At a moving memorial service for veterans, held recently on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse, my good-natured husband played “Taps” on his coronet. On the recording I made on my phone, between the fading of the gun salute and the first haunting notes of “Taps,” you can hear the unmistakable song of a white-crowned sparrow. He slipped his plea, “oh me, pretty pretty me” into the available silence.
The same thing happens often this time of year, in the country or in a city with the slightest cover. In a moment of quiet outside the grocery store or when stopped for a light, you hear the song.
June begins soon – summer days to savor – they are long but too few. For the next bit as we are all outdoors more and in front of the computer less (yes), I’ll post the pages of a second foldbook. “Birds – A Foldbook” will take us into their season.
We’re always told to stop and smell the roses, here’s encouragement to stop and hear the birds!
The Website “Frugal Feeding” recently wrote about the spinach and potato dish called saag aloo. (Saag aloo sounds a little like a line from one of Lady Baby’s songs, “saag a-loo my darlin’.” But not.) So, because I had new potatoes, some spinach, and much kale raab from the CSA, I tried a variation.
Begin by toasting spices in a large pan (half teaspoon turmeric, one teaspoon garam masala, and a teaspoon of black onion seeds – called for but I couldn’t find). This smells terrific as it warms. Then add oil, and begin to cook a finely chopped onion.
Continue cooking the onions until translucent, then add three cloves of garlic mashed, one or two chopped chili peppers, seven or eight cherry tomatoes cut in half, and 300 grams or 10 ounces of potatoes cut into one-inch chunks.
Frugal Feeding is a Brit, so his recipes always call for a little interpretation by Yank readers – his grams to our ounces. He says to add a “splash” of water after a few minutes – but he quantifies his splash as 50 to 60 milliliters – around a quarter-cup by my trusty Pyrex measuring cup.
With the lid on, continue to simmer until the potatoes are tender.
The original recipe calls for 160 grams of fresh spinach (about five ounces of spinach or in this case leaves and flowers of raab) blanched in hot water, then blended in a food processor until paste-like.
Stir the greens into the pan once the potatoes are cooked and serve with rice or chapitis. I remembered to mold the rice using a cup (as the sweet bride taught me), and the saag aloo looked colorful around the rice.
How did it taste? Both bland and spicy – maybe it needed more salt than I added – maybe I shouldn’t have added another splash of water (to prevent too much sticking). The potatoes tasted great, but maybe the black onion seeds were crucial. And I substituted the raab, so not really a fair test, though it made a very green paste. It was warming and used up the raab, and leftovers the next day tasted way better.
Maybe saag aloo another time!
Bee Wilson, author of “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” likes butter, and she likes to cook. Her book about the cooking history of humankind, from clay pots on campfires to sous vide machines, is “an exploration of the way the implements we use in the kitchen affect what we eat, how we eat and what we feel about what we eat.”
I love it when a book, or art, makes me look at my everyday world anew like Wilson does. She is a food writer in England who was once a Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at Cambridge. (Surely a great background for writing an intriguing book.)
Instead of having to admit as Michael Pollan recently did that, in spite of writing often and authoritatively about food, he didn’t really cook, Wilson actually cooks. She calls it most always a “pleasurable activity,” and describes what it feels like to “stand with nose over a pan inhaling the perfume of garlic and thyme in a sauce for the sheer pleasure of it.”
Wilson puts herself in the narrative just often enough for me to imagine her contemplating the objects in her book, each time she sets out to work in her kitchen. I can picture her cooking for a family – day in, day out.
Tracing the use of pots and pans (not used as long as you might think), she calls them “unassuming household gods ” – making the rack of hanging pots over my stove a pantheon of sorts! Her attitude inspires the everyday. She says: “Few moments in the day are happier than when I sling a pot on the stove, knowing that supper will soon be bubbling away, filling the house with good scents.”
