Thinking out loud

We’ve enjoyed one beautiful, warm, September day after another here. I’ve been cleaning up the garden, thinking about what I might do different next year, and pondering a few other things.

Gracious living

My late, great friend Sherry was a stickler for “gracious living.” In her book, gracious did not necessarily mean a lot of money (though that would be nice), but it did mean extra effort: candles on the table, fresh flowers (most likely from the grocery store) and cloth napkins. I was reminded of her mantra last week as I lit a handful of votives on the table before we sat down to burgers. Candlelight wasn’t going to turn the burger into a steak, but, hey, we wanted burgers. It’s the “extra” that counts. 

When my son and daughter were in grade school, we tripped into having Sunday dinners in the dining room, complete with candles and the good dishes. (This began with a Yule Log they wanted to light, Christmas dishes, and the good silver. A tale too long to tell here.) And we did that most Sundays at least until the older of the two left for college. 

Last winter during the pandemic my husband and I brought the tradition back just for us. 

I hear a lot of talk on Instagram and in blogland saying much the same thing. Why are we saving the “good stuff”? And it’s all good stuff, whether it’s your grandmother’s heirloom Haviland, your wedding china, or the new plates and mugs your found at HomeGoods to replace the chipped and discolored dishes that have established their residence in your kitchen.

,What is it about the dining room and/or the good china that makes us slow down, enjoy the wine, and linger over the conversation? At least in part I think, it’s just that. We slow down and breathe a little deeper. There is a comfort in tradition — in gracious living — and lately we have lost so much of that.

Obviously, we’ve lost a lot to the pandemic. And maybe almost as much to the pitched political battle that has permeated most of our life for the last few years. I long for a little more grace and I’m looking in new places to find it. If you have some ideas please share them.  

Doing something good about the bad news 

The news has been grim: fires in the west, flooding in the east, the pandemic that does not end. So, last week, I was thrilled to wrap my hands around something I really could do. I shopped to fill two school backpacks with a list of school necessities — everything from pencils and erasers to 3-ring binders and paper, paper, paper. I did this at the request of two much smarter and proactive friends who wanted to do something for the Afghan refugees headed this way. So they talked to one of the agencies who will be helping settle these families and found this was a way to help. It didn’t require a conference call or adding a line item to a budget somewhere. Two women emailed a supply list to their friends and invited them to help. So far they’ve acquired dozens of backpacks.

This is not about taking sides on international policy. The deed is done and now we do what we can to help.  

I can’t think of a better closing line, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. Best wishes to you for a wonderful weekend. Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you here again soon.

Cooking from the garden

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Vegetable gardening is always a mixed bag of success. One year you get buckets of tomatoes, the next year just a handful, but enough green beans to feed the neighborhood. Never count your vegetables until after the harvest. 

 After years of his vegetable garden, my husband seems to have discovered the secret to successfully cultivating green peppers. At least this year. I’m calling it benign neglect. We came home from a two-week trip to South Carolina and picked a bucket full. That’s more than we’ve ever had, but that was just one load. The pepper plants have continued to produce. So, we have had fajitas and stuffed peppers, which I had actually not made before. (Sorry, no pictures — they tasted great but were not remotely photogenic.) Here’s my current pepper stash (along with a few tomatoes and one lonely lime). 

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I’m told I can just chop peppers up and freeze them to use later in soups and stews this winter. I’m going to give this a try. 

But basil is another story

When all else fails, the basil keeps coming. And coming. For that reason it’s fun to grow, but then what to do with it? Crank up the pesto machine. 

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I made my first pesto last year. In the past when recipes called for a dab of pesto to finish off a soup, etc., I just used some from the grocery store. However, as I have learned more (and experimented more) with adding layers of flavor to my cooking, I’ve begun to appreciate this flavor booster.

Last year I made a small-ish batch of pesto and froze it by dropping tablespoon-sized dollops on a parchment-lined sheet pan, freezing them quickly, then storing the frozen tablespoons in a plastic container. I pulled the pesto out by the “tablespoon” as needed. What a great resource! It didn’t take up much freezer space at all and it was perfect to put a finishing touch on soup or add extra flavor to bruschetta.

