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Pasta is a piece of cake



Homemade tagliatelle with basil-parsley pesto. The basil, parsley, and lettuce came from my garden. The pesto was made with a mortar and pestle.

When I posted last week about working on my Italian cooking (“A summer project: Italian cooking,” June 2), I was not thinking about pasta — honest. I was thinking about how to make the most of the summer vegetables from my garden.

But as I read more and more of Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, I realized that pasta is part of the deal in Italian cuisine. So I needed a pasta plan — including figuring out how not to eat too much of it.

It was easy to see that a pasta machine would be necessary. I am pretty sure that I will never, ever, be able to make pasta with a rolling pin. So, when I was grocery shopping on Tuesday, I stopped by the Williams Sonoma in Winston-Salem and bought an Imperia (made in Italy!) pasta machine, $80. This is a hand-cranked machine. Williams Sonoma also has attachments for KitchenAid mixers. But the attachments are much more expensive than the hand-cranked machine, and I reasoned that a pasta machine driven by such a high-powered motor would be a very high-powered way to make a very big mess.

With the hand-cranked machine, at least, the mess is much less than I feared. I was afraid of a sticky mess. But instead it was a mere floury mess. If you’re used to handling dough, your second batch of pasta will be excellent. I won’t presume to give any instructions here, because I’m just a novice. But there are many videos on YouTube about how to make pasta at home.

Amazon also has the Imperia machine, for less, naturally, than I paid at Williams Sonoma. It’s a heavy little thing. And it’s entirely practical, not at all a use-it-once kitchen gadget.

I do have one warning. Most recipes for pasta will make an outrageous amount of pasta, enough to feed a family of ten, to require a 40-gallon cauldron for boiling, to keep you turning a crank for half a day, and to run out of places to hang pasta. If you’re cooking for an old-fashioned Catholic family, I understand. But since I cook only for myself and for the possum who makes nightly visits to my backyard, even a one-egg batch of pasta is more than twice as much as I can eat. My possum will eat Italian tonight.

A thought that helped me overcome my resistance to making something as high-calorie as pasta is that pasta skills (and a pasta machine) also will assist with egg dumplings, which would make a fine winter comfort food. Also, the method of making Asian noodles can’t be that different from making Italian pasta.

I’m probably the last California-influenced cook to start making pasta. There are two skills involved, I would say: How to make the pasta (easy); and how not to make too much of it (hard). The real technical challenge with homemade pasta, I would say, is making no more of it than you ought to eat.

It’s day lily time again



Click here for high-resolution version. The photo was shot with an iPhone 12 Max Pro.

The day lilies are about a week late this year, because of the cool spring. I have some day lilies in the front ditch by the road, but most of my day lilies are on a bank above the driveway. I call it the day lily bank. Twelve years ago, a few weeks after the bank had been graded and was nothing but exposed soil, I planted 300 day lily sets. Now those 300 have multiplied into thousands. The bank is dense with day lilies.

Unfortunately, the deer like the day lilies as much as I do. For the past two years, they’ve eaten the buds and blooms as fast as they would grow. So far this year, the deer seem to have forgotten the day lilies. Or maybe they have something better to eat. Just before I took this photo, I saw a hummingbird visiting the day lilies.

The day lily buds and blooms (as the deer well know) are edible. If the deer will leave some for me, some of the buds will find their way into salads and pestos. Unfortunately, day lily season is short. And each bloom lasts only one day.

The princely hoe



The new hoe

I confess that I ruined my old hoe. I left it out in the weather too often. That weakened the handle, and the handle separated from the blade. The blade fell off while I was hoeing a row of tomatoes. To wear out a hoe would be an honorable thing. But to neglect and abuse a hoe is a crime and a shame that would have shocked our ancestors.

I know better than to leave garden tools outdoors, but I plead guilty to doing it. Wooden handles deteriorate. Blades rust. As I reflected on my cruelty and guilt, hoping that my contrition will ensure that I never harm another hoe, I realized how ancient the hoe must be. The hoe is a kinder blade than the sword and the ax, but no doubt it changed the world just as much.

The Wikipedia article on the hoe describes some of the history. Hoes are mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, about 1750 B.C. Even today, Third World subsistence farmers with no ploughs get by only with hoes. When there is no iron or steel, wood will do. The Wikipedia article includes a photo of an Egyptian hoe made of wood. The Roman hoes, of course, were made of iron.

In European culture, there can be no doubt that hoes were introduced across Europe in the migrations that brought agriculture, the wheel, the horse, milk animals, and the Indo-European languages. How could I be so thoughtless as to leave out in the rain an instrument so royal? I vow to never treat a hoe with disrespect again. I should be able to salvage the old hoe and put a new handle on it, though replacing handles on hand tools is becoming a lost art.

