Thursday, December 18, 2014

The sky...oh, my!

I was already busily ensconced on the computer when Ralph asked if I'd seen the sunrise this morning?  Knowing how quickly the sky changes as the sun is coming up, I wasted no time leaving my office, grabbing the camera and heading outside.

This is what I saw

Looking southeast through the a sycamore tree and two stands of clumping bamboo

Looking east through a stand of Bambusa chungii (Blue Timber) on the left and Bambusa oldhamii (Giant Timber) on the right

The northeasterly view with mist rising off the lake, the curve of the lake and the reflections of the trees and clouds in the still water

And one more view directly across the lake from our house.  What a sky!

I like to think I'm the one with an awareness of sunrises and sunsets but this morning my husband proved being conscious of skyscapes is not a one-person job.  Thank you Ralph for waking up early and tearing me away from the computer to share another beautiful morning sky.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quote me!

Ralph and I had quite the surprise yesterday morning during breakfast.

As usual, we were reading while eating.  I was had just begun Ellen Airgood's 2011 novel "South of Superior" and Ralph was transfixed by the enticing descriptions, interesting factoids and attractive illustrations in the 2015 FEDCO seed catalog, which had just arrived by mail.

He was on page 49 of the 160-page tome when the first sentence of a lengthy description about the Asian green Tatsoi caught his attention.

"Look at this!" he said excitedly.

I picked up the catalog, following to the place where his finger pointed and began to read:

Tatsoi (45 days) B.r. (narinosa group)  What grows quickly, can be seeded as late as August, withstands frost and is, according to Orlando Sentinel columnist Sherry Boas "just as versatile as spinach" ?  Yes, Tatsoi, as known as Tah Tsai..."

The description continued but I didn't need to read more.

A big smile filled my face as I turned to Ralph and said, "I guess they must have seen my column."

Pretty cool to know my words are quoted in a catalog read by gardeners all around the country.  What a great way to start the day!

To read my columns about tatsoi, click on the links below: 
My husband loves his greens and What a joy! Tatsoi!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Celebrating the moment

Today is our anniversary, a 44-year partnership of loving, living and working together.  

Passing clubs together is an apt metaphor for our marriage.  Handling multiple tasks is our norm. Tossing the ball - or in this case - clubs back and forth, eases the burden, shares the responsibility and adds to a feeling of accomplishment when all is said and done.

Not to say we haven't experienced our share of "drops" over the years. We many times.  And although we continue to make mistakes we also keep trying to do better and - most of all - to have fun in the process.

So, happy anniversary to my special fellow, my juggling partner and lifelong companion. The years may be going by way too fast, but what a cache of memories we've accumulated in the process.

There's no one I'd rather pass clubs with than you, Ralph - literally, figuratively and, obviously, jest for fun!

Me - way back when...

Monday, December 15, 2014

There is nothing like a book...

Two things high on my list of life’s pleasures are reading books and browsing library shelves in search of new authors to discover.

Over the past year, my meanders through the stacks resulted in 60 enjoyable reads, including many by previously unpublished authors.

Today, this column is featuring four of my favorite books from 2014, three of which are debut novels. The only previously published author, Ruth Reichl, has written many books, including three best-selling memoirs, but her latest title, Delicious! is her first foray into fiction.

As a former editor of Gourmet magazine and restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Reichl approaches her novel from a background well-rooted in food circles. Main character Billie Breslin explores the New York City’s food scene from behind her desk at the iconic magazine Delicious!

After the magazine closes, Breslin stays on, only to discover a portal to the past hidden in letters written during World War I by 12-year-old Lulu Swan to legendary chef James Beard. As Breslin delves deeper into the world described by the young girl, her new knowledge alters the way she chooses to live her own life in the future.

Reichl’s coming-of-age story has an engrossing storyline, likable characters, a touch of history, a taste of mystery and a dash of passion. The author successfully dishes up a hearty stew that includes many ingredients I savor in a story.

