Eggplant with Garlic & Chili Oil

September in Vermont is a good time for eggplant, especially if you go to farmer's markets. I've been working to perfect this spicy, silken eggplant recipe. It uses the szechuan chili oil that I always have waiting in the fridge. Since nobody else in my household likes eggplant, I get this dish all to myself.
 


Ingredients

2-3 Asian eggplants (the skinny kind)
2 tsp szechuan chili oil (don't have this? try heating up plain oil and adding red pepper flakes while hot)
1/3 cup chicken broth or made-up bouillon
1 tsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 T vegetable oil 
4 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tsp-Tbsp ginger, chopped
1 green onion, chopped
 
 


Assembly
  1. Boil pot of water. Cut eggplants in half lengthwise, then into diagonal chunks about 3/4 inch thick. When water boils, put pieces in water for 2 minutes. Strain out and place on paper towels. They can dry/cool as much as needed.
  2. Make sauce by combining chili oil, broth, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. Set aside.
  3. When ready to cook, heat cast iron skillet to hot. Put in 1 Tbsp vegetable oil. Throw in garlic & ginger. Stir together to heat through. Then pour in sauce and let that just heat through.
  4. Add eggplant. Stir to coat. Then cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. When done, some eggplant will be brown/caramelized and some will start to fall apart. The sauce should mostly be soaked in leaving a glaze of garlic-chili chunks. 
  6. Add green onion and stir together. Serve!

 

 

So how do you feel about eggplant--love it? hate it? meh? I used to detest eggplant but I worked on acquiring the taste in my 20s. Now I like SOME eggplant dishes, and this is definitely one of them.

Hugelkultur Gardening, Year 2

Hello! Happy summer! I'm here to report on our front-yard garden, which we set up in two rows last year for a hugelkultur experiment. I wasn't sure what we should do specifically to "refresh" our hugels now that they're in their second year. (They're really just very heaped-up garden beds rather than a full-on "hill," but keep in mind that underneath there are layers of wood and leaves that are supposed to decompose over several years.) So I simply made up a plan for jollying up the hugels a little bit this year, with the goal of getting things planted by around Memorial Day (the last weekend in May).

My main challenge was that we had covered everything with wood chips last year. I didn't really want to just mix those into the soil by hoeing or raking everything together. So I tried to push the wood chips aside a bit...

  • First I prepared by clearing weeds. I hoed and removed the tufts of grass and the dandelions that had set up shop.
  • Then I did my best to rake the wood chip layer away from the center of the hugel and toward the edges, to better expose the soil underneath.
  • Next I poured a bag of "Moo Dirt" augmented topsoil along the top of each hugel, and raked to mix it with the soil already there. 
  • Finally, I attempted to rake the wood chips back up so they covered things evenly again. 
I'm happy with how the soil got a fresh infusion of rich dirt, but my attempt to keep wood chips separate didn't really work. The wood chips are essentially mixed into the top layer of dirt now, but it seems fine!

Then it was planting time! Here's what's growing this year:


Cucumbers: I am in full battle mode with cucumber beetles as they have killed my cucumbers for several years in a row. I'm not being polite any more but just squishing them on sight. We have set up some trellis inventions for the cukes to climb should they survive that long.


Here's another angle of the cucumbers and trellising. I read that cucumber beetles don't like marigolds so I've planted those everywhere. Beyond the cucumbers are two summer squash plants, and at the far end of the hugel is a population of lettuce. I also put some kale plants here and there.


The other, streetside hugel has 3 tomatoes (foreground), and then chard and collards beyond that, and green beans at the far end. Everything seems happy over here!


We pondered maybe getting more wood chips to re-cover everything, but at the moment I'm happy to just keep weeding and let nature take its course. On the plus side, several volunteer tomato plants have sprouted up from last year's plants. I also think that this sweet lettuce crop was probably all self-seeded because we let our lettuce go rampantly to seed last year. Check it out!

This lettuce in the foreground all just SHOWED UP as soon as frosty nights ended. It's been a delicious spring treat! We'll definitely let the lettuce go to seed again this year.


