Still Life with Lemons and Dahlias

This late harvest is just a fraction of what I’ve picked this weekend as I begin pulling the summer vegetable plants out of the garden to make room for the cool weather crops (butter lettuce, cauliflowers, and swiss chard figuring prominently). Out of all of it, this is probably the most photogenic:

Oh Rats, Foiled Again!

Just look at this mess. Every time I look at this image, I want to take up target practice. Despite weeks of near-obsessive vigilance – mitigated by my willingness to share – the neighborhood “roof rats,” as they are known in these parts, have been helping themselves to my figs and heirloom tomatoes.

This year I’d say we’ve lost nearly half the figs to these marauding critters, and the only reason we’ve gotten to eat even half of them is my reluctant decision to pick the figs before they’ve had a chance to ripen fully on the tree (which means they don’t reach quite the degree of lusciousness that happens then they stay on the tree a few more days) and bring them inside to soften and ripen further. The flavor never quite reaches that divine intensity you get when they are dripping and splitting with juiciness, but they’re still pretty darn good.

The tomatoes, now they’re another story – but no less annoying. The local rats know exactly when to sink their sharp little fangs into them – again ju-u-ust a couple of days before they’re ripe enough to pick. Interestingly enough, they are particular about their tomatoes; they have definite preferences; the green-and-red-mottled and the yellow tomatoes go unmolested, but they have decimated the Black Crims and Abraham Lincolns. Go figure.

And of course, once the rats are through with them, the flies move in for their share. Yuck!

Say Hello to My Little Green Friend

The other day I sat inside knitting and minding my own business when I noticed a movement outside the window. Getting up to take a closer look, I found an extra-terrestrial-looking visitor peering back in at me as if wondering what strange zoo he had stumbled upon, and who was this strange giant creature staring back at him.

Even after I grabbed my camera, this fellow was pretty unflappable. He cocked his head and gave me an inscrutable stare, as if his clinging to the window screen was far more normal than my clamoring about snapping his picture.

On another note, small signs of fall are everywhere in the garden.

Continuing Indian Summer days give way to chilly nights, and the last week or so I’ve noticed that when I get up early in the morning it is still quite dark outside. Now that we revert to Standard Time in early November, those dim mornings will last longer and make it that much harder to get out of bed to start the day. I’ve had to adjust the light timers twice in the last couple of weeks because the evenings creep upon us earlier and earlier.

Finally, Tomatoes

I’m talking heirlooms here, not the little red and yellow cherry tomatoes that have flooded the kitchen for over a month already (although we still have plenty of those). Now, finally, in mid-September, the heirlooms are ripe… round and red Abraham Lincolns, Pineapple and Black Pineapple with their tasty streaks of gold, green, and red, Cherokee Purple and Black Crim. They’re all delicious, and I can’t get enough of them. And for a few short weeks, I’ll be able to eat my fill just by taking the short walk to the vegetable garden to pick another bowlful.

Instead of our usual tossed green salad accompaniment to dinner, lately I’ve been slicing a variety of these tomatoes into eighths and tossing them with a handful of salty, cubed cheese such as cotija or feta, a drizzle of peppery extra virgin olive oil, and a scattering of shredded basil leaves. There’s nothing better.

To Be Continued…

The wedding wrap is growing, even with the paltry hours I’ve had available lately for knitting. In fact, the first skein is almost gone and today I’ll get started with the second. Am still trying to decide whether an edging down the sides will enhance the final project, or merely complicate it. Sometimes less really is more, you know? More details to come.

At least my foray into jam-mania is finished for this season. The strawberry pinot concoction is addictive – not too sweet, and with mysterious depth of flavor from the wine and spices. The pinot is surely responsible for the jam’s deep garnet color. If I were a very sophisticated kid taking lunch to school every day, I’d be happy to eat peanut butter with this jam at least once a week until I left home for college. No lie.

Saints Preserve Us

More jam? How is this possible? What kind of a glutton for punishment am I? After standing up almost all day yesterday while engaged in the Plum Crazy jam-making activity, you’d think I’d prefer a day sitting on the sofa with my knitting in hand. Well, you’d think so, but only if you discounted the six pounds of strawberries on my kitchen counter waiting to be addressed.