My new hoe has a fiberglass handle. That was the only kind of hoe the hardware store had. I’ve made a hook in the shed for it to hang from, away from the rain and sun. Fiberglass won’t decay like wood, but it hates ultraviolet from the sun.

One of my favorite gardening books, Gardening When It Counts, emphasizes the importance of keeping hoes sharp. I find that to be true. I use a hoe in the garden not so much for loosening the soil but for cutting weeds. It’s remarkable, really, how efficient hoes are for that. As long as the weeds don’t get out of hand, I can hoe my garden in not much more than 30 minutes.

The new hoe (and probably all new hoes) came with an angle on the blade, but the blade is not truly sharp. I took a file to it. I’ve also ordered a sharpening tool from Amazon that attaches to a drill. The rotary sharpener is made for lawn mower blades, but I’m pretty sure that it will do a good job of sharpening the hoe.

When I was a young’un growing up in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, I wasn’t made to work as much as some young’uns were. But I was sometimes made to hoe. I didn’t like it. But I’m glad to have acquired some hoeing skills early in life. And since this post is an obituary for my old hoe, I want to mention that my old hoe never harmed a living thing that wasn’t a weed, not even a snake. Many a hoe, like pitchforks, have been used as weapons.

When I lived in San Francisco, I learned that people who grew up without any farm experience did not even understand the expression “a long row to hoe.” That is sad. I have looked down long, long rows of weedy tobacco on hot summer days.

Rest in peace, old hoe. If I can find a new handle for you, I’ll bring you back and never mistreat you again.

A summer project: Italian cooking


A friend who lives in the south of France asked me yesterday in email what plans I have for summer. I couldn’t think of a thing, other than trying not to hide too much indoors in a bug-free, air-conditioned house. Then I remembered one thing: That, with the riches I hope to get from the garden, I plan to work on my Italian cooking.

It was about ten days ago, upon observing that though the early garden was 90 percent a failure because of the cold, dry spring, the summer garden looks promising. I will have yellow squash next week. The cucumbers and tomatoes are blooming. The basil and onions are coming along, but slowly. I planted okra from seed today.

Like most Americans, I grew up with spaghetti. Every few years or so I’ve made lasagna at home. I put some effort into improving my pizza skills, especially with crusts. I’ve had a few incredibly good dinners at proper and properly Italian restaurants in North Beach in San Francisco. But I have never made an effort to concentrate on authentic Italian cooking. I realized that I needed a book for that.

Cookbooks are available from Italian cooks with current TV shows, but I wanted something classic. The classic work on Italian cooking for English-speaking cooks was easy to identify. It’s Italian Food, by Elizabeth David. It’s one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen, illustrated with excellent color prints of Italian paintings of food. The book was printed in Verona.


Italian Food. Elizabeth David. Barry & Jenkins, London, 1954, 1987, 1996. 240 pages.


First published in 1954, this book satisfies my curiosity about what any culture’s cuisine was like when the cooks had experience and memories that went back to the 1800’s. What I saw in my grandmother’s kitchen in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina in 1954 (she was born in 1896) was nothing like what one sees in even the best kitchens today. New developments in cuisine, such as the ideas of an Alice Waters or a Michael Pollan, are very important. But cooking also has roots, and some knowledge of those roots is a must-have for any cuisine.

I ordered this cookbook through Amazon. It was shipped from the United Kingdom. There must be a good many copies in print, because the book is not hard to find. Booksellers don’t usually say what edition they’re selling. Mine is the 1996 edition, in very good condition.

I’ve a lot of good reading ahead of me, but the part about basil convinced me that this is indeed the cookbook I want:

“Nothing can replace the lovely flavour of this herb. If I had to choose just one plant from the whole herb garden I should be content with basil. Norman Douglas, who had a great fondness for this herb, would never allow his cook to chop the leaves or even to cut them with scissors; they had to be gently torn up, he said, or the flavour would be spoilt. I never agreed with him on this point, for the pounding of basil seems, on the contrary, to bring out its flavour.”

By pounding, I assume she means pounding in a mortar and pestle, which is now the only method I will use for making pesto.

Italian cooks, she writes in 1954, go to market twice a day. That’s a beautiful idea, but no American can live that way anymore. Some of us can, however, go to the garden twice a day.

Elizabeth David, who died in 1992, is an important figure in the history of cooking and cookbooks. The Wikipedia article is a good starting place for information about her.


Click here for high-resolution version


Lettuce pesto with lettuce from my garden

Pesto from lettuce?