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This year I’m upping my pesto game with bigger batches. Right now I have one jar in the fridge and 4 more in the freezer for friends. We have so much basil, I’m sure I’ll make anther batch to freeze the tablespoon measures for this winter.

We’re calling this Porch Pasta

This recipe is a good example of cooking from the garden or the farmer’s market. It uses fresh tomatoes and zucchini along with the pesto.

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I browned a pound of mild Italian sausage and added a zucchini that I had quartered the long way, then cut into half-inch dice. I stirred this combo around a bit until the zucchini was just lightly browned, then added a cup of roughly diced fresh tomatoes. While I was working on this I also cooked a box of rigatoni in a large pot of boiling water, just until al dente. I saved a cup of the pasta water (in case I needed it to loosen up the sauce), then drained the pasta and added it to the sausage/zucchini/tomato mixture. Depending on how much pasta you want, you may or may not use all the rigatoni. (I aim for the pasta to be about half of this dish. You may like more.) Next I added a generous tablespoon — make that two — of pesto.

The pesto adds a bit of creaminess to the pasta as well as flavor. I think the sausage and the pesto flavor the dish perfectly without blunting the freshness of the tomatoes and zucchini. But you could add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the browning sausage. With a green salad on the side, this was a simple and really fresh supper.

No pesto but still delicious

GreenBeanCapreseFinally, friends stopped by late Sunday afternoon for a casual supper and I served this Green Bean Caprese Salad  with burgers. The recipe is from Chris at The Cafe Sucre Farine  (whom you should be following whether you like to cook or just have to sometimes). She also included the recipe for lemon-basil oil to use as a light dressing. This salad was a big hit and such a welcome change from potato salad and/or baked beans. Plus, isn’t it pretty? 

And that wraps up August. I always consider this month bittersweet. Summer is sadly winding down but school is starting and I always loved that anticipation. August 31st was my favorite uncle’s birthday. Bill would have been 102 this year. (Yikes!) He taught me to swing a bat, ice skate and even can tomatoes. His simple, straightforward faith carries me along on the toughest days. He’s been gone for a long time, but then again he’s always with me.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week, and I’ll see you again soon!

A day at the (art) museum

BisaDetailHi. Before I say another word, I need to apologize for my last post. “Good Stuff” probably arrived in your inbox riddled with typos and crazy mixed up type. I can’t believe this happened, but I hit publish instead of review. And out it went. I’m so embarrassed. I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late. I did clean up the mess on my website, so if you read the post at ivyandironstone.com, you saw the corrected version. 

On with today’s post. I’m so excited to share this. 

Earlier this week I met two of my best-ever friends (the kind from the first day of high school!) downtown at Chicago’s Art Institute. Our goal was to see the Obama presidential portraits and then hopefully take in another exhibit on quilts. It turned out to be quite a day. 

The Obama portraits were more interesting in person that we expected. Like us, you have probably already seen them in the media. They are not typical presidential portraits. The artists — Kehinde Wiley for former President Barrack Obama and Amy Sherald for former First Lady Michele Obama — are the first African Americans commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president or first lady.  

Mr. Obama’s pose was familiar — seated, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, as if he’s ready to engage with the viewer. The portrait is really large, commanding even, and maybe a little imposing. I’ve been curious about the leafy background since the painting was revealed. The artist used it to work in flowers representative of places in the president’s life, including Chicago, Hawaii, and his father’s native Africa.

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Mrs. Obama’s portrait is also non-traditional. I imagine most viewers are initially struck by her gray skin, a trademark of the artist. According to the Art Institute, Sherald  does this “as a nod to these historical photographs and a reminder of the relative absence of African Americans in the history of painted portraits, but also to relieve her subjects from the internal and external limits imposed by the construct of race.” Interesting, huh? The hair, the expression, and the African-inspired fabric of her dress are all very much Michelle Obama. And purposeful. Interestingly, the background on her portrait is just blue. The blank but colorful background is another hallmark of artist Sherald.

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Chicago was just the first stop for these portraits.  They’re traveling on to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts

I’m not sure what we expected from this exhibit, but it wasn’t close to as extraordinary as these quilts proved to be. Artist Bisa Butler constructs her quilt portraits from bits and pieces of fabric, from the finest details of a facial expression to the puffiest sleeve on a dress. I tried to show some of the detail in the first photo, above. 

