The lazy gardner: Drying hydrangeas in September

These were actually cut in August and abandoned (on purpose) in the music room.

If  I were a proper gardener, I would not be drying hydrangeas in September.  A proper gardener cuts blooms at their very peak, preferably in the morning of a beautiful dry sunny day.  For hydrangeas, that would be in late June or early July.  I know of one proper gardener who takes those perfect blooms and plops the stems into a bucket of anti-freeze.  The flowers soak up the anti-freeze and are preserved in their perfect summer state.  Or so I’m told.  I haven’t actually tried it.  A proper gardener also dead-heads spent blooms and trims the bushes back at the right time of year.  That would mean that hydrangeas in September should be cut back and absolutely, positively shorn of all their now-faded summer glory.

But I’m not a proper gardener.  I didn’t dead-head the blooms because they still had color in them.  They weren’t all black and crusty like the cone-flowers or black-eyed susans.  Plus it was hot.  When it’s hot, I’d rather sit on the porch beneath a circling fan and sip iced coffee (preferably laced with kahlua).  So forget about actually cutting back the overgrown bush.  Ack!  That would work up my sticky perspiring glow into an actual froth of sweat.

Overloaded hydrangea

So now it’s September and the cone-flowers and susans are looking ready for spooky Halloween centerpieces.  The hydrangea bushes look like they have been on steroids and plan to take over the planet.  There are actually little baby hydrangea bushes growing and I would love to (get my husband to) dig them up and plant them in other beds, but I have to trim the overgrowth to find them again.  (This I will do myself. If you have seen how he trimmed the lilacs, you would understand.)

Step one is to harvest the leftover blooms.  They are no longer the pure blue that inspires wedding bouquets.  They are turning like leaves into autumnal hues of purple and green.  They won’t go icky brown until after the first frost.  Now is the perfect time to just snip and decorate with them.  I cut the blossoms and arrange them right into the basket.  No water.   Nothin’.  I put the basket in the hallway.  Ta da. Done.  A week later the soft autumnal flowers are dried crispy but retain the same color.

Lest you think I am overly clever, I began drying hydrangeas by accident.  And often, if I am successful, it is because the magic drying fairy has taken pity on me.  The first time I dried hydrangeas, I cut some flowers, put them in water in a vase and put the vase in the music room.  And completely forgot about them.  Um…I do this a lot.  Some flowers don’t mind this.  I have a vase of pretty yellow roses from my orthopedic surgeon that dried quite nicely.  Usually, though, I end up with vases of dried twigs sitting in oogy water with goopy leaves.  The hydrangeas, however, looked great.  I decided after that to leave all the hyrangeas in their vases until dry–and I ended up with a lot of shriveled up hydrangeas.

After much trial and error, I have figured out some general principles to lazy hydrangea drying.

No direct sunlight in the hallway…a good place for drying.

  • Let them dry on the plant until they no longer have the original color, but before they look like toast.
  • Trim off all leaves.
  • Once inside, put the flowers in a dark room, out of sunlight.  This is where a log home is not only the perfect venue for showcasing dried flowers, but also to dry them.  With wood ceilings and surrounded by trees, it is dark inside.  My house has the perfect conditions for drying flowers.

This was a good blooming year. (Or should I go Brit and say “a bloomin’ good year”?)  I have baskets full of dried blooms to show for it.  But only because the flower fairy was nice to me.

These were cut a week ago and are now dry.

Making room for a new season of venison… and football

We know it’s hunting season when friends show up with gifts–a heart and a liver that they just harvested from a doe in our woods.  While they might normally toss them, they know that John will use them to make an amazing venison liverwurst.  The new heart and liver will join what John has in the freezer and will soon appear as John’s redneck pâté.

With bow season upon us and guys outside climbing into their tree stands, we’ve been inside noting a lack of freezer space.  We still have venison from last year.  One reason for this is that venison lends itself to stews and chilis and other slow cooking dishes that I don’t tend to cook in the summer.  However, the main reason we still have so much is because John stored it all in the man-cave freezer.  I had no idea it was down there!

Quelle bonne surprise– a freezer full of white butcher paper wrapped packages of ground meat and roasts.   Bring on the venison pasta sauce.  Let’s eat some pulled venison sandwiches. And absolutely, positively John gets busy making venison-jalapeno sausage  and Italian venison sausage.  So the freezer goes from  being full of raw venison to being full of sausage.  Not a problem.  The hunters often stop in for a beer after an evening in the woods.  A jalapeno sausage is the perfect post-hunting snack to go with a cold beer.  It’s also the perfect snack food for a Sunday afternoon Ravens game.

