Thursday, July 11, 2019

Niçoise Inspired Couscous Salad & Ginger Strawberry Slushie

The garden is turning out tons of succulent green beans. Since there's canned tuna, olive oil, and capers in the larder; eggs, leftover couscous, and a half of lemon in the fridge; those ridiculously abundant green beans plus fennel the herb in the garden, I say a refreshing salade composée is in order. The French in general don't do mixed/chef salads, instead they refer to any fresh greens as les salades and will often serve just raw leafy vegetables following the main course for cleansing the palate. Salade Niçoise which originated in the French city of Nice varies from household to household and restaurant to restaurant and can either be a composed or tossed salad. Ingredients often include green beans, tuna, and hardboiled eggs, hence the inspiration for my couscous salad. Other additions can be potatoes, anchovies, olives, bell peppers, les salades, and tomatoes. What's there to drink? As a majority of our garden strawberries were macerated in sugar till a ravishing ruby-coloured syrup formed and then popped in the freezer, a Ginger Strawberry Slushie is a perfect accompaniment to the brilliantly green beans.

To compose this salad, spread evenly the couscous on a plate. Mound the flaked tuna in the centre. Then do the green bean cross, that is, two lines of the beans at right angles to each other. Put four halves of hardboiled eggs in the spaces between the beans. Sprinkle on the minced fennel, capers, and olive oil. Season with freshly ground black pepper and fleur de sel. Garnish with fennel sprigs. Top with a twisted thin lemon slice. Serve the remaining lemon with the salad so it can be added just before eating because acid turns the beans to an unattractive grey.

The eggs were boiled for eight minutes, so less than the usual ten. They were nicely gooey.

For about a litre of slushie, smash with a meat mallet two cups of frozen, sugared strawberries put in a ziplock bag. Place the contents along with a large pinch of powdered ginger in a stick blender's container with some cold water and additional sugar if preferred. Blend. For each serving pour in a good slosh of cream. A lovely beverage indeed because it keeps cold as the frozen strawberry bits melt slowly. Its starting out first thick and quite frosty and then gradually becoming thinner while staying pleasantly cool provides an interesting textural experience. And the heavy cream laces its smoothing richness throughout.

À la prochaine!


Our trip to Nice and Hyères
Socca, a chickpea flatbread from the south of France
Caprese Socca
Socca Croustillant with Tomatoes, Yogurt & Walnut Basil Pesto

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Early Summer Garden 2019

Though the weather is cooler than the recent Official Canicule (heat wave), it's still HOT. Therefore I am watering the garden daily in the early morning and seeking refuge under the pergola along with a hanging basket of multi-hued lobelia or in our house. Your house you say? Yes, it stays cool because of our keeping to the recommended protocol for stone houses: keep both shutters and windows closed during the day but at night while keeping the shutters closed, open the windows.

The delicate blooms of lobelia present themselves as a flurry of stars or fireflies or dust motes in a sun beam depending upon flights of imagination. They flutter overhead as we recline in lounge chairs made even more cushiony with throw pillows. That basket was gifted to me more a quarter of century ago, tagged along with us from country to country, until this spring when I noted there was a suitable hook already securely fixed to one of the pergola overhead beams which jogged my memory of the basket, now covered with cobwebs in the sous sol and sans the original chains. I went ahead and sowed shade-loving lobelia indoors late winter thinking I could make do with cord instead of chains. The material I used broke, the rope The Calm One then strung up didn't, but he thought that it would eventually break so he trotted off to the local DIY place and got some chains. It was worth every bit of trouble as it is just sublime to see.

After preparing a bed for sowing carrots, I rushed to the pergola for some relief, removing my hat to let the breeze have its way with my hair, and sipped some iced coffee.

Across the way, sitting on the uncovered part of the patio, is a pot of black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) and a bordeaux-red ivy geranium which is waiting to be placed out in the front garden when it has filled out enough.

