Out of Gas Update

IMG_0782 Woot! The gas truck arrived late Sunday night, so all is well. We have a (mostly) full tank of gas now, which will give us time to investigate alternative propane providers.

Out of Gas

Because we live in the outer borderlands, we use propane gas for making things warm in the house: heat, hot water, the clothes dryer, and the stove. The propane is stored in this astonishingly ugly tank just outside the kitchen door. It’s essentially the big house-sized version of those little tanks you use for BBQ grills.

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We’ve had the same propane provider for the entire 20 years we’ve lived here. And it has been all good. We run low, they send a truck, and sometimes they send a truck even before we know we’re low. Except for that one time the truck ran into my car in the driveway and bashed in a tail light, all has been fine. (To be fair, it was a really small car.)

Until now. There have been rumblings on our local neighborhood email lists that people in the area were having trouble getting propane deliveries from this company. Some people were running out of propane entirely for weeks before they managed to get a delivery. The rumor was that the local company had lost a bunch of drivers at once and could not keep up with demand.

Nervously, I checked the tank, and it was below 5%. We needed a delivery.

This whole week I’ve been calling the propane company, and every day they’ve been saying that they’ll send a truck, definitely today, this time for sure. The truck never shows up.

Today, we’re flatline.

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We’re not totally 100% out of gas, but we’ve turned off the heat and we’re trying to conserve the hot water. I have a little electric space heater parked next to me at my desk. And sweaters. Lots and lots of sweaters.

It is surprising how on edge this makes me. I keep listening for a truck that never comes, distracted by the slightest noise and hoping, hoping, hoping, maybe that rumbling noise is the gas truck. I am cold and unhappy and I would like to be able to do take a shower and do laundry.

Eric finally got through to a human on the emergency line this morning and they said the truck would be here this afternoon. I’ve heard that before. We’ll see.

Garden update: Green Beans and Persephone Days

There’s not much going on in the garden right now, given that it is so late in the year and the garlic is in. We’ve had a few frost and freeze days, which have killed most of the summer plants, although I still have some peppers holding on. It’s really not the prettiest time of the year for garden photos.

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Usually this month I cut down and clean up all the old plants, stack and store the big tomato cages and other trellises, mulch all the beds, and get ready for next year. If I were better organized and did not pack the garden full to the top every year I would take the summer plants out earlier and put in cover crops. But in December it is usually too cold and too dark to be able to start anything growing — not even cold-tolerant, fast-growing peas or favas.

I did manage to plant some green beans late in the Fall, and those plants sprouted and grew and began to bear very quickly during our typically warm fall days. Green beans don’t like the cold, though, and they’ve been looking increasingly unhappy in the last few weeks. Today I pulled them all out and harvested a handful of green beans. Enough for a side dish. Now that I know I can plant beans this late, I’ll plant more next year.

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I also picked all the brussels sprouts and cut the sprouts from the stems today. I haven’t been all that lucky with brussels in the past — it’s a really big plant, and it needs to go in pretty early in the year to be big enough to set sprouts. The plants I put in this year in March didn’t grow very big sprouts, but I had enough plants to harvest a couple pounds’ worth. I also learned this year that snapping or cutting the sprouts off the stem is a huge pain in the butt. All these issues make me want to re-examine whether I need to grow brussels again. It’s a lot of space and a lot of work for a vegetable that is not all that expensive already picked and packed in the store.

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Left in the garden now are the cold-weather greens (kale, collards, chard), a whole lot of broccoli, a bed’s worth of carrots and beets I will harvest over the winter as I need them, a small bed of lettuce and salad greens, and the plant formerly known as cauliflower that looks like collards. None of these plants will grow a lot at this time of the year, but they can survive the cold weather just fine.

This dark time of winter is sometimes called the Persephone days, after the greek goddess who was imprisoned in the underworld during the winter months. It’s the time of the year when daylight falls below ten hours a day — at my latitude that’s from about November 20 to January 20. It may be longer if you’re in a more northern area (November 10 to February 2, in Boston), or not exist at all in the south (Houston day length never falls below 10 hours).

