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Garlicky Dinner Rolls

Garlicky Dinner Rolls

 

Garlicky dinner rolls in a square pan
Garlicky Dinner Rolls

Our nation might be in the middle of a political garbage fire, but we all still have to eat. One of the best ways I know to take care of oneself, and keep from going batshit crazy, is to cook. And especially to cook for other people. Our friend Shefije came over last weekend to take a break before tackling her Master’s thesis, and I made a batch of these for her with za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice blend.

These are a riff off a recipe I found on the Guardian UK site for a Za’atar bun and since za’atar supposed to be good for the memory, I thought of Shefije when I saw the recipe. She loved them, and she’s a very satisfying person to cook for, because when she loves something, she really loves it.

Earlier this week I got a hankering to do a version with green onions, parsley, garlic and olive oil. I’ve written before about my annual spring mania for green sauce, and this was much the same, but better, since it was green sauce wrapped in bread.

thin rectangle of bread dough spread with green onion, parsley, garlic and olive oil
Dough spread with green sauce

While the original recipe uses a dough enriched with butter, milk and egg, I wanted a very olive-oil-based flavor, and so I just used my standard sourdough bread recipe. Three cups of bread flour, three tablespoons wheat germ, one tablespoon salt, a cup and a half of sourdough starter and enough water to make a shaggy wet dough. I don’t really knead it, but rather use the stretching method described in the Tartine Country Bread recipe. I like the way this aerates the bread, and seems to activate the gluten — especially in really wet doughs like this one.

While it was rising, I made a green sauce with a bunch of green onions and a head of parsley I had in the fridge. I chopped them roughly along with a clove of garlic, then put them in my mini-chop with some Meyer lemon juice, lots of olive oil, an about half a teaspoon of Aleppo pepper. You want it still a little chunky.

Cylinder of dough after it's been rolled around the filling
Dough rolled with flavorings

When the dough was ready, I cut it into two equal sections for ease, since I don’t have a ginormous rolling board. I rolled it into a big rectangle and smeared the green sauce on it, then used my dough scraper to roll it lengthwise into a cylinder. I cut each cylinder into eight slices, then put them into a square baking pan.

Slices cut from the cylinder go face up into the baking pan
Cut slices in baking pan

When the pan was full, I covered it with a plastic bag, and set it aside to rise for about an hour. Preheat the oven to 425, and when the rolls have risen, sprinkle them with more olive oil, sesame seeds, and some coarse salt. Bake for about half an hour, until they are golden on top and are separating one from the next.

These are really yummy, and have the added attraction that you can pick apart the layers as you eat them. And I think you could do almost anything for a filling — black olives and some tomato sauce would be good, parmesan and garlic and olive oil, green sauces of any type from the Indian ones that have all that nice cumin in them to a straight basil pesto, or the original, with lots of za’atar and sesame seed and some coarse crunchy salt. And they cook up really quickly, which is nice.

So there you go — a little project to distract or give a little respite from the national emergency.

Making and Creating

Making and Creating

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So, everything is fairly terrifying right now. The election is horrific. Climate change is continuing to wreck havoc across the globe. I don’t have a job, or at the moment, even any freelance gigs signed. And the Red Sox, sigh.

So I’m making things.

I made the jacket in the photo above, from two fabrics in my stash. The blue wool is from a piece I bought on eBay a year or so ago, and has the loveliest selvage on it. I used it for the end of the sleeves, which you can see when they’re not cuffed. It’s lined with an end-piece of orange raw silk I bought a year or so ago when I was in Seattle at District Fabric, and that I’ve been trying to figure out ever since what to do with — it was too short for a dress or a skirt. I have another jacket in this pattern cut out downstairs — in heavier wool, charcoal grey color, with a grey Robert Kaufman chambray to line it with. It’ll be terrific for dog walking, and will distract me for the three or four hours it takes to put it together. I knit a Hitchhiker shawl  from a ball of ombre sock yarn that had too much space between the colors (I would have wound up with one black sock and one white sock). I’m also working up a pair of Kate Davies stranded Pawkies, which I’m doing as mittens, because winter is coming, and dog walking is upon me. I’m going to experiment with knitting a little hole for my index finger so I can select stuff on my iPhone through the mittens — I like taking Instagram shots while dog walking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about making stuff and creativity as I try to sketch out and envision what kind of freelance life I’d like to build. Sadly, I can’t retire, or tap into my savings, so I do have to find work, but my hope is to find work that allows me to write about issues I’m interested in, and in the best of all possible worlds, about people who are doing creative things.

