Contained gardening.

As the sky darkens and the forecasted afternoon storms begin to roll in, I think for a moment about the welfare of my plants out on the back porch and hope that high winds or torrents of rain won't tip or drown any of them. I have to be careful not to place them directly under the edge of the eave, as there is inevitably a waterfall when the rain reaches a certain strength. Waterfalls are not good for little flowers.

The other day during my trip to Saving Grace Salvage Co., I found an old wooden crate. It is very small and weathered, with two handles and a patina that makes me think of earth. I wasn't sure what to do with it; it's old, but I didn't want to risk rotting the wood out underneath by putting soil directly into it and using it as a planter.

It has now become home to my two gerbera daisies, pots and all, as a way of keeping them contained and looking cute as ever. My porch is currently strewn with individually potted plants: flowers, succulents, vegetables and herbs. It's hectic-looking, and I'm trying to make it seem a little less crowded and a little more adorable. This was step one! A baby step, but it's amazing how much of a difference it made to have these two together.

It would also be very cute with three smaller containers of herbs or little flowers. I imagined putting three different varieties of basil in here, but alas, I only have two! I also wanted to avoid putting the container in a place where it would get rained on constantly, so it had to go into the shade a little more, beneath the roof overhang. Gerberas like partial sun, so it turns out they were a good fit.

I couldn't resist a shot of this beauty!


Rhubarb cake.

I didn't plan to wake up as early as I did this morning, but I think anyone who has pets knows that sometimes they determine what morning is. I have a chinchilla and a young black cat. Both are curious little troublemakers, but at least the chinchilla has a cage to be in. He "bathes" in a little house-shaped container with a round bottom that I fill with very fine dust so he can roll around (frollicking, looks like, throwing dust everywherrrree) and keep his fur soft-soft. My cat, however, loves the dust, too, and this morning I awoke to him poking his paw into the dust bath and shaking it out all over the floor.

Anyway, I was awake. So I decided to put the rhubarb that I got the other day to good use. It's kind of a funny vegetable, isn't it? The plant doesn't look like anything special, and its stalks are really bitter if eaten raw. Gross, actually. And yet they're mixed with a ton of sugar and they become almost fruit-like -- and YUMMY. Last summer I made a rhubarb crumble of some sort, but this time I wanted to avoid the potential for over-sweetness that comes with a lot of crumbles. I also had a couple limitations: a finite amount of rhubarb (I wanted to be able to split it between two recipes until I can get some more), and a single egg (the farm-fresh eggs; it's hard to go back to regular old dumb mass-produced eggs now).

Mm, fresh, local produce!

The result is something along the lines of a coffee cake. Here it is, adapted from a combination of two recipes: one from the lovely Minnesota Locavore and a few from the cakes page of the Rhubarb Compendium.

The recipe I ended up with is the following:

1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour (as an experiment, I might try self-rising flour next time, or half-and-half)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups rhubarb, chopped

1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg

1. Prepare a 9x13" baking pan and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine ingredients for the topping in a small bowl and set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine brown sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla until well-mixed.
4. In a separate bowl, combine flour and baking soda.
5. Add 1/2 of flour mixture to the brown sugar mixture, and 1/2 of the buttermilk. Beat by hand until blended completely, then add remaining flour and buttermilk and beat until smooth.
6. Gently fold in rhubarb.
7. Pour into a baking dish and evenly sprinkle topping over the batter. Bake 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out of the middle clean.

Serve warm, room temp, or cool. I served it with tangy vanilla frozen yogurt and a cup of coffee. Yummyyyyy.


Summer is so close!

Just look at those. I can't stop gazing lovingly ...and snacking ravenously. ;)

Today, I went to work at the bookstore for a craaaazy Memorial Day Sale day. Afterward, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up some buttermilk and oil for an upcoming rhubarb cake (tomorrow morning?), and I found some watermelon and those irresistable blueberries. I could eat the whole pint tonight! But I won't. I don't think. Maybe.

I stopped over for a quick dinner of burgers on the grill at nana's house, where I managed to chug two glasses of chocolate milk in quick succession. What is it about chocolate milk that makes it so chuggable? It has become a staple of any cookout. I seriously order chocolate milk at any restaurant where it is available. I could be out to a Mexican restaurant on half-price margarita night, and I'd still probably order the chocolate milk. Probably.

