Sunday, March 30, 2008

Spleenwort

A lot is going on now, yet I'm taking a break to write while I have pre-work coffee. There's not really much bad stress lately, just work stress and good stress. Life is busy. I'm feeling behind in my academic work, but not so much that I can't catch up. I have a new job, which I like more and more as I work there. I'm also planning a trip for the summer (which may conflict with job; I'll find that out this week I think), planning for a visit from Mary from Germany, and thinking ahead about moving, trying to get rid of my possessions to make moving easier. The more I look, the more I find stuff that I do like, but I can actually part with it. Thanks to Book Mooch, I'm finding it not difficult to part with books, even ones that were formerly my favorite. I don't mind giving them up if I know they're going directly to a good, loving home.
Also, we're planning a party next weekend--using my birthday as an excuse for all of us to throw a party. This is definitely occupying my time but in a good way. Cleaning the house takes away from academic work time...but really, it's better that I don't live in squalor!
The result of all this cleaning, however, is paranoia. Yesterday I found myself Googling "lead poisoning" and "what do i do if I inhaled lead dust?" I realized as I was nearly finished sweeping up the back porch that paint chips were flying everywhere and I was totally breathing in dust and getting stuff in my eye and OH MY GOD THESE ARE PAINT CHIPS and OH MY GOD THIS IS AN OLD HOUSE THIS IS PROBABLY LEAD PAINT. Later, my nose was really irritated. I thought about calling the poison control number...and then realized it was probably spring allergies.

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Do any of my three readers (or people stumbling across this blog) have any tips for maidenhair fern care? At my new job, I am responsible for selecting plants for a display window AND caring for them. Except I only work two days a week. When we were selecting plants, my boss warned me that maidenhair ferns are difficult to care for, but I picked out four anyway. I wanted a spring theme, but not a bunch of sappy pink and pastels - no, a mix of those colors, some small flowering plants, and also lots of fern foliage. Sort of a forest floor with spring ephemerals (as much as you can do that with houseplants) theme. I came in last week and saw that one of the ferns was shriveled and dry (but still green.) I came in two days ago and saw that all but one was in this state. OH NO! While researching how to remedy this, I found that the other plant I picked out, streptocarpus, is prone to pest outbreaks. Great!
I fear I will soon be outed at my new job as not a real horticulturalist. In truth, I am a really bad gardener. My father once called me the Dr. Kevorkian of Plants. (Actually, it's not my fault - the backyard in Sparta is impossible to grow vegetables in. It's shady, the soil is acidic, and the deer outwit every fence.)
The real tragedy of this is that it's ferns I've failed. I love ferns! A story I've been telling lately is how, when I was about seven, I was playing in the yard, making up some bizarro story about a princess being held captive by a sorceror or something, and all she could eat was grass...so I was pulling up grass and weeds and making up a song about it when my eyes fell upon something I'd seen, but never really noticed before...my mom's patch of ferns! I thought they were magical, and they probably had a role in the story, but I don't remember. I think I quickly got distracted because I wanted to ask my mom about the magical plants. She told me that they were ferns, got a Peterson Field Guide for me (from the library...we were always frugal in my house) and, after seeing me spend hours in the yard trying to key out the ferns we had, looking in the field guide for pretty ferns and then hopefully looking for them in our backyard (which had maybe two types of fern...no Hart's Tongue or Maidenhair Spleenwort), my mother said, "You should be a botanist when you grow up." And so, at seven, the seed was planted.
There were a lot of distractions in between, a lot of alternate "when I grow up" dreams, such as doctor (pfft), poet, choral director in underprivileged high school, painter (I cannot paint), fashion designer, neuroscientist, biotech scientist who makes transgenic stuff. This morning, while examining my poor maidenhair ferns (I took them home to rescue them), I was thinking about how these were really the plants that set me on this path--I saw a line drawing of "maidenhair spleenwort" and thought it was the most beautiful thing--and I realized what it was that maidenhair spleenworts drew me away from...fortunately.
Before I learned that one could be a "botanist," do you know what I wanted to be when I grew up?
A queen.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Anacardiace-cake and Stuff-I-Bought-at-Whole-Foods Salad

Eventually, I am going to post recipes on here. As I wrote in the summer, even though I don't think I have the time/ambition/ability to maintain a food blog, I want to post some of the recipes I invent on here if nothing else so that I remember them. All too often I make something up, it's great, and then I don't write it down and I forget it and the recipe is lost forever.
For a surprise guest from France and a big family dinner, I made a cake which I conceived solely based on the idea that pistachios and mango would go together...just because they are in the same family. I have no idea if this same family thing really works (apples and rosehips? peppers and tomatoes? cashews and poison ivy?! potatoes and nightshade!?!?!?) but I became fixated on the idea...and we have a surplus of pistachios in the house (thanks to Costco)...and so I decided that it would be my birthday cake for my birthday party but first, I would test the idea by making a prototype cake for my family. The prototype was good, but I feel like something was making it less than perfect (even though everyone in the family liked it, even my mom who hates mangoes) so I am going to wait until I perfect the recipe to post it.
Basically it's the same as the orange and ginger flourless cake on chocolateandzucchini.com, except I used pistachios instead of almonds and two mangoes, pureed with a handblender, instead of boiled oranges. Instead of lemon, I made the glaze with key limes (I think any old lime will work though.)
When I modify the recipe successfully I will post it, with a picture of the cake - the glaze makes it so pretty! The pistachios and the lime zest make it a pleasant green.
It's kind of a decadent cake. It's probably got a lot of fat - good fat, but still too much good fat is still too much fat! - and the ingredients are kind of expensive. So, it's not an everyday cake, but fun to have sometimes!

