Archives for posts with tag: enjoying life

One of my favorite ways to eat tomatoes (works best with cherry tomatoes): halve or roughly chop tomatoes; add a few cloves of chopped garlic; douse with olive oil; shower generously with salt and pepper; and, finally, sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sugar. Roast in a hot oven (400 degrees F) until the tomatoes start to brown and the oil and tomato juices are bubbling (about 15 minutes).

The high heat and small amount of sugar will cause the liquid to thicken into a syrup as the tomatoes cool. Spoon them onto toasted slices of baguette, with or without a schmear of ricotta, for a version of crostini that is hearty enough as a main course.

There was an amusing Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times wherein the author, Ben Schott, proposes a selection of new German compound words that “express the inexpressible” (see Schottenfreude).  Of the neologisms presented (excerpted from an upcoming book), my favorite is, “Fingerspitzentanz”, which he defines as “tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity” (isn’t that redundant?) or what I would call the joy of simple tasks done with the hands.  “Kinking a metal tape measure into a corner” and “Inserting a USB plug right-side up, first time” are two such tasks—exhilarating in their small way—that I can relate to (although the latter almost never happens).

If it were my book, I would add another word, “Laubrechenzufriedenheit” (leaf raking contentment; my apologies to speakers of German), for the immense satisfaction that can be achieved after completing what might be considered a menial activity or chore, especially when it has been done well.  The feeling of accomplishment that follows the completion of a significant project or attainment of a lofty goal is more readily recognizable but, almost by definition, much more rare.  The commonplace and mundane tasks, such as making dinner, clipping the fingernails and, yes, raking the leaves happen much more frequently but are no less important to quality of life and peace of mind.  And after all, as my father often remarked (in lieu of criticism), if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

Most if not all gardening activities fall into this category of quotidien chores that provide for almost constant gratification and these daily successes and feelings of reward are probably a major contributor to gardening’s popularity (they are for me).  It helps that many garden chores are relatively straightforward and therefore easy or quick to master and accomplish with flair.

Now, it is not that expansive, longer-term gardening goals, such as creating a huge, formal garden over the course of several years or expanding a vegetable garden until it serves the entire neighborhood, are not worthy of attention—they are—or that arriving at them is not a significant accomplishment (the neighbors would certainly appreciate either example).  Rather, the path to those larger goals can be embellished by a series of lesser rewards that encourage progress.

Gardening can be a noble pursuit but at its core, it is a humble one.  To do it, one must get one’s hands dirty.  And that, at the end of the day, can be immensely satisfying.

Here’s another good reason why I enjoy growing tomatoes in my backyard:

Of course, it is also a good reason why I enjoy eating and drinking and otherwise being alive.

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.

One of the benefits of growing plants indoors in compartmentalized seed trays is that no thinning is needed.  We sowed one seed per compartment and they either germinated or they didn’t.  No effort or thinking is required.

The planters outside are another matter.  The smaller seeds—the carrots and turnips—were sown “thinly”, a qualitative term meaning closely spaced but not touching (the only quantitative definition I’ve found says to space them at three to four times the size of the seed).  Small seeds are difficult to place, however, and in practice they can wind up clumped together.  Consequently, when they germinate, the sprouts are literally on top of each other.

The larger seeds—the beets and radishes—are easier to place but some of them still end up too close together.  If nothing is done about them, they will hinder each other’s growth and stifle root development.  And for these vegetables, whose roots are what we eat, that would mean the failure of the crop.

So, we thin.  Or, to put it more harshly, we cull, pulling out the weaker seedlings so that the stronger ones can thrive.  Where there is no obvious choice, we remove seedlings to result in a uniform spacing.

And actually, I do not pull the seedlings out.  Doing so would loosen the soil and could damage the roots of the nearby seedlings that remain.  Instead, I use a pair of small clippers to cut the seedlings off at the soil line, leaving the ground undisturbed.  The beheaded roots will stop growing and, as they decompose, add organic matter to the soil.  In the case of the peas, the roots are especially enriching (they can be grown as “green fertilizer”).

The seedlings are still very small so I only thinned the most closely spaced ones.  After I was done, there were no spaces between sprouts smaller than a half-inch or so.  When the seedlings get larger and again start to encroach on each other, I will thin them at least once more to achieve a spacing closer to three inches for the turnips and beets and one to two inches for the carrots and radishes.

I did not attempt to thin the carrots yet.  Their seedlings are still small and frilly and I can barely see them let alone clip them.  When they get a bit larger, I’ll take a stab at them.  I also left the pea shoots.  They are already spaced at about an inch (their final spacing will be four inches) and are almost big enough to stir-fry but not quite.

Tonight, we will enjoy the first produce of the garden (Micro-greens?  Nano-greens is more like it) on slices of buttered bread.  Such delicacies are one of the main reasons I enjoy keeping a garden.

If you decide to have breakfast at the Gazebo Restaurant in Napili, it doesn’t matter when you arrive; you will wait for at least 30 minutes.  A line starts to form outside at 6:30 am in anticipation of the restaurant’s 7:00 am opening time.