I was so relieved to sit down after getting home. Not to mention that my CD-rom drive in my notebook spontaneously began to function properly again after the whole computer took a nose-dive off my desk a couple of months ago onto my terrazzo floor. I'm fairly certain there is a blank CD stuck inside my computer, though, which I thought was the source of the problem, but maybe some elves came and got it out for me. Or else... who's to say. If there is a CD stuck inside my computer, I supposed it is permitted to remain there as long as it doesn't mess with my
Frightened Rabbit!


Epic take.

Wow, you know? Today was a day for the books. One of those, gee, I didn't think it could be so good, but LIFE IS SO GOOD.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's my day. And more will inevitably spring from what I found during my short escapade:

I had grand intentions of thrifting all morning, which is hands down one of my favorite ways to spend a day off of work. But while at stop numero uno, my mom called and said that she and dad were headed to an architectural salvage place, and would I like to come along? I'm fairly sure I gasped in response -- of

I guess I thought they meant an architectural salvage place here in town, and I was a little confused when we got on the highway and started very clearly heading out of town. To Berlin, Wisconsin, it so happened, and in Berlin, Wisconsin did we find the. coolest. ever. salvage store. It's called Saving Grace Salvage Company, which sits in an old foundry building just off downtown. Floor to ceiling on three levels are windows, drawers, chairs, hardware, paintings, antiques -- an entire bookcase of typewriters!! --and just about anything one can imagine. Farm implements and jewelry, benches and planter boxes, you name it. Heaven, is what it's called. I left with some items that are bound to, in some incarnation, make it onto this blog, such as a small, weathered, wooden crate, various mason jars, the cutest-ever tin recipe box from the '50s, and a teapot..

From Saving Grace, we found a drive-in burger stand called Shepard's Drive-In, where we enjoyed delicious burgers, onion rings and mushrooms (fried mushrooms are an obsession with me lately). Oh, and chocolate malts, can't forget those! Delish to the max.

From Berlin we drove eight miles down the road to the vacation town of Green Lake, although the downtown was smaller than we anticipated. We did stop into a couple of small shops and took a look at the lake around which is green. It was quiet for a vacation weekend Saturday, I thought, but that was okay. Quaint and very Wisconsin, and we meandered through some residential lakeside streets to check out what the architecture was like. As might be expected, my envy meter was high, but my adoration for cute houses was higher.

Late afternoon called us back home where family waited at my nana's house for brats and steak on the grill, homemade bean-and-bacon salad, fruit salad, and just-out-of-the-oven rhubarb cake. Ugh.

We enjoyed dinner outside on this clear, mosquito-less, cool evening. Does that sky not just totally sum up how a summer evening should look?

I have two young cousins, brothers, who are nearly-four and five. The youngest performed a constant, repetitive rendition of the Ludacris bit in Justin Bieber's song "Baby." The eldest was inexhaustible at playing catch. My sister's new puppy, Charlee, joined us and amazed everyone at her astoundingly calm behavior. Having my whole family there was beautiful.

Forget-me-nots in full bloom.

I brought home a handful of amazing rhubarb, so expect a tart/pie/cake soon!

After dinner, my sister built a lovely fire in my parents' backyard (woods) when darkness curled in, and it turned into a lovely way to wrap up the evening. I'm exhausted, but the picture of content. Goodnight!



I thought a lot about writing today. I work at a bookstore, so it may not come as much of a surprise. But the truth is that I've thought about it a little more today than I do most days.

I've always been a writer. In various forms, and for various reasons (some embarrassing), I've always been a words-down-on-paper sort of person. Tonight, out to dinner with my family, we were getting nostalgic about old-school computer games for MS-DOS, and I thought about the ancient computer that used to sit in the corner of my 6th grade classroom that I used to spend free time on crossing the Snake River or fixing a broken wagon axle en route to the Willamette Valley. But I also wrote stories, and even though I don't have a copy of what I wrote at the time, I remember writing very in-depth about something happening in the wilderness of Alaska. I was taken in by it, whatever it was, and it absorbed me fully until the bell rang and it was time to resume math or social studies or whatever it was. Nothing compared to losing myself in an alternate world in which I controlled absolutely everything that happened.

