Walking the High Line

{Note: My next few posts are about a pre-Sandy visit to New York, a tranquil New York with subways, bridges, electricity, and little rain or wind. I’ll go ahead and post in honor of this great city, while sending wishes for safekeeping to all in the path of Sandy. May the power return soon!}

With our younger son and his sweet bride, we walked in New York City for a week in October. Each morning we left our rented apartment on the Upper West Side and set out.

The first morning we walked past the Dakota and the “Imagine” Memorial to John Lennon, through Central Park full of people on a holiday Monday, and emerged at the Fifth Avenue corner by the Plaza Hotel. We watched a Columbus Day parade, celebrating everything Italian, passed glitzy stores with familiar names, and rode a series of elevators up 70 floors to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center. Afterwards, with the grid of New York streets and the green of Central Park in our minds, we headed home, up Broadway from 47th to to 74th Street.

We walked in daylight across the Brooklyn Bridge and, at nighttime in the brighter-than-day light of Times Square. We ambled through Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and SoHo, with a long stop at the Strand Bookstore (shelves so tall the store provides ladders), and a quick peek into the Prada flagship store (designed by Rem Koolhaas, elegant and tranquil). We strolled through the Greenmarket at Union Square where New York chefs shop for fresh food.

Streams of people walked toward us, so many clothes and faces and conversation fragments – spoken to companions or on cell phones – “I keep playing the typical teenager really well!” (spoken not by a teenager), “I want to eat some ice cream,” “The only reason to have a car is to get out of the city,” “Can we just enjoy the walk?” (I always wish for a bubble overhead, identifying what the person does in this amazing city.)

For years I’ve read about the High Line, about the transformation into a garden path of an abandoned, elevated rail line running north from the Meatpacking District. On a sunny day with wind at our back we walked the mile and a half from its southerly beginning. What a pleasure.

Inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the tracks in the 25 years after trains stopped running, the plantings are sturdy – full of grasses, trees with fall foliage, and shrubs full of berries or rosehips. You walk above the sirens, car horns, and bustle of the neighborhoods below – closer to sky and air.

Sidewalks of aggregate looking like wide planking expand into areas for seating, and for eating from food stands and restaurants nearby. Wide wooden chaise lounges built for two, narrow perching benches by the guardrails, and a set of stadium-style bleachers provide seating in limited space. A shallow stream flows for a while beside the walkway. At one point the path passes through a building, but mostly you tread a garden path.

A huge billboard and unused boxcars make perfect urban canvases for artists – surprising public art pieces. An exhibit of tiny sculptures tucked into spots along the route is titled “Lilliput.” A sound installation – a voice seeming to come out of the bushes – recited the names of animals, dividing them into human goods and bads: panda, swan, spider, tapeworm.

In a week of walking, the High Line was a high point!

Curly Kale Chips

The young writer expressed incredulity that I had never made kale chips. So, faced with a huge bunch of very curly kale from the CSA, and armed with two recipes, I made kale chips. Why hadn’t I done this before?

My Alaska daughter-in-law described my proclivity (we share it): I’m a savory-preferring, chips and salsa sort of person. Sweets I can almost always resist (with some exceptions), but tortilla chips are my weakness. Chips get you through that premeal dinnertime when hunger depletes energy for cooking. Chips make going out for Mexican food such fun. Nestled in the pack with the sandwiches, chips get you to the top of a mountain.

I try to make rules – don’t open the bag being the most effective – but at Downtown Abbey I’m a goner. I don’t even fight it there. So this recipe is an opportunity for legal chips, approved chips, chips as part of your five-a-day (the potatoes in potato chips don’t make the cut.)

It’s a simple recipe: wash and shake a big bunch of curly kale, remove the midrib, cut into quarter-inch strips, and place in a large bowl.

The young writer’s recipe, from a nutritionist named Kathy Abascal, calls for drizzling two tablespoons of olive oil over the kale and tossing to coat. (Karyn from Red Dog Farm suggests a tablespoon of olive oil and one of soy sauce.)

Make sure the kale is well-coated, then arrange in a single layer on baking sheets. Abascal warns that piling the kale leads to soggy kale – it steams rather than crisps. I made two batches, spread thinly on rimmed sheets.

Place in a heated oven (350°) for five minutes, then turn the kale and bake for six or seven more minutes until the kale is crisp. Keep a close watch – don’t burn – but you want crisp.

Crisp is delicious! Sprinkled with salt these have the melt-in-your mouth satisfaction of a decadent, very good potato chip – but virtuous, no guilt.

They can be a popcorn substitute for television viewing of the debates and election ahead. I hope Michelle makes some chips from the White House garden’s kale. (And I hope she keeps that garden!)

Enjoy – and go ahead – eat the whole bowl – it’s kale!


Four Favorite Watercolors

The other day my beekeeper friend wrote a sidebar email to ask me “If you had to pick four favorite colors from your watercolor palette, what would they be?”

What a question (thank you!) – could I pick four?

I have two watercolor palettes. Both contain 24 colors but not exactly the same. The palette for large paintings leaves out what might be my favorites – because they have their own little ceramic bowl-like containers – the transparent triad: cobalt blue, aureolin (yellow), and rose madder genuine. Rose madder genuine I love best. It looks nearly black on the palette, but when wetted it releases a slight flower fragrance along with its unique pink hue.

Even when used full strength, transparents don’t give the oomph of staining pigments. So I have another triad – ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow (pale), and alizarin. Unforgiving – a mark with a staining pigment means commitment. They are strong-willed but vital. So are the Windsors – royal tones of green, purple, and red – clear and robust.

