On Books and Reading

           I am writing this in the waiting room of the Eye Institute watching the computer board for my mother’s cataract surgery to be finished.   Hospital technology has advanced to the state that you can now track the patient’s journey from pre-op to OR to recovery room, and then a volunteer will come and kindly escort you to your loved one’s bedside.    I suppose it saves the nurses time not having to answer all those pesky questions.   My mother has a particularly dense cataract which has been interfering with her ability to paint.   (Most of the paintings on the website are hers, she is also under The Artist on the main menu).   Claude Monet had the same problem in his later years, as his vision loss progressed his colors became more muted.  (If you look at this paintings after the surgery the blue green colors are so vibrant).   As a painter her eyes are important to her, as painting is her passion, while mine is reading.   Both our hobbies are dependent on clear vision.    A cataract is easily fixable, but some other eye conditions such as macular degeneration, are not.  I hope someday medicine will have progressed to the point where they will be able to implant stem cells into eyes and restore vision.   What a miracle that would be for those facing vision loss.    You hear a lot of tragic stories in the waiting rooms of eye clinics like these, but these doctors, they are the unsung heroes.

           Not being able to read would be the worst nightmare for me.   I know there are audio books but I want a book in my hand.   I don’t remember ever not being able to read, although I have a vague recollection of taking one of those Dick-Jane-and-Sally-see-Spot-run books to my mother and proudly showing her I could read by myself.   The letters made sense, they were words!  It was a momentous discovery.

           I read vicariously and from an early age.   I started school in a rural one room school house, and as there were only three of us in grade one, I listened in while the very frazzled teacher taught the older grades.   It seems archaic now but I suppose it isn’t much different than home schooling, all ages together.   Our farm was within walking distance of the school but after it  closed in grade two (it was archaic even then), my parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus service was started a few years later.   One of my earliest recollections is sitting at the dining room table while my mother helped my older siblings with their homework.  I  would sit and soak it all in.  To me learning was fun, a whole new adventure.     

          I always loved books.   My maternal grandmother immigrated from Holland so English was a second language for her.   Her verbal English was good, her reading not so much, and I, a precarious four-year-old, would correct her if she strayed too far from the story-line or the ending wasn’t the way it normally was.    When the teacher assigned a short story to read in the grade five reader, (a Stephen Leacock tale about Mother’s Day),  I took the reader home and read the whole book.   I read the usual children’s books, Black Beauty, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, a series called the Borrowers which involved tiny people living in a big house, and the rare treat of a Jack and Jill magazine once when I was in the hospital for tonsils, which was full of puzzles and activities.  Around age ten I went through a Trixie Belden girl detective phase, (no Nancy Drew for me, it was the sixties, who would wear a twinset even if they did get to drive a convertible).  Trixie Belden  Living on a farm with few playmates, I read for entertainment.   It was something to do in the summer, and as I was not good at sports and hated the heat, you could usually find me on a blanket in the shade of a tree reading.  As a middle child I was accustomed to being on the periphery, but I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.  When the library opened my mother would take myself and my younger brother every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few air conditioned buildings in town and I still remember the blast of cool air that hit you when you entered the vestibule, and the musty smell of books.   The librarian would often comment on my choices, because while our little library stocked picture books for kids and adult fiction, the selection for Young Adults, if that genre even existed, was limited…. perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics, Dickens, the Brontes, my mother’s copy of Gone With the Wind, what ever I could get my hands on.    Occasionally, when I would come across a Young Adult book, I would find it fascinating reading about teens my own age.  Several of those books stand out clearly in my mind, although I can’t recall the titles, one in particular about a young girl going to work at a summer resort.  I’m picturing bonfires on the beach right now.   If you lived an isolated life without a driver’s license, those literary ventures into a normal teenage world (parties, boys, jobs), can seem memorable.  Once I was in high school I discovered Seventeen magazine (50 cents an issue), and it became my fashion bible, and then later Mademoiselle and Glamour.  Although I read it for the clothes, magazines used to publish short stories back then and I read my mother’s Good Housekeeping and Redbook magazines for that reason as well as her condensed Reader’s Digest books.   

Seventeen Magazine

Vintage June 1970 Seventeen Magazine – from farmhouse attic

 I was one of the few students who didn’t groan about doing book reports, because it gave you an excuse to read a book.   I would read on the bus ride home, although often I would get all my homework done then too. 

       During my university and early work years, I hardly read at all, only scientific stuff – it was hard to keep up with the sheer volume of information, between work terms and school.  I only picked up reading again as a hobby at around age thirty, and then it was mostly vacation/beach reading. Throughout my working years I read at least a couple of books a month, mostly before bed instead of watching TV, or after I got home if I was working evenings and needed to wind down.  (There are entire decades of TV I have missed, although lately I have developed a taste for anything Masterpiece).   I am still an avid reader but now that I am retired, it’s more like one per week, and reading has crept into the daytime hours.   Reading outside on the swing in the summer is pure bliss.    I used to have a hammock where I read but the trees had to be cut down due to ash-bore disease. 

My taste in books runs to more mainstream with a few eclectic choices.  I tend to haunt the best seller and new release lists, and recommendations from friends with similar tastes.   I avoid the Danielle Steele romance genre (romance is okay if it’s part of the story, but not the whole point), sci-fi fantasy, most Canadian prize-winners (too weird), and the majority of Oprah’s book club selections.    I don’t like too light and fluffy but I don’t want depressing either.   I enjoy fact as well as fiction, lately my choices have ranged from First They Killed My Father, a Cambodian refugee memoir, Quiet, a fascinating must-read for introverts, to The Sleep Solution (see Counting Sheep blog), and I still love a good medical book such as Five Days at Memorial, a tale of evacuating a hospital post Katrina.  

        I often try to work a book I particularly enjoyed into my blogs if it suits the theme, and sometimes it serves as the inspiration.   Lately I have been reading a lot of mystery thrillers and a few months ago I discovered the bookoutlet website, wandered into the travel section and never left, (see April Paris and Italy blogs). book outlet  I have my favorite authors, Jodi Piccoult, Cathy Kelly, Elin Hildebrand, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Clare MacIntosh, and often pre-order from the library so I can be number one on the list.    The bookoutlet is a discount website (both US and Canadian sites), for remaindered or overstock books with very cheap prices.  Recently I ordered eleven books for $102, (free shipping over $45), which came Canada Post.  There’s nothing like getting a big box of books in the mail – and isn’t there something wonderful about opening a brand new book and inhaling the scent of newly cut paper.  book outlet

 There have been a few times in my life when I have been too stressed to read – I could not concentrate on the words on the page, but luckily those were few and far between.   Reading can be a distraction, a solace, a balm for over-stressed minds, a portal to another universe, when this one is too hard to bear.   That is why one of the most often requested items in a refuge camp is a book.  It passes the time and takes you away to some other universe, if only for a few quiet hours.    

                A book journal is a lovely way to keep track of your reads, although I am not always diligent about recording the authors and the dates.

