Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hello, Rhubarb Tuesday

Yesterday I finally got around to baking with the rhubarb harvested over the weekend, plus some rhubarb serendipitously stumbled upon while out for a walk; we strolled past a tiny house on Phinney Hill, and sitting there in a pot were half a dozen ruby-red rhubarb stalks with a sign that said "Free Rhubarb."

This being Seattle, one might think that a sign reading "Free Rhubarb" referred to a wrongly incarcerated pit bull or the like, but no. It really did mean, "Here. I have a lot of rhubarb. Take some."

In our household, there is never such a thing as too much rhubarb, which is why we grow it both in the backyard and in our P-Patch. As a plant, it's pretty when you look at it up close, with its crimson stalks and tightly curled new stems. The leaves, those famously toxic leaves, are huge green platters, often growing to nearly two feet across. Best of all, it's low maintenance.

Unfolding leaves among stalks
Perhaps because its leaves are poisonous, a rhubarb plant also seems like something of a curmudgeon. Chard, which also has colorful stalks and green spinach-like leaves, just seems cheerful. But rhubarb's a bit sullen. Maybe this impression stems from the time I dug up a big rhubarb plant to move it to a better spot in the garden.

The stalks grow from a thick underground stem called a rhizome. The big plant I dug up had an equally hefty rhizome, which was as orange as a sweet potato, with gnarled roots grasping in all directions.

I really felt as if I were digging up a very angry mandrake root and so heaved it into its new spot as fast as I could; it looked like something from a fairy tale that shouldn't be dug up, ever. Like this thing:

You'd think I'd have a grudge against rhubarb, since one of the pet rabbits I had as a kid died from eating it; he'd gone for a romp in the yard and did a Mr. MacGregor's Garden, slipping in among the vegetables and sampling the rhubarb leaves. (Then again, maybe he'd just realized that he was called Tiffany, a name I gave him when we thought he was a girl. Until he fathered a litter of baby rabbits, that is.)

But rhubarb is so scrumptiously tart and smacks up so deliciously against sweet ingredients in a recipe that all is forgiven. (Sorry, Tiff.) A 1949 cookbook I have declares, "Rhubarb, though it cannot rightly be called a fruit, is one of the most refreshing of plants."

(Maybe it was fate that led me to live in Washington State, which is the nation's leading rhubarb producer with about 60 percent of the crop. Nearby Sumner, Washington, proclaims itself as the Rhubarb Pie Capital of the World. Beat that!)


Favorite recipes include strawberry-rhubarb pie with a crumb topping--not for nothing is rhubarb known as "pie plant." Rhubarb crisp and rhubarb applesauce also can't be beat. Another favorite is rhubarb coffee cake. This recipe is adapted from one in the cookbook The Joy of Rhubarb by Theresa Millang.

(Rhubarb, incidentally, is also the name of the first pony my horse-mad daughter ever rode. Though she didn't hop on him the first time he stood patiently waiting for her at Remlinger Farms. Oh, no. I urged her on by saying "Rhubarb really wants to carry you!"--ignoring Rhubarb's equine version of "yeah, right"--but my 3-year-old would have none of it. She glowered at me and said in a low voice, "YOU ride the pony.")

Rhubarb Coffee Cake
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
Doesn't look like much but tastes amazing.
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream or 1 cup plain or vanilla  yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
2 cups chopped rhubarb

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 Tb flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 Tb butter, softened

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 13 x 9 baking pan. (Ha, I just noticed the book says to grease a 13 x 9 "square" baking pan. I challenge you to find such a thing.)
2. Beat butter and sugar til smooth.
3. Beat in eggs, sour cream or yogurt, and vanilla.
4. In separate bowl, mix dry ingredients, then fold them into the wet ingredients.
5. Add rhubarb and stir, then plop it all into the baking dish.
6. Cut the topping ingredients together either in a food processor or with a pastry blender until they resemble coarse crumbs, then sprinkle over the batter.
7. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a fork comes out clean.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Stop and Smell the Roses, Already, Will Ya? Sheesh.

The last week has felt as if I am being drawn and quartered--no, make that drawn and thirty-seventhed--by frantic little shrews. Between the gmail meltdown, the torn-apart bathroom with the tub spout that rockets across the room every time the shower is turned on, and the general maelstrom of work deadlines, clutter, dogs, cats, checklists, shopping lists, to-do lists, and the like, there has scarcely been a moment to cook a meal from scratch, savor a sunrise, read a novel, or go for a walk.

