Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Cold wet autumn has arrived. It has been raining for two days straight. Last week it was a little warmer but the signs were all in the air. I decided that it was time to take out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and make a little Cassoulet. I must clarify: there are no little recipes in Julia’s book! Cassoulet is a French peasant dish that consists of several meats (vegetarians might want to skip the blog this week) stewed in juices with beans. In Julia’s recipe it is one rather complex recipe with over six pages of directions and two subordinate recipes for preparing some of the items to be included! It is a rather hearty meal and the French normally eat it for their main meal, lunch. In my case it was meant to be a start of a hearty weekend so I prepared it for Friday dinner starting on Wednesday. I don’t know how French peasants managed to eat if they needed to start cooking something 3 days ahead of when they were due to eat it. I envision some kind of kitchen assembly marked Monday for Wednesday, Tuesday for Thursday and so on and so on.
I brought out my old worn out and stained book and proceeded to read and reread all of the steps and make lists for the items I would have to acquire in order to make this plain country dish. I have a small but organized kitchen that was put to the test with every pan I called to duty and just about every square inch of space enlisted in one way or another. I think French peasants must have eaten a different version than the one our infamous Julia concocted. I will only give you some of the highlights that may well explain the accompanying images.
Collage view of my kitchen during cooking process
In essence this Cassoulet consists of four to six dishes which are each cooked individually to acquire their own flavor and texture. At the end they are assembled in a large Cocotte (Dutch oven) where they imbue each other’s flavor and arrive at the grand dish that is Cassoulet. This was a pork and lamb Cassoulet but you can make it with anything and everything. So you have a recipe for pork, another for lamb, there is a sausage component whether you make it our buy it, a bean element, all flavored with bacon, salt pork, lamb and pork bones for creating a sauce with stock and wine to accent the flavors. Of course there are spices, carrots, onions and everything you can almost think of stuck in cheesecloth to create an infusion of flavors.
Collage view of process: Background Beans, Top Left: Lamb,
Top Right: Pork, Bottom Left: Bacon, Bottom Right: Sausage
The grand moment comes, after three days of cooking, when you assemble it in layers and set aside until you are ready to bake for a final hour and a half and you add the final bread crumbs and clarified lard (that you extracted from the cooking process) to create the final crust on the casserole. It may sound unusual, but it tastes divine.
Voila! Cassoulet
The Guinea Pigs: Vori, Beth, Paul, Gayle, me, Julia, Elena

At table
We were seven who barely made a dent, even with multiple helpings, in the 8 quart Staub Dutch Oven, leaving almost half for the rest of the weekend. Consumed with a wonderful Rioja and a White Burgundy that fit the palate. It was followed by a simple salad and then with a scrumptious Red Velvet Cake for dessert (that I forgot to photograph). We spent hours at the table talking and laughing as we had not for a while. If it sounds mouth watering, it was. Now, a rest and then let’s see what’s next. Happy autumn!
Some of the final bounty from the garden

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall at Reptiland

My friend Vori is a multi-talented individual. You have seen him photographing and drawing in the garden. Besides these talents he makes his living in store design and display. Given the nature of Retail these days he has to go further to get work; and it comes in the strangest packages at times. You should check out his blog for his version of our trip: He had been called to review a gift shop for ways to improve its efficiency and increase sales. The client was Reptiland in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. As the drive was long and I had the time, he asked me to keep him company and go along for the ride. It was almost a four hour drive from Philadelphia in one of those places you wonder what is going on.

The drive along the turnpike was not the prettiest but once out of the cities and suburbs we were in some pretty wonderful landscape that was in fall color. It was not only in fall color but also had a nice dusting of the first snow of the season. We were off the turnpike and following route 80 west along the ancient southernmost limit of the last ice age. This we did to get to another road to get to another road… The ride, even though monotonous by the repetition of the same was interesting and with the two of us talking non-stop for four hours we had a great time.

