Saturday, August 04, 2007

The onslaught

The produce is starting to flood in from my garden. After this week's heat, there were four huge zucchini to greet me when I went over to my garden (which is located in my Mother-in-law's backyard since she has direct sunlight and our yard has lots of shade). I swear they were tiny when I last checked them four days earlier. I have a promising recipe for chocolate zucchini cake which might mean I can actually sneak some zucchini into the small people (it looks especially good for using up the huge zucchini that might be too spongy for sauteeing--the recipe calls for 3 cups shredded). They are too suspicious to eat zucchini bread, but the cocoa powder should cover up any green flecks in the cake.

There were also more beans in my garden than we could easily consume in a meal or two, so I decided to take the opportunity to make some Dilly Beans.

What? You have never heard of Dilly Beans? I don't know where my mom got the recipe, but I remember munching my way through a whole jar of these when I was 8 years old and a bit of a salt fiend. They are semi-crisp, sour, salty, spicy, long pickles without any of the potential excessive slipperiness factor that homemade cucumber pickles sometimes fall into. Dilly Beans are great along side a good sandwich or laid out in a bowl for snacking with beer. I also am looking forward to trying them in a martini instead of an olive--I think the little kick they have will be a nice complement to the gin.

One could conceivably can these things with a real hot water process so they are shelf stable. I'm way to lazy for that, so I just make enough to store in the fridge.
Here are my beans, packed and ready for their hot vinegar salt brine.

The recipe looks nicer if you have pint jars, but I only had two big quart jars on hand, so the beans are a little wadded up in there. With the pint jars you can get your fingers down to the bottom to arrange them so they are all nicely lined up and vertical. But really, wadded up Dilly Beans still taste fine.

I'll use some of the extra dill I have left over from the beans to make my favorite summer soup, Chlodnik, which also uses up 4 of the beautiful sweet cucumbers that I picked today!

Dilly Beans
This makes 4 pint jars and assumes that you will NOT do a boiling water bath so will store the finished product in the refrigerator.

2 pounds green beans, trimmed
1 tsp cayenne
4 cloves garlic
4 heads of dill (or good sized wads of fresh dill)
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/4 cup salt

Blanch the beans for about one minute in boiling water then cool rapidly in ice water to prevent further cooking.

To each pint jar, add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1 clove garlic, 1 head dill (or a generous amount of fresh dill).

Pack the beans lengthwise into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space.

Combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.

Pour, boiling hot, over the beans, covering the beans. Put on and tighten the caps--carefully! The jars are hot hot hot!

Let cool down and then refrigerate.

Store for about 2 weeks to develop flavor before eating.

Dilly Beans will keep for 2 or 3 months in the refrigerator before losing their crispness.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Poetry and knitting

If you appreciate both of the above subjects, you must head over to today's post at A Fuse #8 Production. The poem is by Susan Ramsey (Fuse #8's mom, who I vaguely seem to remember lives here in Ann Arbor) titled "Mariah Educates the Sensitive." The poem makes me want to pull out my stash and dig my wrists into woolly goodness!

Sunday, July 29, 2007


While many people think of summer as a leisurely time to tackle long books, the opposite is true for the majority of the women in my book group. Summer is a pretty crazy time, especially if you did what I did this summer and scoffed at the cost of day camps and decided that "Mommy-Camp" would be just as much fun and cheaper (I did send them both to camp last week--Ian full-day and Fiona half-day and man was it nice to have a little break from each other). Coming up with interesting stuff for a 7 and 4 year old takes a hell of a lot of time and energy, so a good, fast moving book is always appreciated.

Flight, by Sherman Alexie, was a really wonderful book which was also really fast read. Zits is a really compelling character--funny and perceptive, but wild and scary in the way that only a lost adolescent can be. This mix makes the massacre at the bank all too easy to understand. Without Zits' voice--bewildered, funny, smart, hurt--the book could spiral into a depressing soup of the worst humanity has to offer: oppression, deception and violence. But instead, throughout the time travel incidents, Alexie manages to show Zits' longing for contact and trust, while never dropping the defenses and suspicions of a damaged adolescent.

The group all agreed that the relatively happy ending helped a lot and we could have seen a totally different ending plunging the book into despair. But Zits' sharp sense of humor kept it from feeling too sentimental when things do seem to work out.

We also had some interesting questions about what we guessed was the writer's process. Ami and I felt that the book might have come in a rush and wasn't cut much from draft to draft; the voice felt so pure and consistent, I could only imagine Alexie inhabiting this consciousness for a finite period of time to keep it from being watered down. But Meagan thought the original manuscript was probably4 or 5 times the length of the book, with many more time travel incidents, and then Alexie pared it down a great deal. Obviously, we don't know the answer to these questions, but it was fun to talk about the process of writing and not just the product.

Food-wise there wasn't a lot to go on--a couple of references to gloppy oatmeal in a foster home and a guy picking through a garbage can for food. Zits' quest is about his identity as half Native American and half Irish so we figured that was an open ended invitation to focus on the bounty of summer and go with a kind of local, fresh vegetable and fruit based cuisine. And here is what our groaning table looked like:
Counter clockwise from the top left--trout and wild rice with ginger, scallion, sake sauce, tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese, olives, pine nuts, basil and bread crumbs, calabacitas (summer squash and roasted chilies sauteed with sharp cheddar), a salad with lots of peppery arugula and beets, pasta salad and a bowl of cherries.

And not pictured on the table is the sweet corn and hominy chowder:
and the peach black raspberry crisp:
It was all fabulous (of course!) and we ate and drank a lot of wine until the mosquitoes descended (though it was nicely mosquito-free for most of the night).

The next book we plan to read is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. I read the book back in January and loved it, but haven't had anyone to talk it over with and there is lots there to talk about.

What a kindness

It seems that the library knew that I'd be coming down from my Harry rush and so supplied me with a literary cushion--a fantastic novel.

I finished Peter Ho Davies' new novel The Welsh Girl on Thursday at about 5 am (bad thunderstorm, bad insomnia, but excellent book to keep me company!)

The novel is beautifully written, really exquisite prose, and the author has that ability to end chapters with the perfect sentence; you know the sentence that makes you take in a little breath and hold it while you relish the language, before you dive into the next chapter. The funny thing is that this ability reminds me of Charles Baxter, who used to live in Ann Arbor and teach at U-M, which is what Peter Ho Davies currently does. Maybe U-M's creative writing program likes to hire people with this (all too rare) writing ability?

The novel focuses on three disparate characters--a German POW, the "Welsh girl" of the title, and a half-Jewish, German refuge who is now a part of the British military intelligence and who debriefs captured Germans. The interesting thing is that there are actually very few chapters where the characters encounter each other, though that doesn't stop them from thinking about each other. The internal lives of each of these three characters are so vivid and full and unique that it is actually startling when they do interact. To go from internal to external, from meditative to the snap of direct encounter, could be really messy and discordant, but Davies makes it seem effortless.

There are all sorts of lovely thematic resonances in the book too: what it means to surrender, what is courage and what is cowardice, the longing to escape, how to define the concept of "home" and the comforts and the confinements of the familiar. Each of these themes is picked up and expressed differently by the three characters so that the reader gets to roll each theme around, like a faceted ball, seeing a glint of insight here, and then a different flash as the ball is passed to the next character.

I'm going to return the book to the library, you know, just to help with some other reader's potential Harry crash, but I certainly won't forget this book. Of the books I've read this year, this book is now front and center in the purchase list for holiday gifts.