Down the central path, on the right, is the sprawling blackberry bush. It needed to be staked and now the berries are no longer brushing the grass so they won't rot or get mowed down before I can pick them. I see a blackberry roly poly⁠—shortcake dough brushed with butter and spread with sugared berries, rolled up, topped with more berries, baked, and served with whipped cream⁠—in its future.

The strawberry patch has slowed down considerably but is still putting out a dessert bowl of berries weekly.

Daylilies are called that because each bloom lasts just a day, but look at the number of buds! This variety's name is El Desperado. It has golden yellow flowers with a burgundy centre and edge.

Another daylily, a potted Stella de Oro which is a reblooming variety, is keeping an equally golden Thunbergia alata company on a double sous sol window sill. It's good they both can take on a full frontal sun, because that window faces south. The tuteur is one of the old dried seed pods stuck on sticks that we found stored in a wood cupboard under the indoors barbecue. If that hanging basket can be brought to life, so can these sticks!

The hydrangea on the other hand is tucked in the front garden which faces north. It's just as happy as its sun-loving peers. I appreciate that aspect of gardening so much, that is, finding the right place so each plant can thrive.

Another golden sun worshiper is this rose.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review / The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St Clair

Ms St Clair presents a historical account of humanity not through the lenses which are often used such as war, exploration, and communicable diseases, but through the perspective of thread and cloth, of which the making has been done in a large part by women, so much so, that the word spinster, one who spins, once was laudatory, meaning a financially independent woman. Since the nature of fabric is ephemeral and historians often write from a masculine perspective, the key, pervasive, interlocking influence of spindle, needle, and loom has been overlooked.

This fascinating book is divided into mostley chronological chapters starting with the prehistoric era right up to the present. Linen, silk (worm, spider, and mollusc), wool, cotton, silver/gold threads, and synthetics are all discussed and not just the processes by which they are made, but also how the fruits of this labour-intensive work have manifested in every strata and activity of society, be it domestic, cultural, artistic, technological, commercial, scientific, and martial.

Blue-flowering flax which is used in the making of linen (stock photo)

Her writing has a buoyant, friendly touch as it delivers the goods of information delineating her theme, and at times shines with brilliance as when she describes Vermeer's painting, The Lacemaker : 
A girl looks down at the work between her hands, utterly absorbed. She's seated in a spare, pale room - so bereft of detail that it's difficult to say whether it is a room at all or a void, hollowed out by her singular focus. Her dress is a glowing lemon shade; her hair is gathered away from her face in a coif of plaits and large ringlets. Our eyes follow hers: down between her fingers to the 'V' formed by a pair of bobbins she is using to create a piece of lace . . . Vermeer's luminous canvases, previously so sought after, furred with dust in his studio as the wealth of his erstwhile patrons evaporated like puddles on a hot day.
The significant drawbacks of synthetic fabric manufacturing are unsparingly presented in terms of pronounced damage done to workers' health and nature, all so we can have disposable clothing. Made for fickle fashion and rapid turnover beneficial for corporate profits and their shareholders, these clothes may make the wearer feel good for a short time, but in the long run, it's a net negative for everybody.

The Golden Thread is packed with intriguing quotes, accounts, and informational background that it is near to impossible to pick just one area upon which to elaborate. For me it was a tug of war between space voyage garments, especially regarding moon exploration and spider silk. Well, those spiders yanked that rope so hard, they won. Not surprisingly as they have been inspiring humans since early times. The Greek philosopher Democritus noted that seeing spiders spin their egg sacs and weave webs most likely spurred us in the direction of doing something similar. Spiders also probably influenced the making of nets, lures, and traps.  If that wasn't enough, dressings made from spider silk have demonstrated antiseptic qualities.

Harvesting spider silk goes back quite a ways especially across Africa. However, to this day, the silkworm reigns supreme commercially. Problems include spiders eating each other, their requiring huge amounts of insects for nourishment (all those mulberry leaves that need to be gathered for silkworms comparatively appear less daunting), and extracting enough spider silk.

