Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Long Wait

One of my favorite species of ladyslipper orchids is Paphiopedilum malipoense. This thing grows in the rugged limestone landscape of western China where it enjoys alternating seasons of dark wetness and bright dryness. It also doesn't mind being chilly for a stretch which is good since my winter growing area regularly gets below 60°F. I've been in love with it ever since I saw my first one towering on a ridiculously tall stem that still seemed to set the flower apart with proper respect. And it's fragrant. The scent is reminiscent of dusty raspberries.

But the real kicker with growing this species is how long you have to wait for the flower once you've discovered a bud. I usually record when I first spot a bud down in the leaves of a Paph and when the flower actually opens. Of the P. malipoense I've bloomed the time elapsed has ranged from five to seven months. This one may be in bloom for Valentine's Day. But it's so worth the wait for this ghostly green beauty.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pipit If You Dare

Sunday I managed to drag the co-conspirator along on another field trip, this time to Zeloski Marsh. I had visited the place on a similar field trip back in July when I saw two new species, among them the beloved Dickcissel. This time, much to my surprise, I was treated to six species I'd never seen before including the American Pipit! Until yesterday I had no clue what a Pipit is. Going to my Checklist of Wisconsin Birds it's alone in a category by itself. The guy who spotted it said it caught his eye because "it flew like a Pipit." OK. I am really quite grateful to the leaders of these trips and the participants who share their experience and knowledge with greenies like me.

I've decided that what I like about this pastime is that at this point there is still so much more to learn and see. The continual joy of discovery keeps me excited about the possibilites in my next trip out.

On the way home we stopped at a place to get some picnic food and then sat for a while at Camrock Park where some American Redstarts were working an adjacent tree. I showed them proper appreciation.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Just" a Redstart

I did it today. Over my lunch hour I sneaked in a quick walk on one of my favorite trails by one of my favorite streams not really expecting to see any birds but clutching a pair of binoculars, nevertheless, since hope springs eternal(ly.) I walked for the allowed time in one direction and then headed back--in my office shoes, not a good idea. The only real activity was at one bend in the trail where the distinctive sharp chips of a small flock of Northern Cardinals drew my attention. Reluctant to hurry back to work I decided to watch them for a while and just enjoy the moment. Suddenly a quick flash of color as a smaller bird joined the scene caused me to raise my binoculars. After a glimpse of black and orange I thought "Redstart. Seen it."

I stopped and thought about it.

Way back, seemingly ages ago and yet just like yesterday, I started semi-seriously looking for birds in a real jewel of a natural area near my office that I've managed to not notice for over a decade. When I embarked on my own during last spring's warbler wave there was a memorable day when I spent a good amount of time on one of the bridges watching several Redstarts. At the time they were new, interesting and beautiful. Eventually I realized they weren't all that uncommon or hard to find. And then today, apparently, I arrived at the conclusion that they aren't as interesting or worthy of admiration as they were last spring. What a big mistake.

The American Redstart is a stunning bird. Both the male and female have wide yellow bands on the sides of their tails that remind me of the markings on military aircraft. When flitting from branch to branch in search of their prey they spread their tails and display these bands prominently. Consequently, they are easy to identify and fun to watch. I promise I won't just brush off a Redstart sighting ever again. And I also offer here a list of birds that, despite their "common" nature I truly love and always enjoy finding in the wild:

  • Gray Catbird - Dignified monochromatic feathers and a beautiful face

  • House Wren - Dynamite comes in little packages

  • Downy Woodpecker - I just find them charming

  • Black-capped Chickadee - All business and very much in charge of their space

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cockail Hour: Ginger Vodka

When I buy ginger I buy more than I need, grate up the extra and freeze it for future cooking. Some time ago I read that most of a ginger root's flavor is in the layer just under the skin. Having had ginger vodka beverages at the pan-asian restaurant that used to be down the street, I decided to try infusing my own vodka with the peels of a large ginger root. After over a month of soaking I strained the result, stored it in a small jar and tonight I fashioned a martini with the result. It's nasty. It tastes like cheap cleaning products smell. If I ever try this again I'll throw the peel away and use the flesh of the root.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tarte Normande Aux Poires

I must have expressed a proper interest when a good friend mentioned that her neighbor's pear tree was bearing right now. A bag of little, delicious pears appeared on our doorknob the next day. As usually happens in the cooler seasons when hearty or rich foods feel more appropriate I turned to Julia. Last year I finally broke down and bought volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. The tart is made by partially baking sugar-coated pear slices in a short crust, adding a custard topping and completing the baking. Tonight we'll find out how it tastes.