But it’s a pleasant wait as everybody spends the time describing to their friends what they did the day before, discussing what they will order to eat and planning their activities for the remainder of the morning.  There is none of the tension that often pervades such queues and threatens to escalate into hostility—or even violence—when someone appears to cut in ahead of others.

And, even better, there is coffee, a big urn of it on a cart near the restaurant’s shop.  By absolute measures, the coffee is not very good.  It is weak, overheated (almost always the case with electric urns) and served in Styrofoam cups.  You wouldn’t pay much for this coffee so it’s a good thing that it is free.

And yet, standing here with Rachel in the morning tropical sun, watching for whales, feeling the warm breezes on our faces, and contemplating what will no doubt be a delicious breakfast, I’m thinking that this is probably the best coffee in the world.

Several years ago, I fell in love with Hawaiian slack key guitar music.  We had attended a performance of Ballet Tech (formerly, Feld Ballets/NY) at the Joyce Theater in New York City and one of the dances was set to a piece called Moe ‘Uhane, or Dream Slack Key, by Sonny Chillingworth.  It was mesmerizing and beautiful, a melodious evocation of the tranquility and beauty of the islands.

I’m afraid it overshadowed the dance (sorry, Eliot!) but the music stayed with me.  Fortunately, the program for the performance included a reference (thanks, Eliot!) and I was able to track down the CD from which the music came (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters, issued by Dancing Cat Records).  I purchased it, and then another (Volume 2) and then another.  We shortly had a small collection of traditional Hawaiian music.

When it came time to plan this trip, we checked online to see whether we might find a live concert during our stay.  To our delight, we found George Kahumoku, Jr.’s Slack Key Show, a weekly performance by masters of Hawaiian music.  It takes place every Wednesday evening in the Aloha Pavilion of the Napili Kai Resort, right across the street from where we are staying.

The only downside is that Uncle George (a slack key guitar master) is touring on the mainland.  His sidekicks, Da Ukulele Boyz, are hosting in his absence and their guests tonight are Herb Ohta, Jr. (ukulele) and Jon Yamasato (guitar).  Their background is traditional but they also played some contemporary music.  Along with guitarist Sterling Seaton and the elegant hula dancer Wainani Kealoha (who performed to Hanalei Moon), they put on a tremendous show (and we were able to get autographed CDs as souvenirs).

Often when I am planning a trip to a new destination (or one with which I am not very familiar), I will make a virtual visit using Google Maps.  I am a visual thinker and have found that by looking at the satellite/aerial views—often combined with Street View—of a location, I can form a preliminary mental map that will help me navigate and become comfortable in a strange environment.  Call it pre-familiarization.

I made such a flyover before coming to Hawaii.  I was looking for the condo where we stayed on our last trip and where we are staying again this time (in the same room, coincidentally), the name or location of which I could not remember (it was more than 10 years ago).  I had only a general idea of where it was—across the road from the resorts of Napili and Kapalua—and a recollection that it was near a large hotel (where we sipped cocktails at sunset one evening).

It wasn’t much to go on but by cruising (digitally) up and down Lower Honoapiilani Road a few times, I was able to home in on a potential location.  There was no adjacent hotel (I learned from our friends yesterday that it had been demolished and replaced by luxury residences in the intervening years) but by zooming down, I was able to recognize the distinctive swimming pool, memorable for its azure blue tiles.  Rachel later confirmed the location, having found its website online.

A fringe benefit of my virtual touring is that I sometimes discover places of interest that I might not otherwise have encountered.  In this case, I happened upon the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth on a spit of volcanic rock north of our condo.  From the air, it would appear to be a full-sized Chartres labyrinth and to occupy a potentially sacred spot where land and water meet.  This morning, we set out to see it for ourselves.  The prospect was exciting as we have always enjoyed walking labyrinths and developed one on our property (see July 10, 2011).

Public access to the coast cannot be restricted in Hawaii (even though much of the oceanfront property is privately owned) and there are many trails that follow the shore.  One such trail heads north from Kapalua Beach and winds through the luxury residences (which seem strangely vacant).  As we passed by, a rainbow appeared to the west between us and Molokai, an auspicious beginning to our journey.  When the trail reached the north end of the housing complex, it led out onto a jagged outcropping of the solidified lava that forms most of Hawaii’s coastline.

From there, the trail turns eastward, first passing through a shore bird nesting habitat and then onto a boardwalk just above the beach at Oneloa Bay.  At the far end of the beach, the trail turns back inland to follow Lower Honoapiilani Road (although access to the coast cannot be restricted, much of it remains physically inaccessible).  A short walk along the road brought us to the fourth tee of the Kapalua Bay Golf Course.

