Thursday, August 27, 2009

Family, Friends, Food, Flowers and Fun!

Boy, talk about a busy time of year! The Cook Family gatherings are "sometimes" events. Our last summer picnic was held two years ago in 2007 and was on the small side, with few able to attend. Low attendance is usually due to the fact the family is often scattered across the globe, not because we don't want to be there! We come together when we can, when we must, or at a moments' notice. This years' party, held on 8/22/09, was a larger gathering of 2 generations of siblings, cousins, and the family dogs. It's a toss-up as to who had the better time, the peeps or the dogs!

The Cook family's older generation are sisters and brother, Arlene (eldest), Arthur (the baby) and Sheila (the middle child), captured in the photo above left.
Many more in attendance were: Arlene's husband Robert, Sheila's two daughters, Pam and Jan, Pam's husband Michael and oldest son Josh, Jan's two daughters Adi and Alex, cousins Susan and husband Steve, Howard, wife Caroline and son Brett, Max's brother Harold and wife Janet, baby brother Hank, and family friend Jim. Am I forgetting anyone? Oh yes, the dogs, Moses, Charlie and Madison!

We are a beautiful family, not just on the outside, but beautiful in our hearts and in our love for one another. And love is what family is all about. Really, love is all there is........

The Wigle's are a wonderful family who live over the mountain in Ligonier, PA. On Sunday, 8/23, the day after our family picnic, we attended the Wigle's inaugural pizza party. Arne and Theresa built this AWESOME pizza oven, (big enough to double as a guest house!) on their patio. A crowd of friends was treated to an extraordinary pizza festival! We all got to make our own pizzas, and it was the most amazingly mouth-watering pizza I've ever over-eaten!!

Arne Wigle, the pizza chef at his outdoor wood-fired pizza oven in Ligonier, PA. Bravo!! Delicioso!! Pizza Amore!!! Arne, you've REALLY outdone yourself!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Week ending 8/16/09. Making Lemonade out of Tomatoes, Bonne Courage Neighbors, Congratulations Molly/Farfalla..............

Making lemonade out of lemons is an expression, a sort of catch-all phrase folks use when they're trying to make the best of a sub-optimal situation. In our case, it was trying to salvage as many tomatoes as possible and eventually get them to ripen before they succumb to the blight rot! We spent last Monday working in the 90 degree 'dog day' heat to cull the blighted tomato plants and harvest as many viable green tomatoes as we could find. We then began digging the potatoes we hadn't planned to dig until the cooler days of fall. However, the tomato blight is highly contagious to potatoes, both sisters in the nightshade family. We couldn't bear the thought of losing our Yukon Golds, Michigan Reds, Russian Blues and Fingerlings, so we figured we'd better start digging them early. After taking frequent but very necessary breaks for water and brow-wiping, we got the job done and filled the large garden cart with a couple hundred pounds of beautiful and thankfully healthy spuds of all shapes, colors and sizes. There are more yet to dig, all Russian Blues, but their leaves haven't died back yet and the potatoes are still so small that we decided to give them some more time to mature in the ground. In any event, we've harvested enough potatoes to see us through the coming winter and we are feeling that we have indeed made lemonade this week out of some very sour lemons.

The highlight of our week came on Sunday when we hosted a picnic for our neighbors Anne, Mike and Marie who are relocating to Duluth Minnesota for Anne's work. They have been in training here in the snowy mountains of Western Pennsylvania during the past 7 years, for their next step in northern living on the frigid shores of Lake Superior! Yikes! I wonder if tomatoes even grow that far north? But, just in case they don't like it in Minnesota, they are keeping their house across the road from our farm, so they can come back 'home' to Somerset County.......and we are very glad of that, because it means that they will return for visits and we will see them again.

My best laugh of the day came from Art, (Somerset's Woody Allen!) who I call, "Mr. All Or Nothing At All", meaning he never does anything half-way.

While I was preparing food for the picnic, he asked if he could help me do anything. I had forgotten to chop and slice the onions before applying my makeup. Not wanting mascara to run down my face, I asked him to chop the onions for me. As I busied myself with other chores, I heard the weirdest sounds! Turning to look, I saw that he had donned his old snorkel and facemask and was calmly, and without shedding a single tear, slicing and chopping onions. The sounds I heard were him breathing through the snorkel!

