While doing a little room organizing, I found this watercolor of an iris from my Alaska garden. That bulb would be covered with snow in January when I planted little iris bulbs outdoors here, gifts from a Gop at a New Year gathering.

John Berger, in his book “Bento’s Sketchbook,” explores the question in his subtitle: “How does the impulse to draw something begin?” About the iris he writes:

“Each spring when the irises begin to flower I find myself drawing them – as if obeying an order. There’s no other flower so commanding. And this may have something to do with the way they open their petals, already printed. Irises open like books. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture. I think of the Mosque Suleiman in Istanbul. Irises are like prophesies: simultaneously astounding and calm.”

“The Hunger Games”

On early mornings at Downtown Abbey, the new mom went back for what she called “deep sleep.” She’s up in the night while the rest of the staff sleeps, so those early hours of returning to bed were delicious to her. But also to me, because then the butler brought the Lady Baby (full of her mom’s milk) to my room. I’d already have a cup of tea, but still be abed, propped against the pillows.

Lady Baby listened to my untuneful versions of “the wheels on the bus go round and round” with inclusions of all possible animals and activities till her eyelids grew heavy and she slept against me. Cromwell slept against us both, and Lady Megan rattled in her sleep, in a comforting way, on a bed on the floor.

This visit I read all the three volumes of “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins – an odd choice for such tender moments. It’s a harrowing trilogy about the horror of war and bad human behavior, political manipulation of citizens and abuse of power (a YA book but surely not too young!). But it’s also alive with everyday wonders we take for granted – hornets that mind their own business, a round of cheese wrapped in basil leaves, a family to love.

Because I read all these volumes at once, they seem one big novel – “War and Peace” size. You could call it dire and dark, but the evil in the book must be there.

The book has enough reality to be gripping, with occasional futuristic bits of mind control and morphed words to keep you in an imaginary world, but not irritated. It’s a parallel, frightening scene and a violent book. I cared about the young heroine Catniss and her companions, the strangeness of their post-apocalyptic world which also contains familiar things of pleasure – a recognizable forest, a fragrant bakery, and a mother who is a healer.

One friend said she hadn’t read because she thought it would be sad, another that it might be depressing. You could say both those things, but the books hurtle along with adventure at high speed. If you are lucky you’d read them all in one go – during a long airplane flight or series of flights – days out of time for some reason – a reading vacation maybe.

Or, best of all, with a new baby breathing soft little sighs, representing everything wonderful and precious in our world.

Couscous at Downtown Abbey

In spite of the brief presence of the Turkish attaché, I’m pretty sure there was no couscous at Downton Abbey. But at Downtown, by special request of the new parents, I repeated the welcome-home-from-the-hospital meal the new mom’s family prepared.

Earlier in the week, in the middle of a snowstorm, the mother of my young friend took me to Anchorage’s mid-winter farmer’s market – in the hall of a mall filled with department stores. It’s a treat to find local food in Anchorage mid-winter – carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, and pumpkin brought from the Matanuska Valley where they grew last summer. Also local eggs and honey.

The link to the original recipe “Roasted Vegetable Couscous with Chickpeas and Onion-Pine Nut Topping,” is here, but I worked from a printed copy with notes by the mom of the new mom. The recipe uses available storage vegetables – just what we need in February. It calls for roasted carrots, sweet potato, and parsnips. (We substituted little fingerling potatoes from the market and added beets.)

The unique taste of this dish comes from the Ras el Hanout – a spice blend full of cumin, ginger, cinnamon, saffron threads, and more (this mixture is a link within the recipe link). This meal uses only a quarter teaspoon of the mix, but the Ras el Hanout amounts make enough for sharing or for using another time.

The new mom’s mother made improvements on the recipe: she used whole wheat couscous, roasted more vegetables including beets, and put the spice mix not on the roasted vegetables, but in the couscous after cooking. (From her notes, I also learned about “Better than Bullion,” a vegetable base which made a flavorful vegetable broth for cooking the couscous.)

I followed the recipe directions and cut most vegetables small, but the carrots large, then roasted them all in a 450° oven till tender. You sauté a yellow onion sliced into quarter-inch thick slices for the onion-pine nut topping, and add a quarter cup each of pine nuts and raisins, a teaspoon of cinnamon and tablespoon of honey.

I made this between my opportunities with Lady Baby – so just before serving we pulled it all together by warming the vegetables and the topping in the oven, and cooking the couscous. (So simple – bring the broth to a boil, add couscous, stir, remove from heat and let stand before adding the chickpeas).

The mound of couscous surrounded by vegetables and topped by onions and pine nuts looks and tastes a festive, robust dish. Another suggestion by the new mom’s mom was to serve this with an orange, banana, and date salad – the perfect lively accompaniment to the roasted vegetables.

A great feast on a snowy Sunday!