Here we paused for a moment.  Getting out to the Dragon’s Teeth would involve walking along the edge of the fairway.  We knew that we had the right to pass but many golf courses are private and off limits to non-members or players.  When we saw a sign warning of proximity to the course—and not commanding us to keep out—we started down along the hedge that forms the fairway’s border.  At one point we held up to allow a foursome of golfers to play through.  It was not the reverent approach we were expecting to make (even if the more devout golfers around us would have considered this fine course a place of worship).

When we reached the outcropping it was evident how it got its name.  The eastern edge of the spit was lined with spiky vertical projections of lava (aa, presumably) that were upturned by wave action while still molten (or so I later read).  The waves are still quite strong here and wash against the Dragon’s Teeth obliquely resulting in a fountain of water that slides along the shoreline dramatically.

Just beyond the teeth, where the jetty levels out, we found the labyrinth.  Circular in plan, its 11 concentric paths are divided from each other by stones that have been smoothed by wave action and are anchored in place by succulents growing around them.  The labyrinth clearly sees many visitors as the paths have been worn down into ruts by heavy foot traffic.  Even so, we were fortunate to have it to ourselves.

We slowly and solemnly made our pilgrimage to the center of the labyrinth and once there, performed our version of the Medicine Wheel Prayer.  We first faced east and raised our arms in salute to spring and rebirth.  We next turned to the south and paid homage to summer and growth.  Then, we faced west, acknowledging fall and the natural endings in life and to complete the circle, we looked to the north in respect of winter and introspection.  Finally, we raised our heads to greet Father Sky and bowed to show our love for Mother Earth (perhaps a sphere would be a better symbol).

It wasn’t as mystical or woo-woo as it might sound (especially with golfers putting nearby).  It was, however, a simple ritual that left us feeling centered—literally and figuratively—and fully appreciative of this world we live in and the particular paradise in which we found ourselves today.

With a bit of free time between visits with family—a beautiful picnic in the park with my brother yesterday, breakfast with my sisters this morning and dinner with Mom tonight—we decided to take a leisurely Sunday drive.  We’ve been renting cars from Hertz for many years and sometimes, they give us a free upgrade.  Usually, they offer us a larger car than we asked for, a full-size sedan, say, or an SUV.  And usually, we decline it.  We don’t like to drive large vehicles and they are harder to park.

But on this trip, when we arrived at the lot, we found a 2013 Ford Mustang waiting for us.  What a treat!  Zero to 70 in no time (it is powered by an eight-cylinder, 420-HP engine, my sister later informed me) with very responsive handling.  Attractive, too.  It is the only car I’ve ever driven which draws admiring stares from the people we pass (young men, mostly).  Of course, it is not very practical (with only two doors and no back-seat legroom, it does not accommodate a large family) and probably guzzles gas.  A nice car to rent but I wouldn’t want to own one.

We pointed the car in the direction of the coastal foothills between the Central and Napa valleys.  As we passed through the eastern edge of the vast alluvial plain that is the agricultural heart of California and began our ascent into the Vaca Mountains, the terrain became increasingly rugged and dry.  Farmsteads and croplands gave way to rolling slopes of buff-colored grasses (parched after a long, hot summer) dotted with scrub oak and sagebrush.  It is a landscape of austere beauty that only a native son (or daughter) could love.

It is not until several miles beyond Lake Berryessa that the woods thickened, the topography steepened and we got the feeling of being in the mountains.  The twists and turns of the narrow highway posed a test to my driving skills and the car’s handling.  The road felt more closed to the sky and sections extended beneath a canopy of outstretched tree branches, many of them draped with thick strands of Spanish moss (apparently, this was a good year for the bromeliad).

But this is wine country and wherever the road left a space between its shoulder and the foot of the adjacent slope, some enterprising winery had installed a vineyard.  I like the appearance of vineyards—especially the newer, strictly rectilinear variety with their regularly spaced rows of carefully pruned vines—and delight in finding vest-pocket versions in seemingly unlikely places.  Based on the prices of land in the valleys, however, it is not really surprising that some growers have chosen to invest sweat equity into small plots with difficult geography.

Apparently, our visit occurred shortly after harvest time as none of the vines we observed still bore any fruit.  In fact, the grapevines had started to turn color, replacing the deep red or luminous green of the grape clusters with bright yellow and red leaves.  If we had continued our drive into the Napa Valley, we would have found the air heavy with the yeasty aroma of primary fermentation.  From a sensory point of view, it is a good time to be here.

Deep in the woods and near the peak of the mountain pass, we found Nichelini Family Winery.  The property was homesteaded in the late 1800s and the winery was founded shortly thereafter.  It is still run by the family (currently on its sixth generation) and we enjoyed a tasting and history lesson from Phil Sunseri, a fourth-generation Nichelini.  We had the place to ourselves (one benefit of visiting early on a Sunday) and took a short tour of the property—wineglasses in hand—to see the original 12-foot by 12-foot homestead cabin.

We ended up buying three bottles of wine (how could we resist?) and when we got back into the car, decided to quit while we were ahead.  We turned the car around and headed back towards home wondering how on earth we were going to get our wine back to New York.