Forum Holitorium

Year of the Sock

What is January without New Year’s resolutions? I love the promise of a new start, the chance to shift my focus to different projects after the holidays. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, the still short yet steadily lengthening days and relative cold of winter encourage building a warm nest on a free part of the couch and supplying yourself with a good book, wool, and needles. My thoughts turn back to last January and February, when I took on Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) and embarked upon a series of scarves for myself and for friends. The novel was disappointing, yet another story of a man who projected his own fantastic, illusory ideas onto a woman, refusing to see her as she really was, and who romanticized tuberculosis, which despite better treatment options remains the second leading cause of death by infectious disease worldwide. The scarves, however, turned out quite well.

This year I’m rereading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and my focus will be on perfecting my sock technique in what I have officially declared to be The Year of the Sock. I have resolved to knit 15 pairs of socks in 2015. I’ve completed three pairs already and have enough yarn stashed to make at least five more before I need to go scouting for new wool. TC is thoroughly enjoying his Autumn Leaves socks shown above. I am worried how the yarn will hold up because I knit my very first pair of socks with the same yarn. Unfortunately, they didn’t hold up well. The only reason I agreed to use this wool again is because he picked out the yarn, drawn to the colors. The pattern is Woodsman’s Socks by Elizabeth Zimmermann, the radical DIY grandmother of knitting, a mentor to freethinking knitters, a woman who possessed a fine sense of humor. It is fantastic when you find a pattern that you don’t need to modify at all, and these fit TC perfectly. They knit up so quickly that I don’t think I’ll get upset when they wear out and need to be replaced.

The socks above don’t count – they were finished last year and merely serve as a placeholder for a picture of the other two finished pairs of socks. The latter are made of extremely warm Icelandic wool (to the tune of Swanee: Lopi, how I love thee) left over from sweater projects. One pair is for TC, who must have been good, and the other is for me. The pattern, Leistar, required tinkering with; I ended up knitting the child’s size for me and the women’s size for TC.  Pictures of them will be forthcoming when the replacement lens for our camera arrives. It fought valiantly but lost when confronted with Wisconsin wind and snow. The last picture it took gives you a better idea of how I perceive the world when I don’t have my glasses on.

So three pairs of socks down and 12 to go in the next 11 plus months. I am hard at work on pair #4, black ribbed wool/nylon knee-highs. They represent one small step toward replacing the cotton blend knee-highs and sundry wool socks with holes that I got rid of as I tidied up my wardrobe under the influence of this post. No, I don’t plan to make 12 more pairs for me. That would be overkill, plus my newly organized sock drawer won’t be able to handle more than four more pairs. I’m confident there are people out there who would love to have a nice pair of handknit socks and when the time is right, they will make themselves known.

My second knitting resolution for 2015 is to knit six sweaters including at least one turtleneck, one cardigan, one pullover, and one involving steeking. I have enough yarn lurking in the depths of my newly organized wardrobe to make six sweaters, which was my sweater average in 2014, the year of the frog (to frog = to ravel a project). I reused yarn from three of my own sweaters to make one new one for TC (above) and two different ones for me (one shown below).

My last two knitting resolutions are to learn brioche stitch and to knit something using lace weight yarn. What are your resolutions for 2015? Hope your feet stay warm and you find a good book to tide you over until spring.

Keeper of the Waters

In her beautiful, inspiring book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that in the Potawatomi tradition, men are responsible for caring for fire while women are keepers of the waters. Though I am not contributing anything to the health of Lake Michigan at present, I spent the past month reestablishing my connection to many of the bodies of water to which I feel an affinity. While sitting with the view above of “my” harbor, I turned the pages of her book and of Loreen Nieuwenhuis’s A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach. Both authors see as imperative the establishment of a healthier relationship between humans and the environment. Whereas Kimmerer is a botanist by trade who aims to bridge the gap between science and the traditional Potawatomi worldview in order to heal the earth, Niewenhuis decided to walk the whole way around Lake Michigan to take time out to discover more about who she was and explore her relationship to this majestic body of water.

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While it was not her main purpose in writing the book, Niewenhuis exposes the many ways in which Lake Michigan and all the living beings in and around it have been exploited in the name of profit and progress. I was shocked to discover that coho are not native to the Great Lakes but were introduced when native salmon could no longer spawn in the rivers that flow into the lake as a result of deforestation. Equally appalling is the amount of ammonia and toxic sludge continuing to be emitted by the BP refinery on the south shore of the lake and the amount of toxic spills and dumping that have occurred in the past one hundred years. 