Rather than make run-of-the-mill, regular old strawberry jam (god forbid), I hauled out Christine Ferber’s excellent master-class book, Mes Confitures, and thumbed through its jam-sticky pages in search of uncommon inspiration. At last, I found it. As a jam-maker who shies away from the ordinary, nonetheless it hadn’t occurred to me to combine strawberries with an assortment of spices and – several cups of pinot noir. Not until now. The siren call of novelty sounded loud and clear, and here is the beginning of that unusual concoction:

It doesn’t look disgusting. After macerating the fruit in the fridge overnight with the wine and sugar, I brought it all to a boil in my copper confiture pot. At that point, it didn’t smell disgusting anymore, either – although at first it smelled like fermented strawberries, and not in a good way. But the heat mellowed out the rough odor, and now its fragrance is deliciously winey, berryish, and rich. Now, I have to let it chill once again overnight in the fridge. Tomorrow, I get to actually make the jam. Stay tuned.

Twisted Sister-Shibui WIP Alert

My enthusiasm for the Twisted Sister/Shibui yarn combination shown above has not diminished in the least. If anything, my passion for these yarns has grown stronger with every row I knit. It’s hard to imagine a softer fiber blend than this, and my knitting has been slow only because I can’t resist frequent breaks to stroke the sublime knitted fabric that is rolling off the needles.
I’ve been working away on the wrap that I want to wear to a mid-October wedding, and the design has been modified as I go. As the lace evolves, I’m doing a bit of second-guessing even though I swatched several options before beginning the final project. Now I wonder, should I have done a more open lace pattern for the main part of the wrap, rather than this horseshoe lace that is fairly solid? Should I perhaps have gone up another needle size to allow the yarn more openness and bloom? Then I remind myself: anything that feels so right simply can’t be wrong!

Most of my knitting is done in the evening after dinner when I’m already a bit tired, and while watching the day’s political “news” with half my attention. The flashless photo below shows the stitch definition reasonably well in the unblocked lace, but the color is way off.

The photo below shows the vibrant yarn color with much more accuracy, but the stitch definition is muted. When blocked I still think it will be lovely, and I guess my doubts are as much the product of evening fatigue as of any real indecision. More to come.

Late Bloomers

Hydrangeas in mid-September? What’s wrong with this picture? The other hydrangeas in my garden are strictly spring bloomers, and by mid-summer they have shriveled into crispy brown paper flowers from the heat. Not this one, though. After seeing nothing but leaves throughout the summer months, suddenly I came outside this morning and noticed this:

And this:

Impressed but suspicious, I took a stroll around the garden with camera in hand to see what else was blooming out of season. And sure enough, some late roses (ohmigod so fragrant with the afternoon sun upon them!) were basking in the glory of the fall day.

Plum Crazy

In proof that appearances really can be deceiving, I bought the most beautifully deep purple organic plums at the market this morning in anticipation of more jam-making. And I assumed that given the deep hue of the skin, the fruit itself would be that deep garnet red that promises a sweet-tart burst of flavor with every bite. But noooo… the flesh was yellow, and the flavor was puckeringly tart. Not my favorite plums to eat, I admit.

So what else could I do but turn them into jam? Just because I’ve been making jam obsessively every week for the last month is no reason to stop, right? To the diced fruit and sugar, I added a spice bag filled with whole star anise, a broken cinnamon stick, and several whole cloves.

The dark skin turned the jam a lovely deep red, and the spices add a mysterious depth to the flavor. Small chunks of the golden fruit are suspended in the jam, sweetened and soft. Bliss. And now, maybe I’m done for the season. Maybe this is it for jamming.

Or, maybe not. I also found strawberries at the market, priced to sell at “Buy one, get one free.” Can we eat six pounds of strawberries before they go bad? I don’t think so. But I have a bumper crop of rhubarb out in the garden, and strawberry-rhubarb jam is one of my favorites. So….


Last weekend, my friend Diane came over to help me preserve both pears and tomatoes. When she left at 3 pm, I spent an additional two hours finishing up a mega-batch of Caramel-Pear Butter (recipe from the new issue of Bon Appetit). While she was here, we made Spicy Pear Jam:
with golden raisins and cardamom. That fabulous Pomona Pectin guarantees a wonderful, not-too-firm, and not-too-soft set. The flavor is divine, and makes even the most delicious scone or muffin taste even better.

The Caramel-Pear Butter takes its name from the addition of dark brown sugar rather than white sugar, and is thick, luscious, and totally decadent. I highly recommend Bon Appetit’s recipe if you happen to have twenty or more pounds of extra pears lying around the house but can’t bear to eat another one out-of-hand because, well, they have been a dietary staple for the better part of a month. I tripled the recipe which explains why it needed to cook down for close to three hours. But it was worth it. Trust me. This stuff is edible gold.