In the meantime, I’m staving off panic by thinking about what I want to wear this winter. I have a couple of skirts I made this summer that I loved, and wore all the time. So I’ve been eyeing my stash (since I quit my job, and Can Not Buy More Fabric) and thinking about which patterns would work in which fabrics. It’s also Slow Fashion October, during which my Instagram feed is full of people who sew and knit thinking through their issues of consumption, of how clothes are made and sold in a consumer capitalist model and how, by making our own, we can strike back, even if only on small personal levels, at an economic model built on the idea of cheap, fast, and replaceable items.

Part of the pleasure in making clothes, for me, is thinking about it beforehand. What do I want to look like? And how do I want my clothes to feel? And then, can I make that happen? I have to say, three years into making most of my own clothes, I love getting dressed. I was never fashion-y, but now, I look in my closet, or more likely at my clothesline after doing wash, and it’s just so pleasing. Clothes I like, that fit me, in colors I wanted, that go together most of the time, which last, and that I made myself.

I had a friend visiting about a week ago. Months ago he convinced me to propose my first ever academic paper, nearly 20 years after I finished my Phd, for the Western Literature Association conference which was over at Big Sky this year. It was nearby, and seemed like a good idea. It was fine — I wrote about it in more detail over at my TinyLetter (subscribe here). He was amazed the whole weekend at the way the Montana writers all seem to know one another, and how, for the most part, we’re all pretty supportive of one another. And then, driving around town the next day, showing him Livingston, with our old school buildings repurposed as artist studios and theater spaces, our community garden and used bookstore/reading space, our funky little shops which exist because rent is cheap, it did strike me that we’re a pretty creative bunch of folks around here.

You can forget how important it is to live embedded in a community of creative people until you have to leave it for a while. I’m not slagging on the academics, but that conference, along with the one I went to a year ago, both confirmed for me that I was right to leave academia when I did. And my buddy who came to visit, and who is marooned in the Midwest, in a town where he doesn’t have a circle of people to help feed his own creative work, well, it just drove home for me that even if I sometimes roll my eyes when the local creative types get a little woo, I’d rather live among folks whose first response to most things is “what can I make from it?” or “how can I fix it?” or “can we use this somehow to improve our community?” It’s a small town, and like most small towns we sometimes get kind of fed up with one another, so it was a good reminder of just how fortunate we are. it’s not perfect, goodness knows, but it is creative. And for that I’m deeply grateful.

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild

Wild in the Garden, Garden in the Wild

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The backside of the garden has gone a bit feral on me this summer. Actually, the whole veggie garden is pretty feral — there’s way too much grass, and weeds, and because I’ve been experimenting with broadcast sowing, things are just coming up where they will, or not. Domenica Marchetti, of the new book Preserving Italy (blog posts to come), has been using the hashtag #gardenofneglect, and that’s kind of how I feel about mine this summer.

Or do I? Is it neglect, or have I finally gotten the garden to where it pretty much does what I want it to, without a whole lot of work? A couple of years ago I read Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka turned me definitively away from row planting, and although I’m not nearly as observant as I should be about what will sprout when, and how to plant vegetable crops so that they’ll shade out the weeds (will anything shade out my Bermuda grass?), the book did turn me toward a richer, messier mode of gardening, and one that also somehow broke through my notion that flowers don’t belong in the veggie garden.

A couple of years into the most-casual adoption of the Fukuoka “method” — one I think of as “throw out the seeds and see if they take” and “plant stuff that will reseed by itself” — I have a wild and messy garden, but one that produces greens in abundance, the beans are doing great this year, the tomatoes are a little slow, but this is also the first year I haven’t started my own, and the identification sticks got lost, so I’m not even sure what’s out there. But I’m starting to get Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes, and two different red ones — one a tiny bright red, and another that’s over on the purpler end of the spectrum, and I seem to have planted at least one beefstake — which is unusual for me. Our season’s so short, I don’t usually bother. The flowers are also doing great — I have a big Monarda that came back from last year, and finally got a Gaillardia to take root. I have a couple of echineacea’s that I’m babying along in the veggie garden before transplanting them into the flower beds (which I don’t water as much as I should do, hence they need to be big enough to survive). The borage has gone to town, and is self-seeding all over the place, and I have the wall of sunflower and cosmo and hollyhocks that I envisioned in the long bed along the fence.

