The Spiritual Gardener: A Garden, Grits and Rock ‘N’ Roll

After a particularly grueling slog at my day job in the metropolis, I emerge from our silvery, over-air conditioned skyscraper into a stifling, shimmering haze of stunning heat and humidity. It’s like stepping out of a chilly Las Vegas casino into an overheated radiator of an oncoming, cross-country semi-tractor.  It is 105 degrees (F) at 6 p.m. with humidity of about, oh, say 189 per cent.

I feel like I am being abducted by kidnappers who wrap a hot, wet towel of chloroform around my face, except that instead of chloroform it is just the humidity and smells of a big city, grilling and sizzling like a big piece of meat on the hot July gridiron, just the way poor St. Lawrence was martyred. With a whiff of sewer gas, car exhaust and cigarette smoke thrown in to round off the offensive urban smells.

It’s time to remember what a foul winter we had this year and how tiresome it all was, like this bitter morning photo of our patio groaning under a heavy new snowfall. Yes, I agree, 103 degrees is better, thank you very much.

snow,-patio-table

We are a very traditional company and I stand there, stupefied by the heat, in my nice suit and tie, wilting quickly and feeling like a forlorn and confused Dick Van Dyke, in the black and white sitcom of my life. In this crazy episode, I yank my tie off and open my collar, and try to resume breathing somewhat normally.

This is just what Dubai is like in summer, I think ruefully, and I’ve been there.  Brother. By the time I reach my very hot car I am withered like the bouquet of flowers I picked in the (relatively) cooler garden this morning, which I put on the patio table and forgot for ten minutes, instead of plunging it immediately into cold water.  Ruined and wilted, of course, as I am now.

front-porch,-new-mahogany

In hot weather like this, you need a shady porch from which you can admire the torrid greenery. It was no less an authority than Jane Austen who opined: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” It is hard to improve upon that, insofar as verdure is concerned.

The hot weather brings out the tropicals who all love the intense heat and humidity. Every patio should have a planting area nearby where some of these magnificent, leafy creatures can be gazed upon.

 

canna-lilies,-pink,-in-stream,-Hudson-GardenOne tropical I am a sucker for is the canna lily, shown here in its fantastic pink form and standing in running water with some water lilies. They cool you off just to look at them!

I dream of a cool evening indoors; it is too hot even to think about the patio tonight, even in the dark. Sometimes I hose down the patio and that cools things off, but it adds to the humidity, to be sure.  So in weather like this it is better to stay inside with the AC cranked as high as we dare. It is shocking how expensive our utility bills are, with all of our deliciously chilled air pouring out of the millions of cracks and leaks in this handsome old house. We have the reverse in winter, of course, when it is the heat pouring out and the delicious chill pouring in. There should be a way to balance that out somehow, but I can’t think of it.

We have music and cold white wine after dinner, and my mind wanders down the avenues of memory, the music calling to mind long summer nights when, as children, we would be allowed to stay up later than during the school year, and listen to music. We all loved music, naturally, as much as this generation or as any modern generation of young people, but music for us in western Colorado was a lot harder to come by. I speak of the time, of course, before personal music players, the internet, file sharing and so on.  For us, music came from records, and vinyl ones at that, and they were frustratingly expensive. It was all a long time ago.

You could listen to the radio. Because we lived in a small western town, there were only three radio stations: there was the old fogey station, that basically played music for our parents, a country and western station that I disdained, though now I rather like it, and a single other station that had to cover everything else, from rock and roll, to R&B, soul and Motown, to the wild musical innovation that was happening in the late sixties and early seventies, before music fell into the black hole of disco for a while.

You could listen on your parents’ hi-fi, which was lame, or you could listen on your own stereo in your room, if you were old enough and lucky enough to have one. But most of us had to make do with small transistor radios. I would tuck mine under my pillow as a kid and fall asleep at night listening to music, half the time forgetting to turn it off and rapidly burning through a kid’s fortune in transistor radio batteries.

The great thing about those summer nights, or one of them, was not just that your parents let you stay up later and didn’t care when you turned the radio off; it was that late at night was when the radio choices broadened, mysteriously.  For reasons I don’t understand, the FCC let some Midwestern radio stations boost the power of their antennas up to 50,000 watts at midnight. Probably because other stations signed off so there was less interference?

Anyway, it was enough to boost the signal of KOMA in Oklahoma City over the Rocky Mountains and into my little radio under the pillow in my boyhood bedroom.  And this was so much better than our local rock and roll station. I listened to it like a guilty pleasure, like a zealous devotee of some obscure sect, hearing ethereal intimations from another world.  Or like teenagers half a world away were doing in Eastern Europe in those Cold War days, hungering for real information and real western music, listening to Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. Improbably, I grew up thinking of Oklahoma City as the cutting edge of style and modernity.

