Sunday, August 29, 2021

My Life In the Season of Big Zucchini

It's been a big zucchini summer here at this household. Not big as in numerous zucchini, big as in BIG zucchini. The big fat green zeppelins that happen when you don't pick your vegetable patch on the regular, so that all the squash get seedy, tough, and outrageously over-sized. 

I like summer squash. I like the advantage of growing it in your own garden, so you can pick them when they are small, young, and tender. Sauteed in butter and herbs, they are a fast, easy, tasty side dish to all the grilling going on during the season. I like them on the grill too, and as a substitute for noodles in lasagna. 

But these giant squash? Yech. Don't tell me to shred and put them in cake or sweet bread, because zucchini is a savory food only for this girl. Desserts with green vegetables in them? No, thank you. Yes, I have tried them, and I think y'all have gone straight crazy. 

Up until this summer, I've considered it a sign of failure, a sign of even (Lutherans all gasp in judgement) laziness, that I keep missing, and then picking, these big green brutes instead of the tender little lovelies that we prefer to eat. I dutifully go out into the yard with my wire basket, peek under the giant umbrella leaves, and -- "Dang it. Again?!"

At the beginning of the summer I took all of this zucchini-picking failure quite seriously. If I'm going to go to the trouble and expense of gardening, I want to do it well. There is a small window (just shy of three months) where I can supply most of my family's fresh produce needs; I want to optimize that. Coming from a family that has experienced poverty, I hate wasting food. Large zucchini seemed to represent a lot of things to me: poor resource management, inattention, waste, and even ingratitude to the processes of Nature which provide for us. 

But zucchini is a distinct season of the summer. We watch it come along in expectation in early May, when the earth finally warms up enough in Iowa to germinate squash seeds, and in June, while the plants spread out their giant leaves and start to bloom. Come July and August, there are pyramids of squash crowding kitchen counters. The reason for all the jokes about summer squash stuffed in mailboxes, left on neighbors' doorsteps, piled on break-room tables at work is because we know that they are prolific. Sometimes too prolific. We balance our gratitude for all that plenty with the relentlessness of it. So, so much. And while we are grateful, we are also tasked with it. Peeling it, slicing it, sauteeing it, roasting it, pickling it, tossing it into omelettes, soups, quiches, pasta-- even if we love summer squash, we know it takes up space in our lives, requires work, and sometimes, is just too, too much. 

This summer, big zucchini do not represent laziness, or ingratitude, or even inept gardening. They do, however, still represent overabundance-- a distinct season in our lives. In the last several months our household has seen multiple major appliance failures, major house repair, a car vs. deer accident (property damage only, thank God), and storm damage. We've done several home improvement projects, and have several more that are needed or that we are considering. We have a grandchild we are over the moon for, and love to help care for him and nurture him. We have aging parents who sometimes need support. We are gone multiple weekends in a row, honoring milestones like a son's entrance into pharmacy school, or another son's move into his first home. We have welcomed home a son-in-law who was deployed in the National Guard. We have visited a sister in Georgia, paddled the Boundary Waters with a blended family of menfolk, gone fishing. We survived a school year complicated by the pandemic and are about to embark on a senior year of high school that is looking much the same. We are navigating menopause. We lost an extended family member unexpectedly. We're looking ahead at college enrollments, helping autism spectrum children find their way in the adult world, and empty nesting.

All of these things are piled up on our metaphorical kitchen counter, and we need to process all of it. Slice and dice, cut out the bad parts where we can, create our own recipe out of these ingredients we've been handed, simmer, chew, swallow, and digest. All that growing, celebrating, repairing, nurturing, grieving, planning, sharing of time with people we love, closing one chapter, opening others. A great deal of it is joyous work, and for that we are grateful. A great deal of it is work-work. Labor and grief and frustration and exhaustion and loss and expense and time. So, we balance our gratitude for all that plenty with the relentlessness of it. It is also so, so much. 

We are in a season of life where things are coming at us fast and thick, both the gifts and the trials. Big zucchini aren't our ideal, but can be expected when we'd rather take care of a grandbaby, or help an adult kid move boxes. They can be expected while we sort through trenching a new water main to our house. They can be expected when we neglect garden work in favor of ceremonies, milestones, funerals, jobs, and much needed rest. 