Old Book Journal

Old Book Journal

  The editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, wrote a book about her book journal (My Life with Bob – my Book of Books – click here for my review).   I used to keep my own BOB/book journal but lately I have been recording my reads on my Good-reads profile.    It you aren’t familiar with it, Good-reads is like a candy store for bookaholics.  To quote L.M. Montgomery, “I am simply a book drunkard,” with no wish to recover.   

           Recently I found a new book journal with a lovely lavender cover on a remainder table, a bargain at $2.99.   A lavender pen would be just the thing for writing in it.   There is something about holding a book in your hand… New Book Journal 

Quotes of the Day:  “I opened up two wonderful gifts this morning – my eyes.”

“Oh for a book, and a cozy nook, Oh for a quiet hour.”                                                                                                

What was your favorite childhood book?  What are you reading now?   What is the best book you read last year?  Please leave a comment if you wish.  

 

Strawberry Fields Forever

  StrawberriesStrawberry fields forever.    Sounds like a strawberry lover’s dream, but fortunately the science of greenhouse genetics has come up with a new strain of strawberry plant which bears fruit for four months – June, July, August and September.   Last year I planted two of these ever-bearing varieties which produced enough berries all summer to garnish a salad 

salad on plate
Mandarin salad with raspberry vinegrette

and provide the odd nibble, both for me and the birds. 

Strawberries

I think the birds feasted, whereas I was more like Emma of Jane Austen fame, the pleasure was in the anticipation.   (see literary postscript below

Although the farmers markets are now full of gorgeous red berries,  Market Strawberries there is a certain satisfaction to be had in growing your own or in visiting a farm to pick your own fruit, plus it is certainly cheaper.    The farm outside town sells quarts for $6 versus $2.50 to pick your own, a significant savings if you are buying enough to make jam or freeze.  

Strawberry Field

       I remember going strawberry picking with my mother when I was a teenager, (long past the age when helping out was fun), and then spending a couple of hours at the kitchen table hulling the stems before my mother would place them in freezer bags.   We always had a long freezer at one end of the farmhouse kitchen, a freezer so vast and deep that if you tried to get to the bottom of it to find the last roast or bag of corn you might topple in.  Every summer those berries would go in the freezer and the next summer they would get thrown out.    I remember my mother making a strawberry shortcake in the winter exactly once and nobody liked it because the berries were soggy, but there is a vast difference between fresh and frozen soggy.    

        Our farmhouse strawberry shortcake was not like any of those anemic-looking store-bought cakes or biscuits garnished with a few berries.   My mother would start with a golden cake mix, (never white), baked in a long glass pan, and then crush a big bowl of berries (leaving some whole) with a bit of water using a potato masher, adding sugar to taste.  

When it was served you would cut your own size of cake, crumble it up, and then the bowl was passed around with a big spoon and you would ladle on a generous portion, certainly enough to make the cake soggy and wet with berries and juice.  Whipped cream was optional.   I still make my strawberry shortcake this way.   Guests who were not used to this old-fashioned version might find it a bit odd but in retrospect it was more like a trifle.

     I had a wonderful homemade strawberry trifle last week at a church dinner and nothing beats homemade, but if you want a quick alternative just layer the leftover cake and berries with store-bought vanilla pudding cups (instead of custard) and garnish with whipped cream (from a can but scratch would be divine).    It makes a nice easy desert plus it gives me an excuse to use my Downton Abbey thrift shop crystal goblets. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry Trifle

I made a non-alcoholic and an alcoholic version, adding some brandy to the bottom layer of cake to make it soggy, and it was very good indeed.  

Strawberry Jam

      Last summer I made strawberry freezer jam for the first time (as part of my Jamfest frenzy), and into the freezer it went, where it still resides and will soon be thrown out……it must be genetic!    

       I am trying to be more conscious of food wastage, as studies show we throw out a quarter of the food we buy, but a fresh strawberry is such a wonderful thing and the season so short I think we can be forgiven for being extravagant in our stock-piling.  StrawberriesIs there really any comparison between a fresh picked berry and those berries the grocery stores pass off as the real thing the rest of the year – tart, tasteless and hard and pulpy inside to withstand shipping.        

      Still on the rare occasion I need jam for scones I can easily buy a good brand of strawberry-rhubarb jam from my friend’s shop.  strawberry rhubarb jam

       I did however make a fresh stewed strawberry-rhubarb preserve this year,Strawberry-rhubarb compote

equal cups of strawberries and rhubarb, with a tiny bit of water plus sugar to  taste, cooked down to a soft texture on medium heat, which I keep in the fridge and mix with vanilla Greek yogurt, because with all the varieties of yogurt available why don’t they make a strawberry-rhubarb flavor.   

Literary postscript:  Jane Austen’s Emma wherein Mr. Knightley has issued an invitation to Donwell Abbey, “Come and eat my strawberries: they are ripening fast.”…..”Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. — “The best fruit in England — every body’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one’s self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.”

My sentiments exactly.   34 C today or 40 with the Humidex….Strawberry Field

 

 

 

A Walk Down Peony Lane

peonies

         One of the rewarding things about gardening is the legacy of loveliness you can leave for future generations.   Gardening requires patience as often it takes years to establish something.  You might have moved on to a different house or a different life before you see the fruits of your labor, but future generations will stop and bless you when they see the end result, (and part of the pleasure of blogging is sharing these small doses of beauty).  peonies

peonies

           Every June when I was working I would drive by this old house on my daily commute and admire the rows of flowers flanking both sides of a long narrow driveway.  peonies The house was on the outskirts of a small town, which must have been farmland at one time due to it’s deep lot and wide expanse of front lawn.   Being a novice gardener and knowing next to nothing about flowers, one day I decided to stop and inquire what kind of shrubs they were. peonies

        I parked on the side street and knocked on the back door.  An elderly gentleman answered, wiping his hands on a towel as I had interrupted his preparations for lunch.   Peonies, he said, and if I wanted some I was welcome to dig them up.    He had often thought about tearing them all out, but his wife liked them.   His father had planted them seventy or eighty years ago.    I quickly pleaded with him not to do so, as I and many people driving by had the pleasure of looking at them every year.   peonies

peonies           I never went back in the fall to dig them up, but the next time I was at a nearby nursery I asked the owner for some peony bushes just like Mr. Peony Lane’s.   She was familiar with the house, so I requested one medium pink and one darker one, expecting to wake up to a riot of color in the spring.  

 The following year when mine flowered,

my pale pink peonies
my pale pink peonies

 two pale things appeared.   I know some people like a whitish garden, but I crave color.   Although I was disappointed, they were nice in their own way and did so well that I left them and every year they flower, faithfully, because that’s what peonies do!   

peonies Postscript:  Should you wish to take a walk down peony lane, the video below was taken this past June while driving through the town.  (It is my first time posting video so it may or may not work, so I posted lots of pretty pictures).   Lest you think I am the kind of person who randomly invades other peoples property, I only ventured a short distance up the lane and tried to focus on the bushes using the zoom lens.   I considered knocking on the door, but my initial visit was ten years ago, and I wasn’t sure the elderly man still lived there, plus I had my mother in the car who was tired from an afternoon out.   It was a lovely early June day, sunny and warm but with a nice breeze, the kind of day you wish would stay all year.   It was cool under the shade of those giant trees – peonies like sun, but will tolerate light shade – a perfect vista of a summer day.   Maybe next fall, I will take a shovel and go back….        