Although each work is strictly fabric, she approaches each piece as she would a painting, often working from a found photograph and selecting fabrics as an artist selects paint pigments. Butler incorporates kente cloth and wax-printed African fabrics in her quilts, using bright jewel tones rather than more traditional shades to depict skin tones. She believes this conveys the emotions of her subjects —who may be everyday people or historical figures. Look at the range of expression on the faces of the children in this quilt, Safety Patrol, which opened the exhibit (and knocked our socks off from the start.). 

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This quilt is based on an old photograph. The tulle on the hats is a three-dimensional addition. I love how naturally the women are posed.

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We were struck by the detail on the mother’s dress. Once again, the pose is so natural. Look st Dad, holding his daughter still

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I love the fabric layering and detail in each quilt and the remarkably life-like poses. (Look at the feet in each quilt!) I have always considered quilting as a precious part of our American heritage: a necessity for frugal homemakers to use what they had and an evolving craft reflecting historical moments as well as an art form. Bisa Butler’s work redefines the medium.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying these images, trying to grasp both her vision as she approaches each quilt and then the skill and artistry to select and assemble the fabrics.

That’s all I have right now. I hope you are having a good week. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.   

Good stuff! 

WallarooHat

Are you keeping cool? It’s hot and humid here, a good day to stay inside with a good book or maybe an organization project. Here are some bits & pieces I’ve been thinking about lately. 

This hat

I’ve been on the hunt for the right summer hat for years it seems. Something to shade my face, but not look like Scarlett O’Hara. Something that stays on my head but is more attractive than a baseball cap (my usual go-to). As a bonus, something that would work beyond the beach would be great. Thanks to a tip from Cindy Hattersley (check out her blog here and her Instagram here for serious inspiration) I ordered this hat by Wallaroo on Amazon. It’s perfect. I rolled it up & stuffed it into my backpack for our flights, and it readily snapped right back into shape. It’s cool and comfortable, with a drawstring inside the brim to tweak the fit. It came in a ton of colors. I ordered mine in this mid-brown, kind of tweedy look that goes with everything. Now, I’m thinking of a second one,  but I’ll have to start all over picking a color. 

Dressed up mac & cheese 

MaCheeseGood old mac & cheese is showing up on menus everywhere, often gussied up with lobster or shrimp, you name it. I previewed a menu at a Kiawah restaurant and read a review that raved about their mac & cheese side. (Southern cooks really do love their sides, with everything from a sandwich to fried chicken.) So, I ordered it. One taste quickly won me over, and my husband — who foolishly ordered fries with his pulled pork sandwich — accepted my offer of a taste and kept coming back for more! 

This was three-cheese mac with fresh basil. So now, of course, we experimented  here. I started with Ina Garten’s recipe for mac & cheese from Barefoot Contessa Family Style. She uses freshly shredded cheddar and Gruyerre. (I also used cavatappi instead of regular mac, per Ina.) Then once we got the cheese sauce on the cooked mac, we filled a ramekin with the cheesy mac and added basil chiffonade until we got the right taste. (We actually dumped the ramekin of mac into a bowl and then added basil for easy mixing and tasting.)  We  used 3/4 cup of fresh basil chiffonade per recipe to get the right flavor mix.  That’s a lot of basil, but we think we nailed it. I’m looking forward to serving it soon. (Plus, anything served in an individual ramekin is just so cool! )

These shoes

ShoesI love these shoes — this is my third pair. They are Tulip by Ilse Jacobsen. I bought my first pair, in a bright pinky-red, to take along on a trip to Europe as my alternative walking shoes. They were so comfortable I wore them almost every day on  a four-week trip thru France, walking over cobblestones, city streets and everything in between. The uppers are made from recycled microfiber; the outsole is natural rubber, and they are stitched, not glued. My only complaint was that by the next summer they were beginning to show some dirt that I just couldn’t clean off. I solved that problem by buying another pair in black; the red ones became my go-get-the-mail, water the yard, run to the store shoes. I’d been thinking of another pair this year, maybe in blue (to wear with jeans). But I found this green or mayube khaki color while on vacation. The saleswoman suggested they may be more versatile and I think she’s right. You can find them at Nordstrom, Zappos, Soft Surroundings or lots of independent shoe stores, which is where I got mine. 

