August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

The heart of a garden

Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.

Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.

But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.

The power of digging in the dirt

One of my “renovated beds,” with new lilacs and transplanted daylilies.

Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.

In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)

This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.

I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)

So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.

Daylillies and coneflowers last summer.

I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)

I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.

These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?