For that reason, I will make of big zucchini what I can. Some days, that will mean preparing, seasoning, and cooking those parts we like, and enjoying the results. Some times it will mean sharing our overabundance with others that can make better use of big squash than we can in the moment. Some days, it means I will send that big ol' squash sailing over the compost fence and into the pile, so that it can feed some vegetable garden of the future, in another season, where life will assuredly be different than it is now. 

Things I have been doing: 

Enjoying this, this, and this recipe as a way to use up those big zucchini. When I don't, you know, compost them out of sheer lack of time to do anything with them. 

Not reading. But looking at The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain sitting on my end table, and deciding it's a better book for cooler and cozier fall nights. 

Painting buckets of primer and paint on the walls of a basement craft room that we are working on. I'm looking forward to having a permanent home for my sewing machine. 

Monday, August 2, 2021

This Dip: It's Kind of a Big Dill


I've got a lot of dill in the garden this year. Like, a LOT. Mind you, it is totally my fault that we have this predicament. When I first started vegetable and herb gardening many seasons ago, I started some dill from seed inside, and transplanted the little herblets out when the weather got warm. Now, every season, the dill grows tall everywhere, with lots of full feathery fronds and giant seed heads. I let it come and go as it pleases, for the most part. 

This year it's been a little, dare I say, out of control. Even for a person who likes dill. It's shown up in places I don't really care for it to be, like driveway cracks and perennial beds, and I've even had to pull up some of the plants so that they don't shade out other things, like my peppers, which need their fair share of the sun too. 

It's hard to hate the situation, though, because I love the smell so much. Along with cucumbers and greenbeans, it's the smell of high summer in the vegetable patch. I like adding it to flower bouquets, and sometimes I like big bunches of it as a stand alone; it makes the kitchen smell great, even if I'm not making pickles. I'm a refrigerator pickle person. My canned pickles are straight up terrible, and I don't seem to have a knack for heat canning them. 

It's a shame, because if there were a year I could be hitting the dill hard for pickles, it would be this one. I've got plenty of material to work with. And I have stuffed plenty of dill into the few jars of refrigerator pickles I've made so far. But there are only so many refrigerator pickles I can make, and then I'm looking at my dill-weedy garden and wondering why I was so confident, years ago, that setting this plant loose in my garden was such a good idea. 

Another thing I've been trying to do is reduce the number of additives and preservatives in my food. I've discovered that I am sensitive to a few of them, some of them make my eczema worse, and not all of them are great from a healthy diet perspective either. And since one of the worst offenders in this area is salad dressings and dips, I've been experimenting for awhile with homemade ones. I've made a few really tasty and relatively healthy dips (I say relatively, because we're talking mayonnaise here, and there's only so much I can lie to myself), and because of that ongoing kitchen exploration, it seemed like a natural place to use all these bunches of dill. 

And I do mean bunches. I'm not a measurer of things, which gets me into trouble. If I make a terrific and tasty version of something, and didn't measure any of the ingredients while putting it together, I can't replicate it. If someone likes it and asks for a recipe, I have to say I don't have one, which makes me sound like I don't want to share. But I do want to share, and after several rounds in the kitchen with a notepad and paper to jot down what I'm doing, I have a recipe that is worth sharing. 

The only not-a-measurement measurement I will make for this recipe is for the dill itself. You need a big handful of fresh dill, like you see at left. How much is that? No idea. About a 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup chopped, loosely packed? Probably. You can wing this a little. I trust you. 

So, a big handful of mostly dill, but also stuff some chives in there too, also as shown. I'd say this amounts to about 1/4 to 1/3 cup chopped and loosely packed. I know "big handful" is relative: I have rather small hands, and so my big handful will be different than your big handful. But it won't matter, because this is a dip recipe, and it is flexible enough to cope with this inconsistency. 

Strip the feathery leaves off the dill stalks and roughly chop the dill leaves with the chives. Don't go crazy, because the food processor is going to do most of the work. Throw the herbs in the food processor with:

1 cup plain greek yogurt. I am picky about greek yogurt. I use Fage brand 2% fat, and I really recommend it for it's thick texture and mild but tangy taste). For a full fat version, you can use sour cream.

