What’s Cooking: Easy Pesto Pizzas for One or More

Once I got used to the idea of not having internet and electricity, the thing I missed the most during my blissfully off-the-grid time working in Yellowstone National Park last month may seem strange: cooking.

When I’m camped out in Red, my trusty Toyota Tacoma pickup, I keep meal-prep simple (and make my home-on-wheels less attractive to bears and other wildlife) by only cooking breakfast. And that’s just gluten-free instant oatmeal with organic dried fruit. I perch on Red’s tailgate with my JetBoil stove, which lives up to its name by boiling a cup of water practically faster than I can empty the packet of oatmeal into my mug and add the dried fruit. 

Sitting on Red’s tailgate in the chill pre-dawn air, eating my oatmeal (enriched with a dollop of half-and-half from the Mammoth store) and watching the sun rise over Mount Everts across the valley, listening to the bluebirds and buntings sing and the mama elk squeal at their young was about as wonderful a way to start the day as you can imagine. 

Mt. Everts from the hill above the Mammoth Campground in the evening (look closely and you can see Red between the trees).

For lunches and dinner, I ate deli salads and wraps from the Gardiner Market, bought whenever I went out of the park to town to get my wifi fix. Or if it was a shower day, I hiked up to the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room, where I had some delicious meals, great wine, and interesting conversations with the servers, who come from all over the country and in fact the world to work there. 

But I missed being able to cook, especially using whatever was fresh in my kitchen garden.

When I got home, one of the first things I did was check my garden, tended by my friends (thank you, Bev and Maggie!), to see what needed harvesting. I noticed that the basil had thrived in the hot weather while I was away, so I snipped enough of that to make a batch of pesto. (Recipe here.)

One of the best things about having fresh pesto around, from my point of view, is all the ways you can use it. Not just on pasta: Mix a dollop in scrambled eggs, or spread it on an omlette. It’s great broiled on crusty slices of bread, or as a sandwich spread. Bake or grill chicken breasts (or mild fish) spread with pesto and wrapped with foil, and you’ll be hooked. 

My favorite way of using pesto on hot summer nights though is to make easy pesto “pizzas” using tortillas or pita bread as the crust. Here’s the recipe:

Individual Pesto “Pizzas”

1 corn or flour tortilla, or one round pita bread

1 or 2 tsps of basil pesto (the amount depends on the size of the “crust”)

1 T sliced fresh leaves of spinach, radish, mustard, or other flavorful green (I use whatever needs harvesting from my garden)

1 slice mozzarella cheese, cut into strips

2 grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise (I use organic tomatoes)

2 half artichoke hearts, cut in half again (I use grilled baby artichoke hearts in jars)

Pre-heat broiler. Spread the pesto on the tortilla or pita bread, thinner on the tortilla (it’ll run off if you use too much), thicker on the pita bread since it’ll soak in. Cover with the sliced greens. Put the “pizza” on a cookie sheet and put in the broiler until the greens wilt and the pesto bubbles. Remove from broiler and layer on strips of cheese to mostly cover wilted greens. Top with tomato halves and artichoke hearts. Return to broiler (on cookie sheet) and broil until cheese bubbles, about two minutes. 

Slide onto a plate, let cool for a moment, and enjoy! (Warning: these are messy. But oh-so-good.)

For dessert, serve up some warmed fresh summer fruit topped with vanilla yogurt or ice cream. (I just finished eating warm Palisade peaches, which I sliced and froze last summer, topped with Noosa vanilla yogurt. Heaven!) 

I loved my time in Yellowstone. But it’s good to be home with my garden and my kitchen. 

Happy Summer!

Saying Thanks

Back in the days when I tended an enormous edible garden in raised beds just outside the kitchen door of my former house, I began a practice of saying thanks to the plants as I harvested them. 

“Thank you, squash plants,” I would say, “for producing these shiny green Romanesco squash with the creamy flesh.” And then I’d add, “Thank you, squash bees, for pollinating the flowers so the plant can produce the fruits we eat.” 

Squash bees (one of North America’s 4,000-some native bee species) pollinating a Romanesco squash flower while they mate. 

