Where do we go from here?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Here's To Better, Greener, Healthier Days Ahead

As we prepare to enter a new year, a new decade, many people are setting out their thoughts on the year and decade past. I have to agree with these words from one of my favorite news/opinion sites, Common Dreams, sent to me in a fund-raising email this morning:
Ten years ago tonight the world nervously awaited midnight. Y2K.

Would computers freak out as the new century began? Would the networked modern world grind to a halt?

Or would all those stockpiles of bottled water and canned food sit unused on cellar shelves?

Ten years later, we realize that it wasn't Y2K that we should have feared. It was the decade to come on the other side of midnight.

Big events stand out: The stolen election of 2000. Bush. Cheney. 9/11. War on Afghanistan. War on Iraq. Abu Ghraib. The Patriot Act. Guantánamo. Katrina. Economic collapse.

But even more disturbing were the slow-motion trends: Global warming. Foreign policies driven by fear. Too-big-to-fail corporations increasingly dominating our political system. Growing disparity between rich and poor. The privatization of our schools, prisons and military.
Farmer Monte of my favorite Albuquerque institution, Los Poblanos Organics, writes in a more hopeful vein:
I want to go on record and say that we needed this year. That we as a nation, and even as an international community, were living a gluttonous unsustainable lifestyle before we went on a diet in 2009.

A housing industry that was giving out loans to unqualified people (me being one of those people as I look back at my home purchase). A society that was living with a negative savings rate. And financial institutions with as much regulation as the island from Lord of the Flies. So in those regards, we needed a deflating year like 2009 just to get our heads back into reality(..I) am a firm believer that some of the best ideas come out of the most challenging of situations. When things are easy, we rarely find an amazing solution. It makes common sense though. We are creatures of the path of least resistance, we are creatures of fight or flight. Therefore, when things are easy, we choose the simpler path. We choose not to push ourselves.

But those are the old days. And out of the deflated ruins of that old economy a new one will and is emerging. My hope is that with these challenges, we will build back an economy that is more lean and more green. Energy has gotten to be expensive so being green has gotten to be a smart financial move for companies. With that, we all (including our planet) will be better off.
Not mentioned in these lists of woes is the global spread of the H1N1 virus. We can rejoice that it did not meet the worst expectations for it, and become the sort of plague that Garrison Keillor speaks of in his Writer's Almanac entry for today, with a quote from Samuel Pepys' Diary on this day in 1665:
"Thus ends this year, to my great joy, in this manner. I have raised my estate from 1300l. in this year to 4400l. I have got myself interest, I think, by my diligence [...] It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague [...] But now the plague is abated almost to nothing, and I intending to get to London as fast as I can. [...] I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague time [...] and great store of dancings we have had at my cost (which I was willing to indulge myself and wife) at my lodgings. My whole family hath been well all this while, and all my friends I know of, saving my aunt Bell, who is dead, and some children of my cozen Sarah's, of the plague. But many of such as I know very well, dead; yet, to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again. Pray God continue the plague's decrease! for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to rack as to publick matters, they at this distance not thinking of it."

1665 had been an awful year in London. The plague began to spread in April, with just a few people dead by the end of the month. But by August, 31,159 people died in that month alone. Overall, about 15 percent of London's population was killed. And Pepys believed that the death toll was even higher than recorded because he had heard first-hand that sometimes clerks were so overwhelmed with names that they didn't bother writing them all down.