Botswanian spider silk hat with ostrich feather, late 19C

There are two kinds of spider silk, one for insect-catching webs and the other for threads which they use to travel through the air. The latter has extreme strength and is the focus of researchers. The trend at present is more to leave the spider alone and instead try to duplicate spider silk through chemical means.

Ms St Clair has written that kind of book which earns its place on your shelf because at any point you may feel bored, with your life, with yourself, with others, just pick a page, any page, and you will be transported into a world that is way more interesting and entertaining.

À la prochaine!


Book review / Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Warner Townsend

Book Review / Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Book Review / The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Book Review / The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt by Robert I. Sutton

Book Review / Florike Egmond's An Eye For Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630

Book Review / Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal

Baking From Around The World by Jessamyn Waldman

Rodriguez with Julia Turshen

Book Review/The Confidence Game: The Psychology Of The Con And Why We Fall For It Every Time By Maria Konnikova

Book Review / The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates


The Golden Thread at Amazon

Kassia St Clair at Twitter

British Museum Botswanian spider silk hat with ostrich feather

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Blueberry Cake Muffins

The fable of the blueberry cake muffin is thusly told. Eons ago, when they lived in another place, one of oversized meals, twelve-lane highways, and a sun that hardly quit, they found a blueberry muffin they both adored. It was not like all the others as it was really butter cake studded with blueberries stuck in a muffin tin. As it was their wont, they moved, moved again, and yet again until they were so far away from their beloved bakery they began to think perhaps that perfect blueberry muffin was the stuff of dreams. They shopped around, tried recipes, all in vain, and they continued being bereft. Until now. As a promising recipe worked out. Finally!

Now there are easier muffins because cake muffins require creaming butter and sugar, but if you have a stand mixer, it will be less difficult. I managed without one. (Question. Why aren't these called blueberry cupcakes instead of blueberry cake muffins? Is there an invisible muffin monster in everybody's oven that's going to pop out and scream, MUFFIN, NOT CUPCAKE?) Obstacles other than lack of an appropriate recipe were my aversion to muffin tin liners and our potted blueberry bushes not yielding enough fruit until this season. The variety is Patriot, and it is an early cropper hence blueberries in June. It takes several years to become productive, but when it does, wow!

And the liners are homemade from parchment paper so just the needed number was made from material already in the house. All problems solved. Well, there was a pesky one remaining of how to prevent berries from migrating en mass to the bottom. Placing first a layer of batter without blueberries worked fairly well. The well known technique of flouring berries does lessen bleeding, but not their settling to the bottom. I love the bursting of their skins, but not so much their simulating yogurt with all the fruit way down below. Yogurt can be stirred, but not muffins, anyway not in the universe I happen to inhabit. If you do not share my love of burst berries marbling the muffin purple, then flour them using some from the amount already measured for the recipe.

makes 12 muffins 3.8cm (1.5in) deep by 7.6cm (3in) wide
adapted from Better Baking Bible

  1. Butter, sweet, softened, 8 T
  2. Sugar, white, 8 T
  3. Eggs, large, 2
  4. Vanilla extract, 1 tsp
  5. Baking powder, 2 tsp
  6. Salt, 1/2 tsp
  7. Flour, white, all-purpose, plain, 475 ml (two 8 fluid oz cups)
  8. Milk, whole, 8 T
  9. Blueberries, fresh or frozen, 355 ml (2 1/2 fluid oz cups)

If there are no muffin liners chez vous but there's parchment paper handy, then this is how to make them.* Find a small bottle or round container with a bottom that fits easily into a muffin tin. Cut  parchment paper into the necessary number of 12.7cm (5in) squares. Centre the paper square over the bottom of the upturned bottle and using both hands squish down the paper over the bottle, roughly pleating the paper and creasing around the round contours. Put a dot of oil or a smear of butter in each muffin tin and position the liner. If there are no liners or parchment paper nearby, then butter the tins well, especially where the sides meet the bottom and flour lightly.