I’d thank the heritage tomato plants as I picked their juicy, sun-warmed fruit. And the crunchy carrots I carefully pulled from the soil; I’d thank the broccoli as I snipped off tight florets for stir-fry, the cucumber vines for their crisp fruit sliced for sandwiches, the rosemary as I harvested fragrant branches to lay on salmon filets on the grill.

I’d praise the strawberries for producing the intensely sweet fruits we ate on our breakfast each morning, the first fat spears of asparagus pushing up in spring, the ruffled plenty of Mesclun lettuces, the nutty scarlet runner beans in pods still clinging to withered vines after hard frosts. 

Nurturing those plants from seeds planted with my own hands in the rich soil filling the raised beds Richard had built made me acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be able to harvest and eat such a bounty of food, and how grateful I was to the plants that shared their flesh with us. 

A basketful of food harvested from that garden

That Thanksgiving, as I was preparing dinner using almost all local food, including the last tomatoes and garlic from our garden, I said to Richard, “Why don’t we say thanks to our food before our meal?”

His eyes brightened. “Great idea!” 

After everyone gathered, we held hands around the table and Richard said a traditional grace, expressing our thanks for the blessing of friends and family coming together, for the meal we were about to eat, and then added a short litany of thanks to our food: “To this turkey, whose flesh we will eat; to the wheat that gave its seeds for our bread; to the yams, sage, parsley; the cows that provided the butter; the pecan trees whose nuts enrich the pies…”

Thus began the tradition I continue today of saying thanks to my food before I eat. 

Not at every meal, because I don’t always remember or take the time. But at least one meal a day, I spend a few minutes thanking my food. I also thank the farmers who grew or raised it, the people who harvested, processed, shipped, and sold it. And the pollinators, the sun, rain, wind, soil; the microorganisms who keep soil, plants, and animals healthy; the oceans, estuaries, and shores where our fish and seafood come from; and finally, this glorious living earth itself. 

A summer shrimp and vegetable salad topped with nasturtiums picked from my garden.

Saying thanks keeps me aware of and connected to what I eat, and to the living community of this earth, land and water alike, that nourishes those beings, as well as the people involved. 

Sweet and juicy Colorado peaches, another food I’m grateful for…

Choosing to be grateful and express that gratitude, Arthur C. Brooks points out in a column in today’s New York Times, can actually make us happier. Studies show that people who express gratitude on a regular basis “show significantly greater life satisfaction” than those who don’t. 

The effect is measurable in your brain. “Gratitude,” Brooks explains, “stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our ‘reward circuitry’ that produces the sensation of pleasure).” The positive effects of gratitude go even farther, Brooks says, citing research which demonstrates that gratitude–even a simple “thank you”–can disarm others’ bad behavior.  

The world is certainly full of ‘bad behavior’ these days. A thank-you won’t likely stop a crazy person bent on violence, but it might well lower the overall tension that feeds that violence. Anything that will help us feel more positive, and behave with more grace and less hatred seems like a good idea. 

So this Thanksgiving, as you sit down to eat, serve up a dose of gratitude along with your meal. Thank your guests for joining you, thank those who prepared your food, thank the food itself. Offer the gift of gratitude–and the positive rewards that come with it, from brain circuitry to behavior.

And after the Thanksgiving meal is cleared away, don’t stop there: continue your gratitude practice on a daily basis. What are you grateful for? Leave a comment below, and inspire us all. 

I am grateful for all who read, think about, and share my words. Thank you for walking this journey with me. 

Stained-glass by Tom Williams, a wedding gift three decades ago that still brightens my days. Thank you, Tommy!

Writing Progress & What’s Cooking

First, the writing progress: On April 29th, I started on one more revision of Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress, giving it what my writer/editor/fiber-maven friend Deb Robson calls a “French polish.” I’ve been reading it aloud, listening to the story, and doing the kind of detail work that I hope makes the story leap off the page and into a publisher’s line-up.

The revision has been… interesting. Each time I look at the story, I can see layers and levels of meaning, threads in the overall story if you were, that I didn’t notice before. And each time I read it aloud and listen to it, I relive it yet again. The emotional intensity of that part of my life makes it exhausting to be immersed in this particular story, but also exhilarating. And each time, I dive back in, I’m surprised at how much I like the story–it’s lyrical, compelling, authentic, and even has touches of humor. 