In late June, King Charles II and his court left London for Oxford, and many rich people did the same, applying for "health certificates" and heading to country estates. A lot of the wealthy doctors went with them. By early July, Pepys had sent his mother and wife away to Woolwich, outside London. But he did not want to leave. He stayed in London to work, and he recorded in his diary how empty the streets were, with all the shops closed, and how sad it was to see corpses abandoned in the street or houses with red crosses on them and the words "Lord Have Mercy On Us" scrawled on the outside.
So, things could have been worse I suppose, these past years, and may yet be, in the coming year, coming decade, but we can be grateful that medical technology has kept us from corpses in the street. There is always hope. May anyone who reads this have good health, bountiful crops, improving finances, and copious joy in the year ahead.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another Version of What To Do When It's Below Freezing

Or, Ghosts of Christmasses Past
Once the huge Thanksgiving project was over, I felt a serious sense of anticlimax. We weren't going to have much of a winter holiday bustle; we shop for family gifts all year long, stockpile them in the office closet, so there wasn't much shopping to do, no trips to plan, and we wouldn't know if we were having any visitors until we saw the whites of their eyes. I had a few final classes between Thanksgiving and the end of the semester, so even that wasn't much of an occupation. Thus, a quandry: what to do with the long cold hours I can no longer spend outside gardening?

Fortunately I came across a pile of photo CDs when I was cleaning out a box of office stuff moved here from Delaware - and a new obsession was born. I spent many hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas transferring photos from the CDs onto my computer (they had been on an older computer, the laptop that was stolen soon after we moved to New Mexico) and then onto my photo storage/sharing site on Flickr. I think I finally have all of them on Flickr now, though I may find a few hanging around and take care of them later. It has been a wonderful trip through past happy times with friends and family, causing feelings of both joy and sorrow. I've put a link to my Flickr photos in the sidebar here, and would love to have visitors share them.

At the same time I was doing this, we were also working with paper photos from other unpacked boxes moved here three-and-a-half years ago, sorting them, copying some of them, then framing them to hang on walls, stand on shelves, in general have our faraway (in so many ways) family members close to us. It was quite strange living here for these years without photos in our living space, and what we have done to remedy this feels very very good.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Posole, A New Mexico Tradition

Under my sidebar section called "Foodies" there is a photo of a pan of posole cooking on my stovetop last week. Posole is a sort of soup, or stew, of dried corn kernels, locally known as chicos, meat, onions, garlic, red or green chile, various herbs and spices. Just for fun I googled this dish today, and found interesting, and well-documented, historical facts about its origins. According to this Wikipedia article, they lie in ancient and startling Mexican (Aztec) religious tradition. The meat with which the corn was first cooked was human, from the bodies of prisoners of war after their hearts had been removed in ritual sacrifice, and the posole was eaten ceremonially by the entire community in a sort of special-occasion communion.

Today it is still a special-occasion food, eaten during the winter holidays, a dish of dried corn kernels (though many recipes call for the much blander canned hominy) locally known as chicos, red or green chile, onions, garlic and various spices. Since the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in the fifteen hundreds, cannibalism was discontinued, officially anyway, and the traditional meat cooked into it is pork, although it is quite delicious made with chicken or turkey as well. I make it with turkey presently, though I hope we will eventually wean ourselves off even poultry.

We had lunch at Garcia's Kitchen the weekend before Christmas, where many customers were slurping down bowls of the traditional red chile/pork meat posole. This inspired me to go home and make a batch of green chile/turkey sausage posole for our friends who were to arrive that night, on their way to Santa Fe. I often use Bueno's frozen corn kernels. I also like to use blue corn dried kernels when I have them, though they take a good deal longer to cook. I first boil the corn for an hour or so, sauté chopped onion, minced garlic, and green chiles and add them to the simmering chicos. I add whatever stock, vegetable, chicken or turkey, I have on hand, cooked turkey meat,fresh cilantro, some mild red chile powder, a pinch of dried cumin, then let it simmer for as long as it takes. It is a food that only improves with time and its own interaction. The longer the flavors blend and mingle, the better it gets. I serve it with a choice of toppings: sour cream, avocado, more cilantro, grated cheese.

I hope you can get past my historical notes on the origins of this delicious winter meal and give it a try yourselves. There are a ton of recipes for Posole on the Internet, so just pick one that looks good and give it a try. Feel free to experiment, New Mexicans all have their own idiosyncratic recipes.