So I can't say that stopping to smell the roses and all the other flowers now blooming that collectively turn the neighborhood into the startling Technicolor Munchkinland scene in The Wizard of Oz manages to brush away all cares and reminds me to appreciate The Really Important Things in Life. But it's definitely a pause that refreshes.
Tangerine Geum in front garden.
Flower in front garden whose name completely escapes me at the moment.
Blossom of Japanese kerria, back garden.
Wild bleeding-heart, which volunteers in shady spots of the yard.

Lewis's clarkia, a flower native to California that really isn't a fan of Seattle's maritime climate, but which grows nicely if you give it a sunny spot and surround it with gravel. I grow it in a "pot" made of paving stones set on end in the garden, filled in with white pebbles, and it's survived not only the rain but also the dog periodically digging it up and burying bones in its microhabitat.
A  yellow clarkia, companion to the pink one.
Closeup of tangerine geum
Golden-flame spirea
And, of course, rhododendrons--mountains of them, everywhere.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Little Kids and a Very Big Horse

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a beautiful sunny Saturday in rural Snohomish at a stable with sweeping views of the Cascade mountains and a lush green valley.

The occasion was a demonstration of equestrian vaulting, the art and sport of gymnastics on horseback with roots that go back to ancient Rome and Greece.

A friend's little girl, a child as petite and lively as a cricket but flexible as a rubber band, was participating in this event aboard a giant of a horse: a Belgian named Curious George.

The vaulters, all associated with a school called Above and Beyond Equestrian Sports, ranged in age from a wee five-year-old wearing butterfly wings to an adult woman.

The vaulters leaped onto the horse and landed lightly, as if the action were no more difficult than playing in  waves.

Fearlessly, they executed twists, turns, stands, and other acrobatics while patient George walked, trotted, and cantered at the behest of his trainer.

At the event's conclusion, George returned, stripped of his surcingle and other gear.

The big horse never moved his massive hooves as children clustered around him, stroking his broad flanks and chest and reaching up to pat his velvety nose. He delighted in nibbling the blond, wispy haylike hair of one small boy, sending him into rivers of giggles.

Clearly this is a horse who revels in attention.

It was a relief to look back on this weekend because unfortunately I'd started the day by reading an article about the horrific abuse endured by Tennessee Walking Horses at the hands of so-called trainers who employ barbaric tactics to make their horses walk like goosestepping Wehrmacht soldiers.

My photos from that beautiful Saturday reminded me that many people honor and cherish the horses who serve them so faithfully and remain mindful of what the Greek writer Xenophon stressed more than 2,300 years ago in his work On Horsemanship:

"What a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad...The performances of horse or man so treated would seem to be displays of clumsy gestures rather than of grace and beauty. What we need is that the horse should of his own accord exhibit his finest airs and paces at set signals...The majesty of men themselves is best discovered in the graceful handling of such animals."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marsh Meander at Magnuson, May 2012

Magnuson Park in Seattle was once a Navy airfield. Today, it's the site of a 350-acre park complete with lakefront beaches, grassy hills, sports fields, and many old buildings currently being used as offices or awaiting reconstruction for new purposes. Thankfully, some areas that were once concrete have been recreated as wild lands, including a beautiful marsh that weaves through areas of brush and woodland.

It's hard to believe that the artificial playing-field surface east of it functions as a forest floor, allowing water to percolate gently down to the marsh, but it does. The piping of the Pacific chorus frogs who've made the marsh their home is a testament to that.

We went for a walk through the marsh on a sunny afternoon recently, on one of the first spring days that even hinted that you could take off your jacket and sling it over your shoulder halfway through the hike. But the birds have been reveling in spring for weeks despite the gray skies, as evidenced by all the busy bug-gathering, stick-collecting, and singing going on.

Male gadwall swimming among reeds
Male flicker hunting for ants and other insects in the grass
Male redwing blackbird keeps an eye on his territory
I'm pretty sure this is a savannah sparrow, based on markings and song, plus they're on record as living here. This would be a first sighting for me...yay!

This crow harassed a red-tailed hawk mercilessly, but interestingly nobody came to his assistance...usually crows pour in to mob a predator. Crows are highly intelligent, so we wondered if perhaps all the other crows were thinking, "Oh, that's just our stupid neighbor yelling his head off about harmless old Harry the Hawk, who never goes after anything but rabbits and voles. Just ignore him." The hawk was certainly unimpressed by his heckler.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Evil Horse-Poisoning Invader...or Not?

