Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Ode to Alliums

It has been incredibly mild over the last couple weeks.  And this soft, slightly wispy weather is fueling my always-too-ambitious plans to add additional bulbs to my garden beds.  As long as I can work the soil, there is still time to plant.  And I find myself tempted by bags and baskets and bins of lovely little bulbs at local nurseries, especially Alliums.

First, I must admit that most of the Alliums in my yard are Allium tuberosum or Garlic Chives.  These are essentially perennial herbs.  Instead of traditional onion-shaped bulbs, Garlic Chives are tough little tubers or rhizomes that can spread like Daylilies or reseed like Poppies.  The foliage emerges in late spring and is often described as strappy, reminiscent of chunky, flat chives or very thin leeks.  It smells oniony.  The leaves, flowers and even the black, black seeds are edible.  Allium tuberosum is similar to other ornamental onions in that each “flower” is an almost dome-shaped umbel… made up of many little stars on many little stems… in this case, white with green centers and miniature antennae.  Very pretty.  And like other Alliums, Garlic Chives prefer a sunny location with well-drained soil.  They can all handle drought-ridden summers.
Garlic Chives bloom through late summer into early fall.  The flowers are sweetly fragrant; and their nectar attracts bees, butterflies, skippers and other insects.  So my patch, planted among Rose shrubs, a Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’, Lamb’s Ears and two kinds of Sedums, literally hums with activity.  I’ve even seen a hummingbird hover nearby.
Now in November, the skeletons of former blooms provide architectural interest in the faded garden and protection for small birds.  These dried starbursts often last through the winter or until a thick snow.

Garlic Chives are vigorous… some may say aggressive.  My original quart-size plant has multiplied and filled in all the little spaces around the Roses and other perennials.  But it has taken years.  And when the clump becomes too dense or I want a little variety, I just pluck some plants.  This summer, I pulled up a 2-foot swath near the edge of the border and sprinkled seeds from my frilly Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) ‘Nora Barlow’.  I’m hopeful.
Traditional ornamental onions, basically Allium bulbs you plant in the fall, can provide several months of ethereal blooms from late spring until early summer.  They bridge the gap between Daffodils and mid-summer perennials.  Rosemary Verey famously paired incredibly tall and vibrantly purple Alliums, ‘Globemaster’ I think, with Laburnum x watereri in her gardens at Barnsley House.
My garden is a lot messier and just less perfect, and I like Alliums, such as A. sphaerocephalon;

A. moly;

and A. unifolium,
which are less round than ‘Globemaster’, blue ‘Gladiator’ or white ‘Mount Everest’, but still provide height and/or an airiness to my sometimes dense perennial arrangements.

I’m always drawn to ones like A. bulgaricum

and A. thunbergii
with their charming, bi-colored stars that seem to nod and fall.  But I’ve had mixed results with these two particular bulbs.  As I mentioned, all Alliums need excellent drainage.  Although I’ve amended our soil substantially, it is still basically clay, and I believe the tiny bulbs sometimes rot during a wet winter.  Also, I’m not convinced that any bulb is rodent-proof.  Our squirrels seem willing to dig up just about anything!

You can still purchase some bulbs from major catalog suppliers like Dutch Gardens, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs or White Flower Farm.  But you might want to check close to home first.  I found these pretty, pinky A. ‘Graceful’ bulbs at one of my local garden centers.
And they seem to be sold out everywhere else.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gouda Beggar's Purse

It’s always handy to have a couple really simple and fun recipes under your belt for the holiday season.  I saw this Beggar’s Purse recipe on HGTV many years ago, and I still use it… if only once a year.  The baked “purse” of Gouda is incredibly rich and addictive.  It reads as follows:

1 roll refrigerated crescent roll dough
1 round Gouda cheese, wax removed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped pecans, toasted

Unroll the dough and pinch together the perforations.  Place the wheel of cheese in the center of the dough.  Spread the top of the cheese with the mustard and sprinkle on the pecans.

