Yarn on the farm

Dear knitting friends,
I love watching your fingers deftly move yarn over and under, around and through. I love that you are never “just sitting,” that even your leisure time is productive, and that every piece you turn out, right down to those dishcloths that last forever, is one-of-a-kind. I love the subtle click of the needles and watching the fat ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller, down to a single strand.

Whereas being in the presence of a chronic texter agitates me, in the company of a knitter I am serene. Knitting is cozy and old-fashioned—there’s a ball of comfort in every woolly skein.

My New England cousins knit and crochet, as did our aunties who have since passed. My BFF has been knitting elegant sweaters since we were in high school. My daughter-in-law’s mother knits for those in need.

My Aunt Lea taught me to knit when I was about 12. She tutored me patiently, through a loden green crew neck sweater—knit a row, purl a row, with a knit one-purl one ribbing. I did well enough, but a dropped stitch was my nemesis; I got my adolescent Italian up whenever I had to rip out a row and start over. Over the years, I made a hat or two and a few afghans, but I never tackled a sweater again. Hopefully, my demi-retired life will allow me the time to become a better knitter.

When my New Hampshire cousin visited recently, she was knitting the cutest socks. She told me that turning the heel was the “most exciting part” and with great enthusiasm showed me as the little puff of a heel gradually took shape. She asked if there were any nearby places to buy yarn that was “like the old days, when you could feel and smell the lanolin.” [I should point out that she knew by name the sheep who was responsible for her last sweater, and that when I introduced her to my knitting BFF, it was as if they shared a secret language.]

I wasn’t optimistic about finding a fresh-from-the-sheep yarn store here in Central Pennsylvania, but  I dug in and searched just in case. And guess what? I was wrong. Just half an hour away, we found a yarn shop on a terraced farm nestled in the woods, stocked mostly with yarn from its own fiber mill. There were goats and angora rabbits and other four-legged friends. We each bought enough of the “hodgepodge” yarn—the mill odds and ends from various animals— to make a scarf. I’ll share it with you when mine is done.

Our trip to Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill and its yarn store, A Knitter’s Dream, from which you can order online, was another one of those serendipitous, “right under your nose” discoveries. Gifted, committed artisans are everywhere. these days.  What’s right under your nose?

 

 

Book club… the morning after

I read many different writers and genres. These days it is mostly, but not exclusively, fiction. Sometimes, the novels that earn the most critical acclaim fall flat with me because in my mind they are generally overproduced, or over reliant on artifice. I much prefer storytelling so tight and well crafted that it doesn’t need contrivance, storytelling that helps me, by subtle association, to understand who I am and where I came from.

I love beautifully expressed, poetic sentences; but I love honest irony, good humor, and even a little healthy cynicism just as much. I love characters I wish I would meet on the street, characters I know I will miss when the book ends. I love it when place itself is a character. I love it when a wonderfully imagined book inspires me to imagine in turn. I love it when a book makes me cry—not in a maudlin way, but because my heart has truly been touched, or because I see some small piece of myself or my history in what I am reading.

I didn’t even have a book club in my life until the last few years. Now that I do, I freely admit that I’m not the world’s most compliant member. My attendance is erratic—real life, as I am fond of saying, intervenes—and I am stubborn about my personal book queue. In fact, I’m probably just a tad elitist when it comes to the books I want to read and when I want to read them. That’s the eternal English major in me. If I have a book queued up that I’ve been dying to read, it will probably supplant most book club selections.

Book clubs take a fair amount of heat. I myself disparaged them for years, thinking I couldn’t possibly enjoy reading based on a group-prescribed agenda. But our book club is friendly and forgiving; we all contribute suggestions, and the monthly selection is pulled out of a hat. Nobody cares if you haven’t read the book, but most of us usually do.

Because reading for me has always been an “individual sport,” I never would have pictured myself liking a book club. Two years or so down the road, I’m grateful that I gave our book club a chance. At its best, it has forced me out of my queue into the wider world of other genres, other writers, other people’s preferences. At its best, it’s almost like being back in a favorite class again. The warmth of the members, of course, is not insignificant, and the patience of those who coaxed me to show up continues to be deeply appreciated.

