Saturday, December 8, 2012

E-Reading Scripts

One of the joys of being a dramaturg is the opportunity to read a lot of plays. Some of the plays are ones that you've seen produced or would like to, some are submissions to theaters or festivals and others are plays that a playwright has asked for your feedback on.

One of the downsides of all those plays is finding a way to read them. In the past, playwrights would send a paper copy of the play to a theater, but now that many submissions are via email, the onus is on the person reading the play to figure out a way to read it.

I've always been the type to print out the script and read it that way. There's a weird disconnect when the play stays on a computer screen. It's hard to get into the play, since you're straining your eyes to look at it. But, when you have to print out 40+ scripts over the course of a few months, the bill can get pretty pricey, not to mention all the paper and ink you're using, all the trees that need to be cut down, etc.

Last year, my solution to the massive amounts of paper issue was to get a Kindle. I didn't get the Fire version, just the regular old Kindle, with a keyboard.

There are definitely pluses to using a Kindle to read plays. It's really pretty easy to email yourself the scripts. If you're getting plays emailed to yourself already, all you need to do is forward them on to your email. You set who can send you emails at your Kindle, so you don't have to worry about getting a spam email that will destroy your e-reader. The machine handles both .doc and .pdf files, though mine has crashed twice when reading a .pdf.

Since I have the keyboard version, I can make notes on the play as I read, just as I would with a paper script. I can also highlight text or dialogue that stands out to me as I read.

Despite the ease of use, reduction in ink and paper costs, and the note taking, I'm not sure I'm sold on the e-reader, especially when it comes to reading plays. After working my way through over 40 scripts this fall, I found it more difficult to write responses and reports after reading on the Kindle. One of the joys of reading an unpublished play is the ability to flip back and forth so easily through the stack of paper. It's easy to find what you're looking for or briefly go back to scene you want to examine again. Plus, there's something about holding the play as you read it that makes it sink in better, I think.

It's really hard to navigate the play on a Kindle, unless you take copious notes and notate every single instance you think you might want to look at again. You can't search the text as you can on a word processor. You can't search by page number on .docs.

I'm going to keep using my Kindle for reading plays, since it's much more convenient and cheaper, but I think I'll always prefer the physical copy of a script over it's e-version.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Pickled Peppers

October has arrived. Although it's still been on the warm side, things have begun to get a little chilly for my jalapeño and Bulgarian Carrot Hot Pepper plants. Today, I picked the last of the peppers from the plants, as they are already beginning to show signs that they don't enjoy the colder nights.

The final pepper harvest wasn't terribly impressive - a total of 12 peppers. I think this overall this year I got about 30 peppers and that's a large outside estimate. 30 isn't a large amount compared to past years, when I was swimming in peppers by the end of the season.

Last year, I simply tossed the remaining peppers into plastic freezer bags whole and froze them. When I needed a pepper throughout the winter and spring, I'd just pull one or two out of the freezer and use them. Frozen peppers aren't good for eating raw, but they're perfect for tossing into a pot of chili or into a stock.

I wanted to get a bit more creative with preservation this year, so I decided to quick pickle half of the harvest. I left the Bulgarian Carrots alone, choosing to pickle the jalapeños only.

I never got on the canning bandwagon, for several reasons. Mostly, I don't want to buy a big canning pot or any of the equipment. So I went the quick refrigerator pickle route. I brought 3/4 cup of vinegar to a simmer on the stove, with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar. I went with sliced peppers, so that I can use them on nachos and whatnot. The jalapeños went into a jar and the simmering vinegar went over top. The peppers and vinegar are cooling now, then they will go in the refrigerator and "pickle" for a few days (or a week. Or two weeks.)

There seemed to be a lot variance on the web when it came to how long the peppers will last in the fridge. A month seems to be the safe bet, but there are people who say they will keep for longer. I think the longer the peppers sit in the salty vinegar, the mushier they will get, so it might be more of an issue of quality than safety. But seriously, when it comes to food and safety, don't take it from me. Listen to the USDA and all those people who actually know the food science behind it all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Seed Saving

I got a lime basil plant for free when I ordered my peppers and other plants from Lazy Ox Farm. At the start of summer, I used the lime basil to make sun tea quite frequently. But as the season went on, the plant bolted pretty early and I kinda stopped tending to it, aside from watering it regularly.

The other day, I noticed many tiny little seedlings sprouting up around the established plant in the container. These weren't weeds, they were baby basils. The plant had not only gone to seed, it had self-seeded.

That's when I got the obvious light bulb. I could save the seeds (the ones that hadn't fallen to the ground) for next season. And, once the sweet basil was ready, I could do the same with that.

