April Showers and May Flowers

Maple blooming 17 2The forsythia is blooming. Its golden flowers brighten the landscape and provide a kind of sunshine even during April showers. Gardening is present in the thoughts of those who do and in the stores as well. Pansies and other colorful flowers decorate the entrances of supermarkets and other stores that sell them. Gardening supplies are piled up ready to purchase. Even though it’s not yet time to be planting, these and other signs of spring hearten those of us who are weary of winter’s drab browns and blacks, bare limbs and withered weeds.

Gardening runs in my family and in my blood. I wish I could yet I can’t claim the green thumb of my ancestors. My great grandfather planted an orchard of flourishing fruit trees. His apple trees blossomed and bore from the onset of spring until deep into fall. His quince trees produced fuzzy hard fruit that with my mother’s diligent efforts became jelly and preserves. In her garden she grew a variety of vegetables. I can see her still working away in it, her tanned back brown in the sun.

My grandmother had a gardener named Mr. Patch. He was Irish. I remember his nut brown face and his wonderful brogue as he discussed with my grandmother what he needed for the garden. She did some work also, principally with her pruning shears as she picked her magnificent roses. She grew both flowers and vegetables, harvesting and eating from her garden all summer long. What I remember most clearly were her glorious gladiolas, the saucer plate dahlias ranging from deep red to bright orange and yellow, and the colorful zinnias that lined the gravel path leading from her driveway to her door, bounded by a white picket fence and two strips of green grass turf.

My father too grew roses and later brought back some young peach and plum trees from a horticultural show, planted them and then harvested the fruit when they grew old enough to produce it. I did have one experience with a fruit tree. Back when I had my spiral garden I had bought what I thought was a white forsythia to plant there. After three years it hadn’t flowered. Reluctant to discard it, I dug it up, replanted it at the edge and forgot about it. To my great surprise and delight, though now in the shadow of a large spruce, it grew into a white peach tree that produced three peaches its first year and many more after that.

These days my gardening is limited to a few potted plants. Perhaps one day I will have a small garden again, however I couldn’t manage anything very much more than the original three by five foot plot I was given as a child for my own. I grew flowers there, and then weeds by the time August rolled around. But it got me started on many years of garden tending. These days I write poetry about gardens together with other aspects of nature and the world I live in. My gardens have become metaphysical rather than physical, and truth to tell my back is grateful.

A Recipe for Unexpected Guests

Spring blossoms, whiteIt makes me laugh when it gets cold after a warm day and someone says, “What’s happened to spring? It’s winter again!” That’s what spring is: a back and forth time of year. One day it’s lovely out, the next it snows. It’s difficult to make plans. Once many years ago my father decided to give an Easter egg hunt in the house he had inherited from my great aunt Alice. He invited all the members of an extended family of 12 children grown and married with children of their own, and told them all to come at one o’clock on Easter for the party. Then he went to Maine, intending to return that morning.

At eight AM that day it commenced to snow furiously. By twelve it had pretty much stopped, however my father, having been snowed in was still in Maine. I was faced with hosting a party for a large group of people I had never met not to mention hiding the eggs, providing the food, and being gracious. I called a friend and together we managed to pull off the party. I was rather put out with my father who very cavalierly said, “Oh, I knew you could handle it.”

For as long as I have known him, Stephen, like my father has been prone to spontaneously invite people over for a meal. Confident in my ability to come up with something on the spur of the moment, he doesn’t hesitate to play the host, and to be honest, I can say I have never minded. I love to cook and it gives me pleasure to provide for my friends or even for strangers who may become friends. The trick is to have certain things on hand that I can rely on to fix quickly and easily to feed two or more guests. Potatoes to bake and serve with sauce and cheese, shrimp in the freezer–a quick fix for shrimp scampi. Another is cooked rice for the following recipe.