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While punctuated with moments of doubt and concern for whether it’s possible to heal the numerous wounds already inflicted, Kimmerer’s book mostly serves as an antidote to any growing despair that may arise when an inventory of damage is taken. Two main themes are cultivating gratitude and learning how to take only what you need. I liked how she often poses questions that have no easy black or white answer:

How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?

Can Americans…learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?

What do you love too much to lose? Who and what will you carry to safety?

Finding intelligent answers to these questions will take time. I took many notes while reading the book and am still thinking about how to integrate the lessons of the book into my own life. The ripples made by the stone of this book landing in the waters of my mind will keep spreading throughout the upcoming year. I am regrettably too far away to play much of a role in restoring Lake Michigan to health, but perhaps there will come a time in the future where I will be able to make a more active contribution to its welfare.

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It wasn’t all about reading, this trip home. Since I stayed longer, there was time for a road trip to visit family farther away. TC, two lucky blog readers, and I lit out for the territory west of the Missouri River. Shortly after this picture was taken, I saw my first wild turkeys hanging out in a field on the side of the road. I am ashamed to say I didn’t know turkeys still lived in the wild. Great news, actually. It was also a pleasure to visit the Argyle Fiber Mill and pick up yarn made in Wisconsin. The animals who gave their fleece all live within fifty miles of the mill.

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After stocking up on fibers, we didn’t stop until we had crossed the Mississippi.  Unfortunately, it was shrouded in fog, so TC’s first glimpse of Old Man River wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. Dubuque, Iowa, our destination that night, has a delightful main street complete with a yarn store, bookstore, coffee shop, and restaurant – all locally owned and located within one block of each other.

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A week later, I spent a tranquil night on the shores of my dear old friend Lake Mendota, warming up and knitting in front of the roaring fire at a cozy arts and crafts bed and breakfast, the taste of rice noodles and bok choy dumplings still in my mouth. Funny how a walk on a grey December morning and the sight of old radiators and bathroom fixtures can make me nostalgic about my time as a student.

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The weather was unseasonably warm until the last week, when winter decided to bare her teeth once again. The wool sweaters and socks I had made for others came in handy as the wind blew harder and snow started to accumulate. Even Honest Abe needed to cover up.

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I wish you a happy, peaceful 2015 full of gratitude and plenty!

Coming to Rest

NPR recently had a TED Radio Hour on the subject of quiet, and as I listened to most of it yesterday, I was struck by parallels between the experiences of the speakers and my trip to Grado last weekend. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed books by two of the speakers, John Francis and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and Susan Cain’s book on introverts has been on my list of books to read for awhile. The main thread running through their talks is how important it is to take time out to be still and listen. Out of this stillness comes creative ideas, new discoveries about the world, a heightened awareness of the environment, a greater understanding of oneself and others, gratitude, bliss…the list goes on and on.

I took some time out on the weekend, making a pilgrimage to the sea that mirrors my trip to Opatija in May. My destination this time was the other major resort town of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy: Grado. Like Venice, Grado lies on an island in the lagoon heavy upper reaches of the Adriatic Sea. A place of refuge from the start, it was first settled by residents of the Roman city of Aquileia seeking safety from waves of barbarian invaders. The old town of Grado, the Castrum, was fortified by the Romans. Now it’s tourists that come, fleeing the inclement weather and their landlocked existence further north to bask in the sun on the Isola del Sole. They are fortified by fish, polenta, and a glass of friulano in the many restaurants located within the perimeter of the Castrum. TC and I were very impressed by Alla Pace, a restaurant that serves up a mean pizza as well as fish dishes. Most vegetables are produced locally and the seafood is all from the lagoon.

Though it can’t compete with the length of the lungomare in Opatija, Grado’s boardwalk is still a delightful place for a stroll or passegiata. It was originally built by the Austrians to hold back the sea.

This time of year, there are few tourists. Many hotels and restaurants close. It can be very windy, but we were fortunate. The sun was out the whole time.

