Shimmering Nights and Moonflowers

July 1, 2016

Mullen-It-Over

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Windsor Lake reflections

Several years ago, a recipe called Moon-Bean Salad was published in a popular food magazine. I tore it out and saved it. I don’t know why it struck my fancy, but I knew that one day I wanted to create a salad deserving of that title. Maybe I liked the name because it reminded me of those crazy wonderful times back when my sister and I (and husbands and kids) would spend our Fourth of July vacations with our retired parents at their lake home. Other young families often had the same idea, causing the population of this quiet retirement community to bloat, temporarily, from the influx of weary travelers escaping their workaday worlds in search of relaxation and fun.

When I think of those Fourth of July holidays at the lake, the first word that comes to mind is “noisy”—fireworks, happy chatter, laughter, clinking of dishes and silverware and wine glasses and beer bottles, boats churning the water, barking dogs, and a crying child or two. This story, however, is about a pure and simple moment of quiet.

Dad grew spectacular moonflowers from seeds gathered so many years ago from Aunt Ethel’s garden. Strategically placed around the stone mailbox by the road, they emerged each summer with very little coaxing. Passersby always admired their delicate purity and fragrance as much as my parents did (and still do).

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A spectacular moonflower blooms by the mailbox.

Moonflowers bloom at night. It became a tradition for Dad to invite his fun-and-sun-weary tribe to his flower show each evening. We loved it. (Could there have been a more appropriate pastime in this land of senior citizens than to sit around a mailbox at night and watch flowers bloom?) The first time that Dad ever suggested we do this, we were a bit skeptical, but even our kids (who were around 10, 8 and 5 at the time) were willing. So, when the sun went down, everyone (Kris’s family of three, my family of four, and our parents) grabbed lawn chairs, wine, cocktails, mocktails, and the two dogs, Ozzie and Schultz, and trooped out to the mailbox. With our chairs, we formed a small amphitheater around the leafy performers. As the unrelenting heat, now disconnected from its source, managed to simmer on, we sat in sweaty, fidgety, chatty anticipation of the slow-motion spectacle that was about to unfurl. Gradually, those demure little buds put on a resplendent show as they silently transitioned into dozens of gleaming white “moons” before the darkening sky. And, the chatter wondrously ceased. In the stillness, I grabbed hold of this tender moment and pulled it deep inside me. This ethereal night when our children were captivated by such gentle entertainment from their grandfather—a memory sweet and rare, tucked among the ordinary ones.

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Foodiva

In honor of those indelible moonflower memories, I created the Moon-Bean Panzanella Salad a few years ago. It is kind of a combination caprese and panzanella, with white cannellini beans (my version of “moon-beans”) thrown in, and it is one of Bob’s favorites.

Moon-Bean Panzanella Salad

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Moon-Bean Panzanella Salad

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 1 (15-ounce) can white cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1 (10.5 ounce) carton red cherry tomatoes, cut in half (I prefer NatureSweet Cherubs)
  • 1 (10.5 ounce) carton gold cherry tomatoes, cut in half (I prefer NatureSweet SunBursts)
  • 1 scant teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh-ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed (or minced)
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 (8-ounce) package fresh mozzarella cheese pearls
  • 8 ounces ciabatta or French bread croutons (see recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped or in chiffonade
  • 2 or three handfuls baby arugula

In a small bowl, gently stir together the beans, lemon juice, vegetable oil, rosemary, salt and pepper, and set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, add the red and gold cherry tomatoes and stir in the salt, pepper, and garlic. Set aside; let rest for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a small bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil. Set aside. When ready to serve salad, pour tomatoes and two-thirds of the dressing into a large bowl and stir well. Add one-half to two-thirds of the croutons, and stir. Add the mozzarella pearls, the basil and the arugula. Stir again to coat well. Now it’s time to call upon your common sense! If it seems as though it needs more dressing and/or croutons, then add more until it suits your tastes. Toss again. When you have achieved perfection, then gently fold in the beans. Pour into a large serving bowl, or place on individual salad plates. (If you have leftover croutons, they are an addictive little snack to enjoy later!) If you prefer the croutons in the salad to be crunchy, serve the salad immediately. If you prefer traditional panzanella, let the salad sit for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the croutons to become semi-soggy. If you want to make star croutons for garnish, use a small star-shaped cookie cutter to cut about a dozen stars from the bread (before the bread is all cut up into croutons). (You might want to buy a 1-pound loaf so you have plenty.) Slice 1-inch slices of bread (about 12 of them). Press the cutter firmly into the bread until it comes through on the back side. Run your finger along the cookie cutter on the back side to make sure the cutter has gone all the way through.Then gently push the bread out of the cutter. Brush with a bit of melted butter on each side and bake on a small cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. (Watch closely; when they start to turn a delicate brown, they are done.) These can be made several days ahead of time.