Bathroom cabinet refurb

Things nowadays are often poorly made. Have you noticed this? So many things that used to be sturdy metal or wood are now highly plastic and/or highly flammable. These "convenient" objects seem to be designed to last 1 year in your home and then a million more years in some ocean garbage island. A great example of this? Bathroom cabinets. Ours was getting quite grubby and old, so I searched around for a replacement. But what I found in my price range was molded plastic, and much lower quality than the item I was replacing.


Total Rubbish


Despite the disappointing options, I had to do something. Our bathroom cabinet was having ISSUES--look at this rust!

So my next idea was, "What if I renovate this thing? Maybe this rust is just cosmetic and can be fixed?" The cabinet was made in Bellevue, Kentucky, USA, and obviously of a sturdiness and quality that I can no longer find. Our house was built in 1958 and I expect the cabinet dates to around that time too. It's made of metal and glass with adjustable shelves. Could it be... saved?


Made in Kentucky, USA

Here's how I gave remodeling the bathroom cabinet a shot!

Step 1: Remove from wall. This just involved a screwdriver and some persistent jiggling and pulling.

Step 2: Sand the rusty areas to smooth them out and remove debris and crud. I recommend doing this outside or in a garage. Then I washed off the areas and let them dry.



Step 3. Treat rust areas. I used a product called "Rust Reformer" from Rust-Oleum (Vernon Hills, IL) that claims to "instantly transform rust into a non-rusting, flat-black paintable surface" and also it prevents future rust. It seemed to work!



 

Step 4: Tape off everything not to be painted (the mirror, mainly).

 



Step 5: Spraypaint! I hit this with 3 coats of white paint applied within about 5 minutes of each other, then let it dry for a day. Then I removed the tape.





Step 6: Reinstall!


Glass shelves reinserted.


Don't forget to take before & after photos with stuff inside.

 

Before: Squalor





After: Oh Thank Goodness



I'm really pleased with how this turned out. Of course it's totally practical to fix something I already have instead of throwing it away and purchasing a new (worse) thing. But sometimes that's hard to remember in a culture so primed to Buy More Stuff.

How about you? Any good tales of refurbishing something and giving it new life?

Okonomiyaki: Japanese cabbage pancake, Vermont style


Have you heard of Okonomiyaki? I was not aware of this Japanese veggie pancake until I saw Rie McClenny's "How to Make Homemade Japanese Food" video (with Tasty). Her impressive Okonomiyaki shows up at minute 4:00. Rie makes it look so easy! All you have to do is make a thin pancake, layer on cabbage and bean sprouts and bacon, put on more batter, flip it over, cook noodles on the side, put the pancake on top of the noodles, fry an egg, put the pancake on top of the egg, flip it over, then cover with yummy sauces and bonito flakes that dance in the heat. 

However, when I tried this at home, it was a mess. (It was delicious, but I didn't have the space or the tools to do the flipping correctly.) Also the bacon didn't cook properly and had to be removed before eating.

But I wanted to try again. Next I found a recipe and video from Aaron and Clare (who are based in Seoul). This one is called "Easy & Perfect Okonomiyaki." It had fewer ingredients and only one flip. I tried it, but cut down ingredients even more to come up with my Vermont version of this tasty dish. It makes a great lunch and I think still has nice savory flavor, plus real substance from the cabbage. Here's my recipe!



Ingredients:

  • About 2 cups of green cabbage, sliced thin or shredded
  • About 2 heaping T of Pickled ginger (can chop slightly)
  • 4-6 shrimp, cooked and chopped (optional) 
  • Tempura bits (completely optional, but if you make your own tempura, save the fried bits from the oil and add them to your okonomiyaki)
  • About 1/2 cup of any plain pancake mix, or Okonomiyaki flour (or regular flour in a pinch)
  • 1/2 cup water (or more for texture)
  • Okonomi sauce or any Japanese or Korean or American barbecue sauce
  • 2 T Mayonnaise
  • 1 t Maple syrup
  • Bonito flakes (Katsuobushi)

Assembly:

First a disclaimer--I know recipe is a far cry from real Japanese food. But I still want to experience some of the flavors, so this is my best attempt with what I've got.

Step 1: Combine the shredded cabbage, chopped shrimp, and pickled ginger in a bowl. If you have tempura bits, add these too.



