Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We have a walnut tree at the front of our house, a tree that I both love and hate.
There’s not much yard between my house and the sidewalk; our porch has wrought iron railing, and it’s at a corner of the railing and to the edge of the sidewalk that this tree thrives.

The Walnut has more than doubled in size since we’ve been here. When we first moved in, the kids could step from the railing to the crotch of the tree, giving whichever one of them called it first a really cool seat when we were all on the porch together.

In those days, the tree shaded about a third of the house for part of the morning. Our house faces east, and in the south east corner of my porch, the morning sun has never shone when the tree is in full leaf.

We used to spend every nice summer evening—and more than a few thunderstorms—on that porch, under that tree, sipping coffee, reading, or just talking. My beloved and I believe it was our near-constant presence and chatter that helped the tree to grow so well.

Now, the crotch of the tree is forever out of reach, unless one wishes to execute a dare-devil manoeuvre from the roof of the house; the porch is completely in shade in the morning; and, sadly, branches are threatening to rub on our roof.

We’re going to have to have the tree trimmed, and despite whatever valiant noises Mr. Ashbury makes, I think we are going to have to call in professionals to do so.
That’s for this spring, I think, before the new leaves come out.

As I write this, I can tell you that not only does the tree shade the porch, but my office window, too. Yes, it stretches that far to the north—my office is to the north of the front door. And as I write this, there are walnut leaves, one by one, floating serenely to earth.

The odd thunk on the roof is the sound of walnuts falling to the ground…eventually.
Most of the walnuts are quickly gathered by the local squirrels. Every time I go out to get in the car, I toss any I see on the road back onto the lawn. It’s not only being kind to the furry little rodents; it’s making sure the road in front of my house isn’t dotted with those ugly brown splotches of squished walnuts.

This tree is the last one to bud in the spring, and the first one to drop its leaves in the fall. Actually, it starts losing those leaves before fall—just as soon as Mother Nature decides the walnuts have grown enough.

My Walnut began shedding its leaves about two weeks ago; and, lucky me, it will continue the process for at least another month and maybe even longer.
If I were the fastidious sort, I’d be committed to getting out and raking those leaves at least once every weekend. However, as you may have guessed, fastidious I am not.

A few years ago I tried to be a neatnik. I made myself get out there and I worked hard. I raked and bagged my walnut leaves when the tree was mostly nude. I filled nine bags, and set them to the curb to be collected. I then took the opportunity to admire my front yard, so neat and tidy.

Until the next weekend, by which time the many maple trees in the yards across and down from me had dropped their bounty of red, yellow and brown leaves.

I told myself, as I raked furiously this second time, filling another several bags, that I really didn’t mind cleaning up the mess from my neighbour’s trees; after all, I had enjoyed sitting on my porch and looking at those maples in full leaf for most of the summer.

That particular and very personal and silent mantra didn’t make the chore go any faster, or become any easier to do, of course.

But it did give me a sense of satisfaction—and I’ll take all of that I can get.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, my beloved and I traveled to a farmer’s market that we like to visit a few times a year. Sometimes, we go there to buy meat; sometimes we want to look at tools, or crafts, or baked goods.

This particular trip was for veggies. The crops available there, directly from the farmers, are fresh, plentiful, and reasonably priced. Specifically, we drove for forty-five minutes to buy cucumbers.

I’d mentioned to my DH about a week before that I wanted to make sweet pickles again this year, the ones I made last year that had been such a hit with the family. Last year, I’d purchased a six quart basket, and ended up with something like 10 - 1 pint jars of pickles. At that time, I had also attempted to make pickled beets, but we won’t talk about that.

Oh, all right, I’ll tell you. I second-guessed the recipe and added more cloves than the recipe called for. Ugh. Ick. Enough said.

My beloved thought I should expand my repertoire and make dill pickles this year, too. I’ve made them in the past, of course. I should perhaps mention at this point that I last made them more than 20 years ago. But it’s just like riding a bicycle—or so I told myself.

I was impressed with the selection and the bounty at this very large, and very diverse indoor/outdoor market. We took our “granny cart” with us, and in short order had what we needed. I bought two sizes of cucumbers, “number 1” and “number 2” which are baby dill size and the next size up. I bought a peck of each.

Do you have any idea how many cucumbers there are in a peck? A whole heck of a lot more than I thought there were, that’s for sure.

My granddaughter came over to help me. She just turned 11, and she loves to cook. She proved an able assistant, and chopped the green and red peppers and peeled the tiny pearl onions (for the sweet mix).

I knew of course that I had more cucumbers (the #2s) for my sweets than last year. But somehow, in the fond memories of how well everyone, including me, liked those pickles, I’d forgotten just how much work was involved in scrubbing and slicing those little green buggers. But finally they were scrubbed and sliced and mixed with pieces of green and red pepper and small succulent onions. I sprinkled the entire mixture with pickling salt, coved them with ice, and sighing in appreciation of a job so far well done, let them begin to sit for the prescribed three hours.

