I start thinking about gardening when the calendar says it’s mid-February. The days are getting longer and the temperature reaches into the forties and on the rare day into the fifties. It’s hard not to daydream about the smell of rich loam, my hands in the warm soil and seedlings lifting their heads reaching for the sun.
My dad had built a greenhouse that attached two parts of our house together. He’s the one responsible for my green thumb. We would pour over the Burpee’s seed catalog making out our list for what to grow. He would always pick one or two varieties of vegetables or flowers that we hadn’t tried in the past. Something we thought of as exotic. I remember bright flowers, odd shaped squash, different colored tomatoes and one year we grew our own popcorn. Gloves were required to shuck the ears. Those kernels were sharp.
Last week I was in our local Menard’s store. Even though it was way too early in the season I walked through the lawn and garden section and stopped at the seed rack. Browsing through the vegetables, I found a pack of bush zucchini seeds. I prefer this type because they work best in small gardens – no long vines trailing all over the place. Then I picked out three types of lettuce, along with parsley and dill. Now those seed packets are sitting on the kitchen counter waiting, waiting, waiting for May and planting time.
This year I tried wintering over a pot of oregano and one of lemon thyme. The oregano gave up during the dark days of December and the lemon thyme is just hanging on. When I walk by, I give it a gentle brush and then breathe in the lemon aroma. Ahhh. Close my eyes and its springtime.
Buying tomatoes in the winter is a form of denial and self-delusion. They look delicious; red and firm, but one bite and the illusion goes right out the window. I’m looking forward to standing in the garden, the warm sun on my back and brushing the dust off a newly picked tomato and eating it like an apple. My favorite is a good meaty Roma. I find the ‘slicers’ too watery for my taste. The cherry tomatoes ripen first and, as far as I’m concerned, should be considered garden snack food. One or two in the cheek while hoeing and weeding makes everything better.
The snow continues to fall and the nights are long and cold. But winter’s reign is coming to an end. Daybreak comes a little earlier and twilight stays a little longer. Every day the sun is warmer and soon I’ll be standing in the garden, smiling and watching the vegetables grow.
There’s nothing like a second-hand ham bone. It is a sure sign of a true friend when they know how excited I’d be to get one. Some might see skeletal remains, but I see good ole bean soup.
This particular ham bone had more than one stop on its journey to my Dutch oven. It started out as Christmas dinner and then was passed on to a brother of the hostess, who passed it on to me. I promised to share, once the soup was made.
I’m one of those cooks that uses a little of this and little of that and measures in the palm of my hand or with a pinch and sprinkle. So there isn’t a real recipe for my bean soup. The prime ingredients: ham bone along with some left-over meat, navy beans and water are a given. I like to add one large grated carrot and a scant tablespoon of sugar also.
For this batch of soup I tossed in a teaspoon (more or less) each of basil and oregano and one bay leaf. The flavors blended well and enhanced the taste of the soup. I will include them from now on. I don’t add salt because I find there’s plenty in the ham.
One of my mom’s favorite sayings was, waste not, want not. I’ve learned those are good words to live by. She could turn leftovers into a new and tasty dish with a snap of her fingers. Coupled with a loaf of her homemade bread, she fed our family of five. It was from her that I learned not to toss out the turkey carcass, bones from a roast or a ham bone. They can all be used to make delicious soup.
Here is the recipe for my latest batch of Bean Soup:
2 c navy beans
Water and more water
1 large carrot, grated
Ham bone with extra meat
1 scant tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
The night before: Place navy beans in a large bowl. Add water to more than cover the beans. In the morning, drain and rinse beans. Place in a Dutch oven or stockpot and cover with water. Heat to simmering and cook for 2 hours. Add grated carrot, ham bone with extra meat and continue to simmer for a couple more hours. Add more water if necessary. Take bone out of pot and remove all the meat. Dice all of the extra meat too. Return the meat to the pot. Add sugar, basil, oregano and bay leaf. Check water level and add more if necessary. Simmer for another hour, until beans are good and soft. Use a potato masher to mash the beans. Don’t mash all of them leave about 1/3 to 1/2 of the beans whole. Taste the soup and add more basil or oregano if desired. Add more water then simmer to desired thickness. Remove the bay leaf. Keep soup warm and add water if necessary to keep desired thickness until ready to serve. This is a hearty and tasty soup. I like to serve it with crusty French bread and sweet creamy butter.