Anyway, something I will NOT post a picture of unlike decadent taxonomically appropriate cake is this salad I made for lunch with a bunch of stuff I impulse bought at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. I am constantly looking for grain-based salads that can be packed in a tupperware and brought to work/class--that can also survive several hours of non-refrigeration. My schedule has me out of my house for really long days - sometimes twelve hours days - and I don't want to buy food, I get sick if I go too long without eating, and I also get sick of egg salad and peanut butter and jelly.
Before I can post a true recipe, I have to figure out and standardize the ingredients. And figure out what can be substituted from a normal pantry for the fancy snob store stuff, and what is actually essential. Basically it was quinoa (or couscous, bulghur, whatever) with a can of tuna; dressing made from lime juice and lime zest, olive oil, some fancy schmancy oil bottle (a mix of coconut, macadamia, and palm oils with "African peppers"), and chopped shallot; whatever not-overpowering vegetable or green you have in the house; toasted unsweetened coconut; and almonds toasted with the unfortunately-named spice blend merken. Smoked paprika would probably work just as well. I also chopped up some chili-spiced dried mango from Trader Joe's and put that in, too. It was really good and really filling and probably healthy - which is all I want from a portable lunch. The lime, coconut, and surprisingly - canned tuna! - went really well together. Still, it was decidedly not a photogenic salad!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cute vegetables!

I impulse buy groceries. About a month ago, I stopped at an Indian grocery store in Parsippany on the way home from my grandmere's house. I have somehow managed to not yet find a good Indian grocery store around here and what isn't carried at general grocery stores or other ethnic grocery stores, I buy when I go visit grandmere. Anyway, I went with the intention of buying one thing only--long pepper. I had read about it online and decided I MUST TRY IT. And I found it at the Subzi Mandi. Here it is!

Pipalli or Magha

The label on the package said "Black Magha," but it's also called Pipalli. It's some other Piper, a relative of black peppercorns. To use this pepper, you grind up the whole spike with a mortar and pestle. I bought it having no idea what it would smell or taste like. When I opened the bag, all residents of my apartment agreed that it smelled like incense--like church incense but nicer. We've been referring to it as "incense pepper." So far, I've had it with chevre and various other things (dates, pecans, chevre-fig-shallot sandwiches) and I made dried fig-pipalli-compound butter. Oh, I added it to some saffron rice, too. I'm really interested in using it more, but how? In desserts? In not desserts?

Well, I found the long pepper only after I went crazy in the store, impulse buying produce. They had pomegranates for $1.49, which was great considering it was way past pomegranate season at most other stores. I bought two, having no idea what I'd do with them. I still have one of them in the fridge.

Guar

Guar beans - also still in the fridge. What do I do with these? I have no clue.

Tindora

Tindora - really tiny squash. They are kind of sour. We cooked them in a coconut-jaggery-tahini sauce recipe I found on a blog (I'll post the link later.) It was ridiculously good.

Tiny eggplants!

I just thought these eggplants were adorable! So I bought them! Nothing special was done with them; they were thrown into regular old pasta sauce.

Okra

My favorite vegetable -- okra. It's always delightful to find it in the winter (or any time when the farmers' markets don't have it) at a decent price AND good quality. So often, it will be at grocery stores for $3/lb or more and the pods will be gigantic and woody. This we cooked in a yogurt sauce from the same Indian food blog where I found the tahini-coconut-tindora recipe. I think it was the first time I made okra and didn't fry it in cornmeal.

And we made saag aloo...except with swiss chard and kale instead of the saag. All with saffron pomegranate rice leftover from a Persian dinner made earlier that week. It was a decadent healthy vegetarian dinner!

Enough blogging about vegetables...time to study vegetables.

Exhausted/overwhelmed

That is how I feel right now, except I think that sounds a bit too dramatic. I'm not really sure in what sense I'm exhausted. Spring Break ended yesterday, and it was tiring and busy in every way possible. I was very active, and a lot of things happened which could be classified as emotionally exhausting, such as seeing a lot of old friends who I hadn't seen in a very long time. These were things that I wouldn't NOT want to do - they were fun - but still exhausting. With some friends, you realize that you have to work hard to censor yourself, that you can't just relax and tell them every story that you would tell the people you see all the time, sometimes just because they don't know all the people involved and you'd have to stop and explain every name. With some people, it's exhausting just because you have so much lost time to make up for, you feel like you can't stop talking or you won't get all your stories and questions in.

