Falling into fall

Posted on | September 28, 2009 | 68 Comments

Wow, it’s just barely above 50 degrees this evening and I left the upstairs window open all day, so the house feels cold and breezy. I worked on-site today, and planned a simple dinner of pasta with pesto from the freezer and a nice green salad. The salad greens froze in my crisper drawer (not the kind of crisp I had in mind) and my feet are cold, so I’m craving something comforting in my tummy. I set the idea of salad aside, and just sliced up a few of the leftover pickling cucumbers from yesterday’s mad, final pickling extravaganza, then moved on to one of our six volunteer butternut squashes instead.

Roasted. With butter and brown sugar. Hello, almost October!

I can’t believe how the weather changed today from sticky and warm and thunder-stormy to windy and cold. Driving home, wet leaves were blowing all over the road and I had to dodge rogue branches pinwheeling out of the sky. The clouds scudded across the landscape and plunged me into darkness, then bathed me in blinding white light ten times in the course of a second. The constant shifting of shadows made me feel haunted by ideas, and the racing matched my flying thoughts. Oh, how I love the voice-recording app on my iPhone. So fun to capture all of that gobbledygook.

So yeah, the sugar maples are starting to turn circus tent yellow-pink-orange and blanket the browning lawns with their curled edges. Inflatable pumpkins pop up on porches all over town, and trees sprout those bizarre witch crashes. Fall is upon us and winter is breathing down her neck with icy fingers reaching for her soft tissue.

Did I mention my cold feet? It’s time to dig out my socks and my beautiful Maxcine-Made fingerless gloves. I washed the flannel sheets today, but I’ll wait a bit to put them on because we’ll get another heat wave in October, and night sweats are not pleasant. Flannel makes them worse. I will, however, throw an extra blanket on the bed tonight.

I don’t know, you guys. Is there anything more delicious than the first winter squash of the season? You know the kind: roasted for an hour, cut side down, then flipped over and popped back into the oven for another ten minutes with the cavities dotted with butter, dark brown sugar and a sprinkling of sea salt?

squash

I didn’t think so.

I dream of ravioli

Posted on | September 17, 2009 | 51 Comments

When I asked Chris what he’d like for his birthday dinner this weekend, he thought for a few minutes, then said ravioli.

Ravioli?

Really?

Bo-ring.

At least, boring for me. I like to have a challenge when making a special dish for someone I love, and dumping a couple of bags of frozen ravioli into boiling water isn’t remotely challenging. Sure, I can jazz it up with homemade sauce, some spicy sausage from Butcher Boy, a fresh and zingy salad and a decent bottle of the grape, but still.

What about homemade you ask? Well, yes, that’s the question isn’t it?

pasta

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for nearly two decades just about every time I wipe away the boiling water splashes on the stove top after emptying the frozen, lumpy nuggets of gooey pasta out of a plastic bag into the pot. I always think to myself: one of these days I need to learn how to make ravioli.

The first time I ate handmade ravioli was when I waited tables back in the late 1980s at Pasquini’s, in Yuba City, California. An awesomely kind lady, (I think her name was Alice, but don’t hold me to it, that was six lifetimes ago), came in with her basket of goodies through the back kitchen door a couple days a week to make the raviolis and cannelonis. She rolled the dough out by hand with a thin wooden rolling pin on a peninsula style counter while the kitchen staff bustled all around her, prepping for the night.

We worked our legs off at that restaurant, which was always busy because the food was always fresh and homemade. I’m really excited to see that the new owner has taken it to a whole new level. He planted a 2 acre kitchen garden next to the restaurant, and serves that truly local produce to his customers. If I ever make it back that way, it’s at the top of my list of places to eat. I think my two years working there informed a great deal of my enthusiasm for preparing fresh, yummy food for my friends and family, and gave me a much better understanding of how to cook meat that’s helped me turn out some great roasts.

