Best-Ever Thanksgiving Side Dish

Zucchini Stuffed with Corn with Roasted Tomato Sauce

Calabacitas Rellenas de Elote
adapted from Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico, Harper & Row, 1986

From Diana Kennedy—her books and in-person workshops—I learned how to cook with the native foods of the Americas: squash, corn, tomatoes, chiles. And isn’t that what we are supposed to be celebrating on Thanksgiving? At their 1621 autumn harvest feast, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans probably shared those very foods.

This side dish could not be more perfect on the fall-winter table for any occasion. It’s a bit time-intensive, but you can put it all together the day before (like I’m doing today) and bake it while your turkey is resting. The flavors are just right with turkey and the roasted tomato-ancho sauce is divine over sweet potatoes. You’ll have plenty of leftover rich-earthy sauce, which is also great on chicken, fish, steak….

6 medium zucchini squash or 12 small ones, like the ones pictured here, unpeeled, scrubbed
5 large tomatoes

5 or 6 dried ancho chiles

freshly shredded cheese to measure 1 heaping cup (half asiago and half muenster is very good)

1-lb bag frozen corn

3 eggs

nutmeg, white pepper, salt, sugar, oregano

SAUCE: Broil the tomatoes until they’re blackened all over. (Note: if you’re already feeling overwhelmed, you can use canned tomatoes—Muir Glen Fire Roasted Crushed are good— seasoned with some chili powder or a teaspoon of juice from canned chipotles in adobo. You can also omit the hollowed-out squash and bake the corn custard in a buttered casserole dish with some of the sauce dribbled over and the rest on the side.)

Toast the chiles in a dry frying pan. Tear them open, take out the seeds and stems and soak them in boiling water for about 20 minutes.

While the tomatoes are broiling (and cooling a bit) make zucchini shells by cutting a strip off the top and carving out the centers with a melon ball cutter (the insides can go into a delicious soup). Taking a sliver off the bottom will keep them from rolling around.

CORN CUSTARD: In a food processor, break in the eggs and add the corn, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp sugar, a big pinch nutmeg. Process until the corn kernels are a rough puree. Add the cheese and give the mixture one or two pulses to combine.

SAUCE: Rinse out the food processor and process the soaked chiles and the broiled tomatoes (skin and all) with enough chili-soaking liquid to make a rough-textured but pourable sauce. Pulse in 2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp oregano, 1 tsp sugar or to taste. You’ll have lots of sauce — enough to drizzle over the stuffed zucchini, serve on the side in a sauce boat, and maybe even some to freeze for another meal (which makes a time-intensive dish like this extra worthwhile).

ASSEMBLY: Lightly oil an attractive shallow baking/serving dish. Spread a little sauce around the bottom. Fill the zucchini shells with the corn mixture and arrange in the dish. Drizzle a little sauce across the top.

Cover the dish with foil (at this point it can be refrigerated overnight). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 40 minutes or so before serving, bake, covered for 1/2 hour, uncover for the last 5 minutes. Simmer the sauce separately and serve it in a sauceboat.

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Sheep and Wool and Much More

When my friend Frana Baruch, artist, graphic designer and craft fair and flea market aficianado, first told me that the New York Sheep and Wool Festival was “the best thing ever,” I thought she was kidding. Well, several chapters of my upcoming novel, The Secret Buttons, take place on a sheep farm in England, and everything I learned about sheep and sheep-shearing came from watching YouTube videos. Yesterday was the perfect fall day—if a bit chilly—to take a drive up the Taconic Parkway and experience it myself, so why not learn firsthand?


It was a spectacular drive—peak leaf-peeking season—and Frana was more than 100 percent right. Sheep and Wool? Who knew? Thousands of people knew. 2015 was the 35th year of this two-day event at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY, jam-packed with things to see and do.

First of all, there were the sheep. Every variety of sheep, from farmers across the country. And llamas and goats and rabbits, and every other animal from which come natural fibers for weaving and knitting.



black sheepjpg

Bundled Up2_0020And contests, for the best in each category, the animals trotted around the ring and shown by their proud owners.



The nonstop events, in addition to livestock displays, included workshops, demonstrations, book signings, lectures, plus eating and drinking—including samples from Hudson Valley wineries and cheesemakers.

