Projects Large and Small

Bainbridge Arts and Crafts recently announced its annual “Almost Perfect Sale” – bargains for customers and a chance to clean out the studio for artists. I got out the 12×12-inch panels I painted in acrylic – nine flower panels exhibited in a shared show as one quilt-like piece. I like the idea of this sale – better the panels find a life out of their storage box.

I began to picture them signed and titled as individuals, and when I posed them about my little workroom, I told myself – this will be a project I will enjoy – painting again on each, even if only writing words.

And then I thought about Rose Frantzen. If you go to, you will see a really exciting use of 12×12-inch panels. The link takes you to Frantzen’s “Portrait of Maquoketa” at the National Portrait Gallery and her gallery talk.

Frantzen conceived of, and completed, a huge portraiture project. In her talk, she explains the genesis of her project – her initial “ah ha” moment came in the grocery store: “I’ll paint a portrait of each person in this little town!”

It’s fun to watch her begin to speak nervously, and then warm to the task of describing her working process – how many people, in what format, and what the whole experience was like (not what she imagined, going in). While you listen you get to see her lively paintings in the background – 180 of them, people of all ages – each painted from life in one sitting.

Frantzen is an artist through and through. She also taps into “project energy” with this series – the vigor that attends something we label as a project – setting aside time, making lists and plans, looking forward to the encapsulated period contained within this particular project, and finding pleasure in the moments of resolution along the way.

I sent the link to my painter friend and to my friend who paints in the woods, but didn’t think more about it till I was in the midst of the small, doable, (signing and titling) project (a break from pushing along the larger pocket book project). But Frantzen is great encouragement to keep going with big projects.

Her project is truly enormous – and the joy in the video is her articulate ability to tell of her growth and learning along the way. When Frantzen talks about her discoveries – about individuals and generations, little towns and community – she describes dedication. The video is 57 minutes (an easy to complete project) – an enjoyable, inspiring tale of what became so much more in the doing.

It’s a pleasure to share this – I really wish Rose Frantzen well. And all of you, with all your projects!

Pie Report

The last two weeks our farmer has offered pie recipes in her newsletter – and provided vegetables and early greens for savory pies – pies to use the shoulder-season bounty.

Spring farming and Saturday markets require fortitude by farmers, but reward shoppers with early greens, big bags of arugula or stir-fry mix, fresh eggs, potatoes and parsnips and their kin, and beautiful plant starts. (Kale and chard now huddle on our front porch along with little pea plants.)

The pie project began with “Greens Quiche with Potato Crust Pie.” For the quick-to-make crust, combine four cups of shredded raw potatoes (two medium potatoes and a small one), half cup of diced onion, a beaten egg, one cup of flour, and half a teaspoon salt and press into a well-greased, 10-inch pie plate (mine is only nine – bigger would be better). Bake at 400° for about 10 minutes, then remove from oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350°. Spread about six ounces of grated cheese (to taste – Dubliner cheddar was good) in the bottom of the crust.

For the filling: sauté half a chopped onion (or a leek or two green garlics) in butter or olive oil with salt and pepper until tender. Add in half a pound of any greens you have – all the season’s tender baby greens are perfect (I cut them in thin ribbons like the kale salad). Sauté with the onions till tender and much reduced in volume. Arrange over the potato crust.

Whisk two eggs and a cup and a third of milk together and pour over the greens. Top with more cheese (about a half cup) and bake at 350° for 35 to 40 minutes more. The pie puffs up with inviting good cheer and tastes great. The crust becomes a sort of potato-onion bread-like platform for the quiche.

Next up: Parsnip Pie. Sauté a chopped onion or shallot, two teaspoons dried thyme, and half teaspoon of salt in two tablespoons of butter. Set aside.

Steam two large parsnips until tender, then puree with one egg, quarter cup tahini, quarter cup milk, and the juice of one lemon. Pour into a prepared piecrust and top with a quarter cup of chopped nuts. Bake 350° for one hour. The result: a tart and tasty treat. (The wordsmith, after eating the pie at our book group, declared it the best use of parsnips ever, adding, “the crust was as good as the filling.” Deborah gets credit – I used whole-wheat and white flour in her “Pie Crust Made with Oil” recipe.)

