Archives for posts with tag: gratitude

Warning: Insect photo below.

We’ve been pretty good about keeping the tomato plants pruned this year. It’s a difficult balance between over-pruning, which can reduce a vine’s productivity, and under-pruning, which can lead to disease and insect infestation.

We’ve also been vigilant in our checks for hornworms, who like to hide amongst the tomato leaves—sparse, dense, or otherwise—silently munching away at them until suddenly (it seems), the branches are bare.

And up until today, we haven’t found any. I don’t know if this is due to our efforts or it is just a bad year for hawkmoths. Either way, I’m happy to have survived most of the summer without having to deal with them and hope I don’t see many more.

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

This morning, we found the culprit who has been munching its way through the basil and leaving a nasty mess behind:  a large, hairy caterpillar.  I’m not sure what it will eventually morph into (a moth, probably) but it looks more like something I would see if I put a drop of swamp water on a glass slide and looked at it under a microscope (i.e., more Parameciidae than Lepidoptera).  We clipped off the leaf it was clinging to, along with the other soiled leaves, and tossed them into the woods.

We also replanted—again—the arugula seedlings that a friend gave to us.  They had not been doing well in their pot (too small) and we are hoping that by moving them to the east raised bed (where the other lettuces have been happily growing) they will have a better shot at survival.

At the other end of the garden, the Kabocha squash plant looks to be a climber. It has been steadily creeping outward from its mound of soil, searching for something to wrap its tendrils around.  To accommodate it, we built a tripod of six-foot-high stakes (the green plastic type, tied together at the top with twine) and trained the vine up one of the legs.  Its leaves are now facing the wrong way (north) but they should soon readjust.

From the top of the tripod, we hung a temple bell that a friend gave me for my birthday (the same generous friend who gifted me the blue ceramic pot; see June 29, 2013).  Gleaming with reflected sunlight, the bell now anchors the west end of the garden and provides a meditative—and melodic—focal point for anyone passing by.

Anybody keeping track of what’s going on in our garden (and everybody’s keeping track, right?) may have noticed:  No herbs!  (Not counting the basil, of course.)

Why?  Well, for one thing we got a late start with our indoor growing.  Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, which take a long time to germinate and slowly develop to transplantable size, are best started in early January.  We didn’t plant our first seeds until the end of March (see March 24, 2013).  At that time, we were more concerned about tomatoes, cucumbers and squash than additional herbs.

Since then, with everything else we have been doing—planting, watering, nurturing, potting up, setting out; oh, and removing sod and placing cedar mulch—there just hasn’t been time.  Whenever we stopped to consider planting the herbs, we always concluded that there was something else more pressing that needed to be attended to first.

And there is also the question of where to plant them.  The adjunct herb garden of last year (on the concrete stoop outside one of our house’s doors) is no longer easily accessible.  My office is located just inside the door and my desk blocks it from opening.

The corner of the back porch, where we grew herbs two years ago, is now occupied by a bright yellow hibiscus plant in an intensely deep-blue ceramic pot (a gift from a friend; thank you!).  We tried placing a pot or two of basil beside the hibiscus but decided that it looked too busy and detracted from the flowers’—and the pot’s—simple beauty.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the house, several existing herbs from years gone by are staging a modest comeback.  Two of them—chives and oregano—we planted several years ago and left for dead after their first season; they’ve returned every year since.  Another three—thyme, tarragon and sage—we transplanted from the pots they grew in last year.  This spot, in partial shade all day, is not ideal for herbs but apparently it is good enough.

So, that’s where we’ll grow our herbs this year.  To fill out the space, we added spearmint and rosemary, the only plants we’ve purchased so far this season.  We would have transplanted our spearmint and peppermint from last year, but neither of them survived (which is odd because I consider mint an aggressive and invasive herb).  Finally, we nestled two pots of basil (ones we couldn’t give away) in among the other herbs.

This herb garden makes a pretty picture and, if it is successful, will be much more convenient to the kitchen.

Well, we did our best to find homes for all of the seedlings—plants we started from seed, raised indoors under fluorescent lights, nurturing them with gentle watering and periodic doses of fertilizer until they grew large and strong enough to be set outside to take their chances with Mother Nature and other gardeners—and we were reasonably successful.  Of the eight or so people we reached out to, four accepted our offer.  And while one took only a few seedlings (her gardening space is small), three left here with one or two of each.

We started with six trays of seedlings which potted-up to six trays full of fledgling vegetable plants; today, only about 20 remained.  It is late in the planting season and the seedlings have almost used up the nutrients that remain in their small pots of soil; their leaves have all turned yellow.  We can’t think of anyone else to offer them to so…we let them go.  We said some words of thanks and tossed them onto the refuse pile.  They were a good bunch of plants and I’m sure their energy will return to our garden, somehow, in a future year.

Easily the hardest part of the potting up operation was deciding how many and which seedlings to pot up.

I’m happy to say that our germination rate was very high and that most of our seedlings are healthy and viable.  But we were not very optimistic back in late March and early April and sowed eight or 12 seeds of each vegetable variety and an entire tray—that’s 72 seeds—of basil.  Consequently, we have many more seedlings than we can fit in the garden.