Ever since the summer of 2010 when I discovered that what I thought was a beautiful and rare orchid growing in my garden was actually a high-priority nonnative invasive weed called Himalayan balsam, a plant that according to state instructions should virtually be locked in an airtight chamber and launched into deep space, I have viewed new plant volunteers popping up in the garden with a jaundiced eye.

The Mystery Plant of 2012
Is that pretty little blossom a native species that sprouted, liked what it saw, and decided to thrive? Or is it a green monster that will overwhelm all my other plants, clamber out of the yard, and lay waste to local habitats, possibly threatening to take over the Pacific Northwest as kudzu has claimed the southeast? Will some sort of secret gardening Polizei discover that my garden was the source of this herbaceous tsunami? I couldn't bear to have all those green thumbs pointing at me accusingly.

So when I noticed plants with cheerful blue flowers and hairy green leaves growing around the young maples near the back fence, I wasn't sure whether to be pleased or concerned. Should I practice "better safe than sorry" and yank them out?

Hmm. I have an embarrassing memory of heroically ripping tall purple blooms out of my first garden during my first year in Seattle, thinking that I was nobly saving wetlands everywhere by ridding the world of the horribly invasive nonnative purple loosestrife. By the following summer, with a year's gardening experience to my credit, I knew that I'd actually destroyed a lovely bed of foxgloves--also not native, but not a wickedly invasive and harmful one.

This year's mystery plant reminded me a lot of a forget-me-not. Small clouds of tiny forget-me-nots drift across my garden, all descendants of a variety purchased at local garden shops.

But this new plant was much bigger, a hefty, fuzzy whorl of leaves nearly as big around as a full-grown small species of hosta. It wasn't until its flowers opened about two weeks ago that it hinted it might be related to the petite forget-me-nots.

Not half an hour after examining the flowers this weekend, on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, I sat down with a cup of coffee and a library book called The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock. It tells the story of one Mary Delaney, who invented the art of collage in 1772, at the age of 72, when she began snipping and pasting paper to produce botanically accurate "floral mosaicks." I turned page 35 to find a plant much like my new volunteer staring back at me, as if Mrs. Delaney had returned from the beyond to help identify it.

Her plant was a Hound's Tongue, Omphalodes verna, also known as creeping forget-me-not and Mary Blue-Eyes (and, oddly, the unattractive "creeping navalwort").

Research quickly revealed that my plant was not a creeping forget-me-not, but was likely to be a variety of houndstongue. And...

(dramatic, foreboding music here)

...there's a houndstongue on the Washington State noxious-weed list.

It poisons grazing animals. It produces burr-like seeds that cling viciously to fur, wool, and pants legs and can injure animals' eyes and lips. It contaminates hay. It's supposed to be destroyed. Yikes!

But mercifully: case dismissed. The rotten no-good houndstongue is actually a burgundy-flowered plant of European origin. The flowers in my garden bear a greater resemblance to the Pacific Houndstongue, Cynoglossum grande. So perhaps a really-truly native species found its way into this shady area in my garden and took up housekeeping in that spot because it reminded it of  home.***

Pacific Houndstongue grows in wood and forest fringes from southern British Columbia to central California, so it's in exactly the right place to flourish. The name "houndstongue" was applied to this plant because of its resemblance to its European cousins, whose name in turn was inspired by the shape of the leaves. This probably suggested the "like cures like" belief that the plant could cure rabies caused by dog bite.

Field guide said houndstongue flowers had 5 petals; first one I saw had 6!
Houndstongues and forget-me-nots all belong to the borage family and contain potent alkaloids strong enough to harm the livers of grazing animals (and humans). According to the Audubon Field Guide to North American Flowers, native Americans once used brews made from the root to treat burns and stomachaches; I don't know if the root is less toxic, or if, like any  medicine, a certain amount  aided in healing, with more than that dose causing lethal side-effects.

Another European name for houndstongue is "rats and mice," a reference to the plant's musty smell--or what I guess is a musty smell, because (a) the plant in my yard doesn't seem to smell at all, and (b) I don't know what rats and mice smell like, and my cats aren't saying. One source claims that the leaves and roots can be used to repel rats and mice, so maybe the plant really isn't redolent of rodents and is actually named for its vaunted rodent-repellant powers.