What I read on the beach

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz is about Jacob Finch Bonner, a once promising novelist with a now floundering career teaching in a minor writing program at a remote college. Bonner borrows the can’t -miss plot of a former student who has died, develops it into a New York Times bestseller, now destined for the big screen. Not only has he found fame and fortune, he’s also found his soulmate. Life is good — until he begins to get mysterious messages accusing him of stealing the plot. This is a page-turner with an interesting take on writing, publishing, and especially social media with a cool twist at the end. 

Then I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on bestseller and “must read” list everywhere. My book group discussed it last week. The Vignes sisters are identical twins growing up together in a small, Southern Black community who run away at age 16. They stick together, struggling to find work and keep a roof over their heads until Stella discovers she can pass as white and, essentially, runs away again to create a new life. Desiree maintains her racial identity and, after years away, returns to her hometown with her daughter. What does it cost Stella to maintain her lifelong secret? And what does it cost Desiree to come back home?  Theire’s a lot to think about and discuss  here.

So, that’s the good stuff. I hope you enjoyed and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Thanks for stopping by.

Thirty years at Kiawah


FullSizeRender-5 2I tried writing from vacation on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, but to be honest I was just too “checked out” to focus on blogging. Usually our family beach week is too short for much of anything but a few stray Instagram posts; this year Steve & I spent a second, full week after the rest of the family headed home. It was frankly a self-indulgent, post-pandemic reward and we loved it.

We sometimes forget how long we’ve been coming to South Carolina. My son pointed out that we first came when he was twelve. Now he’s forty-two. (I have no idea how thast happened!) I guess thst makes it a serious tradition. We’ve missed a few years and occasionaly have come just the two of us. This year my daughter had a big work project so she had to pass. However, my son and daughter-in-law and our two grandsons were here with us the first week.

A lot of families find a home-away-from-home escape. Here in Chicagolond it’s often a beach in Michigan or a cottage in Wisconsin. We just happened to find Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Sometimes we came after family reunions in Atlanta or before visiting Grandma in Washington, D.C. We have stopped in Asheville and the Smokies, but this is always the destination. Are we boring? In a rut?

We liked the beach, which is long and broad and seems only vaguely crowded at high tide. There are no boom boxes or jet skis.

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There’s a lot of beach chill’in.

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And, some years, some very sandy play.

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I took my camera along one morning on a walk to get coffee and a bagel.  Beyond the beach the the island is densely wooded with palms, palmettos and live oaks.

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Kiawah Island was originally cleared and turned into a rice plantation. Eventually, however, the plantation was largely abandoned and the pines and live oaks took over. It was a fertile hunting ground until it was again privately acquired and strict environmental covenants were put in place to preserve the area.

The island is peppered with lagoons like this one. They’re pretty and they also support a lot of the wildlife. The sign in the lower left warms visitors not to feed alligators. (We saw at least one that lived here.)

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This deer greeted us on a walk back from the beach.

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Our son and daughter both have a healthy respecrt for nature, and I’m sure it comes at least in part from their time spent here. In addition to the obvious birds, deer and alligators, we’ve come across sea turtles on their early morning trek to the ocean. Naturalist-led trips in kayaks and canoes have opened their eyes to the plant and animal life and its threats.

Despite its reputation as a golf destination (the PGA tournament was just held on its Ocean Course), this is very much a family destination. Most accommodations are in cottages, villas or private homes. The only hotel, The Sanctuary, faces onto the Atlantic. Its generous stretch of ocean-side lawn is a sundown magnet for spontaneous soccer games, bubbles and adult conversation. This is especially true on Saturday nights when there is also live music. You can’t see it in this photo, but off to the right several couples took advantage of the live music for a little dancing. And off to the left, at the far edge of the lawn, soccer and frisbee shared the green space.

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We often stop at the Sanctuary bar, for the people-watching as well as a drink. (And the charcuterie is pretty good, too!)

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Here’s a view of the same bar early in the day. I just love the “clubby” feel of leather and dark wood combined with the  pond yachts and sweetgrass baskets on the wall. (Remember my sweetgrass affliction here?)