Just shortly after that, I became rabidly obsessed with the band Hanson (cue laughter; I was 13, come on!) and I used to write hundreds (hundreds.) of pages of what I later learned was known as "fan-fic." There were entire web domains devoted to hosting the stuff. I even had a couple stories online (and fans, what!). Of course they were wish-fulfillment stories, mostly plotless, starring myself, but when I look back on it now, knowing they were probably terrible (I'm not sure any of them exist anymore), the thing I like most is that I was
writing. Didn't matter what about; I was planning chapters and outlining "plot," building characters and describing settings. I mean, I was big into it. I permanently calloused the middle finger of the right hand, I wrote so-so-so much. Secret notebooks, you know, nothing that could be easily accessed on a computer hard drive or anything! Duh!

In high school, the writing tapered off, the visual arts taking up most of my creative attention. And in college this also continued, but I never totally stopped writing. Dozens of unfinished plot outlines, chapters, and stories remain on my hard drive or on CD backups and I've never shown anyone a word of it.

The last several months have provided a funny, unexpected opportunity to write and to share it with people -- something I would have cringed at the thought of.

A couple of friends have lovely old black typewriters at their houses, which tend to become a focal point at some point during occasional late-evening get-togethers. Poetry, letters, stories, and plain old nonsense are spewed from these machines, a tiny bit of which I've kept, and much more of which has fallen into other hands or into the ether. I would have expected to be anxious that my gut feelings, my sometimes drunken sentiments are in other people's hands -- things that I have written when my guard was completely down. Some might call it "stream-of-consciousness," but what it really is, is scary. And a typewriter doesn't have a delete key!

Typewriters give way to notebooks and napkins; even I carry around a Moleskine with me at all times in case an idea strikes. But I'm coming to terms with the fact that writing, although it may serve a cathartic purpose for me, is truly enjoyed when shared.

My own lone Smith-Corona Skyriter, sleek and utilitarian and running very low on ink has produced some interesting pieces; things I'm not even embarrassed about. Writing is actually visceral. If it's too intellectual, it loses meaning and depth. I'm learning to embrace the writing that happens naturally, with the flow of my thoughts and the keys of the typewriter, my notebook keyboard, or my nearly-broken Moleskine. Whatever works, just keep writing and writing and writing. Maybe I'll never get published, but if ideas aren't released onto paper, they are in danger of disappearing, as if they had never been thought up at all.


Rainy daze.

So back to what I said about Wisconsin not having much of a springtime? Right, about that: Springtime in Wisconsin is cold and dreary and wet and icky. Like today. It's the sort of day that's close enough to June (June is summer, right!? Why wait until the 21st!) where I expect I should be able to ride my bike a lot and get outside to garden anytime I want. But no. Wishful thinking. So it rains, and I don't get to spend much time outside, kind of a bummer... except there is this great place in my very own apartment called a kitchen! and in it, is food! Put the two together, and KABLAM!! Rainy days suddenly become alright after all.

The great thing about today? I stopped into my favorite local grocer, which I'm sure will pop up here in the future, The Green Gecko, for some of their shrimp & asparagus pasta salad and kalamata olives. Not only was the pasta salad made in-house, but the asparagus was local. Can't beat that. And then, while I dropped off some cherry pie for the family to enjoy a little later, my mom whipped out a carton of farm-fresh eggs procured from a friend's chickens. It was back to the kitchen with me and my treats.

A carton of eggs is a wonderful sight. The variation in colors is so gorgeous. From browns to white and sometimes pinks and blues, or even greens. Different sizes, different weights. A few months ago, since I'm on the topic of eggs, my entire family vacationed in the U.K. and spent a number of nights at a bed & breakfast on the western coast of Scotland. Every morning we were fed eggs fresh from their own chickens, and maybe part of the magic was that we were eating them in Scotland (for crying out loud), but those eggs were amaaaaazing. And so are these.

Olives are one of my favorite foods. Always in moderation, they're very healthy, and perfect for snacking or cooking. My life would not be complete without them.

I'm really looking forward to the start of the Saturday morning farmer's market next month. The big area market is the second largest in the state after Madison's famous market on the square. Satellite markets have set up around the area, too, and with little to no trouble, one can get local grass-fed beef or goat, free-range chicken and eggs, and an abundance of produce and local cheeses, baked goods and household/body products. Point being, I wouldn't necessarily peg northeast Wisconsin as any sort of mecca for homegrown, and maybe I just never paid much attention before, but food is excellent here! And I sure enjoyed it today.