Reptiland is an unusual place where various animals ranging from emus, to alligators, to all sorts of snakes, lizards and frogs. Amongst the bigger beasts were these Galapagos Tortoises that have quite a personality and all are very well cared for in their environments. The place is a properly accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Of particular interest to me was the landscape in the 4 acre park. Particulars habitats had been created for the beasts when the weather permitted them to be outside. The rest of the landscape was rather well done with assortment of bamboos and rogdgersias and other tropical or primeval looking plants to create a great effect.

A new butterfly exhibit was exhilarating as you walked around a very balmy 79 degree habitat filled with flowers and butterflies flying about. Here we both had fun photographing the wonders and colors of the butterfly kingdom. The exhibit featured a place where the chrysalis were kept until becoming butterflies and released into the garden. Unfortunately the life of a butterfly is rather limited lasting about two weeks for some of these species or due to the constraints of the habitat.

I have always wanted to go to Northern Mexico to follow the greatest migration of the planet – that of the Monarchs. These arrive around Halloween after months of traveling along both the east and the west coasts from Canada to winter and breed. Surprising, it takes one generation to get from Canada to Mexico while three generations to get back home. Millions upon millions cover the trees that seem to come alive with butterflies fluttering.

Chrysalises hatching case

A Monarch and her court of beauties

The return trip was more of the same with a brief stop for gas and food where I got this photograph of cherry pickers. Minutes after taking the photo, a scruffy man (a character who could have come out of the film Deliverance) came up to us to ask what we were doing? I wonder the logic of stacking a dozen cherry to pickers to get attention and then asking that question?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More fall garden chores...

My neighbor's entry garden has come into bloom just about as everything is out of bloom. They planted Shasta Daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) and later added some Chrysanthemums. The Shastas have been growing all summer with the promise of the show currently going on. I used to plant these in California where they put on a spectacular show and kept going all fall and into winter. Here I planted them one year and they did not survive the winter even though they are supposed to be perennial in zones 3-8. I guess my swamp was more than they could handle and winter too!

Another plant that I used to grow in California was the Mexican Sage (salvia leucantha) for its spectacular fall blooms. Here, it is just getting started blooming. My plan was to contrast its beautiful purple blossoms with the multitudes of orange nasturtiums creeping about along the gravel walk. The show is quite wonderful but as soon as frost comes the Mexican sage will say Hasta la vista baby. Last year, in a major attempt to save them, I dug them up and repotted and trimmed them back and got most of them to survive over the long dark winter. This year, I will leave them in the ground a bit longer and if I get around to digging them up, so be it; otherwise, I will just enjoy the fall show as planned and buy new ones next year.

It is quite and enterprise moving all these wonderful plants into the house. First of all, they are too big to survive anything but a properly lit greenhouse. Not having one of those, I make due with my glassed in porch which is heated. I have to try and shape the plants down in size so that the available light will allow them to survive. Normally, I prune back to half the plant size and leave them outside to recover and debug then. I take all my elevated surfaces and move the plants on these. Normally this will get the bugs to leave the potted plants. Invariably some stay including spiders which annoy me to no end. After a week or so outside after they are pruned they start rebudding and are fairly bug free to be taken inside. In the warmth of the porch they will grow very slowly and some will even bloom over the winter.

Other plants are destined for the basement to go into dormancy. These I just lift to debug and let them dry out as much as possible. As soon as they are clean and dry I take them into a corner of the basement and wait until spring to bring these out. Here are some elephant ears and calla lilies which are big bulbs, corms or the like that just go dormant and stay put. I don't cut off the leaves as these will feed the bulb even as they are dying. Later, when totally dry I just remove the leaves and even stack the pots on top of one another.

As official protector to my Kois, I am always on the lookout for wildlife that might harm them. Since the passing of Taxi, they don't have their official guard dog and I have not brought myself to get another dog while unemployed. It is a terrible wasted opportunity as I could be training a new pet friend during all this time. I keep a have-a-heart-trap in the garden that seems to catch all kinds of strange predators. This big possum was not too happy to be caught, but he is now living in a not so neighboring Woods.