 

Under Pressure (Instant-Pot for Beginners)

Several months ago, I was gifted an Instant-Pot Pressure Cooker.   I would never have been brave enough to buy one myself.   Anything that boasts about it’s ten safety mechanisms on the box makes me extremely nervous.

Instant-Pot

10 safety mechanisms

Of course, I realize the marketing team felt it necessary to reassure those who remember their mothers or grandmothers pressure cookers blowing up on top of the stove and coating the ceiling with the meal du jour.  

Museum pressure cookers

Museum display of old pressure cookers

And then there was the Boston Marathon tragedy, all those lives lost and  missing limbs.    I remember a co-worker telling me several years ago that her husband had bought a pressure cooker from Amazon and staring at her quite puzzled as to why someone would want such a thing, in fact I even reminded her that the government was monitoring online purchases of such possible terrorist devices.    I was blissfully unaware of the cult of the Instant-Pot, which can cook food two to six times faster,  but her newly-retired-now-in-charge-of-supper husband was not, and anything that could promise to whip up a meal in thirty minutes might also conserve precious couch sitting time.  If you check out Amazon, the reviews tend to be favorable, lots of “life-changing” comments, a few mentions that it stopped working after a few months, some complaints about older models, and recently there was a company recall on the Gem 8 in 1 model which overheated and caused a meltdown.   I am probably already making watchers of the American TV show This is Us very nervous, (the main character dies after a crock-pot catches fire and burns the house down but this was in the seventies when crock-pots were new).

The Gifter was a millennial, and aware of my technological ineptitude, but also aware that I, the Giftee, would persist, with gritted teeth, until I figured it out.   Like many of my generation, I lack the technology gene, the devil-may-care, let’s-try-this-and-see-what-happens attitude of younger people, who don’t remember when “it should work” usually required four hours of trying to restore it to it’s previous state.   When I bought my first computer back in 1986, a glowing orange DOS dinosaur currently awaiting museum status in the basement, it did not even come with an instruction manual and there was no internet back then to google solutions.   I still have PTSD from my first laptop in 2000 when I recall spending a whole afternoon reinstalling Windows the very first day.   Now laptops have become so efficient nothing ever seems to go wrong with them, and on the rare occasion it does, they fix and upgrade themselves.    I may hate it, but I must admit technology can be a wonderful thing.

Still, it was several weeks before I took it out of the box, but finally I read through the Instruction Manual and checked out all the menu buttons.

Instant-Pot
The Hissing Monster

 It didn’t seem too bad until I read the troubleshooting guide – “Intermittent beeping after the cooker starts for awhile could indicate overheating due to starch deposits on the bottom – Stop the cooker and inspect the bottom of the pot.”   Stop the cooker?   How?  There is no stop button.  Hit cancel?  Pull out the plug?   Do a Quick Release before or after?    After that, I was not brave enough to try the initial steam test.   My mother was having eye surgery soon, and I had visions of burning my hands or face and not being able to drive the several hours to the clinic.    I put it back in the box and it sat there in a corner of the dining room glaring at me while I did my best to ignore it, although once in a while I would stare at it and sigh.

Several weeks post-op, the Gifter (waves at Gifter), emailed me asking how the pressure cooking was going.   The Gifter had also previously sent me an email recall of Insta-Pots melting down, but a quick model number check reassured me mine was not one of them.   Nevertheless, I was starting to feel under pressure.

So feeling guilty for having ignored the gift for so long and with some trepidation, I did the recommended steam test first, which involved adding 3 cups of water and hitting the steam button for 2 minutes.  This is to ensure your machine is not defective, and horror, might have to be returned.   The steam shot out like a mini volcano then stopped.   It didn’t seem too bad, but if you have small children or dogs be forewarned they might find the hissing part scary.  (Lock up the cat too, it might hiss back).   I know I did, and donned safety glasses just in case.  I can’t quite figure out the mechanism of the steam release, as it does this when the proper pressure is reached before it starts the cook countdown, and then after when it is done, it either releases naturally or you can do a quick release, but I am sure there is a sound scientific theory behind it.

Part of my dilemma, when researching the literally thousands of recipes online, is that I have the Mini-Duo 3-quart pot, and all the recipes are for the regular 6-quart size, (there is also an 8-quart size).   The Mini is designed for 2-4 portions, and people who don’t want leftovers – it’s ideal for singles, college students or empty nesters.   I found it made four regular but not man-sized portions, but then I was careful not to overfill it past the 2/3 fill line, due to fear of clogging the release mechanism.    I wasted several days trying to find out if I needed to reduce the cooking time as well as cut the recipes in half, but the Instant-Pot support person told me to use the regular cooking time in the recipe, (as in the oven temperature is set the same for one piece of chicken or ten), but then she said it depended on the thickness of the meat/food.  It was all very vague.  She finally came out and said there was no official cookbook for the Mini, although there are lots of regular recipes on the Instant Pot website.     There is also an official Facebook page listed in the instruction manual, one for beginner’s (and those who are scared) and one for cult members, (lots of gushing and pretty pictures).   There is also a small recipe book in the box, with things like coconut fish curry, Moroccan lamb tajine, purple yam barley porridge and turnip cake (and no I am not making this up.)   The only recipe I found appealing in the booklet was for roast beef, so I started with that.

I had bought a small sirloin tip roast but had to cut the end off to get it to fit in the pot.   I stuck the rest in the oven with some baked potatoes.   My dilemma then was whether to set the roast on top of the trivet thing, or to rest it on the bottom in the 2 cups of chicken broth.   I posted the question on the Facebook support page and when I checked back later, two women were having a fight – one said resting it on the trivet would result in steamed meat and the only way to get any flavor was to let it soak, the other said it would be soggy and boiled if I set it in the liquid.   Having spent the better part of the afternoon researching recipes online I was exhausted so I posted that I was going to take a nap and left them duking it out.   I seared the meat on saute, plopped it on the trivet/steam rack (as it was also recommended by the tech support people and majority rules), added the broth, and set the timer for 40 minutes (the Instant-Pot recipe booklet said 50-60 min for roast, but I cut it back as mine wasn’t as thick), and went to take a catnap.    I woke up feeling much better, and after doing a quick release, the meat was perfectly done and perfectly tasteless – it tasted boiled, to me anyway, but the recipient of the meal seemed pleased.   Dog

Blame it on the Facebook lady, who when I reported back on my lack of success,  suggested I feed it to the dog, and since I do not own a dog the neighbor’s would have to suffice.   This picture is taken through the fence, as the dog has the strange habit of peeing on my shoes in some strange form of enthusiastic greeting, and I am rather protective of my shoes, size 5 being hard to find.    I did get the owner’s permission of course, (as some dogs only dine on dried dog food), but the dog was so happy, he will probably pee twice as much the next time he sees me.   I know he doesn’t look happy but that breed looks perpetually sad.