Spring’s been long in coming, but these pies please while we wait.

The Green Man

Warmth is missing in my signs of spring series. (My young friend’s mother offered an alternative version by email: photos of rotting snow banks, standing water, and moose nuggets – welcome signs of Alaska spring!)

But here we lament the lack of warmth. Cliff Mass, the Washington weather guru, put some numbers to our chill. He requires 55° to declare a spring day (I’d settle for 50° and no wind). Mass says only two days reached 55° by April 15 – the fewest on record. Last year, by this time, we had 26.

On April 18, the thermometer briefly read 60°, and the indicators of spring – most known by the work of the Green Man – accumulate into a declaration.

Imaginary he may be, the pagan symbol of spring, clad only in leaves in spite of the temperatures, but I take heart from his presence. His flush, a chlorophyll blush, is reassuring even when the wind blows. Tiny new leaves of ocean spray begin to soften the gray trunks of our surrounding Doug fir, and bronze-green bracken soldiers, just inches tall, arms still furled, stand up overnight.

In the woods new elderberry and salmonberry leaves recolor the sienna and gray winter scene. Thick green moss spreads velvety fuzz on stumps and logs, and dresses the tops of fence posts in green spring hats along our little road.

The mason added a niche in the outside of our fireplace chimney when we built our house. In the past I’ve tried flowers in vases, candles, and little stone stacks in the niche, but the west wind blows most anything out of that space.

Except the Green Man. On a garden tour with my clever friend, I purchased a version of the mythic man at the garden of the sculptors Little and Lewis. From his shrine-like space he weathers storms and oversees spring.

He’s great in sunshine also – and must be ready to be warm!

California Gardening

If a grown child actually asks for advice, does what you suggest, and then inquires about the next step – you would try hard to answer, yes? But arriving at our younger son’s Los Angeles house to find the well-shaped, lawn-smothering beds he and his sweet friend constructed this spring, I realized how far I was from my Pacific Northwest garden!

The new gardener asked questions and I tried to guess at planting possibilities and watering intervals in a dry and hot climate – frustrating answers including “it depends,” “maybe” – inevitable equivocations. Wilted or yellowed leaves mean “too much water or not enough?” – the painful response: “could be either.”

All gardening and garden advice must be local, but I tried to hint at the universal garden truths: Make good dirt. Plant the right healthy plant in the right place. Group plants with similar needs together. Deadhead. Water less frequently but thoroughly. Enjoy the “borrowed view” (in this case huge trees belonging to the neighbor). And for encouragement always remember: “Plants want to grow.”

When you really look, Los Angeles is a wonderland of plants – especially after a rainy spring left the hills green and water flowing in the L.A. “river.” The sprawl seems all cars and nothing but cars (and it is on a sunny Friday afternoon between L.A. and San Diego), but fine trees – trademark mop-headed palms, sculptural pines, and elegant oaks – line boulevards. Vines cover embankments, and drifts of sturdy daisy faces and nodding poppies soften freeway edges.

The new gardener itched to get going and plant something or at least to outline a plan, so in addition to a plant-scouting visit to the Huntington Gardens, we observed a lot of “gas station plants” – small fan-shaped palms and succulents – tough, capable of surviving neglect and drought, but beautiful. Also mature and established and expensive. (We visited a venerable old nursery in a giant shade house which felt like Mrs. Havisham’s conservatory and a world away from box stores. A knowledgeable staff tends a jungly assortment of trees and shrubs whose branches often arched over our heads.)

We bought three tomato plants, three each rosemary and lavender, and a few annuals – including two six-packs of nasturtium to cover completely one of the new beds – I hope. In spite of a couple of cloudy days on this trip, people mostly acknowledge that rain is over for the spring. (That is a concept beyond foreign to me.)

But it’s irresistible to try and nurture new gardener excitement. Back at the house we made pockets in the permaculture beds and filled them with potting soil for the little plants. I could see the pleasure the young people found in figuring out a brick patio, building beds, and these few plantings.

The next morning, the new plants looked perky in the early slanting sun, their leaves adot with dew. I found a filigreed leaf on a tomato plant – and a slug the size of a quinoa grain.

But we won’t talk about slugs and bugs for now – saving those universal truths for another day.