The subtitle gives an idea of why re-immersing myself in this story is intense, exacting, draining and also very, very rewarding: Embracing Life, Loss and Love.


The story’s about the last few years of this guy’s life: Richard Cabe, the love of my life and my late husband

Now, after a solid four weeks of work, five days a week—I usually give myself a breather on weekends so that I can recover from the intensity and have enough distance to approach it afresh the next week—I’m closing in on the end. As you can see from the photo of the manuscript on my desk at the top of this post. The pile on the left is the chapters I’ve worked through. The pile on the right is what I have left to revise.

Once I work my way through to the end of the story, I’ll give it a quick read from the beginning again, just to check for anything I missed, and then off it goes to my agent.

And off I will go, first hitting the road to Denver for a Habitat Hero program at Denver Botanic Gardens, and then to Tucson, where I’ve been invited to participate in Canyon Ranch Institute’s scholarship program for community wellness.

I’ll be working with community organizers involved in gardening and open-space projects from around the country. My workshop, “Planting a Neighborhood,” is about the re-birth of my formerly junky industrial block and the adjacent restored urban creek. It’s about gardens, ecological restoration, and how seemingly small projects can have a positive impact on community health and culture. The story I’ll tell is part of the larger story in the book that’s tugging at me next…. 


Since we’re on the cusp of summer (here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, we went from a month of rain and snow to today’s 80 degreesF), I want to share the fruit salad recipe I invented when my neighbors gave me a half a cantaloupe the other night.

That melon inspired me to take a look at my garden and my fridge, and concoct a savory fruit salad–perfect for a warm day!

Savory End-of-Spring Fruit Salad

1/2 ripe cantaloupe

10 oz box strawberries

8 oz feta cheese

4-5 T lemon-infused olive oil

4 t balsamic vinegar (white if you can find it, as it’s a lighter flavor)

sprinkle of salt

16 or so large basil leaves (I’m growing Italian Genovese basil from Renee’s Garden–the leaves are large and the flavor is rich but smooth.)

Slice cantaloupe into rounds, remove seeds and rind and chop into bite-sized pieces. Hull and quarter strawberries (if they are really large, chop smaller). Mix fruit in serving bowl. Crumble feta cheese over the fruit, sprinkle with salt, and pour olive oil and vinegar over the top and mix thoroughly. With clean scissors, snip basil leaves into thin strips atop salad. Serve in small bowls. (Makes eight small servings or four large ones.)


Edible Garden: Starting Tomato, Basil and Eggplant

Last week, a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden, my favorite supplier of easy-to-grow, delicious and beautiful garden seeds landed in my post box, my personal signal that spring is on the way.

New seeds and new varieties for my summer garden, thanks to Renee's Garden Some of the new seeds and new varieties I’ll plant in my edible garden, thanks to Renee’s Garden.

On Saturday evening, I dug a seedling tray out of the stack in the garage, found my organic germinating mix, gathered the seed packets I needed, and carried my supplies inside to the living room.

It’s too early and too cold still at night to sow even Renee’s enticing-looking new Tuscan baby-leaf kale and cool-season mesclun mixes in my containers on the front deck, but it’s just the right time to start tomatoes, oriental eggplant, basil, and sweet alyssum indoors.

I filled each of the tiny pots to the brim with germinating mix (a special fine-grained, nutrient-rich soil mix for starting seeds). Then I worked row by row through the flat, planting one variety per row. I started with ‘Aurelia Bolognese’ Basil, Renee’s new basil introduction from the region around Bologna, Italy.

The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil--seed packets lined up as well. The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil–seed packets lined up as well.

I read the packet for each kind of seed, and then planted one or two seeds in each pot at the required depth, and pressed the seeds firmly into the soil (the mix compacts, which is why I filled the pots full to start).

Next came a row of ‘Little Prince’ oriental eggplant, a variety that produces small oval fruits with nutty flesh and thin, edible skin. ‘Little Prince’ is perfect for container edible gardening.

'Little Prince' eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.) ‘Little Prince’ eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.)

After the eggplant row came the tomatoes, four varieties. I used to grow seven or eight, but then I used to garden for a whole household. Now it’s just me, and while I love eating and giving away tomatoes, I have to restrain myself from growing too many!