MomMom & little John fixing chili in their matching Ravens jerseys. Photo by Mario.

This Sunday got off to a promising start with all the kids and grandkids coming over to watch the Ravens-Eagles game.  Sixteen-month-old grandson John, whose first word was “cook,” was most eager to help whip up a huge pot of venison chili.  We were too wrapped up in the game ( and nibbling jalapeno sausage) to eat the chili until afterwards, at which point it served to console us in our loss.

Unlike liverwurst, which has a select group of devotees, chili is eaten by pretty much everyone.  It’s a good first way to get used to venison.  Substitute ground venison for ground beef and then don’t tell anyone.  They’ll love the flavor and then you can tell them what it is!

Here is one way to use up a bunch of ground venison:

Chili for a crowd

  • 5 lbs. ground venison
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 large cans of dark red kidney  beans
  • 2 large cans of  diced tomatoes
  • 1 can of tomato sauce
  • 1 small can of tomato paste
  • a fistful (or two) of dried oregano, crumbled
  • chili powder  to taste (for me, that would be several  tablespoonfuls or maybe half the jar)
  • cumin to taste (a little less than the chili powder)
  • salt and pepper

Before the game starts, brown the onion and the meat in a large stockpot.  Puree one can of the kidney beans (drained first) in a food processor and add the ground paste to the pot.  Add the second can of kidney beans whole (but drained).  Stir in the remaining ingredients and let simmer until half-time.  Serve with garnishes of grated cheese and sour cream or Greek yogurt.  Eat as a dip with tortilla scoops or as a dinner with corn bread.

I personally like to add green pepper with the onion, but a certain son-in-law doesn’t eat green pepper.  (Plus I didn’t have one.)  The batch of chili I made for the pathetic Ravens-Eagles game did not use my usual spices either.  I was out of chili powder so I used Black Dust Coffee & Spice Rub that I bought at Savory Spice Shop in Boulder, Colorado last June.  The interesting combination of ingredients (coffee,  black pepper, cumin, Alderwood smoked salt, brown sugar, cocoa, mustard, coriander and chipotle) made for a mellow chili.  Wanting more zip, I added some red pepper and dried jalapeno flakes.  (Don’t tell John I used his dried jalapeno!) It still wasn’t very zippy, though, and every time Kristin came upstairs the aroma tricked her into thinking that I was baking brownies.  I should have used the rest of the jar of dried jalapeno, but I might have gotten in trouble with the resident sausage maker.

For a zippier chili, I could have used Savory Spice’s Red Cloud Peak Seasoning.  I used it Saturday night to coat a round roast.  Mmmmm.  It has hot chili powder in it, but no cumin.  But I do have cumin, so I could have added that to the chili myself.

What did I learn from today’s chili?  If you want the home team to win, don’t eat mellow chili and don’t flavor your chili with seasonings from the Denver area (as good as they may be).  From now on, for Raven’s games at least,  I’ll stick with hot chili powder from the home team–McCormick.

Tending the herb garden, with thoughts toward school

Innocent fuzzy little fennel plants grow up to be prolific seed producers.

One advantage to ignoring the garden for awhile (like the entire ridiculously hot month of July) is that when you finally attack the chaos, the results are dramatic.  Getting started, though is a daunting task.  Where to begin?

My philosophy on tackling overwhelming tasks is to start with one big thing that is really bugging me and that will make a huge difference when it is done.  You can’t just start at one end of the garden and pick every little weed until you get to the end.  You’ll never get to the end.  There are an infinite number of weeds in there.

This philosophy is one that I presented to one of my daughters when she was in middle school and had a disaster area for a bedroom.  If she tried to tidy it, she would spend an entire afternoon and have one tiny tidy corner to show for it.  I  finally said to her, “Do you need me to write out directions on how to do it?”

“Actually, that would be really helpful,” she replied, without a hint of sarcasm.

So I did.  “How to clean your room in less than 10 steps.”  She posted it on her mirror, where it stayed until she got married.  This does not mean that the room was clean.  It just means that if she decided to clean it, she had a 9 step process to get it done.

