In the Grape Arbor

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Grape clusters dangle and swell under leaves fanning larger than my hand. Grape tendrils test their boundaries every morning, fondling the neighboring cucumber’s trellis all-so-wistful before seizing the iron frame to claim it again.

The first cucumber is cut for slicing and the grapes nudged back into the confines of their arbor. Green and red grape vines share one rack and reach to the window on the second floor. I cut grape leaves to line the bottom of a platter yet linger awhile inside the arbor. There is shelter. Here is mystery, inside the breathing green sprung from dried roots.

A succession of caretakers and nurses arrive and leave now in a nearly-familiar rotation. They park out on the dead-end road and walk up the neighbor’s driveway to the front door and disappear inside. Shirley is no longer waving from the hospital bed propped up by the picture window when Mercy and I walk home up the hill. I search the glass, squinting under the brim of my hat, but it’s blank.

I dried a long wand of catnip cut before the herb came to bloom, bundled stalks of pungent mint to soothe the squabbling neighborhood cats quarreling among themselves and tormenting the dog when they sashay along the front deck. (It’s usually the same sashaying cat: the lunatic tabby that once charged and tried to take down a grown turkey.)

I took the wand out into the road the other night before dark and called to the cats, whipping the tip in the air and scraping the pavement to entice them. The tabby bounded along parallel with me, keeping a wary eye out for the dog, pacing down the hill. I laid the catnip wand down on the grass for a midsummer revel and went home to cook dinner.

Shoot grows to bud, flower comes to fruit, seeds weave their secrets to unfold in another season. The solstice passes when the sun ebbs south again after hanging stopped in the sky. Eclipses are coming with the next moon.

Rain came to wash away the gold dusted pollen and cottonwood fluff.  Thunder and wind heralded the change of season. Today clouds graze and chew the blue.

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Chowder, Just for the Halibut

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Blackberries are blooming where three months ago the cane was flattened by snow. I admire their resilience while I feel so fragile and take their white blooms as totem.

Yesterday Mercy and I were caught out in a rain storm while walking down in the park and straggled home up the hill soaked, skirting the runoff cascading down the road. Today there are clouds pulling like taffy and hot weather building for the week ahead.  Last call for chowder.

Halibut Chowder

1 Shallot or sweet yellow onion, finely diced
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 russet potato, diced, or several small reds
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons white flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock (or vegetable, or fish stock)
Healthy Halibut filet, 1-2 pounds (cod is a good substitute, salmon too oily)
1 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
2 tablespoons tarragon leaf (or substitute mixture of parsley and dill)
Salt & pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in soup kettle or large sauce pan over medium heat.
Add first three ingredients and saute until soft and vegetables sweat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir, allowing the flour to brown until roux is golden. Slowly add white wine, stirring to incorporate flour. Gradually add stock while stirring constantly. Add enough water or stock to equal about 2 quarts of liquid.

Add potatoes and tarragon to pot and cover, simmering until potatoes soften, about 15 minutes.

REDUCE HEAT TO MED-LOW

Cut halibut into bite-size chunks. Slide into pot.

REDUCE HEAT TO LOW

Swirl in cream or coconut milk, stirring gently to avoid breaking fish chunks. Heat through about 3 minutes. Serve with hot crusty bread.

6-8 servings

Note: this basic recipe is very flexible and any combination of vegetables, stock, and herbs can be used. A firm white fish is recommended. Halibut is mild and tarragon is a natural complement. It’s important to barely poach the fish by reducing heat and serving immediately. Enjoy!

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Mercedes Athena Pandora Quesadilla, aka “One-Eyed Mercy” the dread pirate

On Work

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“And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”

–Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”

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Thistledown

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“It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

–Ray Bradbury

“It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters that you do,”

–Me, to my teenage son

Walking out on the hill in the rain this morning  into that sweet earthly scent of rain on dry grass–petrichor, the blood of the old gods falling on stone–to shrug off the hood and let the drops burnish my hair.