Lettuce pesto sounds bland and watery. In truth, it is a little bland and a touch watery. But if lettuce is what you’ve got, then lettuce pesto it is. It will be three weeks or so before I can expect any summer basil from the garden. The winter basil from the kitchen window is almost gone, but I had enough of it to season the lettuce a bit.

Franz Schubert: Zum Sanctus






As I have said here before, few sounds on earth can equal the sound of well trained, well directed human voices singing together. There is the sound of the sea crashing against rocks, and birds in a garden on a spring morning, or children laughing and a cat purring. But, somehow, life on earth also learned to produce sounds like this.

The theology is dreadful, so it’s best to leave the German below as German. I was unable to find a decent YouTube performance that included the instruments scored below. This piece, like so many, is much more often murdered than performed well.

Defending against ticks


In the best of all possible worlds, there’d be no need for insecticides. But permethrin, at least, seems to be pretty benign. Permethrin is a synthesized version of pyrethrin, an organic insecticide made from chrysanthemums. The most scary thing about permethrin is how persistent it is. Clothing treated with permethrin can remain effective against insects (and ticks) through up to six washings. Still, it’s not very toxic to humans, especially after it has dried.

Each year, the tick situation seems to get worse. When I was a kid, I knew of only one kind of tick, the kind of tick that dogs got. But now there are several varieties, and I can’t distinguish one from another. I do know, though, that these days we have very small ticks, especially in the spring and early summer. They’re harder to detect because they’re so small, and their bites are just as offensive as larger ticks.

I have found that treating clothing with permethrin is very effective against ticks. It actually kills ticks — slowly, but quick enough to keep them from biting. On most summer days, two levels of defense are needed — permethrin for things that crawl, and Deet for things that fly.

The Center for Disease Control recommends the use of both permethrin and Deet. Also, here’s a nice article from NPR on permethrin. According to the article, it was the U.S. military that developed the method of treating clothing with permethrin.

Permethrin in liquid form is said to be toxic to cats. It’s best to treat clothing outdoors on a clothesline and leave things hanging until the permethrin dries. Don’t forget to treat your shoes and socks.

Some history of La Marseillaise






Please read the first paragraph before listening…


The first important thing about La Marseillaise, I think, is that it is a hymn. Hymns typically are written in four-part harmony for singing — soprano, alto, tenor, bass. This hymn has been subjected to an infinite number of variations, improvizations, and outright murders. It’s not easy to find a recording of the hymn sung in (fairly) simple four-part harmony. The above performance by the “the Minionaires” was as close as I could find. Now listen to the Minionaires. It’s only one minute and 44 seconds long…

As far as I can tell, it was only recently that the origin and true composer of La Marseillaise was questioned. Traditionally, the hymn is attributed to Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, in 1792. But was de Lile — gasp — a plagiarist? You can read on the web that, before he died, de Lisle confessed to the true source of the anthem. (He lived until 1836.)

If scholars have confidently established the truth about the history of La Marseillaise, I’m not aware of it. However, there is evidence out there that we all can hear!

A good starting place is Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503. The link below is an excellent performance of this concerto. The entire concerto is worth listening to, but if you’d like to hear the bits that sound like La Marseillaise, then skip to minute 12 or so, before the cadenza begins at 13:20. The literal quote from La Marseillaise starts at 15:03, but you’ll hear it coming long before that. Note that this concerto was written in 1786, about six years before de Lisle wrote La Marseillaise!





Keep in mind when listening to the performance above that the quote from La Marseillaise occurs in the cadenza of the first movement. Pianists get to improvise during cadenzas. There is no doubt that the pianist here, Kenneth Broberg, improvised into the cadenza a very literal quote from La Marseillaise. I’ve not attempted to find the score and see what the score says. But, when people have written about this, they usually say that elements of the first movement of the concerto “remind people of” La Marseillaise.

Mozart’s concerto was written in 1786. But it appears that a much more obscure Italian composer, Giovanni Battista Vioti (1755-1854), got there first. The claim in the YouTube video below is that Vioti wrote this theme in 1781:





It sounds like a smoking gun to me!

Europe at the time, it seems, was in a fever of patriotism and revolution. We Americans earned our democracy during this period. But all we got for a national anthem was “The Star Spangled Banner.”