Then the cadmiums – the warm pigments you don’t want to accidentally put in your mouth or in your teacup – have opaqueness, making them seem thick and heavy. A sunflower calls for a variety of cadmium yellows – pale, medium, deep (it looks orange). The natural world needs their heft.

And I have to choose sap green, even though green isn’t my favorite to paint with, and I never use it alone – always adding a yellow or burnt sienna or umber or sepia.

You can mix a lot of colors, but some priceless ones you can’t – like a good green or cerulean blue, burnt sienna, ochre, or the so-valuable Payne’s gray, which supports all of watercolor’s color.

You avoid the threat of watercolor mud if you adapt Jeanne Dobie’s rule: never mix more than two colors. Another Dobie wisdom reminds that adjacent color makes a difference. The Dobie book I read often when learning is “Making Color Sing: Practical Lessons in Color and Design.”

If I choose by thinking of how the pigment behaves, asking which pigments I approach while thinking: “oh good I get to paint with ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­____,” cobalt blue stands out because it’s fun to pull the grainy texture across a page and watch what happens. Cadmium yellows hold out from the paper, and I brush them with pleasure. With pure and vibrant Winsor red, I must focus before I load the brush for tulips or an amaryllis or an apple. Perhaps flood water first and watch it disperse. Or not. Use it pure with abandon.

Permanent rose is beautiful – and so often flower petals seem already painted with it. A tiny bit of pure pigment at the end of a small brush pulled down with water makes a sweet pea petal. Once in a while a happy moment means cue the vermillion! Purest orange.

OK, four – I suppose the staining triad and sap green for a desert island – but could we negotiate for a few more?

“Market Vegetarian”

Good friends came to stay at the Buffalo this summer, and they left lovely gifts including Ross Dobson’s “Market Vegetarian: Easy Organic Recipes for Every Occasion.” I wanted to tell you about it in case you need a menu pick-me-up, just in time for autumn vegetables.

The book is beautiful, its design simple and elegant with gorgeous full-page pictures of prepared recipes. The photograph of hard-boiled eggs cut open in halves, glistening green beans, basil leaves, cherry tomatoes, and olives over rice completely inspired me, and I left the book open to “Nicoise-style Brown Rice Salad with Fresh Herbs” for days.

I’m not sure I ever made Dobson’s exact recipe – but I made all sorts of variations (the sign of a great cookbook for me) – using what we had on hand and including our neighbor’s fresh eggs. (Chickens so close we can hear the rooster in the morning). Sometimes I just piled the ingredients on a thick layer of spinach leaves and included the hardboiled eggs – a trick from Italy taught me by the mother of my young friend – a meal from a salad.

Dobson divides the book into sections reflecting the way he (and most of us) eat – ideas for “sharing plates” (fritters, baked mushrooms, potato and parsnip croquettes), midweek meals, soups and stews and Saturday night dinners that are a little more complicated. Also he includes a section on savory baking.

In the short introduction Dobson makes it clear he’s talking about vegetables from the farmers’ market or your garden – fresh vegetables. Including the ones that will store, available this time of year – lots of ingredients for “Roasted Early Autumn Vegetables with Chickpeas” or “Tagliatelle with Pan-fried Pumpkin and Red Pepper Oil” – and more and more. Now I’ve read through the whole book, enjoying the little narratives before each recipe, and am excited to make pretty much everything.

Dobson’s “Roasted Vegetable Stock” is going to be my first project. I’ve known for a while that using the skins from roasted sweet potatoes or squash really improves a stock, so I know he’s right when he says, “roasted vegetables are more flavorsome.”

Five stars and I’m hungry!

Downtown Abbey in September

On this visit to Downtown Abbey we celebrated our wedding anniversary and Mr. Carson’s birthday. Then he left for his brother’s bachelor party – a hike in the Sierras – a guy tradition no matter the already changed bachelor status.

The Alaska end of September weather seemed familiar – cold, with darkness creeping in. We even woke to snow one morning, flakes filling the street lamplight and accumulating on cars and lawn. It didn’t last – by mid-day the sun shone and the mountains wore “termination dust.”

Lady Baby and I took walks with her stroller to the park. She’s bundled in a fleece suit now and wearing her new pumpkin hat. With bottom drawstring tightened up totally, one of Mr. Carson’s jackets slips over her legs like a small sleeping bag – the hood and arms cozy up and around her making her wind and waterproof. We had great walks – often with Lady Cora.

Lady Baby knows what it is to be alone in a room now. If you are nine-months old and sitting happily on the living room floor, surrounded by intriguing plastic objects that nest and clunk, and nearby is your mom or dad or other familiar big person – the world is good. If that person leaves, to stir the soup or get a cup of tea, a small fret crosses Lady Baby’s face, followed by specific vocalizations. It’s easy to put yourself in her position – just barely mobile and very small.

It seems to make evolutionary sense for a baby to develop separation anxiety at this “cusp of moving” time – it must have kept caregivers nearby and prevented many a baby from a crawl toward the fire or the cave’s entrance.

Lady Megan’s passing colored the week, will color life. She’s been such an important dog, so sweet of face and disposition. I am thankful for her last summer of lying on the back porch to bake in the sun. To write here about her is to recognize her loss for Mrs. Hughes – they had such a life together before anybody thought of Downtown Abbey or its denizens.

I read Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” on this trip, and she reminded me of the painful truth about loss: “There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was there was no getting used to it.”

I will miss Lady Megan. I am sorry she is gone, and thankful Mrs. Hughes gave her such a good life full of love.