Draw the sides of the dough up to form a sack around the cheese and pinch the dough in place.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

You can also cut the dough into smaller portions, and use smaller amounts of cheese to make miniature purses.

I basically follow the recipe except I triple the amount of nuts.  You can use toasted pecans or just chopped walnuts.  I also sandwich the cheese with mustard and nuts, so the purse is assembled as such… crescent roll dough, 1½ teaspoons mustard, 1 tablespoon chopped nuts, Gouda cheese, 1½ teaspoons mustard, 1 tablespoon chopped nuts… then draw the sides of the dough up around the cheese.
I like to leave an opening in the top of the “purse” or “pouch” of dough, so you can see a little bit of the cheese.  And I sprinkle the opening with another tablespoon of chopped nuts before putting the whole concoction in the oven.  It’s especially pretty in a small quiche pan or large ceramic ramekin.  Plan on baking more than 20 minutes.  Your dough shell should be golden, slightly crispy brown.
Gouda Beggar’s Purse is popular on a formal buffet or as a substitute for cheese and crackers with soup.  You could even shape the dough and cheese to look more like a cornucopia for the Thanksgiving table!  One year, I served individual purses instead of dinner rolls.  But I warn you… this is gooey, creamy, buttery decadence.  So remember to pair it with something fresh and light.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Green Beans in Brown Butter

It’s countdown to Thanksgiving Day, and of course, the Thanksgiving meal.  Thanksgiving can be stressful for all of us, no matter what our role in the festivities: cook or carver, host or guest, traveler or welcome committee.  And I think part of that stress is due to expectations and so-called traditions, especially involving what should be served for dinner.
Pumpkins pretty enough for your Thanksgiving table
My honest feeling is that you should make what you like to eat and what you feel confident preparing.  I’ve been known to make salmon fillets or pork tenderloin.  We’ve eaten pasta with turkey breast.  One year I served chicken and potatoes as the main course and Grillswiths for dessert.  I’ve never cooked a whole stuffed turkey, and I bet I never will.  Besides, my favorite dishes at most meals are the sides.

I adore green beans.  Stir-fried, sautéed, tossed in salads or pickled in a sweet brine.  But I hate the green bean casserole lots of folks serve on Thanksgiving.  So I asked Chef Francesco Benincasa if he would share his Green Beans in Brown Butter recipe.  It reads as follows:

Steam green beans to desired doneness… a shorter time if you prefer crunchier; a longer time if you prefer softer.

Take butter solid and place in a saucepan (not non-stick) until butter solid turns brown.  This usually takes 10-15 minutes on medium heat, depending on how much butter you use.

Strain butter only if butter solids turn black (as opposed to brown).  The brown bits are tasty -- black ones are bitter.

Toss steamed green beans in brown butter and season with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.

Our friends Francesco (“Franky”) and Meredith co-own the Sheridan Livery Inn and Restaurant with his parents.  It is housed in a 19th-century stable and carriage livery, in downtown Lexington, Virginia, within walking distance to the very picturesque campuses of Washington and Lee University and VMI.  The Livery is a huge place and includes twelve guest rooms, a full-service restaurant, outdoor dining areas and two banquet rooms.
View from Sheridan Livery dining room
Francesco is the head chef, and he cooks up a huge spread for Thanksgiving.

Sheridan Livery Thanksgiving Buffet
November 24, 2011
Soup & Salad
Butternut Squash Soup
Sheridan Mixed Greens Salad
Pasta Salad
Fruit Salad
 Carving Station
Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce
Roasted Turkey with Gravy
Buffet Table
Pick and Peel Shrimp
Roasted Pork Loin
Baked Salmon with Olive Tapenade
Green Beans in Brown Butter
Sweet Potato Mash
Mashed Potatoes
Macaroni & Cheese
Bacon, Onion, and Rosemary Stuffing
Cranberry Relish
Dinner Rolls and Butter
Dessert Station
Assorted Cakes and Cookies

So, you can make the Green Beans in Brown Butter for yourself.  Or just let Francesco do it for you.  The Livery is open from 11:00 am until 3:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day; reservations are a must!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just Finished Reading

