Looks, cooks, and books from May

One of my favorite perennials, these are much earlier than my Shasta daisies and far more prolific.

Perhaps you’ve noticed? I’ve been in a bit of a blog funk, waiting for a spring that teased rather than settling in, getting caught up in a big round of volunteer meetings, and more. But I’m back. And here are the looks, cooks, and books I’ve been up to lately.

Digging in the dirt

It happens every spring. Like the fans who love getting back to baseball, I’m eager to get out to my garden. The season is short in Chicago, so you need to make the time count. I love seeing the perennials push their way up each spring, unfolding and leafing out. I worry over gaps, where a plant didn’t survive the winter or where I made a note last year to fill in with another specimen. I love this! It’s like styling a bookshelf or tabletop, but with plants in the dirt.

This year the cool, rainy spring has been both blessing and curse. The good news is that many of the perennials like hostas, dallies, and astilbes have loved the cool, wet spring. They are bigger than ever and many need to be divided. The bad news is that it is absolutely squishy and muddy in most of the yard. It’s just too wet to work.

I’m also challenging the familiar garden pot recipe — a thriller, a filler and a spiller — in patio pots this year. I did some like that and then planted a few others with just one kind of plant per pot. I had this idea last year, but didn’t quite get it done, so this year I planted two pots with nothing but cosmos. And I filled another pot with three marguerites, though I also tucked in some alyssum around the edges. They’re doing well, but the plants need to get bigger to make more of a statement.

After I planted cosmos seeds in one pot, I found these at the garden center and loved the color.

I read Harry Potter!

You’re probably saying, been there, done that. Well, I didn’t. (And I didn’t watch the movies either. I was waiting until I read the books!) Now that our eight-year-old grandson has started reading them, I’m catching up. I totally understand what the fuss is about because these are wonderful characters and stories. Second, and even better, it’s just so much fun sharing this discovery with Jack! He’s well ahead of me (of course), but a great cheerleader so I’ll be catching up.

When I finished Harry, I went on to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was the choice of one of the readers in a small, informal book group I meet with. Our choices are all over the map: fiction, non-fiction, especially biography, and sometimes we skip a book and watch a film together instead. This is a page-turner, about an aging Hollywood legend telling her life story — which includes seven husbands! — to a much younger writer mysteriously selected for the job. Check it out!

Two from my kitchen

When it’s too rainy to be outside (and we’ve had a lot of rain, have you?), I play in the kitchen. I discovered this recipe for copycat Starbucks blueberry muffins on the Cafe Sucre Farine. I happen to love those muffins (and have eaten more than my fair share of them), so I decided to see how close they really come. Well. they’re awesome and they do bake up with these lovely puffy, crunchy tops. There are a few extra steps in this recipe, but I think they’re worth it.

I’ve also been perfecting this chicken dish, recommended by Elizabeth at Blue & White Home. It began as a Southern Living sheet pan recipe using chicken thighs and drumsticks. And in that incarnation (check their website for Lemon-Rosemay-Garlic Chicken and Potatoes) I agree with Elizabeth that it’s perfect for serving a family or friends.

I wanted to try using white meat (my husband’s preference) in a smaller quantity. I’ve now made it three times, tweaking a bit each time. I used two, skin-on, bone -in chicken breasts (more than enough for our dinner and leftovers for a salad or two for me later in the week). While the oven preheated to 450, I browned the chicken pieces skin-side down along with a few handfuls of small potatoes, halved, in a small amount of olive oil. Use a pan than can go right into the hot oven.

While the chicken was browning I mixed 1/3 cup of olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup), half of a 3.5 ounce jar of capers drained, 4 smashed garlic cloves, and a generous tablespoon of fresh rosemary. I also sliced up another lemon and added that to the mix.

When the chicken was browned on one side, I turned chicken skin side up, poured the lemon/oil/herb mix over all and put the pan into the hot oven. It took about 40 minutes to reach 165 degrees. (It could be longer if you have more pieces in a larger pan). When it was done, I took the chicken and potatoes out and added a generous splash of white wine and a pat of butter to the pan juices and stirred and simmered for a few minutes until both were incorporated. I spooned this “sauce” over the plated chicken and potatoes. Voila! Dinner is served.