My porch, which during the summer is filled with furniture for entertaining, becomes a warehouse for most of my indoor plants. It is wonderful and filled to capacity with tropical jasmines, ginger, scented geraniums and lemon plants that will bloom and get me to survive the gloomy winter.

Here amongst the plants, I leave one chair and my sofa where I cuddle up under a blanket to read in a sort of a Victorian splendor. Funny, I never have liked much that is Victorian, but this aspect of a garden conservatory room is certainly a wonderful place to escape during the winter.

My last remaining chore is to dig up the Agave americana from the urn. Each year it gets bigger even though I cut off most flopped down leaves and then store it dry in a dark corner of the basement. Somehow because of its nature it survives beautifully. I give away at least 4 or 5 plantlets every fall that manage to grow during the season. Then I know that I am done in the garden for the fall.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

National Parks

In 1965 my parents were on their third separation. We reassembled as a family in Florida in 1963 after exiting Cuba at different times. Chicago had not been the best choice for a tropical family to make a new life. My father, had left us in Chicago in the winter of 1964 and gone off to seek a better fortune in Los Angeles. After many a phone call my parents decided to forgive and try to forget and decided to give it another go. My mother and I boarded a Greyhound bus and traveled Route 66 to the Smoggy City in February of 1965.

That same June, as a sort of a family vacation and a make up honeymoon of sorts we traveled to our first National Park: Sequoia. We had managed a camping trip (if you want to call it that) to Lake Geneva Wisconsin on one of our two summers in Chicago. This was a total fiasco as we had never gone camping and were not equipped to do so. It is hard to imagine freezing in Wisconsin in the Summer; we did! With that memory in mind, my father had secured a very basic cabin near the main grove of Sequoias with heat, kerosene lamp lighting and a water pitcher and basin. It was marvelous. We loved camping!
On Moro Rock
More than marvelous, it was magical to be in this forest where these magnificent trees were bigger than anything any of us had ever seen. Here, located on the western facing slope of the California Sierra Nevada Mountains at an altitute of 6-8000 feet, they had been saved by the creation of this National Park. The sky was crystal clear. There were stars like no place I could remember. We visited all the groves of giant trees including the General Sherman tree, at the time, the largest and oldest living thing on the planet. We even, climbed three hundred some steps and visited a summit called Moro Rock. It was very different from the Morro Fortress in Havana harbor but we knew it was named after our Spanish heritage.

For four days, our lives became uncomplicated and my father’s drinking problem was somewhat under control. My parents enjoyed themselves and I was happy to share this great American experience that I have embraced since that magical summer in 1965.

PBS strutted out its new series on the National Parks: “a film by Ken Burns.” The episodes, however magnificent, were given to us in mega doses for six nights in a row last week. I hope you caught at least an episode. It is a shame that all that information was not left to simmer in your mind and accrue in appreciation as we became familiar with it over the span of a season. I would have gladly made an effort to see an hour of magnificent story telling, historical graphics and most of all, of some of the most beautiful landscape on the face of the planet.

Broadcast entertainment does appear to hinge on buying gadgets or services. I don’t have a TIVO or any recording devices because I don’t watch much programmed television anymore. I don’t even have cable which gets an odd raised eyebrow from friends who all seemed to be connected. There is not much to see in spite of the hundred of channels offered. PBS, the radio, a good book or a rented DVD do job for me. Now that we have digital TV, the National Parks program will undoubtedly be rerun hundreds of times as we now have three versions of WHYY, our PBS station, that needs to fill its programming schedule.

At Acadia National Park
I was 12 when I visited Sequoia with my parents. Over the years, I have camped and backpacked all over California’s mountains, shores and deserts and around the country in the National parks. There is nothing like sleeping out under the stars in places like the National Parks where you are assured an incomparable slice of nature. Years ago I camped in Acadia NP in Maine with my dog Taxi. She was supposed to guard us from wild animals, but she too, so enjoyed the camping adventure that she slept soundly while some wild animal broke into our cooler and ate all our fine German sausages and black forest ham! Happy trails to you.