First the yellow pear tomatoes, an old favorite and a variety ideal for fresh eating (friends often pick and munch these bite-sized, sweet tomatoes as they pass the stock tank that holds my tomato plants on the way to my front door).

Then a row of a new variety, ‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato, specially bred for window boxes, hanging baskets and other small containers.

Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer. Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer.

I followed that by two rows of reliable favorites, Stupice, an heirloom variety of rounded, rich-flavored salad tomatoes; and ‘Pompeii Roma,’ a heavy producer of fruits great for sauces and stews, and good keepers that ripen until December inside, providing me with fresh tomatoes into winter.

Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November. Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November.

Last, I planted a row of ‘Summer Peaches’ sweet alyssum, a small, spreading annual with early blooming, sweet-smelling flowers. I’ll tuck alyssum into the edges of my containers of edibles to attract and feed pollinators and other beneficial insects.

(Addition: Thanks to my friend Louella for pointing out this blog post on planting sweet alyssum with organic lettuce: the flowers’ sweet scent and nectar attracts hover flies, whose larvae are voracious aphid predators.)

Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control. Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control.

I labeled each row so I’d remember what I had planted. I soaked the wicking mat under the pots, which will keep each little pot evenly moist, and carefully sprinkled the dry soil of each pot from above.

Then I set the tray on the heating mat on the shelf in front of my south-facing living room windows (the heating mat warms the soil, encouraging germination).

Watering the pots with their seeds.... Watering the pots with their seeds….

Now I just have to wait for the miracle as tiny green cotyledons, the seed-leaves, appear from each tiny nugget of life in the moist soil. Come on, spring!

What’s Cooking: One Dish Winter Dinner Recipe

It’s Wednesday and DIY night on this blog, so here’s a recipe!

Weather Report: 22 degrees F, wind howling out of the southeast, no snow yet. Perfect weather for a simple, quick and healthy dinner featuring local winter vegetables and soft cheese. (You can add meat if you want, more on that later.)

Your one-bowl dinner ready to eat--ummm! Your one-bowl dinner ready to eat–yum!

Yams Nested in Kale With Corn and Cheese

1 yam (actually, it’s an orange sweet potato, but we won’t get technical!)
5 or 6 leaves kale (I happen to like Lacinato kale for its rich and smooth flavor)
1/3 cup frozen corn (I shave kernels from summer corn and freeze them)
1 oz or so farmer’s cheese (I use Rocking W cheese from western Colorado)
splash olive oil
fresh-ground pepper

This part takes some planning: Prick the yam with a fork and bake for an hour or so at 375 degrees. Basically, you bake it until it smells great and is soft when you touch it. (You can bake the yam the day before, or in the morning if you want.)

Lacinato or dinosaur kale, a heritage Italian variety Lacinato or dinosaur kale, a heritage Italian variety

While the yam is cooling enough so you can slice it, chop the kale roughly into bite-sized pieces.

Chopped kale piled in a bowl with corn on top Chopped kale piled in a bowl with corn on top

Drizzle a little olive oil into a microwave safe bowl (or into a saute´ pan on the stove), pile in the kale, add the frozen corn and microwave covered for two minutes. (Or sauté, also covered, on medium heat on the stove until kale is thoroughly wilted, for about 4 or 5 minutes.)

Yam, baked and chopped, cheese in chunks Yam, baked and chopped, cheese in chunks

While the kale and corn are cooking, slice the yam thickly, and cut the cheese into chunks. When the kale/corn is done, layer the chunks of cheese atop the corn, and then place the yam slices on top. Grate some pepper on top, return to the microwave for 30 seconds (covered) or put back on the stove for long enough for the cheese to melt.

Serve with crusty bread, and enjoy!

Locavore Rating: The yam and the pepper aren’t local at all, but the olive oil I use comes from California, which is more local (and more reliable) than that from Italy. The kale, corn and cheese are quite local (from Ploughboy Local Market).

Meat-Eaters: Add some sausage, preferably chicken or turkey with a lighter flavor that won’t overwhelm the vegetables. Simply brown the sausage while you’re chopping and cooking the kale and corn, and layer the sausage in atop the veggies, but below the cheese and yams.