Barley and Mushroom Soup

After a five-day trip to Southern California – to visit the younger son and his sweet friend, and watch our niece do a splendid job with her team in the San Diego Crew Classic (a victory rewarding a snowy Maine winter of hard work inside the gym) – we landed back in Seattle. The straw sun hat poking out from my carry-on looked ridiculous.

My husband, after I shivered my way down the jet way complaining about the first breath of frigid and damp air, said: “Well look – there’s a flight to Fairbanks about to depart.” Weather misery is relative. (Luckily I had my down vest tucked in the straw hat!)

We drove into Seattle watching skyscrapers merge with gray clouds, braved the blast of marine air as we got out of the car on the ferry, and stopped at a favorite bakery on Bainbridge for a bowl of mushroom and barley soup. It tasted so good – hot, flavorful – a warmth to welcome us back to the Northwest.

Inspired, I bought hulled barley and mushrooms at the grocery on the way home. But later, reading recipes, both Bittman and Deborah call for pearled barley. Internet research led me to the “Vegan Coach” who describes hulled barley as more nutritious than pearl – also chewier and longer cooking. She recommends soaking it overnight or at least for a few hours. So I soaked a cup in three cups of water, and then made Deborah’s recipe for “Barley Soup with Caramelized Onions and Pecorino Cheese.”

While two chopped onions slow cooked for 40 minutes in a quarter cup of olive oil, I made stock by sautéing roughly chopped onion, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, and bay leaves. Then added salt and eight cups of water (including the barley soak water.) The recipe calls for dried porcini mushrooms, tossed in the stock to soften and add flavor (fished out at the end and chopped for the soup).

After the long cooking, remove the lid over the onions and brown. Add two tablespoons tomato paste and one of chopped rosemary (fetching the rosemary I glanced at the garden – many rain-battered daffodils).

Add the soaked barley, chopped carrots and celery, chopped porcini mushrooms, and sliced fresh mushrooms (not in the recipe but I’d bought them). Include the strained stock and simmer half hour or so till vegetables tender.

Virtuous. Warming. Filling. Those words come to mind about the soup – substantial. (The next day the young writer and I both ate it gladly – but with forks.)

Good to have on hand in a cold spring!

Lots of Love

On a sunny Saturday in March, I attended a baby shower for the daughter of my old friend. Continuity – uninterrupted links of friendship and family – filled that cheerful living room, along with the feeling of torches being passed in so many ways, watching my peers become grandmothers, watching the new generation of parents doing it their way.

I’ve known the mother-to-be since before she was born (when her mother and I were very new at the job). I peeked at her asleep in her little hospital basket, and later, shared years of family adventures with her.

A favorite memory from those days is of a little and blonde, slightly bossy four-year old, standing with hands on hips at the edge of a mountain lake, watching our golden-yellow tent float upside down across the lake and suggesting to my husband that, next time, he might want to stake that tent down. And now, in the wink of an eye, she will have her own child – a boy.

After the shower, I searched for a quote I remembered from Adam Gopnik’s book “Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York.” I love to read Gopnik – he guides me when he says “we can write about the world only by writing about a world.” And I’m captivated when he describes particulars of his family life in Paris and now New York.

I found the quote and began to reread here and there – enjoying things anew the way you do with a rich book. Gopnik is a modern father and he speculates: “The new paternal feeling is partly an effect of feminism, which required that mothers surrender exclusive child-love for freedom, and partly the consequence of many parents’ advanced childbearing age.” Gopnik says such fathers are more likely than fathers of old to have time to be around to do the daily nitty gritty. They cook meals and understand the important details, like who needs crusts cut from which kind of bread.

Gopnik describes months of cleverly texting (or so he thought) “LOL” to his son, mistakenly thinking it meant “lots of love” till his son gently set him straight. I also misapplied LOL at first. Good-hearted parental bumbling.

With chairs circled, we celebrated the shower ritual supporting the mother-to-be. Packages wrapped and tied, contained exquisite hand-knit hats and miniature sweaters, tiny blue jeans, three-inch shoes, and many, many books. This new little boy will come into the world wrapped in love – and warm blankets.

I looked for the Gopnik quote because he writes of the “precariousness of all things that exist in time,” and says: “A life whose meaning is found not in faith in the past, or the afterlife, but in family, in children, is fragile as no other can be.”