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This broader shot of the adjacent lobby/lounge shows off more small seating areas to accomodate conversation, reading, and the occasional card game. It’s just very gracious. The ocean is right outside those beautiful windows, but there are no cheesy nets, buoys, or mounted fish to be found.

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One of the things I first fell in love with here all those years ago was that everyone pretty much traveled by bicycle. This was at the height of my car-pooling summers when I spent entire mornings, it seemed, dropping off and picking up kids at camps and lessons. The first week we spent here I never got back in the car after we arrived! (Full disclosure: my husband left once or twice for groceries.) We still laugh about the post-dinner rides we took for ice cream, riding back along dark bike paths.

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It’s reassuring that after 30 years, the bicycling tradition continues, and the beach remains pristine. There are more houses now and a very welcome grocery store, along with a few non-chain restaurants and boutiques, just off the island. But the essential character is unchanged.  I think that may be one of the things that keeps us coming back.

So, that’s where I spent the last few weeks. Now we’re home, weeding the garden, resuscitating plants that took a hit in  the heat wave here, and wondering what to do with a dozen cucumbers and almost as many green peppers harvested from my husband’s vegetable patch.

Have a great week! See you next time.

Walking the garden

LavenderMost mornings I “walk the garden,” with my cup of coffee. Today is gray and cloudy, and it rained last night so the garden is a bit squishy. But for me at least, my garden is always a bright spot. Here’s some of what it looked like this morning.

To be totally honest, the phrase “walk the garden” belongs to one of my gardening mentors. It’s a good practice to see what’s in bloom, what’s past its prime, and where the weeds, etc., may be creeping in. I like to check things out in the morning. It’s the best time to cut flowers, so I often walk with pruning snips and a bucket or two – one for stray weeds and one for fresh flowers.

First, a few favorite pots

The lavender, above, is in a pot on the patio. It spends a lot of time on the porch, where it smells heavenly. I’ll plant it in the herb garden at the end of summer, but I have not had a lot of luck with lavender wintering over here in Chicagoland. I think it’s just too cold.

This dahlia, below, is a show-off. I walked away from it — it was already pretty big — about three times at the gsrden center, before going back and putting it in my wagon. I know I would have been bugged all summer by passing it up. Happily, it has bloomed more and more all season!

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A little herb garden

I’m not sure why I started growing herbs. It seemed like something gardeners do and I had the perfect spot behind the garage. I started with herbs I used in cooking. But, the more I cooked and the more I relied on my own fresh herbs, the more I enjoyed this part of the garden. Now I would be hard-pressed to give it up.

You can see my herb garden behind the dahlia. The perennial herbs, like thyme, sage and oregano, are doing great. But the dill, rosemary and cilantro are poking along. Our break-through cases of Covid kept us out of the garden until late May, so the annual herbs and border are anything but lush right now.

Here’s a close-up of the herbs. The basil gets better the more we cut it. The parsley in the lower left came up from last year and immediately went to seed. I’m told it will come up as new plants next year. I have not had that happen before.

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Just the flowers, please

The friend who told me about “walking the garden” collected daylilies. One year we split an order of bulbs from White Flower Farm. Initially I was a little disappointed, because not all of them bloomed the first year, or even produced much greenery. However, once established they have thrived. They require almost no maintenance, except for dead-heading when the blooms are spent snd ultimately some clumps will need dividing. The daylilies seem perfectly sized for the bushes behind them and other perennials like coneflowers and daisies between them. They really do make the garden in the summer.

 

Last year I planted these blue alliums to contrast with some small, lavender daylilies on the corner of the garage. We removed an old, dying spruce from this spot and replaced it with a redbud tree. I thought the area needed a little more “presence.” The daylilies were good from the start, but the alliums seemed a little small. However, as is so often the case with perennials, they really came into their own this year!

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I seem to have an accidental yellow theme on the south side of the house. It started with the daisies in May. Then the false sunflowers just shot up. (They’re very prolific bloomers — the more you cut, the more you get!) and now that the daisies have finished, the blackeyed susans have have literally taken over! This is really my cutting garden this year.

There are purple coneflowers buried in the false sunflowers, but they’re barely visible. Fortunately I have more elsewhere, and I think they like the alternative growing conditions better. Look how rich their color is!