1/2 cup mayonnaise. I'm also picky about mayonnaise and want to eliminate some of the fat calories, so I usually make mine with Hellman's Low Fat Mayo or Hellman's Olive Oil Mayo. You can also use full fat mayo if you like. I will still recommend Hellman's/Best Foods, or Duke's. 

Juice of 1/2 lemon. Or if you don't have a lemon around (it happens), use a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar. 

1 T. minced garlic. That seems like a lot. It is. Trust me. 

1 T. dijon mustard. I prefer coarse ground. 

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

a pinch of sugar

You need to pulse this only a few seconds in the food processor until it is thoroughly blended. Seriously, you will spend more time rummaging around in your condiment rack and scooping stuff out of tubs and jars than you will processing this up. Most of the time I make this, it is a thick pour out of the processor, and it sets up a bit once it's had a chance to meld flavors in the fridge for a few hours. Other times it's very thick and a tablespoon of milk will help get it to the right consistency if you'd rather use this as salad dressing, which you can totally do.  It makes just shy of 1 3/4 cups of dip, and you can double the recipe if you've got a crowd coming, or if your people are just total dip hogs (we know who we are). 

This dip is great with raw veggies and crackers or chips as a dip. It is fantastic on the side of fried green tomatoes. Toss a few tablespoons of capers in it and serve it with grilled salmon. Throw in some grated, drained cucumber and a drizzle of olive oil and it becomes tzatziki sauce for Mediterranean food. Put it on a buttered baked potato. It's great on salad greens and tomatoes. I'm also thinking (though I haven't tried it yet) that it would be good as the dressing for pea salad, or maybe egg salad too. As long as my dill patch holds out, we will have plenty of chances to experiment. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

What is my seed starting mix?


Living in a small Midwestern city like I do, I'm grateful that our community has a locally owned greenhouse and nursery. I don't just try to support it, I pilgrimage there as soon as they open their doors (usually late January-early February) for the season. I breathe in the smells of dirt and liquid fertilizer, which in late winter in Iowa is basically the smell of Hope with a capital H, for those of us that struggle with dark winter days. 

I am a particular fan of their seed starting mix, a special blend that is light, fluffy, moist, and just right for germinating all the things I like to grow in my garden-- annual flowers like zinnia, marigold, calendula, sunflowers, and amaranth; and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and cucumbers.

This year I wasn't as successful starting seed as I usually am, though I'm not blaming my local nursery's bags of soil-- they are only one factor in the complex and tiny miracle of unfolding new plant life. So many things I did wrong this year-- I tried to use up older packages of seed that wouldn't germinate; I started some seeds too late, and others too early. I tried to grow some seeds that I have yet to conquer successfully (Bells of Ireland, Nigella) when I was too distracted by work stress; I failed to grow some stupidly easy plants because of the same distractions; I discovered too far into the game that my lighting timer wasn't working properly, denying them the light my veggies and flowers needed to truly thrive. 

It's weird to be writing about seed starting right now, as we are well past the seed starting stage, well past spring and into high summer. But this year has been weird. We've had March days in the 90s (Fahrenheit) and June frosts. The plants and I have had multiple trips out to the patio, back into the screen porch. We've had weeks of nothing but rain, but are now verging on drought in Iowa. Up and down. Back and forth. Forward and backward. Start and stop and give up for this week, try again next week. Even now, that hot weather seems here to stay for awhile, the garden is upside down. The chrysanthemums are too early. The cucumbers, running late. 

It's been that way emerging from the pandemic, as well. Vaccines have been very much progress. My strong reaction to them (hives) was not. I have been eager to get out, see people, do things. I often come home from these first-in-a-long-time activities a sweet and sour pickle of attitude-- delighted to be out of the house, full of vinegar about the how exhausting humans (including myself) can be sometimes. I thought I had missed them. I return from their company not so sure.

So I put the mask back on and flew to Georgia to see my sister. We hiked the Appalachian Trail to Preacher's Rock on Big Cedar Mountain. It was beautiful but I was out of shape and clumsy, skinning my knee falling on the steeper switchbacks. It was embarrassing and yet how could it be any other way, after more than a year of eating and drinking my feelings, and trying to get a grip on a new managerial position from the sofa? 