What’s playing while I cook: Roseanne Cash’s new CD, The River & The Thread.

My living room in the afternoon--imagine me on the couch with Medusa, the multi-headed lamp, turned on for light.

What’s Cooking: Stuffed Winter Squash and Change

My living room in the afternoon--imagine me on the couch with Medusa, the multi-headed lamp, turned on for light. My living room–imagine me on the couch after dark with Medusa, the multi-headed lamp, turned on for light.

It’s Wednesday evening, and I’m sitting on the couch in my cozy front room writing a blog post about cooking and change. I know, I usually post on Sunday night. What’s wrong? Nothing.

Just a little shift in my work life: As of next month, I’ll no longer be writing 3-4 blog posts a month for the Habitat Hero project, as Audubon Rockies takes the program under its wing, so to speak.

I’m going to use that spare creative energy to post twice weekly on this blog. Wednesday night will be a shorter post—a recipe, a book review, a “tool girl” project. The longer, more reflective piece will still come Sunday night.

Stuffed and baked Acorn squash Stuffed and baked Acorn squash

Hence tonight’s recipe: Sausage & Vegetable Stuffed Winter Squash

2 Acorn or 3 Delicata squash
1 pound chicken sausage links (I use Gosar Farms natural Mandarin Orange Spice Sausage from Ploughboy Local Market)
1 large bunch organic kale, coarsely chopped
3 organic carrots, chopped
1 large organic Jonagold or other crisp, juicy apple, chopped
2 T good whiskey or bourbon (I use Wood’s Tenderfoot Whiskey, brewed two blocks from my house)
2 tsp paprika
1 T olive oil
2 oz Asiago cheese, coarsely grated

Acorn halves after initial baking; one filled Acorn halves after initial baking; one filled

Halve squash and scoop out the seeds and strings (if you have friends with chickens, save them for the fowl—they love them!). Place each half split-side down in a baking pan with 1/4-inch of water. Bake in a 325 degree oven for an hour, until tender.

Meanwhile. cook sausage until casings brown; slice into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

Pour olive oil into the pan with the sausage drippings, heat oil and then sauté kale with carrots until kale is thoroughly wilted. Add apple chunks plus paprika and whiskey, sauté for another few minutes and then add sausage back and mix thoroughly.

That stuffing (which is good just by itself, I might add) That stuffing (which is good just by itself, I might add)

When squash is baked, turn them right side up in the pans, add water if it has evaporated away and mound sausage filling in each squash half. Top with grated Asiago, and bake for another 15 minutes or until cheese begins to crust. Remove from oven and serve while still warm. (Serves four generously as a main dish.)

Vel bekomme! (“Enjoy your meal!” in Norwegian, the language of my last name.)

Deck railings dripping before dawn....

What’s Cooking: Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

Deck railings dripping before dawn.... Deck railings dripping before dawn….

I woke this morning in the darkness before dawn and, as I always do, I first checked the view of the constellations—Orion, my favorite, was barely visible, glittering through a veil of high cloud. Next I checked the outside temperature: 49 degrees F, very warm for dawn at this time of year.

I grabbed my laptop and returned to bed, piling pillows behind me so I could sit up and write in my journal. Half an hour later, I heard a sound I don’t usually hear as night is yielding to day: thunder. I looked out and saw showers sweeping down the mountainsides.

Soon, rain was splattering the windows. With no sun to warm the house, I decided it was the perfect time to revive a Sunday tradition from the years BBC (before Richard’s brain cancer), when I baked scones almost every Sunday morning.

Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood. Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood.

I could of course have simply turned on the charming and efficient gas fireplace tucked in the corner of my living-dining-kitchen “great” room as my supplemental heat source.

But if I’m going to pay for natural gas—and by “pay” I mean both shell out cash and also pay in terms of the effect of the CO2 added to the atmosphere when I burn it—I might as well use that gas to feed myself as well. Hence baking.

I don’t remember the last time I baked scones. I pretty much gave up baking when Richard entered hospice care three years ago. After he died, it was just me, and I was scrambling to finish the big house and build this small one.

I hunted through my recipe books and looked online for a savory scone recipe, and didn’t find one I really liked. I wanted something without much gluten, since lately I seem to be a little sensitive to it, and I had in mind using the herbs growing in pots on my deck, specifically the lavender, which is blooming again—crazy plants!—and the rosemary.