The holiday season is a tough time when you’re single and alone. But this year, I decided to take the holidays by the horns and make them my own. No more wallowing in self-pity waiting for someone else to make the days merry and bright.
I chose to fully embrace the festivities and bring all the bright lights, hokey Christmas songs and fattening food into my life. I called, texted and emailed my late husband’s side of the family and invited them to a big Thanksgiving feast at my new house. True, we had to have dinner the weekend before Thanksgiving – you know how busy everyone is these days – but it was a good time all the same.
The odd schedule worked out for the best. After the big family dinner, I headed north with presents in the trunk to spend an overnight with my brother and sister-in-law. Between one thing and another, we hadn’t had the time to just hang out with each other in months.
After dark, the day I arrived, my grand-niece sang in a choir at Dow Gardens. It was beautiful, incredibly cold and amazing. Luminaries lighted the paths and fairy lights were in the trees. The Christmas carols and the harmony of the young voices brought the spirit of Christmas to all of us.
I’d planned a pre-Christmas dinner for my son, his wife and my precious granddaughters. But the morning of our get-together I got a phone call that he’d been called into work. “We’re not gonna make it tonight mom.” He’s a policeman and works 12 hours shifts. I told him to be glad for the overtime and stay safe. The upside was, I had great chili for supper the next few nights.
I surprised my postman and the garbage guys with a tin of cookies – my delicious and awesome chocolate chip and also some ginger cookies – along with a card and a tip wishing them Happy Holidays. I was lucky to be looking out the window when they found their gifts and it made me smile from ear to ear.
Since Christmas Eve was on a Sunday, I celebrated the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning and then stuck around to decorate the church for the Christmas Eve services. We don’t mix our holidays in the Episcopal faith. Advent is for the waiting and expectation of Jesus’ birth. The celebrating of that birth begins on Christmas Eve and lasts through Epiphany.
I will host the family Christmas dinner and gift exchange celebration on December 30th. Once again, that day is the best fit for everyone’s schedule. I will be happy to have the whole clan here. And what’s wrong with stretching out the celebrating? A little creativity and going-with-the-flow have made this the best Christmas I’ve had in many years. It all began with the decision to make it so.
I joined up with a group of photographers for the Kelby World Wide Photowalk last month. Our destination was Chelsea, Michigan.
We gathered in the parking lot behind the town hall. Two blocks away down an alley, the white tents of the farmers market shown in the sunlight. Under the awnings there was a collage of colors: orange carrots, purple eggplant, peppers in green, yellow and red, stripped squash and gourds. It was a good thing I had my hands full of photo equipment or I would’ve been buying.
The smell of gourmet coffee and baked goods drifted through the booths. A fresh-baked apple fritter hit the spot since my early morning breakfast had long ago faded away. While I was enjoying the sweet treat I spotted a man selling bouquets of dahlias. I’m a gardener and the daughter of a gardener but the flowers had color combinations I’d never seen. As the vendor and I chatted he told me of his dahlia farm and the many varieties he’s raised. Then he let me take his picture.
After the farmers market, we photographers took to the streets, wandering down Main street, pausing often to capture store-front displays, textures, reflections and decorative signs.
The side streets revealed intriguing nooks and crannies. An alley held a hidden reading niche next to a used book store – my favorite kind of shop.
The outdoor display area of an antique/gardening store was full of whimsical lawn ornaments, planters and statues.
A guided tour through the famous Clock Tower was a learning experience with some unique photo opportunities. Monica Monsma, Executive Director of the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce and the tower’s caretaker were our guides. Once inside, we climbed the handsome wooden stairs to the upper levels. The caretaker told us of the tower’s history and many uses over the years. We reached a door that led out to the stone covered roof. Seeing downtown from that height was worth climbing all those stairs. But I have to confess, the very last flight that led to the clocks inner workings, proved too much for my courage. The cement steps were old, narrow and short. I had visions of slipping and tumbling all the way down.
Our stomachs were growling by the time the tour was finished so we decided to have lunch at a downtown restaurant; Smokehouse 52. The food was delicious and we spent a good hour talking about the sights we’d seen and the photos we’d taken.
After I got home and looked over the pictures I’d captured, I saw that the theme I’d unconsciously picked for the day was Faces; from the wall of portraits,
What ever happened to homemade birthday cakes? I remember helping my mom make cakes for my brothers’ and my dad’s birthdays. That tradition carried over to baking cakes for my own son and husband. There is so much more of “me” in the cake when the flour is measured and the mess is made at home in the kitchen and they know I’m taking the time and making the effort just for them.