And it’s joyful – with lots of love and lots of laughs!

Spring Rolls

By request, our sweet Thai friend made spring rolls during the Kauai Thai cooking lesson (after diplomatically telling us that spring rolls are Vietnamese). We students wanted to learn how to work with the rice paper wrappers that contain the filling (and eat the spring rolls of course).

I never thought about the roll wrappers, except to enjoy dipping them at the beginning of a Thai restaurant meal, till I watched how it is done. A reader commented that she loved to make them but they always fell apart. And so did mine, in spite of standing next to the expert who produced perfect, nearly translucent packages. (She deftly swept my worst attempt on to her own plate.)

Wanting to be a better wrapper, I plan to try on my own. Getting ready I looked to Deborah for a sauce recipe. One she suggests is just dried mustard and water. Another called for Asian chili oil, peanuts, sugar, red wine vinegar, and water. Unable to find Asian chili oil at the Co-op, I bought a bottle of dipping sauce. (We bought sauce in the islands also – real sauce will be another lesson.)

What fills your spring rolls is up to you. I have Savoy cabbage and carrots cut very fine – tiny broken matchstick size (I’m going to work on the cutting also – my carrots not nearly as precise and delicate as should be), baby broccoli, no basil this time of year, new spinach or arugula leaves will serve. These spring rolls look back a little to winter, so I’ll sauté a few mushrooms and shallots as we did in Hawaii, and add a red pepper and Serrano chili I happen to have.

To add an egg to spring rolls, you make an egg “pancake” of sorts. Use one egg lightly beaten, a small skillet with olive oil, don’t stir, just let it cook flat, then flip to finish. Remove with a spatula and break into bite-size pieces.

To prepare the wrapper, our tutor taught us to bring water to a boil in a kettle. Then, using a plate with a lip, place one wrapper on the plate and gently pour hot water over it for a few seconds till the wrapper softens.

Around the wrapper plate place small bowls of ingredients, and, working one wrapper at a time, make it pliable. Then quickly lift the wrapper out of the water onto a clean towel, and place a pinch of each ingredient in the middle. You wrap by turning up one side, then another, and then the ends – stretching slightly, wrapping tightly and neatly – or not.

Even with less than perfect wrapping they’ll be good!

Pocket Book Plans

Our neighbor down the road, who keeps track of such things with gauges and graphs, reported that each month from December to March we had double our average rainfall.

Garden and ground are soggy – I only stab quickly at pop weed and pick handfuls of daffodils. Our dependable lawn mower guy mowed once, but his tracks puddle in places. March became a planning month.

My clever friend is planning a kitchen remodel. She wants to keep the sunshine and apple green paint, but widen a doorway and arrange appliances for convenience. And it’s been fun to hear of our younger son’s Los Angeles garden plans coming into reality. Phone photos show newly smothered-by-cardboard lawn piled with mounds, which will turn into rich soil. These sturdy garden beds will help realize his plan for a backyard vista of “just sky, bushes, and trees.”

Here, while the rain poured down day after day, I dreamed of summer trips and a visit by my young friend and her mother in August – when rainy days will be just a memory and the grass dried brown with heat and sun.

And I’ve been planning for possible artists’ books – an old form inspired by a modern form. In Hawaii, I used the bed as a work surface and spread out various pieces of the blog – images and text reminders – trying to discover a book structure. I wanted to capture some of what I love about making the blog, but in paper form, not one-of-a-kind but to print in multiples. I began to imagine a series of “pocket books.”

Trying to push the technical details a little ahead each day, I made a rough dummy of an accordion fold book that can stand up, using one big sheet of paper, printed. In my plan, full size images on each accordion page, reduced and folded over, make back pages with pockets (to hold the printed essays).

And I’ve been thinking about what web people call “content” – what I think of as subjects, themes, concerns – the stuff of spirits rising – writing and drawing, food and Frances, making everyday things artful, travel and family. When I spread out some of the essays and images, I get hopeful thinking of little volumes, not organized chronologically like the blog, but adapted into gatherings with titles like
Birds”, “Gardens,” “Drawing,” “Beans,” “Weather,” or “Virginia Woolf.”

I hope. A plan’s a start.