Food processor, ingredients, Mom's favorite green glass mixing bowl--I'm all set! Food processor, ingredients, Mom’s favorite green glass mixing bowl–I’m set!

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d still remember how to get just the right texture to the dough and bake them so they’re crisp outside and crumbly within. But once I got out my ingredients and began to measure and mix and chop and whisk, my hands remembered.

Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance! Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance!

And the results? I took some scones over to Ploughboy Local Market, and was gratified by the speed at which the scones were devoured, and the expressions of delight. But don’t take my word for it, make ’em yourself!

Susan’s Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

1-1/4 cups spelt flour (this recipe was developed for high-altitude; below 5,000 feet, use 1 cup spelt flour)
1/2 cup unbleached flour (could just use all spelt flour)
1/2 cup blue cornmeal
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 T finely chopped mixed rosemary leaves and lavender buds
5 T butter, cubed
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk or half-n-half soured with 1 tsp vinegar
3 T maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix dry ingredients plus chopped lavender and rosemary. (I do this in a food processor.) Cut in butter until flour/butter mix is crumbly. (In a food processor, pulse slowly just until crumbly.) Beat egg in small bowl, add buttermilk/soured cream and maple syrup and beat until combined. Reserve about a T for a wash for scones. Pour the rest into food processor, pulse just until the mix begins to gather into a mass. Put about a T flour each onto two cookie sheets. Scoop out half of the scone dough and dredge in flour on cookie sheet until it doesn’t stick. Flatten the ball gently and if it’s still sticky, gently knead in enough flour to make it workable. Carefully pat out into a half-inch thick round. Brush with reserved egg/cream/syrup wash. Cut into 8 wedges, separating wedges so they don’t stick while baking. Bake 15 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Enjoy!

The finished scones cooling. The finished scones cooling.

Coda: Getting back to my Sunday-morning baking feels like coming home again. I miss Richard and I always will, but I like this simple life I’m building on my own.

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor

Two Outstanding Indie Books: Joe Potato, and Stories in Stitches

When I go looking for a new read, the proliferation of books is sometimes simply overwhelming. So when I discovered these two indie projects by authors I knew through previous work, I wanted to share them with you.

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O’Connor

If the short stories in Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes don’t make you belt out at least one (perhaps astonished) laugh like the woman in the photo on the cover, you may need to take your sense of humor in for a check-up. Meriwether O’Connor knows and deeply appreciates rural Appalachia, its people and their no-nonsense and sometimes desperately hardscrabble existence.

Each character in these stories is someone you might meet there: vivid, unique and offering a wry and rooted view of life. And each has a recipe to share.

In this extraordinary collection, you’ll learn about apartment “rabbits” in New York City and how to catch and cook them, and meet Gardenia and the one unlucky squirrel that ate a hole in her trailer and thus became dinner. You’ll watch as a third cousin touches up the hair of his dead relative with black shoe polish at a funeral, and learn his recipe for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches fried in a cast iron pot. (“Yes, you can use other metals, I understand, but what better skillet is there that can also be used in self-defense?”)

After reading Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes, you’ll understand “local food” and Appalachian people at a whole new level. I’m not at all surprised that this collection was nominated for the Weatherford Award (yes, the one Barbara Kingsolver won for Flight Behavior). Or that Carolyn Chute, author of the best-selling novel The Beans of Egypt Maine, said about O’Connor and her stories:

VERY engaging style…Vivid characters…A strong writing voice like (this) is rare.


Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman

Stories in Stitches is a collaborative effort between award-winning author and knitter Donna Druchunas (who wrote Arctic Lace, among other books) and well-known designer and knitter Ava Coleman. Stitches is actually a series of books on the stories behind the patterns of hand-knitted creations from dolls to socks and sweaters.

And I do mean stories: Volume Three, on patterns from World War I & II, tells the tales of both author’s ancestors, and thus of the people and culture involved in those wars. In “Dancing Stitches and Flying Fish,” a sock pattern and its history conjures a story that Donna Druchunas’ Eastern European Jewish grandmother might have told,

My grandmother sat at the foot of my bed when I was a little girl. Every night after she fluffed my pillow, tucked the blankets in around my neck, and kissed me on the forehead, she would settle in and tell me a bedtime story. Every night the story was the same.