If you live where the basic ingredients of dried corn and chiles are not readily available, you can find them at these websites and have them shipped to you: This one is in Idaho, strangely enough, but they have it all: Purcell Mountain Farms. These folks have an Albuquerque address, so I assume that's where they are located: New Mexico Connection. Their catalogue looks like a treasure. The Bueno Foods' site also has both ingredients and recipes. You don't have to use the pigs' feet. I promise.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter Reading

It's that deep waiting stillness that only comes before a storm. It's been dark and cloudy all day, with a chilly sunlight occasionally peeping through. The birds are ravenous - it's impossible to keep anything in the seed or the suet feeders; they are emptied as soon as I fill them. Most recently this afternoon I went out and liberally smeared the cottonwood's trunk with my favorite new find: bark butter. It's a product resembling peanut butter, and smelling strongly of peanuts too, but containing beef suet and corn as well as peanuts and peanut oil. I stir in some seed mix, then spread it on the tree bark, in much the same way you'd spread peanut butter on a sandwich. It has brought a whole new group of birds just outside the kitchen window: several different kinds of woodpeckers, chickadees, creepers, even a curvebilled thrasher shows up most days. I need to go out and do one more feeder refill before it's totally dark, or the crowd of finches, sparrows and doves that arrives at first light will be very angry with me. They know snow is on the way, and they're tanking up.

It has been truly cold in the Southwest, or at least here in New Mexico, through most of December. My sister and her family were planning on coming out for a Christmas visit, and they did actually pile into the car and set off across north central Texas, only to be stopped cold near Wichita Falls, by dangerously icy road conditions, which would only have gotten worse as they approached the Panhandle. Friends from Texas who were in Santa Fe for their winter vacation encountered the same conditions days later on their way back home. So, we're sitting tight for now, with a wonderful glut of very fat library books, and plenty of firewood. It's an embarras de richesse, for sure.

After a rocky beginning, I sped through John Irving's new opus, Last Night in Twisted River. (This is but one of a gazillion reviews, you could read them for as long as it takes to read the book. But the book is better reading.) The beginning put me off with a surplus of information about logging in the north woods of New Hampshire (of course New Hampshire, it's John Irving), a subject I care next to nothing about. But, I persisted, and soon fell into the narrative that began in the logging camps mid twentieth century, and carried me along, much like the river carries the logs, through fifty years of our less-than-glorious history. The protagonist is a writer, whose life and career clearly follow Irving's own history in many ways. The story is filled with most of Irving's familiar themes: New Hampshire, bears, Exeter, college teaching, strange sexual relationships, parentless children, father/son relationships, the constant knowledge that life is an accident waiting to happen. There is a wonderful new theme also running through the story, as we follow the writer's father's life and career from his beginnings as a logging camp mess cook to his final ownership of a gourmet restaurant in Brattleboro, Vt, we vicariously share Dominic's amazing repertoire of food categories, preparations, and menus. As one reviewer noted, it's not a book to read on an empty stomach. Or, I might add, when you have a houseful of holiday goodies that have been gifted upon you. If you have ever loved John Irving, and you have some time to curl up by a fire with a fleece throw and a cat or two, this book will keep you happy through some long winter afternoons.

Now I have started an even fatter book than Irving's, A.S. Byatt's new enormous novel, The Children's Book. I am a serious fan of Byatt's, not just the book that brought her a lot of attention some years back, Possession, but of her shorter novels and her wonderful short stories. I have loved her and her sister, Margaret Drabble, also a very literary writer, for many years now. We are all of an age, and I am very pleased that they have the stamina to continue writing books that will keep me reading well into my old age. It's too soon to say much about The Children's Book, (though it's already on the "Best of 2009" lists that are starting to appear) as I haven't gotten very far into it today. Time to make some soup, light a fire, settle in under the fleece and cats and start turning pages. Ahhhh, winter. And, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, Tracy Chevalier, and John Burdett all have new books!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Food and Books About It

My apologies to the squeamish for the worm photo in my previous post. It's hard for me to understand squeamishness about worms, knowing how incredibly beneficial and important they are for the health of soil and gardens. My outdoor compost bin needs time to rest and work over the winter, so I have high hopes for this new outlet for the large amount of vegetable waste we seem to create in our everyday life of cooking and eating.