Saving basil seeds is very easy. That plant wants to put out a flower. Most gardeners pick off the flowers, which gets tiring, especially if there is a lot of basil. Instead of picking the flowers off, let them be. They're pretty and they attract bees. Keep in mind that there's a give and take. Once you let the basil flower, the leaves lose flavor. If there's plenty of time left in the season, continue the battle against the flowers. But once fall rolls around, it's time for saving seed.

After a length of time, the small petals will fall off and the flower spike will turn brown and dry out. It won't be pretty any more, but it will finally be useful to you. Trim the spikes, then spread them on a paper towel or paper plate. Let them sit for a few days or a week. To remove the mature seeds, shake the spikes or even rub them. A messier option is to put the spikes in a paper bag and give it a good shake. The seeds will collect in the bottom of the bag, but you'll also have to deal with a lot of chaff.

Basil seeds that have reached maturity are tiny and black. Store them in an envelope for the winter, then plant next spring.

One quick note about cross-pollination. Basil does cross-pollinate, and I don't have the scientific data to give percentages or whatever. But if you grew multiple varieties, keep in mind that there's a risk for cross-pollination and unusual basil plants the next year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Hello, Fall

I spent nearly the entire day in the garden, getting it ready for fall. The entire day wasn't meant to be devoted to gardening, but once I dived in and got going, time flew by and the work piled up. The day's work involved harvesting herbs to be dried, frozen or turned into pesto. It also involved cutting the flowers/seed pods off of the lime basil in an attempt to save seeds. In hopes of getting some more veggies before the frost hits, I planted a few cold-weather crops, including peas.

The parsley plant has done pretty well this summer. I don't know why I was hesitant to grow it for so long. As far as herbs go, it was almost no work at all. I'd trim it a few times to use the leaves and stems in cooking, but that was the extent of my efforts aside from watering. It didn't have any pests or disease troubles.

Parsley has long had a connection to death, which stems from both myth and botany. I found this fun article that discussed how parsley was considered the herb of death by the ancient Greeks. Apparently, they believed that parsley first grew in the blood of Archemorus, which means "forerunner of death." From a botanical standpoint, the seed of parsley contains furamocoumarins, which prevent weeds from growing. Unfortunately, those compounds also sometimes keep the plants from germinating too. Furamocoumarins might also keep pests away from parsley.

My goal is to over-winter the parsley plant by tucking its pot in a corner of the backyard, near the house, where it is warmest. It's a biennial plant, so it should return next year for a spell. My hope is that I can trick it into producing leaves for as long as possible by trimming away the flower stem. We'll see. For now, I've cut down the leaves and have tossed them whole, but washed and dried, in the freezer. Freezing parsley means I can use it in stocks and other cooked recipes throughout the winter. The frozen parsley probably won't be suitable for use raw or as a garnish.

At the start of the growing season, I got obsessed with the idea of growing citrus scented and flavored herbs. I ended up with lemon thyme, lime basil and lemon verbena in the garden. My original thought was to grow lemon balm, but I wasn't impressed with the lemon balm plants on offer. Then, I found lemon verbena online.

The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is a tender perennial, meaning it probably won't survive a winter outside in zone 7b. My plan is to bring it inside for the cold months. The plant has narrow, pointy leaves that are slightly sticky and smell sweetly of lemon. When brewed in sun tea, it has a light lemon flavor that's a very herbal or green tasting.

I harvested several stems of the plant today, and have hung them up to dry in a dark spare room. They've been hanging for only a few hours so far and the leaves are already drying out. I figure they will hang there for a few more days, then I will store them in a jar and use them to make tea or to flavor scones and pastries. I've also got a few sprigs of sage drying there on the left, just for the fun of it.

The summer was a rough one and I'm reluctantly glad that fall has arrived. Let's hope the garden keeps on going until the frost hits in late November/early December.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Accepting Failure

That above is one of the saddest looking tomato plants ever. It also happens to be the plant growing (or not) in my garden. It hasn't set any fruit and the leaves are starting to curl up and wither. It also may have been the victim of an over zealous pruner early on.

The are plenty of reasons why the tomato isn't making tomatoes. For one thing, it's an heirloom (Abraham Lincoln). While heirlooms usually make tastier fruits, they are also a lot more finicky. For another thing, the weather has been a bitch this summer. We all think that tomatoes love the heat, but even they have their limits. And days and days of temperatures over 95 degrees make them throw a mini temper tantrum and refuse to make fruit.