Bubbeh’s name was Tzivia, she would begin….

The flying fish sock pattern that inspired Donna's research into Jewish history. The dancing stitches sock pattern that inspired Donna’s research into one particular chapter of Jewish history.

You don’t have to be a knitter or a fiber person to appreciate the history and storytelling in this gorgeously designed and beautifully written series, or to understand how hand-made objects can reveal so much about who and why we are.

Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches. Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches.

As Ava Coleman writes in the Editor’s Letter,

We tell our stories so future generations remember. Sometimes that is so we don’t repeat the mistakes of past generations. Other times it is to share skills and ideas with our future generations. This issue shares a bit of both.


Traditional publishing offers a curated experience: editors, publishers and marketers select the books they think are good and publish them. Indie publishing offers a wide-open proliferation of voices and stories. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so much.

Until you spot a treasure among the multitude, like Joe Potato’s Real Life Stories and Stories in Stitches. These voices and stories simply shine.

Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia in fall.

Building a New Kitchen Garden

Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia in fall. Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia last fall.

At Terraphilia, my old house, I grew everything from strawberries and asparagus to eggplants and tomatoes in a large raised-bed kitchen garden that Richard built for me while the house was still under construction.

I chose to locate that organic garden within the containment wall where above-ground oil tanks had once stood. In my mind, the garden provided a powerful symbol of our ability to heal that formerly blighted industrial property. Each bounteous and beautiful harvest gave me hope for larger project of restoring this battered earth.

A morning's garden harvest A morning’s harvest from my old garden

Now I live by myself at the other end of the block on the last chunk of this once-industrial property. I don’t need a huge kitchen garden, and I’m next to the creek the mule deer follow through the neighborhood every night, munching as they go.

Which is why I planned my new kitchen garden in containers on the deer-proof, custom metal-grating deck that wraps around the front and side of my new house. I sowed greens in a couple of large pots about a month ago, but the main part of the garden will sprout from a round metal stock tank I salvaged from Richard’s studio (it served as his wet-carving station for sculpting “small”–less than ton-size–boulders).

The stock tank on the street-side part of my front deck. The stock tank on the street-side part of my front deck.

I’m behind on starting that garden, in part because my deck is not finished (it lacks approaches–steps and ramp–leaving a two-foot drop at each end) and in part because I’ve been on the road teaching gardening most weekends since late winter, instead of doing my own gardening.

On this rare weekend at home, I determined to make progress. First I hauled roadbase (crushed gravel) from the pile behind the garage to the front deck as the drainage layer of my soil column.

Coir bricks soaking up warm water in a garden trug next to the wheelbarrow in my shop. Coir bricks soaking up warm water in a garden trug next to the wheelbarrow.

Then I mixed my own organic container soil blend using coir bricks, condensed blocks of shredded coconut hull, to provide fiber and keep the soil from compacting, mixed with organic compost from a local farm, plus the remainder of a bag of organic transplant mix I use in growing my own heritage tomato, eggplant and basil plants.

Mixing soil in the wheelbarrow in my sunny workshop. Mixing soil in the wheelbarrow in my sunny workshop.

I re-hydrated the coir bricks in a trug in the workshop/sun-space off my garage, and then mixed them with the rest of the soil in my big construction wheelbarrow.

The hauling route to the front deck passes sandstone benches and blooming crabapple tree. The hauling route to the front deck passes sandstone benches and blooming crabapple tree.

Then I pushed the full, heavy wheelbarrow along the creek bank past the garage and the house, up the sidewalk along the street, and then up the path that cuts across my steep front bank.

The not-quite-accessible front deck The not-quite-accessible front deck

And then shoveled the soil into a trug, lugged the trug up onto the deck (if the ramp was in place, I could simply have rolled the wheelbarrow up), and dumped it, trug by trug, into the stock tank.

Dumping the soil mix, trug by trug, into the stock tank. Dumping a trug of soil mix.

Two heaping wheelbarrow loads of soil later, my shoulders and back were feeling the strain, so I knocked off for the night. When the weather warms up again (the next two nights are forecast to be in the twenties; it’s drizzling snow right now), I’ll finish my new kitchen garden.

