Category Archives: food

On Mud Season

DSCN0420Parsnips are better for the mud and cold

I do love living in one of the temperate stripes of the planet that experiences true seasonality.  Four seasons are the given.  Living here on a farm, however, I count six!  Let us start with spring.  Spring, summer, autumn, mud, winter, then mud.

We are in the second mud season of 2013.  My rubric is a simple one for determining it:  is the ground slippery, do your heels sink in, and are those hoses frozen?  Mud season.  2012’s second mud season began in November! This mud season switches to winter when it finally gets cold enough to hang the windows on the chicken coop.  (No frozen combs on the biddies please.)  It was mid-January when that happened, a final dip in cold accompanied by our usual snow…a never-ending, sometimes-melting, never-warm-enough-to fully-thaw snow which ended (at least I think) this week.

(This year might have the herald of a seventh season.  We tapped our maple trees for the first time on 10 January, for a quart of nice and dark syrup.  An aside.)

Many naturalists divide the seasons up further, looking for signs of things starting or ending (phenological signs) like the return of the whooping cranes and red-winged blackbirds (my own signs of spring) or the juncos (winter).  Gardeners can be even more discriminating:  I live for a first shoot of asparagus, a first ripe tomato, or even the first godawful squash bug.  Gardens have about 25 seasons by my estimation.

But yes, we had an actual winter.  Albeit it was a wee one, lasting maybe 8 weeks, still, it was long enough to keep me out of the gardens proper and fishing for sustenance in the greenhouses and root cellar only.  I have been able to hobble along with the basics for, what, the 5th winter in a row now, not needing to shop for vegetable staples like carrots, celery, broccoli or Asian cabbage; these things, though quite ugly and slug-slime-trailed, were still unequivocally edible in the greenhouses.

The skies were sunny and and it was warm a week ago Sunday, the last scrim of snow sluishing away, and you could find me in my boots with a hoe and a shovel, making dams and channels and trenches to speed the meltwater’s flow hopefully THROUGH said outdoor garden.  (Read about my perimeter garden trenching adventures here.  Yearly I now “only” need to get the garden’s water out and gone.)  Let us just say that clay soil needs help from its gardener, and no raised bed is too high, no path-borne swale too dippy, tripping hazards aside, in my quest for a puddle-free growing area.

There were four chicken backs (am I alone in having bags of these things in her freezer?  My husband always seems to draw the short straw when he goes down to fetch a chicken meal to thaw and almost always grabs a bag of these stock-making backs) bubbling on the stove inside, so I spied the ragged greens of carrots, leeks and turnips poking through the snow, and figured they’d be great to add to the finished stock for soup.

I am always shocked by the starch-to-sugar conversion process a vegetable undergoes after a trip through a deep freeze.  I mean, really.  The same seeds were used for both the indoor greenhouse carrots and the outdoor frozen, snow-covered carrots (and turnips and leeks) and my goodness those outdoor examples are like eating CANDY.  Seriously.  I had to up the acid content of the soup by setting out a shaker bottle of our verjus (green grape vinegar) to bring it back to dinner and not dessert palatability.

It happened again tonight when I found a couple ugly muddy garden kohlrabi:  my secret stir-fry what-is-THIS-morsel sucking up the sauce but imparting some shocking sweetness of its very own.

So though I cannot really abide Mud Season, it does hand us a few edible benefits.

DSCN0434Nix and I stay high and dry in the new greenhouse

On timing (not) being everything

Sabine is doing well:  the splint (not shown; she wears it at night) has helped straighten her right front leg…this pic was taken last Tuesday.  She and her mom are integrated with the herd now during the day.

I often have believed the world would run more smoothly if it ran on MY schedule.  And on MY schedule, things need to be done sooner than later.

I am not quite sure what happened (motherhood?  the onset of middle age?  moving to the country?) but my usual foot-stomping impatience has waned!  What is it, have my expectations diminished?  Have I just run headlong into that closed door called reality?  Whatever the cause, I have accepted a lot more leeway in my schedule.  “Take a deep breath and get over it” seems to be the new m.0.