Grado is an excellent destination if your main goals are to relax and stroll. It never got boring to go back and forth on the boardwalk and along the sandy beach at the western tip of the island. I felt my head empty of unnecessary thoughts and my body become energized with each breath of salty sea air. Yet no trip to Italy is complete without a good espresso. The best cafes are those patronized by local people, where there is an old man sitting by the door watching everyone go by and greeting everyone who matters – that is to say who isn’t a tourist. These cafes normally do not lie in the main tourist zone, and Bar al Porto was no exception. We discovered it as we walked along the harbor the first morning, watching the fishermen repairing their nets. Perfectly situated, the cafe was flooded with sunlight all morning. The second morning, we recognized people who had eaten at the same restaurants or whose paths had crossed ours on the lungomare. Grado has less than 9,000 inhabitants, which means everyone knows everyone. Even thought I didn’t know anybody, I enjoyed watching the members of this community who clearly relished meeting and greeting each other. Hey beautiful called one elderly woman to two of her compatriots as she walked up to them and they all started laughing and chatting. The gentleman at the door was joined by a portly man who had a Miniature Pinscher zipped up in his jacket, body against his ample belly and head sticking curiously out. I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the sunlight on my skin and the taste of espresso on my tongue. The murmur of voices lulled me into a state of bliss. I sat there a long time, savoring my arrival at a point of stillness.

The beautiful intermezzo came to a close, and it was time to traverse the Alps, which had hovered on the horizon the whole time. On the way back, we spent a few hours exploring the peaceful Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve just east of Grado, spying on coots, swans, and grey geese. As the sun started to descend, it was time to head north. The fog descended upon us shortly after we crossed the border back into Austria, and I haven’t seen the sun since. Thankfully my next journey will start very soon, and it will bring me to a place far away that looks remarkably similar to the picture below.

Happy travels and much peace on your journey to stillness!

Shades of November

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When I’m lucky, the sun comes out, casting shadows on the wall, shining directly into the living room and reaching its luminous fingers out to welcome me back to life after a good night’s sleep.  The darkness has overtaken the light, making me savor the sun more and more and bury myself deeper under the covers in its absence. I don’t need to leave the couch to feel the march of the seasons’ cycle. But I do, of course, because what is better than a brisk walk on a crisp fall day, being careful not to slip on the wet carpet of leaves clinging to the sidewalk? Besides, I now have a creamy oatmeal colored sweater to keep me warm. I knit it up with an alpaca-merino blend yarn salvaged from the discount pile of a local yarn store. A friend carved the wooden buttons from a broomstick.

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There are two autumn palettes. Early fall is fiery and warming, the orange of pumpkin and squash and the red and yellow of leaves. Late fall is less vibrant and more subdued. Life dries up, fades, balls itself up, retreats inside where it is warm, saves energy. Breakfast: a bowl of oatmeal with a drizzle of maple syrup. Dinner: white bean spread with garlic to boost the immune system, hearty boiled buckwheat groats, and braised Savoy cabbage with chestnuts.

Longtime readers will remember my dabbling into cooking with cruciferous vegetables. With my shift away from dairy to plant sources of calcium this year, I have embraced the crucifers wholeheartedly and am eager to try any recipe that comes my way. In the dark ages when I still wrinkled my nose at most brassicas, I nonetheless found Savoy cabbage to be one of the most attractive looking vegetables. Now both eye and tongue enjoy feasting on it.

Last night I struck gold with this simple recipe. I read a blog post that cited an 84-year-old poet who spoke of three lessons she had learned in life. Two are “Be astonished” and “Share your astonishment.” Well, I’m astonished at how well the ingredients blend together, and now I’d like to share it with you.

Braised Savoy Cabbage with Chestnuts

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2 Tbs olive oil

1 yellow onion, diced

1 head of Savoy cabbage, sliced as you like it

200 g/7 ounces boiled chestnuts, halved or quartered or crumbled

1 Tbs white wine vinegar

2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp salt

Sauté the onion in the olive oil on medium-low heat until translucent. Be patient.

Add the cabbage and sauté briefly. Add the chestnuts, vinegar, oregano, and salt. Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes. Check every now and then, giving it a stir and adding water if it starts to stick to the pan.  Be patient.

When the cabbage has softened to your liking or your impatience gets the better of you, eat. Enjoy!

The other life lesson cited by the poet is “Pay attention.” I think these deer do a good job of that. They know whenever I am looking at them. What lessons in life do you have to share?

The End of the Valley


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There are several ends to the Großarl Valley south of Salzburg, Austria, the first of which is pictured here, after which point cars should no longer pass. We kept going on foot, passing an enclosure of red deer, several fishermen and a waterlogged Kneipp cure facility. We knew we had arrived at the next end of the valley when we reached a sign that read “Ende.” A trail started going up toward the peak in the picture above, but we had come far enough in the rain and weren’t interested in hiking up to the next end of the valley. Satisfied, we turned around and retraced our steps.

