Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reveling in Nature's Spectacle: Firefly Storm at Chateau Papillon

I saw one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed tonight, compliments of Mother Nature: a firefly "storm" which unfolded in the fading hours of the evening in the woods at Chateau Papillon.  Thousands of lightning bugs lit up the trees in a rapid-fire display of bioluminescence, blinking on and off several times a second  like camera strobes in the stands of a fantastical stadium.

I've always marveled at the beauty which is out there simply for the viewing to those who care to take the time to look, and I've certainly seen my fair share of Mother Nature's artwork (often shaped and refined by Father Time).  I have to put the firefly storm up there with the most poignant of those images.

These weren't the “normal” fireflies I caught as a child, either; those blink slowly, showing a greenish-yellow flash off every few seconds and with a duration for each lasting a lengthy half second or so.  We've had that sort of firefly in the yard since late May.  No, tonight's performance consisted of staccato, rapid-fire flashes, durations less than a tenth of a second but much more frequent (to the point individuals seemed to flash two or three times a second, perhaps).  And where the lightning bugs I'm most familiar with put on their show no higher than waist level, these filled the trees to their tops.

Our neighbors had their lights off, which really helped (they usually have a large lantern serving as a streetlight in their front yard), although the skies were still a far cry from solid black--more a 50% grey between clouds and the light pollution that’s been part of my life outside the occasional trip to the spaces of the desert west or the isolated Appalachian forest.  The evening, too, was unusually serene; even the frogs habituating our pond and the damp woods kept mostly to themselves to admire the light show in silence.

However, this was not a sight easily captured or preserved.  The low intensity of the fireflies' glow necessitated long exposure and high ISO (light sensitivity) on my camera; however, the short durations of the individual flashes even then barely registered, and the high ISO coupled with long exposure times did introduce a lot of noise into the photographs--which incidentally is evident as a lot of small dots, much like the fireflies themselves!  Additionally, the longer-flashing, "traditional" fireflies I grew up with registered best (visible in several cases above as streaks of light as they moved across the image while alight), when I wanted to capture the rapid-fire, photo-strobe effect I'd never seen before.  I also tried to film the display, but my video camera just couldn't render the scene at all due to the extremely low light.

To deal with what I could photograph, I cleaned up the image by taking a second long exposure with the lens cap in place; this resulted in a photo with the worst of the noise still present against an otherwise-black background; blending that layer in "difference" mode in Photoshop over the original image cancelled out a large amount of the worst noise.

Not having a video or really much of a photo to share really don't disappoint me that much, though; in fact, it reinforces the true beauty of Nature as I witnessed it, something transient and elusive, resisting the grasp of technology and the possessive hand of mankind.  You truly had to be there to see it, and I for one feel the better for having done just that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrating Five Years with Five Courses: Anniversary Dinner at Chateau Papillon

The Summer Solstice brought an important anniversary to Chateau Papillon: five years of marriage to my sweet Kookikins, Beth.  We've enjoyed some great anniversary dinners in the past, at restaurants like 2941 (our favorite) and Hook (a sustainable-seafood place in Georgetown where I had barracuda), but this year, we decided to eat in with a five-course home-cooked meal in honor of our five years of marriage.

We pulled out a dozen or so cookbooks in planning dinner, though I can honestly say no recipe outside the bread--a walnut-onion loaf from my much-used copy of The Professional Pastry Chef--was "by the book"; instead, I used the dishes we perused as inspiration to design several very different courses which would nonetheless work fairly well together.  After checking off the ingredients we had on hand, it was off to Costco and Whole Foods to collect the rest.

To start, I prepared an Emerald Soup of watercress, spinach, onion, and pear, which I served at room temperature in wine stems.  The watercress really balanced the pear, resulting in a smooth, savory blend.  Soups can be all-day affairs in their preparation, or fairly quick courses; this one was the latter, requiring simply chopping the ingredients, sweating the onion, boiling in some stock, and cooking until everything was soft--finished with the immersion blender.  I'd meant to serve smaller portions of the soup as an amuse-buchee, but it was too tasty for that--and the wine glasses I used larger than I thought, too.  As I'd cooked so many different soups for Beth when we first dated that she suggested I start a soup restaurant one day, this course was a necessity with dinner tonight!

For an appetizer course, I sautéed shrimp and served them chilled with grill-roasted fresh corn and red peppers, dusted with coconut and lime juice.  Avocado tossed in a garlic oil and coconut vinegar dressing made for a fresh take on insalate tricolore, which featured three basils from our garden.  As our own tomatoes aren't quite ripe just yet (give them a month or so more), these were vine-ripened chunks from Costco, along with the Bufala Mozzarella cheese from Italy by way of our favorite warehouse store.