Luckily, the end piece of roast I had put in the oven was tender, and the baked potatoes were nice and fluffy.   With some salt and lots of butter, a baked potato is a perfectly fine meal, (it must be my Irish Roots).    The Instant-Pot went back in the box…..and might have stayed there had the weather not turned cold again, and I turned into the Soup-Chef.   I am a soup lover, and we were still having winter here.   What is more warming than a hearty bowl of soup.   Since then I have made Loaded Potato Soup (the potatoes cooked in 8 min, but I would have nixed the cream cheese), Potato and Leek Soup (again 8 min potatoes but I cheated and used a Knorr Cream of Leek dried soup mix to flavor the broth because I didn’t have any leeks, next time ½ package as it was too onioney),

Split Pea and Ham soup (using the leftover ham from Easter, too thick, too many peas), Cheesy Cauliflower Soup (the best so far, but maybe less onion), and Beef Stew (with cheaper stewing meat, but it was too watery, had to remove some broth before I thickened it, and with recommended cooking times ranging from 12 min to 45, I chose 20, and although the beef was very tender, the potatoes had turned to mush.   Next time I will cook the beef for 15 min and add the veggies for 5 min).   After the countdown is done, the keep warm function will come on, so you can add the milk, cheese or other ingredients to thicken the soup.   I also made macaroni and cheese (perfect pasta in 4 minutes), but when I vented it a thick white liquid (instead of just steam), came spewing out all over the kitchen cupboard (which since my cupboards need replacing didn’t bother me too much other than I had to wipe up the mess).   Page three of the instruction booklet warns that certain foods such as macaroni, noodles, spaghetti, oatmeal, split peas, cranberries etc may foam, froth, sputter and clog the release mechanism, “these foods should not be cooked under the pressure cooker settings unless directed in Instant-Pot recipes.”    I was aware not to overfill it with foods which could expand, but were they suggesting that frothing and foaming like a rabid animal is normal – proceed at your own risk if you have nice kitchen cupboards?    A puzzling, rather ambiguous statement considering the sheer volume of recipes available containing these ingredients.    

The saute feature is also useful for searing the meat first in the pot, as it saves dirtying an extra pan on the stove.  When using Saute of course you must keep the lid off.   There is also a slow cooker function on the pot which I have not used, you have to have the lid in the venting position for that, or you can buy a special glass lid.   There is also a yogurt maker function, which some people raved about.   While browsing recipes someone had made sourdough bread in his, and I wondered about baking as deserts are my thing.  I noticed there is a recipe for Crème Brulee in the small recipe book.

There are seven features on my model, (see pic below), but I see from the Website there are now 9 in 1 models which add cake baking and sterilizing functions, a Bluetooth model you can control from a smartphone or tablet, and a new Ultra Deluxe 10 model which can customize pressure and non-pressure cooking for the perfect combination, as well as 16 different functions, including make perfect eggs and probably also set the table, empty the dish washer and put out the garbage.  Can kitchen robots be far behind? A pot like that deserves a name – perhaps Louis? 

Instant-Pot

Seven different functions

To sum up,  I see this machine as being particularly useful for busy working people who want a nutritious meal on the table fast, especially if you have prepped your ingredients before hand, plus it has the added advantage of fresh ingredients, (perhaps from your Potager), but it is definitely a learning curve and a process of experimentation.   While I don’t think I’m a Pot-Head yet, and might never be, I think if we spend a little more time together we could become quite good friends.

Some additional tips:

The Instruction Manual, like most instruction manuals, is simultaneously ambiguous while also making it seem more complicated than it really is.   Of course, I have not encountered anything which requires real troubleshooting yet.

To be reassuring, it is impossible to open the pot when it is in the locked position and under pressure.   It also makes a cute little chirping R2D2 sound when you lock the lid or remove it.   Do not open the pot until the float valve drops down and all the steam is released, either naturally or a quick release.    To do a quick pressure release is not difficult, but you do have to be careful of the steam, use tongs or oven mitts to move the valve to venting, and keep your face away.   Be careful also when taking the lid off the pot, in case it is steamy.   Pay attention to your recipes and follow whichever release is recommended for the food you have in it…..a natural release might result in overcooked food, and vice versa.   Some recipes combine the two, calling for a natural release of 15 min, then finishing up with a quick release.   After a couple of uses, I was not worried about the pot exploding anymore, as it is quite sturdily built, and you cannot open the pot when it is locked and in the sealing position.    I even put the safety glasses away.

The official Instant-Pot website has lots of recipes, a help line, and FAQ’s.   I found the Youtube videos helpful also, more for quantities and cooking times, but make sure you look at the finished product as my beef stew recipe did not need 3 cups of water, (and that was one of the few Mini recipes I found).    You must have the required minimum of liquid in the pot to achieve pressure, but that was overkill for the Mini.   (The tech help line said a minimum of 1 cup for mini, 2 cups for the larger size).

The advantage of the smaller 3 qt Mini is that it takes a shorter time to reach pressure, (less than ten min), so this cuts way down on the meal prep time.   I made soup in 30 minutes.  Whereas the bigger pots (6 to 8 qts) can take up to 20 minutes to reach cooking pressure before they start the cooking countdown, so factor in the preheat time when deciding which size pot you want to buy, as well as the size of your family, and whether you want leftovers.

I am still skeptical about cooking plain meat, unless you like to add lots of spices, like in a curry or stew.  (I tend to be more a plain meat/potato/veg person).  As well as pasta, I am sure the pot would be wonderful and fast (4min) for rice dishes, as well as baked potatoes.   I cooked my potatoes for the potato soup in 8min, but some recipes said 5min.    As for the soups, I don’t think you get the same mingling of flavors as you would if you simmered the soup on the stove for several hours, but the quickness of the cooking might outweigh the difference.   For that reason I wonder if the new Ultra Deluxe 10 in 1 model with it’s customized programs might be more beneficial in terms of taste, as you would have the best of both worlds, the flavor of a slow cooker and the speed of the pressure cooker.  

I am not sure if Instant-Pot’s are popular elsewhere or if this is a North-American phenomenon?   I read somewhere they were invented by a Canadian company.   They were certainly one of the most popular Christmas gifts last year, and everyone I run into has a relative who got one for Christmas and loves it and gushes about it (members of the cult), or hasn’t taken it out of the box yet.   I had an interesting conversation with a lady in the grocery store aisle when buying dried split peas.  I asked if she knew the difference between the yellow and green variety, and she replied that her family wouldn’t eat anything that green unless it was St. Patrick’s Day, a valid point, so I bought the yellow ones.   She had been given an Instant-Pot three weeks earlier but hadn’t used it yet, it was a re-gift from her sister who had been afraid to open it at all.   Fear seems to be a common theme.  One woman posted ecstatically on the Facebook group that she had found one in the original box at a thrift shop for $5.   If you don’t want to spend too much, or think it might end up living in the Cupboard of Unused Appliances, you could check out the thrift stores for donations by those who feared too much, but beware the safety mechanisms have been improved on the newer models, so I would check the age of the model.   Also if you see a sale in a flyer, act fast as they sell out quick.   So, chose your side – Team Instant-Pot or Team-Stove.   For me I think it will be both, the Instant-Pot for quickness and convenience and the stove for a leisurely afternoon and a house filled with the aroma of something good cooking.

