Monday, November 26, 2012

Forcing Paperwhites


Following Thanksgiving is a perfect time to ‘force’ some Paperwhite Narcissus bulbs for Christmas. For those unfamiliar with the process, ‘forcing’ is the method by which a bulb is planted and compelled to grow and bloom out of season by exposure to the warm temperature indoors. This process brings the bulbs into bloom long before they would bloom outdoors thus allowing us the pleasure of their company during the winter months. Paper whites have lovely faces and a heavenly scent!

Taking only three to four weeks to flower, they will bloom faithfully providing both fragrance and cheer for the holidays. So easy is the growth habit of these bulbs that anchoring material may include gravel, pebbles, colored glass stones, or moss as acceptable mediums. Any sort of shallow growth container whether pottery, glass, or clay will work as well.

Select a favorite container that will be lovely as a centerpiece or focal point, and a favorite is a glass bowl for the added pleasure of watching the roots as they begin to grow and slowly twine about the stones. If a large container is chosen, more bulbs will be needed and the display will entirely riotous… often more is better!

Fill the bottom of the container with stones to anchor your bulbs making a bed about two to three inches deep. Gently press the bulbs halfway down the bulb mass, wriggling and carefully nestling them until they stand firmly on their own. Try to space the bulbs about two inches apart, remembering to place several in the center as well. After arranging your bulbs, fill the container with enough water to cover your anchoring material, moistening the bulbs approximately half way up. Keep this water level, adding a little each day if necessary and your bulbs will begin to flower in three to four weeks. Remember to give the bowl a shot of gin as the first flower buds appear. The gin will slightly stunt the foliage and force it to stand ‘at attention’ thus preventing the wilt so prevalent with forced Narcissus.

The temperature-trickery used to force early the blooms has confused the bulb’s internal clock so many people simply toss them. That seems ungrateful after they have given so much so as a thank you I plant them in the garden on a fine winter day. Expect several years to pass before they ‘remember’ when to flower at their proper time, which is in early spring.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Amazing Amaryllis

It is officially the Holiday season and the Queen of all bulbs, the exquisite Amaryllis, is traditionally a guest at many celebrations. A very easy bulb to ‘force’, plan to include at least one this year.

As serious exploration began in the 16th and 17th centuries, botanical specimens were among the most coveted acquisitions brought home. Consequently even today there remains controversy over exactly who discovered the Amaryllis and from which continent it originated. Some say it was Africa while others claim it is from South America. Regardless of origin, this exquisite flower had an immediate cult following and legend to explain her deep scarlet color.

As with so many of our flowers, Amaryllis has both Greek and Roman lore attached to her and the poets Theocritus (3rd century BC) and Virgil (70 BC) both wrote she was a shy nymph of great resolve. Amaryllis fell in love with a popular shepherd reputed to be as handsome as Apollo and as strong as Hercules; he was a rock star of the day and unimpressed by her attentions. Hoping to quell her embarrassing adoration, he gave her the impossible task of finding him a flower that never before existed. Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was instructed to walk to his home and pierce her heart with a golden arrow, allowing her blood to flow. For thirty nights she did so and from her blood sprang the flower with crimson petals.

Napoleon’s Josephine commissioned a painting of an Amaryllis, English Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson included her in a poem, and Thomas Jefferson mentioned one in his diary in 1811... quite illustrious mention for a flower!

Thankfully time and progress has allowed these precious bulbs, once available to only the wealth and elite, to be affordable today. Colors include the traditional red, white, deep pink, orange, and shades of salmon, pink, and rose.

Choose a deep, snug container to support the foliage and allow for three inches below the bulb for the roots. Fill it half way with potting medium and gently press the bulb into it leaving the neck exposed. Water the bulb lightly and give it a shot of gin to prevent foliage wilt. Keep the medium moist but not soaked and expect your bulb to begin flowering within three weeks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Cook a Perfect Turkey

Regardless of poundage of the bird, it is possible to cook a perfect turkey everytime with this simple trick: cook it in a brown paper sack. I was away from my family and living in a little third floor walk-up two blocks from Long Island Sound in New London Connecticut in 1968. The grande dame of New London society, Libby Frost, had taken me under her wing and was the most perfect role model and friend my family could have wished for. As Thanksgiving approached she taught me how to cook a perfect turkey and to date I have cooked over 40 of them at Thanksgiving, another 40 or so for Christmas dinners.

Thaw the bird for two days in the frig then take it to the sink and throughly wash it. Remove the various innards (the gizzards, liver, and neck) from under the loose flap of skin where the head used to be. Set them aside to slow boil in about a cup and a half of water as you will need both of them for gravy.  Put on an iron skillet of bacon... a full package. Cook, drain and save the grease. Break it into bits.

Pat your bird dry with a paper towel and set him aside to completely drain with the rounded side up. Put some foil over the tips of the wings so they will not burn during baking.

Make your stuffing while your bird 'rests'; I like traditional sage Southern dressing like my Mother always made. Finely chop a large yellow onion, a whole stalk of celery, and add three cups of dried bread crumbs. (If you buy them, don't get the seasoned package as it will ruin the true flavors of the ingredients.... I usually lightly toast leftover heels in the oven.)

 Flip all the ingredients together, adding about a quarter cup of sage, the bacon as bits, and salt and pepper to taste. Add about a cup of chicken stock and the bacon drippings. Set aside...