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And that’s what’s blooming here. We leave soon to meet our kids at the beach, which will be hot and sandy but fun.

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

Snapshots

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It’s picture day! I started out looking thru some recent pictures on my camera roll & realized they might show you more of what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks than anything I could write. And who doesn’t like to look at
pictures? 

Last Monday my husband tackled our sagging porch. (Yes, one corner had actually dipped measurably.) It was more than time for this repair, but we had no luck finding a carpenter to do the job. Fortunately, Steve is very handy. This is what he did.

Before
Demolition is always pretty ugly and we didn’t know what we’d find. Happily, the decking was in great shape (yay!). Steve had to cut out a few boards to get to the substructure, which was also in good shape but had sunk a few crucial inches in one corner.

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Since we were expecring guests, we just rolled the old carpeting back over the newly leveled porch. We talked about skipping the carpet and painting the floor, but apparently treated lumber needs to dry out for several weeks to months before it can be painted or stained. We could still power wash the floor and leave it exposed to speed the drying, but the spaces between boards are more “generous” than we thought. Will that invite bugs? Decisions, decisions. It’s a work in progress.

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I shared on Instagram but not here that my husband built these awesome cedar Adirondack chairs earlier this spring. It was quite a project, but so worth it. They are a great place to take a break from the garden, read a book, share a glass of wine, or just chat.

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This clematis came with the house over 30 years ago, and it’s blooming non-stop this summer, but look at the color variation. Some blooms are the usual deep purple, but others are varying degrees of lilac. Has anyoine else had this happen? Is it missing a particular nutrient? If you have any ideas, let me know.

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I was walking past the dining room recently and noticed that the table was clear, there were no jackets draped on the backs of chairs and although the light wasn’t perfect, I needed to capture this moment! By the way, I am on a mission to center the table with something other than flowers, hence the candlestricks. This is also a good example of my current high/low style: a crystal chandelier over a pine table. Works for me!

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Finally, I often save pictures from Instagram that somehow and for whatever reason inspire me. Do you do that too? Here are two recent saves. First, if you have ever been to Charleston, South Carolina, you know that residents there take their window boxes very seriously. I thought this one was so pretty and featured flowers we could do in Chicago.

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Finally, if you have been here for any length of time, you know I have taken cooking classes at The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune, France. I wrote about one here . Marjorie and Kendall set a lovely but simple French table and the food is plated just as beautifully. It’s not all all surprising that their shop displays have the same elegant, restrained French sensibility.  Just look.

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That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll see you soon!

My latest book list!

July2018_WireBasketBooksSince my posts about books generate so many comments from you, my readers, I thought I would share at least some of the latest reading list my book group generated for August thru next July. This isn’t the complete list — just a “teaser.” 

If you are a regular Ivy & Ironstone reader, you may recall I am a member of a book group that’s been meeting on the first Friday morning of the month for well over 50 years. I wrote about it here   We  recently met to choose our books for the coming year.

This was also the first time we met in person since the pandemic began.  We have met faithfully via Zoom, but readily admit technology is a poor substitute for the intimacy of in-person greetings, mingling over coffee before we launch our discussion. Some hugs, lots of laughs. It’s just so good to be together, a shot of emotional tonic. 

But I digress. We’re talking books here and you probably  want to hear titles. I won’t bore you with all eleven books, but I will share a few I am especially looking forward to. 

Caution: if you’re looking for beach reads, this may not be the right place — although a few of them could be — and this list has little to do with best sellers, although a few of them are. It does include a few critically-acclaimed first novels, a few prize winners (or at least contenders) and some authors that this book club returns to again and again.  

First up, we are reading Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, which I read and wrote about here. I really liked this book and, more importantly, think it will generate a good discussion. It’s not “happily ever after,” but it is a story that stays with you. I’m eager to see what the rest of the group thinks.

We’re also reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, about African-American twin sisters from small-town Louisiana who eventually move to the city where they discover one can pass as white. This revelation fractures the sisterhood and examines the subject of identity and family. It’s been included on several “best books of 2020” lists. It was already on mine. 

This group often goes back to authors we have enjoyed in the past, so we chose The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, author of The Beautiful Ruins, which we loved. Set in 1909 Spkane, the novel focuses on two brothers caught in the class warfare of the early the twentieth century. Sound familiar? More than one critic has noted the similarity to today’s social climate. 