The main course I adapted from a recipe in Fast Fish.      The original called for black cod; I opted for Chilean Sea Bass (yes, yes; I'm evil--but I did go with MSC-certified fish which is supposedly sustainably-caught). With a title including vanilla, walnut, and butter, you can't go wrong!  To prepare, I skinned and de-boned the sea bass fillet (incidentally, this was the boniest cut of fish I've ever gotten from Whole Foods--boo to the fishmonger on that, and boo to me for being too distracted to check it more closely while at the store), then rubbed it with a paste I mixed up from pure vanilla extract and the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean.  A few grinds of pepper and a dash of salt, and into the oven the fish went for about 15 minutes, surrounded by a generous helping of butter.  The toasted chopped walnuts went on once the fish was cooked, and I ladled on a bit more melted butter for tasty goodness.

Sides included a sweet potato gnocchi served with a garlic-sage butter reduction (using sage from the garden) and an ouzo dish with fresh mint (yes, from the garden), basil, red onion, feta, and grape tomato halves.  Going with all of this was fresh baked bread, which I'd started and let rise twice during the rest of dinner prep.  I have to say that aside from the fish, the fresh bread--a walnut-onion loaf--was the biggest hit of the night.  Next time I make that particular bread, I do think I'll go with a bit more onion (I already had exceeded the recipe's called-for quantity by 25%) for an even more intense flavor.  The bread came out a bit like pain de campagne, thick and dense and oh so hearty.

Dessert made use of the dozen nectarines I picked up from Costco last week; after parboiling and skinning them a few days ago, I reserved the nectarine pieces in the fridge, then today pureed them with a bit of lime juice.  This mixture went into a standard cream and egg custard mix, albeit one I made with vanilla sugar for the extra flavor (we've never a shortage of used vanilla bean husks with which to infuse a bit of sugar around Chateau Papillon).  I actually started this dish earlier than anything else on the menu, given that after cooking the custard had to chill first in an ice bath for a couple of hours and then in the ice cream maker before finishing up in the freezer proper.  Getting the custard properly chilled before putting it into the ice cream maker is a critical step; ideally, the fridge or even freezer assists with that intermediate step, but an ice bath (ice cubes + kosher salt) works nearly as well in a fraction of the time.  Unfortunately, the ice cream machine is on its last legs and froze up (or, disregarding the prior pun, burned up) during the process--maybe it's time for a unit with an integrated refrigerator instead of the pre-frozen churning tubs?  Anyway, to accompany the nectarine ice cream, I roasted a pineapple on the grill alongside some peach poaching sauce left over (and frozen) from my birthday dinner--mmm!

When Beth and I were first dating, I prepared several dinners which included printed menus, a tradition I returned to in preparing our dinner.  Having a printed menu took a lot of extra work, but it helped me keep straight the dishes--without it, I'd have left something out at least twice during the five hours I spent in the kitchen!--and made for a really nice touch accompanying the meal.

If it hadn't been pushing 11:00pm when we finished up in the kitchen, I'd have spent a bit more time choosing the wines, with a separate wine per course.  As it was, I went with a Washington State white for the amuse-bouchee and appetizer courses in the 2008 Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay, followed by a real treat in the 2005 Penfolds RWT Shiraz.  Australia's Barossa Valley is really Beth's and my favorite wine region in the world, and the RWT is one of the best out of Penfolds, second only to their Grange.  A splurge ($68) to be sure even purchased at Costco, but not only was this a special occasion, but that $68 would have hardly bought better than a grocery store red at many restaurants (for example, I saw a $20 retail Thorn-Clarke Shiraz at 2941 being sold for $60/half bottle--a 600% markup over retail and probably well over 1000% over the restaurant's wholesale cost!).

Overall, despite spending all evening in the kitchen--we had to defer opening our anniversary gifts!--this made for a fantastic dinner experience at Chateau Papillon.  Unfortunately, I've created a monster: Beth said we should frame the menu "every year" for comparison, implying that I'll be on the hook for topping the meals of the past each anniversary!  I think I managed to convince her that we can still eat out on the solstice sometimes; in fact, I wouldn't mind trekking over to the UK and going all Druidic one anniversary with a visit to Stonehenge.  There is, after all, an Indian restaurant in nearby Salisbury which to this date is one of the best values and best meals I've eaten...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Finishing Touches for Lac du Papillon: Native Ferns for the Shady Woods

This weekend was a sauna, but that didn’t stop the yard work at Chateau Papillon. We finally put most of the finishing touches on Lac du Papillon, our back yard pond project, with the addition of one of the most important elements: the plants.

