Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Walk in the Park

As much as I like spending time in my yard, crouched in the bushes with camera in hand, I decided to expand my horizons this week. My knee still has a limited range of motion and needs to be forced out of its current comfort zone, so I decided to limp over to the local city park to stretch my legs...literally.

I like to walk in the early morning hours, before thumping stereos and noisy families mar the tranquility. Early morning means less humidity and more opportunities to see things that might not be visible later in the day.

This fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) was busily nibbling a walnut when I approached. Fox squirrels can weigh as much as three pounds and are much more brazen than their grey counterparts. This little fellow scolded me loudly for my interruption.

Why was this carpenter bee (Xylocopa) hiding beneath this zinnia instead of gathering pollen from above? He was just having a quick rest. Bees have been known to nap multiple times a day for up to twenty minutes at a time!

Coneflowers (Echinacea) are the real workhorses of the garden. They're perennials that require little care and thrive in the Midwest's relentless summer heat. Bees and butterflies love them, and they're so beautiful. I was charmed to read that the word Echinacea comes from the Greek word for hedgehog. It's easy to see the connection when you look at this flower's bristly center.

Coneflowers provide a perfect backdrop for this patch of Liatris, another workhorse that brings bees and butterflies in droves. If you look closely, you can see a carpenter bee visiting a liatris stalk on the right side of the photo.

When I first saw a mulberry tree, I was amazed. The fruit looked just like blackberries, but was growing on a tree! Mulberries are edible, but they don't have the acidity of other fruits so need a little lemon juice to enhance their flavor.

I have Endless Summer hydrangeas in my yard, but I've always had a soft spot for oak leaf hydrangeas. They are not for the organized gardener, as the branches sprawl untidily in all directions, but they have a special beauty that makes up for this indiscretion. The flowers are delicately veined and come in pale green, cream, and pale pink. I never get tired of looking at them.

There's a beehive at the park, and I love watching the bees at work. I'm biding my time until I can become a beekeeper myself. Bees are endlessly fascinating. At first glance they seem a busy tangle of wings and stingers, but watch! They communicate with each other by performing intricate dances. Incredibly fastidious, they remove dead bees from their hives to maintain cleanliness, dropping them neatly on the ground below. They use their wings to regulate the temperature within the hive. They are remarkable creatures!

The highlight of my day was capturing a shot of this strange-looking creature.

At first glance, I thought it was some kind of spider. But after counting three sets of legs, I knew it was an insect of some kind.

It's an assassin bug (Heteroptera). As you could guess from the name, they are very aggressive insects that lie in wait for prey and then use a long tube called a rostrum to impale their hapless victims. They can inflict a very painful bite to humans, but are good to have in the garden for pest control. They generally don't bother people unless provoked.

All in all, a very pleasant and productive way to get my physical therapy hours in!

Some frustration on the knitting front. I worked feverishly to finish my final knee sock, shaping the long gusset and finally binding off the softly rounded toe. When I held it up to the first sock, though, I discovered that it was a good two inches shorter in length!

I'm mystified, since I followed a numbered pattern. Aggressive blocking gave me another inch, but the difference was still very noticeable. After a panicked Ravelry consultation, I made the decision to snip off the foot of the too-short sock, put the live stitches on holders, frog back and then re-knit the leg, and finally, graft the new leg onto the disembodied foot. I'm steeling myself for this procedure and hope I have the courage to "make the incision" next week.

Incidentally, do you know why knitters refer to the ripping-back of knitted fabric as "frogging"? It's because you have to take your work in hand, look at your mistake, and then rip it back. Ribbit, ribbit, just like the frog says. It's nice to have a charming term for this, because it can be very unpleasant to frog days or weeks worth of work in this manner.

I've been fairly inactive in the kitchen. I did make two rustic sourdough loaves that rose beautifully and produced a wonderful 'crumb' when baked.