But, I wish I was more curious in my early 20s. I enjoyed cooking, but I just muddled through anything new on my own. It never occurred to me to ask for direction from the many masters in my life. I was just focused on making enough money to pay for school and rent, and having enough leftover to keep me well-supplied with Miller Genuine Draft and Long Island Iced Teas. And let us not forget the many late nights out dancing. Oh, how times have changed.

I remember standing at the same counter with Alice, slicing hearts of palm for the house salads while she rolled and shaped and pressed. We chatted about her kids and my school work. I watched her hands move with confident precision. Habitual motion with no recipe to refer to, just the one in her mind and in her hands. I can see her now, her sleeves rolled up, apron tied around her middle, the fluorescent light flashing off the lenses of her huge 80s style glasses. She made the most succulent little pasta pockets filled with sweet-salty cheese and tender little bits of meat and herbs.

I wish I could go back and ask her to show me how.

I spent a little time searching the internet recently, thinking about this question of how to make good pasta. I attempted fettuccine with my KitchenAid attachment, and it was a complete disaster. That was ten years ago, and I haven’t dared try it since for fear of wasting precious time and still having to order pizza at the end.

Perusing Michael Ruhlman’s blog, I saw this post on making sheet pasta. It’s got some good technique info and inspired me to stop being afraid.

Yes, that’s the same photo you see above, taken by Michael’s very talented wife, Donna. She awesomely invites bloggers to use her medium resolution photos to illustrate their own writing. How cool is that? (I really need to start taking pictures again, though. So much to learn!)

Next I turned to a couple of my new-to-me, used cookbooks: Jamie’s Italy and Lidia’s Family Table, both of which have great information on making homemade pasta (though not specific to ravioli).

So that leads me to you, dear readers. I’m ready to dive in and make my own ravioli, but I need some pointers. What are your favorite recipes? Do you have a trusted resource you’d be willing to share? Any tips on the best techniques and ingredients?

It may not happen for the weekend dinner, but it’s definitely the next thing I intend to learn to do well. Enough frozen gummynuggets already. And if you’re wondering what Kelly wants for Christmas this year? Yeah, baby. One of these would do me just fine. Hey, I’ll make you dinner!

Photo: Pasta Large Noodles ©2009 Donna Turner Ruhlman, used with permission.

Further thoughts on blight

Posted on | August 30, 2009 | 25 Comments

I haven’t had time to get out to the garden to pull and bag the blighted plants yet, and we’ve had several days of rain again, so I’m sure it’s spreading through the neighborhood. But school started on Wednesday for my first grader, and on our morning walk I noticed dozens of small gardens or potted tomatoes also in collapse. At the market yesterday tomatoes sold faster than the farmers could load up their boxes and I overheard many conversations about home gardeners losing their entire crop.

Marcy reminded me in her comment on my last post that it’s late blight, not early blight. We are about to step into September, after all. She also mentioned spacing and pruning, which I meant to talk about in my post, but obviously got all caught up in the drama of oh, my tomatoes! So yeah. These tomatoes got planted directly into a new lasagna bed with something like a 12″ spacing give or take an inch or five. In other words, all wrong. I pruned the heck out of them when I first did the runner strings from the bamboo trellis, then I went away for three weeks. During that time, it rained every two days and the sun blazed in between. By the time I returned, my tomato plants had grown into an unruly hedge that crept across the grass in every direction. I did my best to trim out the most offending runners, but good gracious, those branches were heavy with fruit and who wants to sacrifice fruit?

Silly me.

I doubt I would have survived the blight even with better spacing and pruning this year, but I know I’ll manage my crop with a little more precision and care next year, and will consider covering the soil with black plastic to keep the spores down. My sister and brother in-law do that with their blight-prone crops and I swear their garden was the only one in New England that didn’t succumb.

I did pick a big bowl of almost ripe tomatoes but didn’t have time to process them that day and overnight they rotted in the bowl. That was disturbing. I keep thinking of what would happen if I’d blanched and frozen them. Would they rot in the freezer? Or instantly when thawed? Ugh.