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They led back past the Kreealm waterfall, one of the many falls decorating the south side of the valley. The sound of the rush of water calms me without fail. It amazes me how tolerant I am of such loudness – a rare exception. The clouds began to nibble on the trees, adding to the magical atmosphere.

Everything we saw was filtered through a fine mist of rain that occasionally strengthened to a downpour. Yes, it rained the whole weekend long. Nestled in the heart of the valley, I had the impression that the sun was forever a stranger to these parts. Years ago, shortly after coming to Austria, I took the train from Graz to Vienna, still so impressed by the scenery that I stared out the window nearly the whole way. It struck me how green the Alps are, that same velvety green I had foolishly thought Ireland and Scotland held a monopoly on. The Alps haven’t lost their green at all in the past ten years. If anything, the nearly constant rainfall this year intensifies it. My amateur photography skills do it little justice.

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Sunday we crossed to the other side of the valley to go to a Frühschoppen. Früh means early, and a Schoppen is a half pint of beer, so as you might imagine, this festival allows you to start consuming alcohol quite early in the day. Which we didn’t. We had been lured to the festival by a flyer stating that sheep would be shorn, an event TC had never experienced in person and which I last saw years ago while conducting interviews with farmers in Rhône-Alpes. Amused by the barn cat annoying the cheese, meat, and schnapps vendors by trying to steal some of their local sausage for sale, we waited patiently in the rain for the sheep shearing to begin while most other people had already gone inside to drink their beer, eat their lunch, and listen to the oompah band. There were two older Swiss women and a random Austrian with a battery powered dancing hat also standing next to the barn, presumably fellow sheep enthusiasts. After an hour in the rain – 30 minutes after the shearing was supposed to begin – we gave up and left. Perhaps the sheep to be shorn were part of the flock that disappeared behind the cloud below.

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Despite the lack of shearing action, we had plenty of opportunities to admire shaggy fleece growers. These mountain sheep grazed right next to our apartment.

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Our landlady said that sheep fleece is only worth a few cents and is mainly used for house insulation. She keeps sheep for the free lawnmower service and for meat. Even long, long ago when I still ate meat, I don’t think I ever had mutton. But not so long ago, when I regularly ate dairy products, I loved a good sheep cheese or sheep milk yogurt. Sadly, those days seem to be history. I made an important, shocking discovery in April: I can no longer eat dairy products and feel healthy.

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What an irony of fate. The valley was full not just of sheep but of cows too – both the ubiquitous Fleckvieh and the Holsteins that pepper the landscape of my native Wisconsin. No more cheese for me. At the recommendation of my doctor, I tried going without dairy for two weeks in April in the hope of relieving severe allergy problems (a torrentially runny nose and an itchy skin rash on my stomach). Within two days of cutting out dairy, my nasal congestion stopped and the rash started healing. It was as if someone had turned off a tap of running water. I had known in an abstract way that dairy encourages mucus production, but it was still shocking to experience it on my own body and realize how much better I felt without it. How long had I been contributing to my own discomfort? It gave me pause that such a small change could have an enormous impact on my well-being. No antihistimines, no Neti pot, no ointments, just different food choices. Could this innocent looking young steer and his kind really wreak that much havoc on my body?

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On several occasions, I tried reintroducing dairy – to little avail. Within a day or two, my nose ran, my rash came back and my digestion was miserable. What puzzles me is that butter doesn’t bother me. Though butter mostly contains fat, there are enough milk proteins in unclarified butter that could trigger an allergic response. Food allergies arise when your body overreacts to protein and affect the mucus membranes, skin, and digestive tract. My reaction was clearly an allergic one and not a sign of lactose intolerance, which only affects digestion.

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Initially I was crushed to figure out that I shouldn’t be eating dairy products anymore. Though I have never enjoyed drinking milk straight, I have always consumed mass quantities of yogurt and cheese and have been known to say there is no life without cheese. My previous diet was heavily dependent on milk products for protein and fat. That has radically changed. I now try to eat beans or lentils every day and have upped the amount of nuts and eggs I eat. I am still tinkering and fretting about how to get enough calcium, but I can confirm that there IS life without cheese. At first, I was sad about no longer being able to eat some of my favorite dishes: gnocchi with ricotta, palak paneer, pizza, grilled Halloumi. But the good news is that there are so many different dishes waiting to be discovered and prepared – and that when you can’t eat most things on the menu anymore when you go out, you save a lot of money by cooking at home. If you or someone you know has problems with allergies, I highly recommend cutting out all dairy for at least two weeks and seeing if the symptoms improve. It’s a cheap experiment with no side effects that might reward you greatly.