Between everything happening right now that's my-life-centric and I think also because of the beginning of spring, I feel like writing. Writing like I used to - minus the teen angst. A lot of the things that have been happening make good funny stories; they are things that would be great in a novel or something, but I don't want to blog about them because they involve other people, and I think that would be unfair as well as weird. I don't want my life to be an open book, a thing in which I write about ongoing events and that has the potential to influence those very same events - things like friendships and relationships. If I'm going to write something personal, I feel comfortable writing only about things from the past. Those people either won't be affected by what I write because they won't see it, or if they do, they won't care.

I think this is part of the reason I don't write in here very frequently. I haven't quite figured out how to write interesting stories, interesting current stories, without involving other people. Most of my "funny stories" involve other people.

So, I finally reminded myself last week - duh! write in your journal! - and that way I'll have a record of the novel-worthy events of last week, in case I do ever take up my old goal of being the next George Eliot.
I haven't gotten to see Sussex County yet this spring. I was supposed to visit this weekend but I was too busy with schoolwork. I want to see if my "garden" has bloomed yet. When I was twelve, a friend and I used to play in the yard of this abandoned house, which had become overgrown with violets and some kind of Scilla. (I don't know which.) My love of violets and spring ephemerals probably has its root in these memories. Anyway, maybe because I found out that the house had been sold and was due to be torn down that summer, or maybe it was just good timing, but I uprooted some of the violets and scillas and planted them by Forsythia Lilac, the "fort" (pile of sticks that you could sort of sit under) my friend and I had constructed in my backyard. The fort is gone, but the "garden" is still there. For years I would count every plant that came up, and suddenly, last year, there were too many to count. I was really happy about this.

I'm thinking about old memories like this a lot, partly because changing of seasons always makes me start to remember past seasons (past springs in this case; past autumns in late September) and partly because such things are sort of relevant now in the path my life is taking - the decision to just stick with plants and stop acting like I have to choose something else and leave plants as a hobby. When I look at things like this that happened - things like the fort and the "garden" - it's plain that this thread was constantly part of my life's makeup. This was what I always wanted, yet somehow kept straying from it. Yes, I read a lot, and I read a lot of classics, but where was I when I was reading all those big books? On the "moss carpet," under the "roof" of Forsythia Lilac! (I'd like to say that I knew, when I was eight, that those two plants are related, but I think I just picked the name because they were pretty spring flowers.)

I changed the title of this post just now from "Exhausted" because I think "overwhelmed" is more appropriate. I am tired tired tired; I want to sit and write about things, think them over, and rest -- but I really don't want to stay at home, I don't want to go to bed, I don't want to stop moving because I don't want to miss anything.

Anyway, since I can't write about anything that's currently happening, I will end this post with a piece of crazy from last November. I was trying to do NaNoWriMo (it's time to admit that things like this NEVER work for me) because I was afraid that I'd get so caught up in science I 'd forget how to be a writer, and I was also taking my first taxonomy class which had a tendency to get in my head the way medieval lit classes do. (Where you start to read everything like it's Middle English, where you dream in Middle English...) For example, there's this part in the free-write about being a little kid at the playground with A.L. and playing with buttercups, and I randomly insert (RANUNCULACAE) like a crazy person.

Ok, here's some November 2006 crazy:

Then there was the safe forest on the land. But how safe is a forest? It’s often used as a metaphor for danger—it’s wild and tangled—but I find forests to be a place of safety.

I’d love to write my whole novel about nature and how much I love it. The sanctuary I find there, despite the fact that what’s going on is a lot of death and destruction (but also rebirth!) Fungi parasitizing plants, plants parasitizing plants, Monotropa uniflora parasitizing mycorrhizae and plants (why am I so obsessed lately with Monotropa uniflora? because it’s unusual and in its way, it’s beautiful.)

What would Anne Shirley say about Monotropa uniflora? I’m sure she’d love it, especially if she didn’t know what a nasty parasite it was. It’s ghostly, eerie, like a spirit of some kind, with its nearly transparent white flesh. Fleshy petals and stem. She would NOT talk about how it lacks chlorophyll, I’m guessing. Its ghostly white petals form a drooping hood, a hood around the stamens and carpels/stigmas (note how I can’t remove the scientific discourse), which together form a bell, that droops from the curved, cane-like stem, which is also ghostly white. It’s soft and ethereal. It seems otherworldly, springing up from brown dead leaves and black very much not dead (very organic) earth, a figure of brightness from the dark forest floor.

That was mostly for a fellow plant person who just read Anne of Avonlea. (One of the three people who read this blog.)

OK, I think that's enough for my Monthly Post. I was going to yap about knitting, but right now I'm mad at knitting. My Odessa hat came out so ugly. I frogged it and I want to try again, but I think the yarn I have is all wrong. Complain complain complain! I took some pictures awhile back of weird vegetables I bought with the intention of writing a short blog post about them, but I think that can wait. Oh, I made a really good quinoa salad last week from random things I bought at Whole Foods, but I don't feel like writing about food right now. However, once I perfect it (remember how much of everything I put in) I will post the recipe.