Another story rich in mixed flavors is A Violet Season by first-time author Kathy Leonard Czepiel, published in 2012. Although I didn’t discover this book until this year, once found, I devoured it quickly.

Set in New York’s Hudson Valley in the early 1900s, the story explores the booming violet industry from the perspective of two strong female characters, a mother and daughter struggling to support their family.

I’m especially fond of historical novels, particularly ones with female protagonists breaking through the restraints of unjust laws. This captivating debut novel, which was named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews, not only enriched my knowledge of plants, but also refreshed my awareness of difficulties encountered by women trying to survive in the pre-emancipated, heavily male-oriented world of early 20th Century America. So many of us take for granted our freedom and rights but as Czepiel’s novel so deftly demonstrates, it wasn’t that long ago when women were completely dependent on men.

While Czepiel’s novel transported me back in time, Richard Morais’s more contemporary debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey transports the reader across oceans, into other cultures and their kitchens.

Published in 2010, the novel, made into a movie this past summer, recounts the life of middle-aged chef Hassan Haji from his humble beginning living above his family’s modest food business in Mumbai to the elegant restaurant he created in Paris where he rose to the top of French haute cuisine.

For those of us who haven’t traveled much, Morais’s award-winning international bestseller provides a means to not only see the distant places from the comfort of our own homes but allows us to imagine the scents, spices and food of those areas as we travel through pages of the book.

Below is the official trailer for the movie adaptation of Morais's book, The Hundred-Foot Journey,which was released this past summer:

Although there’s no food focus or agricultural enterprise featured in “The Rosie Project,” Australian author Graeme Simsion’s first novel works its own magic by scripting a story around a universal theme — the search for love. However, Simsion’s story has a twist. His main character Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially-challenged genetics professor whose decision to find a wife follows a highly eccentric path. To imagine what Don Tillman is like, merge together the character Sheldon from television’s “The Big Bang Theory” with Hank, the character played by Ray Romano in “Parenthood.” The result is an endearing dork who will make you laugh as often as you sigh.

I’m far from alone in enjoying the story Simsion weaves around Tillman’s unconventional approach to love. “The Rosie Project” has won numerous awards, will soon be a movie and despite being aptly labeled ‘chick-lit,’ even appeals to men.

After hearing me chuckle my way from one chapter to the next, my husband Ralph picked up the book and took to it immediately.

Other men did the same. Bill Gates read it after he, too, heard his wife Melinda laughing her way through the pages. Gates, who calls it “A sweet, entertaining and thought-provoking book,” sent “The Rosie Project” to more than 50 people. He even included its sequel, “The Rosie Effect,” published in September, on his Top Five Books of 2014 list where it stands out as the only non-fiction title noted.

Below is a video of Bill and Melinda Gates meeting with author Graeme Simsion to discuss Simsion's books:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Watching kingfishers

I've been having fun photographing a pair of belted kingfishers that consider our lake their home turf. I was out rowing this afternoon when one of the birds landed on the mid-lake platform not too far away from where I was.

I can't get over the size of kingfisher beaks.  So long, strong and sharp.

The mid-lake platform is a favorite perch for not only belted kingfisher but for many other birds too. Today, however, after surveying the water from the platform and then diving for fish, the kingfisher decided to fly up into a pine tree along the shoreline.  Can you find him there?


Monday, December 8, 2014

My husband loves his greens!

Twice a day, my husband Ralph goes out to the garden to cut greens. When he returns, his hands are full of leafy goodness.

Before rinsing them in the sink, Ralph shows off a handful of just-picked Asian greens 

While the Asian greens he picks — tatsoi, yokatta-na, Tokyo bekana, purple pac choy and joi choi — may be unfamiliar to most Americans, all are members of the Brassica family, which includes other more familiar cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and bok choy.

Some of the more familiar cruciferous plants in the Brassica family

Ralph has been growing and harvesting these greens for a couple years now. That’s long enough to know he wants to keep planting them forever. Each one has a wonderfully mild, slightly sweet taste and is not at all tough or bitter like many other vegetables in the cabbage family. We use them in salads, stir-fries, omelets, soups and roasted vegetables as well as in place of lettuce in sandwiches.