But I digress.  It’s my garden that is a mess.  The fennel arches over the oregano like Snoopy the Vulture.  A bazillion seeds are poised ready to bomb the garden with an explosion of more fennel.  The oregano, meanwhile, is creeping back to the chives.  Chocolate mint bullies its way past the pineapple sage and into the chamomile.  The chamomile,which had its glory day in the sun weeks ago and is now turning brown, hangs over the thyme which makes a pathetic attempt to lean forward over the rock border to get a sunbeam or two.   Spearmint is getting much too friendly with the basil.  Lemon verbena has overshadowed the tarragon.  Weeds pop up with audacity and gill-over-the-ground wends its serpentine trail through it all.

Now the garden is reminding me less of my daughter’s bedroom and more like a school filled with teenagers.  I ponder my students as I hack and harvest and weed.

In this photo, the herbs had not yet run amok.

1.  Boundaries.  Certain boundaries are set in my garden.  Rocks and flat stones create the border.  Small fences establish perimeters for plants within the garden.  It’s really easy to cut back the mint because I know exactly where it has overstepped its bounds–the little white fence.  My students need boundaries too.  If I create clear boundaries, then it will be easy to keep behavior under control.

Unlike the lemon verbena, which is happily dominant in its spot, the lemon balm could more aptly be named lemon “bomb”–it ends up everywhere! Hmm…like the contents of some students’ backpacks!

2.  Space to grow.  Some herbs in my garden are bullies.  Some are over friendly.  Some are just so happy and thriving that they dominate the landscape.  I like my herbs.  But I like all of my herbs.  Lemon verbena is absolutely my favorite scent.  But I really really want tarragon too.  My students need space to grow too.  In the classroom, certain personalities often dominate at the expense of others.  If I give the overshadowed students space and attention, they have a chance to  thrive, too.

3.  The right spot in the garden.  I’m thinking that perhaps I need to grow tarragon someplace not so close to the lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is great, but my big thriving verbena is not great for the struggling little tarragon.  You know where I’m going with this.  Some students need to be separated for their own good.  Even if they are friends.

4.  Weeds.  When the plants are under control, I can see the weeds better.  This is definitely where the “10 steps to a clean room” comes into play.  I have to address the big ones first.  Which ones are the most problematic and/or unsightly.  There are some big, tall weeds that take up a lot of space but are easy to pull.  (Some big, tall boys come to mind here.  They can drive you crazy but respond to discipline.) Yanking them is like making the bed–it doesn’t take too much effort but yields big results.  The sneaky vines aren’t quite as dramatic, but they choke everything.  They are not hard to pull and a good weeding produces a gratifyingly large mound of debris, but you have to keep at them.  They never really go away.  And it only takes one to get the whole  garden back into a tangled mess.  (Certain girls with their gossipy ways, or sneaky rule-breakers, or cheaters seem to be like this.)

Taller fennel, but still not its full 3 ft. height or loaded with seeds.

5.  Eliminate excess.  Because I actually do not have a green thumb (it’s more like the Black Thumb of Death), I am very reluctant to rip out plants that volunteer to grow for me.  “What!  You want to grow in my pathetic little garden?  Why, bless you!  Welcome!”  This is why I have a ridiculous amount of fennel–I think I have to harvest every single seed, even though a bunch of them escape.  It is part of why garlic chives are everywhere–the flowers are so pretty but often go to seed  before I snip them.  In the classroom, as in the  garden, I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything.  In my desire to not have wasted class time, I tend to assign far too many tasks and then can’t follow-up on them all.  Focus, focus, focus.  That’s not just for the students; it’s for me.

Here is a “volunteer” that I’m glad to have!

6.  Rip out unwanted growth.  You know what?  I don’t like chocolate mint.  Oh, I like the flavor.  It’s the plant I don’t like.  For starters, it doesn’t really taste that chocolatey.  When it flowers, the blooms are a silvery green that look like they would like to be something prettier but are not.  Stupid ugly little flies are attracted to its flowers.  And it takes up a lot of space.  I think I would rather have orange mint.

Oh…  I can rip it out and plant orange mint.  It’s my garden.  Just because it has been in the garden for ten years doesn’t mean it has to be there forever.  Huh.  I’ve been teaching for a long time.  I wonder how many things I’m doing that I don’t want to do but continue to do just because I’ve always done it that way.  I’m not talking about ripping out the whole garden and starting over (ugh!), just a thing or two.

7.  Room for more.  With the bullies cut back and the weeds eliminated, I find I have space for some fall color.  I never thought of putting ornamental cabbage in here before, but now it seems like a fun idea.  As I ponder the personalities who will be returning to my classroom, I know that if I keep the dominant personalities  and the over-exhuberant students from taking over, there will be space for the new students and time for the fun stuff.