The kitchen is a place for mother and daughters (and sons too!) to come together. I don’t see that bond, which comes from families cooking together, happening much in this busy world.
An over-sweet, over-frosted cake from a store bakery has nothing over a love-filled cake made with your own hands. It is the flaws, especially ones made by little hands that touch the heart.
Store-bought cakes usually come in two varieties: vanilla and chocolate. Children grow up not knowing the delicious flavors that can be incorporated into a cake. There are orange cakes, black forest cakes, lemon cakes and pineapple upside-down cakes – my son’s favorite- just to mention a few.
I recently made a pineapple upside-down cake for my son’s 38th birthday. It had been a few years since I’d made the last one. As I was placing the maraschino cherries in the center of each pineapple ring I remembered the year he ate all of the cherries off the top of his cake. It was hard to justify being angry, after all, it was HIS birthday cake.
My stepson’s favorite cake is German Chocolate and the recipe I have for the frosting came from my sister-in-law and it is scrumptious. Every time I make that frosting I think of her.
I have recipes in my mom’s very English handwriting that only I can read. She passed away several years ago but it is like she is there with me in the kitchen when I make her mincemeat bars or baking powder biscuits.
Cooking and the recipes we share are delicious ways to keep us connected to one another, share out heritage and culture and feel close to those who are absent.
This is the recipe for my son’s pineapple upside-down birthday cake. It is from my old Good Housekeeping cookbook; the one so loving used that it is held together with a rubber band.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
1-20 oz can pineapple rings 1 cup butter, divided 2 c packed brown sugar, (2 sticks) divided 10 Maraschino cherries 2 ¼ cups cake flour 1 ½ cups sugar ½ teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt ¾ cup shortening ¾ cup milk 3 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla ½ teaspoon almond extract
DIRECTIONS: Drain pineapple rings. Using two 9-inch round cake pans, place ½ cup of butter (1 stick) in each pan. Place in a low oven to melt the butter. Once the butter has melted, sprinkle 1 cup of packed brown sugar over butter, in each cake pan. Arrange 5 pineapple rings evenly over top of brown sugar in each pan. Place a maraschino cherry in the center of each ring. Set pans aside. In a large bowl, combine cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add shortening, milk, eggs, vanilla and almond extract. Using an electric mixer, beat at low speed until ingredients are mixed then increase speed to medium. Beat for 5 minutes, occasionally scraping sides of the bowl. Drop batter over pineapple rings by large spoonfuls. Gently spread batter evenly and to the edges of the pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes. Cakes will be lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean when cakes are done. Let cool 10 to 15 minutes. Carefully run a sharp knife around the edges of the cake to release it from the sides of the pan. Invert onto a serving plate. If any of the topping remains in the pan, carefully remove with a spatula and place on the cake. Let cool then serve.
I drove over to Cambridge Junction to photograph an old-time baseball tournament that was scheduled to be played in the Brick Walker Tavern Historic Complex which is part of the Michigan State Park system, located a quarter mile north of Brick Walker Tavern on M-50. I haven’t done a lot of sports photography and thought this would be a fun way to get more experience. My camera and my 70-200mm lens were in the trunk.
I pulled into the park, but there was no baseball game. I was sure – well almost- that I had the correct day. I turned around and headed back toward the tavern. Two men were working in the garden and yard. I made a quick decision and whipped into a parking spot. They gave me the EYE when I got out of my car; not sure about the interruption. A question revealed that the ball game had been canceled. Darn! It looked like my photo gear would stay in the trunk for the time being.
After chatting for a bit, I discovered that one of the workers was Tom Lee, the owner of Brick Walker Tavern. He’d been renovating the three story hotel and tavern, built in 1853, into a wedding and event venue. While keeping true to the time period he skillfully added the modern conveniences of air conditioning, updated bathrooms, WiFi and flat screen TV’s in the second floor bedrooms.
Mr. Lee gave me a tour of the first floor while entertaining me with the building’s history. We entered through the kitchen which featured hand-crafted cupboards made by a local craftsman. Then we went on into the four parlors, the early Cambridge Junction post office and a tavern with the original bar. He and pointed out that each room has been named for a previous owner. Having to get back to work, he had his son take me upstairs to explore the rest of the hotel.
He explained that a wedding party could spend the night before and after the ceremony in the five bedrooms on the second floor. The rooms were cozy with authentic quilts and shams on antique wooden beds. They were also accented with other period furniture and features.
