Fesols, Farro, and Friends

When I brought fesols de Santa Pau home from Spain, my friend who lives on the bluff took a handful and said she’d like to try and grow them. Not on the bluff, but in Mexico where she lives part of the time and tends a food garden. She planted the beans and – in the miraculous way of seeds – harvested five pounds late this summer, and brought a vacuum-packed stash home to Washington.

My friend and her husband invited us to dinner to celebrate their recent birthday trip to Tuscany, featuring bounty brought home in suitcases. (No matter our global import culture, something warms the heart about purchases from a faraway place, hand-carried to share.) On a dark October evening we walked by flashlight down our little road. In a house glowing with light and warmth, their three dogs dozed by the fire, each in its own round bed.

After bruschetta starters, our hosts served soup made with their well-travelled fesols and also farro – that ancient grain rediscovered in Italy (and here). In this Italian meal of proper courses, we next ate pasta with sauce savory with spices from Campo di Fiore Market in Rome. Then green salad (lovely and local). We drank wine from Tuscan grapes and heard stories of countryside biking and agriturismo farms. As a finale – contucci – the Tuscan name for biscotti, and vin santo.

My friend found Washington-grown farro (from Bluebird Grain Farms in Eastern Washington). It’s an ancient grain, looking a little like spelt and said to be the original grain from which all others derive. It retains a chewy texture even after soaking and cooking – a great taste to encounter in soup or salad.

Later, with the fesols my friend brought me, I made the soup like she did, using Bittman’s recipe for “Farro Soup” from “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” In a quarter cup of olive oil, cook one large sliced onion, two chopped celery stalks, and two chopped carrots, until the onion softens. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic, a cup of farro soaked (between four and nine hours is recommended) and a cup of dried white beans soaked (I did the quick soak with boiling water). Also add a small can of undrained chopped tomatoes, and six cups of stock.

It will take at least an hour (mine took longer) for the farro and beans to be tender. Add additional stock or water if needed.

The soup is hearty – a small bowl was perfect before the pasta at the Tuscan feast, but on an ordinary winter night, a bigger bowl makes a whole meal. A little Italy in a bowl – along with fesols – this time fesols de Baja!

Treasured Island and the To Do List

Another “Pattern Language” admonishment reads: “…the kitchen needs the sun more than other rooms, not less.” I do cherish our bright kitchen, even though this low November sun sometimes casts long shadows from crumbs and highlights neglected corners. In the midst of the weekly keep-things-a-little-under-control clean, I noticed cobwebs on the legs of the island and dust on its shelves.

I put “clean island” on the yellow pad “to do” list. Being so much more in the house and with holidays approaching, I’m trying to check off avoided jobs. Also I’m inspired (read chagrined) by our cabinet builder. When he visited last summer and listened to my bookshelf and countertop laments, he said: “You guys just need to get better organized.” A little ruthless and a lot true.

Our cabinetmaker built the island, which I love, to stand on chunky fat legs (the cobwebby ones), painted it with coats of milk paint, rubbed off in places, like an old piece of furniture. The top really is old, made from a leaf of our Anchorage butcher-block dining table – a daring purchase when we bought it. For years that table served everyday family meals and expanded for holidays – but it was the wrong shape for this house. Back in the days of free luggage, Alaska Airlines transported the table leaf, packed up like a very heavy, short surfboard.

A nasty burn spot – a scar about an inch in diameter marks where a dinnertime candle fell through a bottomless holder and remained, burning wax and trying to burn the butcher block – a black divot. The cabinetmaker thought it should stay as a memento mori – a reminder of mortality. A note of imperfection.

The island is a workhorse – the top is cutting board and space for food prep, then serving table for snacks before dinner. Below is storage. On the side of the island facing the living room, a glass-fronted cupboard holds a set of white china, hand-painted with gold trim by my husband’s Granny Trudy – it’s the Thanksgiving china complete with gravy boat and turkey platter. (She left the china with other treasures in the attic of his family house with a note in spindly hand: “for Jimmy’s bride.”)

