Saturday, November 30, 2013

Green dragons

Bradypodion pumilum is still thriving in the greenbelt. Well, I'm not sure what defines "thriving." Our last count was eight individuals in one spot, one of whom - very small and brown - caught and ate an insect while we watched. Long tongues!

Vince is very cagey about telling people that we are hunting Cape dwarf chameleons, and does a rapid assessment of the people who ask. Regular Constantia walkers are treated as friends, but anyone armed to the teeth with cameras is told that we are studying sunbirds...Chameleon collectors abound and there is a black market trade in them.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A day of flowers

I thought I'd better take some more pictures of the garden at No. 9 before The Big White Tent arrives today for my other's 80th birthday party, which will be on Sunday.

The Frenchman and I have been charged with its supervision, while my almost-80-year-old mother charges about town tying up loose party ends. I have tied up a leaning sapling,  de-limbed one five foot long delicious monster (Monstera deliciosa) stem and lopped a low plane tree branch in preparation for the passage of tent poles, tent and the swathes of white fabric that will line its interior. And Men. Of course.

In the meantime, here are indigenous Cotyledon orbiculata, at home with their European and Asian cottage garden neighbours.

Another indigene, Dietes iridioides, its clear-eyed peacock flowers ubiquitous in Cape Town, planted everywhere from supermarket parking lots to traffic medians.

Below, its close relative, Dietes bicolor.

Foxgloves and larkspurs outside our bedroom window.

And who doesn't love a zinnia?

The honeysuckle is confined to sprawling over a shrub at the bottom of the garden and its scent is delicious.

I can never remember the name of this annual. Anyone?

Post tent arrival, my instructions are to proceed to two flower farms within five minutes' drive - to cut long-stemmed roses at Chart Farm and to buy bunches of fresh flowers at Sillery Farm. I am in search of yellow, white, blue and gold. If I come back with hot pink I will be fired.

This tough day will end at La Colombe, the restaurant in the vineyards of Uitsig wine estate, for supper with Gail and Cecil, upcountry cousins who are treating my father, whose 81st birthday it is today.

I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

66 Square Feet in Cape Town

Packing for the book party. Lots of very nice people came.

All copies of 66 Square Feet sold out!

Thank you to everyone who came, and to The Book Lounge for hosting us. A beautiful shop.

If you left without a book, order one on, 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Low maintenance garden

In contrast to the wildly cottagey back garden, with its beautiful but high maintenance imports in bloom, the small front garden at my parents' house is heavy on South African plants (with some exceptions) and gets very little attention, aside from occasional watering. South African classics thrive here. Phygelius capensis (which we saw growing wild in Lesotho, beside a roaring mountain stream) is very tall, almost six feet. It's known as Cape fuchsia.

Behind the Cape fuchsia grows the real thing, Fuchsia magelannica, from South America, loved by the tiny needle-beaked sunbirds. The little Agapanthus growing here seem to have dodged the dreaded borer, which has decimated much of my mom's previously extensive Agapanthus collection.

And in the background is a shrubby Plectranthus zuluensis - it blooms early; many species favour late summer and early autumn. And behind that, in a series of wine barrels, which it shares with a peppermint Pelargonium and various Streptocarpus, is that scourge of front parlors and windowsills, the Asparagus fern, proudly South African.

I want to know whether the young shoots can be eaten. The plant is related to the vegetable asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), which turns into an immediately similar-looking plant, if allowed to live beyond juicy fat shoot. I found only one passing reference on PlantzAfrica: "Some of the South African Asparagus species are used as vegetables or for medicinal purposes."

And then the Web turned silent.

I may have to boil up a few.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Oh, sleep

We landed mid-morning at Cape Town International, caught a shuttle to Constantia, were fed a lunch of thin ham and sweet orange melon under the tree, with pink bubbly to wash it down, and then I passed out and slept for four hours straight. Vince said it was the deepest I'd slept since he could remember. He hears my breathing.

He woke me at 7pm. I didn't know where I was, thought it might be Monday.We started a braai fire in what we call the Mickey Mouse braai - it's small, but fierce. Its smoke went straight up into the warm and windless evening, the perfume of jasmine and roses thick in the green garden.

We had supper on the patio, the corgis at our feet. Frogs started to croak. A slight chill rose off the stream in the poplars and nudged the heat off the day.

It had been a hop across the cold Atlantic, and a long slide down Africa, vast continent. Home.

When this trip was planned I was rather dismayed at the timing - too soon after our move! But as it turned out, I was more than ready to leave. After the initial culture shock, I like Harlem. And I love the bones of the apartment - its tall ceilings, the extra space. I have become more used to the darker interior days, the vanishing sunlight.