FYI, in  case you were amazed at how together my act seems,  the fact that I have this tidy little list of observations does not at all imply that my garden is under control yet!  (Or my classroom, for that matter.)  After an hour of hacking and weeding, my ponderings got the better of me and I ran up here to the computer.  So don’t look for any ornamental cabbages quite yet.  In fact, if I don’t get them planted before school starts, you may not find them ever.

Meditations from the herb garden: Graduating the seniors

My goal Saturday morning was to weed around the screen porch in order to find room for the flowers I bought last week, but by the time I slept in and enjoyed a mug or two of coffee, the sun was blazing in that part of the yard. The wise weeder seeks shade, and shade was by the herb garden.  Shade is usually over the herb garden by the time I get outside, which is why the herbs are looking pretty good and the screen porch is surrounded by grass stalks.

After some weeding, the chives emerged

After some weeding, the chives emerged.

The herbs are doing amazingly well.  Too well.  The oregano is boldly going where no oregano has gone before.  The fennel is popping up in the midst of all the oregano.  Garlic chives are settling in firmly everywhere.  And the lemon balm overshadows everything.  The regular chives are in there somewhere…I see a bloom or two peeking up…but they are dominated by the other happy aggressive herbs around them.  If I don’t give the chives some space, they are going to disappear.

So Saturday’s task was to open up the chives.  Give them room to grow.  That meant clearing out quite a bit of oregano.  Step one was to snip them and harvest them.  Step two was to pot a few manageable chunks into pots for gifting.  Step three was to rip what was left in the no-oregano-zone with reckless abandon. Ditto for the garlic chives and the lemon  balm.  Twisting and winding amidst it all were vines of gill-over-the-ground needing to be aggressively pulled.

When all the snipping and potting and ripping was done, three chive clusters stood blinking in the daylight.  Three wonderful little chive clusters who will bring me joy when snipped onto my morning eggs.  Three modest chive plants that will grow into impressive blooming plants with an abundance of purply-pink blooms for making chive vinegar.

Sprinkle a little mulch and they won’t look so forlorn.

Those tentative little chive plants reminded me of my juniors in French IV class.  Now that the seniors are gone, they are the class.  All year they were overshadowed by the dominant personalities of the seniors.  They were content to let  those personalities dominate.  They were content to hide behind the upper classmen: the next generation’s leader of the free world; the compulsive talker; the “you know you love me so don’t notice I haven’t  done the homework” schmoozer;  the quiet but practically perfect one; and the pathologically lazy hence always  getting yelled at one.

This week the juniors had oral projects to record.  As I listened to their projects, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they did.  These are the timid ones.  When they speak, their voices barely project to the end of their pencil. But  on the recorders (placed right up to their soft-spoken mouths  and with a volume dial so I can crank the decibals up to human auditory level)  their thoughts and their pronunciation were really quite good.   Like my little chives, there they were –quietly and invisibly competent.   And now, with seniors gone, they are exposed.  And now that they are exposed, they have no choice but to grow.

My herb garden looks a little sparse where I  cleared it.  School looks a little sparse these days too.  There is a gap where the seniors used to  be.  It’s not that they were “weeds” to be yanked.  My overgrown herbs  aren’t weeds–they were planted and nurtured because I wanted them.  But like the herbs taking over the garden,  it is time for the seniors to go.  Their personalities were outgrowing the space.

If senior-itis didn’t announce the need for seniors to move on to bigger and better, the spandex-clad Santas who ran screaming through the school the other day certainly did.  Teacher tolerance for the prank was in direct proportion to how much exposure they have had to seniors–the more exposure, the less tolerance.  Senior pranks are a lot like poison ivy–most teachers are allergic.

The seniors have new gardens to explore.  They will be a little tentative until they get established but then they will thrive.  In the meantime,  they have left space for the juniors to rise up and flourish.  And in two more weeks, even the juniors will be  gone for a bit, giving me some room to flourish.  I’m making no promises about what time I will be rising, but I’m hoping to get the rest of my weeding done.

The Scent of Maywood: This Week It’s Wild Roses

Which will dominate the honey flavor this year, tulip poplar or wild rose?