Well, as fate would have it, my wife is from there, not too surprisingly, and so Oklahoma City has never let me down or lost its charm for me. Nor has she, come to think of it. Not everyone is lucky enough to marry a southerner, of course, (well all right, south westerner, if you are a stickler), no matter how hard they may try or want to, but I can’t help that. People have to look out for themselves in some things, after all, I can’t do everything.  So you might miss out on some of the great things about southern living.

Like cheesy grits, for example. Try this recipe for cheese grits, a major food group for all right-thinking people, and to make it even more interesting, we add shrimp and an amazing new way to deep-fry eggs. Yes, deep-fry them, the way God intended them to be.  Just forget that it is hot-as-hell July; instead imagine that it is a blazing hot, and fresh morning in February on Duval Street in Key West. You are home after a long run and a quick dip in the sea, with a bloody Mary and with somebody else doing all the work, and with classic late sixties rock and roll playing in the background.  Heaven, and you are there.  We make no claim that this is a healthy breakfast, only that it is fantastically delicious, and you will love this new way to make eggs.

NEXT: Duval Street Cheese Grits with Deep-Fried Eggs and Shrimp

Cheese-grits-with-deep-fried-eggs-and-shrimpDuval Street Cheese Grits with Deep-Fried Eggs and Shrimp

To soft boil the eggs:

8 whole eggs

1 Tbsp. vinegar

1 tsp. salt

 

For the meat:

8 pieces of good quality bacon, thick cut if possible

1½ pounds of large fresh shrimp, peeled and cleaned

 

For the grits:

2 cups of stone ground grits

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups whole milk

1½ cups sharp white cheddar cheese, grated

2/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 Tbsp. bacon grease

A bottle of your favorite hot sauce

 

To deep-fry the eggs:

½ cup flour

¼ tsp. salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon water

½ cup Panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs, finely crushed

Vegetable oil for deep-fat-frying

 

Put eight whole eggs in a saucepan, cover with at least one inch of cold water; add the vinegar and the salt (they prevent cracking, make the eggs easier to peel, and prevent the white from leaking if the eggs do crack).  Bring to a boil, watched closely.  The second the water begins to boil, turn the heat down so the water boils gently for a steady count of exactly 180. To get the slightly runny egg you want for the finished product, it is important to start with a precisely three-minute boiled egg. With a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a bowl of cool water; run cool tap water over them, the idea being to stop the cooking process.  Then very gently peel them, taking care to keep the eggs as whole as possible.   Make a few extra the first time, until you get the hang of handling them, as they are wobbly and break easily. Return them to the refrigerator.

This is what the deep-fried, soft-boiled eggs look like: hot, runny, crispy, delicious.

deep-fried,-soft-boiled-egg

Fry the bacon in a skillet until it is slightly crispy but still juicy.  Transfer to drain on paper towel, reserving the bacon grease.  When cool, chop bacon into a quarter inch dice and set aside.

Fry the shrimp in the bacon grease until just cooked. Reserve 2 Tbsp. of the bacon grease.  Put the grits in a bowl with 4 cups water and stir; allow to rest for five minutes, then drain.

In a saucepan, bring the milk and the stock to a boil, and then slowly whisk in the grits, for at least one full minute.  Yes, home-made stock is much better for this purpose but yes, you may use store-bought stock if you must.  We try to let everyone rise to their own level around here, you know.  Reduce heat to medium low (barely bubbling) and cover.  Then cook the grits, stirring every so often, until they thicken; it takes about 15-20 minutes.  If you use “instant” grits, just follow the instructions on the packet, using equal parts milk and stock instead of water, for a richer taste.  Add the cheeses until melted and mixture is smooth, then stir in the bacon grease; if the grits are too thick, add more stock until you get the consistency you want.  Season with salt and pepper; use a heavy hand here, the grits are a bit bland even with the cheese, so knock yourself out.

Move on to finish the eggs.  Place flour in shallow dish. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Place lightly beaten eggs and 1 Tsp. water in small bowl.  Place the bread crumbs in a shallow plate.  Remove boiled eggs from refrigerator.  Gently wet each egg with tap water, then carefully roll each egg in the flour mixture to coat, and then roll each in the egg batter.  Roll each coated egg in the bread crumbs to coat; set aside.  In heavy saucepan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to about 350°F. Fry the eggs, two or three at a time, about 1 minute or until golden brown. The yolks should be runny when eggs are broken open. Sprinkle the grits liberally with chopped bacon, and assemble the shrimp on top of the grits; place two of the deep-fried eggs on each plate.  Add lots and lots of hot sauce; don’t be a cry-baby.  Serves 4.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.