Plants don’t like to grow during the persephone days, entirely because of the lack of daylight. Even in a mild climate (which I have), or in a very warm winter (which I’ve often had), or in a greenhouse where you can control the warmth (which I don’t have….yet), everything goes dormant during the persephone days. Some farmers with greenhouses supplement with extra light and warmth for extra early vegetables, but I like to have a break and take some time off. Also: no greenhouse (yet).

The Overachieving Hauer Pippin Apple

I often buy heirloom apples from a guy at the farmer’s market whose family has grown apples in Watsonville for generations. He has all the usual apples you would expect: the fujis, the galas, the red and gold delicious. He also has apples that are more typically west-coast: newtown pippins, gravensteins. When we make hard apple cider (another upcoming post in my queue) I get most of my apples from the farmer’s market apple guy.

The apple guy sometimes brings small amounts of unusual apples to the market, and he puts these in unmarked boxes on the side of his table. I love unusual apples, and I make a beeline for those boxes. The unmarked boxes are how, over the years, I have discovered Yellow Bellflowers, Skinner Seedlings, Cox’s Orange Pippins, Winter Bananas, and Hauer pippins.

The Hauer pippins were especially large, tasty, crisp apples that ripened very late in the season, almost to Christmas. They are not only an heirloom apple but they are a local Santa Cruz heirloom — the original tree was found in the Pajaro valley. It was a popular apple in this area precisely because the apples ripened very late in the season and kept for a long time. These days now that we have refrigeration, we ship apples from all over, and we prefer sweeter, prettier apples, we don’t need the Hauer pippin. This is why it is now almost completely unknown, even in the Santa Cruz area. It’s an apple on the Slow Food Ark of Taste

If my apple guy brought Hauer pippins to the market, I would buy whole armloads of them, and occasionally the entire box. Sadly a few years back my apple guy told me that there was only one Hauer Pippin tree, in his father’s orchard, and weeds had grown up around it so it was too difficult to harvest. There would be no more Hauer pippins for me.

So I looked online, and I bought a tree. I’ve planted fruit trees on and off at my place, with fairly poor results, between the drought, and the weeds, and various marauding critters. I have one small area along the driveway I’m trying to keep both weeded and watered that has a small number of trees on it right now — apricot, peach, persimmon.

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My plan was to plant the apple tree in that area, but I never got around to digging the hole (it’s a big hole, and we have a lot of rocks). So I put the apple tree into a pot to keep it and it has been living on my porch for a few years.

This year the Hauer pippin apple tree on my porch grew an apple. Just one. I’ve been watching all summer as it has been growing larger and larger. It was initially green but developed white speckles and a dark red blush. I propped up the branch so it would not break under the weight of the apple, and still it grew — to the size of a softball, and then bigger still.

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I didn’t want to pick the apple because I couldn’t tell if it was ripe, and everything I remembered and that I could find online said that the Hauer pippins was not supposed to ripen until December. One site claimed that a ripe apple would come easily off the tree if you lifted and twisted it.

So I lifted and twisted for months until finally last week the apple came off. I weighed it, and it was almost an entire pound.

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Traditionally the Hauer pippin is good immediately but becomes great if it’s stored for a month or two. I didn’t have that kind of patience. When I cut it open the flesh was creamy-white, firm, but not dry. When I bit into it it was crunchy and initially very tart, but the flavor immediately turned sweet and very apple-y.

It took me two days to eat the whole thing. It was a magnificent apple, and I hope to have a lot more on the tree in the coming years.

The Instructional Design of Recipes, by way of The Hand of Glory (part one)

A week or so back my friend Richard Kadrey posted this image to his Instagram:

Family fun for the holidays: how to make a Hand of Glory.