Then I turned and saw the laundry basket full of #1s waiting to become dills.
I think I’ll leave the play by play recounting right there. My beloved stepped up to the plate and helped me with the work. By the end of the day, we had 12 quart jars of dills, 24 pint jars of sweets...and a lot of cucumbers left over.

I didn’t pay a lot for the produce, really. Logically, there was no reason I couldn’t just call the rest compost. Emotionally—wasting food simply isn’t how I’m wired.

I recalled the wonderful green relish I used to make—excellent by the way, my American friends, on hotdogs and hamburgers. I thought, well, there’s not that many cucumbers left. Surely it won’t take that long scrub, slice, scoop out the seeds, and chop. [On the heels of the effort just put out you would have thought I’d learned my lesson].

It took most of a morning to do that. But once everything was in the pot, it became simply a matter of slow simmering and stirring... off and on for the next three days.
I now also have 12 pints of green relish on my shelves, keeping the dills and the sweets company.

For any who are interested, the recipe for my mom's relish is below.

Despite the exhaustion, I experienced a sense of accomplishment that money can’t buy. And I’m pretty sure that come next autumn, I’ll be repeating the exercise—but with a fewer number of cucumbers.


Morgan’s Mother’s Green Relish

This is the recipe I used to make relish this year, and this is how I did it. I didn’t have anything written down; I thought I had my mother’s recipe inked in my cook book, but sadly, I did not.

I’m a kind of ‘pantster’ when it comes to cooking. Seriously, you probably need to be one, too, as the quantities are all subjective. I can tell you that I had enough veggies chopped in pieces, before putting them into the food processor, to fill a 3 gallon pail.

One thing I should warn you about, straight off. The aroma of this relish, as it cooks, permeates the entire house. There is no escape from it. None.


Green peppers

Red Peppers

Onions (I use cooking onions)

1 – 2 cloves garlic

1 cup pickling salt

Ice chips to cover

3 to 4 cups White vinegar (depending)

1 to 2 cups Cider vinegar (depending)

3 to 6 cups White sugar (depending)

Bouquet garni of 2 tbsp pickling spice, 1½ tsp whole cloves, 1½ tsp celery salt, ½ tsp turmeric.

1 Cinnamon stick (or pieces of cinnamon bark)

Canning jars (pints or the smaller jam size)

The Process

First, sterilize your jars. To do this, they must be immersed in boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes. Can you sterilize them in the oven? I don’t know if it works as well, or not, but I have heard that some people do.

How many veggies you use is up to you.

Scrub and slice the cucumbers lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Wash and hull the peppers, and peel the onions and garlic. Chop these to a size you can easily then put through a grinder or chop in a food processor and mix them all together in a bucket or a big pot. While they are in this pre-mushed state, sprinkle the pickling salt over top, and cover with a layer of ice. Let stand about 1 hour. Drain well. (I poured some cold water over it all after the hour and then drained it.)

Either put them all through a grinder, or chop in food processor. You want everything about the size of coarse oatmeal, or not much bigger than.

Place the ground/chopped veggies in a heavy pot. Use cheese cloth to make your bouquet garni. If you are using the cinnamon bark, as I did, put that inside the cheesecloth, too.

Add vinegar and sugar to your veggies; you can increase or decrease these depending on how much veggie mash you have, and depending on your tastes.
Add the bouquet garni.

Bring the mix to a slow, low simmer, and stir occasionally so that it doesn’t burn or stick. Now here’s the part that may not pass muster with some: I simmer it for about 4 hours on day 1.

Then I turn it off and let it rest until day 2. Then I repeat the slow, low simmer for 4 hours on day 2. You may cover the pot for a little while, but basically you’re working on reducing this relish, so that the liquids mostly turn to vapour.

**On day 3, I simmer for about 2 hours and then ladle it into jars and seal. You don’t need the water bath, really, because you’ve simmered it for so long. If your jars and relish are hot, and your snap lids in simmering water, you can fill, wipe the rim, put on the lid, then the screw band and viola your jars will seal.

My mother used to sometimes use jars that weren’t canning jars. She would sterilize them, and then she would cover the relish with a layer of paraffin. I have done that in the past. I didn’t do that this year.

I put the two ** where I did, because I cooled a spoonful of the relish then tasted it to make sure

I was happy with the flavor. Since I was, I put it in jars. You might want a bit more time. Really, as long as the basics of canning are followed: sterile jars and equipment, food that has been simmered, and lids that seal, then you should feel free to experiment.)

The relish does not need to “sit” to be ready; it’s ready now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I’m careful, when I write these essays, not to choose as a topic anything that might seem as if I’m trying to profit in any way from other people’s tragedies.

Truthfully, while the concept of my weekly essays originally was to make my name known, I no longer look at Wednesday’s Words as being primarily a promotional tool.
The column stopped being that the day I told you about my son, Anthony, and the heartbreak of losing a son who had himself lost a daughter.

If I had to categorize WW, I guess I’d stick it in a box labelled “dues”.