Also in the comments, in case you missed it, Farmgirl Susan pointed me to her green tomato relish recipe, which sounds super easy and delish. So, I’m going to get out there today in the 65 degree sunshine to pick the rest of the green ones. Thanks so much, Susan.

I hate to waste so many tomatoes, and we do like relish.

The blighted season

Posted on | August 25, 2009 | 17 Comments

I’m so sad. My entire 40-plant bed of paste tomatoes has early blight. My schedule has been so nuts over the last week since I discovered the first signs, and I haven’t had a moment to pull plants and dispose of them. My apologies to the neighbors if it’s traveling from mine to yours on the wind. I stopped my truck on the way out of the driveway yesterday morning to survey the damage and it’s bad, but the vines are FULL of giant fruit. I must be in denial because I keep thinking, oh maybe it’s just going to effect the leaves. Silly me.

I didn’t realize blight had made it this far west. I thought I was safe because I started my tomatoes from organic seed and organic soil in my basement instead of buying plants from a big box store. I was wrong.

I know this is just one of those things that happens and it’s been a ridiculously wet summer, which makes blight thrive, but every day I read another gardener’s account of bagging up their tomato and potato plants and forfeiting their gleaming jars of sauce and salsa and it feels like the plague has hit. I suppose early blight is a sort of plant black plague. I’m going to skip photos, it’s too depressing.

I’m wondering if my new lasagna bed made the plants more susceptible to the blight, and it’s time to find out if there’s anything I can do to safely treat my soil so it doesn’t recur next year. I noticed a bunch of yellowed and browned leaves in the Matt’s Wild Cherry and Cosmonaut Volkovs last night, so it’s just a matter of time before my entire tomato crop is wasted. I should probably pull my potatoes immediately, too.

Oh, this gardening year has been the worst ever and I’m pitching a little fit in my heart. Can you feel me stomping my feet? I started off with such high hopes! Most of my beds were prepared for spring planting in the fall and I got so much in the ground early. Then I went away and the ground hogs and rabbits moved in. Now blight, which means I lost eighty percent of my summer crops. Sigh.

I guess it’s a good lesson in attachment. I’ve come to identify myself so strongly with my gardens and things are percolating under the surface of the community that is leading me towards work in gardening. I’m a little bit worried that this season just proves I haven’t got what it takes. But only a little bit worried. I can shoot out the other side of that black tunnel of fear into the stupid blinding light of my list of things to do to prevent the same scene next year. Buried fences. Soil amendments. Crop rotation. You just move forward or you stop, right?

I’m not going to give detailed voice to how much I want to stop at this moment. Amen for the winter. In past years I’ve said that — meaning how nice it is to give my body a rest. Gardening at this scale is a lot of physical work. But now? Now I’m simply hopeful that winter will heal my blighted heart and bring me back to the place of loving my garden again. At the moment, I’m thinking a bulldozer might be the answer. Double sigh.

I feel so bad for the farmers that are losing their cash crops. I’m just missing out on a freezer full of marinara and a pantry self of salsa. I can still go buy tomatoes from a u-pick (as long as they don’t also have blight). Yes, I was counting on my crops for winter. Losing 280 foot row of shelling beans when the beans were *just* about ready for the first picking, to the furry little f*ckers has put me in a space of no mercy. But I can buy beans. They won’t taste as good and I’ll spend money I don’t want to spend, but I have the option.

I don’t know, you guys. Something about this season feels like an alarm sounding. Guess I’d better make my list and get to work.

Half-Sour Pickle update

Posted on | August 13, 2009 | 13 Comments

Not so tasty!

I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t use the Bell’s pickling spices (because I forgot to buy them) and they have a nicer mix of ingredients… or if I just like a saltier pickle. So I dumped out the brine, rinsed the pickles, made up a new brine with double the salt and just peppercorns and the garlic for spices and will give them a few days soaking. I don’t know. Just not loving them.

The dill chips on the other hand are almost there. Another few days and we’ll have achieved dill chip perfection.

If you’re my neighbor and you’d like some, give a shout. I love to share!

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