Most water garden books start with the assumption your pond will be in the sun; indeed, the majority of those plants so archetypically associated with ponds—cattails, water lilies, and many reedy grasses—either require or perform best in full sun.  Sun is not something we have in abundance at Chateau Papillon, though; our own yard is bordered by several established shade trees, and the back corner abuts Fairfax Villa Park and its undisturbed, towering trees.  Being near the lowest point of the surrounding terrain, the back yard does, however, have moisture in quantities rivaling its shade.

Enter then the unassuming fern: these woodland inhabitants are a natural fit for the shores of Lac du Papillon, with several native species (natives are big at Chateau Papillon) well-adapted to damp, acidic woodland soils and shade ranging from dappled to eclipse-esque in density.  Ferns also have that primitive, prehistorical aspect to them (as well they should, being one of the more common plants found as fossil form and a large part of the coal and oil we bring up from below the earth), which can instantly transform a space into some primeval jungle setting.

During last year’s abortive pond construction, we brought home a lone Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) from the garden center, then promptly got sidetracked by the unsolvable leak in our hastily-placed pond liner and our many other garden tasks.  Autumn brought its own hectic schedule, and our ostrich fern languished in a pot near the pond’s edge until winter, when not one but two blizzards of over two feet in depth each left it buried and, we worried, done in.

Springtime is associated with the archetypal memes of resurrection, rebirth, and new life for good reason, though, and the passing away of winter found our little fern survivor thriving beneath its overturned pot.

Once we finished the pond itself—and acting on the advice of the Northern Virginia Audubon Society—we paid a visit to our favorite local garden metropolis, Merrified Garden Center, in search of more ferns to bring to the back yard.  We picked out several new species to plant:

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), (pictured, right) with its uniquely broad fronds, is my favorite of the new additions.  Apparently, some consider it a weed, but I wouldn't mind this fern spreading across the newly-naturalized back corner of our yard.

The sole evergreen of the lot, Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), is one I hope does quite well, as maintaining a bit of off-season greenery in what is otherwise a rather drab section of the yard is a plus in my book.  Supposedly it is very adaptable and easy to cultivate, which make it a good plant for the shady, often-damp-but-sometimes-dry soil of our pond corner.

We do need to add a few more evergreens into the mix; research through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and several native plant guides for the region list several possibilities, including Dryopteris intermedia (the intermediate wood fern) and Dryopteris marginalis (the marginal shield fern).  Given several similarly-named ferns are considered exotic invasives in Virginia, we do have to be careful to identify any we bring home by their scientific names!

Another of my favorite ferns is the "Lady in Red" (Athyrium filix-femina), a deciduous native with striking red stems.  Like our other ferns, the Lady in Red is considered an easy-to-grow specimen which tolerates a wide range of light and moisture levels, which should work well where we planted it.  During the summer months, it should get a couple of hours a day of part-sun, and the ground will be soggy after rains but tending toward the drier side in between storms.

Our Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is another red-stemmed variety, but it's not quite as lush as the Lady in Red--though I believe one of its selling features are its spore-forming fertile fronts, which give the plant its common name and persist well into the winter as red-brown stalks.

All of these ferns are supposed to spread fairly well, even aggressively in a few cases, so we're hoping the few well-spaced specimens we planted this weekend eventually take over and carpet much of our back yard corner, draping around Lac du Papillon and making it lush where it had before been a junk space.

We didn't just add ferns around Lac du Papillon, mind you, though ferns certainly are the lion's share of our plantings by sheer number.  We also planted a couple of very nice looking False Solomon's Seals, a native wildflower which we already have a few specimens of growing naturally in our yard.  And we added a native Snakeroot as well as several Cardinal flowers and two more foamflowers.  Shrub-wise, we added a native Arrowwood Viburnum, native Oakleaf Hydrangea, two beautiful Eastern Hemlocks, and an Eastern Redcedar (Virginia Juniper).  All of these plants, to some degree or another, will do fairly well in the woodsy, damp-at-times, forest-edge conditions of our back corner (the juniper being the most dry-loving of the bunch and thus mounded up in a higher planting than the rest).  Already, we've notions of adding more viburnums and hydrangeas, and perhaps some native yews if we can find one which the pupsters don't want to chew on (they're toxic).  Not to mention another Eastern Redbud... the list goes on and on!  Gardening is something which is going to be an ongoing pastime here at Chateau Papillon.