I am a writer of genre fiction, and while I do put a lot of effort into creating characters that are empathic and a plot that keeps the reader’s interest, while I take care to toss in some real-life issues, basically I write books to sell them.
No one pays me anything for Wednesday’s Words. This is the writing that comes from my soul, and the sharing of one’s soul ought only to be a gift.

This past Sunday, the United States marked a terrible anniversary. There have been commemorations and reminiscences by those who were there, and those whose loved ones were victims of that despicable violence. In the wake of their eloquence, my words seem, to me at least, inadequate.

I’ve been trying to recall what the world was like pre-9/11. The picture is hazy. We were na├»ve, I suppose. We felt safe, and secure, confident that terrorist attacks happened elsewhere, never here, never in North America. Even after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, we still clung to our belief that we were safe, here in our two countries, from such violence.

We weren’t safe, of course, and now in this “post 9/11” world we understand that while we may be relatively secure, we’re not immune from the senseless and futile acts of hatred that others commit. The truth is, we never were.

The attacks of September 11, 2001affected all of us, each in different ways. It changed us, and continues to change us in ways we could never have imagined. We’ll none of us ever forget those horrible moments, when stunned disbelief gave way to hideous reality. In those minutes and hours when we waited to find out “what’s next”—when we didn’t know if there was more destruction to come, we had a glimpse of the apocalypse.

And yet, as the sun continued to rise and to set, we heard stories of human amity and love in the aftermath of tragedy. In Gander, Newfoundland, a city opened its doors and its hearts to strangers who were stranded when airliners were ordered to land, the travel itineraries of thousands halted; volunteers from every walk of life undertook a pilgrimage from all points west, north and south to go to New York City, to lend their hearts and souls, their hand and their backs, to the massive task of rescue and recovery.

It’s human nature to look for these moments of grace, and to not only celebrate them but cling to them.

For to find grace in the midst of devastation is, I believe, to assert the immutable triumph of the human spirit.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The calendar says that autumn will arrive on Friday, September 23, 2011 at 9:04 a.m. However, I believe the season already arrived on August 19th. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.

Sitting here at my desk writing this, I can now look out my window (though I promise you that I am not staring at the scenery too often). Looking at the beautiful, cloudless sky, I know that it’s a much paler shade than the deep cornflower blue of summer.

The days aren’t nearly as hot as they were just a couple of weeks ago, and the evenings have turned quite a bit cooler.

My duvet is right where it belongs, back on my bed.

We have a fall fair here in town every Labor Day weekend, and it’s the biggest fair in the county. My beloved swears that it’s always chilly on Fair weekend. He was right again this year, because as Monday dawned, a cooler air mass settled over our area. Anyone wanting to attend that outdoor event on Labor Day likely would have needed a jacket.

Regardless of the temperatures, it’s the color of the sky and the scent of something in the air that tells me that as far as Mother Nature is concerned, it’s already fall.

Autumn always takes me by surprise. Didn’t summer begin just yesterday? There are never enough hours in the day anymore. Time management is the Holy Grail that continues to elude me. I’m beginning to think that my being busy is not only what keeps me from getting a grip on that elusive concept, it’s the single biggest culprit in making time fly.

I bet you if I were to sit back, kick my feet up, and do absolutely nothing, time wouldn’t fly, it would crawl.

Unfortunately—or fortunately—I’ve never quite gotten the hang of doing nothing.

I’ve taken to wearing a step counter lately, because I need to keep my body moving as much as I need to keep my mind active. There’s a strong tendency, because I spend so much time sitting at my keyboard, to allow myself to slip into a totally sedentary lifestyle. The step counter makes a bit of a sound when I adjust my position in my chair, and then I remember to get up and move.

It’s only 9:30 in the morning, and already my pedometer reads 2770, which tells me I haven’t been “doing nothing”, at least not so far today.

No matter the time of year, no matter what day it is, there’s always plenty of work to be done. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t have to look very far to find things to do, either.

One thing about living here in Southern Ontario is that our seasons tend to be very distinct, one from the other. In spring, it seems to take a long time for the trees to leaf. But then you look around one day and see that shimmery green aura on each of them and know the buds have sprouted, and the leaves will soon follow. In summer, there’s an intensity to the heat, and a stillness to the air when the breeze dies down that’s really quite unique from any other time of year.

Autumn brings air that is more likely to carry a nip the closer you get to November. The sky darkens more readily for storms, too, and sometimes those grey clouds turn a lighter shade of smoke-grey—the color I call ‘snow clouds’.

I always considered November to be Mother Nature’s way of taunting us, as she tells us “I’m going to get you, just you wait and see!”

Wait and see, indeed. Here we are, and it’s already September. The kids have gone back to school, vacations for the most part are done, swimming pools will soon be closed, and good grief, the stores are already sporting Halloween merchandise.

Does anyone else feel as if they’re on a merry-go-round that not only won’t stop, it keeps turning faster and faster?

Oops. I think my age is showing again.