deck, with a sweeping view of our property on the other side of the deck bridge. But in summer, by about 11 and continuing to about 2, the sun falls on the deck and makes it too hot for me to handle.

Normally, I just hide in the house until the sun moves on. But today OFB persuaded me to sit by our firepit under the shade trees on the far side of the creek. I was looking in despair at all the new dead branches sitting there had brought into view—how many thousands of dollars were we going to have to pay to get them all cut down and cut up?!!—when I heard a racket going on directly overhead.

Yikes! There was another dead branch. This one was covered with lichens and mushrooms and had two perfectly round holes in it, doubtless bored by our resident woodpeckers (we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, though the holes were too small for the latter). The racket was not, however, being made by woodpeckers, but by a pair of wrens who had nested in one of the woodpecker’s holes and were flying in to feed their clamoring babies.

I love wrens (and woodpeckers, for that matter). Wrens are tiny, fearless brown birds that are instantly recognizable by their long, straight beaks and the way they hold their tails up when they perch. They have often “visited” me in my home office by landing on the a/c outside my window and strutting around. They’re incredibly cute and seem unafraid of anything. I’d seen that they’d actually nested in one of our birdhouses this spring, but had no idea that they would nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

“Ben! You have to see this! Wake up!!!” I tried with limited success to rouse OFB from his fresh-air-induced slumbers. But I was absolutely riveted. Both parents constantly flew to their nest with bugs to feed their babies, who chittered appreciatively (though I thought more appreciatively when the bugs were bigger and juicier).

The adult wrens displayed great intelligence, heading to a blooming privet nearby, which attracted innumerable bugs with its flowers and fragrance. And they were tireless, taking turns bringing their catch to the nest-hole, popping in to feed the babies, then returning to the hunt. If anyone ever doubted the importance of birds in controlling insect populations, I wish they could have seen the scores of bugs brought to the nest in the hour or so I sat there.

At first, the wrens were rather perturbed that OFB, Shiloh and I were sitting almost directly below their nest hole, and there was a fair amount of fussing directed at us before they disappeared into the branch. But, again displaying intelligence, they eventually realized that we were posing no threat, and the alarm calls ceased and were replaced by contented calling to their offspring. (“Look what I’ve brought this time! What a beautiful day! Just wait ’til you can fly!”)

Well. I think we’ll still need to hire pruners this year. But that’s not a branch we’ll let them take off.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Kale: quick, easy, delicious. June 19, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. For me, kale was love at first sight (and bite). I loved the look of the curly leaves, and the taste and texture had me hooked. Even kale’s rise to stardom hasn’t made me abandon it for other greens people aren’t constantly raving about (though I love you too, mustard greens and arugula). But one thing drives me crazy about the kale fad: the idea that if you don’t fuss endlessly with the poor kale leaves, they’re not worth eating.

Okay, I love sauteed kale with minced garlic as much as the next girl. I love kale mixed in with other nutritious greens in a classic saag paneer, or wilted with spinach and served up with a good splash of balsamic vinegar and a dash of mineral salt (RealSalt, Himalayan salt, and the various sea salts all work for me). But spare me the kale chips, green smoothies (omg), and hand-rubbed salads, or the shredded kale salads smothered in gloppy dressing and coated with dried fruit, presumably to mask the taste.

Hey, guys, the taste and texture of raw kale are great. No need to fuss, fuss, fuss. My favorite kale salad is so easy, and so good. All you need to do is get some of that fresh curly-leaf kale and some greens that can stand up to it, like romaine lettuce and radicchio. Wash, dry, and rip the greens into bite-size pieces, then toss them in a big bowl.

If you can find those scallions (green onions) with fat onion bulbs on the bottom, cut up a bunch, slice the onions, and toss them into the bowl; otherwise, add half a diced red or sweet onion (such as Vidalia or WallaWalla). Add a diced red, yellow or orange bell pepper, some yellow, red, and orange cherry tomatoes (if you can find them, otherwise, use the color or colors you can find), and a heaping handful of pepitas (roasted, salted pumpkinseeds).

Mix or toss it all together, and top your salad off with sliced hard-boiled eggs and shredded sharp white Cheddar or crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Then all you need is some salt, fresh-cracked black pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar to make the salad sing. Protein, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and great flavor all in one colorful package! No kale-leaf rubbing required.

‘Til next time,

Silence

What’s your family motto? June 16, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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In the TV series “Game of Thrones” and the books it was based on, George RR Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, the great noble Houses of Westeros all have mottos. House Stark’s motto is “Winter Is Coming.” House Lannister has an official motto, “Hear Me Roar,” and an unofficial but equally well-known one, “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts.” House Greyjoy’s ferocious raiding (Viking*) nature is expressed in its official motto, “We Do Not Sow,” and its suitably bleak unofficial motto is “What Is Dead May Never Die.” House Tully’s motto is more noble: “Family, Duty, Honor,” and the allied House Arryn has a similar motto, referencing their keep, The Eyrie’s, high perch, “As High as Honor.” The motto of House Martell of Dorne is “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken;” that of House Targaryen is “Fire and Blood.” And the motto of the royal house, House Baratheon, is “Ours Is the Fury.”

This practice is based in mediaeval history, when the royal and noble houses of Europe all had mottos. The most famous of all is probably King Edward III’s motto for the Order of the Garter, which he founded in 1348: “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.” (I learned this as “Evil to him who evil thinks of it,” but the preferred translation from the Middle French is “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”)

Why a French motto for an English chivalric order? England’s nobility may have actually managed to learn some English after nearly 300 years of English rule since William the Conqueror of Normandy cleaned the battlefield of Hastings with poor Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson’s blood. But the official language of the court was still French, and the English monarchs still laid claim to the French throne, and continued to do so through the infamous and tumultuous reign of Henry VIII. (For all our friend Ben knows, they may have continued to lay claim to the throne of France until the Hanoverians, the German family from which Queen Elizabeth II descends, assumed the throne, but a little thing called the Spanish Armada sort of shifted their focus from France to Spain.)

