Sunday, August 2, 2015


The New Grassless Garden

I turned 65 in late June and found myself delighted to finally be rid of expensive monthly health care. Cut my expenses in half, though doctors are lined up for tests through out the rest of the summer. Nothing scary, just tests. It didn't help to get the news that, Kurt Aldag, one of my favorite publishing colleagues and a dear friend of many years, had a stroke late this spring. He recovered fast, which was a huge relief, but he's turning 65 next month. Reminds us that life marches on.

This was the summer I finally made up my mind to do something about my garden. I hate grass. It requires watering, seeding, feeding, and always ends up looking like crap. I called Errin, who has done a bunch of heavy garden chores for me over the years, and told him the grass was going. He had to trim the hedges anyway. I decided it was also time to dig up the front garden, get rid of all that plastic the previous owner had put down to retard weeds, and give my white camellia a major trim. Four guys descended on my house over two days and the results were excellent. They dug up all that sod with the plastic webbing, leveled the dirt, put down a special fabric that allows water to sink into the ground, but also retards weeds. Then they brought in the river rock to cover the yard where the grass had been. It looks great against the red brick patio. I'm delighted and the low maintenance is the icing on the cake.

My old cement birth bath in the same of a maple leaf supported by it's new heavy wire stand. 

My gorgeous white camellia tree got a huge haircut. I'm told it will fill out and bloom 
beautifully again next February. 

It has taken me six years to finally get my garden to the the place where I'm reasonably happy. Gardens are a lot of work. I have friends here in Portland who dote on their gardens. Trish, for instance, spends hours and it shows. But I don't like working that hard, especially during a really hot summer like we're having in Portland. I also like to mix up the plantings with interesting things that make a garden fun to look at. Sculpture, water features, small statues, decorative pots both small and large, a metal holder that I found for the cement bird bath that I moved to the back of the garden. I'm not all that great at weeding and keeping things trim and under control. But with the changes this summer, I'm having fun reshaping and arranging my garden frog, an old skunk, a rabbit, a stone Cairn that Ken gave me when he moved into my house, a couple of old urns, a sphere. I bought a new bird  bath early this summer on a great sale. It's a blue pottery bowl set on ceramic base. I thought the cement leaf that I bought the first summer I lived in Portland, would look better in the back of the garden, with the new bird bath moving into its place. But I also thought the cement bird bath would look great if it were on some sort of cylindrical base. Last Saturday, I was at Stars, a local antique mart in Sellwood, a neighborhood near me. There I found a tall, rusty column of heavy wire in a graceful pattern. I had noticed black crows liked to visit the yard and play and wash in the bird bath. This would elevate the bird bath, which would benefit the crows, who are constantly being chased out of the yard by my dog, Archie. I brought it home and put it in place, but the minute I filled it with water, it leaked. So I put marine adhesive over any potential cracks, and let it cure. It was dry enough tonight to fill. I expect to see crows capering there in the morning.

Bamboo in Galvanized Planter

I love galvanized planters and I needed a large pot to grow bamboo which would give me some privacy from a neighbor. It is probably going to take a few years for the two bamboo plants to grow tall enough, for privacy, but I like the fact that it is bushy and with this planter, I can contain the bamboo, which is notoriously invasive.

We've had a brutal summer in the Pacific Northwest, which is normally cool. Upper 80s an 90s has been the norm since June. We had two days of downpours last weekend, but it was the only rain we've had all summer long. Though Portland isn't under drought, fifteen Oregon counties are,  dependent on mountain water, which is in slim supply these days. I've never seen Mount Hood with so little snow. Washington state is in even worse shape. Nobody knows when this is going to stop. Who thought drought would ever be situation in our water-rich region?  I never watered the grass in my back yard, but the garden needs watering when it is this hot. The sun has brutalized my garden this year. I've got roses, iris, peonies, euphorbia, and other plans that don't require much water. I'm not sad that my dahlias didn't do well because white butterflies love to eat them. It's astonishing how hungry they are and I refuse to use harmful pesticides, which have been harmful to our bee populations. But hydrangeas hate the sun. One large hydrangea in my front yard gets the full blast of summer sun, and is constantly wilting. It's already done for the season--a full month earlier than in past seasons. Even my tomato vines have leaves that are yellow and brown. Some of it is a little over-watering, but the sun is toasting them too. All these problems--or as my friend Jim says, "white man's problems." Is it any wonder that I hate gardening. Should have bought a condo instead.