(Disclaimer:  I received no remuneration for this review, unless you count the bone the dog greeted me with on my next visit to the neighbors – see you can teach an old dog new tricks).  

The Potager

garden square

        A potager is a French term for a kitchen garden.    Because of my intention to take a break from all things floral, (see the Danger Zone blog), I decided my gardening project for this year would be a vegetable garden.  Flowers are pretty to look at but hopefully this will be a more productive endeavor, with the end result being healthier meals to enjoy plus the added fun of growing my own food.   Who doesn’t like the convenience of a salad freshly picked from their own garden? 

salad on plate

Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette

             My first foray into vegetable gardening was last summer as I had bought a raised garden bed and started with some romaine lettuce and two strawberry plants, lettuce and strawberry plants

 

plus twelve tomato plants, obviously way too many for such a small space, as a Tomato Jungle (see Sept blog) quickly ensued. 

tomato jungleSo needing more space, last fall I bought three more raised garden beds at the New England Arbor Charity sale (75% off, $25 each) and after dumping seventy bags of $1 dirt and compost into them, they were the regular price.  Never underestimate how much dirt a 4X4 square can hold, or how quickly it can settle.  garden squares and lilacs I placed them in the sunniest spot in my yard, but the aroma of lilacs in the back corner is an added perk. 

               I am not completely unfamiliar with gardens.   Growing up on a farm (the homeplace), we always had a large vegetable garden.   It was a way of life back then, as anyone whoever spent the hot summer months canning and preserving can testify, plus it was a healthy and cheap way to feed a family.  The farm garden was always planted in the cornfield closest to the house for easy access, spread out among the rows of corn, so as not to waste precious corn acreage.   It was never planted until the first of June when the danger of a late frost was over.   Sometimes we would help my dad plant it, he dug the holes, and we put the seeds in and covered them up with dirt, but other than that I don’t remember it being any work, it just grew.   We didn’t weed or water it as it was in the cornfield, mother nature did the rest.    It had the usual garden staples, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow beans, sweet corn, squash plus pumpkins for Halloween.    The beans and tomatoes were canned, and my mother made dill pickles with the cucumbers.   Many a hot August day, in the years before air conditioning, I would wake and go downstairs to find rows of inverted mason jars covered with tea towels on the kitchen counter-top, as my mom would have been up early to can in the cool of the morning.  Later they would be moved to pantry shelves in the basement.   I don’t remember eating the canned goods, (as a child I was a picky eater), but I  recall my parents having the stewed tomatoes with onions and a fried steak, and we would always have the sweet corn in August, slathered with butter.  So, I had great ambitions for my little white squares and visions of a bountiful harvest. 

Garden squares

       Last year I had bought two ever-bearing strawberry plants and had berries right up until October, (what a wonderful idea, why didn’t someone think of that sooner), that is if the birds didn’t get them first.   So this year I bought two more, but covered them up with garden netting.   A few days ago, a big black ugly starling lured by the sight of all those green berries, managed to get under the netting, and in a mad flapping panic tried to get out through the chicken wire.   I undid the top netting, but the stupid bird still couldn’t find it’s way out, so I turned the garden hose on it and sprayed it (gently, on shower not jet) towards the opening.   Bet it doesn’t try that again!   (I could understand a little brown sparrow or a hummingbird getting in but a starling the size of a crow?  It must have been part of the Cirque du Soleil acrobat team).  

 Into the same bed, went some romaine and red leaf lettuce.  Lately I have been buying red leaf lettuce at the grocery store, but it is also nice to mix the two.  The romaine I grew last summer was the best I had ever tasted, or maybe it just seemed that way as I grew it myself.    Because I had these in early before the holiday weekend, they are almost ready for picking. lettuceHopefully, they will regrow after, but I intend to fill in two of the other squares with some more in a few weeks to stagger the crop. 

Into the second square went the tomato plants, big fat Beefsteak for sandwiches and smaller Roma for salads.   I gave up on those tasteless little cherry tomatoes, you can buy those year round in the store, but a big fat home-grown tomato has a distinctive taste and aroma and is a truly wonderful thing.Tomatoes

Into the third square went two rows of carrots, because they are good for your eyesight, one orange, and one multi-coloured.   I imagine they will look pretty curled on a salad like in the food magazines.  carrots

I am hoping these bunnies aren’t high jump Olympic champions in fence hopping. 

bunny and garden square

Somebunny is waiting for me to plant the carrots.

Also, into that square went three seed potatoes, barely breaking ground now but at least they made it. Potato Plant  My dad never grew potatoes, perhaps lingering ancestral memories of the  Irish potato famine, so I have no experience with growing potatoes.  Maybe I will get enough for a potato salad?  

Into the fourth square went my Acorn squash for Thanksgiving, (not butternut as most people prefer), plus one cucumber plant designed for small gardens, so hopefully it won’t sprawl too much.

I did not plant any radishes, because my memories of the farm were the radishes were always way too hot and/or tough depending on the rainfall, nor butter beans as you can buy those in the store cheap and they are often tough as well.   My mother often planted gladioli and zinnias in her farm garden, but I have had zero luck with zinnias, although I do have glads planted along the back fence.   What I planted seemed like enough for a first-time endeavor – I am looking forward to the harvest.   (Next week I will tell you about a new way to cook all your nutritious produce, in my blog, Under Pressure, Instant-Pot for Beginners).  

Lately, I have been neglecting my book recommends.   This book, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, plus his first book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma really changed how I think about food and eating.   Perhaps a bit out of date now, with the current popularity of the high protein Paleo diets, but it made me really stop and think twice before eating any processed food.   Much better to eat food in as natural a state as possible, and for those who don’t want to grow their own food, the farmer’s markets are now open!   

  In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

 

Four Quotes and a Wedding

A month ago, Chomeuse with a Chou, knowing how much I love quotes, challenged me to a repeat of the Three Days Three Quotes Challenge.   The whole month of May was devoted to gardening and all things floral, so I set it aside to ponder while digging in the dirt.    And speaking of dirt, while viewing the Royal Wedding on Saturday, this Jane Austen quote came to mind as being particularly appropriate, because who doesn’t love a little gossip.    Jane Austen quote

While the royals would hardly be considered my neighbors, I do live in a commonwealth country, (which makes me common and them royal), and I remember learning God Save the Queen years ago in grade school, but otherwise the monarchy doesn’t mean much here in Canada anymore, other than the occasional royal visit, which are few and far between now as people complain about the wasted tax dollars.   (Imagine how you would feel if people were expected to give you a party but then complained about the cost – would you want to go?)   I am not a royal-watcher but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Queen as she is the same age as my mum and she has been through so much in her sixty-year reign.    So, a few random observations about the wedding of Harry and Megs.