Extra credit: Since you skipped straight to La Marseillaise part of the Mozart piano concerto, why not go back now and listen to the entire concerto. When I am in a certain state of mind, I spend a good bit of time on YouTube listening to, and comparing, musical performances. Too often, we suppose that our culture — and by culture, here, I mean European post-Enlightment culture — is being lost. But if a young pianist such as Kenneth Broberg can grow up in Minnesota and learn to play like this (Broberg was born in 1993), then it’s hard to imagine that anything is being lost. Some of the young musicians coming out of Asia almost stop my heart with their technique and the depth of their musical insight. To me, listening to music recorded around the world is an important compensation for my cultural isolation in the woods, in the provinces. Why do I listen in a state that I can best describe as incredulity, suspending disbelief? How can these young people do this? I know just enough about music to know how difficult it is. If anything, I would argue that, far from losing anything, our musicians are getting better. As long as we are a culture that can train these young musicians (and young writers — much more difficult and a subject for another post someday), then I would argue that the idea that we are a culture in decline does not hold up.


Peace of mind, and the weather



The basil in the garden is just getting started. This pesto was made from the last of the winter basil, which I grew in the kitchen windows. More about the mortar and pestle below.


Living in the woods as I do — reasonably secure, healthy, and retired — my stress level isn’t very high. I feel for those who are still in the world of work, living in heavily populated places, with heavy responsibilities and heavy demands. For four years with Donald Trump in the White House, peace of mind was tough even in the woods. Now, with Trump gone and on his way to prison, what’s the biggest threat to peace of mind for woods-dwellers? The weather, I would say. (Because it was so easy for me to isolate, Covid-19 never felt very threatening here.)

For several years, the rule for the weather here was warmer and wetter, with occasional and minor deviations. The spring of 2021 broke that pattern. Spring this year was strangely cool and dry, with late and destructive frosts. It hasn’t been raining. Some of the grass is turning brown. The birds are looking for water. They notice within minutes when I start the drip system in the garden and flutter down for a drink. A big part of my disquiet is witnessing the stress of the plants and animals around me. The trees should be fine, though. Only a prolonged drought (which does not seem to be in store for us in my location) is hard on the trees. It’s the smaller things that suffer.

The cold spring was a big setback for the garden. Things that I planted from seed — radishes, lettuces, kales and chards — just never germinated. Water was never a problem, though, because of the reliable streams just down the hill and a neighbor who hauls water up the hill with his tractor for our irrigation systems. Even ten years ago in this area, drip systems for garden irrigation were not the rule. These days, just about everybody with a serious garden has a drip system. I’m water rich, in that two streams come together at the lower end of the abbey’s five acres. One stream is fairly sensitive to recent rainfall, but the other is fed by nearby springs that no one remembers ever going dry.

The forecast is looking a little better. With luck there will be a modest rainy spell here starting in about five days.

Basil and pesto

 
When I was Googling for help on improving my skill with pesto for the 2021 basil season, I came across several articles saying that the old-fashioned way of making pesto — with a mortar and pestle rather than a food processor — makes a big difference. I’m hardly an expert on Italian cooking, but so far I can find no reason to disagree. It’s not just the basil leaves that like to be pounded with marble rather than whizzed with a stainless steel blade. The garlic and nuts also like it. The old-fashioned pesto ends up looking more textured, with the different ingredients more visible. And I do believe that the taste is sassier and somehow more complex. The large granite mortar and pestle (ordered from Amazon) has earned its place in my kitchen. The Cuisinart food processor has been with me for more than 40 years. Unless someone convinces me that hummus should be made with a mortar and pestle, the food processor is in no danger of being donated to a thrift shop.

Trump

 
Though I admit that I am far too preoccupied with politics, I’ve avoided posting about it. Trump is history. He does not deserve our attention except insofar as the law continues the slow process of sending him to prison where he belongs. Though the media have finally started to foreshadow Trump’s trials and imprisonment, they still cater to the Trumpian notion of Trumpian invincibility and the idea that Trump will get away with everything. My view is that Trump & Co. will be held responsible for everything they have done. Let’s not feel guilty about the schadenfreude. The payment, at last, of Trump’s debt to justice (and his dollar debt to Russian oligarchs and oil oligarchs and therefore his final bankruptcy), will be tremendously satisfying and healing to those of us who have had to live with Trump and his insufferable supporters. They are more insufferable than ever, actually, as their gloating has turned into threats, insane denials, and a doubling of their rage.

The weather

 

According to the Climate Prediction Center, the entire western United States is in for a serious drought this year. If the forecast is accurate, the eastern United States will squeak by. Still, summer is now a scary time, as scary as winter must have been for so many of our ancestors.