A photo posted by Richard Kadrey (@rkadrey) on

I grew up reading ghost stories and listening to cassette tapes of 1940’s horror radio shows (in the dark, under the covers), so I’m well-acquainted with what a hand of glory is (the mummified hand of a hanged man), and what it does (varies; supposedly it can open locked doors, or paralyze people to which it is presented so you can rob or murder them).

Because I make a living writing instructions, however, this hand of glory “recipe” has one particular problem that stood out for me: the first half talks about acquiring and preparing the hand of a hanged man. But then some amount of time later (15 days plus additional drying time), you’re also supposed to make a candle “using grease from the hanged man.”

Right. Does that need to be the grease of the same hanged man as the original owner of the hand? Surely the writer of this recipe could have told you up front that when you go to the gibbet in the crossroads at midnight during the full moon to cut the hand off the dead guy, you also need to collect some grease as well while you’re there (ew)? And even if it’s OK for the grease to be the grease of any old hanged man, it’s not like you can just take the horse and buggy down to the 17th century Occult Costco to pick up a half-pound of man grease.

Now before y’all jump up and “well, actually…” at me, I am well aware that this photo is likely from an encyclopedia of some sort, and not really a “recipe” at all. And I was going to end this blog post right here at half a page and get on with my life. (We would all likely have been better off.)

But then I started to think about recipe writing and structure in general, and how the format of recipes has evolved over time, and then I vanished into a multi-day recipe history research hole from which I have only just now emerged.

My weirdly all-consuming single-minded obsessive behavior is your gain.

The Narrative of Ye Olde Tyme Recipes

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The kind of unstructured, stream-of-consciousness, all-in-one-paragraph structure that the Hand of Glory recipe uses was very common in older cookbooks and recipes, going back to ancient times. Googling “ancient recipes” turned up a lot of these, including a terrific site called Gode Cookery that specializes in Medieval recipes.

I like this one from 1545 for Apple pie. It’s not really an American pie the way we think about it, with a crust on the bottom and sometimes the top. The pie crust from this recipe sounds more like a paste in the bottom of a pan (a “coffin,” here which I suppose is in keeping with the theme of weird dead things in this post):

To make pies of grene apples.

Take your apples and pare them cleane and core theim as ye will a Quince / then make your coffyne after this maner / take a little faire water and halfe a disshe of butter and a little safron and set all this vpon a chafyngdisshe till it be hote / then temper your flower with this vpon a chafyngdissh till it be hote then temper your floure with this said licour and the white of two egges / and also make your coffyn and ceason your apples with Sinamon / ginger and suger inough. Then put them into your coffyn and laie halfe a disshe of butter aboue them / and close your coffyn and so bake them.

Here is a
17th century recipe for sack (sherry) posset, which is kind of like eggnog:

A Sack Posset.

Take three pints of Cream; boil in it a Little Cinnamon, a Nutmeg quartered, and two spoonfuls of grated bread; then beat the yolks of twelve eggs very well with a little cold Cream, and a spoonful of Sack. When your Cream hath boiled about a quarter of an hour, thicken it up with the Eggs, and sweeten it with Sugar; and take half a pint of Sack and six spoonfuls of Ale, and put into the basin or dish, you intend to make it in, with a little Ambergreece, if you please. Then pour your Cream and Eggs into it, holding your hand as high as conveniently you can, gently stirring in the basin with the spoon as you pour it; so serve it up. If you please you may strew Sugar upon it. You may strew Amberedsugar upon it, as you eat it; or Sugar-beaten with Cinnamon, if you like it.”

Note to self: This actually doesn’t look half bad, except for the “ambergreece” (ambergris), which is “a solid, waxy, flammable substance … produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.” *yuck face*

I also found this terrific poem, attributed to Virgil, that includes an ancient Roman recipe for an extremely garlicky pesto (“moretum”).

Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.

Interlude #1: The Cockentrice

While I was googling ancient recipes I stumbled upon this 15th century dish called the Cockentrice. The word cockentrice is a pun on the mythical cockatrice, a dragon with a rooster’s head, that can kill you if it looks at you.