Downtown Abbey

On Sunday evening during my second visit with the new baby and her parents, we got organized enough to watch “Downton Abbey” live. I went to bed thinking we were living in Downtown (Anchorage) Abbey! Downton might have dozens more rooms and a grand aspect, but it shelters its occupants no better than the little red house so covered with snow.

Downtown Abbey is the home of furred nobles Lord Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey (feline), and the Ladies Cora and Megan (canine), and the new baby – Lady Baby. Also home to the staff of course – the new father plays butler, valet, chauffeur, and Daisy all in one. The new mother has head housekeeper duties, we all revolve around her. I was often Mrs. Patmore, the cook, but also attended with pleasure the Lady Baby as her lady’s maid (the good one).

We tidy, we take the lords and ladies to their appointments, do the laundry, and provide food. Except for Lady Baby, the butler mostly does the feeding – administering pills to Lady Megan, and carrying Cardinal Wolsey to his dish, for fear Lord Cromwell will reach it first. We at Downtown are as attuned to our employers as the staff at Downton, but we’re a stripped down version – no bad characters. Nobody has time to stand outside the house looking sneaky and hatching plots!

Days at Downtown were full. Once this visit the staff sat down together for a meal (usually the Lady Baby requires an attendant). Occasionally we even set the table (but do not use a ruler to measure the proper alignment of the silver).

In the evening Cromwell and Wolsey compromise their dignity by running skirmishes in circles around the house. Ladies Cora and Megan doze on the couch, but stay ever alert to the opening of the treat drawer or the chopping of a carrot. Lady Baby sleeps through it all, rocking in one pair of arms or another. Sometimes she’s wrapped on the front of Mr. Carson in a Moby carrier while he works on a document in his lap.

A few of the dealings between employers and staff are a little irregular for Masterpiece: one night Lord Cromwell and Lady Cora both slept with me – the three of us in a row. And in an unlikely activity for Downton’s staff, part of the Downtown staff had brief ski outings on the weekend, while I stayed with the Lady Baby. A thrill for all!

A favorite relationship in “Downton Abbey” is between the real Lady Cora and her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess. The two women are allies in the story and in the family. And I loved it the other night when Lord Grantham said: “All our lives are lived around our children.”

“Grow, Cook, Eat”

That’s the title of Willi Galloway’s awaited book! It’s a gorgeous, practical guide – enhanced by Jim Henkens’s photographs of enticing vegetables and Willi at work in her garden. In the book, Willi describes the pleasures and satisfactions of eating what you grow – and tells you how.

Many people know Willi (to call her Willi is like calling Deborah Madison Deborah) from KUOW’s popular Seattle radio show “Greendays,” her website (, and her many guest appearances at gardening events. (I first met Willi and wrote about her here .)

Willi is a lively speaker and writer – full of energy and enthusiasm. She loves what she does, knows it well, and invites us along. In the book’s introduction she says: “So think of the guides and advice in these pages as a recipe you can make your own – add a cup more here, a pinch less there – and have as much fun as possible.”

The first chapter of the book is a perfect guide for new gardeners, and chock-full of hints for more experienced ones. In a solid, readable way, she covers the gardening fundamentals from planning and planting to dealing with weeds.

Then the book divides into sections on herbs, greens, legumes, squash, cabbage, roots, tubers, and bulbs, warm-season vegetables, and fruit. Each category gets specific by describing the vegetables, their cultivation preferences, and when and how to harvest.

But what makes this book stand out is what comes next: past the growing and the harvesting of each vegetable to the cooking. After reading about basil, turn the page and encounter Willi’s “Nona’s Pesto,” or learn about growing shallots on one page, followed by their use in “Everyday Vinaigrette” on the next.

The wordsmith called her copy of “Grow, Cook, Eat” a handsome book. The elegant, inviting design begins with the cover – a well-used pan full of roasted carrots on a weathered blue table. I am inspired, encouraged, and hungry to make her “Butternut Squash Tacos with Spicy Black Beans” – “also Rhubarb Chutney”!

Congratulations on a keeper Willi!

Brussels Sprout Bottega

You wouldn’t (I wouldn’t) expect to find brussels sprouts at a fun Los Angeles eatery. Nor would you think that Los Angeles is on the way home to Washington State from Alaska, but I like to think it is. Once at the airport – might as well keep going!

So coming home from Alaska in early January, we spent the weekend in California – no sun, but warmer for sure. Dinner, with our younger son and his sweet friend, at Bottega Louie in downtown LA was a highlight. It’s an Italian bakery, bar, and restaurant all in one cavernous, high-ceilinged popular space. And noisy, so noisy you can’t hear yourself think – let alone talk, but we all smiled at the food – beginning with the beautiful braided bread placed right on the paper tablecloth.

Along with a wide variety of regular entrees and pizza, Louie offers “small plates.” One of mine was brussels sprouts with pistachios – delicious halved sprouts, not par-boiled but tender throughout.