We discovered that the Mur River, our local river, starts just on the other side of the peak at the end of the Großarl Valley. As we headed back to Graz, we took the slower, scenic route that followed the course of the Mur from the westernmost reaches of Styria back to the city. We stopped for a stroll and coffee in the town of Murau, home to around 2,000 inhabitants, a large brewery, and the statue of Murna. According to the city’s homepage, the lightening bolt in the river goddess’s hand symbolizes energy (hydroelectric, I presume) and hops grow around her body.

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Our watery weekend is now over. Hope you are staying warm and dry!

A September Confession, or the Cinnamon Sweater Saga

The nuts are in jail again. Walnuts and a lone horse chestnut. You know what to do with walnuts; the horse chestnut is not for show but will be made into laundry detergent by TC according to his special recipe. We have three sources of walnuts this year, one of which has been providing quite large specimens that are easier to crack. Speaking of walnuts, the head and tip of the snout of the terrifying wooly beastie living on our couch that was surprised and captured on film below are made of wool hand dyed with walnut hulls. The cinnamon color will look good on TC, who has been waiting patiently for a sweater for nearly a year now.

The Cinnamon Sweater Saga

At a market in the fair Styrian town of Stainz, we oohed and aahed at the silky alpaca and soft merino wares in beautiful shades that would look good on everyone but me. TC found the cinnamon wool to his liking and we bought the whole lot of it. I started in on the tightly gauged pattern a few weeks later. After finishing the back and making a few calculations, my heart sank: there would not be enough yarn.

There followed months of agonizing, procrastinating, feeling guilty about not having knit TC another sweater when nearly all his old ones were falling apart. Then one day, I had the idea to make a sweater at a looser gauge and in the round. I remeasured and cast on and made it all the way up to the armholes before the record player slowed down and came to a halt. No, the way forward did not require electricity, just a little bit of courage and simple math. And important decision making.

Pattern or improvisation? Sleeves knit in the round or flat? Sleeves separate and sewed in or joined to the body and finished as a raglan in the round?

More procrastination, an even guiltier conscience that I was not clothing my husband properly when I actually have the ability to, and lots of other finished projects. Having survived a few knitting catastrophes (nearly finished items that turned out wrong and needing to be put out of their misery or repaired), I decided it was time to either frog or finish up what I had started so as to make room for new projects that I hope will have less tormented trajectories. Fortified by reading excerpts from Elizabeth Zimmerman books, I picked up the cinnamon sweater again last night, started to count and figured out how many stitches to start out with on the sleeves (48) and how many I will need where the sleeve connects to the body (64) – which naturally took far less time than expected. No calculus involved here.

The saga is ongoing, and only the fates know how it will end, but since the fates in the German-speaking world (i.e. the Norns) spend a fair share of their time knitting, I am betting on a happy ending. Keep your fingers crossed.

As a counterpoint to the aforementioned Zimmerman style raglan based on the percentage system, I am making wild and crazy beet colored nether garments (see the snout of the wooly beast) as described in The Knitter’s Almanac in the September chapter. Related to the much more common German nieder, meaning lower, nether is a lovely sounding old English word that has mostly fallen out of favor and been replaced by the more prosaic “under.” We’ll need wild and wooly clothing to brave the cold rainy peaks of Hohe Tauern National Park, where we hope to escape the beady eyes of the hungry deer chomping away on the foliage outside the window.

Happy knitting and nut collecting!

Squashsitting


One benefit of not traveling when summer is well on its way to fall is that you might be asked to look after a garden and told to help yourself to whatever is ripe. That is the position TC and I have found ourselves in this week. Our friends have a plethora of summer and winter squash and apples, apples, apples, so the kitchen has been the site of much action. The apples have been cooked down to compote or applesauce (depending on where you draw the line). The butternut squash has been made into Squash Pockets filling and paired with buckwheat groats. The strawberry leaves will add an accent to future cups of tea. And the yellow and green zucchini and pattypan squash have gone into two batches of the recipe below. This new addition to my summer culinary repertoire makes for a fast, easy, tasty meal.

Indian-style  Summer Squash

1 tbsp olive oil

1 kg / 2.2 lbs summer squash (green and yellow zucchini, pattypan), cut into fat matchsticks

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp diced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp ground chili pepper, paprika, or (for those not up to hot) coriander

salt

black pepper

1  heaping tbsp almond butter, tahini, or peanut butter

Fresh basil

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they darken. Add the ginger, turmeric, and chili pepper and sauté a minute or two. Add the squash, stirring to cover it with the spice mixture. Add some salt and a few tablespoons of water if it starts to stick to the pan. Cover and stew until cooked (at least 10 minutes). Grind some black pepper to taste. Stir in the nut butter of your choice. Sprinkle with fresh basil and serve with rice or buckwheat groats.