I think most people forget three cooks worked on this classic cookbook. Perhaps it's because of Mrs. Child's later, greater fame as a television cook that she might be presumed the sole author. A few years ago I made the mistake of reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. I can't imagine what the movie version will be like--yes, they're making a movie based on a book that grew out of a blog that documented a young woman's year-long project of cooking every recipe in MTAOFC. Julia Child will be played by Meryl Streep. I'm not kidding.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

Here's a quick quiz: What time of year is ten times better than x-mas?

The answer is Tomato Season. I love it when the tomatoes start showing up at the community market. Sure, some arrive in late spring and early summer, but they just don't have the essential tomatoeyness of the fruit that hits the stands when the weather is just right. Something about the wet summer heat concentrates so much flavor in the good varieties. I eat tomatoes constantly from the time they show up until the cool weather sets in--which unfortunately seems to be right now.

I also like to try to capture that fantastic tomato flavor to carry over into my winter cooking. Last weekend my sister-out-law and her husband gifted us with a big load of a variety of tomatoes from their garden. I made a batch of sauce that ended up all going into a lasagna. Half of that was frozen for a later date. Some of the smaller ones were used in salads, on a pizza and even tossed into a batch of black fried rice.

This past weekend I shopped the market with a purpose in mind. I was going to prepare some tomatoes for winter with one of my favorite methods--oven drying. I started with a bag of what the vendor said were Spotted Romas. A quick Google hasn't turned up any information on that variety. To me they look like a cross between a Roma and a Red Zebra.

To dry the tomatoes I cut off the stem end and then sliced them lengthwise in such a way that the pulp cavities were most exposed. I then arrayed them on a jellyroll pan that I had lined with baking parchment. A drizzle of olive oil was hand-rubbed over the cut surfaces and a light sprinking of kosher salt followed. I finished by laying some stems of the thyme I grew this year over the tomatoes. The pan went into a 200°F oven for about nine hours. The come out not tough and leathery like the dried tomatoes you can buy in the store, but rather softer and more edible. After cooling I layered them with waxed paper in a zip-top bag, labeled and dated them (of course!) and placed them in the freezer.

This fall and winter these tomatoes will make appearances with pastas, on bruschettas or pizzas and perhaps even in grilled cheese sandwiches. The oven-drying concentrates their juices and increases their sweetness and flavor. It also lets me relive the zenith of the year.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Corn, Beautiful Corn

This year for the first time I've tried my hand at freezing sweet corn. Frozen bags of nibblets are fine, I suppose, but nothing can compare to the taste of fresh sweet corn in season. Last weekend and again this past weekend I purchased enough ears of bi-color corn to freeze three pounds of the stuff. I'm looking forward to pulling it out this winter for chowders and curries.

Here's how I do it: Peel of the husks and silk of twelve large ears of corn. Bring at least a gallon of water to a boil in a large pot and drop in a half dozen ears at a time. Set the timer for four minutes. After that time the pot will most likely just be returning to a good boil again. Remove the corn and drop it in a large pot or sinkful of cold water. Gently move around the corn to speed cooling. Repeat with the other six ears. Next place a thin cutting board in a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan that has sides to contain the juice. Place the sheet on a slightly damp kitchen towel to prevent it sliding around. Hold an ear of corn upright on the cutting board and cut the kernels off in strips. I find it works well to use an 8" chef's knife and grip it close up to the blade so I can brace my fingers of the knife hand against the ear of corn. Rotate the ear to the left cutting successive strips of kernels off. When all the kernels are off scrape the remaining milky liquid off the cob with the knife. Portion into freezer bags--2 cups is about a pound. Flatten the bags on the counter, label them including the date and place flat in your freezer. Enjoy this winter.