Last night, after a lively and insightful discussion that in the end made me like the book I’d just read less than I thought I had, the question was raised as to whether we should switch to bimonthly meetings. The group’s response was an overwhelming NO. I was both surprised and delighted at the ensuing comments. That “no” wasn’t about the wine; it was about the books. Friends, there is hope.

 

Simple treasures: The best BLT ever

For a very brief time, Hubby and I owned a home in the triangle area of North Carolina. Although our plans to relocate there changed, we like to visit now and then. When we do, the one stop that’s always de rigeur is Merritt’s Store and Grill in Chapel Hill.

Apart from the fact that Merritt’s is a delightful, welcoming place, where both staff and customers always greet you with a smile, the truth is that it’s the home of the best darn BLT in the USA. Honest. With all the fancy restaurants in Chapel Hill, the only one that calls to us, every time, is Merritt’s.

I’m not sure what they do to make the BLTs so good, so remarkable; but I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed if you try one. They are brimful  with bright green leaf lettuce, a generous serving of perfectly crisped bacon, and big, beautiful tomato slices that taste great even when tomatoes aren’t in season. I’m not sure how they manage that.

And, of course, there’s mayo, and, yes, it’s probably Duke’s, which is a veritable institution down south.

The bread, made fresh daily at The Bread Shop is nearby Pittsboro, is great, too. My preference, sunflower, is another North Carolina institution. There are other possibilities, including a gluten-free option. You can add on to your BLT if you prefer—that Southern invention, pimiento cheese, or avocado, for example. In my humble opinion, however, adding anything to a Merritt’s BLT is gilding the lily.

And here’s another reason to visit Merritt’s. If you time it just right, you can enjoy some fantastic old-time fiddlin’, pickin’, and singin’. Check Merritt’s website—link above—or Facebook page to find out what’s going on.

merritts

Nothing fancy—just good things to eat.

merritts crew

The gang you can thank for those BLTs.

The pile on the closet floor

This post is not for the faint of heart. It is about that awful moment of reckoning, typically occurring as you face your closet, when you realize that everything has started to go irretrievably south.

Advancing age is not without its blessings, but appearance isn’t one of them. We droop. In multiple places. Even if our weight is reasonable and we exercise zealously, we droop.

It isn’t as much about weight (though it certainly can be) as it is about shape. My godmother, who is a pretty spiffy 94, petite, erect, and trim, has become downright phobic about clothes shopping because nothing fits her. That’s crazy, but I get it. Clothes shopping isn’t fun any more, and I’m a LOT younger than she is, as she graciously reminds me with some frequency.

I truly believe that I’ve become more patient and mellow with each passing year, but neither quality is likely to manifest when I’m trying to find something to wear. I’m recalling my old friend Cathy, in the comic strip of the same name. I couldn’t’ find the strip online, but I have a very vivid recollection of Cathy in a multi-mirrored dressing room, throwing a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old, shrieking and jumping up and down feverishly on the pile of rejected bathing suits she’s hurled to the floor.

I can relate. Cathy is all of us. Just ask me how many times I change clothes when I’m going out—to church, to a work appointment, to dinner, or—God forbid—to a high school reunion.

It’s almost worse when I’m forced to shop for something new. Although I adore dresses, I’ve pretty much given them up because what fits above the waist definitely does not fit below. I’ve tried A-lines and felt like one of those old-fashioned clothes pin bags: narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. [Does anyone remember clothespin bags? Or clothespins? Probably not.] I hold no hope of ever finding a dress I like that doesn’t require more than its weight in gold in alterations… and a capable tailor to do them, which seems like another thing of the past, at least in my neighborhood.

This sorry state of affairs, for all intents and purposes, leaves me pretty much up the creek (you know which one) without a paddle.

Yet I know there must be designers out there in the ether who know how to dress a woman who is not as lithe and willowy as she once was, in something that has neither elastic nor Velcro®, actually has a shape, and is definitely NOT Boho. Been there, done that, don’t want the T-shirt.

If that designer is YOU, hit me up, and let’s talk.

 

 

 

 

 

Tarragon, rosemary, thyme

Record rainfall in July and a reasonable amount of hot sun have produced crazy growth spurts in our little dooryard.  The herbs, most of which overwintered, are particularly lush and abundant—so much so that I decided last week to begin drying now for winter, instead of waiting till September.