Chinese fried rice works wonders as a quick meal. Of course you must have the simple ingredients on hand. The secret of this dish is that it must be made with leftover rice. Very quick to fix, it is popular with most. To serve four, use a cup of cooked rice per person, one egg, half a cup of frozen peas, half cup of chopped onion, half a cup of chopped celery, and 2 Tablespoons soy sauce or Dr. Bronner’s Mineral broth. If you have any leftover chicken, or extra firm tofu chop a half a cup of that too. 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 Tablespoons ginger in thin strips is good too.

Take a half a cup large or extra large shrimp per person from the freezer, and thaw briefly in warm water. Peel if necessary and line up on a cookie sheet. Bake at 425 for 5 or so minutes. Scramble the egg without any extra liquid and fry in some oil or butter. Set aside. In a large frying pan, sauté the ginger, garlic, onion and celery in oil until transparent. Stir in the rice and cook 5 minutes stirring. Add the peas, the egg, broken up, tofu, chicken and shrimp. Stir in the soy sauce and cook 5 more minutes stirring occasionally. Voila, Dinner is served.

Spring Is Making Its Way

Blue flowers and stone wallWhen spring comes, like the creatures in the woods and fields, I feel as though I am beginning to wake up after a time of hibernation. I want to get out doors and spend more time in the light. I welcome the brightness that comes in through the windows even though it also shows the accumulation of dust that is so easy to miss in the dimmer light of winter. I get out of bed more eagerly, most likely because the sky is brighter when I do. Spring also brings me memories of what it was like for me when I was a child and the seasons were more defined by what we ate as well as what we did.

Growing up I spent much of my time out of doors. My mother believed the fresh air was good for me. As well she wanted me to be active rather than sit with my nose in a book. Whenever the weather was relatively decent, neither raining, snowing nor windy and cold, I was sent out doors to play. I grew up in the country on a property that belonged to my great aunt Alice, with a good bit of land to it. Thus I could wander to my heart’s content in the fields and marshes that surrounded her large house and our cottage.

When the spring came and the ice receded from the marsh, I would trek about looking for interesting objects that the sea might have delivered during a winter storm. Once I discovered a large log, perhaps three feet or more in diameter that formed an interesting place to play. Another time I found a pane of glass with a lovely blue design on it that was yellow on the underneath. Thinking back I can see it still. It was probably once part of a picture frame. Sadly one day it disappeared, as did the log I liked so much.

Spring also meant there was more daylight time after school to play out of doors. As I wandered around, I made up all sorts of stories in which I imagined myself having some kind of an adventurous part. Although I had no one to play with I was good company for myself, and my active imagination helped me to create all sorts of fun. I was alone but never lonely. Being on our own property I was completely safe as well. It seemed to me that I had a little kingdom all my own to enjoy. Spring brought new opportunities for adventures as well as the chance to be by myself with no one to tell me what to do.

My brother lives in the house we grew up in and whenever I visit with him I marvel at how much smaller the property seems to me now. Too, the days seem far shorter than they did when I was a child, when Saturdays especially seemed to hold endless hours in which to enjoy myself. I greeted the advent of spring with joy because it meant I could get out and explore the surrounding fields and marsh in search not only of adventure but also of signs of the new growth that spring would bring to share with me.

Saving What Is Useful

useful bags.jpg  When my mother and I went to Russia in 1991 among the places we visited was the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It was very impressive. My favorite part was the room with six Rembrandts. Sitting among them was an extraordinary experience. As we left we bought some postcards and other souvenirs and when none seemed to be forthcoming, asked for a bag to put them in. The cashier gave us a sour look then finally dug out a used plastic bag– an obvious treasure from her hoard and placed our items in it. Recycled bags were more common there than new ones were then.

I certainly do save and either use or recycle lots of plastic bags, however I have a stash of various sizes of paper bags as well as small gift boxes that threatens to erupt from its container. Some are saved for when we give people gifts. The ones with decorations for Christmas or birthday, for instance come in very handy. Others with no decorations or simply printed with the name of a store can be used for any occasion, and also for carrying things. I only wish I knew just how many of these decorated bags I would need in the near future so I could pass some of them on to others.