And vegetables are really what this post means to be about, not worms again. If anyone read my preThanksgiving post about what green vegetable I would prepare for the big feast, they might find a followup of interest. I was obsessing over the boringness of green beans, and my real desire to do the not-always-popular, especially with children, brussel sprouts. I was saved by a recipe in the (alas final) November issue of Gourmet Magazine for a dish with both vegetables, as well as chile and mint. I was putting green chile in one of the dressings (as well as chestnuts and dried cherries), and mint in the salad, so I chose to do pinon nuts and garlic with the green vegetables. Blanching the beans and sprouts in boiling salted water kept them fresh and green, then I sauteed them in olive oil with the nuts and garlic. It turned out to be one of the stars of the show. People who said they had never liked brussel sprouts before had second helpings, AND asked for the recipe. So, thank you Gourmet, and how I hate to see you go.

Today we are venturing out, as the daytime temps are finally rising above freezing, to see my favorite food writer and cookbook author, Deborah Madison, at Los Poblanos. She'll be signing her books, and I'll be right there in line with my two, Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, and Local Flavor: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets. She has many more books, and in time I will be able to afford her magnum opus, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. There's plenty in the two I have to keep me busy for a good long time, however. If you like to read about food, and I have to confess I love nothing better than a good food writer, Local Flavor is a joy to just curl up in an armchair and read. Deborah will be doing her book signing in the Farm Store at Los Polanos Organics, and I hope for enough time to do some browsing in the store itelf. Los Poblanos is an incredibly beautiful place in the North Valley, which includes an inn and conference center as well as an organic farm providing bountiful boxes of produce (and now bread, meat and milk as well) to its CSA members. It may well be warm enough this afternoon for a good walk in the Bosque into the bargain. All in all, it sounds like a wonderful winter Sunday afternoon.

What To Do While It's Below Freezing

Hard to believe I haven't posted here for two weeks now, because it means two weeks have flown by while I've been in first a coma of cooking and company, then a trance of going through old photo CDs and uploading pictures to first the computer, then to my Flickr photostream. All those photos were on the computer that was stolen soon after we moved here, and the thought of going through the work to retrieve them has overwhelmed me ever since. But I'm in the middle of it now, and it's proving to be more fun than work. At the same time we've been going through photo albums and boxes of photos, some not unpacked for as many as two or three moves, in order to get family faces up on our walls. This realworld, as opposed to virtual world, project, has been ongoing since October and has more or less consumed us. We were able to get enough things framed and up before Thanksgiving so that we didn't look like amnesiac orphans to our guests. Plenty of grandchildren pix everywhere, I'm happy to say.

Once the Thanksgiving Extravaganza of planning, shopping and cooking was over, I had a few days of feeling very anticlimactic - but this virtual photo project has given me another outlet for the compulsive need for a Big Project. During the spring, summer and fall, gardening fills that need, overfills it, in fact, but the ridiculously cold weather we're having makes it difficult for me to even get outside and do some necessary yard cleanup. I've moved the planters full of chard, lettuce and spinach into the garage for the time being, and even there have covered them with frost cloth. Yesterday I also started a worm composting bin, which I'm keeping in the utility room with the furnace and hot water heater, until the garage is above freezing. My friend Julia, of the wonderful South Austin Backyard Naturalist blog, has a very graphic post about her own worm composting. She's coming to visit next month, so I hope she will be able to give me pointers on how to do this right. (Photo cribbed from Julia's worm post.)