My favorite, however, is the Spicy Tomato Jam, from Mark Bittman’s recent Minimalist column in the NY Times. So utterly delectable is this product, I called it “gourmet ketsup” and persuaded my family to slather it on the grilled burgers we had last night for dinner (It was even great on my Dr. Praeger’s Tex-Mex veggie burger). The minced ginger, finely chopped hot pepper (I used one from the garden, along with the tomatoes), and cumin play off the sugar, cinnamon and cloves so effectively that your tongue will do a happy dance in your mouth. It’s that good. You should make some. Right now, even if you have to buy the tomatoes. With its bright, zesty flavor, half a dozen pint jars will keep you smiling through the winter.

All in all, a well-spent Saturday.

Good Fences Make Barely Tolerated Neighbors

I have a hard time with the family who lives in the house behind ours. First they razed the vintage California ranch house that sat on their double lot, and in its place (over the course of two full years) built a 5,500 square foot, two-story McMansion that looms over our back yard. That little project was immediately followed by a one-year-long (no exaggeration!) landscaping project, including the installation of a swimming pool with waterfall that backs noisily up to my vegetable garden. During this extended construction phase, the wife of this couple produced three more children to add to the two she and her husband already had. The children are all screamers who evidently spend their time pulling each other’s hair and knocking each other to the ground, and even the sound of that waterfall cannot camouflage the mayhem of these little darlings at play.

Visitors to our home are typically stunned when they step outside into our back garden and are confronted with the sight, over the back fence, of the top floor of the neighbor’s house. “Is that a hotel?” they ask, with no trace of disingenuousness in their tone. Because the house looks like a posh bed & breakfast or boutique hotel plunked down in the midst of a 1940’s-era residential community.

Yes, it’s true that since the encampment of these arrivistes, others in the neighborhood have also renovated their homes to conform to the McMansion ideal that has become the norm for so many American suburbs. We have Mediterranean-style McMansions, we have Tudoresque and Colonial McMansions, and we have a generous sprinkling of Tuscan and Provence-style McMansions.

It is also true that my own home has undergone its share of renovations over the 60 years since it was built. While today it would likely be considered a tear-down (in this neighborhood), earlier owners had other ideas. Someone added a family room off the back, and someone else converted what we think must have been an attached garage into a master bedroom and bathroom. And yet, our home is still under 2,400 square feet and for the three people who live here (and one cat who takes up her full share of elbow room) it is plenty of space. I am not complaining, not by a long shot.

The one thing that makes me only slightly less hostile to the neighbors is the fact that their garden is truly lovely. Not surprisingly, they didn’t bother to ask us before they planted several thriving varieties of invasive, trailing, kudzu-like vines that grow over from their side of our back fence (which we installed – and paid for in full – while their new house was being built because the on-site construction manager had a large and predatory guard dog that terrorized my daughter on a regular basis). However, there are now, finally, some gorgeous things growing there, such as this:

Passion flowers are a favorite of mine, even though I spend way too much time killing the volunteers that pop up in my raised bed vegetable garden and that have to be prized loose from my tomato cages. When I see them in bloom like this I soften, just barely, in spite of myself.

Forecast: Cloudy

No dunks in the backyard swimming hole for the last few weeks because the water looks like this (note that no one has spilled gallons of milk into the water, but the phosphate level is high enough that it nearly glows at night and the cement bottom is not visible to the naked eye):

This is actually a distinct improvement over its appearance last week, when it more closely resembled a mosquito-breeding green swamp. Never has there existed a bigger (literally!) scourge on suburban living than the backyard swimming pool. Oh, sure, it provided a useful incentive as we prepared to move from the east coast to the left coast eight years ago when my daughter was a little girl with no desire to be uprooted from family and friends, but for a swimming pool right in our own back yard? Well, maybe a move cross-country wouldn’t be so bad after all.

In the last few years, however, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been sufficiently motivated to don my frumpy, burka-like suburban hausfrau modest, one-piece bathing suit and plunge in. Why is this? Surely modesty has nothing to do with it. Our property is fenced, and although the next-door neighbors are close by on all sides our privacy is pretty well protected.

Every spring as the weather begins to warm up, my husband and I make excited plans for romantic midnight swims, after which we’ll lie back and admire the starry night sky while sipping from glasses of mellow California wine. And every fall as that raw chill seeps into the air to let us know that months of rain will soon begin, we muse wistfully about another summer of lost opportunities.

Hmmm… Maybe it’s not too late. Where did I put that swimsuit?

Feeling Clever

Let me introduce Za-bui, my new triumph of blended fiber.

First, I wound the Shibui “Silk Cloud” skeins on my swift. Then I put one yarn cake into a steep-sided bowl and rewound it along with a skein of the Twisted Sister “Zazu.” The result is even lovelier than I’d hoped when I held the two skeins side by side in the yarn shop. The mohair in “Silk Cloud” produces a haze of warm color that mutes the variegations in “Zazu,” but loses none of its ethereal softness.