I simply cannot bear to throw out anything that is ultimately useful. Take for instance the elastics that come on things. I haven’t bought any rubber elastics for years. They come in various sizes, shapes and colors, mostly on vegetables. The small bag I have stays full because what I use gets replaced. Twisty ties are something else I tend to save. They too come in various lengths and are useful for tying up many things as well as substituting for the difficult to reuse flat plastic closures most bread bags come with. The long ones are good for wrapping around electric cords and small tools.

I seldom use paper towels unless I want to clean up a mess, thus saving paper. I tear appeal letters and ads for insurance and so forth on 81/2 by 11 sheets with a blank side into thirds, pinch them together with a clip and use them to make my grocery and “to do” lists. Smaller scraps of paper become notes, though I have to be careful not to lose those. String of any length of course gets reused, as does ribbon, and of course wrapping paper. Unless it’s torn, I fold and save Christmas and birthday wrapping paper, as did my parents.

Being of a saving nature runs in my family. My father once told me he found an envelope among his mother’s things with bits of string in it labeled “pieces of string too small to use.” However I have since heard this story from other sources, so it may have been something he borrowed rather than experienced. My mother, my father, my grandmother and my other relatives all followed the Yankee thrift rule: recycle, reuse or do without, so it’s not surprising I developed this habit and needless to say as I have discovered, passed it on to my children.

Thoughts from a Thrifty Cook

Tasha's Fridge 1My mother felt strongly that food was precious and not to be wasted. She had been a young child during World War I in Germany, and the experience of scarcity had shaped her attitude. To her way of thinking, all food was to be used up one way or another. Then came World War II and rationing. I too was very young, yet this also gave me lessons in thrifty use of food. Fortunately I have been able to put my early lessons to good use in learning how to create meals from whatever I have left over even if I hadn’t already planned ahead.

A chicken, for instance normally provides two people at least three meals: hot, cold, and soup. That’s easy, but what about the bits and pieces of vegetables, meat, fish, or even pasta that might otherwise molder in the back of the ‘fridge. Why not make a soup, or combine them in a quick stirfry? If your family is fussy about food you probably can’t do that, however a retired couple like us, or even a single person may find it fun to experiment. One warning: it is important for the leftovers from the originals to make good combinations. A curry and a chili won’t mix well.

To use up most leftover vegetables, sauté half an onion until soft and then tip in whatever you have. This freshens the taste and makes them seem like a different dish. Add half a box of chicken or beef broth and serve this as a soup with a salad for supper. Throw in a handful of uncooked pasta of your choice and simmer or add leftover rice for a heartier dish. Or combine the vegetables and the rice or cooked pasta, sprinkle on curry powder, voila, another meal. Cook any leftover hamburger or some other chopped up cooked meat and add to the simple stirfry for a more filling lunch or supper. You can also cover it with leftover mashed potato, pop into the oven and have a shepherd’s pie.

I often use some of that convenient boxed coconut milk to season my leftover vegetables. Or in the summer I may add some salad dressing and toss them with lettuce, chopped sweet onion, and whatever else you like for a cold meal. Adding some canned salmon or tuna makes a more filling meal. The coconut milk is also very tasty with leftover chicken stirfry or soup. Simply chop up what you have, add whatever vegetables you like and warm them all up together with either leftover or freshly cooked rice. For soup, add chicken broth.

Whenever I make rice I make enough so I have some left over. I like to use it to make what I call Pudding As Rice: Per person use ½ cup rice, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs brown sugar, about a half cup or so mixed dried fruit of your choice—brown and white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries, dried pineapple, or whatever else you fancy. Mix and cook together over low heat 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until all is mingled into a tasty mix and serve with almond, coconut or dairy cream poured over it. Or instead, combine it with fresh or canned fruit. This simple dessert pleases almost everyone.

 

Thrifty Ways

clothes-in-closetWhen I was a child a friend of my mother’s gave me the dresses that that her twins had outgrown. Because they were dressed alike, I had to wear two of whatever came my way. In the days when I was growing up, thrift meant making do with what was available. Aside from the fact that while my family had enough, they weren’t exactly wealthy, there was a war on and many things, including clothing and shoes were rationed.