When I first started gardening, worry about crop failure kept me up at night. I would lie in bed, concerned that my pepper plant had only produced a single pepper or worrying that it would just die overnight. Over the past few years, I've mellowed out a bit. Some crops didn't do as well as I had hoped (for example, the Brussels sprouts that didn't grow at all, then got eaten by a cabbage worm), others were so amazingly productive I still have vestiges of them dried or in the freezer.

The stakes are rather low in my backyard garden. I don't need those tomatoes to live. If the plant did decide to produce fruit, I'd probably save a few dollars, but the impact on my life as a whole would be rather low. If the plant continues on as it is, I'm out $3 and the chance to grow something more productive.

It's a failure but it doesn't compare to the failure of say, entire swathes of corn in the midwest or other areas. The low stakes of it all makes it a lot easier to accept. It also makes me wonder about failure in life in general. Is there ever something that is so critical to survival that I couldn't bounce back from if it all didn't work out in the end?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Page Writing vs Stage Writing

Two recent experiences have me thinking about the quality of writing and different types of writing. My thoughts have focused on both the experience of the writer and the experience of the audience member when engaging with the work. The first experience was working on a short-story-for-hire. In the end, I don't own the rights to the work so at best I can only provide a rough sketch. But it was in part a romance, so there were some G or PG rated love scenes.

The second experience was watching the film version of my favorite book, Jude the Obscure.I've put off watching Jude because I have this rule against watching movies based on books, particularly movies based on books I like (Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys being the sole exception).

I usually gloss over any bit of love scene when writing stories. I've always found it awkward, and judging by the awkward stuff I've read in even the best of novels, most other writers do too, to some extent. One of the big challenges of writing prose is conveying that romantic feeling without making the reader want to vomit. I'm referring to graphic sex scenes as well as far less graphic kissy scenes. In the case of my project, it was the non-explicit kissy scenes that tripped me up since graphic stuff was verboten (and as a writer, I wouldn't go near there anyway).

But the experience is very different when I'm writing for performance. I don't have to really imbue the characters with as great an amount of feeling when describing a kiss or sex. There's a bit of laziness on my part as a writer, or more gently, I get a bit of a break. As in, I'm giving a director and actors a sketch of what I want, and they add the flesh and bones and feeling. It's a much less awkward experience for me, since in part I realize I'm not the only creator involved in the process.

There's the difference between writing a story and writing a script and there's also the difference between reading a novel and watching a film of it. When I watched Jude, I felt as if I was going on a mad dash of a marathon. By the time Jude stood in the graveyard, yelling as Sue left him, I felt as if I was beaten to a pulp. The book is bleak and disturbing, but after reading it multiple times, I didn't feel exhausted.

A book invites you into to its world and lets you travel on a long, slow moving journey with it. When that same book gets turned into film, everything has to speed up. The bloody gut wrenching pig scene in Jude the Obscure gets turned into a not very noticeable 3 minute scene in Jude. Suddenly, Jude's married. Suddenly, Arabella is gone. It all happens so quickly, it's hard to digest.

All of this is not to diminish the quality of the film. Though it's a mad dash through a 400 page novel that spans years, it's still a nice enough film. The experience is just so different as to be jarring.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Growing Carrots

The first crop of carrots is in for the summer. They are a short, squat variety, as you can see from the picture. The fact that the carrots were able to grow well very much surprised me. I always thought of carrots as being difficult to grow and requiring a lot of space. A few of the carrots were not more than one inch or an inch and a half away from each other, but they still managed to thrive. I has half expecting to get some sort of Frankencarrot, or two carrots that merged together.

Root vegetables have proven tricky for me in the past. I've struggled with even easy to grow roots, like radishes. The beets last year were a disappointing flop. Yet, these carrots worked. Who knows why.

Growing roots is a lot different than growing herbs or fruits. There's no way to know how the roots are progressing. In my experience, leafy green tops is no indication of the health of the root itself. I wasn't sure if the carrots would be ready to be pulled yet. I kept waiting for their shoulders to push out of the dirt, but that never happened.

Instead, I just started pulling the other day. The first carrot was alarming. It was considerably wider on top than I was expecting. My initial reaction was to scream "holy shit" and run away. I had no idea of the total size of the carrot that was about to come out of the ground. In the end, it was thick on top but not very long, at most three and a half inches.

I grew the carrots in a wide, 15 inch deep pot. In the end, I had a harvest of 10 carrots. One was a micro carrot, not longer than an inch. The others grew to full size. This first crop was planted on April 1. The seeds took about three weeks to germinate. I pulled the last eight on Monday, July 2, so in all they took about 90 days from seed to harvest.