Most of us romanticize candlelight and firelight.  But Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light reminds us that, for millennia, we have searched for brighter, safer, more dependable and less noxious light than the open flame.
Author Jane Brox traces our progress from the stone lamps that originally illuminated the creation of the Lascaux cave paintings to the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs that brightened two World Fairs: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.  Both of these Fairs gave glimpses of fantastic and not-too-distant futures when light and power would be readily available for everyone.
English Regency Argand Chandelier, c. 1820, from Marvin Alexander, Ltd. in New York City
Artificial light extends the day into night, in our homes and streets and public spaces, so that we can explore life beyond our (literally) daily routine, beyond the dictates of the sun’s rising and setting.  Historically, artificial light provided more time for entertainment and commerce and study.  It made work places, especially factories, farms and mines, safer and our seas and shorelines more navigable.  But artificial light has, also, always been a commodity and another signifier of those who have and those who do not.
Sea View of Cape Poge Lighthouse, c.1840-49, by Charles Hubbard from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Brilliant explores the downsides of more and more abundant artificial light and quick electric energy… our dependence on, at first, animal fats, especially whale oils, and later, fossil fuels… our vulnerability to aerial attacks during war… and our current inadequate power and delivery systems that are often easily overwhelmed by winter weather, natural disasters and even overuse.  We have actually changed the night sky with light pollution, thereby affecting astronomy, the migration of wildlife and even our own individual ability to see and sleep.  Amazing!

I’m not sure there is one answer to the problems of energy efficiency and pollution.  But I do think all of us are much more aware of the issues each and every time we switch on our favorite lamp.  Perhaps it all comes back to our idea of light and the flame.  Incandescent bulbs were developed as a better candle.  And Jane writes “such stubborn fondness for the age of incandescence is more than simply nostalgia.  It’s testimony to how much incandescent light has meant, and how perfectly suited it still seems to be, to modern life: the steady, brilliant light of a speeding century… versatile, dependable, and economical (and in the end, democratic)… “old-fashioned” bulbs still shed a more satisfactory light than anything yet developed to replace them”.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More Comfort Food: Basic Pesto Sauce

Pasta is definitely one of the foods I crave on a regular basis.  And pesto is my comfort food sauce.  To be honest, there are so many great ready-made sauces available from local cafes and markets (and Walter does NOT like pesto) that I seldom make my own.  But I was feeling a little guilty about my gorgeous basil plants that were about to be zapped with frost, so I decided to make a batch… or two… or three… or actually five.  I was on a roll.

I grew Perpetual Pesto basil this year.  It is beautiful in the garden and on a plate.  The leaves are variegated, soft green with ivory edges, and the scent is much more like pesto than other basils.  Also it never flowers, or at least mine didn’t from March until October.  Even after seven months, only the main stem became woody.  The minor stems remain soft and the individual leaves are small and easy to pluck.  This variety can grow very tall, 24-30”, and kind-of Christmas-tree-shaped, which is useful in flower beds.

I planted two Perpetual Pestos in my “bulb bed”… a summer herbaceous border planted over hundreds of spring bulbs… mainly for foliage and fragrance.  It’s just lovely to brush against the basil while I am weeding and working.  And they mingle well with pastel daylilies, various coneflowers, peonies and a few yellowy-orange cosmos.
I didn’t want to destroy my pretty plant combinations, so I only picked basil leaves that had reverted to solid green.  But they taste exactly the same as the variegated ones.  I used the basic Pesto Sauce recipe from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook.  I own the 1990 edition.
The New York Times Cookbook is an excellent reference and my go-to resource for uncomplicated dishes in all their variations: all sorts of stuffed vegetables, salad dressings and dips; seven different pancake recipes and six potato salads, plus classics like Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Lemon Sauce and Buttered Nuts.

Pesto Sauce makes about ¾ cup and reads as follows:

2 cups (about 2 ounces) basil leaves, stems removed
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons pine nuts, preferably lightly toasted
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt to taste

Rinse the basil leaves in cold running water.  Drain and pat dry with paper toweling.  Pack them compactly inside a 2-cup measure.  Press firmly without crushing the leaves.