The kitchen side holds the everyday – soup pot, sauté pans, a stack of baking dishes, and a basket of placemats and napkins. It’s dusted now, but maybe could be organized better.

Still, “Clean island” – check. I’m running out of time, but now on to the rest of the list. And how’s yours?

White Bean and Eggplant Gratin

Lately we’ve had meals at friends’ houses with great food and heartwarming touches. One friend left the front door just a little bit ajar, so when we arrived light shone into our dark night, along with smells of dinner cooking. That friend also walked to our car when we went home – a sweet, companionable gesture.

Another night my clever friend and her husband greeted us with a champagne toast around the island in their newly remodeled kitchen, full of color from ceramics, cornflower blue floor and apricot yellow walls. A huge bookcase of cookbooks and a table in a south-facing nook (the table’s base the treadle of an old sewing machine) add charm and character. We ate at a sparkling table, aglow with a wide circle of candles, and seasonal turkeys of ceramic and glass.

My friend made “White Bean and Eggplant Gratin” from Deborah Madison’s first book, “The Greens Cookbook.” Into shallow bowls, we served ourselves the gratin – straight from the oven, crusty hot and bubbling. With a crisp green salad and bread, it tasted delicious and perfect.

Inspired, I’m making it soon! To start Deborah says to soak three-quarters of a cup of navy beans for at least six hours (or cover with boiling water and soak for one hour). Drain the beans and bring them to boil with four cups of water, a teaspoon of fresh sage leaves chopped (or half teaspoon dried), two bay leaves, two peeled but whole garlic cloves, and one tablespoon of olive oil. After simmering for half an hour, add half teaspoon of salt, cook till tender, drain the liquid, and set aside.

Warm another teaspoon of sage and half teaspoon of dried thyme in four tablespoons of olive oil. Add two large yellow onions, sliced a quarter inch thick and cook slowly till soft.

When the onions are soft, add a globe eggplant cut into quarter inch cubes (Deborah doesn’t say whether to peel or not; Bittman says he never does). Stir well to combine, then cover. Cook over medium heat, and after 10 minutes, add a large can of Italian plum tomatoes (seed and chop the tomatoes and strain the juice to remove seeds). Cook until the eggplant is tender.

Combine the vegetables and the cooked beans in a bowl, season with pepper and more thyme and sage if you like. Deborah says aim for a “well-seasoned” mixture.

Bake the gratin in a lightly oiled gratin dish (the liquid should come half way up the sides – use more broth from the beans if needed).

Mix a cup of breadcrumbs with a tablespoon of olive oil     and spread on the top of the gratin. It takes about 30 minutes to bake.

White beans and eggplant make a welcoming, flavorful and fragrant fall meal – worthy of a toast!

In Search of Counter Space

A few weeks ago we went to California for a long weekend to visit our younger son and his sweet friend. We tagged along on a surfing morning, then hiked in the Santa Monica hills up a steep canyon trail past burned out houses – dreams gone awry – nothing left but flagstones and chimneys of stone and brick.

Another day we toured the Gamble House, a well-preserved Greene and Greene house, dark inside with shut-out sunshine, but rich with wood, and generous in shapely rooms and sleeping porches. The old-fashioned but really appealing kitchen has a big wooden table in the middle that provides great workspace for the cook and helpers.

The authors of “A Pattern Language,” whose pronouncements are backed by research in how people live in houses, say “Cooking is uncomfortable if the kitchen counter is too short and also if it is too long.” A Goldilocks declaration. Do you know anyone who has the “too long” problem? The book advises that a kitchen striking a balance would have a total counter length, excluding sink, stove, and refrigerator, of at least 12 feet (but the 12 feet can be made up of shorter bits – and tables and islands).