But I haven't had an uninterrupted sleep or peaceful morning in six weeks.

Noise. Chairs being pulled out above, footsteps back and forth. A child running and yelling below, dishes being taken out of a cupboard, a mother talking, fans working - ordinary things, for the most part. But there is no insulation between the old wooden floors and every sound is transported and magnified. We tiptoe around barefoot as we hear our own floorboards creak. In fourteen years in New York I've never experienced anything like it, despite having lived only in old, wooden-floored buildings in this city. I have slept though construction, through Flatbush Avenue traffic, through New York's sirened nights.  But now I am undone.We have bought a white noise machine for the bedroom and Vincent sleeps with ear plugs.

It is beautiful house but it is a deeply restless place.

If you are sleeping  in a quiet place tonight, in a silence unmolested by unexpected and unpredictable human sounds, luxuriate in it.

It is one of the best things there is. And now we have it.

Because if you ask me what I am looking forward to the most in Cape Town, apart from seeing my parents and Tipsy, my first bite of boerewors right off the braai, chasing the corgis around the lawn, a gin and tonic on the evening patio, looking up at the mountain, walking on the mountain...

...ahead of it all?

Peace. Silence. Sleeping right through. The black night of Constantia. The click frogs in the greenbelt. A cricket. Perhaps an owl.

The silence inbetween so thick you can hear it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

New worlds

There are a lot of churches in our neighbourhood. They range from eccentric store fronts to monumental bodies of stone and brick. Sometimes bells ring. Gospel singing shivers the air on Sundays.

This, above, is a big 'un on Malcom X Boulevard. Also known as Lenox Avenue.

And on that wide boulevard's intersection with 125th, outside the 2/3 subway stop, people often stand and preach. Or protest, or proclaim. About the recent shooting of a black woman in Detroit, for example. Shame on you. The other day, as I walked south to shop, it was a group of enormous black men in costumes which looked like the Middle Ages met a biker gang by way of a noir Ku Klux Clan. Big black boots, metal studs, tassels and black Gothic fabric details, a lot of leather and variety of head coverings. There was a sign, Babel-something, and they took it in turns to preach against homosexuality through a loud hailer. They were graphic. They hailed passersby.

I was on the opposite side of the street, four lanes away and it stopped me in my tracks. I'd never heard such a thing. I looked around to see what everybody else was thinking. Nobody was paying much attention.
I walked on.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dinner for friends

Pumpkin soup was made, salad was assembled (pea and sunflower shoots on pickled beet slices, topped with barberries), vegetables and chickens were roasted.

Friends arrived from a teaching session at Columbia, and from Brooklyn. 

I had not intended that this small dinner be a house warming but it's exactly the purpose it served. 

When Eric and Mimi left, the house was warm.

Addendum: and now that we have discovered - ka-ching - that we are paying for heat and hot water (it's usually included), we'll have friends over much more often!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Horse radish and citrus

Some cashiers, like the one at Fairway, are really uncomfortable handling the horse radish (stage right) at check out.

Most of them hold it gingerly and ask, "What is this?"

Despite its startling appearance, it's wonderful eaten very soon after being grated (leave it out too long and the powerful wasabi flavour dissipates).

I celebrated my recent citrus bonanza with a Kir, in which I floated a few yuzu slices. Lovely things - extremely juicy and thin-skinned. I wonder for how long they will be available...I juiced many for our dinner party roast chickens last night and decided to preserve their shells in salt: the skin is very fragrant and will be an easy last minute ingredient to add to monk fish stews and chicken tagines, or roasted vegetables.

The etrog citron has filled the whole apartment with its scent, as promised, and today the Meyers will be salted and put in the fridge. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I went to the Barnes and Noble on Broadway yesterday to look for gardening magazines to take home to my mom. Before I went hunting for them ( and I really had to hunt), I visited the cookbook section to see if, you know, my book might be there. It's a bit of a gamble, as I'm always nervous that it will not be, and then I'd have to slink out, casting worried dog-eyebrow looks at people, tail between my legs. But there it was. And I was so excited to see it shoulder to shoulder with Jacques Pepin (whose his fat-fat - earlier edition - book of French technique taught me how to cut an onion) that I FAILED to miss what is at my book's feet.

Romney Family Table?

Jeepers. And to think I walked away and ignored my book's cries for help.

The garden magazines. There were rows of magazine racks. I walked up and down them thrice before I found the gardening zines on the lowest rack, at the back, barely visible, and poorly represented. But there were oodles of others - cars, computers, weddings wedding weddings, fashion, interiors, food, knitting, you name it. It seemed weird. But I live a life skewed towards plants and so am surprised that everyone else does not.