Put the leaves into the container of a blender or food processor.

Put the garlic cloves between 2 sheets of wax paper and smash them with a flat mallet or the bottom of a clean metal skillet.  Scrape the garlic into the blender or processor.

Add the pine nuts, cheese, oil and salt.  Blend thoroughly until the sauce has a liquid consistency.  Use immediately or scrape the sauce into a 1-cup jar with a screw top lid.  Seal and refrigerate until ready to use.  It will keep for 1 or 2 weeks.  Or freeze the sauce.  It will keep indefinitely.
I basically follow the recipe exactly, except I don’t really understand the part about smashing the garlic.  I just press each clove with the broad side of a chef’s knife, like I would normally.  It crushes the clove nicely to peel off the skin.  Also, pine nuts are so tasty whether you toast them or not.

The New York Times Cookbook recommends two variations:
Pesto Sauce with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Prepare the basic pesto sauce, but add 3 (about 1 ounce) packed-in-oil sun-dried tomatoes or home-dried tomatoes.  Add the tomatoes while blending the basil and oil.

Pesto Sauce with Anchovies
Prepare the basic pesto sauce, but add 3 flat anchovy fillets or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste, while blending the basil and oil.

As I mentioned, I got a little carried away with all the beautiful basil, so I ended up making 5 batches of Pesto Sauce… one for immediate use and the rest I froze for the holidays.  Here’s the deal: I would serve Pasta with Pesto Sauce as a side on Thanksgiving, a starter at Christmas or as the main course for lunch with friends.  It’s gorgeous.  And I can brag that I grew the basil myself.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Golden Autumn: Mark Hearld, Angie Lewin and Emily Sutton

There’s something funny about the autumn.  I actually mean about this autumn in particular.  For one thing, the past few days have been beautifully warm, warmer than a month ago.  And the sky is true sky blue.  No mauve or pewter.  Nothing muddy.  And the wind has been blowing for days.  So that even in protected spots, like my garden, the leaves are flying around, falling before they’ve completely changed.
And the sun is really clear.  I can’t say it’s intense.  But it’s definitely shining with purpose.  And everything just seems much more yellow.  Not just golden, but all sorts of yellow.  Plants that might normally turn brassy gold are almost neon bright.
Ones that are usually amber are more like saffron.
Brown lichens are mustardy against greenish-grey bluestone.
And faded barn reds are cerise with veins of sunflower yellow.
Maybe I’m imagining it.  But even my Golden Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium ‘Aureum’), that reverted to green years ago, has sent up lemony-lime foliage among the fading daylily leaves… which are surprisingly sunny this year.
Overall, everything seems more cheerful, even with the regular untidiness of fall.  The grass greens seem so much more citrusy.  So the blue greens are frostier.  And the dark, dark greens are more black.  It’s like someone adjusted the Technicolor.

And there’s so much activity.  From the wind and leaves, of course.  But there are also tons of birds in the yard.  Wrens, finches, sparrows, chickadees, small downy woodpeckers and large jays and cardinals, all taking advantage of the bits and pieces of plant stuff drying around them.

The past few days have reminded me of three British artists I really like.

Mark Hearld, Angie Lewin and Emily Sutton share a lot in common in their work, and I suspect, in their interests.  They are obviously interested in the natural world.  But they are also inspired by early British Modernism and interwar and postwar decorative design.
Long Live Weeds by Mark Hearld
Larch by Angie Lewin

Corner field, Stillington by Emily Sutton

They live and have studied in northern Britain: Mark in Glasgow and York; Angie in northern Norfolk and Emily in Edinburgh and York.  They predominately work on paper: wood-block prints, lithographs, linocuts, silkscreens, watercolors and collages.  But they also experiment with fabric.  All have designed fabrics for St. Jude’s, a gallery that has branched into hand-printed textiles.
Nature Table by Angie Lewin
Doveflight by Mark Hearld
Emily also crafts small fabric sculptures on her own.

