M Dalloway Said She Would Buy the Flowers Herself

Stephen has been in class all weekend, so I took the opportunity to go to the high-ceilinged reading room at the Arlington Public Library and finish Mrs. Dalloway, which means that the Virginia Woolf curse has finally been lifted! I'm relieved because this will free up time to devote to And the Band Played On, which I have to finish by the end of July for a class assignment. It's really engaging, but heavy (literally and subject-wise). I had hoped to read some Willa Cather next, but that will probably have to wait until August. Slow slow slow.

That picture is some rainbow chard from our CSA box, which I thought looked so pretty raw. I stir-fried it with vegetable stock and added some soy sauce, so it wasn't nearly this pretty on the plate, but it was delicious.

Speaking of delicious, I had two culinary revelations this week. The first was something I saw on Lidia's Italy on WGBH last weekend. There was a segment on Pecorino cheese, and Lidia made a dessert with sliced pear and Pecorino drizzled with honey. I got some cheese and pears at the grocery store on Monday so I could try it out with some raw wildflower honey we have. I loved it. Like, licked-the-last-of-the-honey-off-the-plate loved it. Stephen wasn't as impressed, unfortunately. But I grew up eating cheddar cheese with apple slices, so maybe I've acquired a taste for the sweet/salty, smooth/crisp contrast of fruit and cheese pairings.

The other delicious thing I found this week was this recipe for tomato sauce. Basically, you take a can of whole plum tomatoes, chop them, then put them in a saucepan with some butter, a yellow onion that's peeled and cut in half, and some salt. Simmer for about 45 minutes, then throw out the onion, and--ta da! The incredibly simple preparation belies the subtle and surprisingly complex flavor. Probably the best tomato sauce I've ever made. (Stephen agreed on this one.)

The bad thing about all this cooking is that it didn't involve any of our CSA veggies--and we got a lot of them on Tuesday. Our little wax box from the farm contained spinach, lettuce mix, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, garlic scapes, scallions, chard, and a pattypan squash. To date, we've only eaten about 1/5 of the haul, so things are a little desperate. (A coworker of mine with the same farm share dilemma told me that she's been sneaking lettuce into her smoothies to use it up.) I think I'm just going to have to come to terms with throwing some of the food away at the end of each week. Half of the reason for this venture is to support local agriculture, which we're doing either way, so I'm not going to stress if a few things don't get et.


The Saft Strikes Back

We've been making more saft. Lots more. I've got eight pints of berries in the fridge right now, waiting to be boiled down and sugared. We did an all-strawberry batch, which I thought would be nice and affordable compared to the raspberry-rich version we did the first time, but it turns out that strawberries don't yield much juice. The all-blueberry batch we did most recently was by far my favorite. The syrup came out a really nice rich indigo color, and it tasted like a subtle version of blueberry pie.

Other than a few ongoing projects--the saft; a quilt I'm working on; the record-player-holder Stephen's building--things have been quiet lately. I had a paper due last week and a 13+ hour workday that sapped my energy. I tried to get up the momentum to go to see the El Greco to Velazquez show at the MFA on Sunday, but it started raining so I napped instead. So easy to sleep when you're trying to read on a drizzly day, especially if you're doing so while lying in bed in your pajamas. In undergrad, I used to fall asleep so consistently while trying to do reading for class that I eventually started using class readings as a cure for insomnia on the rare nights when I couldn't get to sleep. That's never been much of a problem for me, though. I almost always fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow.

I've gotten much better at not falling asleep during movies, though. I used to fall asleep almost every time we watched TV or a movie at home, and sometimes in the theater, too. Maybe I'm watching better movies now? We saw The Fall last night with Stephen's dad and brother. The storytelling was so rich and the visuals so lush, it made me wish that all movies had such a strong creative vision. From IMDb:

In a hospital on the outskirts of 1920s Los Angeles, an injured stuntman begins to tell a fellow patient, a little girl with a broken arm, a fantastical story about 5 mythical heroes. Thanks to his fractured state of mind and her vivid imagination, the line between fiction and reality starts to blur as the tale advances.

It's crazy, but in a good way.

I've been watching less TV lately, now that Lost and The Office are on break. What's left but The Simpsons? Mostly I watch offbeat reality shows from Netflix. We saw 1940s House last week, which really opened my eyes about life in Britain during WWII. It's hard to imagine people coming together in the same way now, sacrificing things and growing their own food to support the troops (and to keep themselves from starving). Did you know that SPAM was invented by the US as a means of efficiently transporting meat rations to the British before America joined the war? SPAM stands for Specially Processed American Meats. Better living through chemistry, right?