I wonder if Hudson News in Grand Central still has a good garden magazine section. They used to. Maybe I have time for one oyster, before we pack up and fly to Cape Town.

My name is Marie, and it has been nine months since my last trip to The Oyster Bar.

Oh! And Apple's iBooks is featuring 66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life at a special price of $4.99 just for this week, in its Books for Food Lovers Collection. Go over and snap it up, if you like cooking from your tablet or laptop, as I have begun to do, or want to read it on your subway or Thanksgiving plane ride home.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Once upon a windowsill

If you look up in the middle of the block you may see a black cat regarding you from a limestone windowsill. He often sits in the window at night, behind the lowered mosquito screens, sniffing the Harlem air, watching the branches of the linden tree planted in front of the building, looking at the passersby.

But today I raised the screens in the sash windows and the kitty shot out to sit above the street in sun reflected off the windows across the road. Soon, however - predictably - he realised that the windowsill is long and takes him to a spot where a cat could easily jump down and onto the stoop steps - and then the street.

Not good.

So I stayed within arm's reach. I'll see if there is way to block off that end of the sill, with some old, attractive wrought iron thing, perhaps the starburst one sees sometimes, on the rooves of the tall narrow houses where the rays of an iron sun extend between buildings to deter clambering thieves.

I am tempted to eat those little pumpkins.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pot roast season is open

...all about to go in the pot. Not the pomegranates. They're for eating after supper, while I watch a movie. The olives are for the Frenchman's drink. The chrysanthemums won't die.

Pot roast is a once-a-year thing, somehow. But in this hemisphere from now until, oh, March, it is pot roast season. And, of course, Variations on a Leftover (in C) follow.

It is a meat eater's dish. No disguising it. And pot roast is not pretty, in the way that a perfectly seared steak can be. Pot roast is grey. But it's all about texture, and scent, and flavour. The herbs, the juice, the sweet carrot, the rich onion or shallot, the herbal celery.

My recipe for the pot roast I made recently is next door, at 66 Square Feet (the Food). It may tread on some pot roast toes. There's no flour, no cream of anything soup, there is wine.

But it tasted very good.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Goodbye, Doris Lessing

Dog eared pages

I have not read all her books. I have not liked all her books. But one I read again, and again, is The Golden Notebook, of whose writing Doris Lessing explains in an introduction: " was not possible to find a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate of a hundred years ago, in the middle of the last century, in Britain, the way Tolstoy did it for Russia, Stendhal for France."

And so she set about doing it for the middle of the 20th century, where she lived.

The pages I have dog eared in The Golden Notebook are numerous and range from descriptions of strawberries  - "...the slipperiness of the cream under a gritty crust of sugar," - to echoes of my own feelings about writing - "Why can't you understand that...I can't pick up a newspaper without what's in it seeming so overwhelmingly terrible that nothing I could write would seem to have any point at all?' 'Then you shouldn't read the newspapers,' " - to socio-political analysis: "...5th July, 52: Most important of all, the effect of the American witch hunt is to produce a general level of conformity, a new orthodoxy from which a man dissents at his economic peril," to the echoes of the way one gets through a day - "Today I got up at seven, cooked breakfast for Janet, sent her to school...and felt as if I had saved that day from chaos."

I didn't pick up this book in a book shop in 2004 - when I had just moved to Cobble Hill and was recovering from being dumped - because it was written about a single mother living in London (and written by a woman who later left her two children). I bought it because I had just finished Moby Dick (which acted as a necessary anaesthetic), and because it was really thick and I like to lose myself in a book, not coming up for air, and because I thought I should read Doris Lessing. There are worse reasons. It is a classic.

The Times piece about her today starts off with a reference that irritated me, to her "childhood in the central African bush." She grew up in southern Rhodesia, which borders South Africa. That's southern Africa, not central Africa. But then, searching about, I found this quote attributed to her in an interview with the Progressive (June, 1999):

Q: In Going Home (Michael Joseph, 1957), you say that you were made by Central Africa, where you lived from age five to age thirty. Does that self-assessment still hold?

Lessing: Now I would say that I was formed by three main things: Central Africa, the legacy of World War I, and by literature, especially the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Quite odd. I must be missing something.

She liked cats.

I don't know when I'll pick up The Golden Notebook again. I think I've read it three times in almost ten years, which fits my average of re-reading once every two to three years - at the least the books that are good enough to withstand scrutiny. The best ones can be read forever because you come to them every time a changed person, with new experience, and more perspective, finding words springing up from the page, where before they lay flat, and allowed you to pass on."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Making butter at home


Breakfast time. The coffee was about to perk. The brioche buns were warming.