Unlike broccoli, a cold-weather vegetable that suffers in Florida’s hot summer, this selection of Asian greens can be grown year round. Ralph plants seeds in 15-gallon containers filled with a rich mixture of mushroom compost, peat and decomposed woodchips. Although he sows multiple seeds in one container, he ends up with five or six plants per pot, transplanting extra seedlings to other containers.

Transplanting young tatsoi plants growing in 15-gallon containers

The young plants grow quickly, a feature of these leafy vegetables that endears them to my Brassica-hungry hubby. Less than three weeks after planting seeds, he begins to harvest young leaves.

“I snip off the outer leaves and stems as close to the base as possible, then push the soil up around the base to encourage new growth,” Ralph explains.

Using a scissors, Ralph snips off a few of the outer young tatsoi leaves to eat for lunch

Within a week, more leaves develop, and he snips the tender tops and stems off again, repeating the process day after day, week after week, regardless of what season it is or how hot it is outside.

The Asian greens in Ralph's garden grow year-round - even during Florida's hot summers

Renee’s Garden, one of our favorite seed sources, describes tatsoi as a plant that “Grows quickly and easily into flat rosettes of deep green, teardrop-shaped leaves with mild flavor that is sweeter than other Asian greens. A vitamin- and anti-oxidant-rich powerhouse.”

While I’m sure it’s possible to grow large rosettes of tatsoi and the other Asian greens, Ralph prefers to harvest ours when they’re still relatively small. When young, even the stalks are tender, sweet and juicy without a hint of stringiness.

The discovery of these vegetables has made a big change in our eating habits. For years, broccoli held the seat of honor in our vegetable patch. Ralph grew it. Ralph ate it. Ralph couldn’t live without it.

Large heads of broccoli bring a big smile to my full-bearded broccoli-loving husband

Then he discovered tatsoi, which led to joi choi, which led to experimenting with growing various other varieties of heat-tolerant, easy-to-grow, sweet and tasty cousins of his favorite food.

I’m not saying broccoli no longer holds top spot in the veggie hierarchy, but even Ralph would agree it’s no longer the lone contender in the best-vegetable-ever field.

A plate full of homegrown goodness.  From top going clockwise: Purple pak choy, yokatta-na, Tokyo bekana, tatsoi, joi choi.

The five Asian greens Ralph currently is growing all have slightly different characteristics. Tatsoi is sweet and mild with spoon-shaped thick dark green leaves while the leaves of yokatta-na (which in Japanese means ‘that’s a good vegetable, isn’t it?’) are bigger and look more like the leaves of bok choy.

The leaves of Tokyo bekana are pale green and frilly and look much like lettuce, although they’re more flavorful without any bitterness at all. 

Tokyo bekana has frilly leaves that look a lot like lettuce

Purple pac choy and joi choi taste similar — both are mild, sweet and slightly juicy — but the color of their leaves are different. Joi choi leaves are dark green while the leaves of purple pac choy are light purple with green veins. According to another one of our sources, the Fedco Seeds catalog, the purple coloring comes from anthocyanins, which improve memory and cell health.

I suppose I haven’t consumed enough servings of purple pac choy yet because I still have trouble remembering which Asian green is which. All I can say is that each one is delicious and while I can’t claim to have a green thumb like my husband, I have no trouble devouring the fruits — or in this case, the vegetables — of his labor.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Abandoned subdivision = Predator's paradise

As I drove down the two-lane on a back road in Clermont, a pair of red-tailed hawks caught my eye.  On my right was an abandoned housing development, a casualty of the building boom that went bust of a few years ago.  On my left was one of several utility poles adorned with fancy lights, an indication of a developer's plans gone awry.