It’s a messy garden, but I think it’s the garden I’ve been intending to grow all along. I look out back and it just says abundance and color and food and joy. Which is what I wanted. A feral garden on the edge of miles and miles of wild country.

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

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I’ve been waiting and waiting for “the Utah Fruit Guys”  to come to town, and Wednesday evening, there they were at the Farmer’s Market. I did my graduate work at UC Davis, and the University of Utah, both of which are located in the midst of serious orchard country — and it ruined me for grocery-store stone fruit. So I wait. Every year, I wait and wait for the Utah guys, or sometimes we really luck out and get a truckload up from Colorado’s western slope — but we wait for real fruit.

And then we make jam. I was out of raspberry jam so I was thrilled to find beautiful flats at the market on Wednesday. In general, I don’t really believe in buying fruit to make jam — for me, it’s always been about being creative, and using up the excess from my yard, but I make a runny raspberry jam that I particularly like, and I was out of it, and so I spent what seemed to me a small fortune on a flat of nice raspberries.

So here’s the the other thing about the fruit coming to town, raspberries don’t last. It was Wednesday, right in the middle of the week, and the job-I-haven’t-quite-stopped-working-at-yet has been really busy. So I washed and weighed the raspberries (after a gentle spin in the salad spinner), and put them in a container with about 1/3 the sugar I was planning to use for jam. I like a runny jam, one that can be used as a topping for ice cream, or as a filling for cake, so I use 3/4 of the weight of the fruit instead of a 1:1 ratio. I gently shook the sugar into the fruit, and left it to macerate overnight — it’s a trick I picked up from Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It bought me some time, since I didn’t want to refrigerate the fruit, which spoils the flavor, but raspberries will go moldy in a flat second so I didn’t want to leave them out overnight.

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It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I had a free minute to cook them up, and as it was my first batch of jam for the year, I had to give my Beautiful French Jam Pot a little scrub, as well as wash up a flat of brand-new half-pint wide-mouth jars. I threw the jars in the oven at 225 to sterilize, added the rest of the sugar to the berries, and set them over a low flame to start cooking down. A couple of podcasts later, the fruit had gone shiny and thick, and it was ready to jar up.

Here’s the thing about making stuff, when you’ve been doing it a while, it’s not such a big deal. You get better at it. I’m still amazed when I run into people who think it’s magic, this ordinary preservation of delicious ingredients in season. I put up 11 half-pints and one leftover pint (in the fridge) during an afternoon when I was also fielding emails, and handing off files, and it wasn’t a big deal. Except for the waiting part, the waiting for good fruit.

Ever since we lost our cherry trees two years ago, I’ve got one eye cocked for the End of Fruit. For years I took that grove of cherry trees down the block for granted, and even after the guys who owned the lot built a big building there, they told me of course I could still pick cherries, and that no, of COURSE they weren’t going to bulldoze that grove, their mother would kill them if they messed with her pie cherries. And then we had a killing frost — it went from 65F to -10F in less than 12 hours, and we didn’t know it until spring, but it killed every cherry tree in town. My beloved grove is gone, and I’m hoarding my last few jars of precious sour cherries. I know the East Coast lost their peach crop this year, and when it seemed our Fruit Guys were late, I started googling to see if there was any problem with the Colorado and Utah crops. Perhaps it’s the other reason I can, to preserve what we have, to shore up our stores against an uncertain future. At any rate, I’ve got enough raspberry jam for a year, and more peaches than I can eat fresh this week, so there will be more noodling around with fruit.