I thought the Queen looked lovely and spring-like in her lime green and purple ensemble – so kudos to whoever put that combination together, plus Prince Philip was looking dapper and quite spry too – no cane two months after hip surgery at 97!

I remember getting up at 5 am to watch Lady Diana’s fairy-tale wedding (and we all know how that turned out, poor girl), but on Saturday I slept in until 7:30 and woke up just as they were saying their vows, so I missed the grand entrance into the church but like fashionistas everywhere all I wanted was to see The Dress.  I think  it is the nicest royal wedding dress yet.   Lady Diana’s was lovely and fitting for a young girl of 21, full of frills and bows and puffy sleeves in the style of the time, but Meghan’s was classic and elegant, in an Audrey Hepburnish way.    It was covered, and form-fitting, but not too tight, and no cleavage, (I hate it when brides yank at their strapless gowns to pull them up), so everyone’s attention was on her face.   (Beyonce-lovers of the barely-there-strategically-placed-cut-out look should take note of what true elegance is).   The veil was exquisite with the additional feature of all that embroidery representing the 52 countries in the commonwealth.  Her hair was lovely too, a simple chignon, but those strands on the one side that she kept pushing back annoyed the heck out of me so I can imagine how she felt, plus they ruined the first kiss by dangling in her face.  Was it a windy day?  Was there a shortage of hairspray?  Or maybe they were supposed to be there, as in one of the official photographs they have pulled them out even more, perhaps a quick repair job?    Conversely, I did not at all like the dress she wore to the evening reception, some high-necked halter thing that looked saggy in front, but I did like that little Jag convertible, very James Bondish.  Imagine driving away to your reception in that little gem.

The bridesmaids and pages were cute, but there should be an age limit on that position.  That littlest toddler waddled up the aisle like she was still in diapers.  As for Charlotte, she has that royal wave down pat, but no child should be required to wear a hair wreath with flowers bigger than she is.   The Mulroney page boys were cute, even if they did photobomb the entrance pic with their missing-teeth grins.    One of my favorite pics was a silhouette of the twins holding up her train at the entrance to the church.

Meghan seemed to be a very composed, relaxed, happy bride, but wouldn’t you expect a bit of nerves on your big day?   I suppose if you were an actress you would be skilled at covering it up.   I recall Kate barely cracked a smile in the church on her wedding day, and looked pale and tired, (plus her and Wills barely glanced at each other so nervous were they), and Diana who was young and nervous (and searching for Camilla), also looked tired under her veil.    In contrast Megan was smiling and looked rested, like she’d had a good night’s sleep.  But perhaps that is the difference between an introvert and an extrovert.   An introvert doesn’t like being the center of attention, (especially when millions of people are watching), while an extrovert actually enjoys it, and as an actress she would be used to having all eyes upon her.   If she was nervous, it didn’t show.   She certainly has a lot of poise, which is admirable in a way.   But all that gaze-into-your eyes and smiling just seemed a wee bit much to me, (like roll playing to the camera), but maybe it just seemed excessive in  contrast to the rest of the royals and guests none of whom looked very excited.   Maybe it’s against protocol to smile on such a solemn dignified occasion?   When they panned the camera over the pews, all I saw was a bunch of blank stoic faces, probably thinking, let’s get this over with and on to the party, although even coming out of the church they didn’t seem like a very joyful crowd.   (This could just have been the Canadian telecast however, maybe others had a different point of view?)

The guests:  Amal Clooney.   If you are that tall, you don’t need sky high heels, even if you do have bored-looking George to cling to if you feel off balance, but no one should ever wear mustard yellow, so pass on the mustard unless you’re at a barbecue.    And why oh why did they keep showing Harry’s old girlfriend – she’s jolly well relieved she didn’t sign up for all that pomp and circumstance.    Oprah, that dress was too tight, and too pink, and that hat way too extravagant.   I didn’t recognize anyone else, but I am not a big TV watcher, and have never seen a single episode of Suits even though it was filmed in Toronto.

Meghan’s mother did well to survive all the attention with dignity and style.  She looked nice in her soft green but should have had a better hat.    She must be commended for raising such a strong, confident daughter, (and Lady Diana likewise.  I hope she was looking down with love on Harry’s special day).   Hers was the only face I saw which showed any true emotion, as she was fighting back tears several times.   Hey, it’s a wedding, it’s okay to get weepy, although Harry apparently wiped a few tears away too.   I felt sorry for her being the only member of her family in attendance, as anyone who has ever gone to the wedding of a friend or colleague and known absolutely no one can sympathize.   I just hope they didn’t stick her at the singles table.    I felt bad about what the media did to Meghan’s dad before the wedding, but have to wonder, if she’s been going out with Harry for two years, and engaged for six months, and if the news reports are correct that her father had never even met Harry, well that should tell you something.   But what would a wedding be without some family dynamics or someone from either side disapproving?   Wedding drama always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen Quote

Although single, Jane Austen had many quotes on the marital state, being the astute observer of human nature that she was.    She was a great defender of marrying for love, which was not a common theme in her time, as women were in need of financial support and expected to marry well to have advantages in life, (ie a carriage instead of a Jag).   Although it must be said, no one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the couple, as a seemingly  ill-suited match might be perfectly happy, while a perfect looking marriage might be hell.    

Hats –  the day was full of women of all ages in silly hats – if you are going to wear a hat, make it a hat, not a six-inch fascinator.    But Kate’s and Camilla’s hats were too elaborate and must have been strategically designed to hide their faces during the service.   They were even looking down when the vows were being said.    Perhaps they were in shock over the sermon, (does love require a 15 minute sermon, or did the happy couple know he was going to go on and on), and that gospel song I haven’t heard in decades and would rather forget.    As Meghan apparently attended a Catholic high school, (where she wore a navy and white uniform similar in ugliness to mine), I’m not sure what religion she is, if any?   If that was a nod to her heritage that’s fine, but it did leave me wondering.   I did however love the wide-brimmed hat she wore at her first post-wedding appearance – very chic.  I have faith in her choice of hats.   Except for the Queen, (I loved the purple sprigs on her matching hat), the rest of you ladies are hereby sentenced to watch reruns of Downton Abbey – take notes – not a bad hat to be seen in all six seasons.

