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Writing Ruminations

Writing is such an internal process. Why not make those private ruminations public? This is how stories take shape and grow.

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Location: Happy Valley, Oregon, United States

I've been supporting myself as a writer for many years and am watching the changes in the publishing world with fascination. For me, sharing the craft, teaching, is as creatively satisfying as the writing process itself.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Economy Fix

I hear we're going to get a nice check from the government. Who am I to turn down money? But this economic stimulus leaves me uneasy. What are we stimulating here? Increasingly, the US economy seems to be a Worm Ouroborous, eating its own tail. Like how? I mean that our economy is increasingly driven by a state of living beyond our means. We have to buy more stuff in order to keep the economy healthy and growing, but whose wages are keeping up with the increasing prices and the increasing number of 'necessities' we just 'have to have'? I read a statistic recently that the average credit card debt has doubled in the past four years. I'm assuming that this was probably because houses kept going up in price, so it was easy to think 'I'll pay it off when I sell my house'. You know, I don't see any way out of this tail-eating snake of a cycle we've gotten ourselves into. It's hard to change the way we grew up living. Our infrastructure, outside the inner urban areas, requires automobile transportation. Retail centers are here, residential neighborhoods are there, without local stores. Not stores local enough that granny can walk to it to buy the day's milk or tuna or a newspaper. We are expected to wear new clothes, drive a reasonably new car, own a nice house, pay for landscaping if you live in the 'burbs, own exercise equipment, expensive play goods, eat out a lot. A household needs two full time jobs to pay the mortgage, so now add child care costs, cleaning help, more eating out. Who has time to cook? I had to shop at a store in one of the new ...what I call 'recreational...malls'. These are lovely places, full of small shops and restaurants. Very pretty, too. You can buy drinks, snacks, and of course, all kinds of goods. It was jammed at 6 pm on a weeknight. This is the family fun outing, I noticed as I wandered along the sidewalk, looking at shoppers. We've created a social culture of recreational buying, at least for the middle classes. This certainly isn't new, it's pretty darned entrenched. I guess that's what worries me. Like an ocean liner, this sort of lifestyle expectation is not going to stop and turn around any time soon. I hope we don't hit an iceberg. Meanwhile, I'm not going to send my check back when I get it. I'm not sure I'll make the government happy with what I do with it.

Oh yeah...doing my part for local food. The Oregonian's Food Day had a nice write up of winter farmers' markets. A few are still open. This freeze has limited what's going to come in fresh from the field for awhile, but the kales, chard, collards, root veggies, and Brussels sprouts are tough and they made it. Want a treat? Hardly a diet item, but gratin leeks are wonderful when you can buy fresh leeks.

Cut just the root off the bottom of the leek and trim back the tough outer green leaves so you have white and pale green only.
Cut them lengthwise and rinse out any grit from the inner layers.
Lay them side by side, cut side down or on their sides if you have too many, in a shallow pan
Pour about a cup of heavy cream (told you this wasn't diet food) over them.
Salt lightly and add as much fresh ground black pepper as you like.
Bake at 325 until the cream is thick and mostly absorbed the the leaks. From time to time, I baste them with the cream in the pan and kind of push the leeks down into it. It should take from 30 - 45 minutes depending on how much you're doing. Keep an eye on 'em.
If you haven't met leeks before, this is a great way to get acquainted.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Kale and Gender

I was listening to yet another discussion about the election. Well the radio was on and what else is out there right now? This one was all about Hillary versus Obama. The question of gender and race came up. Misogyny might be more powerful in this country than race, said the guest. I hadn’t been paying attention, was working on a story, but those words hit me like a slap on the back of the head. Whoa. There’s an interesting thought to make the public airwaves. I’m still thinking about this. Race is mostly about externals – skin, hair, facial features, behavior. Gender is a much deeper issue and skin color means very little. It ties in eerily with the current story I’m working on. Does that make me timely?

Meanwhile, let’s talk about winter farmers market good stuff. This is kale season. The stuff is tough in the warm months, but turns VERY nice after a few frosts and gives me great greens all winter. I grow three or four varieties every year. How about a kale pizza? Oh, it’s good. And you can substitute any flavorful green.

Kale Pizza

Wash a bunch of kale. The strappy-leaf ‘Tuscan’ is the best. It’s tender and you don’t have to remove the rib. For any other type, slice out the center rib unless you really need crunchy fiber in your diet. Now cut those leaves into strips. Not hair fine, just not huge pieces.