A private bath was provided for each room. A gourmet breakfast could be cooked and served by a private chef the last morning of the wedding party’s stay.
The Grand Ballroom filled the third floor and was impressive in its grandeur and beauty.
Weddings and/or receptions are held in the ballroom or in the remodeled and remarkable Antique Barn, which was on the same property. The barn’s grand staircase was the perfect setting for pictures of the wedding party and the bride with her train flowing gracefully down the steps. White fairy lights shone from folds of white organza and around beams and newel posts. I was enchanted and lost in the magic of it, wishing I were twenty-something again and planning my first wedding.
I did it! I moved out of my historic two-story country brick home and bought a lovely ranch house just two miles from my son. I no longer run up and down the stairs with loads of laundry, but I also no longer enjoy the smell of sun-dried sheets on my bed and the roughness of line-dried towels against my skin. (see my post The Zen of Laundry for a fun read).
The last few days before moving, I had my morning coffee and breakfast on the deck. I shared the time with a red-headed woodpecker that had moved into the neighborhood this spring.
A robin had also decided to nest, for the first time, right outside my bedroom window and I got the first cutting from my rhubarb in the freezer before moving. These going-away presents tugged at my heart and made me want to stay. But the wheels were in motion and as I found out from threatened lawsuits, it was too late to turn back.
There is always a trade-off whenever there is change, even if that change is for the better.
Instead of being on the road for the most of an hour to buy groceries, I now have the convenience of a grocery store, several restaurants, my bank and a used book store all within a short drive. The serenity and beauty of the Dahlem Conservancy is a mere two minutes away and I can hike at the MacCready Preserve anytime I chose.
It’s been over thirty years since I went through the process of buying a house. I’d never been through the wringer of selling a home. I’ve been told that it is one of the most stressful experiences of a life-time.
I had no idea how true that was. Many times I had to remind myself to breathe. Sleepless nights, doubt and second-thoughts were daily obstacles. I often wished my late husband could give me advice and counsel. But the decisions were mine alone and heavy to carry.
After several weeks, closing day arrived, the pile of documents was signed and the deed was done. The new owner of my old house said her daughter couldn’t wait to paint her bedroom purple! I had just finished two years’ worth of remodeling and redecorating. I reminded myself that it wasn’t my house anymore.
I got in my car, turned down an unfamiliar street and drove home.
It is harvest time! The lemons are ripe and need picking.
There are two on my dwarf Ponderosa lemon tree this year, each the size of a softball. I’ve decided to try a new Lemon recipe this year. I’m going to use one of the lemons to make Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins.
I’m glad that part of my inheritance is my dad’s lemon tree. I remember the year we brought it back from Florida, in the back of our station wagon. (For a fun tale see my post, Dad’s Lemon Tree, post date 1/24/14) It not only makes me feel close to him every time I smell the sweet fragrant blooms or wait patiently as the small green fruits grow and ripen, I get delicious fresh home-grown lemons – in Michigan no less.
I’ve tried making lemon meringue pie one year which was yummy, but the bottom crust became soggy after a day or two. I’ve never figured out how to solve that problem. And I like to make gift-size loaves of lemon bread. I share them with my neighbors and they’re delighted to receive the tasty treat.
Whenever someone new moves in, I get to tell them the story of my dad and his lemon tree. I enjoy the telling and in that small way his legacy lives on.
Here is the recipe I made this year. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I skipped the icing. The muffins are wonderful either way.
LEMON POPPY SEED MUFFINS
1 1/3 cups of flour ½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons of butter
¾ cup of sugar 2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons lemon zest ¾ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
2 tablespoons butter, softened 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 to 4 cups powdered sugar 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
DIRECTIONS: In a bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt. In a larger bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, lemon zest, lemon juice, sour cream and poppy seeds. Mix well. Add flour mixture and stir until just combined. Fill muffin cups 2/3rds full. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool then remove from muffin pan. Icing – Cream together butter and cream cheese. Add powdered sugar and lemon juice. Mix well. Drizzle over cooled muffins. If icing is too thick add a little more lemon juice.
My cousin Robin and I took a drive last weekend to Meijer Gardens for the Grand Valley Orchid Show. We had our cameras, lenses and other gear ready to go. I thought she knew the way, we’d been there before. But, she had counted on me having directions since the trip was my idea. I’d left them home in my Directions file. We couldn’t remember the way, and I get turned around and can’t tell if I’m going east or west. It was a cloudy day with no sun to help us. I did remember that is was right off the highway. I just didn’t know which highway.