The night before leave out measured milk, butter (cover both), and yet-to-be-cracked eggs so they all will be at room temperature next morning OR depending on ambient temperature, only a couple of hours may be called for as during the summer or in an overly heated room. Be sure that the muffin tin is prepared, with store-bought/homemade (see above for instructions) liners or buttered and floured. 

Preheat oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F). Put the softened butter into a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer's container. If a stand mixer is not available, using the back of a large wooden spoon, smash/rub/work the sugar into the butter. Don't stir at first, but as the sugar-butter mixture gets fluffy, increases in volume, and becomes lighter in colour, a judicious stir here and there is fine. When necessary, scrape the mixture off the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Creaming should take around ten minutes. Add the eggs one by one, whisking after each addition. Stir in the vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Alternating between milk and flour, add a half of each. Mix until blended. Repeat with the remaining milk and flour. After putting a layer of batter in each tin, use the back of a teaspoon dipped in cold water to even it out.

Now fold the blueberries into the remaining batter.

Fill as close to the brim as possible.

Bake for twenty minutes or until golden and when a skewer is inserted, it comes out clean. The top of the muffin should also bounce back a bit if tapped. The homemade liners act like handles so the muffins can be lifted out while still hot. When they cooled a bit, they were separated from the liners and put on a wire rack until they were at room temperature.

The story turns out to be happily ever after. That perfect muffin in California inspired me through the decades of never giving up so we eventually could gobble up a similar muffin in France! I love the sparse fluting around the sides left by the liners. Since they freeze well, some were popped into the freezer. As good as these are, they actually get better once frozen and thawed to room temperature as the texture becomes even more lusciously moist. Thawed, but still cold muffins, can be split, lightly buttered, and toasted under the broiler.

Most of the berries stayed put and did not sink except for a rebel or two determined to be bottom dwellers.

The Calm One announced them to be fine. Translation from one who mostly moves in neutral gear, to my language, who is usually running at top emotional speed: they are stupendous.

À la prochaine!


Full instructions for making cupcake/muffin liners

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Late Spring Garden 2019, Part Two

It's lovely to have home-grown goodies in the freezer. Here's an ample portion of rhubarb crumble (my recipe) with strawberries fresh from the patch drenched in cream; all which goes well with coffee.

The two beds of peas have been harvested/shelled with most of them parboiled and frozen. The spent plants have been ripped up, put on the compost, and soon the beds will be prepared for carrot and beet sowings. Yup, you are seeing right, that's two peas in a pod!

Despite the weather being more stormy than not, I took the shelling project outside under the pergola.

Partly curious, partly seeking shelter, Eli the Cat jumped up on the table to sniff and inspect more closely.

The pink flowers on the left are penstemon while those feathery, tall plants on the right are asparagus. Many young shoots were harvested back in March, but some were left to develop into what I consider to be a summer hedge. A hedge until . . .

. . . the storm. Their height has been reduced sharply and a good number have snapped at the base of the plant. I am trying to rehabilitate the ones remaining by freeing those trapped under the dead stalks and mounding the soil around them so they have a chance of resuming an upright position. Most importantly, regardless of trying to reclaim a hedge effect, the focus is to keep them alive because without fading autumnal foliage, the roots will not receive required nourishment, threatening the next season's crop.

However, the penstemon so far has weathered the storm perfectly.

The lavender in the front garden is blooming. Bees love it and there are a few in the photo below!

I love to catch a glimpse of lavender haze through other bushes, in this case, through the graceful, mahogany-branched, airy-leaved abelia also beloved by bees.

I have been trying to order this deep-mauve osteospermum for a couple of seasons from my online nursery but they sell-out this item before I can order. Not this time! They will bloom all the way through October/November.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

No Post Today!

Early crops of rhubarb, asparagus, and peas are harvested; there lots of rhubarb crumble (recipe for my crumble) in the freezer with a ton of peas to follow. No asparagus I am afraid, all that soup (recipe for Asparagus And Green Onion Soup) I froze is gone! Since I am under the weather and the weather itself is stormy, I will be inside shelling those peas in preparation for freezing them. Our strawberry patch has peaked with the major amount in the freezer but it is still putting out beauties which are sugared, let be for a short while so a syrup can form, and then covered with Crème Chantilly (sweetened and flavoured with a dash of vanilla extract).