Since the deluge in April, there was little rain, not the soaking female rain of spring that trickles to the root. Days have been warm and mornings spent carrying water in cans and hoses, swearing at sprinkler heads with stripped threads and leaking faucets forgotten in October, sprinkling, spraying, misting, playing the rainbow in the arc of falling water.

Zucchini seeds burst above ground yesterday, waiting until I was distracted, between morning watering and evening’s final tour. There are globes forming on the artichokes that are still small as thimbles. I let the thistledown bloom lavender blue and invite the bees to a buffet. The plums are red and hard as olives.

I gleaned wild asparagus with Grandma from the banks of irrigation ditches and pastures when I was a child, keeping a wary eye out for a bull or vexed mule. No two spears were the same shape, size, or color, as they are cultivated now. Some were thick and squat and purple; others willowy and pale green, with an occasional natural albino, a bouquet of spring phalli jutting from earth into the light.

Local asparagus is coming in season and to market, tender and firm (however disappointing in uniformity.) I buy a braces of it, while it lasts, to saute simply in a splash of stock and butter, a drop of white wine, and a drizzle of maple syrup, simmering off the liquid and shaking the pan to finish with a blister. The cure is always growing nearby.

 

 

Virtue in Herbs

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“Much virtue in herbs, little in men.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A train whistle walks in the middle air, longing in the distance, winding north along the river into the mountains. A solitary motorcycle travels the street below the hill before the commerce of another week begins.

I’m waiting. There is an hour when the dew lifts while the sun is still low: handfuls of Greek oregano to cut and hang for drying, wary of winter just as summer begins for all too soon comes flowering and seed. An herb’s essence remains locked in the leaf before the sun coaxes the oil to the surface, yet dew might molder a bouquet from the core. Thyme. Mint. Savory. Rosemary. It’s May.

Greek oregano is voracious and tenacious, leaping into the strawberry bed, seeding secretly into flower pots, bickering with the catnip. It responds well to rough handling like wrestling an adolescent dog.

Thyme lies low and sidles crablike, spreading rumors and telling tales.

Mint sings arias of sleek pirates and adventure, though the blueberries criticize the key.

Savory is prone and lazy, languishing over visions of love and summer romance.

Rosemary is willful and wild. She scorns containment and flourishes in bleak rocky soil exposed to heat and rain. (I do not dry her leaf, but only cut fresh stems when needed. Rosemary simmered in clean water clears ghosts and cobwebs as well–or better–than burning sage.)

A scrub jay charges a quail perched unaware on the fence rail to knock it down into the yard. I wonder where the dog is. The quail scoots beneath a rhododendron for cover.

It’s time.

Parsley and Pine Nuts

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The kitchen is buttery with pine nuts, pignolia, seeds shaken from pine cone. As they toasted I stooped to watch through the little oven window, yet finally judged them brown from scent rather than sight. These are not the longer oval nuts from the Mediterranean which are even more expensive and difficult to find. These are round and squat, from Asia. They will do. I mostly use pecans now, except for this.

Last night the neighbors celebrated Passover Sedar with the children playing on the hill and out in the street before sunset. Today is Easter.

Orthodox Easter, Pascha, is another week away, as the date must fall after Passover. Easter eggs are dyed blood-red in Greece with dye derived from onion skins. People play a game knocking eggs together, as they knock they say “Christos Anesti,” and the response comes “Alithos Anesti.” The person with the last uncracked egg receives blessings and luck for the coming year.

The pine nuts cool on the counter. I bloom the Greek oregano and thyme in olive oil for a minute before adding the chopped onion to the pan. Mom didn’t make spanakopita, though Toula did. She’d bring over a basket of the pastries filled with spinach and feta on holidays. Mom made baklava and kreatopita, tucking the filo sleeve under a damp dishtowel as she brushed the leaves and stacked them, pushing the hair back from her forehead with a wrist. I julienne a gallon of spinach leaves and two handfuls of parsley to wilt with the onion and temper the greens with nutmeg.

Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility. Once she healed a wounded bird by changing it into a hare. The grateful rabbit brought her eggs that she still laid despite her metamorphosis.

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