One more rodent reference: The genus of borage plants known as forget-me-nots is called Myosotis, which mean's "mouse's ear" in Greek and refers to the species' fuzzy little leaves. (Wonder if people once used a tisane of forget-me-not leaves to cure rabies caused by being gnawed on by mice.)

Until otherwise notified, I'm going to assume my volunteers are Pacific houndstongues and will allow them to spread freely. Unless it turns out they actually attract rats and mice. Or hounds.

***This just in, as I have been "otherwise notified." Jane Badger of the blog Books, Mud, and Compost. And Horses alerted me to the existence of alkanet (a.k.a. evergreen bugloss),a western European species that was introduced to the UK and the US, where it's especially abundant from British Columbia south to California, just like the native species of houndstongue. Also like that plant, it's a member of the borage family and has the same sort of "forget-me-not" flowers. It's fond of damp, shady sites. Fortunately, as far as I can tell, even though it is not a native plant as I'd hoped, it does not appear on the King County noxious-weeds list, though an annual species in the borage family does.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cake Wrecks, Ultra-Yellow Labs, and Cat-a-Pull-Its

The author in a Zen-like
Becky Home-Ecky cake-
frosting moment. This is
a deceptive sort of calm.
The past few weeks have felt like one of those dreams in which you suddenly find that all your belongings have, for some unknown reason, been placed outside as if you are being evicted, and passers-by are examining them in wonder, picking them up and putting them down, always with the prowling threat that somebody might take something, and it's your job to run around and try to gather everything up and bring it back in the house, only you can't because people are constantly trying to catch your attention like you're a sales clerk during the annual Filene's Basement Running of the Brides. Plus whenever you try to use your phone, you keep misdialing the number, again and again, until you finally get it right but then the person at the other end can't hear you.

Which is to say, the past few weeks have been much like those of any other mom trying to balance a tray full of Responsibilities over her head while navigating her way through a restaurant crowded with people snapping their fingers, unexpectedly flinging an arm or shoving a chair into a pathway, and spilling their beverages.

And all that prologue is to justify a totally random posting of pictures. (Can something be a prologue if it is also pretty much the epilogue? I don't know. Discuss amongst yourselves.)

First off is The Cake.

Behold, Cake Rex.

When my family gathered for Easter this year, we decided to celebrate a host of birthdays as well, because during our year of mourning nobody really felt much like celebrating anything.

The celebration of five birthdays requires an extraordinary cake. So I baked and constructed a four-layer tower of a cake, slathering it with homemade icing that I tried to dye purple but which came out more of a lurid pink.Such confection perfection clearly needed to be set upon a worthy throne, so I hauled out the jadeite Martha Stewart cake stand.

The cake stand had done something weird a few years ago. It was sitting in the china cabinet, supposedly content with its lot, while I sat in the living room, minding my own business, reading a book. Suddenly I heard a loud clunk.

The cats were riveted in front of the cabinet, staring in horror, so I knew just where to look for the origin of the mysterious sound. And there stood my cake stand--or rather, half a cake stand. A huge chunk of the plate had sheared off along some hidden fault line, without anybody or anything touching it. Anything that a normal person (or cat) could hear, see, smell, or touch, that is.

I wrote to the catalog company that had sold me the cake plate, but they were Not Helpful. In fact, they told me they were not responsible for the plate because the catalog was now out of business (correlation, causation, anyone?) and they couldn't tell me who'd manufactured the stand, either. So I glued the thing  together and stuck it back in the china cabinet.

It seemed sturdy enough when I set the giant cake on it. When I sliced the cake into quarters, releasing some inner tension inside it, everybody gasped as each quarter leaned sideways, threatening to fall off the stand. Clearly each Leaning Tower of Piece-a-Cake needed to be sliced rapidly for serving, so I quickly bisected one of the quarters.

That's when the cake stand sheared in two again and the entire cake sprawled across the table. Cake Rex had become a contender for Cake Wrecks.

Waste not, want not. We wanted cake. We ate it anyway.

Other holiday festivity included discovering that our yellow Lab was even yellower than usual:

This is what happens when a teenaged girl discovers that the stamens of stargazer lilies brought in for Easter produce dusty gold pollen that works as a dye when rubbed on a surface.

Django, meanwhile, discovered a roll of ribbon just within reach on the basement stairs if he stuck his whole arm underneath the basement door to snag the end of the ribbon with one claw. He did his best to drag it to the water bowl to dunk it, but though the ribbon cooperated with him for most of its length, the roller it was on would not squeeze under the door, and so he was frustrated in not being able to achieve his goal.