The plan is to plant another batch at the start of August, giving the hot pepper that shared the pot with them time to grow and thrive. If the new crop works out, it should be ready to harvest by the beginning of November.

Care for the plants was not difficult. I used a basic organic potting mix and watered daily or as the soil became dry. Over watering was an issue I've had with other roots, so I was a little light on the water, especially at first. For the next crop, I think I will mix some compost into the potting mix to give the plants an extra boost of food.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Hardening Off

The last of my plants have arrived. For the second year in a row, I've ordered several pepper, tomato and herb plants from Lazy Ox Farm, a farm out in Missouri. Now, why would I order plants all the way from MO when I can just pop over to a local farm or the Lowes? It's about 50 percent impatience and 50 percent selection. I like to plan out my garden in February or March, well before it's time to put out tomato or pepper plants. Since I don't have the wherewithal to grow those plants from seed, my best option is to order them online. This year, I ordered in March and waited until May for the plants to ship and arrive. Yes, I could have waited until May to go to the local farm and get some plants, but there is no guarantee the local farm will have the varieties I want to grow.

So how does mail order for plants work? Surprising well. The folks at Lazy Ox package the plants well, so the dirt doesn't spill out. The leaves, stems and roots don't suffer much or any damage. The plants only spend about a day in the box, between leaving the farm and getting to my doorstep. It's all pretty impressive. In all, the plants from the farm are miles and away healthier than the plants you see at the hardware store.

This all brings us to hardening off. It sounds violent and scary, but it's very necessary for the plant's survival. And it's not violent at all. The plants have been in a box for a few days. If I were to plant them in their soil and leave them outdoors 24 hours a day, they would suffer a pretty great shock. The shock would stunt their growth and make them pretty unhappy. Plus, some plants, such as basil and peppers only like warm weather. At this point in time, there is still a slight risk for nighttime temperatures dipping into the 50-55 degree range.

So instead, they are hardened off. That means they get gradually exposed to the world outside and all that means - sunlight, wind, changes in temperatures, etc. You could get all scientific about it if you wanted, for example, bring them out in a shady area for an hour one day, then in a more sunny area for a few hours the next, and so on. But I'm not. I just extend the time they spend outdoors until I think it's time to plant. At this point, I feel they have a few more days to go before they are ready to move outside for good.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Spring Peas

Every year that I've had a garden, I've grown peas. Peas are a bit of a fun plant to grow, though they never have the yield that other plants do, unless you grow a lot of them. They have a quick growing season. Once the summer heat turns on, they wither up and kick it. Yet, despite the meager yields, I continue to make room in a container for them each season.

This year, I was able to get my hands on a packet of Tom Thumb peas. Tom Thumb is a dwarf variety. It maxes out at about 8 inches tall. You do not need to trellis it, since it's so short. It's also a great plant for containers. I grew a bunch (maybe 8 or 10?) in a wide container this season. Each plant has produced three to five pods so far. I think that may be it for this round, as we're nearing June and things are getting hot. Since the plants are pretty hardy, my plan is to do another round at the beginning of fall.

Peas are pretty simple to grow. I soak the seeds in water for several hours, or overnight, before planting. You can dip the seeds in a rhizome inoculant, which apparently improves their yields. I've never done that, mostly because I have never had the inoculant. After about a week or so, the pea shoots pop up. Since the plants are nitrogen fixers, you don't really need to worry about adding fertilizer (I use container mix, so fertilizing isn't a concern anyway).

It's possible to over water the peas, especially if it is a watery spring. Last year, for example, we got a lot of rain and the peas had some mildew problems. If that is a concern, there are powdery mildew resistant varieties available. Generally, I water the peas when the soil looks dry, but hasn't completely dried out yet.

Tom Thumb peas are the shelling variety, so the peas inside the pod grow plump. That's when it's time to harvest. Ideally, the peas in the pod should be evenly sized when the pods are ready to go. The other day, I got about a cup of pods as the harvest. I really think that will be it for now. I left a few pods on the plants, as they weren't quite ready yet.

To be honest, I usually hate the taste of peas. I have for my entire life. As a child, I developed clever ways to make it look like I had eaten the peas on my plate, when really I didn't. But peas fresh from the garden are fantastic. They taste grassy and like spring. I added my small pea harvest to this recipe for leek risotto, from Smitten Kitchen. I also left out the bacon and egg, since I don't eat those things. It was quite delicious.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CSA Share: Nettle Pesto

The winter CSA share I signed up for through Greensgrow Farms had its last pick-up this past Saturday. While the slog through the winter was a bit tough, I must admit, the last pick-up showed signs of spring: asparagus! dandelion greens! stinging nettles!?