Eventually, about 20 friends and neighbors arrived to bid the Grassi's a fond farewell on a hot and very muggy evening. At first nobody would go outside except to grab a beer from the ice chest and come back indoors into the air conditioned comfort! But gradually a breeze began to stir, the front porch became a cool and pleasant oasis, and we were able to dine alfresco in the garden. Amazingly there were few flies or bugs, rarely the case for mid-August, and we lingered outdoors over dessert and watched the children play and the fireflies dance.

"She's a pinball wizard, there's got to be a twist. A pinball wizard - she's got such a supple wrist. How do you think she does it? (I don't know) What makes her so good?"......Lyrics by The Who (with gender liberties taken by Max)............... Molly Atkinson, daughter of LT and sister of Paige, is hilariously funny and literally lives life on the edge of the stage! She works in LA in the movie business, as a Production Coordinator or Asst. Coordinator, or Art Coordinator or Asst., or Costumer, or Seamstress, or Stylist, or some combination thereof. She's a go-getter extraordinaire, sometimes at the Emmys, Oscars, Grammys and BET Awards, sometimes on a never knows where she will turn up, especially Molly. Now add to her list of accomplishments, the highest ranking non-professional woman pinball player in the world, since competing in the World Pinball Championships held this past weekend at Pittsburgh PA! WOW! Congratulations Moll!

It's been an action-packed week, and these are just some of the highlights. Art was also on call, arraigning over a dozen 'alleged' criminals, so we didn't get much sleep during the course of the above events but, as I always tell him, "Heck honey, we can sleep when we're dead, right?" I'm not sure if there is a moral or a lesson this week. Sometimes school is just "out" and we can take a vacation from learning lessons. Sometimes there is a lull and a period of quiet before the storm, too! So, maybe this week's lesson can be found in the words of David A. Schmaltz, "Life is a rollercoaster. Try to eat a light lunch."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Week ending 8/9/09 - Weather Extremes, Antiques, Pesto! and Blight....

This week began where the last one left off - the weather was cool and damp and sullen with threatening skies that failed to deliver. We had rare glimpses of the full moon, its brightness backlighting the scudding clouds. Lunacy was rampant with coyotes howling in the night, three ATV accidents and two suicides in our small town. The rains held off on Tuesday evening as we attended Somerset's Community Night Out, but Wednesday's newspaper reported that police had been kept busy all night with drunks and domestic disturbances. By Wednesday the weather was still cool and damp and the nighttime temperatures were in the low 50's with dense fog, just downright cold for early August even by our mountain standards. By Thursday the weather had begun to normalize a bit and we had a great dinner at the Somerset Lion's Club's annual picnic.

On Friday morning we decided that the basil just had to be picked as the plants were beginning to blossom. More worrisome however, was that they were suddenly being devoured by Japanese beetles. So we picked our six basil bushes almost completely clean of fragrant leaves. It's quite amazing that four purchased basil plants and two home-grown-from-seed plants could produce a half bushel basket of leaves! It is even more amazing that the same half bushel of leaves would only yield 2-1/2 quarts of basil pesto for the freezer. I always blanch the fresh basil leaves so that the pesto retains that beautiful deep green color after it's been frozen and defrosted. A delicious bonus is the 'basil tea' that is a by-product of the blanching process. I like to freeze pesto in 1-cup containers and use it throughout the year to make spreadable pesto goat cheese, a mixture of equal parts of pesto and soft goat cheese that we love on crackers or pita chips. We also often make a simple basil alfredo cream sauce for pasta and usually have that topped with sauteed scallops. Our favorite use for pesto is to smear it on the pizza dough before adding the sauce and other toppings, giving the pizza that wonderful fresh garlicky flavor.

So, with the pesto safely tucked away in the freezer for the year, I headed back out to the garden to see what else was ripe. I found perfect baby carrots, some beautiful beets that had been hiding under the potato plants, some late season cucumbers, more zucchini and Asian eggplants. I picked a veritable rainbow of veggies, as many as my basket could hold, and unloaded them all onto the table on the porch just outside the kitchen door that serves as my outdoor cooler in the summer. They looked so gorgeous that I just had to go inside for my camera to memorialize the bounty of this years' garden.