 

The recipe mine evolved from calls for a mix of zucchini and bulb fennel. Carrots would also make a nice variation. The past few months have seen me preoccupied or obsessed (once again depending on where you draw the line) with nutrition, and what’s interesting is that you never hear much about the health benefits of zucchini – not like nutrient-dense veggies like kale (vitamins K, A, and C – AND fights cancer!), carrots (vitamin A!), Swiss chard (vitamin K!), or sweet potatoes (vitamins A and C!). Why do we hear so little about this ubiquitous favorite of gardeners? Well, there isn’t much of a case to make for zucchini as a superfood. Zucchini provides modest amounts of vitamin C, manganese, copper, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are both good for your eyesight. It is low calorie and a source of fiber. I’m afraid that’s all I could dig up. Summer squash will not be the next superfood, yet there is ample place in your diet for Cucurbito pepo. Think of it as the extra vegetable serving we all need to eat after getting a balanced mix of leafy green, cruciferous, and orange carotene-rich veggies – a filler vegetable. Zucchini and the summer squashes take on the flavor of what they are cooked with, and there are so many ways to prepare them.

Here are some ideas for how you can eat up the fruits of these prolific plants: fried zucchini blossoms, ratatouille, broiled zucchini and herbs (with or without a lemon marinade), zucchini tart, zucchini frittata, zucchini with pasta, zucchini soup, zucchini pancakes, zucchini fritters, zucchini bread. Zucchini pairs well with mint, thyme, marjoram, basil, savory, chives, and garlic. What are your favorite ways of preparing zucchini?

Mahlzeit and happy cooking!

My Blue Period

Südperd

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso

How true this is of knitting. All three of the projects I finished over the past two months started off as different items. I sacrilegiously frogged my first sweater, a very warm one I often wore at home that did not fit as well as it could have. After two failed attempts to reknit it, I found the right pattern and now I’m ready for winter days. Both TC and I have new scarves. His navy blue Atlantic Desire scarf was completed on our June journey while my variegated Sea Shawl was started on said journey and completed in July. Both of course are still in need of blocking.

These scarves, yes, were knit mainly en route to and from the Baltic sea. Accompanied by two lucky blog readers (no, you didn’t miss the contest – blood relations), TC and I head to the island of Rügen, Germany’s largest Insel and off the beaten path of most non-German tourists. We spent a week on the waterfront in one of the quietest parts of the island. Mostly visited for its sandy beaches with their trademark Strandkörbe on the eastern shore, the island is covered with poppies and fields of spelt. Reeds hug the rest of the shore. It’s a paradise for birds and birders.

One of my favorite memories of the journey was our visit to the museum (Historischen Handwerkstuben) in Gingst, a small town with a long, rich tradition of textile production. The two reed thatched buildings that house the collection date back to the eighteenth century, when several families of weavers shared the space. Each room was set up to show the tools and finished projects of different trades – cobbler, seamstress, tailor, rope-maker. Linen and spinning wheels were also on prominent display. A weekly market in summer features hand spun and hand dyed wool as well as locally grown organic produce. With its hodgepodge of mismatched tables and chairs and used books and old posters and postcards for sale, the cafe soon became our favorite haunt.

I would love to live in a thatched roof cottage like this one, wouldn’t you? Complete with green walls before they became trendy.

I just love these kind of organizers for life’s essentials, though the only ones shown above that I still eat are rice and oil. Perhaps if I travel further east, I might finally see one labeled buckwheat. Then there’s the following enamel container for good old NaCl that caught my attention because of that whole I- issue. I have found a good sea salt with seaweed added to it for natural iodine fortification, but since I never salted much to begin with, I find my salt consumption has increased dramatically in the past few months. I’m still searching for a good balance.

My experience on Rügen and the subsequent week in Berlin and Potsdam made me think more about my attitude towards travel and tourism. Travel is about being open to experiencing new things and finding out how people live in an unknown corner of the world. It’s about leaving as little a mark as possible on the places I visit. It’s about renting an apartment, going to the market and seeking out locally grown food, and cooking. It’s about slowing down and spending time with my travel companions. Strolling. Looking and seeing. Coming into conversation with people who live in a place and hearing their stories.