Mr. Darcy – Harry was Harry, a decent chap, red and scruffy as usual.   (I know grizzly beards are in style, but could he have shaved on his wedding day?  His bride was perfection, while he looked ungroomed, pardon the pun).  Appearances aside, they seem well suited as a couple.   What impressed me was the fact they had gone to Botswana, (must be one of the 52 commonwealth countries), for a three week vacation early in their relationship.  Perhaps they just wanted to be alone, but any couple who can safari together can probably live together.   But who knows maybe it was glam camping.  But then she will be glam living.   (Perhaps she was very smiley at a future of not having to work, clean house, do laundry etc.  There’s something to be said for having servants, not to mention an unlimited clothing allowance).   Plus, if you can handle a herd of wildebeests on safari, you can probably handle the paparazzi.    I’m sure she knows what she’s getting into and has the poise and confidence to handle it.    I wish them all the best in their married life.   As Jane said, they have as good a chance as anyone.Jane Austen quote

The weather gods certainly smiled on them – it was a picture-perfect day for a wedding, and there’s nothing like some sunshine to light up the mood of the waiting crowds.    Even the horses were in high spirits.    I noticed they were  having a really hard time controlling some of them in the carriage procession.    I’ve often wondered who cleans up the streets afterwards?   Maybe they don’t feed them beforehand and they were hungry and galloping towards the stables…Rhubarb scones

Speaking of food, I made tea and rhubarb scones in honor of the occasion while watching the two hour recap in the evening, but the recipe was not the best, so I won’t post it.   I should have known better, as it did not have any butter just cream, and the oven temp said 400, which in my oven should be 350, so they turned out burnt on the bottom and soggy in the middle and  rather tasteless overall.  But they were certainly edible with some strawberry jam, and it gave me a chance to use my new blue teapot.    As my grandmother used to say, “there’s a lid for every teapot.”   I think I’ll stop now, as I have exceeded my three quotes. Blue Teapot

The Danger Zone

May really is the merriest month, and if you are a gardener, no matter what zone you live in, it can also be the most dangerous time of year.   The garden centers are starting to bring in their flats of summer annuals and hanging baskets. Hanging Baskets

Visit any nursery anywhere and everything is a riot of color.  The petunias are looking all perky and pretty in their spring finery,

Pink Petunias
Pink petunias

their vivid colors saying buy me, buy me….but beware!   They require commitment….lots of commitment.     This year I intend to save myself a summer of watering and weeding and fertilizing and deadheading and just say no.  I will not succumb,  I will be strong.

I am at the point in my gardening life where taking care of plants has become burdensome.  I enjoyed it when I was working, although I did not always have the time and my flowers suffered for it.   It was a respite to dig in dirt on my days off, a mindless occupation which did not require too much thought.    One year I had eleven hanging baskets, (what was I thinking), and twenty rose and hydrangea bushes I was trying to get started, but it was too hot to water at ten in the morning when I got up, and it was dark when I returned home from work.   But that was also the year my plants looked their best, because I gave up and hired someone in the neighborhood to water them.

geraniums
Pink Geraniums in September

It finally got too expensive, (it was a drought year), but I must admit it was a joy to have hanging baskets still vibrant in late September, instead of raggedy, dried out and dead by the end of July.

Paradoxically, now that I am retired and have more time, I am starting to consider gardening a chore and I don’t think I am alone in this.  A few years ago I found an abandoned garden cart at the side of the road, (which I brought home and spray painted lime green to hide the sunflower yellow).

Green cart
Rescued lime green wrought iron cart

My idea was to get some of the pots up off the ground and out of reach of the bunnies which had multiplied like crazy that year.   The homeowner told me to take it, it was free.   She even delivered it so desperate was she to get it out of her sight.   Having to water all those pots was just too much trouble when they were busy travelling all summer.   I didn’t understand at the time, (a few pots?) but now I do.

At this stage in my gardening life I’d much rather read about gardening than do it.    I’m ready to leave the pretty plants to someone else, not to mention the sweat and hard work, and live vicariously through someone else’s planting adventures.   This gardening book Elizabeth and her German Garden, was first published in 1898 but is still timeless today.    (see Enchanted April blog for more about the author).
Elizabeth and Her German GardenElizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bestseller when it was first released in 1898, this book remains a gardening classic. Of course back then there were the necessary servants and gardeners to do all the hard work, still it remains an entertaining read, and proof that the love of gardening never changes.

 Luckily, most of the things in my yard, are easy care – roses and hydrangeas and peonies and lilacs.   I like all the old-fashioned flowers our grandmothers had.  I have mostly pinks, (double pink Knock-Out roses around both front and back decks), some lavenders (French and English and Rose of Sharon) and a few blues (hydrangeas if the soil cooperates and some struggling delphiniums).    I like the look of an English garden with tall waving blooms, (so Downton Abbeyish),  but have not had much success with this scheme.  Phlox, not good, lupines, disappeared, foxglove awaiting judgement.  This year I intend to buy flower seedlings at the farmer’s market as I realized last year they had a better selection and were much cheaper than the nurseries.

Plants can be divided into high maintenance (those that whine please deadhead me, fertilize me, give me a drink), and low maintenance, (those that can take care of themselves).   Lavender is as low maintenance as it gets, (it loves drought), plus it’s cheap and smells wonderful.

Lavender in a Blue Pot
Lavender in a blue pot

Lavender

Heather is also supposed to be a hardy plant, so after spying some flowering on a neighbors lawn while out for an early spring walk, I purchased a ten dollar pot and plopped it in the ground. HeatherOdds are it will end up neglected but I’m having visions of Heathcliff and the moors next spring…..Heather

The other reason for not buying as much this year is the price – it just gets too expensive, so I will be haunting the plant sales.   When the horticultural society holds its annual plant sale for two dollars, I’ll be there.  I’ll even get out of bed early before the best ones are gone.   (Well I was there by noon and got six pots of purple and yellow iris, a few bluebells and a twig they said was a Rose of Sharon which I suspect might already be dead, but all for a grand total of six dollars, everything is half price after noon, another reason not to get out of bed).

Impatiens have fallen out of favor here due to a widespread blight, but they have now come out with a hardier strain, so last year I did my own hanging baskets with a flat from a popup nursery and the end result was cheap and cheerful.

The only seeds I usually plant are blue morning glories along the back fence, Morning Glory with beewhich almost always put on a glorious show, although they can be very late in the year, (see A Glorious September Morning blog), and this year I’m going to try wildflowers again. Wildflower seed packets

Although I don’t expect it will look like the meadow on the front of the seed packet, I did have some luck one year and it was an inexpensive solution for a poorly drained back corner.   Last year I put in glads for the first time, and dug up the bulbs in the fall, but they were pulpy looking when I took them out of storage, so they will need to be replaced.  

Glads and Impatiens
Gladioli and Impatiens

But I plan on limiting myself to four baskets of geraniums from the garden centers, two for the front urns, and two for the back deck, no more…..fingers crossed.

Geraniums
Pink geraniums

My only splurge will be a yellow with pink centre hibiscus bush, because it looks so exotic like the tropics, and my neighbor got one last year but I always seem to be behind on the garden trends.  Yellow Hibiscus 

One year I bought a bougainvillea plant,

Bougainvillea Plant
Bougainvillea on it’s best behavior

lured by it’s vivid pinkness, but I do not live in the right zone for tropical plants.   It overwintered indoors fine the first year, and even bloomed in February but then it got all spindly and shed until it was moved south to the garbage bin.