This makes a fabulous sandwich bread. Yesterday I grilled two chicken breasts and diced the meat. I mixed it with chopped onions and a homemade spicy chipotle barbecue sauce, heaped it onto slices of my freshly-baked bread, and topped it with organic lettuce from the garden. A nice treat for my husband!

I have another treat for him today. He has been working on his dissertation from home most days, but commutes to work once a week for meetings. Today was another lengthy commute, followed by meeting after meeting. I decided to make him a tasty little morsel for dessert tonight.

I made an old-fashioned skillet cake. Pears, apples, almonds, and spices are sauteed in butter and enveloped in a sweet batter, then baked until the batter puffs golden brown. This is similar to a dutch apple pancake. The real secret to this recipe is nutmeg, and lots of it. The kitchen smelled so good while this was baking!

This recipe is adapted from The Ultimate Cooking Course.

Apple and Pear Skillet Cake
Serves 6

1 apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1 pear, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 eggs
3/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, toss the apple slices, pear slices, and almonds with the cinnamon and nutmeg. Melt the butter in a skillet and then add the fruit mixture. Cook until lightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. While that's cooking, beat together the eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and vanilla. Pour batter over the fruit and transfer skillet to oven. Bake about 30 minutes.

You don't need a fancy cast iron skillet to make this...I used a regular pie pan.

I hope you enjoy it...I know my husband will!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tiny Dancers (A Yarn About Bugs)

I was delighted to wake up to the sound of thunder this morning. We've had unusually hot and humid weather this month. The humidity level has hovered above 90% for days, and daily we get flashes of heat lightning and a few desperate drops of rain. These quick dashes lack teeth and don't provide the desired relief from the heat, though. Studying this week's 94 degree forecast, I realized that I would, if I wished, have ample opportunity to fry the proverbial egg on our sidewalk.

These Midwestern heat waves are great for the garden, but necessitate the use of our central air, which I would rather not use. I like fresh air in the house, and not even a whole box of scented candles can mask the musty, stuffy air that comes when I close up the windows.

So this rain is welcomed, and all windows are now open to let the fresh air drift in.

I didn't need to go into the garden this week to see a little wild life. Closer inspection of a houseplant showed it to be teeming with life...an aphid infestation. With the help of my new macro lens, I was able to observe them closely, gleefully sucking the moist pulp of a wild clover plant. They were absolutely delighted with their discovery. Many of them, in their blissful state, had relinquished their grip on the stem. Anchored only by their mouths, they slowly rotated their bodies through the air...an aphid's rendition of an overjoyed cartwheel, I'd imagine. Their jauntiness was a redeeming quality, but after their photo shoot they were promptly disposed of.

The aphids aren't the only dancers of the insect world. These Japanese beetles (popillia japonica) look like graceful ballerinas with their daintily poised legs and iridescent shells. However, they are actually quite clumsy, and terribly destructive. They can reduce a leaf to ribbons in no time.

This cabbage butterfly (pieris rapae) rests beneath a spray of goldenrod. It is well-named, for it delights in laying its eggs on the leaves of lettuce, cabbage, and other vegetables. The resulting caterpillar can be a menace to gardeners.

I was certain I'd discovered a new, dangerous beetle which I dug around in the leaf buds of my hydrangeas, but alas! It's just the common earwig (forficula auricularia), so named (shudder!) because of its supposed proclivity for the human ear, where, as the rumor goes, it loves to burrow and nest. A little research proved this to be, thankfully, an urban legend. I discerned the sex of this earwig - male - by his curved pincer (females have straight pincers). They are used to capture prey, and what a beautiful color! To me, they look like they've been carved from amber.

Here's a mystery beauty...

A nice weekend! My sister came over for Sunday brunch, which consisted of flaky croissants, savory sourdough pancakes with crushed frozen blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries folded into the batter, and fluffy cheese and bacon omelets.

I also made a quick trip to my local yarn store. I don't usually splurge, but I couldn't resist taking advantage of a good sale.

This Misti Alpaca handpainted fingering weight yarn will make delightfully cheerful socks for someone...