Saute some garlic and a handful of walnuts in olive oil gently for a few minutes until they’re fragrant but the garlic hasn’t begun to brown. Pine nuts are nice, too, but way spendy. Do them for the ‘company’ version.

Toss the wet-from-washing kale into the pan with the garlic and nuts. Salt lightly or not if you’re not using salt. Stir it around until the kale is limp and tender but still dark green. If you’re not using Tuscan kale, you might want to cover the pan for a minute to steam the leaves. Take off the heat.

Lay out a pizza crust, whatever you normally use. I love a sourdough crust for this, but any pizza crust, home made or bought, works. Film it with olive oil.

Spread the kale/garlic/nut mixture over the crust.

Add what you like. Last pizza, I added sliced winter onions and some canned smoked oysters (they’ve very nice with the kale if you like smoked oysters).

Sprinkle on some grated cheese. Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone work well. Try some crumbled blue cheese for extra zest.

Bake in a hot oven until the cheese is melted and crust is done – say 425 degrees.

Great way to eat your greens. And think about the misogyny versus race thing. I wonder.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dogfight Distractions

As I realize bump at a time just how much is now missing from my computer and slog through the restoration (emails that won't import back into Outlook Express, programs like Acrobat Reader I have to reinstall, Firefox source code is harder to read than it was in Explorer, autotext that isn't there any more in Word...you know). I did get a bit of relief this morning. It has been rainy and I sort of feel that my computer and I have inhabited a dismal well sunk into another universe for the past few days. Well, I DO make my living through it, okay? Anyway, this morning I peeked out the window by my computer desk which looks out onto my covered back deck. A bird feeder hangs in the apple tree just beyond it (where I can reach it from the pleasant cover of the deck instead of getting soaked every day) along with a hummingbird feeder. I leave it up all winter, thawing it on the few mornings it's cold enough to freeze the sugar solution. A lone Anna's has been hanging around, sucking up prodigious amounts of sugar water (those little critters must burn a whole lot of calories every minute). Anyway, this morning, a new Anna's had moved in and my Anna's was by golly not gonna share that feeder no way. So the two carried on a fierce little dog fight with all the intensity of a couple of WWII pilots and all the grace of a ballet. It was raining, so they did all this beneath the roof of my covered deck, right on the other side of the window. Face to face, inches apart, they dove, sidepassed, darted and threatened. As soon as one approached the feeder, the other attacked. Nobody got a sip and they finally noticed me and darted off.

That was a good start to the day. By golly there was a top to the well and I climbed out. Went down and sorted the four spookiest sheep into the paddock and Annie did marvelous job of dealing with the sneaky Cheviot cross ewe who takes off like a rocket if Annie takes her eyes off her. Picked fat fresh Brussels sprouts on the way up, noticed that my daffodil and crocuses are pushing up and decided I should remember there's a world out there, eh? I gather my fierce little Anna's were hungry enough that they sorted out a way to take turns.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Weekend from Hell

Well, I got a lovely new education in all things related to computer basics. Sigh. I ...who uses Norton, quick scans daily, full scans weekly, never clicks on links or opens attachments unless I expect to get them...I...I...got a bloody virus, worm, trojan or whatever form of malware. I had seen some suspicious 'bounces' that could have been spoofs but bothered me because they weren't quite like any spoof I'd seen before. Then comcast told me yep, spam was coming from my computer. So I spent one full day running McAffee and Norton, Trend Micro, and Rootkit Revealer. Nothing. So. Spent part of another day backing up everything I could think of. Then did the reformat the hard drive and reinstall windows. Sigh. All kinds of problems, including a missing disk with the driver for the ethernet card on it. So I had to open the bloody computer case and find the manufacturer of the motherboard (no separate ethernet card) for my son in Wisconsin, who then found the drivers online, sent them to his friend who lives nearby (I had no internet of course) who brought them over on a flash drive to install them. I do have a disk now. And then of course I had all those waiting microsoft downloads and then I had to spend a half hour with comcast while the tech figured out how to get my email back again. But hey, I have a new computer, I know a whole lot more about hunting around for things, thanks to my son's patient hand holding on the phone, and I know my computer literally inside and out. Boy was it dusty! So I guess I have a new computer. Let us hope I NEVER have to do that again. I wish I'd had a blood pressure monitor. I bet mine was awesome for much of the weekend.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Eating Locally -- Winter Squash Soup

Well, the new year has begun and of course, it’s now the beginning of spring. Well, maybe it doesn’t seem like it if you’re buried under a foot of snow, but the days are getting longer and my garden year starts this month as I plant fava beans, peas, and start my spring cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and the like. You know, local food is gaining attention and let me for one raise a cheer for anyone who buys locally at your farmers market. A few are open nearly all year ‘round, and those local small farmers are struggling, have always been struggling, and probably always will struggle. When you’re small and using labor in place of chemicals you are going to have a rough time producing food as cheaply as commercial growers with automated machinery who use sprays to reduce the need for expensive labor. (Weeding anyone?)