In addition, in the years that followed, my mother had to stretch what my father earned to cover the needs of the three more children born after I turned eight years old. I remember how excited I was when in my sixteenth year I got a pair of Bermuda shorts. They were newly fashionable and I felt very special to have a pair. Although they were wool, I wore them all that summer and for a number of summers after that. For a long time they were my only pair.

Growing up in a thrifty household inclined me toward a thrifty lifestyle as an adult. When I was raising my own family of five children I had to stretch our food dollars to try to nourish as well as please my family. I learned all kinds of tricks to make inexpensive cuts of meat palatable and I baked cookies by the dozen so the children would have treats. Home made was far less expensive than store bought. My sewing machine hummed as I made dresses for my daughters and even some outfits for my sons when they were small.

Judging from the advertisements I see today, thrift is not especially fashionable. Bargains, of course are. However what is considered a bargain by some standards is not by others. When I was growing up the annual church fair rummage sales held in local churches were the best places to find inexpensive, serviceable garments. My mother was a faithful customer.

I do not remember there being consignment shops or other places one could find good second hand clothing when I was a child. When we got together I introduced Stephen to consignment and thrift store shopping, and he embraced it happily. I find it more fun to shop that way because you never know what you will find and the prices are far more reasonable than what other stores charge.

Over the years, I have amassed a wonderful collection of clothing. Much of it has come from consignment or thrift stores, the rest from sales. Certain garments have endured the test of time and I wear them joyfully in the appropriate season. Others get rotated back into the mainstream to be discovered by someone else who enjoys saving money by shopping wisely. What is especially nice for me is that now I can have a number of pairs of shorts for the price I would pay for one bought new, or a cashmere sweater that someone has passed on, at a fraction of the cost in a regular store. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for the days when I wore the twins’ hand me down dresses over and over again.

Tasha Halpert

A Valentine to Loves Found

stephen-and-tasha-kissing-2087When I was in grade school I fell in love, or more accurately had a gigantic crush on a boy with blond hair named Teddy. I don’t think he even knew I existed, and I certainly made no advances toward him, being far too shy to do so. I simply gazed at him from afar and thought he was wonderful. In my seventh grade year another fair-haired boy I yearned over named Dana replaced Teddy in my heart. Some years later I discovered that before she met my father, many of my mother’s boyfriends had been blond, and I wondered if her predilections could have subconsciously influenced me in my choices.

My passion for blond men dissipated. When I was sixteen another boy named Teddy though with brown hair, became my first real love. My parents labeled it puppy love, but I knew better. Our dates were conducted via the bus because neither of us had a license to drive. We danced in his parents’ living room to the tune of “Unforgettable,” and snuggled in the movies—it didn’t much matter what was on the screen. When he went away to camp for two weeks he wrote me each day and I waited anxiously by the door for the mailman. I wore his felt beanie with pins on it constantly, which drove my dear parents crazy. I was their oldest child and their initial experience with their children’s first loves.

My first husband and I met at a dance and fell in love quite quickly. I was a rather romantic seventeen-year-old senior in high school. He was from New York, a sophomore in college and quite sophisticated. Our love blossomed over the summer and culminated in an elopement the following year. This was exacerbated by my parents’ protective attitude. They were not happy about our burgeoning relationship and had threatened to send me on a long trip the following summer to visit relatives abroad. They did what they thought best, though their antagonism probably fueled our passion. I was a young bride and soon a young mother. Our children became the focus of our marriage and of our love.

Now so many years later I look back on those early loves and I smile. In those days I knew so little of what love really was about. Most of how I viewed it came from romantic novels and magazines. With time and experience I learned about it for myself, and sometimes this was painful. Yet as I look back I have no regrets. I am married now to the love of my life. Our relationship has endured for nearly forty years. As I age I am grateful for his presence and for the love he brings to our days. As Shakespeare said, “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.” We have grown together, changed together, and remained together with all the joy and happiness that our experiences have brought to our relationship. He is my always valentine.

Tasha Halpert