And it seems like they are all drawn to palettes with lots of yellows, browns and blues. 
Stony Track by Angie Lewin
Pisanello's Hare by Mark Hearld

Night Horseman by Emily Sutton
And birds.  Lots of birds.  And feathers.

Their art always seem so kinetic to me.  Like the wind is perpetually blowing.
Grainfield by Angie Lewin
The Quince Tree by Mark Hearld
Even Emily’s still-lifes are full of activity.
Still Life by Emily Sutton
Obviously, their work reminds others of autumn.  Each artist currently has an exhibition in England: Mark and Emily at Godfrey and Watt through November 20, and Angie at Cambridge Contemporary Art, also through the weekend, and all of their original work is very affordable.  I don’t think they exhibit regularly in the U.S. just yet.  But they all do a lot of illustrations and design everyday items.

So, capture this beautifully tawny fall in your memory, and let Mark Hearld, Angie Lewin and Emily Sutton help.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

New Scandinavian Cooking

One of our favorite shows on television is New Scandinavian Cooking, which airs locally on PBS’ Create.  And a new season with Andreas Viestad has just started up.

New Scandinavian Cooking showcases Scandinavia’s diverse culture and traditional cuisine in fresh, innovative ways.  And almost all the preparation and cooking are done outside in fantastically picturesque settings: small, charming coastal towns, remote islands, only accessible in summer, and even musk ox pastures in Greenland.  There are four different hosts: one each from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway, but Andreas Viestad is our favorite.

Andreas was born in Norway, has traveled widely and now divides most of his time between Oslo and South Africa.  He writes food columns in Norway and for The Washington Post and has written several books, including Kitchen of Light.

Andreas is not a formally-trained chef, so his recipes tend to be simple with really clear instructions and basic ingredients.  We love his enthusiasm for the place, its heritage, the cooking process and the food itself.  Plus he has a goofy sense of humor.

In some ways, New Scandinavian Cooking is a completely different world from our own… we’ll probably never ski to ice fish above the Arctic Circle or whip up a berry smoothie, a la fresco, before a morning horseback ride, and we’ll probably never be invited to the home of famous Norwegian-French cognac producers.  But we love the show and often reference its website for ideas.  And who knows?  Maybe someday we will do all those things!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dates Stuffed with Almonds and Wrapped in Bacon

It’s definitely colder in the evenings.  The time change brings darkness so much earlier.  And you know Thanksgiving is right around the corner.  So, I thought I would devote this month’s recipes to my idea of comfort food.  Actually, perhaps all of my favorite recipes are comfort food!

I love meals that have complexity of taste… combinations of creamy and peppery, sugary and pickled, rich and tangy, aromatic and mild… but are easy to shop for and simple to prepare.  Dates Stuffed with Almonds and Wrapped in Bacon is a perfect dish.  It combines the juicy, fruity flesh of dates, crunchy sweet meat of almonds and crispy, saltiness of bacon.  Yum!  This recipe is inspired by the traditional tapas dish with just a few changes.

Your only ingredients are dates, almonds and bacon.  The biggest modification is that I usually use turkey bacon.  Sacrilege, I know.  But it’s just easier if we are hosting guests who don’t eat fatty meats.  Plus, it cooks faster.  And it is super crispy.  I also, unfortunately, don’t have a wood-fired brick oven, so I just bake the dates.  And finally, I like slivered almonds, either raw or blanched, instead of whole, salted almonds.  We have enough salt in everything else we eat.  And whole almonds are sometimes too big.

You can make as many or as few as you like.  Three to four per person is a good appetizer serving.  Work backwards: number of guests x 3 or 4 = number of dates needed/ 3 = number of bacon slices needed.  Figure 2-3 slivers per date.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Pit each date and replace each pit with almond slivers.

Cut bacon slices into thirds.

Wrap each date with bacon and pin with toothpick.  It’s okay to double wrap a date if the bacon piece is a little skimpy.  Place dates on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.  Cool for 2-3 minutes and serve.

