Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bushtit Nest

I am going to be a grandmother again! The Bushtits have built a nest in one of my hanging baskets. I have seen them going to and from this plant very frequently of late, but it never dawned on me that they might be building a nest there until yesterday. I almost pulled the thing out thinking it was dead debris from the plant! I bought this plant last November and it is pretty much done blooming for this year, so there are a lot of dead branches in it. Imagine my surprise when I realized this was not debris but a nest!

Bushtits are very small gray-brown birds that most of the year gather in flocks, and travel from bush to bush, cleaning the bugs off all of the branches and leaves. (My roses have had no aphids this year.) They can look quite comical as they hang upside down to get at the insects and spiders. They are very sociable birds and will twitter to each other to keep in contact. You will hear them before you see them because they are so small and move so fast.

In the spring they pair off and mate with both parents sharing in the parental duties. They also sometimes get help in feeding their young from other Bushtits and may even build communal nests. The nest is a long, pendulous affair and apparently very warm and snug inside. For some great photos showing the construction of Bushtit nests go here.

I have only one pair (so far) in this nest and suspect that the eggs may have been laid but not hatched yet. I wondered why they picked this spot as the basket really swings in the breeze and we have been having a lot of windy days recently. However, it does offer complete protection from the neighbor's cats and other predators, except for stupid humans like me!

By the way, this basket had three plants in it when I bought it. Two were in bloom already and the third one bloomed just a few weeks ago. I have no idea what this plant is and if anyone out there knows, I'd appreciate a comment.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Meals in Minutes

My sister called me the other night when I was in the middle of making my dinner. I thought she might like to see how it turned out. It was delicious, Sis!

Those are duck legs covered with sweet Vidalia onions and a watercress garnish. The flan was made with lovely small zucchini from the farm stand and raw sheep's milk cheese and fresh eggs. The salad consists of Belgian endive and a tangelo with flaxseed oil dressing. The recipe can be found in the Turkey and Duck issue of Time/Life's Great Meals in Minutes. (You can get it now for $0.01!)

This series came out in the 80s and was a mainstay of my cooking repertoire for a long time. The recipes are all for four people and everything is made from scratch including chopping your own fresh herbs. Naturally, this takes time and we used to joke that yeah, it's meals in minutes, but they don't tell you how many! The meals are designed by a variety of chefs and are very creative. I plan to pass this set of cookbooks on to my daughter someday. By the way, this meal really was a meal-in-minutes. It took only 60 and that included chatting with my sister on the phone while I cooked.

The whole meal was inspired by two things: the duck was on sale, and I just finished reading Nina Planck's book, Real Food. Planck espouses my own philosophy of diet and nutrition which I stated earlier, and that is, just eat whole foods and don't worry too much about counting things like calories, carbs, etc. Planck has read all the books that I have read and then some and has taken the time to delve deeper into the research and has come up with an excellent synthesis of a very complex subject. She will tell you what both sides of a controversy say (for example, whether or not to eat grains or dairy) and then tell you what she does, leaving you to decide for yourself what you want to do, but with a strong hint that she leans a certain way! She writes about food in such an appealing manner that I just wanted to run out and buy some new ingredients and try a new recipe.

If you want to know what to eat in this bewildering world of conflicting advice, and you want to read only one book, I recommend this one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


A recent news article about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids caught my attention.

A type of omega-3 fatty acid may slow the growth of two brain lesions that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease, UC Irvine scientists have discovered. The finding suggests that diets rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can help prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease later in life.

This news is not surprising since the brain is an astonishing 60 percent fat, of which half is docosahexaeonic acid or DHA. DHA is found only in fish. The reason that I was struck by this finding is because my father died of Alzheimer's (or senile dementia) and so did his two brothers. (They tend to call all forms of old age forgetfulness Alzheimer's now.) All three were in their eighties when they died. Their father, my grandfather, also had some kind of dementia in old age. But the interesting thing is that he came from Newfoundland where his father and grandfather going back three more generations were all fishermen. They settled in an outport on Conception Bay called Bull Cove. (Bull Cove is abandoned now and the photo shows how it looked to my cousin when she made a trip there in the 90s.) They lived for and by cod. They ate fish daily I'm sure. And when they weren't eating fish, they were eating berries which are abundant on the island—blueberries and partridge berries in particular—and full of antioxidants.

My siblings and cousins have asked me if I have found any evidence of the disease being hereditary in my genealogy research, but before my grandfather, there is no record of it. Records from Newfoundland are scanty, of course, and my great-grandfather died of pneumonia at sea at the young age of 32 years. We don't know what he might have died of had he lived into old age. Life was hard in Newfoundland, and still is. The progenitor of the family, who came to Newfoundland from England, died at 77 after "after a long and painful illness, which he bore with resignation to the Divine." Whatever it was, it doesn't sound like Alzheimer's.

After reading the above Science Daily article I thought that perhaps it was all the fish that they ate that might have protected my Newfoundland ancestors from the disease. Omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory need to be balanced with omega-6 fatty acids. Our modern American diet is way too high in omega-6s due to grain and seed oils like corn, safflower, etc. and due to the fact that our beef is grain- and corn-fed and not grass-fed. The ideal ratio between these two fats would be 1 to 1 but even the USDA recommends a ratio of 6s to 3s of 10 to 1 and most Americans get a much higher ratio than that, as much as 30 to 1 according to some sources.