The cockentrice is a sort of horrific medieval turducken where you sew the front half of a suckling pig to the rear half of a capon (big chicken, usually a neutered rooster), do the same with the other halves, stuff it, and roast it. Very fashionable holiday dining for the Tudors, apparently.

I can’t find a legally usable photo of this nightmare to post here, but this article from the Huffington Post has photos: Cockentrice: The Most Deliciously Terrifying Thanksgiving Meal EVER

Structure and Audience for a Narrative Recipe

All of these narrative-style recipes are, at best, hard to follow. Most of them suffer from the Hand of Glory problem, where the ingredients are buried deeply within the text. The ingredient amounts, cooking times, and cooking temperatures are vague or missing altogether. Just how much is a “little” ambergris? (Any amount of ambergris is possibly too much?) The actual instructions for how to cook a dish may be out of order, contain shorthand (“make a marrow stock”) or include digressions on the best ingredients right in the middle.

I am neither a historian nor a linguist, but the conclusion I draw from all these recipes is that the audience is a very experienced cook with a well-stocked pantry, who does not need step-by-step instructions or a lot of detail on how to cook things. I can’t imagine any of these recipes laid out on the table next to the fire as the meal is cooking. The goal of these recipes, then, is to communicate the broad strokes of a dish so that other readers and other cooks with a similar background can benefit from that knowledge.

(too long; more in part 2)

Unintentionally Growing Oregano (and Drying It)

Oregano grows wild in my garden. 18 years ago I planted a single 4-inch pot of greek oregano, in a bed I put in just for herbs that doesn’t even exist any more. I wasn’t aware at the time that in my Mediterranean-like climate oregano is invasive, and it will spread everywhere and then seed everywhere and then all you have is oregano as far as the eye can see.

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When I had oregano growing in the herb bed that no longer exists, I had to work hard to keep it from crowding out all the other herbs. Now it grows all by itself along the fence lines and in the paths between the garden beds. In the winter it freezes solid and just keeps growing. Left to itself it grows a foot or so high with tiny flowers that are not that pretty but the bees really like them. If I mow it with the weed-whacker it spreads low to the ground like a ground cover, and all the cut parts take root and new plants grow where they fall. I don’t bother weeding it out of the paths between the garden beds because it doesn’t need any water, and it crowds out most of the other weeds. There are many worse things that could be growing in between the garden beds. (Dear stinging nettle: your post is coming up.)

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The nice thing about oregano growing wild in the garden is that if I have any recipe that calls for it, the plant is just two steps out the kitchen door to gather. It is also trivial to dry and save. I have not bought dried oregano from the store in at least 15 years.

There are actually many different plants that are labelled oregano in the store and at garden centers: Italian, Greek, Sicilian, Mexican, Cuban, Turkish. Only the Mediterranean oreganos are actually true oregano. For example, Mexican oregano is actually a verbena and has a lemony flavor. Italian oregano is often an oregano/marjoram hybrid, and is milder and faintly sweet. For the strongest flavored and most oregano-like oregano you want Greek Oregano, latin name Origanum vulgare subspecies hirtum. If you can’t find a clearly labelled greek oregano at the garden center it also grows really easily from seed or from stem cuttings (as I discovered).

To dry it, I pick some of the nicer, younger stems with dark green leaves, bundle them with a rubber band, and leave the bundle in a warm spot for a couple weeks. I have a spot in the kitchen that works well for this.

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When dry, the leaves strip from the stems easily, and I crush the leaves with my fingers through a sieve to grind it fine and strip out the remaining stems. A couple of batches and the entire kitchen smells like a pizza.

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Dried oregano will keep for a year or more, but I dry and store a new batch every year to keep it fresh.

It’s also easy to dry and keep thyme, sage, marjoram, tarragon, bay leaves, lavender, and rosemary this way. Annual herbs with a higher moisture content like basil take a little more care to dry (a dehydrator or warm oven works well), and parsley isn’t worth drying because dried parsley takes like cobwebs and dirt. Now if I could grow black peppercorns I’d be all set.