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!