It was fascinating to see that in this age of the iPhone 6 (with which these photos were taken) how many people are dedicated to the arts of raising sheep, shearing, working with natural vegetable dyes, spinning, and weaving, and of course designing garments and knitting.



From the spun fibers come yarns in every weight and shade. Approximately 150 vendors participated, many of whom displayed garments made from their yarns, either for sale or as samples, with original patterns available. I especially liked the children’s sweaters, with sheep patterns knitted in, sold as kits.





Gray Close-Up



Other vendors sold books, knitting and weaving supplies, buttons, jewelry, decorative accessories, and more.

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Frana and Friend_1018_0031

Frana, above right, bought sheepskin slippers and yarns for her art and knitting projects. I bought a hand-embroidered shawl and a “Bullseye Bump” from Loop Fiber Studio — described as “created spontaneously from a unique blend of fibers, colors and textures… Bullseye Bumps contain a continuous length of creatively carded roving.” (Roving, I’ve learned, is a preliminary step to spinning yarn. It’s wool sheared from the sheep, combed, washed, and carded, which involves arranging the fibers in the same direction so the wool can be twisted and spun into yarn.) “These rovings are wound into center-pull bums that produces whimsical, self-striping yarn that is delightful to spin.” And as demonstrated below by Loop owner and creator, Steph Gorin and me, her rovings can be delightful conversation-startiers to wear as a scarf, twisted, tied, or arranged any way you like.

bullseye bumps


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Vest-Pocket Nursery

StreetSceneThis was not what I expected to find, walking down the street in Lower Manhattan on the way to a photo shoot on a weekday morning: an open-air plant nursery wedged into a narrow lot between two buildings.

Summer15_0102Most people were oblivious, but I had to investigate. This stretch of Hudson Street, between Houston and Canal, used to be the center of New York’s printing industry. And I used to be there a lot, checking jobs on press. Now the printing companies have moved to New Jersey or gone out of business, and floors that once held giant six-color presses, binding machines, and pallets of paper have been renovated into residential condos and high-end offices for ad agencies and publishing companies. Someday, this space might be filled with one of those 50-storey sliver buildings. But now, it’s the temporary home of Plantworks, Inc.



PlantworksThis vest-pocket nursery is no fly-by-night operation, I learned. Chris Baptiste (below) gave me the lowdown. Specializing in design and maintenance of corporate office interiors and terrace landscapes, the company lost its lease in the flower district on 28th Street after 41 years and set up camp here for the summer.

Chris Baptiste“We have no lights here, no water,” said Chris in his lilting Trinidad-Tobago accent, pointing out a portable water tank almost invisible among the plants, pots, bags of potting soil and graffiti on one of the brick walls, “but this is a good place to be now because of all the new businesses moving into the neighborhood.”

No lights, no water? Well, the plants are healthy and thriving. “We’re going to close down for the season around Halloween,” he pointed out. Hurry! If you need anything from a gorgeous fiddle-leaf fig tree for your office to a row of succulents for a sunny windowsill, pull up at 286 Hudson Street any day from 11 to 5, and Chris will help you out.



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Dahlias, Dahling

This is the season for those spectacular blooms that mark the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Here they are in a garden I spotted on a bike ride in the Remsenberg section of Westhampton, New York.

Dahlias_No Car



If you have full sun and a flower bed or pot, you can grow these fantastic blooms, which depending on the variety will reward you with petite to dinner-plate-size blooms. Sharing tubers of different sizes and colors has been an ongoing project of the Garden Club of Irvington. A great site, American Meadows, provides all the directions for growing dahlias, illustrated.

And here are a few of their growing companions in the Remsenberg garden:


White echinacea (above) and cleome ( below. According to the White Flower Farm catalog,  “Echinacea, the queen of the daisies, is called coneflower for its dome-shaped center. Plants continue to bloom from June into the fall. Breeders have teased out a considerable range of pinks, purples, yellows, and oranges, plus white, with more hues coming every year. There are double-flowered forms as well as varieties with petals pulled back like a badminton shuttlecock… first-class garden plants for full sun.” Cleome is described thusly: “Clusters of large white blooms show off against the dark green leaves and add sparkle to every other color in the garden. This annual plant of rare beauty blooms without pause, beginning in late June here and continuing until frost. It produces large, globe-shaped flower heads composed of amazingly delicate, spidery blooms in a pure white. It is tough and vigorous, smiling through heat and drought in every corner of the country…



…Finally, it has countless uses: as a backbone plant in a mixed border, as a constant companion in the cottage garden, as a bedding plant (to stunning effect, where space permits), and as a single-season shrub or short-term hedge. Your grandmother probably grew cleome, and you should, too.”