I may take the next two titles with me to the beach next month. Technically they are not necessarily “beach reads,” but I’m looking forward to reading both. And who defines “beach read” anyway?

The first is Stories from Suffragette City, a collection of 13  short stories all set on October 23, 1915, when thousands of women marched up Fifth Avenue in New York demanding the right to vote. We  love the topic and the history. I think this may be our first short story effort, so it will be an interesting discussion. It is, of course, our October selection.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is described as “an intelligent mystery about four septugenarian sleuths who find themselves in the center of a murder investigation.” It’s set in an English home for senior citizens. It sounds a little whimsical,  but several members of my book group are also enthusiastic mystery readers. And I have no comment on the “septugenarian” angle. 

I’ll share more with you as the reading year goes on. In the meantime, if you want a break from reading and some pretty pictures to look at, how about these personal libraries? I don’t need a separate room, but would love a library wall like one of these. 

EricCrossBookshelves

JamesTFarmerShelves

Before I close, I want to thank all of you who took the time to wish my husband and me well after our “break through” Covid diagnosis. Your care and concern are sincerely appreciated. (And, boy, quarantine is really lonely!) We have recovered & are catching up on what we missed. It’s very good to be back!

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

Sideswiped by Covid

2021DaisiesMy plan this year was to spend May getting our yard into shape so we could begin enjoying it with friends & family as soon as weather permitted. But then the pandemic interrupted. 

I stared at the the test results on my computer screen for several minutes. Positive. Then I asked my husband to come take a look.

After being fully vaccinated in March and being “crazy careful” as my friend Laura would say for the entire pandemic, I tested positive for Covid the second week in May. My doctor told me I was the first of his patients to have a “break through” case. 

Now, how special is that? 

And I don’t know how I got it. I have only been with a handful of people, all of them vaccinated, with the exception of my 7- and 10-year-old grandsons. And it doesn’t really matter except to say that somehow one of those little viruses snuck into my life. 

Happily for me, my symptoms were pretty mild. (Though there were times in those first 4 or  5 days when I would not have described them in that way.) I coughed, had body aches, a sore throat, and a mild fever. But most of all I slept — I simply could not keep my eyes open. 

I had to quarantine, which meant staying in our bedroom for days. My husband moved into the guest room. He brought me tea and toast and soup on a tray. Then he tested positive too. Steve’s symptoms seemed milder than mine, but because we were both positive I no longer had to stay in one room. Less work for Steve, a little more freedom for me.

Was this an improvement? 

So now we are recovering and waiting to get on with our summer. My quarantine ended and Steve’s will in a few days. I’m taking afternoon naps many days, because the fatigue has lingered a bit. Steve’s anxious to get his tomatoes and peppers planted in his community garden plot. We’re figuring this out day by day and getting better along the way.

So why am I telling you all this? It is a cautionary tale. We know that there are a small number of cases — maybe 3 to 5-percent — where the vaccine isn’t perfect. Steve and I were vaccinated by a major Chicagoland health provider at our local hospital. I know they were doing approximately 800 vaccinations at day at our location. Do the math. As many as 40 people could still get sick, but NOT AS SICK as they would have been. And that may be the key — we did not get as sick as we could have. So, yes, I cobtinue to believe the vaccine is everything. And presumably I’ll stop lookiong over my shoulder at some point, checking to see if some nugget of the virus is heading my way.

Early on in the pandemic, I told my daughter that I believed before it was over, we would all be touched by Covid. I had no idea it would get so personal! 

Thans for stopping by. See you again soon.

Hemingway, french toast, & garden starts 

EHemingwayHow are you & how’s your  week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone.  Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!

Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)

Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher. 

What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat. 

Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.

For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character  from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.

(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )

French toast perfection

IMG_4741For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.

IMG_4707The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so. 

We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)

The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper. 

We learned a few things from our recipe testing: 

  • Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body. 
  • Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white). 
  • Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch. 
  • The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick. 
  • We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.

IMG_4708As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched. 

So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects. 

Garden starts

Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures,  Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off. 

Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed! 

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I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!

Thanks for stopping by. See you aqgain soon!