À la prochaine!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Late Spring Garden 2019

The potager is humming along, revving up its growth rate to take on the summer push which will lead into late summer/autumnal harvesting: peas, potatoes, green beans, peaches, figs, and blackberries to name a few.

The old pear tree festooned with golden trumpet vine which borders the ivy-covered pergola marks the boundary between the back and west gardens. That soft-pink cloud off in the distance is the front garden's deutzia.

On the right of the back garden's main path is the pergola and a potted bougainvillea on an upturned planter. Before its lofty positioning, it was on the open patio across the path, basking in the sun and getting drenched in the rain. The sun part was fine, but being soaked frequently wasn't, at least not for abundant blooming. Last summer, after decorating the beginning of the path with two flanking potted plants, one being the bougainvillea, I noticed it put out many more flowers than usual even though it received less sun. After a little research I found out why. It needs drought stress in order to bloom. Being under the pergola protected it from rains. Presently, it is watered only when the top four inches of potting mix is dry.


Its companion this season will be potted Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed Susan vine) which will as it grows be trained upon tuteurs. There were some dusty dried seedpod decorated sticks stuck in the wood cabinet under the indoors barbecue since moving here about ten years ago, and I finally found an use for them! The anticipated effect will be both height and draping over its pedestal. The pot in front which also contains the vine, but has a purple flowering ivy geranium to provide contrasting colour to the yellow-blooming black-eyed Susan, will go out to the front steps. The pot in front of that, yup, you guessed it, also filled with Thungbergia will be put on the balcony overlooking the front garden. The many Thunbergia along with trailing blue lobelia seedlings were started indoors late winter. The lobelia will graced the four, small casement window sills on the west side of the house, a basket under the pergola, and a huge pot on the shady part of the balcony. Here's hoping my grand plan works (historically they tend not to)! Since a path that goes nowhere, in this case, smack right against an unattractive back wall, begs for something to catch your eye, I plonked a garden chair at the path's end. In the future, a potted camellia and a mirror instead? At present, I love sitting in the chair, from which a very different perspective of the garden is to be had.

It is my wont to buy plants from online nurseries which often have much younger and less expensive plants than at the local garden centres. Greater choice, also. So where do these baby plants go when they first arrive as usually they are too small to make visual impact? In nursery beds of course. This year-and-half-old bed has penstenmon, moss pink, teucrium, a mum, three Mikado daylilies, and six laurels that were taken as cuttings from the existing hedge. They will be put in their permanent locations either this early autumn or next spring depending on their growth this season and the state of my muscle strength.

The front garden (looking towards a neighbour) is a pleasing jumble of drooping red weigela, overflowing pink deutzia, and exuberant lavender.

Bloom cuddle!

Peonies look good near bearded iris foliage and lavender.

If using for culinary and cosmetic purposes, it is best to harvest lavender when still in bud form.

Right by the driveway gate are pots of shade-loving plants as the terracotta roofing tile framed bed filled with our own wood chips luxuriates under cherry plum and box elder trees: three heucheras (tiramisu, Georgia peach, paprika), polystichum sword fern, tuberous begonia, hellebore, and the latest but not least, the centrepiece gardenia.

Gardenias and I go a ways back, first in California where it hardly bloomed because the soil was too alkaline but still made me fall in love with its beauty, then another specimen on our Grenoble tenth floor balcony, where it flourished for a decade while keeping me company and regaled me with its heady fragrance during long hours of day trading in a tiny room, and finally when arriving here, it was put in the ground and soon after perished in the cold. If ever a plant could be called a friend, that gardenia would have fit the bill. This one's container was filled with acid potting mix and will spend the winter in the sous-sol, thank you very much.

À la prochaine!