 

Pretty pictures

Some days Instagram is so full of great images, I just have to save some. I have always loved a sunroom, especially with a black & white floor, but this one with the baby grand breaks all the rules!

 

And then there is this beautiful vintage frame, with the asymmetrical arrangement of blue and white. (Yes, I’m trying to figure how to duplicate it!)

 

And finally, I just can’t resist a pretty windowbox!

           

How was your May? And what’s your plan for June?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

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Lately: Forcing cherry blossoms & re-reading books

Lately I’ve been obsessed with forcing these cherry branches I found at Whole Foods. Normally, I’m not big on forcing branches to flower, mostly because the forsythia that’s usually available just doesn’t “do it” for me. However, I had not seen the cherry branches before and one bundle had a few soft pink blooms already open. They certainly looked like spring to me!

However, I picked a different bundle because it was bigger and hauled it home. Then, because there were no buds open yet, I started worrying that they may not open. Yikes! So, I started checking the branches —  several times a day, worrying over them. I eventually realized that the buds had to fatten up a bit and then they started to open. Whew! Mother Nature is amazing. The bundle is taking over one end of our living room, and I may have to move some branches elsewhere (not a bad thing), but I’m loving the look.

Do you re-read books?

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I have been re-reading Reflected Glory, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Pamela Churchill Harriman, as she preferred to be called, was married briefly in the early years of WWII to Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph. Although the marriage floundered from the start, Pamela was a favorite of the Prime Minister and rubbed shoulders with an endless stream of notable figures including Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s right-hand man), Eisenhower, and even Edward R. Murrow. It was also how she initially met Harriman, a U.S. envoy to Great Britain at the time.

Pamela Churchill Harriman was a 20th-Century courtesan who enjoyed long-term relationships with a number of powerful — often married — men. She knew the right people, did favors large and small, and helped people make the right connections, often at her own dinner table. (The Churchill name and connections went quite far in London and Europe.) She even famously kept a small pad and pencil beside her plate at dinner to jot down notes about her guests, everything from their favorite cigar to questions about international policy. In many ways, Pamela was in the business of details, details to please those around her and details she could use to her advantage. She reinvented herself several times over.

Back to the re-reading thing. I first read this book in the early 90’s when she was the American ambassador to France, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Then, a few weeks ago, @markmcginesswrites on Instagram posted her photo (If you aren’t following him, you should. His comments about people and places, most often in Great Britain, are just wonderful.) His post piqued my curiosity and I rummaged thru my bookshelves to find her biography (yet another reason I’m not giving up any more books, as I posted here). I thought I may just skim a bit of it, but I’ve never been good at that. I’m rereading the book and enjoying it just as much the second time around.

In the great scheme of reading, when there are “so many books and so little time,”  reading purists might say this is not time well-spent. I disagree. In the case of Reflected Glory, I had been to France for one quick trip the first time I read it. Since then, I have been fortunate to return several times and made a handful of stops in Great Britain. I have a better sense of that slice of history and place. As reading whet my appetite for travel, travel has also whet my appetite for reading. In the case of this book, I am reading it from a different perspective.

I have no idea if these shelves hold any of the books that fill the shelves at my house, but isn’t this a great space? From designer Eric Cross’s Instagram.

Sometimes, however, re-reading is just simply fun. Gone With the Wind was one of the first books I re-read. And I did so more than once. I loved the romance/drama of Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley. It was a wonderful escape until I began to realize what a carefully polished view the book was of a genuinely terrible chapter in our history.

There are other guilty pleasures I’ve re-read as well, often “beach reads” like Anne Rivers Siddons’ Islands and Peachtree Road. Last fall I re-read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I read and enjoyed it a few years ago but my book group was discussing it, so I dove back in. I was glad I did because there were some characters and plot twists I needed to review. In short, there was a lot more substance than I had initially given it.

Sometimes I get so caught up in “the story” that I just go with it instead of perhaps doing the more careful reading, following themes and character development. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. As an English major, I spent so much time taking notes on everything I read, reading for pleasure was an activity I had to re-learn.

So, what about you? Do you ever re-read a book? Or do you just move on? I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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!

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?