And so did the gardener who made this lovely border, a treat for all who walk or bike by.

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Nova’s Ark Project

While driving up Millstone Road in Water Mill to the Hamptons Show House, I was astonished to catch a glimpse of large-scale sculptures in a meadow. A stop at this site, Nova’s Ark Project, was the real event of the day.


Almost  everyone knows about Storm King, but this 95-acre sculpture park, even more accessible, could be one of New York’s best-kept secrets. Nova’s Ark Project, I’ve learned, was the labor of love of Nova Mihai Popa, a Romanian-born artist who died in 2009. Nova, a successful painter, muralist and sculptor in Romania, came to America and pursue artistic freedom. He found it here in Water Mill, where he created and sited his monumental works among fields, horses, sheep and barns. The website lists public visiting hours, the days and times Nova’s Ark is open for tours for a $10 admission fee, but the other afternoon the gate was wide open and we were able to drive in, park, walk around and take pictures for a magical hour just before sunset. No one else was there.


NovasArk15_11 NovasArk15_10 NovasArk15_09 NovasArk15_08 NovasArk15_07 NovasArk15_06 NovasArk15_04 NovasArk15_03 NovasArk15_02 NovasArk15_01Dig-It-Blog, more than a personal diary of my own garden through the seasons and the years, is way to record my travels and, I hope, introduce readers to places I’ve discovered and love. In that category are attempts to reveal venues in the Hamptons that are free or low-cost and open to the public. To that end, my posts “Garden Visits in the Hamptons”  and “More Gardens in the Hamptons: Where the Signs Say “Welcome’” are perennially popular. I especially hope that today’s post will inspire you to take a drive out Route 27 (not on a Friday afternoon) and explore the treasures that are waiting for you right out in the open, not hidden behind tall hedges and locked gates.


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Cocktails, Anyone?

I didn’t love the 2015 Hamptons Designer Show House as much as usual. Usually, the rooms beckon me: sit down, sink into the sofa, stay awhile, get inspired, enjoy the view, covet the pool house, relax. This year, walking through the rooms, I had an uncomfortable feeling. For a while, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Too much glitz? Too many rooms that felt like they were for the same purpose, for the same shallow people. And then it became apparent: this is a house for people who like to drink. People who mix and sip cocktails from morning to night, cocktails in every room.


Cocktails, indoors and outdoors.


Cocktails, upstairs and downstairs.

Showhouse_0486 Showhouse_0497 Showhouse_0489 Showhouse_0487Showhouse_0492 Showhouse_0495It looks like the other showhouse guests ($35 per person, to benefit Southampton Hospital) polished off the cocktail peanuts. But they apparently didn’t touch the liquor. Or the Lucite ice cubes. I left, envisioning the house after a wild weekend: puddles of booze on the floor, filled ash trays, broken glass, broken promises. One more shot (with my phone) and I’m outta here.

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A Tall Tale

In Canadian and American folklore, Paul Bunyan is a mythical, superhuman lumberjack. He could out-chop, out0-saw, out-talk, out-roll a log, and climb a tree faster than any other man at any other logging camp.

When a friend recommended Chris Niemiec of Paul Bunyan’s Tree Service, in Ardsley, NY, to work on my alarmingly out-of control willow, maple, and oak trees, I didn’t think much of the company name. Another tall tale? But when Chris and his crew started working—amazingly, only a few days after I called—I realized that the name couldn’t be more apt. Chris, who’s been taking care of many of Westchester County, NY’s trees, for 25 years, really knows what he’s doing. Five hours after his three-man crew arrived, all the dead wood was gone—New York trees have really suffered from cold winters and and a hot dry summer—and the trees were pruned, shaped and much healthier looking.




A huge amount of debris was cleaned up. That day, I learned a lot about how to take care of our trees. A little fertilizer and some deep-root watering will keep them happy.


These guys made me happy.

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