While I had been busy with the pesto and the veggie harvesting, Art had been down at the lake mowing the shoreline with our antique sickle bar mower. This mower is an old John Deere #1 sidebar mower, the first model John Deere ever made, and ours must be at least 70 years old. We bought it when we bought the farm in 1971 and had always run it with our 1948 International 'M' tractor, which has really seen better days. However, since we had recently purchased a newer 4WD John Deere 4720 diesel tractor, Art decided to try to run the mower with it instead of with old "Emmy Lou". After a few mounting bracket amendments fashioned with the use of our welder and the addition of a lengthened driveshaft, his mission was accomplished. The 4720 and the #1 sickle bar were off and mowing! Art did a brilliant job on the conversion and is so tickled to be using the old antique sidebar mower with the new tractor.

This brings me to the sad news of the past week......the late tomato blight has finally struck our garden. We had been watching for it and discovered it yesterday on a couple of our dozen plants. By this afternoon it was rapidly appearing on almost every plant. The weather finally turned to summer with a humid heat wave that rolled in last night, and today we had our first day over 80 degrees since summer began, but it was too late to save our tomatoes from the late blight. We've decided to dig our potatoes tomorrow so they don't fall victim to the blight as well. We will also begin to harvest our unaffected green tomatoes, wash them well and store them to ripen indoors away from airborne spores. We will have to dig out all the plants by the roots, bag them in black plastic bags and send them off the property to the landfill. After this is accomplished, we will need to rototill the soil and then sterilize all of our digging tools. I am encouraged by the news that the late blight does not survive the cold winter weather, and as long as we rotate our tomatoes to a different part of the garden next summer, we should be rid of this disease. I think I might also look for blight resistant tomato plants for next year's garden.

I'm not sure what I learned this week as far as my late, lamented tomatoes go. Maybe I have had reinforced the excellent and oft repeated advice of my husband, "Have no expectations and you will suffer no disappointments." I experienced sadness over the loss of the tomatoes, which epitomize summer to me. But I also shared in Art's exultation in giving new life to an old mower, reminding me that even old things, (people, too) can have renewed usefulness and purpose.......and that gives me hope for the future.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Week ending 8/2/09 - The Great Northeast Tomato Blight

My heart is heavy for my dear friend, Paige Atkinson, who runs a CSA near Lake Placid, NY, as I just learned that she had to destroy her 325 tomato plants due to late blight. The entire Northeastern US tomato crop it seems, has fallen prey to late blight, most notably tomato plants purchased from big box stores. Those that were home-raised from seed seem to be faring better, but they too are susceptible to this airborne blight that releases spores which travel distances on the breezes to affect tomatoes and potatoes, both members the nightshade family. Apparently this is the same blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845 and lasted for six long and deadly years.

So far our dozen tomato plants are unaffected, but the wet and cool weather we've been plagued with, (the 5th coolest July on record with an average temperature of 67.3 degrees), may yet take its toll.The skies have looked like this for the past several weeks, overcast with low, dark clouds moving by, seemingly just above the reach of my upstretched arm. The air tastes wet and earthy, and smells cling to the humidity and are carried along by the constant breeze that turns up the leaves and makes the windchimes clamor. Rainfall this week was 1-1/2 inches, not a great amount for the week but it fell almost constantly, with no respite for the ground to dry out a bit between the tropical downpours.

Every day (several times a day?!) I go out to the garden to inspect the tomatoes and am relieved to find the plants healthy, though the tomatoes themselves seem, to my impatient mind, to be very slow to ripen this year without the heat and sunshine. I suppose we are fortunate that our nearest neighbor's tomato patch is more than 1/4 mile away. The fields that buffer our tomatoes from his have probably kept our tomatoes blightless so far. I cannot imagine a summer without our own home-grown tomatoes, the plants so carefully chosen, planted, protected from frost, nurtured, staked, pruned, pollinated with q-tips (in case the bees aren't doing their jobs correctly!), harvested, juiced and goes on and on, the enjoyment we reap from our own tomatoes. They are the superstars of summer!

This week we ate our Asian eggplants for the first time. Peppers are growing on the pepper plants. We harvested some beets this week and started to dig Yukon Gold potatoes. We planted new crops of spinach, cilantro and a fall beet crop. In the upcoming week I will harvest the basil and make pesto for the freezer. The cucumbers are slowing down now but we still have lots of 8-Ball zucchini, which are so outstanding when they are fried!

Lessons learned (or reinforced) this week: Don't count your tomatoes while they are still on the vine. Impatience is not a virtue; it just makes one anxious. Trust that all is in perfect and Divine order.