To make homemade croutons: Cut a 1/2 pound loaf of ciabatta or Italian bread into  1-inch cubes, approximately. (I use an electric knife. It makes quick work of this job.) Mix together 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Pour over cubes and stir gently to coat. Spread in single layer on large, rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir halfway through baking time. (I often don’t do this.) When they are golden brown, remove from oven and sprinkle lightly with Lawry’s garlic salt. If these are made a day or so early, cool completely (several hours) before storing in a plastic bag.

Summer in Iowa means sinking your teeth into the best sweet corn on earth, and usually by the Fourth of July, the roadside stands, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores have piles of it. There are other ways to enjoy Iowa’s iconic treat besides gnawing the butter-drenched kernels off the cob—it’s great in soups and salads, etc. Some people just prefer eating their corn cut off the cob. (Imagine the yards and yards of dental floss they save!) I created this colorful Iowa Picnic Corn Salad to showcase Iowa’s precious gold commodity.

Iowa Picnic Corn Salad

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Iowa Picnic Corn Salad

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

  • 2 (14.4-ounce) bags frozen Birdseye Baby Gold and White Corn, thawed (no need to cook); OR, when in season, the equivalent amount of sweet corn cut off the cob (does not need to be cooked, but you may, if preferred)
  • 1/2 or more of 1 (10-ounce) bag of frozen shelled edamame, cooked according to package directions
  • 3/4 cup chopped green pepper
  • 3/4 cup chopped red pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • 3 or 4 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
  • Fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup (or more) fresh basil, chopped or cut in chiffonade
  • 2 or 3 handfuls baby arugula

Mix together the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl (with a lid). Whisk together the next 7 ingredients and pour over the vegetable mixture. Stir well and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, stir again and taste–adjust seasonings, if necessary (may need more salt and/or sugar and/or vinegar). When ready to serve, add the fresh basil and arugula. Toss together and pour into serving bowl. If red stars are desired for garnish, cut wide strip of red pepper, seeds removed, and press star cookie cutter firmly into inside flesh until it shows through on the smooth side. Remove cutter and finish cutting out the star with a small paring knife. Repeat process for as many stars as desired.

 

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The perfect ending to a Fourth of July feast is this exquisite dessert, Swedish Cream with Fresh Berries. My friend and gourmet cook (and quite an adventuresome cook, I might add), Myra Waggenspack has made Swedish Cream for years from a recipe she received at a recipe shower when she was to be married. It was called Fondant for Strawberries.  Later she found a similar Swedish Cream recipe in one of her favorite cookbooks, California Heritage. Here is a slightly modified version of, as Myra describes it, an “outrageously decadent” treat.

Swedish Cream with Fresh Berries

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Swedish Cream with Fresh Berries

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar (Tracy uses 1 or 2 tablespoons more)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons good vanilla
  • Fresh fruits (berries are especially good)

In a medium saucepan, mix together the heavy cream, sugar, salt, and gelatin. Heat the mixture gently over low heat until the gelatin dissolves, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and cool until slightly thickened. (Tracy pours mixture through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any bits of undissolved gelatin.) Stir in the sour cream and add the vanilla. Pour into clear goblets. Chill until firm. Top with fresh berries (or any fresh fruit). (This recipe also can be used as a fruit dip. Pour mixture into a serving bowl and set it in the center of a platter of fresh fruits and berries.)

Last Bites

My new motto is … cherish the ordinary. Writing about those Fourth of July vacations at the lake with my family has made those words painfully clear to me. I have discovered that, in all those years, we never took photos of us watching the moonflowers bloom. In fact, my sister Kris recently spent several days going through all of the family photos to be sure. (The moonflower photos in the story above were taken during a recent trip to Mom and Dad’s.)

If I were granted a “do over”, I would write in a daily journal and routinely photograph all the mundane stuff in my family’s life. Had I understood the importance of all those “everydays”, I would have chronicled the heck out of everything!

Camera with MagicubeI have noticed that undocumented memories of “ordinary” days aren’t always reliable either. Is it because they don’t vie for our attention the way weddings, vacations, graduations, births, and deaths do? I have boxes and boxes of photos of family birthdays, holiday gatherings, and other key events. Those smiling people are always obediently lined up by the fireplace or artistically arranged on the staircase. But those aren’t the pictures I want. It’s the serendipty of finding a rare candid shot drives me to burrow deeper into those piles of fading Kodak moments.

My failure to thrive as a family chronicler became most apparent several years ago when I was making a video for my parents 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Where were all the years of written and photographic evidence I needed to tell the story of their ordinarily special life? I then realized that this “family neglect” had dogged us for generations. How sad to know that my lack of gumption to preserve memories is genetic! (Note: Kris is the exception. She is our reliable family history and photo resource, and I rely on her way too much when I need information. Let’s just say that I have an “intricate” filing system at my house, and leave it at that, okay? What else would you expect from a messy cook?