I rarely knit for myself, but I bought this fingering weight Cherry Tree Hill Merino wool to work into a shawl for cool days this fall. I love the color, which reminds me of wheat.

I love the rich reds of this Misti Alpaca worsted weight wool. It's 100% baby alpaca and unbelievably soft. I'm already planning a hat and matching gloves for a lucky recipient!

Finally, my first lace project with a much-coveted yarn...another Misti Alpaca handpainted hank, 100% baby alpaca and sinfully soft. I adore the earth-tone colors here, which remind me of many good things.

Due in part to the heat and my still-stiff leg, I've done little cooking over the past week. It's easier to make a quick sandwich! So, when I volunteered to bring dessert to a gathering of friends, I immediately knew the criteria for my chosen dish: quick, easy, and tasty. A quick scan of my cookbooks and I had it...cinnamon cookies! They're absolutely delicious and most people have the ingredients to make them on hand in the kitchen. A delightfully soft center surrounded by a crispy rim that produces a satisfying crunch...it's the best of both worlds.

Cinnamon Cookies
Makes about 20 cookies


1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the sugar and butter, then mix in the egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking powder, and salt. Add to the creamed mixture and blend well.

At this point, you can refrigerate the dough for 2 hours to firm it up. I never do, and I don't have difficulties with the next steps.

Shape dough into 3/4 inch balls and flatten slightly. Set cookies an inch apart on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or just until edges are barely brown. Remove from cookie sheet immediately, but be careful! The cookies will be quite soft, but they harden a bit as they cool.

Perfect for a picnic. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

When life gives you apples...

It was good to get home from our Pennsylvania trip. I used to travel quite a bit when I was younger, but I've discovered something interesting as I've gotten older and more involved in gardening - a garden does not like to be left alone, and you feel a bit uncomfortable doing so. I loved our time away, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, "I should have staked those tomato plants before I left." "Those petunias REALLY needed to be pinched back." "Oh, I should've weeded one more time..."

Of course, all was well when I returned. My columbines had finally gone to seed and I had to quickly empty their pods before a brisk wind could scatter the tiny black pellets. Columbines are a real joy to have. Their charming rounded foliage is reason enough, but their colorful blooms nodding atop graceful stems and general ease of care make them an absolute necessity in my garden. Once they go to seed, their shy faces look skyward to reveal a rigid starburst with a scattering of seeds nestled in the core.

I was pleased to see a bright splash of orange in the garden...the very first zinnia had popped!

Zinnias are so beautiful. I have a special fondness for their pre-bloom phase. These jagged green shards don't look like much, but within a day they unfurled into a perfect bloom.

I'm always wondering at the mystery of my yarrow (achillea). I didn't plant it, but it grows and spreads every year. Every year a new color pops up. I've got a golden patch, a white patch, and this brilliant ruby-colored patch...my favorite!

This green bush cricket (Tettigoniidae) was having a snack before heading into the tangle of green at the base of the plant. I've read that they eat aphids, so I don't mind having him around.

See you later!

I was not so pleased to see three young praying mantis nymphs (Tenodera aridifolia) scurrying about. I know how good they are for the garden. I've read about how they eat harmful insects, how they don't bite humans and are even kept as pets. They are prized by gardeners, who sometimes resort to mail order to obtain a pair. This is all true, but I don't like them. As a child, a praying mantis became entangled in my hair and I haven't been able to look at them without shuddering since. Their large size, the hypnotic, rhythmic swaying, the way they swivel their heads to watch you pass, and their ability to fly (they are frequently mistaken, in flight, for hummingbirds!) all combine to equal one unpleasant bug for me. I'm trying to overcome my fear.

This little guy is climbing a zinnia...

...while his older brother is, you guessed it, watching me carefully and waiting for his opportunity to pounce!

The heavy rains have brought out the robins, too. Always nice to see them!

I'm in the middle of several knitting projects. I switch off frequently, so consequently...

This old-fashioned baby bonnet lacks a ribbon and a good blocking...

This glove is, sadly, missing a thumb...