2. Sprinkle on okonomiyaki flour or pancake mix and mix in. Then add and mix in the water to make a very loose batter. (Essentially the ingredients are somewhat coated with the mixture, but by no means are we creating a pourable pancake-like mixture.) If there is not enough coating or it's too dry or too wet, adjust the flour or water as needed.


3. Preferably using your hands, clump a generous handful of the coated cabbage mixture onto a griddle or large skillet. The pancake should be about 6 inches in diameter. If you have room for two, go for it.


4. Cook one side over medium heat for 4-5 minutes. Using a wide, reliable spatula, flip the pancakes and cook for about the same time on the other side.


5. Meanwhile, prepare the toppings by mixing the mayonnaise and the maple syrup together in a small bowl. Here are my three toppings at the ready.


6. When the pancakes seem cooked through (in about 10 minutes, maybe less), place on plates and slather the top with the sweet mayo. Then, squeeze on Okonomi sauce in a pleasing back-and-forth pattern, and finally, sprinkle generously with bonito flakes. If you think you don't like bonito flakes, please try them anyway! Their smoky, salty, briny taste brings the whole dish to the next level and is worth getting used to!



That's it! The Okonomiyaki pancakes are ready to eat!

Winter Museums

As the first quarter of the year ends this week (hello, April!) I want to celebrate some museum-going that I did during the winter. For me, part of welcoming a new year and envisioning a fresh new self involves a natural desire to see new things. To "get new things in my eyes." I like to do this by visiting museums. This winter I went to 3 museums with various family members. Here's a recap with some photos!

Museum 1: Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC), end of January 

I took a Friday lunchtime to visit this local treasure with a special & artsy family member. The museum is small enough to see in an hour (it is inside what used to be a train station, if that helps to picture the size). Here are some photos of 3 of the exhibits.

"Evolving Traditions: Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers" 

Professional regional woodworkers combine artistic inspiration with their significant furniture-making skills.

This is one of Charles Shackleton's "Chairs of Enlightenment." It's a bit hard to tell, but the upright areas on this chair-back are actually lit up. Shackleton's wall-label tells us that in the time of Chippendale (18th century), the back of the chair was where the artisan really got to show off ornate work.


Jason Breen created this remarkable piece (with paintings by Margaret Shipman) and calls it "Cephalopod." He explains on the wall label that it is an "altar to the Earth" and made of wood from a beloved fallen apple tree. The dome is Spalted Maple (a sugar maple that has started to rot). Fun fact: I blogged a bit about Jason Breen's woodworking shop back in 2011.


Painting with Paper: Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank uses pigmented cotton and linen paper pulp to create feminist portraits that are literally painted WITH paper. Frank explains that she was inspired by "the roles of women in tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the 17th-century feminist tales of Madame d’Aulnoy."

"Woman with Fox," Natalie Frank. I love how the fox's little paw breaks through the bottom edge of the piece. The paper medium looks so fluid and bold.


Woman with Crow, Natalie Frank. What an arresting face and expression!!


Inspired by the Past: Vermont Glass Guild

We LOVED this exhibit. The museum had received some ancient pieces that spanned 4,000 years and came from places all around the world, like Korea, Iran, Costa Rica, and China. Of course, the BMAC is a non-collecting museum of contemporary art... so the plan is to use this as a study collection. The Vermont Glass Guild took on the challenge first and created new works inspired by these ancient items. The pairings were really cool! You can take this virtual tour if you want to see more of the show.

This archeological-dig piece was created by local glass artist Robert Burch and called "Brattlebeach 2121." It's inspired by the large storage jar up in the corner (Iran, 5000-3500 BCE) as well as other ceramics from the collection. It's kind of fun and irreverent to see the items just jumbled together with sand (and even glass hermit grabs mixed in). It helps to set the scene of jumping around in time.


We loved these glass pull-toys (a manatee, an owl, a cow, and birds) made by Marta Bernbaum and inspired by the "bull-shaped vessel" (Iran, 1000-700 BCE) that's raised up in the center.


Close-up of the manatee pull toy.




