Sunday, September 26, 2010

Doughnut Wish aka my triumphant return to VHS

It all started with a VHS player. After a year or two of just having a DVD player hooked up to our little television, I hooked up the combo DVD/VHS that usually sits in our closet. But then I did something crazy - I began watching VHS tapes.

Because I am a crazy pack-rat I have maintained a milk crate full of VHS tapes, lugging them to at least seven different apartments over the past decade. Well, I began pulling them out and watching them. And you know what? They are fantastic. There is something so lovable in the warble, the grain, the "check tracking" screens. It's a nostalgia trip that reminds me of sick days, sleepovers and family movie nights.

To celebrate my return to magnetic tape, my buddy Dave and I spent Saturday evening at McKay Books, combing through the VHS bins. After about an hour I left with an armload of cassettes and limitless joy.

We decided to do up the evening right with a classic combo:

Doughnut Wish

Death Wish + Doughnuts = Doughnut Wish
Pro Tip: a wicked sugar rush makes Charles Bronson imitations even more hilarious.

I now have a stack of a dozen more classic VHS gems to watch: Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Alien, Beetlejuice, M*A*S*H, The Exorcist and much much more. I will report as I continue working through this pile. Until then, please enjoy the theatrical trailer for Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Great Pickle Massacre of '10

On Monday night Matt and I shared one of my "in-progress" pickles. It was crisp and lovely, a refreshing and salty half-sour. I was stoked on the progress and couldn't wait to keep on trying them as the week goes on.

Oh what a difference a day makes.

Due to a combination of unseasonably warm weather (95+ degrees) and perhaps not quite enough salt, the pickles transformed overnight into slimy water-balloons in a funky, cloudy brine. I took a few bites of a half-crisp one just to confirm, and yes, they are ruined.

I expected to feel more upset about all my pickle dreams circling the drain, but I really don't mind. The crux of wild fermentation is experimentation. No batch is going to get quite the same combination of yeasts and bacteria, temperature and temperament. If for every jar of perfect ruby sauerkraut and loaf of sourdough there is a garbage bag full of spoiled cukes, I don't mind. Ain't no thing but a chicken wing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Invertebrates I Have Known and Loved

Lower Invertebrates Exhibit in West Wing, Smithsonian Institution Building
Lower Invertebrates Exhibit in West Wing, Smithsonian Institution Building

In another life I am a biologist. Even after 3 interstate moves in one year I still faithfully pack my 1935 edition of The American Natural Wildlife and Audubon's Birds of America. I am one of those naturalistic intelligence birds, if you buy into that whole theory of multiple intelligence bag. According to Howard Gardner my mind constantly looks for patterns: not numerical runs of numbers but patterns of inclusion and exception. This type of thinking is particularly keen on sorting the natural world into checklists of carnivores and omnivores, the nocturnal and the diurnal, the poisonous and the harmless.

Lately this tendency has been pushed into overdrive. Removed from the homogenized and antiseptic West End I feel like I am now surrounded by startling new wildlife. I spent part of Sunday afternoon with a guidebook in the park, learning to differentiate white oaks from chestnut oaks from southern red oaks. When the cat cornered a large and spidery insect with a hunched back I pulled out the guidebook and was delighted to discover it was Camel Cricket. A far cry from the fat black crickets of my youth, this beast was all legs and antennae and a close relative to the sinister, blind crickets I first saw in Mammoth Caves.

I have cultivated a warm observational relationship with two spiders living an odd communal life next to our front door. A small gray cellar spider maintains a messy web in the corner, spending the bulk of his day hanging upside-down off the bottom and waiting for moths. However, a lightning-quick wolf spider has made her home in the seam of the siding above and spends the twilight hours perched on the top of the web, waiting to steal a meal of her own. Incapable of spinning her own silk, she gladly uses the web available and the two spiders seem to live a peaceful, if not necessarily mutually beneficial existence. And I suppose this quiet coexistence extends to us too. We don't trouble them beyond shining our bike lights on them in the evening to try to catch sight of the elusive wolf spider, and occasionally tearing down the web when it becomes a little too unsightly (the cellar spider spins a new clean web within a day).

After all, there is plenty of room in this part of town for all of us, the spiders and the crickets, and people and the trees.

Saturday Night at Dino's

Southern Round

Closing Time

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's Kirby Cuke Season!

On Saturday morning I went to the farmer's market without a definite plan. However, when I got there what did I see but bushel upon bushel of KIRBY CUCUMBERS!

It's pickle season!

I picked up five pounds of beautiful little cucumbers and prepared for my first foray into the ambrosia of the gods - the deli style dill.

Step One: get yourself a nice bucket. Shown is my brand new gigantic bucket. In the background you can see my other new bucket. I have a deep love for buckets.

New Bucket

Step Two: prep the cucumbers. I gave them a nice cold water soak and scraped off any lingering blossoms.


Step Three: add the spices. I used garlic (tons), dill seeds (tons), peppercorns (some) and wild grape leaves (the tannins in them keep the pickles crunchy).


Step Four: add yer cukes and brine. I made a fairly salty brine of 3 tbs pickling salt per every quart of water.


Step Five: add the plate and weight. I use a dinner plate to keep the cukes under the water and a glass growler full of water to weigh the whole thing down.