Our son’s house is a little California bungalow – the layout of the rooms the same as when it was built in 1919 (with a small guest room and bath added on beyond the kitchen.) Perhaps the kitchen was once bigger, a wall separates a space for washer and dryer now, but wouldn’t have in 1919.

Our son’s sweet friend is a terrific cook – also an effective juggler and balancer because the kitchen is seriously short of workspace. Dish drainer and appliances occupy much of the limited countertop landscape, and a warped plastic cutting board testifies to the understandable use of stove top as extra acreage.

The kitchen cried out for an island along an available blank wall – a long narrow one, with shelves underneath. After the hike, even though tired, hot, and a little reluctant, we tackled the legendary blue and yellow box store, trudging through the furnishings maze to find the right “work station.”

What I always forget is that you have to put those purchases together. And that’s where the good-natured husband comes in. Even though the wordless instructions test good nature, he spreads everything out in an orderly way, and patiently deciphers puzzling diagrams, interprets silent motions of stick figures, counts and successfully identifies parts, hardware, and fasteners.

By evening, (with just a little help from his friends), the island was assembled, placed in the kitchen, and soaking up mineral oil into its butcher-block top.

Three and a half feet of counter space gained! A good California visit.

November Dark

My mother, in spite of living in some very odd homes including a 27-foot trailer and a log cabin, had a couple of definite ideas about houses. Every house should have a fireplace (no, the trailer didn’t, nor did several places we lived), and overhead lights shouldn’t be used, period. That rule she obeyed and embedded in me – I still hear her voice, “Please turn out that overhead light!”

My mother referred to the really awful middle-of-the room 50s overheads – the ones that don’t cast enough light anyway, fixtures often dim with dust and a few fly carcasses. Recently I read a designer describing why one should avoid overhead lights – because they make us look bad. Even when overheads are intended to be nice, even beautiful – if the light comes from above it isn’t cheerful or cozy or flattering.

Luckily light that does provide those attributes is easy – lamps set on tables, ordinary lamps with shades designed to cast the light down – and task lights that get the light exactly where it’s needed.

It does take some figuring out, some imagining how to make better. We need the light, and this time of year I notice burned out bulbs and dark corners ignored during a summer of long days. Overnight, the end of daylight-saving time shifted the dark and delivered winter evenings. By late afternoon, it’s time to shut the shades and light the lamps.

When we began to think about building our house here, a friend recommended a hopeful book from 1977 – “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.” Recently I got it out, curious to see how it seemed to me now, and wanting to think and maybe write about houses in these darker months.

In spite of multiple authors, the book has a very particular voice, and it counsels a way of living in structures and in communities. In bold text are statements of the authors’ beliefs – and its fun to measure against them – their voice is as adamant as my mother’s.

In the section titled “Pools of Light” there are two bolded sections to consider: “Uniform illumination – the sweetheart of the lighting engineers – serves no useful purpose whatsoever. In fact, it destroys the social nature of space, and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded.”

The authors advise: “Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.”

We certainly have the darker places in between – and I’m energized to make sure each chair has a nearby reading light, that twinkle lights outside are ready to glow, and to hang my paper-covered lights in my studio.

Lights to raise spirits!


Sweet Potato Quesadillas, Among Others

Inspired by a gift this summer from my young friend and her mother – a three-ring binder with colorful painted cover and a generous number of plastic pages – I set out to organize my recipes.

When we moved down here, I bought a pretty tin recipe box, complete with three by five cards. I planned (I think) to record recipes carefully on those cards – and file each behind tabbed alphabet cards.


I write this surrounded by the exploded contents of my failed recipe box. At some point, I started just folding pages into quarters and sticking them in the tin – I have to pry them out to use. And now, released, they teeter in a disorderly pile of recipes – from the Internet, the newspaper, friends, the CSA – most are crumpled and water-spotted with splotched ink and textured with faint traces of olive oil or smudge of squash.  Many have scribbled notes for the blog.