Two red-tailed hawks scan their surroundings

The hawks, however, saw no misfortune.  Just the opposite.  To them the untimely demise of a subdivision was a predator's paradise.  Fewer homes meant more open space.  More open space meant more hunting opportunities.  Most likely rodents, songbirds, snakes and insects are living in the unkempt fields where houses were supposed to be built.

A light fixture and utility pole alongside a partially developed subdivision provides the perfect perch for predator birds

In addition to the pair of red-tails, an American kestrel was also taking advantage of the developers misfortune.

An American kestrel perched on a shrub in an unkempt field 

With all the destruction of habitat people do to the natural kingdom, it comforts me to know that at least in some circumstances, wildlife can thrive amid man's mistakes.  

Friend or foe?  Two red-tailed hawks take a break from hunting to check me out 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Fee-bee! Fee-bee!

As I sat at the kitchen table getting ready to eat breakfast, an Eastern phoebe sat on its favorite perch considering a meal of its own.

Just as I was about to take my first sip of tea, the little gray and buff-colored bird left its post and fluttered over the ground. Then — as fast as it flew away — the feathered hunter returned to its perch with a green grasshopper in its beak.

Eastern phoebes are bug-catching pros. In addition to eating grasshoppers, this member of the Tyrannidae (flycatcher) family of birds consumes beetles, flies, crickets, dragonflies, caterpillars, spiders, moths, millipedes, wasps, ants and ticks as well as the occasional fruit and berry.

This medium-sized flycatcher is approximately six inches long with a 10-inch wingspan. At half an ounce, the Eastern phoebe weighs about as much as three nickels. Compared to birds with elaborate or colorful plumage, the little phoebe is rather dull. Its upper body is grayish-brown. It has a white throat and buff-colored under parts. Even its head, which has a blackish crown, lacks a fancy tuft or brilliant feathers.

With such an average size and ordinary markings, the Eastern phoebe could easily go unnoticed — but it doesn’t.

Instead of blending into its surroundings, a phoebe stands out. Literally, it tends to stand out in the open. Whether perched on a treetop or fence post, this insect-catching maven likes to position itself in semi-open spaces where it has a clear view of potential prey.

With fluffed out feathers on a chilly morning, a phoebe perches on the tip of a wax myrtle alongside an open field

Tail-bobbing or “wagging” its tail feathers up and down when perched is another noticeable behavior that makes the phoebe stand out. Since tail-bobbing is not practiced by other members of the flycatcher family, it’s a helpful means of differentiating phoebes from pewees and other similar looking birds.

The little phoebe that I watched from my kitchen has been entertaining me since it migrated south in late September. It is one of many Eastern phoebes that will stay here before returning north in April. During the time they spend in Florida, mature birds probably will build nests and raise one or two broods of three to seven babies. Phoebes attach cup-shaped mud and moss nests lined with grass, feathers and hair to niches in embankments or to manmade structures like bridges, barns, windowsills, rafters or ledges. They often return year after year to the same nest, repairing it if necessary.

An Eastern phoebe nest wedged snugly atop a drainpipe
(photo credit:

There’s speculation that the Eastern phoebe’s willingness to build nests in close proximity to human structures explains its ease around people. Last year around this time, a male phoebe spent a good part of most days perched atop a wire trellis in the garden, just a couple feet away from the house. 

When he wasn’t attacking his reflection in the pantry window, he repetitively called out his name: “Fee-bee! Fee-bee! Fee-bee!”

Phoebe flying toward its reflection in the window

Although my knowledge of birds is still in the early stages, the Eastern phoebe makes learning easy. He poses out in the open, sings an easily recognizable song, presents distinctive behaviors like tail-bobbing and isn’t easily spooked by human interaction. I like the phoebe because it’s such a perky, energetic bird. Neither too shy nor too bold, it keeps our yard free of bugs while entertaining me in the process. The common phoebe may not be the most beautiful bird in the wild but that just goes to prove fancy plumage isn’t everything.

Posing on the branch of a fig tree, the humble phoebe proves fancy plumage isn't everything