Without a good place to hang drying herbs, as the experts recommend, I’ve decided instead to dry very small batches, on the kitchen counter. On a warm, still, low-humidity day, I sometimes “sun dry” the herbs I’ve cut on the patio table for a few hours to jump-start the process. Once indoors, I spread them on a piece of paper towel, turn them frequently, and make sure that they’re absolutely dry and brittle before storing. It takes a few days, but it’s easy and almost free. The only downside is the temporary loss of a bit of counter space.

Last year, for the first time in ages, I had enough parsley to fill a jar. It retained its fresh, intense aroma until I used the last of it in May. That is definitely NOT the case with most store-bought herbs. I’m using my Bonne Maman jars for storage, bien sûr.

This happy occupation is leading me to rethink the generous array of herbs and spices that I usually keep on hand. They’re expensive, and they lose their potency over time. Perhaps the better choice is to concentrate on growing and drying those we use most frequently and purchasing the more exotic ones as needed. Such an approach, needless to say, requires an organized meal-planning effort and religiously maintained shopping list. This daydreaming Pisces, who often cooks and bakes on a whim, may be setting herself up for failure, or at least for last-minute dashes to the store because there’s no coriander.

My next task: Go through the out-of-control herb/spice shelf and pitch what’s old or unused. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

I dream of Italy

When the weekend approaches, I often find myself daydreaming about all the wonderful places we’ve been. I’ve got Italy on my mind today, perhaps because it’s so warm and sunny here, perhaps because there are beautiful fresh tomatoes on the counter and basil thriving in the backyard, perhaps because there’s a field of sunflowers nearby, perhaps because I never really get Italy (or France, for that matter) entirely out of my head…

So today I’m sharing a few photos of our daydream-worthy visit to the remarkable, enchanting Cinque Terre. I’ve shown you photos of some of the food we enjoyed in this magical region in a previous post, but this time it’s all about the views. Do enjoy, and do visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Italy.

 

Cover photo: “Modern” recreational vessels punctuate an ancient seascape in Monterosso al Mare. Each of these photos is my own work.

A versatile veggie roast, Italian style

Like many of us, I roast vegetables all winter long—mostly root vegetables, since I try to cook with the seasons. I use whatever I have on hand; sometimes, it’s turnips or parsnips with the usual carrots, onions, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Sometimes, it’s Brussels sprouts, broccoli, a hunk of cabbage, or red beets.  If I have a stray apple, I might throw that in, too.

When summer arrives, however, I am OVER roasting vegetables. Who wants to turn the oven on in the heat? But as I write this, I am literally about to eat my words, thanks to an Italian cooking video from the website Fatto in Casa da Benedetta (homemade by Benedetta, roughly) that turned up on Facebook. She calls the dish Mix di verdure al forno says you can use it a thousand ways. You probably can. This array of eggplant, zucchini, carrot, celery, onion, potato, tomato, bell pepper, and any fresh or dried herbs that you prefer looked so irresistible and versatile that I just had to try it. The links above are to her website and the actual video recipe, respectively.

I’ve looked through some of her other recipes and have been impressed at the simple flavors and easy construction. Don’t be intimidated by the Italian. You don’t have to know it to get the point—just watch carefully and pause/repeat if you miss something. That’s not cheese she’s sprinkling, by the way—it’s bread crumbs to soak up the liquid from the fresh vegetables, as my cousin Nadia pointed out. I missed that and would have been adding grated pecorino romano or parmigiano without her good counsel. You could always do that anyway, of course.

Pay attention to  the different ways that Benedetta uses this lovely summer dish. Added to a large wrap spread first with ricotta, for example. Spread on grilled Italian bread for bruschetta. In a savory tart. Or even frozen to use at a later date. Tonight, I planned to have the verdure with pasta, but they were so good that I never even boiled the water.

A couple of notes:

  • Benedetta says to cut the eggplant and the squash in larger chunks because, of course, they cook more quickly.
  • 200° Celsius converts to 392° Fahrenheit (oh, the wonders of the Internet!). I started my sheet pan at that temperature, checked mid-way, and turned it down to 375°. Everyone’s oven is different; the recommended hour cooking time was perfect.
  • I used ribbons of fresh basil and parsley from the garden, cut with the herb scissors my sister-in-law gave me (see photo below). Nadia suggested fresh mint. Whatever you like.

Benedetta, you’ve found a fan! Next up: your ceci (chick pea) salad.