I think what stops a lot of folk from eating locally this time of year is that they’re not really sure what to do with the veggies that hang around all winter. Those include the hardy brassicas like cabbage, Brussels sprouts and the like, winter squash, root veggies, and so on. Since I religiously eat out of my garden year round, I’ve had to…surprise surprise…learn now to make a lot of less familiar veggies actually work as everyday dishes. So this year my new year’s resolution is to share a year of eating out of my garden. I’m going to offer at least one dish per month using something from my garden or ‘root cellar’. These are mostly going to be items you can find locally here in the Northwest or if you have room for a small garden or a couple of big containers, you can try growing them yourself. Along with that, I’ll tell you want I’m planting when. These are very ‘homestyle’ recipes, not something elegant to suit the pages of ‘Gourmet Magazine’ believe me!

Squash Soup Masala

I eat a lot of winter squash soup. I happen to love it, it satisfies my need for ‘orange’ in the winter, being full of vitamin A and assorted other nutritional goodies. Lots of fiber, too, and it’s very satisfying for the number of calories you consume. You can, of course, vary the flavorings a lot, but curry and winter squash seem made for each other. I use a Madras curry powder from an Asian grocery, so it has a bit more cinnamon in it than your supermarket yellow curry powder, but that works, too. Try a red or yellow Thai curry paste for a very different flavor. (If you do that, try squeezing a cut lime onto each bowl of soup). I add the tender greens for texture and to improve the nutritional quality – and because this time of year I am up to my tuckus in greens of all sorts, especially when we haven’t had a hard freeze.

Try varying ingredients to suit YOUR taste, adding more or less onion, garlic, curry, hot pepper. Experiment!

About 1 ½ - 2 pounds of cubed peeled yellow-flesh winter squash or pumpkin – any kind will do, from acorn to the huge banana squashes. More is fine. The soup is simply thicker if you add more.

One small onion, diced.

garlic to taste (1 clove or more) diced

minced fresh ginger – I use about ½ inch of root. Okay, powdered stuff will work, too. Try about ½ tsp.

chicken or veggie broth – about 2 quarts.

salt to taste (add at the end of cooking since that depends on the saltiness of the broth)

beet tops or other winter greens like kale or collard, sliced into fine ribbons and cut short so they don’t drip down your chin when you spoon them up.)

2 Tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry.

½ c cream or you can use soy milk.

Saute the onions in a very small amount of olive or other oil until soft and translucent, a few minutes.

Add the curry powder, ginger, and the garlic and sauté until fragrant. Don’t let the garlic brown or the spices burn.

Add the squash cubes and sauté very briefly to caramelize a bit of their sugars.

Add broth, bring to a boil, turn way down and allow the soup to barely simmer.

When squash is soft and cooked through, use a potato masher to mash the squash into the soup. If desired (I’m lazy, so I only do this for company) cool and puree in batches in a food processor or blender, or put it through a food mill or strainer. (I don’t mind bits of onion and some chunks of not-quite-mashed-fine squash). Then return it to the pot and bring it back to a simmer.

Add the finely cut green ribbons and cook only until the greens are tender --- this varies depending on what you use and how fresh they are.

Add the rice wine or sherry with the greens.

When the greens are tender and still green, not olive-drab, add the cream or soy milk. The cream makes it more velvety, but the soy milk thickens a bit and works, too, if you don’t want lactose. Bring the soup just back to a simmer and serve hot.

Because I love one pot meals, I usually make ‘main dish’ variations on this recipe. I will poach a few chunks of mild fish in the soup at the end, or poach eggs in it. I often add quinoa grain to the soup with the squash. The high protein grain cooks and disintegrates in the soup, adding protein and thickening it. You can add up to a cup of the grain with that two quarts of stock. As I said…experiment! For a different taste, add a half a chopped apple when you add the squash cubes. Apple, squash, and curry are a nice blend.

If desired, garnish it with croutons, a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche if you’re feeling haut, toasted nuts, or use your imagination.

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