A fragrance cannot be posted in a blog.  Picture and video can provide sight and sound, but to really experience Maywood in spring, you have to smell it.  On a walk down to the field to inspect the blueberries, the sweet smell of grass perfumes the air.  Not the smell of a fresh mowed lawn, this is the smell of  grasses and wildflowers growing in a wild crazy community.  Above it all, the tulip poplars bloom, adding their own subtle note to the air.  Venturing down to the bee-yard, the fruity-floral scent of wild rose dominates.  Small wonder.  Wild rose just plain dominates.

Wild rose, aka multiflora rose, originated in Japan and was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800’s as rootstock for cultivating roses.  In the 1930’s it began to be planted to aid against soil erosion.  Through the 1960’s it was planted along highways as a beautiful natural barrier.  And that is how the wild rose made its way to Maywood–as a planting along I-83.  Officially designated an invasive plant, it certainly thrives on our property.  The span from the bee-yard to the highway is thick barrier of wild roses.  Wild roses are also establishing themselves everywhere else that isn’t mowed.  The edges of the yard are a favorite settling place, but they are not averse to popping up in the middle of the herbs, the day lilies or anywhere else I don’t want them. Wild rose trivia:  the average plant can produce 1 million seeds a year, dispersed by birds who eat the rose hips.  The seeds can last twenty years in the soil.  Oh my.

(Note to blog followers:  the fugitive who instigated our recent midnight manhunt did not enter by way of the roses.  If he had, dogs would not have been needed.  He would have been sufficiently tangled amidst thorns.)

A wild rose barrier from the bees to the highway.

Wild roses may  be invasive but there are so many other invasive things growing around here that they are not high on my list of things to tackle.  Unlike, say, poison ivy, they look and smell pretty and don’t give one a rash.  And the bees love them.

Busy little bee working the wild roses

While we inhale the sweet aroma of wild roses blooming in the clear morning light, pollen-laden bees flit from blossom to blossom.  We can almost taste the honey they will be making.  In the background cars whoosh on the highway but we can’t see them.  They are hidden by a screen of rosa multiflora.

Marching into spring…with my rake

Last week the clock said to spring forward,  but there is nothing about getting up an hour earlier that gets me springing anywhere.  However, an extra hour of daylight in the afternoon was a good enticement to spring home from work, grab a rake, and head out into the garden.

I love to rake.  It makes me happy.  Raking gets me outside on a sunny day.  When the temperature is in the fifties, like it often is in March, the brisk air is perfect for working without getting hot.  The heart gets pumping while the arms get working and the sunbeams do their magic.  Endorphins are flowing!  Yay, it’s so good to be outside!  When the temp is in the seventies, like it has been this week, nothing can keep me indoors!

This year it is even better than usual, because I find that I can rake without pain.  My new two-month-old hip is perfectly content to get out there and rake.  Although my smart-aleck sister tells me I now walk like Dad, I actually feel like a normal person–or at least what I think a normal person feels like.  What a change from the impossible task of raking last fall.

Raking always makes me think of our long-ago neighbor Sam.  Sam had a perfect yard.  It was a small just-inside-the-Beltway yard, bordered by a chain link fence.  It was perfectly mowed, perfectly edged, perfectly bordered with little concrete bed borders and never a leaf to be seen.  Sam policed his yard wearing what looked like a cotton picker’s sack and carrying a pole with a point on the end–the kind maintenance workers used to use to pick up trash.  He’d stab each wayward leaf and stash it in the sack.  That’s how few leaves he had–he could stab each one with a stick.

Unlimited supply of leaves

Some people, like Sam, have immaculate yards and spring just marches in for them.  Out here in the Hereford Zone, immaculate yard-keepers are either leaf-blower fanatics or they don’t have a wooded lot.   No leaf-blowing fanatics live at our house; it is an unending task and there are so many other things to do.  Sam would lose his mind trying to keep ahead of the leaves out here.   Not only are the woods full of them, but the white oaks have an annoying way of waiting until May to drop their remaining leaves.   It’s best to toss aside any idea of “immaculate.”  “Perfect” needs to go, too.  “Aesthetically pleasing” is about as good as it gets.

First periwinkle blossom of spring

Nevertheless, raking in March is immensely gratifying.  It is a mindless task that yields immediate results.  Each swipe of the rake removes the dull cloak of winter-brown to reveal the fresh green of spring.  Vinca is just waiting to be seen.  Crocus are desperately trying to pop their colors.  Daffodils are begging for a fresh new bed to wake up in.  Off go the sedum twigs.  A sweep reveals new buds ready to unfurl.  Each section that I rake pulls off more of the blanket of winter.  Spring has just been waiting for me.