Tourism is about consuming, about working through to do and to see checklists that are rampant in guidebooks – regardless of your personal interests and the mood you find yourself in. It leads to that awful expression “to do a country” (as in “We did Italy last summer.”) In fact, tourism is doing what the crowd does, going somewhere because you “should.” It rapidly becomes stressful. And there is always a shop full of tacky souvenirs made of plastic bearing the name of the place, objects most likely made in China and delivered by diesel-spewing container ship. Possessing one of these objects (which will probably never biodegrade) lets you advertise to the world that you or someone you love were in a certain place at a certain time.

With the exception of the pollution from our car, I like to think we tread softly on Rügen. We cooked the majority of our meals in our apartment from food we bought at the market, composting our organic waste. I bought souvenirs of locally spun wool that I will make into clothing for myself and others as well as this ceramic baking dish – something that had been sorely lacking in our kitchen and that has been fantastic for making fruit crisps since its incorporation into our kitchen inventory.

Berlin and Potsdam were not as relaxing because of the stress to see “important” sights, though we focused on our specific interests, which in my case included seeing the incredible David Bowie exhibit – well worth the wait if you’re a fan – and dining at an Ethiopian restaurant in Kreuzberg. We skipped the palace in Potsdam (I have no interest in paying lots of money to see how the upper 1% lived, though I must admit as I walked past the entrance to the kitchen tour I felt a slight tug of interest to see the palace kitchen old Fritz probably never set foot in). Instead, we spent most of our time wandering through the impressively large (and free) Sans Souci park, which includes the botanical garden of the University of Potsdam, and the delightful Dutch Quarter, a district built for Dutch craftsmen in the eighteenth century that has lots of cafes and eateries and beautiful red brick buildings. We could have easily spent a full week exploring different parts of the park each day.

We beat the mad European vacation rush and are enjoying our own city as it empties out and slows down while those inhabitants that can afford it rush to be a tourist somewhere else. The weather has been rainy and thus conducive to knitting. My blue period continues as I prepare for fall, which is just around the corner. The hooded jacket below has such a beautiful cable border that reminds me of waves. Enjoy any travels and knitting you have before you.

 

Are You Teff Enough?

If I had to sum up what’s been happening in my kitchen in the past week, I wouldn’t even need a whole word – I could reduce it to the letter T. T for teff and T for tagine. T for tonight, when I ate homemade injera with chickpeas, Swiss chard, and onions pictured above. Injera is a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean flatbread made of fermented teff flour. The flour is simply mixed with water and left to ferment a day or so. Fermentation happens quickly thanks to a yeast that lives on the grain. It’s then fried on one side like a pancake. When bubbles appear, the pan is covered until the top is done – no flipping anxiety required. TC and I were won over by the coffee stout smell of the injera. Though I recently discovered a good recipe for misir wat, a lentil stew served with injera that was a favorite in my college days, tonight’s topping materialized from the odds and ends in the fridge that needed to be used up.

Teff is poised to be the next you’ve-never-heard-of-me-but-I-don’t-have-gluten-and-am-super-nutritious food. With the exception of basmati rice, I only buy grains that are grown in Europe. I don’t eat quinoa because I don’t want to play a part in jacking up its price in South America so that people for whom it is a staple food can no longer afford it. The teff flour I cooked with was grown in Germany. That’s fewer food miles than the basmati rice.

Tagine cozy
But what’s that I see here? Is it a tagine cozy or a hat holder for my freshly knit linen sunhat that will protect me from the fierce rays of sunlight I hope to encounter next week at the shores of the Baltic Sea? Last weekend’s culinary experiment involved cooking with an authentic Moroccan glazed tagine, a gift from friends who took a road trip to Morocco. A tagine is cooked over low heat until the food is well stewed. The earthenware bottom and lid heat up and radiate warmth toward the ingredients from all directions. The vegetables get a good steam bath.

Set up

My Very First Tagine

Note: The tagine (base and lid) should be soaked in water for about an hour before being used, especially if you cook on a ceramic top stove like mine. Otherwise there is a risk it will spring. The bottom should be liberally doused in olive oil to season it.

1 onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp piment

2 Tbsp raisins

3 small zucchini, sliced

2 small heads of cauliflower, cut into florets, stems diced

1 cup cooked chickpeas

Heat the tagine base on low heat. Layer the bottom with olive oil. When it’s warm enough, sauté the onions and garlic for ten minutes. Add the spices and raisins and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients. Put the lid on it and forget about it for an hour or two. Then peek to see how the cauliflower is doing…

Peekaboo

When everything smells good and is cooked as you like it, serve with the grain or pseudograin of your choice. We tried it with Austrian-grown amaranth.