What was I thinking copying out “Mocha Tofu Pudding?” but “Penne with Portobello Mushroom Ragu” sounds good. So does “Baked Brie” from an old newspaper clipping. Here is “Kale with Caramelized Onions and Balsamic Vinegar,” recently mentioned by a reader as a favorite. This version of the Bittman recipe is handwritten, I must have carried it down here before I shipped the book.

Oh, and an email message from my daughter-in-law with “Sweet Potato Quesadillas” from the original Moosewood Cookbook. She says: “Sauté an onion until translucent, add garlic, add grated sweet potato. Season with oregano and LOTS of cumin, salt & pepper. Cook on med/low covered for about 10 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking, until sweet potato is very tender. Then, just make the quesadillas like normal with the sweet potato filling and some cheese.”

I want to make those.

This box archive preserves only the last few years – I haven’t even opened the battered, stuffed, Herald Square “Record Book,” a wedding gift from my sister-in-law. On the first pages, she’s written in her familiar hand, in blue fountain pen, recipes for “String Beans with Mustard” and “Chocolate Angel Pie.”

A few pages along I find a recipe from my old neighbor (Icelander married to a Greek, admired mother of four little boys) for “Pastitso.” Water spots render it unusable. But taped onto the next page is my sister’s recipe for “Sopa Seca de Tortilla,” and a note saying she thinks I’m more likely to make this than carrot cake.

Then, in my youthful upright handwriting are several Thanksgiving Day “to do” lists, and a recipe for food to help a dog with an upset stomach. On the front of a piece of thick green card, a picture of Paddington Bear, and on the back a list of fourth grade spelling words.

One piece of paper titled “Special Requests” is a grocery list prepared by a temporarily home son, it includes “instant rice (Minute brand – must be white for this recipe but I would like some brown rice also).”

I think I’ll just close this historical volume, but I’ve not given up on the exploded box. Tomorrow I will find some order in the newly plasticized pages – and cook something – I surely have possibilities!


After the first of our serious autumn winds, I picked up a double-decker chunk of papery honeycomb, about six inches in diameter at the widest place with spacers like stiff cardboard keeping the layers a quarter-inch apart. It felt like two rice cakes, with the same sort of weight and heft.

The next evening, we pulled into the driveway in the windy dark to see a large wad of what looked like newspaper flapping in the path – the outer cover to the nest. It retained the familiar half-a-football shape, broader at the top (nine or ten inches at the widest and a foot or so tall). The small bottom opening remained intact, and a few cells clung to bits of comb inside this paper wrapping. Beautiful paper – a striated series of colors separated by white – madrona reddish-brown rust, gray, and the greeny-brown of alder branches.

The telltale shape led to a guess, with Internet help, that the nest belonged to Bald-faced Hornets – beneficial wasps with fierce stings, which usually build their nests high in trees.

Various web sites describe how a queen overwinters (with the sperm needed to fertilize her eggs already stored within her) and begins a new nest in the spring. In the course of a summer, descendants of the queen’s first generation build this metropolis of a house, one mouthful of chewed up bark and saliva at a time. These combs aren’t really honeycombs, each cell is a hatching chamber for one egg. Adult workers dine on nectar and fruit pulp, but they earn their beneficial reputation because they catch (and pre-chew) insects to feed their larvae.

In the fall, new queens and males mate. The old queen dies. The young queens find a safe place, usually on the ground, to spend the winter.

The third day after the storm, I found a broken alder branch with shreds of nest still attached. Less than quarter-inch in diameter, it looks a flimsy choice to hold this dwelling place for thousands of creatures, but it worked. Nests are only designed for one season. It’s a cooperative, brief lifespan.

Walking home with the branch, I thought I could keep up the paper project and make an image of the nest. As I thought how to replicate with paper the colors in these narrow strata – I realized the hornets had left me paper suitable for a collage!

Sometimes Mrs. Delaney used real plant material in her collages – a real leaf with paper ones, the filigree capsule holding a Chinese lantern berry – she’d approve using the hornet’s nest to make a picture of a their home.