With so much to rake, I  must prioritize.  Who is blooming first and what do I look at the most?  No matter when I start–and this year I feel like I’ve had a head-start–it’s always a race against Spring.  I  must get the leaves out of the way before Spring appears. Crocus and daffodils have priority.  The front of the house and views from the kitchen window get targeted first.  A close second is the herb garden.  I know the chives are beginning to peek up.  By St. Paddy’s Day, they are tall enough to snip for my morning egg.

Saturday was a glorious St. Patrick’s Day–by the end of the day the yard was definitely wearin’ o’ the green.  Almost all the  beds were raked out and the grass was blown clear.  We were  rewarded with an al fresco dinner of corned beef and cabbage and a Bailey’s Irish Cream sundae for dessert.  Does it get any better than that?

Friday Night at the Hunting Lodge

I must begin by saying that we do not run a hunting lodge, bed-and-breakfast, boarding house, retreat center, target practice range, catering service, or wedding reception venue.  It just feels that way.  If we really were doing all those things I would not have to limp into work everyday and deal with sleepy teenagers who are completely unproductive until the end of quarter when they will literally interrupt a life-and-death conversation to ask for extra credit points.   So I resist the urge to beat the student over the head with my cane until I can drive my weary self home, where the hills are alive with the sound of…black powder rifles.

We’re full swing into hunting season here at Maywood.  That means the Lodge is open and busy.  We don’t take reservations.  This is strictly a pop-in-if-the-lights-are-on place. (Leaving me this option: The lights are OFF but somebody’s home.)   The Lodge mainly acts as a post-hunting bar, although I must say it’s a classy one–no dead animals on the walls quite yet.  We’re not full-service.  There’s always coffee and beer, but alas, soda is hard to come by. ( I keep forgetting that the lads are hunting with their dads now and they are too young for beer.)  We don’t serve dinner, but snacks are sometimes available.  It gets a little awkward when hunters show up as I’m serving dinner, which is often the case on Fridays.

Last Friday night the place was hopping.  Everyone was out here: Mike and Tim and their boys and cousin Don.  John got a tender doe, Don gutted it, and they all came down to the mancave to tell their hunting tales over a cold drink while having text message arguments with their wives.

“We just popped in to have a quick beer.”

“I know what that means!  You’ll be there another hour!”

This particular Friday I had planned to cook up a big batch of corn chowder.  While John and the others were off in various corners of the woods, I busied myself in the kitchen.  When they all came in, there was a huge stockpot of soup ready to eat.   Shelley and I sat on the sofa with our bowls of chowder.  The lads entertained Harper with new phone apps and the old guys gathered ’round the bar slurping chowder and brewskis and out-yapping each other.  It was fun.

And I won the amazing wife award for pulling off a delicious soup at the end of a grueling week–just to make John happy.  I’ll tell ya…it’s amazing what the right pain meds can do for you.

Here’s the chowder recipe.  I got the original recipe from Allrecipes but have made some changes.  The original recipe was rather bland.  It truly does make full stockpot of chowder.  After feeding six adults, I still had plenty to tuck away in the freezer.

Corn Chowder

2 lbs of  bacon, cooked til crispy and then chopped.  (Or you could chop and then cook til crispy)  Set aside some of the bacon to use as a garnish.

1 onion, chopped and cooked in bacon grease til translucent

4 large baking potatoes, peeled, diced, and boiled til soft ( just barely cover the potatoes with water to cook, and save the water to add to the soup)

3 cans of creamed corn ( I used creamed corn I had frozen from summer corn–about 6 ears worth.  If using plain corn, I would increase the flour and a bit of bacon grease with the onions in the soup.)

1/4 cup flour

8 cups  milk

fresh dried thyme leaves

Tabasco sauce

salt and pepper

Heat the cooked onions and the flour in a stockpot until hot and blended.  Add the milk, and heat until hot and steamy.  Mash 1/2 the potatoes and stir them into the milk along with the potato water.  Add the remaining potato chunks, the corn,  the bacon, a fistful of crumbled thyme leaves, a few shakes of Tabasco sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer to allow the flavors to blend.  Stir frequently or the milk will burn on the bottom of the pot.  Serve garnished with remaining bacon pieces.

Under less fatiguing circumstances, I would serve this with a fresh sweet cornbread and crispy salad.

