Monday, November 06, 2006

Singing on the Bones

For some time I have wanted to write about Gertrude a real inspiration to me in my life but there wasn’t the appropriate place for her within this food blog. But in this past week of trick and treating spirits, feasting with the dead, and hobnobbing with goblins, I have discovered a rather small entry point. Halloween, All Soul’s Day and The Day of the Dead are festivals born from the mid point between the autumnal equinox and Winter solstice. The celebrations honor all “endings” within the great life cycle, which is appropriate since nothing ever dies but simply is later reborn. Having narrowly escaped from her foil covered plastic tomb and snatched from the very hands of death by a benevolent third party, Gertrude’s newly padded figure is testament to that very poetic concept.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on Gertrude for about a year now. I was bequeathed this African violet when my then-attendant decided to make the long trek back to Arizona. Though seen as a friendly gesture, I did not want the added responsibility of maintaining another life form other than my own. On the large scope, this plant required very little maintenance. Nonetheless, in the short span of two years, there had already been three prior plant casualties. Still weighing on my mind, I was hardly anxious to accrue another. In a different time and place I loved my narrow crooked garden overrun with calla lilies and climbing roses, spires of foxglove and chatty nasturtiums poking at a well established rosemary bush. My small little garden merry with lobelia, salvia and monkey flower was a riot of color and palpable life and every day I tinkered in it. I gardened the way that I cooked-- with little formality and lots of poking and plying. When I moved here, I wasn’t quite sure how to transmit that kind of methodology to another person. Plant rearing became foreign and clinical, mechanical and then non-existent. With the picture of yellow withered leaves indelibly imprinted upon my mind, I reluctantly took the violet in. It became Gertrude in an attempt to bond with her, forge a connection that might giver her a better chance for survival. When she came to me she already looked slightly anemic and wan. I even suspected that a cat might have sat upon her as her leaves were pressed flat and a few stray feline hairs straggled behind. And then the horrible familiar pattern began again, she’d dry up and get over watered- each cycle losing more leaves and more will. Over a long seven month period Gertrude shriveled down to a mere nub of herself attired with a few reluctant leaves. In a last ditch effort the violet was resuscitated with roomier pot and dark rich soil. Shell shocked at first, in a kind of plant coma, there was no discernible change for five weeks. Growth eventually came, sluggish initially and then with such vim and vigor it was hard to recognize the plant that I once knew. A survivor, Gertrude now radiates such life force. She has a bounty of thick succulent jade leaves the size of small lily pads and there are five flower spikes full of nodding buds. Throughout the day I look and marvel at her transformation, her triumphant resurrection. This house plant demonstrates how essential our many environments are to us. We are touched throughout the day by spheres of influence and those imprints have such power to nourish or deny.

This plant, this model of robust sunny health is now my mentor on such matters. In a brief consultation a few days ago and after a quick question and answer session, I surmised that I have not been properly nourishing myself as weeks have turned barren and cold. I’ve been “in de pekel zitten” and brining myself from the inside-out. Also while I’ve been talking up a good story about warm hearty soups and fruitcakes aging in hospitable baths of liquor, I have been surviving on vittles far less agreeable. I quickly concluded that I want to dine on boeuf bourguignon—and then just as quickly decided that the requisite two bottles of good burgundy might be a touch too immoderate for me. I dreamed of how luxurious it would be to eat satisfying chunks of meat softly simmered in wine and herbs and a melting array of vegetables. Encouraged on by dancing skeletons and their cries to “put some meat on them bones” I compromised and decided upon a good beef stew. It went something like this:

Two handfuls of 1” cubed Chuck
Approximately ¼ cup of flour for dredging
Salt and Pepper
Chopped onion and garlic
¼ cup of precooked bacon pieces
1 cup of red wine
1 glug of brandy
One small can of whole tomatoes
About 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
A Tablespoon of brown sugar
About 6 cups of beef stock
Chopped 1/2 red pepper
Two Diced celery stalk
2 handfuls of trimmed and halved green beans
3 small zucchini chopped
1 ½ cup of grated carrots
A mess of shitake, de-stemmed and torn
A sprig of fresh oregano

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix meat, flour, salt and pepper in a bowl until thoroughly coated. Place oil in a dutch oven on medium high heat and add meat pieces browning a few minutes on both sides. Remove meat and put back in bowl. Add a bit more oil and cook onions and garlic until lightly colored, introduce cooked bacon. I tried to include the amounts that I really used, but of course use what you like. Then deglaze with the wine and brandy, scraping up the browned and burnt bits on the bottom. Add the paste, tomatoes, stock and sugar. I added back the meat and all of the veggies, closed the lid and popped it into the oven for about 2 hours. I served this over sweet potato fries and with some limited edition Thomas’s cranberry toast with butter. Gertrude approved.


ilva said...

My paternal granny was called but unfortunately she wasn't as nice as your plant... and now you've made me long for a good meat stew, I want to eat meat so soft that you just need a fork to divide the chunks with

ilva said...

she was called Gertrude obviously, how I wish I could take the time to read through what I write...

sher said...

Well, thank you Gertrude for inspiring that wonderful post. I love boeuf bourguignon, particulalry at this time of the year. I too have had a "plant relationship" for 7 years, with a Christmas Cactus. :)

Callipygia said...

Ilva, hard to imagine with a name like Gertrude not being sweet. And absolutely yes to meltingly soft meat.

Sher, I will tell her and I love Christmas Cactus too, did it pass on?

gattina said...

You really round up this story/recipe beautifully - sweet potato fries!!! I'm dancing with you here! Please nourish yourself so you can keep the great stories coming; I don't want to miss one!

Callipygia said...

Thank you Gattina I always appreciate it when I meet someone new.

Lis said...

Aww I'm so glad Gertrude is doing well. For me, it's inspirational when one of my plants starts to really take off and seems to be enjoying it's life on my windowsill. It makes me happy. Silly, eh?

The beef stew sounds wonderful.. I can't tell you how wonderful. =) I love how you paired it with the sweet potatoes and toast. Yum!

Callipygia said...

Me think it silly nah. I really should have stated that you and Gertrude inspired me to cook meat-your beef pot pie and beef barley soup. Gertrude was just licking her chops.

jbird said...

Somehow, you make Fall even more wonderful and cozy with your inspirational food blogging. I got a copy of James Beard's Beard on Food and somehow, sure, he's all famous and all, but I am thinking, he couldn't possibly love food or at least write of a love of food more exquisitely than you. His writing is almost like a technical manual with none of the humor and love like your writing. Your writing leaves the mind something rich and hearty to chew on like the beef stew.

miragee said...

I raised a pot of African violets when I lived in the US. But like you, I decided to give it to a friend because I didn't want to take away their lives:-). I hope Gertrude will be doing better and better. I know a really wonderful lady called Gertrude too. She once had cancer, but she survived as well.

I tried boeuf bourguignon in Taiwan and in France too. This is an excellent meal for the coming winter:-).