...and this sock is somehow unworthy of the name, as it has no foot.

I used to feel guilty about my many works-in-progress, but a nice system has developed. I give myself permission to rotate freely between two or three projects...a little here, a little there...and they are all eventually completed. Variety is the spice of life!

Despite my injury, I've been hobbling around the kitchen. Just recently I've made soft, chewy pita bread and a spicy squash casserole with turkey and fire-roasted tomatoes. I've been in the mood for something sweet, though. I leafed through my cookbooks and passed by recipes for butter-laden cookies, pies, brownies, and cakes. Although they definitely have their place, I wanted something a little lighter and healthier. Then I remembered our surplus of apples.

When life gives you apples...make apple crisp!

This is a great recipe that's quick and easy to make...and eat!

Apple Crisp

4 apples, diced
1/2 - 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
3/4 + 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/3 cup butter, softened

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon into your diced apples, then dish them into an 8 inch x 8 inch pan. Combine the rest of the ingredients and mix well (I used a pastry cutter to mix in the butter, but a fork would work too!). Spread on top of apple mixture and bake for 25 - 35 minutes.

Sitting in my sunny kitchen nook with a sleeping cat in my lap, looking out over the garden, and with a generous helping of fresh-baked apple crisp...a great way to start the day!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Country Drive

When I got the chance to tag along on my husband's business trip to Amish country, I jumped at the chance. A pre-trip tumble down the stairs severely limited my mobility, but I was determined to make the most of my time in Pennsylvania.

I've long respected the Amish for their dedication to a simple lifestyle, and I was looking forward to seeing it firsthand. I had no interest in the tourist traps of Lancaster Country - the "authentic" Amish quilts done in a disconcertingly modern style, the "traditional" Amish buggy rides with a costumed guide. My husband and I got a map of the local country roads and got to work getting lost among the farms.

The farms were so neat and tidy, with crisp white and red buildings. Nearly every farm had clotheslines full of clean clothing that swung gently in the bright sunshine. The Amish use a clever pulley system here, so that a simple tug on the line will bring the clothes directly to the house.

Beautiful boxes of bright flowers accented front porches...

...and front yards.

The corn was just starting to come up. It looked so healthy and vibrant!

The honor system is firmly in place here. Fresh produce, pastries, and handmade goods were available at many farms...no sales on Sunday, of course.

Of course, jerking to the side of the road for a quick photo op drew some curious stares from the locals!

The original settlers to the area used the materials at hand to build their homes and barns, and many of the solid stone buildings still stand.

This old barn from 1792 was absolutely beautiful. It was full of swiftly darting barn swallows...

...and had a cheerful red wooden door, which is a special love of mine.

I spied some funnel web spider nests in the walls. I expect the barn is chock full of them!

I love stone walls. They have their own special charm, and it's easy to tuck some alpine plant starts in their shallow crevasses for colorful cascades of flowers in the summertime.

We spent some time in the small country towns, too. I've never seen so many horses pressed into REAL horse service!

They pulled plows in the fields and buggies in the small towns.

This is one traffic jam I didn't mind being in!

The brick buildings were frequently festooned with pretty drapes of fabric.

We had just enough time for a side trip to Eastern University, where my husband had worked for several years before moving to the Midwest. It was one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever visited!

It had many traditional stone buildings in the local style, including this small rustic mill.

It was a wonderfully wooded campus, and of course I couldn't resist hobbling out to photograph a cluster of lichen on a nearby tree.

I loved how the campus incorporated the natural features of the area. More stone buildings framed this large, lily-filled lake.

Perfect timing...the lilies were in full bloom!

With the lazy humming of dragonflies, it was the perfect spot to curl up with a great book, or have an impromptu picnic.

This little guy was certainly enjoying himself!

An eastern grey squirrel begged for a treat as we were leaving.

Being in the country really renewed my desire to live a simpler life. My husband and I had many good talks about our hopes for the future and how we'd love to live in a rural setting. We'll keep taking trips like these...and who knows what will happen?