So goodbye, farewell, annuals at the garden centre. nursery flowers petunias

I hope you find a good home somewhere else….stay strong!

nursery flowers mixed

Progress report to date:   8 hollyhocks at farmers market $3 total, horticultural society plant sale iris & twig $6, one pot of campanula because it looked so purple but when I went to plant it the entire head of flowers fell off ($5 wasted),Campanula bellflower

six pots of lavender ($3.50 each to replace the ones which didn’t survive our harsh winter),Lavender

and my regular bright pink geraniums ($14) which came in a pink pot this year.  Why didn’t someone think of matching colored pots sooner instead of those boring taupe things?Pink Geranium

The Resistance: a Pink Knock-Out Rose Tree which at $99 is difficult to justify as I already have lots of $20 rose bushes, but there is a bare spot in one corner….. 

Knock Out Rose Tree

 The Debate:  this years hibiscus flavor – Fiesta?   Maybe if it goes on sale….

Postscript:  The best gardener of all, and the cheapest, is good old Mother Nature! Cherry Blossoms

 

May Flowers

April showers bring May flowers, so the saying goes.    Finally we are having some signs of spring here after what must be the longest winter ever.   Midway through April and nothing but single digit temperatures, flurries and freezing rain.  The flowers were up and trying to be brave but why bloom when you can hide.   But today it rained, a soft spring rain, destined to bring the first new fuzz out on the trees, a shade of green that is impossible to describe.  new spring green birch trees

Here’s some proof that warm weather is on it’s way.

Forsythia and Siberian Squill,Forsythia and Blue Flowers

Siberian Squill

Purple Vinca,Purple flowers and tulips

purple vinca

Purple Vinca and Orange Tulips

I like the mixture of colors in this clump of tulips, so cheerful to see while walking on a rainy spring day.

Tulips

This is the best time of year for lazy gardeners, as mother nature is doing all the work. 

All the fruits of last years fall plantings are bursting forth, and we can just sit back and enjoy the show.

Pink tulip

my favorite pink tulip

 

 

The final sign, the love birds are back and nesting.   They arrived during the last ice storm and had that nest assembled practically overnight, hence the messy job.  It was so cold they must have felt the need for some extra layers.  They need to do some spring cleaning and so do I, but first a cup of tea on the deck to listen to the birds and gaze at nature’s masterpiece.

Postscript:  for more pretty flower pics see last weeks post Among the Daffodils

Daffodils and hyacinths

 

 

Among the Daffodils

Daffodils are one of the earliest messengers of spring and after such a long late brutal winter, the warm weather has finally arrived.   I think we are in need of a little dose of sunshine, and perhaps some poetry.Daffodils

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsmith may be famous for the poem, I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud, but I think I much prefer his sister Dorothy’s 1802 journal entry about the walk in the English Lake District which inspired the poem.

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea.”Daffodils

This acre of wild daffodils in a wooded lot is enough to motivate me to start my daily walks again.   Every spring I thank the lovely soul who originally planted these heirloom gems, as they have reseeded themselves over the years in a way that my modern bulbs never seem to do.   They might start out in orderly clumps, Daffodilsbut the squirrels have great fun transplanting them and they eventually end up lonely as a cloud.  Daffodil

They are especially lovely paired with the delicate blue of Siberian Squill, a bulb that can be invasive over time, but who would mind?  Daffodils & Blue Flowers

Daffodils are the most cheerful of flowers, so bright and sunny, waving in the breeze as if they are announcing that spring is here.   No wonder they belong to the Narcissus family, they demand look at me, and we do!  Welcome spring!    

Daffodils indoors

Postscript:  for more pretty pics see May Flowers blog.

 

Enchanted April

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

Despite being written almost a hundred years ago the book, The Enchanted April, is just as enchanting today.   Four very different women, all unknown to each in dreary post WW1 Britain, answer an ad for an Italian villa.   Two are married but taken for granted by their husbands, one is single and beautiful but tired of grabby men, and one is a widow facing a sad lonely old age.  They have nothing in common other than they are starved for beauty and love, and for the fresh air and sunshine of the Italian coast.

Italian Villa - AMc - 2015

Italian Villa – 2015

I watched the movie first, before I read the book, which is what I would recommend.   The movie is from 1992 and while film quality has improved tremendously since then, it is still a lovely period drama, (and if I’m ever reincarnated I want to come back with straight black bobbed hair). 

My Good-reads review:

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book, but I had watched the movie first. A timeless tale with a lovely story line and such vivid descriptions of flowers, gardens and beautiful countryside that you almost felt like you were there.
I ordered the book because it is one of those timeless classics you simply have to own.   It was a bestseller in it’s day, 1923, and was based on a month long trip the author, Elizabeth von Arnim, made with her husband to the village of Portofino, Italy, which soon became a famous tourist destination because of the success of the book.  They stayed at the Castello Brown, (now a museum), which is where the movie was filmed seventy years later.

It’s such a charming story, that it might inspire you to grab three of your girlfriends and go off on your own Italian adventure.   Who wouldn’t want to live la dolce vita?

Tuscan Villa - AMc - 2015

Tuscan Villa –  2015

Of course in the book the villa came complete with all the necessary servants, so hiring a chef to do the cooking would be the sensible thing to do.  (You could invite Amal for tea, she’s British and may be in need of a cuppa and a break from the bambinos).   Isn’t that part of the attraction of period pieces, there was always someone to prepare the meals, wash the dishes, care for the children…..and look after the garden.

It’s not surprising that there were such lovely descriptions of the flowers and grounds in the book, as the author’s first bestseller was Elizabeth and Her German Garden in 1898.   I have not read that one yet, as I plan on reading it outside on the deck whenever it gets warm enough, as inspiration for gardening season.   But I did read her book, The Solitary Summer, last summer which I enjoyed also, which concerned her need for solitude and beauty in the countryside with her April, May and June babies.  Her first best seller was published anonymously, and the subsequent ones as by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.   Because these books are old and often out of print they are best ordered online.

Perhaps there is something about being in such a lovely setting that inspires love.  In the book their husbands became more appreciative, although no one runs off and has an affair, (it was a more decorous time), well only the single one.    I remember reading once in a book on Italy about a medical condition called, Stendhal’s Syndrome, which is an emotional reaction to too much loveliness.   A handful of tourists are treated for this every year in Florence, having been overwhelmed by an excess of beauty.    Finally a medical condition we can all aspire too!   Of course we don’t have to go to Italy to experience beauty in our lives – it is all around us, we just have to pay attention.   Is it possible to surround yourself with an excess of loveliness, especially in a world which so often seems full of evil, hate, and ugliness?   Perhaps not, but  it is an admirable goal to  choose to focus on what is lovely in the world, and so much better for your health!   Buona giornata!

Quote of the Day:   “It is their manners as a whole, their natural ways, bonhomie, the great art of being happy which is here practiced with this added charm, that the good people do not know that it is an art, the most difficult of all.”  (Stendhal on Italy)

Song of the Day:  April Love by Pat Boone

Postscript:   This week I received a copy of Frances Mayes newly released novel, Women in Sunlight, which sounds like it could be a remake of Enchanted April, albeit with older characters.  Certainly, the writer of Under the Tuscan Sun is well qualified to write about Italy, but I will reserve judgement until after I have read it.