My Golden Opportunity

If I have been waiting for an engraved invitation, it just arrived. I am catsitting in Newmarket, UK, for the next three weeks. The lovely and charming homeowners are vegans, and asked me to bring only vegan-friendly foodstuffs into the house. “Easy, peasy”, thought I, until the words “butter” and “honey” snuck up on me. Hmm.

So I studied the cookbook shelves, finding familiar names and titles, a few new to me, and several books I knew about but have never seen. Great! First up is a book I heard of but never seen wild garlic, gooseberries . . . and me by Denis Cotter. I can’t write a proper review until I’ve cooked from it, but first impressions are looking good. Stories, and plenty of them. Moody photographs that tell stories, as well, and make me hungry. What does a foggy landscape make me hungry for? Soup.

The recipes I have read so far are modern in their flavor combinations, some are challenging, and there are quite a few that involve vegetables I have never heard of. I hope I can find some of them!

First up will likely be Roast Sweet Dumpling Squash (which I have never heard of) with Lemon, Sage and Cannellini Beans. The first step is to fry everything but the squash in butter and olive oil. I’ll just lose the butter and replace it with olive oil. Butter is called for to finish the dish, and the vegan butter substitutes in the frig will do just fine. Beyond that very minor tweak, this is a straightforward dish.

I’ll post this now, and revise it when I’ve cooked the dish.

Kitties I Have Known

In the next six months, I will meet no fewer than 16 kitties and their humans. I will live in their homes, care for them and learn their individual charms and peccadilloes. As I meet them, I’ll post their pictures and stories here.

 

I’ve done my very first cat sit! I was pretty anxious about getting it right, so of course the bus was late leaving London, then we sat at the Birmingham bus station for an hour waiting for the next shift driver, who was caught in a traffic jam. Go figure. But it all worked out. Carla and Colin are sweet kitties, rescued from the streets of Borneo by their human, who brought them back to the UK. What luck for them!

Both Carla and Colin are tiny little cats, astonishingly quiet, even for felines. Until they talk. How can someone that small make such a noise? They are darlings, though, with short, almost stumpy, kinked tails that are as expressive as any tail many vertebrae longer. Colin is a wriggly cuddler, but Carla isn’t having any. I am not her human, and I can just go to hell. And return her human, please.

 

Most of you know I spend the past year house and cat sitting in Washington DC for a Foreign Service Officer stationed in Pakistan. I had 13 months to get one (just one!) photo with all five cats in it, and failed spectacularly. So you will have to imagine Handsome Luke, the tuxedo; his sister Sophie – emerald eyes in a coal black presentation case; skinny, loudmouthed, black-to-the-soles-of-her-feet Sasha; Bengal littermates Raul, resident thug and snuggler extraordinaire, and his petite sister Paloma. And just to round out the numbers, my homeowner brought a marmalade kitten with the biggest feet ever home from Islamabad.

So if I ever get a photo of the six of them together, or even a selection that can be made into a montage, I’ll post it here.

But in this life in Washington DC and beyond, there is only ever one cat for me, and that is the kitty of my heart, my beloved Mz Mitz. Mitz moved to Calvert Farms up in Rising Sun, MD, aka Kamp Kalvert for Kitties, where she thrives on succulent voles and field mice and her choice of gourmet cat foods presented for her delectation by her new love, Farmer Paul.

 

 

And We’re Off!

I’m a hardy traveler, but the first step of The Big Adventure ™ took the wind right out of my sails. At 8 AM in Washington DC, it was 80F and I don’t know what humidity. By the time I had walked the eight blocks to the Metro, my clothes were soaked and I was running sweat. 24 hours later, I didn’t have my wind back.

But enough about me. Let me tell you about my trip.

A pleasant two-hour ride on air-conditioned AMTRAK convinced me to blow off touristing in Philadelphia, where the weather was just as foul as DC. I went straight from 30th Street Station to the Philadelphia Airport, and settled down to write. Finding lunch was a chore, as the Philadelphia airport authority seems to have sought out the least appetizing fast food available on the East Coast. My burger choice was a mistake, as later, even the smell of dinner on the plane nauseated me, and I finally was sick this morning, just before landing in Dublin.

As usual, this was the 9 PM flight, and because it’s July 2, the sun had just set. By the time the plane was cruising over Long Island Sound, I’d spotted several large municipal fireworks displays, matched flash for bang by a line of thunderstorms running from the Hudson along the Sound and then up the seaward side of the mountains through Maine to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The best show was in Maine, with ground strikes visible from the plane, inter-cloud lightning that ran for miles and what was surely vintage Mickey Hart thunder. In between the thunderheads, I could look into the West and see Mars gazing down on the festivities.