Open fridge.


Saturday crisis.

Think. There's cream (for once). And One Knows Where Butter Comes From: cream.

One Googles. One starts the cream off in the blender, as instructed, but that doesn't work because the blades whir uselessly once the cream is thick. Out come the stainless steel bowl and the good old hand whisk. Five minutes of sore-wristed whipping later (a lifetime of gardening and cooking has made my hands rebel, at last), and we get to Picture no. 1 stage. I squeal. My first buttermilk. And the butter fat is yellow, all on its own. I rinse in cold water and press moisture out with a spoon, then pat crudely into shape. I spread it on hot brioche and carry it on a tray to bed, with coffee.

Tastes just like butter. Seems like a miracle.

I used something less than a pint (minus one slosh for chicken-with-grapes-and-sorrel and another slosh in last night's pot roast gravy) Organic Valley cream, which was what I asked the Frenchman to bring home other night for that chicken. Under one pint yielded 100 grams/3.5 ounces of butter (bit less than one stick, which is 110grams).

Of course, now I'm all fired up and want grass-fed local cream.

And it begs the question: is it worth it? Organic butter cost about $6 for 4 sticks. The cream for that much butter will cost much more. Still, I think it's worth the trouble and money for special occasions, and gifts. And I can't wait to start flavouring it.

Mushroom powder. Clover.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Spirit of Enterprise

Garden. Brooklyn.

Cocktail for fall

Sweetfern-infused bourbon (Maker's Mark), topped with  apple cider, in this case a really lovely French one I found at The Wild Olive on 125th: Etienne Dupont's Cidre Bouche Brut de Normandie - delicious. Unpasteurized and organic, with a negligible 4.5% alcohol content. I've had couple of bottles in the last two weeks and it pairs well with the kind of food one wants to eat at this time of year.

What is in your autumn glass?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fig, rehomed

The fig has a new home. I did not want to let it overwinter in its current container, which it had outgrown, yet again. So I rootpruned it as I do every year, but this time transplanted it at last ( years?) to a larger pot. It still had all its leaves, and ideally it should have been done once they'd dropped. I don't advise following my example. While this cold weather is perfect for the job, all its leaves mean it's still in active food production mode, so chances of shock are high.

Looks a bit stumpy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

110th Street and into the woods

The walk to the top of Central Park takes a brisk fifteen minutes. The trees have a bit more turning to do.

Dark winter coats have arrived. 

The cold took me by surprise last night when I walked out in a (white) coat for the first time. A homeless man under an eiderdown on the corner of Lenox and 126th moved me to stand in line for a Starbucks hot chocolate. A first. Starbucks helpfully posts calories with drinks, now, and 400 seemed a good idea, yesterday evening. No idea if he liked it, or whether he would have preferred coffee, but on my way back past him, an hour later, his friend - not there earlier - wanted one, too. But I only have a one-chocolate budget.

Black fences, below - I really hate them, just from an aesthetic point of view. The parts without them seem to do quite well.

It has been a mushroomless late fall and early winter, so far, but I'll continue to scan dead logs and trees. The dry conditions are to blame, and the lower forest growth droops with lack of moisture. One does not often see droopy asters.

At home, sunlight is down to under an hour a day on the terrace. It has dropped below the buildings that it scaled even in late September.

But in two weeks we will be in the long Cape summer evenings, drinking gin and tonic on the patio, braaing, looking at the mountain, playing with corgis, talking to my parents, thinking other thoughts, maybe having a lunch under a tree.

And that is good.

2014 Calendars

Well, it took only 48 a few hours of hair pulling and teeth gnashing, but here are two calendars for your pleasure. I hope. The calendar-theme poll held a few days ago came in heavily in favour of food. So the Market Calendar is all fruits and vegetables, all the time, informed by the month and the appetite.

The cat has done it again - another twelve months of catness, from Himself. Click on the calendar to see if you like it.

The commission I make on each calendar goes into the 66 Square Feet kitty (no, not that kitty...). This blog is deliberately advertisement-free and requires some commitment in terms of time and effort. The modest revenue is helpful. You will see it translated into bloom on the new terrace next year.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Yes, and no

Take: the mulled wine, with a slice of orange, a little sugar, a stick of cinnamon, allspice berries and cloves.
Leave: plantains. Neither here nor there. Even after sauteing and topping with a fresh cilantro and lime sauce.
Leave: commercial queso fresco. Like damp chalk.
Take: red cabbage, quick pickled and raw; or cooked for hours with Muscat vinegar, maple syrup, raisins, apple slices and olive oil, till dark and syrupy and dissolving.