Grape tomatoes from my garden

This would be the perfect summer to grow tomatoes, something I gave up during my first summer here. Lots of people have problems with their tomatoes. The next year I discovered cherry and grape tomatoes and I have never looked back. Here's a bowl of tomatoes that I picked during the last two days. They are so sweet. I made a dish of shrimp, Andouille sausage, peppers, and onions for dinner last Saturday. Along with rice, and a flavorful dish of sautéed white and yellow corn with red peppers, scallions, and red pepper flakes, we had a terrific Saturday night dinner. This bowl of grape tomatoes is candy sweet. The vines produce a huge crop, and we'll be eating them into the first two weeks of October.

Shrimp, Andouille Sausage, red peppers, garlic and scallions with rice sautéed with shallots, chicken broth and fresh bay leaf, and a big green salad, for a simple Saturday dinner for two.

It's been a summer of a lot of cooking. I made this blueberry pie from a favorite recipe by Ron Silver, owner of Bubby's in New York. This is such a great pie--a pre-baked crust filled with a combination of fresh blueberries, and a "jam" of cooked blueberries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon. I add lemon zest for a little more zest. It is served with a pile of creme fruit and it represents summer at it's most delightful. It also tastes sensational for breakfast the next day.

Fresh Blueberry Pie from BUBBY'S HOMEMADE PIES

This particular dinner started with one of my favorite baked pasta dishes from Diane Rossen Worthington from her Seriously Simple Holidays cookbook. Baked Pasta with Tomato, Red Pepper, and Sweet Italian Sausage Sauce, is Diane's spectacular answer to finding a festive main course dish for a holiday dinner party.  Ziti is combined with a sausage and roasted red pepper laced tomato sauce, with  cremini mushrooms, baby arugula, grated Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, heavy cream. It's an extravagant, make-ahead casserole and a real crowd pleaser. I normally make it during cold weather nights, but it worked for this summer menu. 

Baked Pasta with Tomato, Red Pepper, and Sweet Italian Sausage Sauce

Crab is in season and crab cakes seemed like a great idea. The recipe I selected is from The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser. It has a lot of ingredients in it--celery, scallions, Italian parsley, eggs, crushed Saltines, red pepper flakes, Old Bay spice, and then dredged in fresh breadcrumbs. But the ingredients never mask the crab. It comes with an equally ingredient-stuffed remoulade sauce full of paprika, celery, parsley, garlic, scallions, etc. The recipe yielded twelve crab cakes--my guest and I ate half of them one night. She took three with her and had them for lunch the next day. I polished them off tonight with a gentle reheating in a low over. Notice the remoulade sauce doesn't have the consistency of mayonnaise. I'm hopeless with mayonnaise concoctions. Should have just begun with Hellman's and called it quits. But no, I keep thinking one of these days, I'm going to conquer my fear of mayonnaise. While the sauce refused to thicken, it still tasted great. 

A platter full of freshly made crab cakes!

Sauce Remoulade (not a success), but still tasted great. 

A quick saute of leftover rice, yellow zucchini, scallions, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Salad Caprese

One of my favorite lean meats these days is the always delicious pork tenderloin. This tasty cut has virtually no fat, and takes well to many kinds of flavors from spices to vinegars and condiments. I found a recipe for a pork tenderloin, fingerling potatoes and baby arugula salad in THE WHOLE HOG by Libbie Summers. I often brush the cleaned tenderloin lightly with grape seed or canola oil and roll it in a spice mixture (such as hot smoked paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, oregano, a touch of sugar), or in fresh, finely chopped herbs (thyme, rosemary, and Italian parsley is a favorite), and salute it briefly in a heavy oven-proof skillet on top of the stove before putting it into a hot oven for a few minutes to finish the cooking. It must be slightly undercooked (I pull it out of the oven at 145-degrees and let it rest for ten minutes before I slice it. Out of the oven, it continues to cook and reaches to 150-degrees).  In the original recipe, the dressing for this salad called for rice wine vinegar and olive oil, a good combination, but I wanted a more classic mustard vinaigrette enhanced by the kick of garlic. It's a great summer one-course meal and so versatile and receptive to many ingredient variations.

Roasted pork tenderloin salad with fingerling potatoes and baby arugula, with a few changes--this time romaine lettuce replaces the arugula and radishes provide extra crunch. 

All in all, retirement is rather nice. I'm trying to get away from the computer and get some reading done, but it's difficult. The computer is an addiction and hard to quit. Doctor visits tend to be a little more often than in the past, as all sorts of health issues need to be faced. The extra time, however, is often used in the pursuit of things you'd never knew were interesting. I'm astonished how often I turn to YouTube to find out how to prune a tree, create a non-stick surface on a carbon steel pan, create a sourdough starter, or make homemade compost. Netflix has introduced me to the strange and compelling activity of binge TV watching. Good a series as it is, you need stamina to watch seven seasons of THE WEST WING.

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