Now I can knit my evening wrap without having to carry separate strands and deal with the inevitable twisting and baggied-ball complications. I’ll be swatching this weekend to determine the ideal gauge and stitch pattern density. Yeah, I feel pretty clever.

See You In September…

Wait a minute. It is September. What the heck happened to August? One day I’m flipping corn and chicken thighs on the grill, and the next I’m spotting piles of dried brown leaves in corners of the garden waiting to be raked.

For weeks I’ve been lamenting the failure of my vegetable garden this summer, and suddenly I’m out there with a basket every day picking tomatoes, peppers, pears and squash. Last night for dinner I made chicken enchiladas with home-made salsa verde. They would have been heavenly if my culinarily challenged always helpful husband had not insisted “…the whole wheat tortillas are so much healthier than the corn ones…” that actually hold their shape when baked. As it turned out, I spent most of dinner extricating forkfuls of chicken, cheese and salsa from the glutinous rubbery saturated tortilla layers. Lesson learned… next time, ignore the husband and go for the corn.

Making salsa verde from my home-grown tomatillos was much easier than I anticipated; I picked three pounds, de-husked them, and cooked them until soft (with a cup or two of veggie broth, a couple of chopped hot peppers and a couple of garlic cloves keeping them company in the pot), then pureed them until barely chunky – have I mentioned how much I love my immersion blender? – with a generous helping of chopped cilantro, a couple teaspoons of cumin, and a little S & P. Mmm, mmm, mmmmm.

Hold on a sec while I flip over the page on my wall calendar. There. September it is.

My daughter is back in school, with all the dramas of senior year already playing out. College applications about to go out, another campus visits trip in the offing this fall. Financial aid to seek. Copious forms to complete. Fun for all.

Meanwhile, although the temps still climb into the 80s and 90s most days, the nights are definitely cooler. That other telltale sign of autumn’s imminent arrival is nigh – it grows darker much earlier in the evening, and I’ve already had to reset the light timers to come on by 7:30 so I don’t wind up knitting in the dark. Having completed another major project (I can’t share this one yet, either), I’ve decided to make a lace wrap to wear to a wedding in mid-October.

What’s that you say? I have WIPs to attend to? Well, who doesn’t? Never mind the other cast-on incomplete projects listed over there on the right. Sometimes Almost always, impetuous inspiration prevails. I found the yarn at Article Pract in Oakland, and it was love at first stroke.

I wasn’t familiar with Shibui Knits yarns in person. although I have read rave reviews. This “Silk Cloud” is amazing to the touch: at 60% kid mohair and 40% silk, it passes like air through the fingers, feels softer than the lightest kiss against the cheek. I will carry it with Twisted Sisters “Zazu,” which the Sisters describe as a Monochromatic Variegate in 100% Extra Fine Merino Wool. Take a closer look:

Are they not divine?

The idea is for the finished wrap to complement this tiny, silk-rose-covered evening bag:

which I found in NYC over the summer at a little shop on the Upper East Side. My always-fashionable sister took me there, and although I wasn’t looking for an evening purse, I couldn’t resist it. The silk roses remind me of the French ribbon roses I used to make by the dozen to embellish the Baltimore Album quilts I made for years.

I have the stitch for the body of the wrap worked out in my mind, but I’m still searching for just the right lace borders and edgings. Something floral, perhaps.


… on color from the dinnerplate dahlias that take my breath away every summer,

and on the first ripened figs for which I did not have to fight off our rapacious neighborhood squirrels.

Squirrel loathing reminds me of a story told to me not long ago by a friend whose mother had recently died. In her eighties, this friend’s mother evidently got so fed up with the greed of her own neighborhood’s rats with puffy tails squirrels – whose habit it was to take ruinous bites out of fruit that was just a day or so short of pickably ripe – that she booby-trapped their fence.

An enterprising grandchild helped her install electrical wire along the top of the fence running the entire perimeter of her garden (which contained many fruit trees). This wire was connected to a switch inside the house. Grandma could thus sit inside before the picture window admiring her lush little orchard, and whenever a squirrel had the audacity to creep along that fence too close to the fruit trees, she’d spring into action; pressing a button to send a small electrical current all along the wire at the top of the fence until it met with the mangy brown fur of the would-be thief.

I smile even now imagining the surprise (or should I say shock?) of those beady-eyed vermin, drooling with anticipation at the almost-ripe fruit that lay ju-u-ust a little further… and then – zap! – they find themselves catapulted into the air by the tiniest jolt of electricity. Unkind, yes, but unreasonable? I don’t think so.