I dozed off after we passed the thunderstorms, and looked out the window when I awoke. There was the Dipper, hanging in the sky. Seems like every time I fly the red-eye, I see something noteworthy – comets, a star show, thunderstorms, something. If you are flying in August, look for the comet that exploded the other day!

This time, because we’re so close to the Solstice, I could see the pearly glow on the horizon from the Midnight Sun in the Arctic. Also, sunrise came very, very early. Sometime around 2 AM, Eastern, the glow became a liminal force, increasing from a presence in the night with symphonic force, intensifying, but not getting any bigger at first. The leading edge of the plane’s wings glowed with the silver fire.

Another doze and this time I awoke to the most splendid sunrise I have ever seen.

To date, the most memorable sunrises were in the desert. One was at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where that silver glow just swelled and swelled until it overflowed the celestial bowl and poured over the Earth and the forest, singing and humming and chirping and barking in a glorious cacophony. The other was in Nevada City, Nevada. I slept out on a tongue of land with the sunrise on one side and a bluff above me on the other. It was wintertime, and so sunrise was pure light. No birdsong, the coyotes and dogs were quiet, and the little scurrying things were still puffy-eyed with sleep. The sun got up on my left and splattered rays all over the bluff on my right, and I lay there staring and thinking “The sun came up on both sides”

50,000 feet is a desert, I suppose, at -67F. But the action was down below the clouds. Surely the people on morning watch in ships below saw the cloud base spring to fiery life and spread from horizon to horizon. I saw it start as a stain through the thinner clouds, a dark magenta smear that splotched the clouds, then spread 180° and move to meet itself. I thought it would fade quickly, as it does when watched from Earth, but the entire thing lasted over an hour – until the sun came above the horizon for one last blast of glory. The show spread from the cloud tops into the air itself, fading from bloody orange to lemony yellow and finally a transparent smear of chartreuse where the effect met the daylight sky.

Here’s where the trip got long. “Sun’s up! We’re here!” kicked in and I was shocked to discover we were still mid-Atlantic. Dozed, still mid-ocean. Another nap, and the marker on the map hadn’t budged. My seat mate woke up and was just as surprised that when we looked to the North, that was Greenland glinting at us in the dawn’s early light!

There was still three long hours to go. I passed the time being sick. Breakfast was cold and horrid, and in the end I threw up the raspberry yogurt. Since I feel better now, that seems to have fixed things.

With no further fanfare, just the drone of the jet engines and the wind, the flight ground on towards its end. We spotted land, and grinned like a couple silly girls. The pilot came on to announce our approach into Dublin airspace by saying that we were in a holding pattern for the next 20 minutes as Dublin Tower changed traffic from landing Westward to landing Eastward.

*sigh*

Playing Pick Up Sticks, I Guess

Well, this is the deadline I set for myself. The one I can’t blow off and look in the mirror tomorrow morning. I said that 90 days out from The Next Big Adventure ™ I would begin posting about it. Other deadlines have come and gone, but this is the one I knew would stick, and here we are.

UPDATE: I did write this 90 days out, but what with one thing and another, did not hit the send button. No matter. I invite you to subscribe to my updates. Just put your email address in that handy little box over there on the right, and hit the “subscribe” button. Every time I publish something new, you’ll get a notice in your email inbox to come visit. Please do!

So what’s the adventure? I am going to the UK for a year. As noted elsewhere, a year ago, I sold my house and my possessions, paid off debts, and found a new home for my beloved Mz Mitz. I have been house sitting in Washington DC since then. My Homeowner gets back from her Foreign Service assignment at the end of May, and on July 2, I take the train to Philadelphia for a day of touristing, then board a plane for Dublin.

How will I live? I’ll be house/cat sitting for almost the entire time. My Social Security, even as paltry as it is, will cover food and public transportation costs, and my chronic collecting itch will be suppressed by living out of one bag and a camera case. Oh, and the cost of excess baggage or shipping stuff home goes a long way, too! I do have to buy winter clothes, though, so will be checking out the charity shops for Harris Tweed jackets and Barbour raincoats!

The point is to travel slowly, spend time in places, really look at the landscape and environment, and (of course) visit gardens and talk to people about food. Another important part of this journey is to do things I’ve never done. So one of my housesits is a canal boat sit! There are sits in London, near Cambridge, in the Midlands, and in coastal Cumbria. I still want to find a good sit in Brighton, so I can visit The Regency Townhouse and have nice long chats with the wonderful staff. The house/catsits are out there, but so far no one is traveling when I need to sit! C’mon, folks!