 

How Routine is a Creative Practice

How Routine is a Creative Practice

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I’ve been walking this same two mile stretch of road every morning pretty much since Hank-dog came to live with me two years ago. It’s a quick drive out of town, and there’s usually no one else there, which is important. Despite having made most of my close friends upon moving here through our dogs, at this point, I don’t want to chat on my dog walk.  Also,  there aren’t many cars. Hank and I are still working on the concept that cars do not need to be herded (neither do runners, or bicyclists).  So for two years I’ve walked exactly the same stretch of road, and I’m the opposite of bored by it. It’s both the same, and different every day. The colors of the vegetation change in the creekbottom below the road. The sky is a different blue with different clouds every morning. The wildlife changes —  one morning it’s a hawk and a goldfinch, eyeing one another from two branches high in a cottonwood snag, another day it’s the kingfisher diving for minnows, and nearly every day the blue heron rises out of the creek on his enormous wings. Right now, the chokecherries are coming ripe, which means I’ve got an eye out for bears.

It’s not just the ever-changing details that keeps this walk crucial to my day — it’s actually the routine nature of our walk that opens up my head and activates both my powers of observation and creative thinking.  Because the structure of the walk is the same, the task doesn’t take up any head space, which allows my mind to wander in the best kind of way for that 40 minutes every morning. I’m not there to accomplish anything other than giving both Hank and myself a little exercise, and practicing Not Herding Inappropriate Things. And because I’ve deliberately chosen a road where I don’t usually run into people, it gives me a solid 40 minutes to talk to myself, usually in my head, but sometimes, yes, I find myself muttering out loud. This road has become the place where I think up ideas, where I outline essay and story structures, where I talk things over with myself. Sometimes I dictate into my phone — I’ve discovered that if I pull up a Google doc, I can dictate in the roughest of rough drafts, which as someone who loves editing, I’ve discovered is a great way to jump start a piece, or get myself unstuck.

I’m with Flaubert, who wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It has always been the central project here at LivingSmall — to pay off the house, to bring my expenses down so I can afford to chance a freelance life, and to build for myself the kind of domestic routines that allow my brain the space to roam, to make things up, to imagine worlds in which all kinds of things can happen — and then to get those worlds down on the page.

For me, routine is the mental scaffolding that allows the work to get done. It’s not that I go dog walking in order to produce ideas, it’s that when I go for a dog walk, when I let my mind drift — when I look at a landscape both as deeply familiar as this one but which is, because it is a natural place, is also always in flux, different colors, different birds, sometimes the cattle are in the bottom, sometimes they’re up high — all this makes space for ideas to emerge.

Our culture has become so obsessed with productivity, so addicted to the drug of busyness, that we forget how crucial daydreaming is to our mental wellbeing. It’s difficult to advocate for taking a walk, for daydreaming, for carving out time to protect those routines that feed our creative processes, when we’re all struggling so hard just to make a living.

Figuring out what routines we need seems to me one of the biggest challenges of building a creative life. For one thing, it seems so precious and bourgeois — oh poor me my challenge is not to survive and put food on my table and make sure my kids have shoes but to figure out my perfect little artistic life —  but if we’re to get the work done, it’s one of the most important things we need to not only figure out, but to protect.

I’d love to hear from you all in the comments — what routines work for you? Do routines work for you, or are you the kind of creative who needs to shock your system once in a while? It’s been ages since we’ve had a commenting community here at Livingsmall, but it was always one of my favorite parts of blogging, and I hope that (if you’re out there), you’ll join in.

Building A Creative Life

Building A Creative Life

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For many years, I thought of my maker projects and my writing as separate. More than that, actually,  I got into a bad habit of thinking of them as oppositional — as if my making was only a kind of procrastination or evasion from writing. I felt guilty about it. As if spending time in my garden, or putting up a batch of jam, or making a shirt, or learning to knit socks was somehow betraying my “real” creative work, which was supposed to be writing novels and essays.

About a year ago I got really interested in the notion of creative practice. This is quite a common idea in the art world, but writers don’t tend to think in these terms — or at least not the writers I came up with. Process was fine, but the point was publication. Where you were published was frequently not as important as the fact of publication, especially when I was still in academia. And there was a hierarchy. “Little” magazines at the bottom, then real magazines — the ones who paid — and at the top, publishing a book. That I published a book with a commercial publisher was sort of a big deal back in the day. But as the years have stretched on, and I haven’t managed to finish another book manuscript, I’ve gone through many cycles of despair and reinvention, then gotten stuck and have done it all over again.