Making peace with summer

 

Every year, I think about how I might overcome my dread of summer, with summer defined as the hottest parts of July and August in the American South — temperatures well over 90F, high humidity, bugs, weeds, and indoor air conditioning as the only escape. Should I get a canoe for the Dan River? Nah. The cat wouldn’t enjoy canoeing. One idea I had today is to focus on improving my competence with Italian cooking. After all, I’ve got a garden, and if I can keep the garden going against the heat, humidity, the weeds, and the bugs, then I can be as rich with summer produce as anyone in Tuscany. We shall see. Tomatoes, squash, basil and cucumbers do an awful lot to ease the discomforts of summer.

The joy of dieting



A diet-day main meal of scallops and roasted cauliflower in a creamy tomato sauce. Painless.

To say that I’m an experienced dieter sounds like I’m making a joke. That’s because it reveals that, when I lose weight, I gain it back. That’s true. I do gain it back. But as long as one’s weight oscillates within reasonable limits, that doesn’t seem so bad.

It’s my belt that lets me know. When I have to loosen my belt a notch, it’s time to start thinking about a diet.

As much as I dislike (and postpone) making the decision to go on a diet, I always find that dieting is not so bad. A diet to me means 1,200 calories a day. That’s nowhere near a starvation diet. It’s also a predictable diet. On 1,200 calories a day, I lose about two pounds a week. So, when I start a diet, I know how long it’s going to last.

Medical opinion about dieting seems to be changing, moving toward a consensus that diets don’t work and that diets aren’t worth doing. If that’s the case, I very much disagree. Diets do work. If one gains back the weight one lost, then the solution seems simple enough: Diet again. To me, the discipline involved in managing my weight isn’t about maintaining my optimum weight. I’m bad at that. But what I’m good at is starting a new diet when my belt tells me it’s time to start a new diet cycle. The window in which my weight oscillates is about ten pounds. That window needs to be kept small, to make one’s diets shorter and therefore not as daunting to undertake.

Being an experienced dieter has its advantages, chiefly familiarity and predictability. How to go about dieting is probably very confusing to many people, because there are so many theories, so many specialty diets, and so many books and articles on dieting.

But the fundamental science of dieting has not been overturned. If you consume fewer calories each day than your body burns, you’ll lose weight.

Therefore, as I see it, counting calories is essential. One could invent a specialty diet based on eating nothing but Krispy Kreme doughnuts. That would work, if one counted calories. But that would be a miserable diet that would be terrible for one’s health. It would be miserable because the carbs involved would make one hungry all the time. I have a saying, “Carbs today, hungry tomorrow.”

So, as I see it, the healthiest sort of diet also is the least uncomfortable diet. That means keeping carbs to a minimum. When I’m on a diet, I have to give up my favorite food: bread. Ideally, a diet should improve one’s health, not damage it. I find that fish (or tofu) and low-carb vegetables are ideal. One can even have three meals a day, if two of them are small. When I’m on a diet, I cook only one main meal a day. Breakfast, if I have it, might be a couple of teaspoons of peanut butter and sauerkraut. I might have popcorn for an evening snack. These days, with fresh local strawberries to be found, the evening snack might be strawberries with a little cream and a couple of very thin cookies. This does not feel like a hardship.

It worries me when I see articles like this one in the Washington Post, “Five myths about obesity.” Encouraging this kind of hopeless attitude seems unkind, though clearly the motivation is kindness and tolerance for those for whom weight management is particularly hard. I understand that. But the unintended unkindness, in my view, is that it leads people to not even try to manage their weight, though they might want to. I also find some of the premises misleading. Though no doubt it’s true that there is individual variation in how calories are processed by the body, that does not mean that the law of calories in vs. calories out has been rescinded. It just means that individual variation must be factored into dieting.

I can testify that, in my 72 years, weight-watching is nothing new. Based on what I overheard from adults years ago, people did this even in 1958, when I was ten years old, when most people were more lean, and when I was told that I was going to dry up and blow away if I didn’t eat more. There is no such thing as not being able to lose weight.

Shadow and Bone


Who knew that Tsarist Russia could look so good? Actually, most of this series was filmed in Hungary. Not since “Game of Thrones” has a fantasy series been such a visual treat.

I had watched the trailer for “Shadow and Bone,” and I was skeptical. But I heard good reviews from friends. I’ve watched two episodes so far, and it has greatly exceeded my expectations. The plot is a bit thick. I had to watch parts of it twice to hang on to the threads. But two episodes was enough to hook me.

The casting is excellent. It’s a very attractive, diverse, eccentric, and charismatic cast of characters. The sets and settings are lavish. Filming must have cost a fortune. The music is very good. And the horses!

The series is based on a trilogy of fantasy novels by Leigh Bardugo. It’s available for streaming from Netflix. There are eight episodes in the first season. I’m surprised how little buzz this series has gotten.