Think about it: Wouldn’t you like a motto for your “house” (aka family, lineage)? Unless you’re descended from nobility, chances are that you’ll have to create your own. Like the great Houses in Westeros, you’ll want it to either express the traits that characterize your family and its situation or the aspirations it has to honor and glory. Many of the Westerosi Houses base their mottos on their House sigil, typically but not always an animal (the lion of House Lannister, for example, or the dragons of House Targaryen), their location (House Stark were once kings of the North, and House Arryn’s keep, The Eyrie, is indeed perched on a treacherously high peak), or their history (Dorne was the only kingdom in Westeros that was able to resist the Targaryen invasion, thus, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”).

So, how to proceed? You need something catchy, short, and memorable. “Mine Is the Endless Slog at the Corporation While My Brilliance Is Unrecognized and My Idiot Boss Humiliates Me and Takes Credit for My Ideas” might be worthy of Dilbert (and many of us), but it’s just not going to make it as a family motto. By contrast, “Follow Me” might be appropriate for Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. The Knights Templar’s motto was “Do Your Duty, Come What May,” probably not too popular in today’s “One for All and All for Me” world. I’d suggest thinking about what matters to you and your family, then write it down, then condense it to something catchy and memorable.

The catchphrase of the Red Priestess Melisandre in “Game of Thrones” is “The night is dark and full of terrors.” I think, for our friend Ben and Silence Dogood here at Hawk’s Haven, our motto might be “The world is wide and full of wonders.” And our sigil would be a huge black German shepherd (our beloved Shiloh) with a red-tailed hawk (our totem) soaring above her.

What would you choose?

* Ironically, in the growing season, the Vikings were all farmers. They only took to raiding once the crops were harvested, unlike the Ironborn of “Game of Thrones,” who fished from their stony island and raided for every other item that sustained life.

White bread: The next health food? June 15, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. When I was growing up, food was considered a friend, not a foe, something to be enjoyed without guilt. Then came the health police, telling us that salt, butter, cheese, eggs, and white bread (and white everything) were the tools of Satan, leading us on a cholesterol-clogged, sugar-laden path to diabetes, heart attack, obesity and stroke. From then on, on the rare occasions when I’d allow myself to eat a chunk of baguette with butter or Brie, I’d practically die of guilt. Bad dog! No, no!!!

Decades after their initial condemnation, one by one, the “bad” foods began to be rehabilitated. Scientists discovered that the cholesterol in egg yolks didn’t translate into cholesterol in the body, and yes, the egg was the perfect source of protein. Salt is necessary for life itself, and chefs now celebrate it in all its diversity. Butter, it turns out, is far healthier than polyunsaturated fats like safflower oil, and cheeses like blue cheese contain probiotics, the “good” bacteria that keep your gut healthy and free of inflammation.

The latest food to be removed from the death list is, of all things, white bread. If you’re like me, you grew up with those squishable, spongy loaves of what came to be known as “balloon bread” (perhaps because of the plastic bags the loaves were wrapped in, I’ve never been sure). If you squeezed the bag, you could smush the whole loaf into a fist-size blob (if your mother didn’t catch you first). Balloon bread was the go-to option for breakfast toast, French toast and cinnamon toast; for BLTs, PB&J or PB and banana, turkey and tuna fish sandwiches (and all sandwiches); and for toast topped with creamed turkey or creamed white asparagus. The alternative, Pepperidge Farm white bread, was not squishable, not balloon bread, but toast and sandwiches made from it bore no resemblance to the “real thing” because the texture was so different.

Once white bread was vilified (“it’s no different from eating sugar”) and balloon bread in particular came under attack as an empty-calorie diabetes trigger, I, like so many of us, switched to whole-wheat and multigrain breads. No slice of balloon bread has passed my lips my entire adult life, though I still remember those turkey sandwiches and tuna sandwiches and BLTs fondly. (Not to mention the French toast and cinnamon toast.) I dutifully searched for loaves that contained whole grains only, not the despised unbleached white flour with added whole grains. And I learned to enjoy these breads, though I still love baguettes and ciabatta loaves and the delicious dinner rolls of my childhood, hot and dripping with butter.

You can imagine my surprise when I read an article on Yahoo News yesterday in which scientists discovered that eating white bread promotes the growth of gut-healthy, disease- and inflammation-inhibiting Lactobacillus bacteria (one of the kinds of “good” bacteria found in yogurt and probiotic supplements). The scientists also found that pectin, the feel-full substance found in apples and many other fruits, including citrus (and the one that allows fruits to jell into jams, jellies and preserves without added gelatin), inhibited Lactobacillus levels, reducing gut health.

These findings certainly don’t mean that we should stop eating fruit. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” refers to regularity, not beneficial bacteria, and fruits are packed with lifesaving antioxidants as well as vitamins. Nor should it mean that you should rush out and gorge on butter-slathered loaves of balloon bread or any other white bread. What it does mean is that you don’t have to feel guilty for eating the occasional piece of white bread with cheese or as buttered toast with your breakfast egg, or sandwiching the filling of a BLT or egg salad sandwich. Moderation as always is the key.

And given all this reversal of dietary advice once the studies that produced it were fully analyzed, the next time news headlines tell you to give up a basic food (as opposed to junk, fast, and processed food), if I were you I’d take it with a grain of salt.

‘Til next time,

Silence