Butternut Squash Soup

Miller Lane in Hereford, Maryland

“The sun’ll come out…next Thursday.”  That was the weatherman’s snide remark on the radio the other morning as my windshield wipers swished away.  (And the song from the musical Annie is still stuck in my head.)  By Saturday I am finally able to sit out on the café porch, surrounded by deep green leaves backlit by patches of chartreuse where the September sunlight filters through the trees.  Hints of yellow and orange emerge in the foliage.  Dogwood trees present their bright red berries for the doves.  Nearby in the woods, a young deer nibbles contentedly, too naive to be afraid of the humans.

Wet brown leaves stick to the porch.  A mustiness is in the air.  Somehow, the musty smell pairs well with my snack of apple cider and cheddar cheese.  Crickets drone.  Cars whoosh on the highway.  White noise.  This is the moment to let the week roll off my shoulders.

Out in the garden, the late-starting volunteer cherry tomato plant is loaded with tomatoes.  Three of them have actually managed to ripen in limited sunshine.  Garlic chives have bloomed and faded and now threaten to cast seeds everywhere.  Out come the scissors to snip away the flowers.  I harvest the chives in order to find the rosemary and sage.  Fennel seeds are ready to be snipped and saved.

Tonight calls for Butternut Squash soup.  And the crazy busy-ness of the recent weeks means that a double batch is in order–some for now and some to freeze for a hectic evening later.  There  are times when all you need is a bowl of soup, some crunchy bread and a salad.  It’s so satisfying.  Add a glass of chardonnay and life is good.  Sometimes I make this soup elegant with a “garnish” of lump crab meat.  (By garnish, I mean a nice big plop gently placed in the center of the bowl.)  Other times, I’ve added sliced hotdogs.  Most of the time I eat it simply as is.

Once upon a time I had an actual recipe.  But now it’s something I throw together sort of like this…

Butternut Squash Soup

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into pieces

1 carrot

1 stalk of celery

1 medium onion or 2 shallots

1 potato (preferably russet), peeled and cubed

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

crumbled fresh dried sage to taste

crumbled fresh dried thyme to taste

salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot sauté the vegetables in a bit of olive oil until the onions are soft.  Add the broth and seasonings and simmer about 45 minutes until all the vegetables are very soft (mashable with a fork).  In small batches, blend the vegetables and broth in a blender until smooth.  Serve while still hot.

I  think I may have added an apple to this.  Or I might be getting confused with a different squash soup I’ve made.  But I wouldn’t be averse to adding an apple next time I make it.  And at least for me (who does not have blood-pressure issues), this soup tastes really yummy with sea salt sprinkled on top.

Monster caterpillar attacks Maywood

Tobacco hornworm caterpillar

Last week we had enormous mutant mushrooms growing in the yard.  Last night I came home to the biggest caterpillar I have ever seen in my life.  I’m used to seeing bugs and critters, but this thing is creeping me out.  Harper and John discovered it on a  volunteer tomato plant in the yard, where it was voraciously devouring the green tomatoes.  (The plant, being a volunteer, was a late bloomer.  Lucky for this caterpillar, who happens to eat only the green ones.)

The guys cut off the stalk of tomato plant, “creatively arranged” it in a jar, and set it for display on the porch table where it is happily tasting every single tomato on the vine as well as devouring the leaves and stalk.  And then it poops all over the table.  Being a very large and very hungry caterpillar, there are very many large caterpillar droppings.  If you’ve ever had a bunny rabbit, well, you ain’t seen nothin’.  This critter can really poop.  In fact, every website that has mentioned this critter comments on the poop.  I’m going to have to take a firehose to the porch.

So what is it?  It’s a tobacco hornworm caterpillar.  Wait, we don’t grow tobacco.  Doesn’t matter.  It eats tomatoes, green tomatoes.  And the tomato hornworm eats tobacco.  Go figure.  It is a voracious eater and can clearly destroy a tomato garden.  Marigolds are supposed to be a natural repellant but this hornworm was on a plant growing right next to my barrier of marigolds running along the garden.  I don’t blame the marigolds.  They have been doing a great job keeping the bunnies out.  Some people with a hornworm invasion plant sacrificial tomato plants to distract the caterpillars.  Others pick them off and give them to little boys to conduct nature “experiments.”  Hmm…there’s an idea.