Now take your bird and cover him with a layer of Crisco. Once he is completley covered put your stuffing in the cavity press it firmly and then cover it with the tail (or Pope's nose) and the loose flap of skin. Tuck the legs together, putting them securely under the skin left there.

Begin cutting your paper sack to completely cover the bird. I usually cook a 22 pound turkey so we have a little left for sandwiches later... it takes creativity and two sacks.

Cut to cover your turkey~

 A large turkey may take two sacks~
Cook at 325 for 15 minutes a pound. The Crisco makes the turkey a golden brown and it will cook perfectly every time with no basting or hassle. After the allotted time, remove the bird and immediately remove the sack(s). Allow the bird to 'rest' for twenty minutes or so before lifting it from the pan. Once it has 'set' move it to a large platter and surround it with bits of parsley or other garnishes of your choice. 
Begin your Gravy!
Take 1/2 cup of the drippings from the turkey pan and place them in a large frying pan. If your family enjoys the liver and heart that you previously boiled, cut them in small pieces and add them. Allow the ingredients to heat to a gentle boil and add two cups of cooked stock and the following cornstarch mixture. Flour as a thickener tends to make lumps... cornstarch is better.
 To make the cornstarch mixture wisk 1/4 cup cornstarch to 2 cups of cooled broth. (If the broth is hot, the cornstarch will not dissolve and cook properly.) Add this mixture to the heated drippings in the pan and continue to wisk as the gravy thickens... add salt to taste and you're ready~
You've done it!!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Natures Decorations!

The foliage is still evolving and each day provides a new wonder to behold as the play of light and shadows shimmers on dancing leaves. It will reach a zenith as the clocks are turned back and the memory of it will carry us through the long winter months. Sunday the Maples turned a brilliant crimson and the China Berry began to loose leaves, showcasing the lovely translucent berries in large clusters on heavy branches. The brilliant scarlet of the lovely Virginia Creeper became clearly visible as it twined about the trunks of trees, climbing high into the uppermost branches. Even the Sumac, growing in every field and bar ditch, is dressed in a gorgeous ruddy red velvet this time of year.

As the days become shorter the season for interior decorations begins in earnest so plan to wander outside and shop for Nature’s ornaments. Shears in hand, look at the amazing plethora just outside the back door and begin collecting. Everything from brightly colored leaves to a wide assortment of interesting seeds lay waiting for the curious shopper. Privet berries are a deep blue, almost black, and last well all season. The translucent gold of China Berries add interest and the seeds of the Euronymous have a shell shaped like a mini four leaf clover which encases a plump red berry.

(Privet is rather Halloweenish~ And Euronymous is just plain cute!)

Bittersweet has tendrils with darling berries prancing along the stems and a variety of dried grasses add a wispy texture. Using a simple grape vine wreath and florist wire, begin to layer what you have collected and watch as magic ensues.

As far as inspiration for fall nothing compares to the exotic Pyracantha. Almost overnight the berries have ripened and hundreds of tiny baby ‘pumpkins‘ are covering the branches. The most favored is the lovely Firethorn variety which is a valued addition to the garden for the show she presents now. Tiny white bouquets of flowers appear in summer and form the berries which stay green until the evenings begin to cool and their color change begins. Not only are the early flowers are beloved by the bees but the bush-like spread and fierce thorns make it an ideal place for garden bunnies to scurry for safety. Clearly it originated in Asia; it positively looks oriental and can be found painted on many antique porcelain vases. Cut Pyracantha branches and let them creep across the breakfront with amber and scarlet leaves as filler.

Gather or purchase several sizes of pumpkins and oddly shaped gourds to add to your collections, sprinkle it all with white twinkle lights peeking from beneath leaves, hiding here and there, and your seasonal decorations for fall are complete. Have fun and happy hunting!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Leaves... they give and give...


With the changing leaves providing a breathtaking show, it certainly feels like fall this week. Everything about this season is a feast for the senses, all the more poignant because it is fleeting, lasting only a few short weeks. As the leaves complete their color change they begin to fall, thrown from their parents branches to delicately swirl to the ground in drifting patterns. Then they accumulate in colorful heaps and become a joy to dance or walk through with their crackle and swish, hiding the occasional snap of a twig or acorn beneath them. But the miraculous leaves are not yet finished; they will complete their life cycle after falling by decomposing, thus adding valuable nutrients to the forest floor.
Trees have an internal clock that alerts them to the fact that winter is coming as the days become shorter and the sunlight is diminished. Knowing it is time to prepare for the winter, they toss their leafy offspring rather than continue to support them. It is time for the tree to live off the food that was stored within it when the light from the sun was bright and the rainfall sufficient for a process called photosynthesis to occur. Photosynthesis, which means “putting together with light”, is the process wherein the tree takes water from the ground through roots, carbon dioxide from the air, adds some sunlight and mixes it all together during the summer months to create glucose…food for the growth of the tree. As the leaves are shed and the branches become bare, the tree is able to support itself by absorbing the diminished water and light of winter while living off the food stored during the summer.
The leaves change to their traditional fall colors just as the tree has decided to shed them with the season change. Chlorophyll, which aids in the production of the glucose, is what makes the leaves green. As the tree prepares for winter, the chlorophyll slowly fades and the lovely colors emerge; many of the colors have been there all along but were masked by the green. Be sure to take a walk or drive to catch this momentary gift… the memory of it will carry us through the coming days and nights of barren winter.
Note: The ‘science’ explanations are vastly oversimplified...