Things start off at the Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery in Oxford, with my bookselling friend of many years. Then the two of us go over to Durham to visit one of my favorite (favourite?) Living History Museums – Beamish! I’ve been there twice before, but this time will be especially special, as they have begun a major expansion and there is a lot happening. For one thing, the bakery that was just being built the last time I was there is now open and the cookies look SO tempting! Then we have a few days messing around in London before D goes home to Brooklyn, and I begin my house and cat sitting adventures.

I am so eagerly anticipating my sit on the west side of London, for a month! While I certainly plan many visits to places in the urban core, I am excited to my toes that the house is right on the Thames Path. Walks to Kew and Hampton Court and points further afield, here I come! Two nearby places I’ve meant to get to and never did are the Wetlands Center and Fulham Palace. They’re right next door, now. I am desperately hoping to score a ticket to see Ian McKellen in Lear at the Duke of York Theatre. We’ll see. I don’t think standing at the box office looking old and pitiful will work, so I’ll be eagerly eyeing every bargain and shamelessly begging any “influential” friends I might have. Ha!

I won’t promise to write every day, because I may not have internet access or inspiration. But what will I write about next? Packing, because there are a zillion travel blogs out there that tell you how/what to pack and they are ALL a laff a minute!

It’s a brand new year

Good morning!

It’s finally February, and the daffodils are cautiously poking their noses up from the leaf litter. Somewhere, there is a snowdrop or a hellebore blooming, but I haven’t found it yet. The hardy camellias are still thinking about filling their Spring bloom dance cards. Gardening folks here in historic Old Greenbelt are hitting the “buy” button on seed orders, attending seed exchanges like Washington Gardener’s and looking forward to the local plant swap. Spring is so close and so distressingly far away!

Of course, the farmers that come to the Greenbelt Farmers Market have already made their plans and gotten seeds into the soil, wherever it is not frozen solid. The 2015 market season opens May 10, and one of the first special guests will be local food writer, teacher and author, Cathy Barrow of Mrs.Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen fame.

If you give serious thought to where your food comes from, and the ecological and economic impact of supporting small and local businesses, Cathy’s book is a good read. The recipes are enticing, because, well, every recipe Cathy publishes is enticing.

I wrote this review for Ceri Jones of Natural Kitchen Adventures, and she graciously let me republish it here.

Mrs Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry

Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, by Cathy Barrow, 2014, WW Norton, available at your local bookseller and on Amazon.com.

When Cathy Barrow’s much-anticipated book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, thumped down on my doorstep, I was beside myself with glee. I’d been hearing about the book for more than a year, and at last, here it was – thick, heavy and gorgeous!

Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry is a comprehensive guide to canning food, with measurement conversion charts handily placed on the end papers, clear, thorough instructions, and glorious photographs. The book is divided by preservation method – water bath; pressure canning; salt, water, smoke and air; and a final chapter on preserving milk by making cheese. Cathy’s wit, calm voice and enthusiasm shine through every page. It’s like having her at your elbow, doling out tidbits, advice, and assurance.

Cathy began her blog Mrs Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen in 2009, and between that and teaching (I took a charcuterie class from her that was a life changer), the idea for the Practical Pantry was born.

In her longer-than-usual introduction, Cathy writes in an authentic voice and hits the high notes of the things that I care about: carefully grown ingredients, thoughtful consumerism, lightening one’s footprint on the earth.

Cathy tells about her journey from the occasional canning of family favorites to beginning to look at the grocery store produce grown in another hemisphere. She began to think about the impact of hauling food all that way, the packaging and the quality of the food itself. Cathy began to shop at farmers markets, speaking with the producers, making note of the parade of fruits and vegetables as the seasons progressed. Books on food preserving became her bedtime reading.

As she read and canned, Cathy began to draw a connection between home canning and having a pantry plan that was organized and thoughtful. Now she and husband Dennis (“Without whom there would be no Mrs. Wheelbarrow” – what a delightful dedication) eat from the pantry all year long.

As you read through the Practical Pantry, one thing will lead to another, and as Cathy suggests, a plan for your own practical pantry will emerge.

There are plenty of recipes, and plainly put, they rock. From basic tomato sauce to “quickles” to conserves to duck confit, there are practical and fanciful offerings for satisfying meals compiled from the pantry shelves. You’ll be welcome at any event with Cathy’s potluck standouts. If you are a capsicum fan, you will be thrilled to know that she is, too.

As is proper in a book on food preservation, Cathy devotes a lot of space to food safety. In level-headed terms, she states the basic rules, then clearly explains why the rule is there.

I can hardly contain myself, just reading the recipes, and come next canning season, I’ll just set up a cot beside the kitchen door so I don’t waste any time going up and down the stairs!

I have a shelf full of cookbooks about canning and preserving. Cathy’s book shoves most of them into the “donate to the library sale” box.