Better Living Through Chemistry

The grand no-soap experiment is over, and I'm going back to regular shampoo. Although my hair felt great the first few times I used baking soda, the results proved uneven. Sometimes my hair would be silky/shiny, other times it would feel weirdly tacky/waxy. No good. I think if it's really going to work, you probably have to switch over entirely to baking soda, because the oils in your hair have to rebalance themselves or something. But I use shampoo a few times a week at the gym, so I couldn't make a clean break. (Pun!)

Now I'm looking for other low-irritant hair-cleaning solutions. I found some mild, unscented shampoo at Whole Foods last week, which I fancied up with a little coconut extract. (I figure if something's gentle enough to bake with, it's probably not too harsh for my skin.) It smells great, and the results are a lot more consistent than my kitchen-chemistry method. My skin's still not happy, but I'm starting to wonder if it's the hot water, rather than the soap, that's freaking it out.

As I was mixing up my home-scented shampoo, I read the Free Recipe! on the back of the coconut extract box. It's so laughably post-WWII/pro-chemically-enhanced food products, I'm tempted to make it to see what kind of monstrosity would result. I can't even imagine what a cake would look like topped with canned pineapple, plastered with instant pudding, then spackled over with fakey-fake whipped cream. Just check out these ingredients:

Aloha Cake

1 pkg. yellow cake mix
4 tsp. imitation coconut extract, divided
1 pkg. instant vanilla pudding mix
1 can crushed pineapple, drained
1 tub frozen whipped topping, thawed

PREPARE cake mix as directed on package, stirring 3 teaspoons of the Extract into batter before baking. Pour into greased and floured 13x9-inch baking pan.

BAKE in preheated 350°F oven 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan.

PREPARE pudding mix as directed on package, stirring in remaining 1 teaspoon of Extract. Spread pineapple and pudding over cake. Frost with whipped topping. Refrigerate 1 hour or until ready to serve.
Makes 24 servings.

I don't know. Maybe it's delicious.


The Night House

Mmm. Hot chocolate with Kahlua: Mother Nature's answer to a chilly, grey afternoon. I was tempted to go to the gym today just to sit in the sauna and warm up. They're predicting a high of 90 degrees for tomorrow, though. Wow.

I was reading Sailing Alone Around the Room the other night and remembered how much I like Billy Collins. You know those statistics they occasionally release saying that 75% of Americans can't name all the continents or whatever? I know it sounds ridiculous, but I would probably get some of those questions wrong, too. For instance, if you asked me who the Federal Reserve Chairman is, I would never be able to think of anyone but Alan Greenspan. Similarly, Billy Collins will forever be the Poet Laureate as far as I'm concerned. I think he's the only Laureate I've ever been aware of.

Here's The Night House:

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
mending a stone wall
or swinging sickle through the tall grass--
the grass of civics, the grass of money--
and every night the body curls around itself
and listens for the soft bells of sleep.

But the heart is restless and rises
from the body in the middle of the night,
leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
with its thick, pictureless walls
to sit by herself at the kitchen table
and heat some milk in the pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
and goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
and opens a book on engineering.
Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark,
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.

And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
the way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,

resuming their daily colloquy,
talking to each other or themselves
even through the heat of the long afternoons.

Which is why the body--that house of voices--
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,

to listen to all its names being called
before bending again to its labor.



I've got some homemade pickles pickling in the kitchen right now. These are really easy to make: dissolve kosher salt in boiling water, cool with ice, then add crushed garlic, sliced kirby cucumbers, and dill. Cover with cold water, weight with a plate to keep cukes under water, and let sit at room temp until desired level of pickleness is attained. They keep in the fridge for a week.