Museum 2: Southern Vermont Arts Center, mid-February

A few weeks later, this same family member and I made the drive out to Manchester, Vermont, to the Southern Vermont Arts Center. The museum campus is nestled on a wooded hillside a little outside of the town Manchester, where it has been located since 1950 (the Southern Vermont artists group itself has apparently been around since 1922). There were two main exhibition buildings on the former estate--and when we visited they were showing Hiroshige in one building, and contemporary woodblock prints in the other.

Hiroshige and the Changing Japanese Landscape

First we went to the Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum, where a BUNCH of Hiroshige woodblock prints were on display. Utagawa Hiroshige is the 19th century Japanese woodblock master (1797-1858). The museum signs did a good job of explaining a bit about his life and his art. I learned (or was reminded) about ukiyo-e, which means "pictures of the floating world" and refers to the imagery in the prints that reflects life's enjoyments like theater, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women, animals, landscapes, and teahouses. One room was full of prints of the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, which was the 300-mile long road between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto (the imperial capital). The combination of the mundane (women dragging customers into a teahouse, as seen in the second image below) and majestic (views of Mount Fuji!) made these prints hot sellers at the time. It was remarkable to see so many all in one place--all from the collection of a Vermont artist.





The World Between the Block and the Paper

The other main building of the SVAC, Yester House, was devoted to a contemporary showing of mokuhanga. This new-to-me word means "wood block print." I learned here that the tradition of woodblock printing is alive and well in the world today! There is a vibrant group of women that call themselves the Mokuhanga Sisters. Not only was their work displayed in this show, but each artist invited another mokuhanga artist to show their work as well.

"Two times two," by April Vollmer, author of the book Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop.

"Delirious birds and bees," by April Vollmer. You can see how she uses several individual blocks to repeat patterns in each quarter for a kind of mandala effect.

These are "Apple Tree" and "Fir Tree" by Mariko Jesse.

"Two Bears in the Woods" by Ayao Shiokawa.

 
 "Water from Heaven" and "Linden Falls" by Terry McKenna.

 

"Fold Mokuhanga Luminous Magenta," by Mia O.

I love the story of these four prints by Katsutoshi Yuasa. During the pandemic, he found online a live webcam that had a view of Mount Fuji from the same angle as one of Hiroshige's Stations of the Tokaido. He created this 4-seasons approach called "VR Tokaido 1-4" both inspired by Hiroshige as well as the accessibility of the view. The web cam during the pandemic let the artist see Mt Fuji similar to how those who bought Hiroshige's prints could enjoy this view. (He explained this in a Zoom artist's talk given later in February--you can see the replay here.)
 

"Queering Space-Time" by Matthew Willie Garcia. I love this.


"Avo" by Brendan Reilly. I'm really inspired by the two steps shown here. I want to come up with my own simple progression like this. Good art doesn't have to be all complicated.



Museum #3: MASS MoCA, end of February

During winter break (end of February) we followed our tradition of heading to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, MA. We love it there! This was at least our third family trip and they have quite a few permanent installations that we know well. (You can also read my blog about our 2018 visit.)

I enjoyed the art as usual, but this time I decided to photograph some of the in-between spaces at the museum. Since it's an old factory that's been renovated and converted to galleries, I enjoy finding little nooks where I can revel in the factory-ness that still clings.

The doorway to the big "Building 5" exhibit. This is always an amazing place because it's just HUGE and artists can go wild filling the space with whatever their imaginations can limn. Glenn Kaino's "In the Light of a Shadow" was there this time. It was a moving and revelatory 30-minute shadow and sound experience that brought me to tears with its simple yet powerful messages about humanity's place in the universe. Wow.

This stairwell has floating shelves covered with figurines (dolls and action figures of all kinds).


The French version of a "don't touch the walls" sign in the permanent 3-floor Sol LeWitt section.



I realized if I looked out a window I could see over to the "Cosmic Latte" room by Spencer Finch--that's the light installation on the second floor of this brick building. (See also the closed ice cream shop below, and a lone crow in the tree above.)


Table and chairs in a stairwell.


Look at THIS stairwell! I love its feeling of being slightly off limits... like you're not supposed to be there, like you've sneaked behind a scrim and are seeing the real workings of things.


A kind of artistic cul-de-sac. Where even am I?



 Goodbye MASS MoCA! Goodbye winter 2022! Here's to a warm, flourishing, beautiful Spring ahead.