As I plant tomatoes and other edibles, I’ll think of my late love, builder of garden beds, houses, and sculptor who loved this earth. Like my old kitchen garden, this new one is a symbol of our ability to heal this battered earth—and my ability to heal myself.

With friend and fellow author, Page Lambert, holding my crystal "book" after the banquet. Photo: John Gritts With friend and fellow author, Page Lambert, holding my crystal “book” after the banquet. Photo: John Gritts (thanks, John!)

One more thing, a brag: Last Thursday, I won the 2014 Colorado Authors’ League Award for blogs. It’s a special honor coming from my peers. Thank you all for the support and companionship on this writing road!

Between Urban and Wild

Books From the Land

The past week was a hard one—one friend lost her adult son and another friend died suddenly. When life hurts, I am comforted by nature and the community of the land, hence this look at two thoughtful books grown with love—comfort food that nourishes mind, heart and spirit.

Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado

Between Urban and Wild Between Urban and Wild, by Andrea Jones

“I don’t think there’s a set formula for falling in love, but surprise, wonder, the invitation to thoughtfulness, and meeting the other on its own terms all have a part in the process,” writes Andrea Jones in “Love Letter to a Sewage Lagoon,” one essay in Between Urban and Wild.

I inherited much of my devotion to the mountains from my father, but Lake Powell [the ‘sewage lagoon’] provided me with the opportunity to discover the character of one small part of the world for myself. On the shores of that paradoxical desert lake, I learned what it meant to fall in love with a place. Love, of course, is seldom simple, and it wasn’t long before complications set in.

The complications to that childhood love for the wilderness of blue water set in a maze of pink and red sandstone begin with the fact that the lake is actually a reservoir, “a gigantic human artifact imposed on the red rock land.” And that it drowned Glen Canyon, perhaps the most glorious of the slickrock desert’s sinuous river canyons, and that the damming of the Colorado River to create the reservoir gravely harmed one of the West’s greatest watersheds.

Jones is the rare writer about nature and the land who loves deeply but is not blinded by her affection. Through Jones’ eyes, the West comes alive in luminous detail, and if our relationship with it is complex, contradictory, and sometimes heartbreaking, that gives her plenty to reflect on. Those reflections make Between Urban and Wild haunting and compelling, a book that lasts.

(The full review is posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener: Recipes Inspired By Painting from the Garden

The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener, by Maryjo Koch; design by Jenny Barry The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener, by Maryjo Koch; design by Jenny Barry

Just like a meal stimulates our senses and nourishes our bodies, the garden nourishes our spirits. Our mind’s focus on petty problems is pushed aside and is no match for the pondering of miracles found in a garden. … Walk into a garden and all five senses are aroused: from the fragrance and color of a flower, to the sounds of birds and wind, to the taste of freshly picked produce, to the feeling of moisture in the air or the soft leaves of lamb’s ears and the prickly thorns of a rose.

That sensual beginning gives readers a taste of The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener, a lush book of recipes and art from naturalist painter Maryjo Koch, inspired by her verdant garden in the mountains of California’s Central Coast.

Open-faced Watercress Sandwiches with nasturtium flowers Open-faced Watercress Sandwiches with nasturtium flowers from the book

The book is arranged into chapters by types of dish—Soups; Salads; Sandwiches, Pizzas & Savory Tarts; and Sweets—interspersed with brief meditations on the seasons in the garden. The whole is generously and gorgeously illustrated with photographs by Koch’s daughter, Wendy Candelaria, a photographer, and paintings by Koch and her painter son, Jonathan. Recipes, text, images, font, and design are lush and stunning, appealing to the senses.

There is little so elementally comforting as preparing a meal using fresh ingredients grown and harvested with love. The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener offers that kind of comfort, and clearly was a project that grew out of love—Koch’s love for her garden and food, and her collaborator, award-winning book designer Jenny Barry’s love for Koch’s art. We readers are blessed by the fruits of their work.

(The full review and an interview with Jenny Barry are posted on Story Circle Book Reviews, the largest site reviewing books for and by women on the web.)

Thanks to you all for reading along with me. I am fortunate to be part of such a nourishing community.