Two Lights Out

Of the people populating my personal pantheon of creative luminaries, some I know and some I don’t. I’ve written about a lot of them in “Her spirits rose…” – sometimes often. This fall, inside a week, while September changed to October, two of the lights blinked out.

A creative genius in the world of technology – Steve Jobs of course – and a creative spirit in art and design (but really in all of life) – Joanna Isles. They shared perfectionism and joy I think – their former led to my latter. Their work issued from imagination and skill and dedication. They loved their families and they made the world a better place.

Their deaths have left me thinking, whenever faced with some annoyance or setback, what would Joanna do, what would Steve Jobs do? How glad either would be to be alive to face an annoyance or setback.

Such brave endings for both, time for them to face, oh so realistically, what lay ahead, and to say farewell, leave instructions for carrying out their work to the left-behinds. Of course we all should be thinking that way all the time, but we seem to be designed in ways that make that difficult. Easier to deny, avoid. Dream on.

But lately I’ve been trying not to, and trying even harder to notice the miracle of the wind in the trees, a glass of wine with friends, sunshine in my kitchen. What a gift is this life. I also think to try even harder to apply excellence – to work hard, to reach for all the creative moments and honor those too-short lives.

Joanna’s husband sent me the program for her memorial service (titled “A Celebration of the Creative Life of Joanna Isles Freeman”). It’s colorful with her whimsical illustrations and lettering and the words to “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a song performed at the service. The words echo in my head all over my house – her books, little pieces of Joanna painted pottery, baubles on a glass-covered string of lights – a bejeweled heart that hangs on my workroom door – and a box full of treasured letters tracing her life and our friendship for more than 20 years. Someday I will pack them up for her girls – the creative spirits she left behind.

I’m grateful Joanna Isles and Steve Jobs lived and so very, very sorry they are gone.

(I first wrote about Joanna here.)

Visitors – and Apple Crisp

Early each morning, rain or clear, dark or daylight, my good-natured and responsible husband checks the perimeter of Frances’s courtyard. An eight-foot fence keeps deer out and Frances in, but we always worry that another critter might invade during the night. Hence the perimeter check.

Flashlight in hand, our early patroller (Frances waits by the door, and I am still abed) lights up far corners and fence tops – usually revealing quiet woods and empty garden.

The other morning, so I’m told, raccoons attempted a courtyard incursion. The flashlight revealed two raccoons walking the top of the fence where the netting leans inward, while another slithered down the outside of a fence post. They sauntered slowly away, lit by the flashlight, with many backward glances. By a stretch of raccoon imagination, the courtyard might resemble a large open-air chicken coop.

No chickens here, and the only food left is on a very prolific columnar apple. Of the two I planted (here), one has produced nothing, but the other, in a barrel, has clusters of apples.

Last weekend (predicted to be rainy), I used some of the apples to make an apple-rhubarb crisp to greet a more welcome guest (a summer visit finally accomplished at the onset of fall).

I glanced at Deborah’s crisp recipe while in the middle of a long overdue, catch-up telephone conversation with my friend who paints in the woods, but mostly just cut apples till the little baking dish was nearly full. I didn’t peel, just cored and chopped, added some frozen chopped rhubarb, drizzled honey, and sprinkled cinnamon and a pinch of cloves over the fruit.

Luckily crisp forgives distractedness. For the topping I mixed flour, oatmeal, maple syrup, a tiny bit of salt, some cinnamon and nutmeg, and pecans roughly chopped. (This seems less a recipe than a reminder, but more apples here.)

Crisp bubbles up in the oven, so it’s good to place it on a baking sheet to prevent spills and cover with foil for the first part of an hour’s baking at 350°. I neglected both of those, but it still made for a cheerful evening by the fire. (My friend who paints in the woods makes it instead of birthday cake – celebratory crisp.)

I’ve picked the rest of the apples now – no more dangling fruits to tempt masked intruders – just apples for crisp on a cold evening!