She’s not about gadgets – though she writes about them – her kitchen seems so familiar. She also talks about early kitchens (often outbuildings) and kitchens in stately homes. She speaks of mortars and pestles and ice-cream makers, about the friendly hum of a refrigerator (and how recent that invention and how critical), about the development of knives and our human overbites (a function of cutting meat rather than having to tear it).
She looks closely at measuring devices (including America’s peculiar fixation on determining quantity with cups rather than weighing ingredients like the rest of the world), and praises the ever-useful Pyrex measuring cup. She writes of recipes and the wonders of micro-planers, admires the Oxo peeler, and dismisses as often “soulless,” kitchen remodels that remove all traces of history in a kitchen.
In the most modern kitchen one is still doing “an old, old thing: using the transformative power of fire to make something taste better.” Wilson writes: “We chop food with knives, stir it with spoons, and cook it in pots. As we stand in our modern kitchens, we still use the colanders, the pestles, and the frying pans of the ancients. We do not start from first principles every time we want to produce a meal but draw on the tools and ingredients we have at hand, governed by the rules and taboos and memories we all carry in our heads about cuisine.”
I loved reading this book – about toasters, egg timers, and a new tool to me – the beautiful mezzaluna. Whether describing the spork zipped in a side pouch of a travel bag and pulled out to meet a “forgot to get a spoon or fork” emergency or a battered and stained favorite wooden spoon, Wilson’s prose and Annabel Lee’s perfect drawings make the whole book a pleasure to consider.
Lady Baby had good times with her paternal grandfather on this trip. A little cooking got accomplished while she read books with him or showed how she could climb the steps of her little slide and whoosh down (instructing him that he needn’t put his hand on the railing by gently removing it each time he rested it there).
Mrs. Hughes suggested a potato recipe she found (and I refound by Googling “potatoes slits olive oil”) – Hasselback Potatoes, named by the Hasselbacken Hotel in Stockholm. I learned they are also popular in Ireland, known there as accordion potatoes. The blog “Seasaltwithfood” has a precise recipe (here).
One of the big advantages to these potatoes is you can flavor them as you choose – it’s the way they are cut that makes them special. They are accordion-like in their fanned out way, but to me when they come out of the oven, they look like croissants – and share certain flakey delicious characteristics!
Mrs. Hughes is really good with her hands (you can always tell by the presentation who has prepared what). We didn’t peel the potatoes, just scrubbed them well. Then, starting at one end, Mrs. Hughes cut careful slits in four potatoes, more than the width of a potato chip but less than quarter-inch, nearly through each potato (on the Internet I read suggestions to place wooden chopsticks or spoons along the sides of the potato to keep you from cutting all the way through).
She slivered two or three cloves of garlic and inserted it into the fanned-out slits. The original recipe called for olive oil and butter, but we used just olive oil and drizzled it over the potatoes, topping with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. We chopped and sprinkled some of rosemary I brought from my garden. A simple version and utterly perfect. (More elaborate versions suggest options: Italian seasoning, paprika, dried breadcrumbs on peeled potatoes, with cheese, herbs, vegetables, or bacon.)
There is so little to this recipe, you have to try it to see how pretty the potatoes look when they come out of the oven (40 minutes at 425°). The potatoes are both tender and crispy – beautiful and delicious.
We served them with a frittata stuffed with kale and chard – and had a feast!
During this visit to Anchorage, I attended Lady Baby’s music “class” – toddlers and their parent in a big circle, clapping and moving, learning about rhythm. Once I took her to the Imaginarium, a space at the Anchorage Museum full of child-size wonders, but most days we stayed home.
One day I thought I’d keep track of our activities and be able to write a Lady Baby day minute-by-minute (in an attempt to account for my day). So I made an iPhone voice memo at breakfast, roughly transcribed here: “It’s 9:05 a.m. and we are eating breakfast. Toast with butter for Lady Baby, toast with honey for me, and tea. For her, oatmeal with yogurt and fruit, and for me oatmeal with rice milk and fruit. On the table is a New Yorker being investigated page by page. We have um huum….” The sound of a chortle and that’s the end of my attempt to record anything specific.