We ate lunch out and had midday margaritas. We went for walks. We shopped for anything and nothing. We talked. We talked a lot. The topics weren't necessarily important-- we talked about kitchen cupboards and plants and running shoes and dogs. But the talking is the medicine. It is a way to be with our ancestors. It is a way to straighten our girl crowns. It is a part of my seed-starting mix. 

Since coming back from that trip I've been able to distinguish a few maddeningly conflicting truths about seed-starting. I know that the same seeds that failed to grow carefully planted in the shelter of my house in March are springing up in random places in June from seeds that were accidentally strewn last fall while cleaning up the garden. While my carrot seeds were too old this year, I know scientists have resurrected a date palm seed from Biblical times, and I myself have grown hollyhock seeds that were at least a decade old. While March is long gone and it is too late to start peas and spinach, there is still time for planting sunflower seeds and another crop of basil or dill. We are always simultaneously out of time, just in time, too early, too late. We grow amazing things with planning and care and also by marvelous accident and benign neglect. It's how the beautiful weeds wind their way through through our carefully planted rows, both pushing stem and leaf upwards toward the sunlight. 

Things I have been doing: 

Binge-watching Home Town. I fell back in love with the fantasy of reviving an old house in an hour. 

Making whoopie pies. They are good straight from the fridge with a glass of milk. 

Planning to carve out a small craft room in our basement. Lighting and waterproofing come first!

Cleaning the bathroom supply closet

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Capable of Enchantment

Sunday snow in the backyard

This week I attended a memorial service for Mike, the younger brother of my best friend in high school. He fought a battle with cancer he could not win. 

When I was thirteen, I was friends with his sister, and their life on the other side of town seemed a lot more like a family should be. I lived in a tiny duplex apartment with a divorced, frequently worn-out working mom; all the wounds of our family's detonation were freshly bandaged but still sore. They lived in a house just a short block from the cemetery and easy walking distance to our junior high school. While they were also a family who had divorced and remarried, they seemed to have all the representative parts-- mom, dad, house, yard, dog-- that constituted "normal" in those days, and to me their house seemed like a reprieve from all the not-normal that my own life contained, with its hand-me-down clothing from older cousins and a diet that often relied heavily on 10lb bags of potatoes. 

While my friendship was with his sister, Mike was the tag-along little brother to our new-to-teenhood adventures. He was Norwegian blonde with ruddy cheeks and a bit of the devil in his blues eyes. His sister and I would walk through the cemetery after dusk, to have a private, quiet place to talk about the seriousness of our thoughts about boys, our mothers, our plans for life. Mike would follow, lurking behind headstones, leaping out to to scare the living bejabbers out of us, running away laughing. We would make rice krispie bars in the kitchen after school; Mike would be in and out, snitching marshmallows out of the bag, later making off with large slabs of the finished product. We would go ice skating down at the park, and Mike would be there, making many expert, speeding loops around the ice to my wobbly beginner one, coming to a dramatic hockey stop again and again, spraying ice chips everywhere. 

Now that I'm past middle-age, the friendship with his sister is no longer, over years ago because of hurts we couldn't work through. While I'd been in touch with Mike now and then over the past decade, it was mostly to share that he too, was estranged from her. She did not attend the memorial service for her brother. That "normal" that I had seen and so coveted when I was a kid was just an angle, a trick of light in the form of ice skates and rice krispy bars. They had their struggles too, as all families do. The details aren't my story to tell. But it took the perspective of the fully adult me to realize it, and to deeply feel the gratitude I have for the family that gave me those memories, despite whatever troubles were housed within their walls. 

Today is Sunday, and it is snowing. It is an enchanting snow, but it is February. I am no longer as capable of enchantment as I was in, say, December. But I live in Iowa, and complaining about the weather is futile. This is what February in Iowa looks like. The fifty-three-year-old me is also not capable of enchantment with "normal" as I was at thirteen, and indeed I wonder why I even wanted it, now. But that is the way of growing older. This is what 53 looks like. What remains are the gestures of half-grown children from long ago. Mike still skates smoothly away under a street lamp in the park, snow falling from dark skies on his impossibly beautiful blonde lashes. He smiles, and pants out bursts of frosty breath.