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Dad talks to a customer at Andrews Clothing Store.

In my home town of Villisca, my grandparents (Dad’s parents) were the proprietors of the Elms Hotel. It burned to the ground when I was 7. As if that weren’t sad enough, we have no pictures of the interior of the hotel and none of my grandparents in the hotel. My dad owned the men’s clothing store back when Villisca was a prosperous place. It closed many years ago, and eventually the building was torn down. We have no good photo of the store’s exterior. I am aware of only one picture of my dad inside the store, and I love it, but wouldn’t our family have also treasured one of Dad showing a selection of ties to a customer, or dressing mannequins in the display windows? My mom’s father owned the local John Deere dealership. There is one faded photo of Grandpa Ernest standing by his rolltop desk, but wouldn’t we love a photo of him with a customer in the showroom or behind the sales counter writing up a sale? In the early years of my career, why didn’t I ask someone to take a photo of me at my desk, typing an article on my sleek gray IBM Selectric? When I was in junior high, Mom had the walls of our garage painted an unusual pumpkin color. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see …. okay, I think I know why we didn’t take a picture of that.

Our children, now adults, seem to have grasped the importance of taking impromptu photos because they have had mobile phones with cameras for many years. They and their generation photograph everything. And many of their parents and grandparents have finally learned how to use their cell phone cameras, too. Now, if we all can remember to have our phone photos printed or saved on a “cloud”, there will be plenty of wonderful candid shots for posterity. For those of us of a certain age, however, family memories of everyday events shall forever remain only in our brains. This family-archivist wannabe will just have to live with regrets because I was so busy doing the everyday things that I forgot to take a picture of them.

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Our dear friend Gordon McCollum driving in traffic. You may ask, “Is it really necessary to photograph such an ordinary activity?” Yes.

Wouldn’t your descendants enjoy seeing what you do to fill your days? Have you ever asked someone take a photo of you at your job? How about cooking at the stove? Reading a book? Walking the dog? Talking on the phone? Playing cards? Weeding your garden? Doing volunteer work?

Have a happy Fourth, everyone! Snap lots of unimportant pictures during this long weekend. As long as you’re at it, jot down some memories of the weekend in that blank spiral notepad! Watch for my next post on July 15. Thank you for dropping by!–Tracy

 

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May I offer you a patriotic sugar cookie?

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18 thoughts on “Shimmering Nights and Moonflowers

  1. Thank you for sharing your stories. I am so saddened that Villisca is no longer a prosperous little town, but I do think it was one of the best places in which to spend my childhood. Your blog is wonderful! Keep entertaining us and reminding us of what is truly important in life!

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    1. I agree, Bev! I have such beautiful memories of my childhood. Weren’t we lucky to grow up in Villisca? Thank you so much for always reading my blog. So appreciated! 😊

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  2. We also have spent MANY summers and fourth of Julys with family at Clear Lake. I did take photos of everything but have sorted out many in recent years. But I still love my memories and photos of family times. Loved this post. Love all the memories.

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    1. Aren’t lake memories just the best? And I know you would be a great photographer of everything!! Lucky family to have you and your great camera documenting everything, Con! And such a beautiful family too! 💕

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  3. Wow – that was amazing. Imagine that – we would all sit in lawn chairs on Dad and Mom’s driveway and wait for those beautiful moonflowers to open right before our eyes, on a starry summer night in Arkansas. I wish I could have found the picture that I was sure I had, of the fullness and beauty of that bush when it was just covered with open flowers. Stunning. I especially love your message of documenting the ordinary in life. I worry that all these pics in cell phones or digital cameras will never make it to hard copy that can be savored some day. You said it well! Excellent observations and l love the recipes! I love the stars. Great work, Sister. And will you make STAR croutons for me some day?? 🙂

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    1. Thank you for all your hours of help on this one. And for waiting up to read it! 🤗 If only so weren’t so slow! You are the one who did the great work — all those hours of searching for photos. My sister definitely deserves a gold star — but I’m glad you will settle for star croutons. 🌟🌟🌟 🤗

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  4. I love this blog Tracy! So many wonderful stories, thoughts and recipes packed into one small space. You are so talented. Particularly loved reading about the Moonflowers and your Dad. Beautiful memory. Made me teary. Thank you for sharing this.

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  5. Tracy, This was my favorite of your blogs so far! I remember you telling me about Moonflowers. What a beautiful memory to accompany a beautiful flower!

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  6. I just love everything about this, Tracy! You are such a superb storyteller!! It took me back to my own childhood and those simple moments that make up the best part of our lives! l have a feeling many of your fans will be cutting stars out of peppers this weekend!! 🌠 🎆🎇

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