For the squashes, we sowed eight seeds of each variety and all of them germinated.  We picked the four largest (of each) to pot up and that left us with eight seedlings still in the seed tray.  They seem particularly robust and yet we do not have room for them.  On the other hand, I cannot bear the idea of tossing them out.  After all, we raised them from tiny seeds.

So I made an executive decision…and deferred until later.  Back into the house they went with their transplanted siblings.

We had an even higher factor of safety against germination failure with the cucumbers having planted 12 seeds of each, almost all of which germinated.  We filled an entire drainage tray with transplants, seven of each variety, but it is still more than we can use.  Perhaps we will find family or friends who will take some.

And it still left us with eight seedlings in the seed tray.  There is not really room for them inside the house so this time, we tried to be less sentimental about it.  We walked the tray over to the refuse pile behind the house, said some words of thanks to the seedlings for giving us their best, and, in acknowledgement of the cycle of life (and death), tossed them onto the pile.

I know this is the way of gardening but I did not feel satisfied.

And when we got to the tomatoes, it became clear that we needed another plan (or at least more time to think about it).  We sowed 12 seeds of each variety and only have room in the garden for two.  We potted up three of each (to protect against seedling failure) but when we were done, the tray of seedlings looked almost untouched.  Fifty healthy tomato plants are too many to throw away.

So, we will try to find homes for the seedlings we can’t use.  Failing that (and it is unlikely that we will find homes for all of them), I will practice letting go and toss the unwanted seedlings onto the heap.  Maybe this will motivate me to start that compost pile I’m always talking about.

The squash seedlings have practically jumped out of their seed tray.  They are quite tall (about four inches) and about as wide, elbowing their neighbors for space like commuters on a rush-hour subway train.

The cucumber seedlings are almost as big, in girth if not height, as are most of the tomato seedlings whose branches are spreading out even while their stems are still spindly.  The leaves are becoming intertwined and are forming a dense canopy over the seed tray.

It is time to pot up.

We had prepared for this by procuring some larger plastic pots.  We thought we would find them for sale at our local garden centers but neither the Home Depot nor the Plant Depot carries them.  The kind people at the Plant Depot did give us the few they had in their potting shed—seven 4-inch square pots—and it’s a start but not nearly enough.

I next tried the family-run nursery and market a couple of miles down the road from us.  They don’t sell them either but had many on hand (they use them in the nursery).  Theirs plastic pots are smaller (about 3 1/2 inches high) and round and I was able to cadge a stack of 65 of them from the friendly proprietress (actually, she offered them and I thankfully accepted).

Before starting, I washed the pots with diluted bleach.  After all, the containers were not new and who knows where they had been?  All joking aside, young plants are very susceptible to diseases and insects.  It would only take a small clod of soil to infect the seedlings.

We had also purchased a bag of compost which we added in equal parts to the seed starting mix that was left over from the sowing operation.  Seed mix does not provide much organic material which the seedlings need to continue their growth (they will have used up the energy in their endosperm by now).  Cutting the dense, claylike compost into the granular seed starting mix reminded me of making the topping for a fruit crisp.  I used a trowel (as opposed to two table knives or a pastry cutter) and when the soil achieved the appearance of coarse meal, I knew it was done (just like the dessert).

The squash seedlings are the largest and we reserved the larger pots for them.  We filled each with soil and I formed holes for the seedlings by pressing two fingers into the soil.  The pots were ready to receive squash plants but how to get them out of the seed tray?

My first temptation would be to grab a seedling by its stem and yank it out.  However, there is a danger of pulling the seedling’s roots out of the soil.  Also, we had read that the stems of young plants are delicate and that handling them, even gently, should be avoided.  Fortuitously, I had also read (I don’t remember where but it was online) that using a fork was a convenient way to get the seedlings out.  This made sense to me so I grabbed one from the kitchen drawer.

I carefully jabbed it into the soil of the first squash plant, a Supersett Yellow Crookneck, near the edge of its compartment.  With a firm lateral and upward motion, I lifted the fork and the entire plug of soil, bound by the seedling’s roots, came free.  It was like pulling an escargot from its shell.

With the seedling still impaled on the fork, I pressed it into one of the pots.  Rachel added another handful of soil and I packed it around the stem at the same time pulling out the fork.  By varying the pressure, I was able to align the stem roughly perpendicular to the soil surface without touching it.  Transplant accomplished.

We repeated the process for three more Crookneck seedlings and then potted up four Cavili Zucchini.  We gave them all a splash of water, recompacted the soil and topped off each pot with another trowelful of potting mix.  After the excess water had drained out, we put the pots back into the catchment tray (the same one the seed tray had been in), put them back under the fluorescent lights, and moved on to the cucumbers.

Potting up seven of the Alibi Pickling Cornichons and an equal number of Alibi Pickling cucumbers both refilled the drainage tray and depleted the potting soil.  I mixed up another batch and we repeated the entire process with the tomato seedlings.  We transplanted three of each of the six varieties, resulting in 18 pots with room to grow.

The eggplant, bell peppers and basil do not look ready to move up just yet so we will let them go for another week.  The basil seedlings are moving particularly slow and they may be able to go directly outdoors.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.