A caterpillar this big…the size of John’s index finger…gets me to wondering what on earth it will turn into.  I’m envisioning a giant moth that will carry my grandboys off to another planet where they have all sorts of adventures in search of friendly butterflies to transport them back to their mommies.  Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I’m brainstorming for the next bedtime story with Harper. (He likes scarey stories.  I like happy endings.)

Reality is cool enough.  The tobacco hornworm turns into a five-spotted hawk-moth.  A hawk-moth is a type of hummingbird moth.  We see hummingbird moths around here in the summer.   The fastest flying insect, they hover at flowers like a hummingbird and are often mistaken for hummingbirds.  They are fascinating and we enjoy finding them.

So now I’m torn.  I don’t want my garden devoured.  But I do like hummingbird moths.  I’m not too concerned for this year though.  Those  green tomatoes were never going to ripen where they were growing anyway.  And this caterpillar is most unlikely to survive any nature experiments.

Unidentified mutant mushroom

Gouttières and Dutch boys’ suits

Lemon verbena by a goutière

This is transition week.  Next Monday teachers report back to work.  This is the week I’m torn by what to do.  Do I sit and relax?  Do I frantically finish summer projects?  Do I “set my face toward Jerusalem” and dig into school work?  All of the above?  None of the above?  (None of the above involves emotional paralysis from the inability to choose.)

So far I’ve been combining tasks.  All summer I’ve been soaking up books.  The past couple of weeks I’ve been priming my brain for the classroom by soaking them up in French.  I’ve finished two novels and am currently working through Suite Française.  I had read it in English a few years ago.  It affirms me to be able to just pick it up and enjoy it in French.

Last night I had a linguistic “ah-hah” while reading.  In the book, a cat had exited a bedroom and was walking along the gouttière.  Being a good lazy reader (don’t pull out a dictionary unless you really, really have to), it wasn’t hard to figure out that a gouttière was a gutter.  And if you know that a goutte is a drop, then it’s even easier.  Hah!  Who needs a dictionary for that?  But just because I’m now curious and want to prove myself right, I look it up.  Voilà!  The English word dates to the 13th century, coming by way of Anglo-Norman which came from the Old French goute which got started way, way back with the Latin gutta which, interestingly enough, is how they pronounce it today in New England.  (Part of my back to school transition involves thinking of my colleagues, especially my buddy from Maine who is mad at me because I am being relocated into his spacious classroom and he is being put into my closet of a room.)

This morning we awoke to gouttières whooshing with rainwater.  We drove down to Towson, our arrival at daughter and son-in-law’s house coinciding with a deluge.   One of their goutières, experiencing a leaf cloggage, spilled rivers of water out front, flooding the front walk.  I should have just removed my sandals, but I deluded myself into thinking that my umbrella would keep me dry.  We all pondered the weather.  What to do?  Enjoy a cup of tea or brave the rain?  Sit it front of Doppler radar all day?  Is it worth going out in to go to the library–with a baby?  Will I be able to plant my fall seeds?

Enough blue to make a Dutch boy's suit

We did have a cup of tea.  On my way home the rain had stopped, the sun was trying to shine, and there was enough blue to make a Dutch boy’s suit.  Back in the day, my grandmother Noona didn’t need Doppler radar to make her plans.  She always said that the weather would clear if there was enough blue to make a Dutch boy’s suit.  Admittedly, that’s a little vague.  How much blue do you need to make this suit?  And how big is the Dutch boy?  Is he, to use another Noona-ism, “the size of a minute”?  That boy wouldn’t need a very big suit.  But that’s the charm of it.  If you are sure you have enough blue, then the weather is surely clearing.

There is definitely enough blue.  I can now safely harvest some lemon verbena without floating through the yard.   Then I’ll make the lemon verbena sherbet that my mouth has been watering for and I will savor some while I continue with Suite Française.  Planting seeds can wait ’til tomorrow, along with a trip out to purchase school supplies.

Lemon Verbena Yogurt Sherbet

I found this recipe, from Jerry Traunfeld, at www.herbcompanion.com.  It is amazingly delicious.  And easy!

2 cups lemon verbena leaves

2 cups whole-milk yogurt

1 and 1/2 cups sugar

1 and 1/2 cups lemon juice

1 and 1/2 cups water

Purée lemon verbena, sugar, and water in blender on high speed.  Whisk together yogurt and lemon juice in a mixing bowl.  Strain lemon verbena mixture into the yogurt mixture through a sieve.  Whisk until smooth.  Process in ice cream maker until slushy.  Transfer to storage container and freeze until scoopably firm.