Tonight we splurged and ate the dates as our entrée with rice and vegetables in tomato broth and fresh, sliced pear on the side.  But they make a wonderful, pop-in-your-mouth appetizer for any event.  Enjoy Dates Stuffed with Almonds and Wrapped in Bacon!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Crafting Art: Tristin Lowe and Xu Bing

My Nanny, my mother’s mother, used to crochet bread wrappers into small throw rugs.  She would fold the long plastic sleeves until they were almost flat and roll them into balls, just like skeins of yarn.  It was an almost laughable sign of her thriftiness… she literally saved everything.  But it was also a form of self-expression.  Bread wrappers used to be a lot more interesting – really bright and graphic – and these rugs were usable, crinkly, dense, intensely colorful objects of art.

My Grandma, my father’s mother, was also adept at crocheting, knitting, sewing and decorative needlework.  She was hugely interested in patchwork and quilting, and over the years she created a quilt for each of her children and grandchildren.  This is mine.

I was allowed to choose the pattern.  And then Grandma found and cut all the fabric pieces, mainly leftover scraps from other projects or favorite clothing, and stitched them together by hand.  Although most of the fabric is threadbare from use, my quilt is still striking, both quaint and modern, thirty years after it was created.

I think many of us grew up reusing everyday materials to form something new and to express ourselves.  There are two artists currently on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts whose works blur the lines between craft, art and commentary.

American artist Tristin Lowe often works with very commonplace materials to interpret both quirkily familiar objects and almost heroic animals.  His Mocha Dick definitely falls into the latter.  Constructed out of white felt, large zippers, a vinyl understructure (like a huge balloon) and a fan, Mocha Dick is a 52-foot replica of an actual albino sperm whale that became world famous in the 1830s for damaging ships and inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  Sperm whales were seriously overhunted during the 19th century.  But due to their enormous size (males can grow to almost 70 feet long), some could “fight back” whalers and even attack other ships.

I think Mocha Dick is a link to our past history when travel and commerce, even life, was about real danger and so much unknown.  It is also a link to our ongoing relationship with nature and our overuse of natural resources.  Mocha Dick is about our epic literary tradition and the quest for the mythical.  And Mocha Dick, the sculpture, is certainly colossal.  It literally fills the gallery.  But it is also oddly soft and, dare I say, charming.  The barnacles are beautifully crafted in felt.
The texture and scarring of its skin is rendered in stitches.
Even the face has personality.  And I suspect that is very purposeful.

Xu Bing is a one of the most recognized contemporary artists from China, and he has studied and traveled widely in the West.  His Tobacco Project at the VMFA is his third major exhibit devoted to tobacco.

He uses tobacco leaves, cigarettes (often modified in size or scale), antique advertisements (both from China and the American South) and even business correspondence and medical records as raw material for his creations, which are eerily humorous and amazingly crafted.  The exhibit draws on four hundred years of agriculture, exploitation and the seductive allure of tobacco and challenges our ideas of wealth and beauty.  Tobacco is an intriguing subject for Xu Bing and a highly personal one.  One-third of all smokers worldwide are Chinese, and his father died of smoking-induced lung cancer.

The exhibition includes a giant book crafted of pressed tobacco leaves and printed with an early description of Jamestown, Virginia;

And one of my favorite pieces, this kind-of ticker-tape wheel is printed on cigarette filter paper.  The text comes from With the Poets in Smokeland, a late 19th century book of poems, sayings and lithographs, which was essentially an advertisement for Virginia tobacco and cigarettes.

The exhibition ends with First Class, a huge representation of a tiger skin rug, crafted out of ½ a million inexpensive cigarettes.

It’s both stunning and heart-wrenching.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is located in Richmond, Virginia and is open every day of the year.  Mocha Dick has just been extended until January 29, 2012, and the Tobacco Project will be open until December 4, 2011.  Admission is free for both exhibits; there is a $3 charge for parking.  Go check it out and be inspired!