Baking up beginnings.

One never knows what the weather is going to do this time of year in Wisconsin. Spring here is a little bit like my life plan: it doesn't really exist. The season sometimes (like this year) takes an age to finally meet us with green leaves on the trees and warm thunderstorms, but by the time it does, it's practically summer already. But with what little sliver of the season does exist, I've been taking in as much as possible.

Last night marked the third in a recent string of summer-please-come-soon backyard fires with good friends. Some fires have burned much longer into the night than last night, however I still woke up this morning late and thinking that I needed to do something to make today a productive one. Something about losing those few hours of daylight in the morning kicks me into high gear in the afternoon.
I figured cherry pie seemed as yummy an opener as any to the chronicle of my adventures in my small part of the world. So I drove out to grab the only ingredient I was missing: eggs, along with a quick stop in at the local Goodwill (where I found a pair of pleated trousers and a brand new Urban Outfitters top, SCORE!), and thus began the mini adventure that is making a pie.

The jar of Wood Orchard Market pie filling inspired me to get crackin'. A day trip last Saturday with my mom to a shepherd's market, along with a few shops, included a stop at the Wood Orchard Market, which we've seen many times throughout the years and had never stopped into. We left with fresh asparagus, pie cherries, raw honey, and cherry caramels. Talk about decadent! Of course, I couldn't very well let that enticing jar of cherries sit around forever. Today was the day. And because I will be eating half of this pie myself (yay!), I went for my trusty Perfect Light Desserts by Nick Malgieri and David Joachim for the crust recipe (I've included it below).

There is something cathartic about baking -- and cooking also, although I tend to bake more often. I love to follow recipes, and then mess with them when I come up with something new. Cookbooks contain their own sort of magic, imparted to me from page to flour-dusted page, and when I pull the latest creation out of the oven, it's the best kind of reward. Nothing beats homemade!

I'm ever so much more inspired when I can get my hands on local ingredients and stop at the markets and shops in town to get whatever I need. Wisconsin, being the winter-summer state it is, gives me half a year or so to really do it up right with all the local ingredients, so one has to start somewhere. Door County is famous for its cherries -- the tart pie kind, and although this year's crop is only just starting to show blossoms on trees, there is always plentiful frozen from last season, not to mention just about any kind of cherry product you could think of: salsa, butter, jams, candies... (oh yum).

It's amazing to consider how basic, simple ingredients that we take for granted, such as flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and a pinch of salt can be transformed infinitely. Before:

...and after. The hardest part might be waiting for it to cool...

Now for the best part! How to make it:

I don't have a food processor, although I included the recipe per the book here for the dough. I have a small KitchenAid mixer which worked fine for chopping up the butter and distributing it evenly enough through the dough. For the pie, you'll need to make a double batch of this: one for the bottom layer and one for the top.

Sweet Pastry Dough
from Perfect Light Desserts by Malgieri and Joachim

- Makes about 9oz of dough, enough for 9in pie crust, about 8 servings

1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into 6 pieces
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cold water

1. Combine all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse 3 or 4 times to mix.

2. Add the butter and pulse about 10 or 12 times to mix the butter in finely.

3. Add the egg and water and pulse repeatedly until the dough forms a ball.

4. Invert the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and carefully remove the blade.

5. Form the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic.

6. Refrigerate the dough for several hours or up to 3 days. You may also roll out the dough immediately; it will be a little soft but entirely capable of being rolled.

7. Before you use the refrigerated dough, unwrap it and place it on a floured work surface. Gently knead the dough to render it malleable, then form it into a disk again before rolling.

For the pie:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with the rack at the lowest level in the oven.

Roll one half of the dough into an 11-inch disk, then fold it in half and lay it onto the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Pour in the pie filling. (It's worth mentioning that there are many ways to make your own pie filling from fresh berries, any of which will work wonderfully with this pie crust.) Roll the second bit of dough into a 10-inch square and use a pizza cutter to slice 1-inch wide strips. Moisten the bottom of the strips with water and lay across the pie in a cross-hatch pattern, one layer on top of the other.

Bake the pie for about 45 minutes or until the filling is bubbling and the crust looks baked through. Cool on a rack, and serve when cool and the filling has set.