It was in those down times about a year ago when a manuscript I’d been struggling with had come apart, again, that I discovered a group of knitters in the UK who were building these really vibrant networks of creativity. They had podcasts and book projects and were starting their own lines of yarn and making patterns and researching the history of knitted textiles in the British Isles in ways that seemed enormously exciting. Kate Davies, for example, who writes these beautifully-researched books on Fair Isle knitting, or yoked sweaters or haps … books that include not only terrific patterns, but these essays about the history of these handicrafts, and the women who made them, and the economic conditions that helped turn these things into the luxury items of their days. Turns out that Kate has a PhD in 18th Century History, and an academic career cut short by a stroke she suffered in her early 30s. She reinvented herself entirely — took the thing she loved doing, and in exploring it deeply has built a truly creative life for herself, as well as a business. Felicity (Felix) Ford is another one I’ve been slightly obsessed by, because again, she has that combination of true enthusiasm and academic and artistic expression that just makes my heart sing. Also known as Knitsonik, Felix is a sound artist and knitwear designer who wrote the absolutely astonishing Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook which is my very favorite kind of how-to book. There are patterns, several really wonderful ones, but just as my most beloved cookbooks are a collection of recipes in service of teaching a person how to really cook — how to think about flavors, how to acquire the techniques needed to make those flavors and textures happen, how to set you free to truly cook on your own, Felix’s Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook is all about learning to really see, and then to translate what you see and love into patterns that can be knit into any number of garments.

I am not a particularly visually adept person. My mother is a talented visual artist who can draw and paint, but that’s never been my strong suit. And what I loved about Felix’s book is that it is rooted in place, which has always been the source from which my writing begins. The book is a workbook of sorts, leading the reader through several of Felix’s projects where she takes elements of the landscape that she loves — whether it be the brickwork of her hometown Reading, or an ancient stone wall, or the meandering highway over which she commuted to a University job — and rethinks them as colors and patterns that can be translated into the medium she loves, knitting. I was set on fire by this book. I was SO excited about the way it had me looking at colors, and patterns, and the contrast between colors and patterns — every morning for weeks. My morning dog walks took on a heightened sense of thrill as I tried to translate the shapes and colors of the mountain ranges, the sky, and my beloved creek bottom where we walk every morning with it’s willows and bullrushes and blue heron and cows. And while I’ve yet to knit anything from it, that it opened up my creative mind again, got me thinking and seeing and simply being excited about creating again — that was enough. (Although I do have plans for a very special pattern I want to develop using her methods.)

Felix has a terrific Knitsonic podcast, which seems to be on hiatus at the moment as she works on a project for the Dickens museum on Catherine Dickens, Charles’s long-suffering wife who he both divorced and erased late in life. And that podcast led me to a few others that also felt really inspirational — KnitBritish and A Playful Day in particular — podcasts that take on the big question of how do we build creative lives that will also support us? They’re women telling stories about making up their own lives, and interviewing others who have done the same — built creative businesses that not only support them, but feed their creative practices.

All this has been in my head this year as I’ve been planning my Great Leap into Freelancing. I have a stack of writing projects, and for the first time in decades, I’m sending things out. For ages every manuscript submission felt life-or-death to me, as if it was the Final Judgement on whether or not I was any good at this. Maybe its getting to that age where a woman famously doesn’t give a shit anymore what other people think, maybe it’s having a solid footing underneath me for the first time ever — a settled domestic life, a safe home — or maybe it’s just a very belated sense of confidence in my own talent, but sending things out no longer seems like such a big deal. The next challenge is going to be figuring out how to find paid work that isn’t so divorced from my creative life as that I’ve been doing these past fifteen years or so. It was a deliberate choice on my part — I wanted a job that didn’t creep into those creative parts of my brain because I thought it would compete. And perhaps I was right, or right for what I needed at the time. Now I’m in a different space, a space of really exciting creative brainstorming. The three things I love: making, wilderness, and writing are all right here — and my goal is to bring them into some sort of constellation that allows me to pay my bills while doing good work — work that brings creative energy into not only my world, but becomes an expression of that energy out into the universe. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this, but the challenge has me waking up mornings with a head full of plans, plans that it looks like I’ll have time now to start putting into place. It’s so exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

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