When I read Heidi Swanson’s recipe for “Oregano Brussels Sprouts,” I realized her method was Louie’s method. So the other night I harvested the buds from a brussels sprouts tree, took off the excess leaves, and cut the sprouts in half (cutting through the stem).

I followed her directions to heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large warm (but not overheated) skillet, then arranged a single layer of the sprouts in the pan (flat side down), and sprinkled with salt.

I covered and cooked for exactly five minutes (Swanson said roughly five and that worked) – they’ll be tender with bottoms just beginning brown. Cook more with a little higher heat, till the flat bottoms are “deep brown and caramelized.” Having no pistachios, I toasted some sliced almonds and sprinkled them over top.

I like brussels sprouts anyway, but these are really crisp and flavorful. (Following Swanson’s whole recipe and using the “oregano drizzle” would be terrific.)

But it’s good to have a quick way to prepare these nutritional powerhouses – and as Swanson says: “best straight from the stove top.”

Love and Forgiveness

Protected by snow from temperatures in the low 20s, our garden is now restored to its green Washington winter beauty. Ferns and hellebore, beach strawberry and rosemary emerged wet but not brown. Even the lawn is green again – and I see blossoming tiny cyclamen and budded snowdrops!

Last Saturday, walking the woods trail in the first post-snow morning, glad to walk on soggy earth again and hear tiny birds chittering about, a comment from a reader was on my mind. She wondered if the love from a baby is like the unconditional love from a dog.

I intended to reply to her by email, but for some reason there in the woods, I realized that to other readers it might seem I fail to acknowledge comments or answer questions. I always try to write emails to the commenter – but rarely do I write back in the comment queue.

A fellow blogger, when I belatedly commented on her site, said it’s always good to get feedback – and that is true. Often a comment or an email sets me up for the day! I appreciate it when something moves or puzzles someone enough to write. One reader referred to a community of kindred spirits who read the blog – and that feels good.

So here I offer a heartfelt thank you for comments and compliments – all are appreciated!

Now back to unconditional love. In drafting a reply in my head on that walk, I thought what I felt with the baby was love for her – unadulterated, powerful, beginning-before-she-was-born love.

Not being a dog person, and much more aligned with cats, I’ve never been sure about receiving unconditional love. No one talks about unconditional love and cats in the same sentence. And then I began to wonder if what we think of as unconditional love is the love we feel, reflected back.

When we love unconditionally (especially babies or animals because they don’t speak or fail to speak), I wonder if it doesn’t bounce back and feel like incoming love.

Just a thought for the Love month. Thank you readers! You keep me going into this third year!

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop in Anchorage bakes terrific artisan breads of all sorts, foccacia with interesting toppings, and delectable treats. Just two blocks from our old house, it provides a cheerful warm welcome on dark Alaska mornings.

But – they closed for a much-deserved break during January! One evening, the new mother rocking her new babe said: “Oh a Fire Island chocolate chip cookie would taste so good right now!”

The next morning I read on the Internet about how to make cookies more like bakery cookies – the ones from Fire Island aren’t so sweet, and they’re puffy and full of chocolate. While it was still dark, I walked to the nearby grocery store.

Bittman’s classic chocolate chip recipe calls for two sticks of softened butter, three-quarters of a cup each of white and brown sugar, two eggs, two cups of all-purpose flour, half-teaspoon of baking soda, half-teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and two cups of chocolate chips. Bittman prefers broken up chocolate to chips, so I bought a Perugian chocolate bar (memories of Italy at 12°).

I reduced the sugars to half-cup of each and added more flour (more flour is said to make a cakier cookie). According to one source, a little touch of cinnamon might be the secret in many bakery cookies – so I added a smidge. And at the last minute (fearing the cookies wouldn’t be sweet enough to please), I splashed maple syrup into the wet ingredients. Then baked at 375° about 10 minutes.

The cookies were tasty and welcomed, more about chocolate than sweetness, and I discovered a newer black cookie sheet produced puffy cookies. A heavier, older silver one made flatter, crisper cookies with the same batter.

Standing in the kitchen creaming stiff butter and sugar and eggs by hand, with the battered and very familiar stainless mixing bowl pressed against me, I stared out the window at the familiar view and wondered how many batches of cookies I had made in that kitchen. Cookies used to be an all-the-time event – the cookie tin perpetually full (or ready to be filled). It’s such a familiar sight to see a son or the good-natured husband come home and head straight to the cookie jar.

I made chocolate chip cookies to welcome the Public Health nurse (my old friend who lives on Bainbridge now) on her visits when our first son was a baby. Our living room contained one wooden rocking chair, green shag carpeting, and board and brick bookshelves. I remember her sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cup of tea.

It was a joy to write my old friend and tell her about the new baby (and making cookies again) in the old house.