If DHA is important at the end of life it is equally, if not vitally, important at the beginning of life. 50 percent of the calories in breast milk come from fat which is essential to the baby's growth and development. In particular, the DHA in the milk promotes brain and eye development. A pregnant woman or nursing mother would do well to keep her own supply up by eating plenty of fish. But now women are warned not to eat certain fish because of the mercury found in fish, especially tuna, shark, and swordfish. This has had the unfortunate result that some women may not eat any fish at all.

Luckily, there is a remedy: fish oil capsules and good old-fashioned cod liver oil. These oils have no mercury in them. Small fish like herring and mackerel are safe, too. Although they contain mercury, there is a huge difference between the amount found in them and the amount found in the larger fishes. There are also some fish that are farmed and therefore herbivorous like trout and tilapia that would be good choices if you are worried about mercury.

I myself take cod liver oil daily (1 teaspoon) plus one fish oil capsule. That way I don't get too much vitamin A or D. The cod liver oil is lemon-flavored and doesn't taste at all like the stuff my mother forced on me when I was young. (But thanks, Mom.) And I feel like I am continuing in the tradition of my ancestors.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Knitting News

Ahem! Drum roll please... I have finished River! And it's beautiful! I know, it took me long enough. I can't tell you how many times I had to frog back because I had lost a stitch or gained a stitch and with this yarn, Rowan Kidsilk Haze, you frog back three times as slowly as you knit. It loves to felt. The pattern was not that hard, but since it was my first experience knitting lace, I struggled with it. I used the Options needles, size 10.5, from KnitPicks because they are very smooth and very pointy which makes knitting 2 or 3 tog easy, but they are also very slippery, especially with this yarn, and that is probably what led to my dropping stitches. I have no idea how I could have gained a stitch. Anyway, when I switched to bamboo for a few rows, the yarn would stick and was getting stressed so I switched back.

My daughter helped me to take this picture and dropped lots of hints about how pretty it was and how she "loved" how it came out, so I think I will be knitting another lace shawl soon but with a different pattern. Luckily I bought extra yarn just for this purpose when Sakonnet Purls was having their sale last December.

But now I am moving on to a few summer projects. My daughter gave me some Gedifra pattern books for Christmas and I have chosen two patterns to do. The first is 706 from Highlights 051. It is made with Gedifra's California Like and California Color. I plan to make it a little smaller than the pattern in the book but with exactly the same yarn which I purchased from Royal Yarns.

The photo on the left does not show the color very well so here is another photo of what I have accomplished so far with the California Like. California Color will be used to crochet flowers that will fit into the diagonal space. It should knit up pretty fast on 10.5 needles. The little ribbons that are attached every 3 inches or so are a nuisance but the Options needles seem to be working very well for this one. You have to stop every 4 rows to bring the ribbons to the right side, but I like the effect. The yarn is 50% cotton, 47% Acrylic, and 3% Polymide. I hope it won't be too heavy.

The other pattern is 848 from Highlights 061. I chose this one because it has cables and I haven't knitted cables since I was in high school. It'll be fun to try it again. The yarn for this one is Top Soft. It's 40% Viscose, 40% Polymide, and 20% Silk and is indeed very soft. I think I am really going to enjoy working with it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Spring Festival of Flowers

Monday, Kathy and I went to Descanso Gardens to see what was blooming. This is an annual event for us. We have to time it around my concert schedule and her travel plans (she just got back from Egypt), but we try to make it sometime in early April. Of course, I take along my camera and I end up taking several hundred pictures—249 to be exact for this year. Don't worry, I am not going to post them all, just a few to give you the idea.

Every time we go to the gardens, we say that we should come back at other times of the year to see what might be blooming in the summer or early winter, but spring just can't be beat for the number of flowers everywhere, not only the usual ones you think of—camellias, tulips, roses, but the more unusual plants, the natives, and especially the flowering trees.

This has been an unusual spring for us in Southern California due to an extremely dry winter and early warm weather. As I mentioned in a previous post, the White-crowned Sparrows left two weeks earlier than usual this year. Well, the tulips at Descanso bloomed two weeks earlier than usual this year and so we missed seeing them at their height. This is not really a good indication of weather patterns, though, because the tulips are dug up and re-planted every year. It just means somebody didn't see what was coming and planted them too soon. The lilacs were in full bloom as were the azaleas pretty much right on schedule. However, the roses hadn't quite gotten started yet. The Camellias were still blooming with lots of unopened buds ready and waiting. There was a lot of dust and pollen on the leaves of these sensitive plants. They looked like they would have dearly loved getting washed off by a nice spring rain.
In the native plant area, the redbuds were just finishing up what looks like was another spectacular display. Several varieties of Freemontodendron were also in full bloom, as were the "California Lilacs" or Ceanothus. This is the area that Kathy likes the most and we were saddened to see that it was in need of some tender loving care. Kathy just couldn't resist the temptation to pull a few weeds and pick off a few dead flowers.

This one is for my young friend Iris. I think purple is her favorite color.

Even though the tulips were "finished" according to some people, I happen to like faded blooms and find them fascinating. The workmen were already busy digging up the bulbs, but I managed to get a few shots of the remaining flowers. The tulip on the right looks like it came out of a 16th century Flemish painting, complete with bug. On some flowers, the petals open wide and then start to curl back. When you get a whole bed of bright red tulips all like this, it is beautiful. Another variety sort of disintegrated turning into a lace-leaf pattern that was quite striking.

If I go bananas over wisteria, I get positively mentally deranged over lilacs. (It's the smell.) Ordinarily lilacs would not do well here because we do not get frosts but Descanso has hybridized their own species of lilacs for Southern California and maintains a garden area of over 500 plants. Kathy, being a Southern California native, has gotten used to my effusiveness when we finally reach the lilac garden at the end of our day.