Robin said, “Not to worry.” She had Siri on her IPhone. We stopped and had a delicious lunch in Kalamazoo. I mentioned I didn’t remember going through Kalamazoo the last time we went to Meijer Gardens, but we continued to trust the directions coming from her phone.
After driving through freezing rain and lake effect snow, the app ended up taking us to a modular home park somewhere on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. It had Garden in its name and apparently caused Siri’s confusion. We sat in the parking lot, not believing where we were. Then pushing ever onward, we asked Siri to reconfigure. We were pleased to find that we only had to backtrack a few miles, pick up I96 and within minutes we would be there. Our lesson for the day was not to trust Siri.
We’d planned on being at the show when it opened at noon. It was now 2:30 p.m. My nerves were frazzled but at least we didn’t have to wait in line.
The orchards were remarkable in their variety. Some had happy faces and some looked like they were hungry and waiting for a snack,
but they were all beautiful. As usual things worked out for the best. With the crowd thinning out at the end of the day, we were able to get some great photos then enjoy a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie in the café before heading home.
There are three more shows coming soon to central Michigan. Admission to all of the shows is free. I hope you get a chance to attend at least one. Find the information below
3 more pictures
The Greater Lansing Orchid show is February 25 & 26th on the MSU campus in the Plant & Soil conservancy. (http://greaterlansingorchidsociety.com)
The Ann Arbor Orchid Festival is March 18th & 19th at the UofM Matthaei Botanical Gardens (www.aaosonline.org)
The Michigan Orchid Society Show is March 25th & 26th at the United Food Workers Building at 876 Horace Brown Drive in Madison Heights. (miorchids.com)
I find that one of the hardest things to accept about winter is that I can’t go out to the garden and pick fresh herbs and vegetables. All summer long and well into the fall basil grows by the shed in a tossed-together herb garden. I’ve often stopped to pinch off a leaf just to enjoy the pungent aroma. When it comes to making sandwiches, I tend to be adventurous, but lunchmeat isn’t on my list of edible ingredients. It is too full of chemicals and preservatives to be healthy. The question is: what else is there to use? Enter my friend Karen. She introduced me to the delicious combination of tomato, basil and mozzarella. The mixture of flavors is a gourmet delight and makes a tasty sandwich.
Fresh basil is also wonderful in a tossed salad. I’m a lazy cook in the summer and salads often end up on the supper menu. Once the weather has warmed up, I take it for granted that I can walk across the lawn and pick the fresh basil leaves any time I choose.
Then the frost comes.
Recently, I looked out my kitchen window at white ground and gloomy skies. I decided to do a little winter gardening. I’d found some basil plants in the produce department at the grocery store, but they looked sad and about ready to die. I checked every plant, but didn’t feel that I could save any one of them. I was disappointed but decided to wait and see if there were any fresh plants the next week. Vola! Those plants looked healthier. I bought one – on a cold and windy day – placed it in the cup holder in my console and drove the twenty miles home with the heater on high.
When I set the basil plant on the kitchen counter, I remembered I hadn’t put a 5-gallon bucket of potting soil down in the basement last fall like I usually do. You just never know when you might need some nice warm dirt in the middle of winter! All of my potting soil was out in the shed, frozen solid. Then I recalled the cement planters that hold geraniums in front of the garage every year. I’d dragged them into the garage for the winter. That dirt might not be frozen. I went out to check.
Lo and behold, I was able to chip and scrape together enough soil to use. I trudged through the snow and got the empty pot I’d left on the deck then I brought the pot and the cold dirt into the kitchen and set them on the counter. I added a little water to the bone-dry dirt and left it and the clay pot to warm up for a couple of days. Meanwhile my new basil plant was enjoying the southern sun in front of the kitchen window.
On the third day I stirred up the dirt, broke up the hard clumps and removed the maple seeds, dead leaves and other debris. It felt so good to this gardener’s hands to be back in warm soil. The smell of the damp earth was like a whiff of spring. I scooped a couple inches of soil into the clay pot. Then I gently removed the basil plant from the plastic store container and placed it on the dirt. I poured more soil around the basil until it was even with the crown of the plant (where the stems come off the roots).
I drizzled some water all the way around and added a little more dirt where the soil had settled. I stood back and looked at my basil plant in its new home. It seemed happy and turned its leaves to face the sun.