I've been eating like crazy these past few days. My office was closed for repairs yesterday, so Stephen and I went out for brunch at Sound Bites in Somerville, the best breakfast place I've ever been to. Then we drove out to Marblehead Neck and climbed around on the rocks by the lighthouse, and I read about the lack of cohesive food culture in America in my ex-May book*, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When we'd worked up our appetites again, we drove to Whole Foods and bought stuff for a picnic: fresh mozzarella and baguettes, chick pea salad, black currant spritzers, romaine and Parmesan and lemons for Caesar salad. I was thinking about this passage from the chapter in The Omnivore's Dilemma where the author goes hunting for wild pigs with two guides:

Being Europeans, as well as accomplished cooks, Angelo and Jean-Pierre take lunch very seriously, even when out in the woods some distance from civilization. "So I brought with me a few little things to nibble on," Jean-Pierre mumbled. "Me, too," chimed Angelo. And out of their packs came course after course of the most astonishing picnic, which they proceeded to lay out on the hood of Angelo's SUV: a terrine of lobster and halibut
en gelee, artisanal salami and prosciutto and mortadella, Angelo's homemade pate of boar and home-cured olives, cornichons, chicken salad, a generous selection of cheeses and breads, fresh strawberries and pastries, silverware and napkins, and, naturally, a bottle each of red and white wine.

Okay, so ours wasn't that fancy. But it was nice, and the weather cooperated.

Today, we picked up the first box from our CSA share. Inside there was Boston lettuce, parsnips, spinach, and what I think are turnips. (They're completely white, but turnip-shaped.) So we had mashed potatoes and parsnips for dinner. The parsnips look like pale carrots, and added a carrot-like sweetness to the mush. And we had salad. I'm not sure what we're going to do with the albino turnips yet, and we may give the spinach away. No one here is really into the bitterness.

* Yes, there's been more book-of-the-month fickleness. Lugging around the thick, hardcovered Animal, Vegetable, Miracle proved unsustainable, so I left Barbara Kingsolver for the much leaner, lighter Mrs. Dalloway. Things have been going well with the new book, except that I misplaced it last week, so now I'm bookless and the month is over. Gotta catch up!



When we were traveling to my brother's graduation ceremony out in western New York a couple of weeks ago, my sister mentioned that she was thinking of making saft this summer. I'd heard of it before, but couldn't remember what it was. She said that it's a concentrate made from sugar and various berries--essentially fancy homemade juice. Stephen found an article on saft-making when we got home that identified it as a Norwegian recipe, but I've found versions attributing it to Sweden, too, so I assume it's sort of a regional Scandinavian thing. It sounded delicious and summery, so we decided to make a batch.

Let me begin by saying that this is not a cost-effective way to make beverages. It took more than $20 worth of berries to create enough saft for a gallon of juice. We used blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries, but you can use any combination you want. I think an all-strawberry batch would be a lot more cost-effective at this time in the season. The recipe traditionally calls for red currants, but we couldn't find any at Shaw's. We're going to try Whole Foods next time.

It's also a relatively long process, so it would make sense to make a huge batch all at once, especially if you had berries growing in your garden and they were all ripe at once. I don't think this works with frozen berries, so you have to do it when they're ripe.

Each pound of berries yields about a cup of syrup, which is later diluted in four parts water or seltzer to create a quart of juice. You boil the berries with water in a big saucepan until they get mushy and pale, at which point all of their juices are released. Then you suspend this mixture in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a big bowl and let it drain for an hour and a half or so. What's left in the sieve is then discarded (and believe me, you'll want to discard it: there's nothing appealing about boiled, colorless berry glop), and the strained syrup (which is a beautiful deep reddish-purple) is reheated with sugar.

We wanted the saft to be shelf-stable, so we sterilized the bottles, too: a tricky process in which you have to get the saft and the bottles to the same temperature, then fill them while hot. If ever there was a process with great low-level burn potential, this is it. Once submerged, the bottles are extremely hard to get out of the water, and it's not like you can just slap on an oven mitt and reach in, so you have to try to coax it out with tongs. Meanwhile, boiling water is splashing everywhere. Once the bottle is out, you've got to hold the hot, hot glass steady while your partner pours in boiling syrup. There was a lot of foul language involved.

The final product is pretty amazing, though. We opened one bottle immediately and finished it within two days. I don't like soda, so I had mine mixed with water and ice, but I hear that a seltzer/saft combination is delicious and refreshing, as well. We're going to try to reserve the remaining bottle for the winter, but I want to try different combinations as various berries come into season this summer. One problem we encountered with this batch is that each bottle is pretty big, and once you open it, the contents have to be finished pretty quickly or it will go bad. So next time I want to think of a smaller container for this. Maybe jelly jars? That would be cheaper, too. These bottles were almost ten bucks each, and that could easily add up if we made a lot of this stuff. Which I hope we do.

P.S. I read somewhere that you can buy saft at Ikea. I don't see it on their website, but I don't think they list any of their food there, so I'll have to check it out next time I'm there. I wonder if mass-produced saft would be any good.