I might have added that we both glance at the newspaper, though Lady Baby has lost interest since the Iditarod ended (then she could always point to a picture of a woof-woof). Her own woof, Lady Cora, is stationed down below the table. Sweeping the floor after breakfast is never necessary.
9:30 a.m. (already this gets imprecise): we work our way into Downtown Abbey’s office/playroom, a sunny and large space Lady Baby shares with Mrs. Hughes. A little climbing structure with slide and steps provides a chance for many ups and downs and ins and outs. At a “just the right size” table, Lady Baby dumps her box of dominoes, takes apart her stacking cups and hands individual ones to me, sometimes adding a domino. We try out the oversized markers that make color dots on the paper covering her table.
A turtle-shaped wading pool is temporarily full of lightweight balls, and while Lady Baby sits in their midst, we spend a while emptying it – and refilling. A Ball jar stuffed with multi-colored tongue depressors is good for 20 minutes of taking out and putting in (accompanied by that familiar concentration hum of hers). Then she wheels her perfectly sized grocery cart around a little, rarely allowing anything to be put into it. If you do offer something, she removes the offending object.
What is she thinking? I ask myself that so often because much of her activity seems definite and purposeful. She has opinions, her mom says.
And the ability to say “no!” In the case of Lady Baby, a shake of the head and an emphatic, short burst of “Nah!” is unmistakable.
At 11:30 lunch gets agreement, and we head to the kitchen. Lady Baby pulls out several baking trays and sits on one with great deliberation. She eats her lunch and all the bowtie pasta from my soup, but says “Naht!” to the soup’s collards or lentils, handing each back to me. A nap, a walk outside with many puddles, parents home, dinner, bath, and bed.
A totally ordinary, totally wonderful day is done.
When I lived in Alaska I found October and April the hardest months – shoulder seasons – too early for skiing and skiing mostly over. People find other things to keep them in the Far North, but for me the best reason for Alaska was being in the mountains with my family.
This April, snow still covered Anchorage yards. A boon for mountain goers, but with the dust of winter road sandings and no mitigating green on trees, it’s bleak in the city.
And great fun – maybe the best Lady Baby visit ever (but I always think that). She communicates so thoroughly now, often leaning conspiratorially toward us, and she is full of experimental language. Sometimes perfect words just pop out – not always repeated – but accidentally perfect in the moment.
At Downtown Abbey a steep set of stairs leads to the second story. Lady Baby climbs up lickety-split with a grown up right behind. But climbing down worries adults, and always at the top we admonish, “sit down please and come down backwards” – which she does with great agility. One day when I stood at the top of the stairs as she came up with her mom, she glanced up and said with much authority: “Sit down!” When such words slip out, they are in a different voice from the baby babble, a hint of the little girl to come.
Another time it happened outdoors. We were giggling and “racing” on the sidewalk – I pretended to pass her, and her laugh turned into ”Kaaty!”
Lady Baby’s parents wisely limit her screen time (as in no electronics). So her own cell phones come in many styles, as small as a domino held to her ear or a remote control of any stripe. She employs the rhythm of conversation as she carries one around: “Doy doy doy, nya, doy doy doy doy!” said emphatically or murmured conversationally. If the remote is big, sometimes her hand holding it slides round the back of her head, but she keeps talking. Most always she multitasks while on her “phone” – walking around inspecting things and pulling out and putting back toys into the under-couch storage boxes.
Her mother is a great mimic with an expressive face – and now she has worthy sidekick. Lady Baby’s first recognizable and enjoyable “shtick (I had to look this up – “any person’s idiosyncratic performance” – that’s exactly right) is the new frowny face she makes. One might be tempted to call it a scowl. Her parents call it her “most serious face,” and she loves to exchange it for her winning smile – first frown, then delight – enjoying the laughing and consternation of her audience. (Until you get that this is a game, it seems you have caused great sadness or irritation.)
Lady Baby – the best reason to be in Alaska!