Weight and Brine

Step Six: "the waiting is the hardest part" - Tom Petty
Cover the whole thing with a towel and resist the urge to check on them every couple of hours to see if they are pickles yet.


After a week or so the feasting can begin. For those playing along at home, the recipe is from Wild Fermentation, my favorite cookbook, and can be found here: Making Sour Pickles

Monday, September 13, 2010

Down by the River

It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon and I was sick to death of moping around the house, avoiding chores. So I grabbed my bike and my camera and headed down the Shelby Bottoms greenway.

The river trail is a quick 10 minute bike from our front door, down some lovely shady hills and through Shelby Park. The park and the greenway follow the curves and broad swathes of the Cumberland River. Pedaling alongside, I thought of how this water meets the Ohio in Kentucky, my new river and my old river mingling.

Cumberland River, Nashville, TN

At the five-mile mark I rode up this little hill and stood for a spell on the Shelby Bottoms Bridge.

Shelby Bottoms Greenway Bridge

It was a beautiful day; the river was slow but it was windy on the bridge.

Cumberland River, Nashville, TN

But who is that downstream?

While making my way down the trail I kept spotting a riverboat on the Cumberland, flashes of white where ever the trees thinned and the path veered toward the water. I tried to race her but lost track while biking through a field of tall grass and ironweed flowers and sumac far from the shore. I was elated when I discovered I had beat her to the bridge. As she passed underneath the PA system was playing a weird electronic version of "Rocky Top". A few other cyclists and I waved at the people on the top deck.

Music City Queen

On the way home I took a leisurely spin through Shelby Park, including a jaunt under my favorite park landmark:

Train Trestle
Sidenote: I took a long walk through the park on the first warm day of last spring, and my favorite memory was standing in the tall grass by a swamp watching the silhouette of a train race across that blackened trestle.

After the uphill climb back to our little cottage I found myself revitalized and with the renewed strength to get up and do what needs to be done (ie: listening to the encore of Prairie Home Companion and heating up plates of leftovers in the toaster oven.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Spiderland, or evenings in Nashville

Nashville is covered with spiders. The long, warm days summon herds of moths and butterflies this time of year, and the spiders respond by increasing their ranks, getting bigger, getting hungrier. Leave anything outside overnight and a spider will claim it: flowerpots in a windowsill, a newspaper in the grass. Twice we have found spiderwebs in our car. While sitting on the backsteps a iridescent-green, crab-like spider drifted down to my arm and began to anchor it to the cement.

An orb weaver spent two nights crafting gigantic webs from the front porch overhang to the bushes. The webs were easily three feet across, and seemingly put up instantaneously. We would enter the house at 7pm, leave an hour later and the spider was already perched in the center of her labor. Every morning she would eat the old web, leaving up only two guide-strings in a cross shape. After the second night she did not return, and I still look for her.

Orb Spider Web

Orb Spider Web

Matt has his share of insects as well. Every night a praying mantis or two climb between the panes of glass in the window about his desk to hunt the trapped moths. One small brownish mantis has taken up residence full time; we are careful to leave the curtain cracked at night so the desk light will lure in the little moths.

East Nashville is glorious for biking at night, after the scorching sun has set and the commuter traffic empties out. The neighborhood is more dense then most, and full of trees and small hills and alleyways. Cresting the little hill to our house, I always get a pang of nostalgia for trailer campgrounds: the tiny lots, the miniature houses, the people gathering in backyards or porches for a beer. We have a picnic table in our backyard that has already hosted a few pleasant evenings.

East Nashville in the evening betrays a kind of beauty too, that is hard to see with the sun beating down your back. The silhouettes of Victorian houses in line with little 1920's box cottages. The lights from the quarry across the river. And sometimes, something that takes you by surprise.

East Nashville Church

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Food Beautiful Food

I spent my first three weeks back in Nashville with an unexpected bout of unemployment. True to my New England roots I carry the double-recessive gene for "Protestant Work Ethic"; without work my days become undefined and I transform into a shiftless and miserable creature. Fortunately this was only a short-term situation, and I was able to mediate the damage by taking up a new and unexpected hobby: bread-making.

I always wanted to try my hand at it, but early experiments lead to gooey crusts and bagels you could slide under a door. However, I was emboldened by Sandor Katz's free-wheeling and experimental take on traditional sourdoughs in Wild Fermentation. I cultivated a sourdough starter and within a week baked two lovely loaves of Danish-style onion-caraway rye. A few days ago I pulled out my burbling starter and baked two more loaves of whole-wheat. Look how beautiful!

whole wheat sourdough

In addition to bread I have been up to my old culinary tricks. I have a batch of saurkraut with beets just about ready to eat and I've been spending an unexpected amount of time making hummus, seitan cutlets and other yummy bits from scratch.

I visited the gigantic Nashville farmer's market today. Below is my bounty:

farmer's market 9/2
Not pictured: three pounds of unphotogenic turnip greens

PS: Check out the mega-cute Fairytale eggplants! They are the size of my thumb!

fairytale eggplant (I like you)

They were too cute to keep sitting around so I roasted them and ate them for dinner with some mustard greens. The leftovers will be made into Russian eggplant caviar... and spread on homemade bread.

On second thought, do I really have to start work next week?