So that’s the kitchen report. Moving from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, it’s been a good season for animal offspring in our vicinity. The birdfeeder-turned-nest of Parus major is so full of young birds chirping up a storm that the parents can’t really fit in anymore – they just stick their heads in and drop off juicy white caterpillars. It’s very loud when the door is open, but it’s a pleasant kind of loudness. Last week we also noticed that the spider hanging out on the ceiling above our dining room table has all her eight hands full too.

spider progeny

Spiders remind me of the goddess Athena, my favorite Greek goddess, and the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, who is quoted as saying, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Hope you can improve or enjoy the world today – or both!

High Time to Get to Sea

Distant islands
The diagnosis of a mineral deficiency is not usually met with joy, but when my doctor said it was only a few hours to the sea and that he recommended I go as soon as possible, I dusted off my wish to walk the entire 12 km Lungomare, or seaside promenade, in Opatija, Croatia, and started looking for a hotel within walking distance of the Adriatic. I found the Hotel Opatija, where we slept well last weekend. It was clean and quiet, possessing all the decrepit charm of a former K. und K. hotel worn down by the Tito years. If you’re looking for the ex-Yugoslavian cousin of the Grand Budapest Hotel with an uninspired breakfast buffet set to Muzak, it’s your place, but I think next time we’ll opt to dish out the extra euros for a cushy wellness hotel even closer to the sea. The point was not, however, the hotel. Most of our time was spent strolling.

Lungomare

Opatija developed into a resort town in the late 19th century when it was still known as Abbazia, before being caught in the tug-of-war between national borders and ethnic groups pervading the 20th century. You could hop on the train in Vienna (or Graz, for that matter) and ride the Südbahn to the Adriatic without having to leave the Austro-Hungarian empire. In keeping with the history of this seaside resort, the majority of tourists today still appear to be German-speaking. Dating back to the 1880s, the Lungomare is sandwiched between the sea on one side and city parks and stately villas built by prestigious Viennese architects on the other. Many of the latter are now hotels; some are private residences. TC and I decided that we’d buy this one and fix it up if we had the money.

Our next villa

It wasn’t just the Austrians who previously flocked to the sea here. Russian literati including Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov spent time in Abbazia, the hometown of Leo Henryk Sternbach, the inventor of Valium. Traces of their presence can be found by the careful tourist. This bust of Chekhov can be found near the Kvarner Hotel, while a commemorative plaque to Sternbach graces his birthplace along one of the main thoroughfares.

Chekov

The weather was just beautiful and I was able to wear sandals for the first time this year. Spring is so slow in arriving in Austria and I’m still bundled up in Icelandic wool as I type these lines. What a relief to escape to a milder climate and get enough Vitamin D from the sun for a change. In a conversation last week, the topic came up of how great it is that if you just go three hours in any direction from Graz, you end up in an entirely different cultural and geographical landscape. Three and a half hours away to the south, the figs are already ripening on the trees.

Smokve

As you might expect, seafood is everywhere on the menu in Opatija. Specialities include cuttlefish risotto that leaves your lips and tongue black and fried scampi. For the vegetarian in your party, there’s a special traditional pasta called fuzi served with Istrian truffles and vegetable risotto, though if you are suffering from a recently discovered acute milk allergy, as I am at present, you have to be careful and avoid delicacies like sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. The local white Malvazija wine is excellent, as is the red Teran. My big discovery, however, was blitva, or Istrian-style Swiss chard.

Istrian-style Swiss chard

500 g Swiss chard

500 g potatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil

Salt

Nutmeg

Peel and dice the potatoes. Cook for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, wash the Swiss chard. Remove the stems and blanch the leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the chopped Swiss chard stems and sauté about 10 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and blanched Swiss chard leaves to the garlic and stems. Season with grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I’m guessing that the hoops in these skirts are not made of whalebone. All this contact with the sea and my current preoccupation with iodine has inspired me to reread Moby Dick, one of my favorite American novels. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Ishmael, explains his many reasons for deciding to join the crew of a whaling expedition, arguing that all humans have an innate fascination with the sea. I heartily agree.

Starting to read a book is like embarking on a voyage. I hope you have a good one at hand – or will have the opportunity to set off on a real trip soon. Good luck getting your ship ready to sail!

The sailor
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