Stinging nettles, if you have never encountered them, sting you when your skin comes in contact with them. You don't want to run into them in the wild or pick them up at the farm stand with your bare hands. The nettles have little hairs all over the stems. Some of the hairs contain chemicals, such as formic acid, which cause excruciating pain when you touch them.

But, I don't have first hand experience with this. The nettles I got in the CSA came in a plastic bag with the instructions to dump the nettles directly from the bag into a pot of boiling water, which I did. The nettles only need about a minute in the boiling water to denature the stinginess. After that, you can touch them without fear.

I then poked around the interwebs, looking for something to do with the nettles. I'm a bit of a leafy greenaphobe, though I know I shouldn't be. Spinach, quite honestly, terrifies me. Collards do a bit as well. So I have to admit that the idea of eating nettles was a little frightening. It also did not sit well with my partner, who flat out refused to eat them (more on that later). I wanted a recipe that would let me enjoy the green nettles without gagging on them.

Then, I found this recipe for pesto over on a blog called Hogwash. I like pesto. It makes frightening green things less frightening. So I tried it, with farafelle pasta.

And it was pretty good. Considerably more mild in flavor than basil pesto or a kale pesto I've made before. The best part of it: I told my partner we were having pesto for dinner. And he ate it without a comment. I don't think he knows the green part of it was nettles. So, let that be a lesson, people. The best way to hide veggies is in pesto.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Let's Begin

I can't believe that this is the third year I've been writing about my little urban garden. This scale, I've scaled back from the insanity that was 2011 but am still planning on more than I did in 2010. Having a backyard that is about 100 square feet really puts a limit on things, a limit I've ignored in the past, often to deleterious results.

The plan for this year includes:
2 hot pepper plants
a myriad of herbs

The peas, carrots and arugula are already in in the ground. This year, I went for Tom Thumb peas, which only grow to about 8 inches in height. They are ideal for containers. I hope they do not crowd each other out or turn in a giant tangled mess, as has been my experience in the past.

I planted them at the beginning of March. The plan is to pull them out once they start withering in the heat and replace them with a hot pepper plant and some basil.

The super mild winter we had meant that I didn't too very much to prepare my herbs for the cold. I tucked a few perennials in the corner along the yard's wall and against the wall of the house. All but the chocolate mint made it through. I'm particularly impressed by the sage, as that was the plant I had the least expectations for. But it's come back quite impressively, and it's only early April.

Finally, I've gotten some new herbs going. I added a lemon thyme because it smelled nice and word on the street says that it deters the cats. To replace the chocolate mint that died, I got a new one. Fingers crossed that it won't die as well. I've also planted some calendula seeds in a larger pot.

What's with the chicken wire over the blue pot? It's an attempt to keep the alley cats from digging up the soil and using the pot as a litter box. Hope that I can remove it once the plant grows large enough.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Adventures in (Cultured, Greek-Style) Coconut Milk

My search for a delicious, vegan "yogurt" continues. Back in April of last year, I tried out cultured almond milk to dismal results. The other day, I saw containers of cultured coconut milk, "Greek-style" at my local grocery store (not Whole Foods but rather the slightly less classy Pathmark). The cultured coconut milk was from So Delicious, whose vegan soy ice cream I've enjoyed in the past.

Going from past experience, I chose a single container of the chocolate flavor. To my tastes, most cultured soy yogurts are nasty, save for the chocolate variety. I hoped the same would hold true for the Greek-style coconut milk.

And I was wrong. Ever so wrong. Of course scanning the rather long ingredient list before buying should have been a red flag. A giant red flag waving in my face that I decided it was okay to ignore. Because the packaging was pretty and the ice cream from the same brand tasted good.

I can't really even describe the taste of the cultured coconut milk. It was pretty blah. It tasted neither of chocolate nor of coconut. It was just some slightly sweet substance. After a few bites, I passed it off to my boyfriend, who was also really excited to try it. His response wasn't much better, but at least he managed to consume the entire package.

To discuss the "Greek-style" aspects of the "yogurt." Greek yogurt, as you may know, is made by draining the whey. In the end, you're left with thick, creamy yogurt that has a lot of protein. In some cases, American yogurts will try to be "Greek style" by adding shit to the yogurt, stabilizers and gums and such. It's not authentic and it's not the same.

I guess you can't drain any whey from coconut milk, so to make it "Greek style" you need to add stuff. The added stuff make the yogurt fluffy and thick, but in a way that is more off-putting than appealing.

I won't be trying cultured coconut milk again.