The apiary.  First hive has been split; we added two more this spring; and the first hive yielded just shy of 27 pounds of honey from the first harvest

Most of the pressure that I have put on myself revolves around getting food for my CSA people.  It’s been almost two years now since I have transitioned from bartering my extras to running a year-long, once-a-week box scheme for my friends (6 full shares, one partial share).  There have been weeks where I panicked that there wouldn’t be “enough” but I have set up the shares in such a way that flexibility is a key to it all.  Yes, bread-salad-greens-milk product-eggs is standard per week, but weeks like this one (honey, chive-blossom vinegar, fresh sauerkraut, and no eggs) work for both me and for them.

I spent my Mother’s Day morning assembling the greenhouse frame.  Ah, the life of the weekend warrior-farmer.

And that’s a good thing.  I do have a life, after all, and can’t spend all my days puttering around the garden or whipping up bread and cheese in the kitchen….much as I would like to.  Sometimes, work interferes with my farm life (actually, that happens quite often); sometimes, a child must be chauffered to and fro; sometimes, I just want to get away or just sit with my book.  Having some flexibility built into the schedule is key to it all.

And with that flexibility?  I don’t do nearly as much foot-stomping.  I leave that to my crabby goats.

Willow and Sabine.  Willow is a fairly patient mother, all things considered.

On year-round harvests

salsa fixings, Aug 2011

We ate our last potato last night.

It was a huge Red Norland, a “spooky” potato (according to the eight-year-old) with finger-length sprouts emerging from it; it was added to a soup of leeks, celery, parsley root and cream, blended smooth and served hot with fresh bread and herbed butter.

That last potato got me thinking about staples and seasonality.

After one hangs one’s garden hat on providing a year’s worth of (name your vegetable), there are logical next steps that a gardener usually takes.  What else is out there, what else can I put away?  Are the items destined to be eaten in the same form as they’re harvested, like the potatoes or apples and winter squash, or do they have to be canned or frozen, dehydrated or picked?

And what about the year-round availability that the grocery store provides?  Can I compete with that, ever?

Can I produce FRESH food year-round?  And if so, is it stuff we’ll actually eat?

Those last two items have been THIS gardener’s holy grail.  As time and our tastes have allowed, I have shifted away from preserving my harvests and have instead moved to Fresh Is Best.  The greenhouses have been key to this, of course, but there are other methods out there, like low tunnels or even  basement/cold-storage of items like celery, chard, and chickories.  These items are dug up, roots and all, and potted and placed in one’s dark and cool storage area.  The leaves and stalks, though blanched from lack of light, are eminently edible.

But I am a slacker at heart, so I leave things in the ground year-round and rely on my greenhouses to provide the bounty.  Still, many things, like that potato, have an off-season, that period of time between the last wrinkled sprouty stored spud and the digging of the first thin-skinned earth-warmed baby spud.  The wait makes you want them more…but the more you work at it, the better you are at shortening that off-season.  I expect my first potato harvest in mid-June, in the greenhouses.

Here’s a list of my year-round, same-form items:

  • Leeks, onions, scallions, shallots; kale, mustards, collards, chard, chickories, lettuce, celery, beets, carrots; button mushrooms; parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, garlic; eggs, chicken, milk and milk products.

Here is a list of almost-year-round goodies:

  • Cabbage, broccoli, parsnips, potatoes, fennel, kohlrabi, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, daikon radishes, skirret, scorzonera, and

And here’s a partial list of the things that get harvested once, no matter how hard I try:

  • Asparagus, artichoke, cardoon, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, okra, peas, beans, corn, cantaloupe/melons, cucumbers, tomatillos, brussels sprouts and cauliflower; honey, maple syrup; apples, blueberries and strawberries.

So when people ask me why I wish for another greenhouse, I think of my lists, especially this middle one.  Year-round fennel and kohlrabi would seem to be laudable goals, but year-round potatoes?  Score!  Gotta just dig more dirt to figure out how I can do it.

It keeps me busy.  And the grocery store doesn’t get our money!

On hops “asparagus”

Good gardeners actually repeatedly trim the shoots or are otherwise overwhelmed.  Might as well eat the gleanings.

During garden cleanup last weekend, I considered my sprawling hops vines, dried and new.  They sprawl because I have not yet re-erected their trellis after last year’s windstorm.  (It’s on the everlong To Do list.)  And like any curious gardener and hungry person, I plucked and took a nibble of a new shoot.

Not bad, I thought.  Bright, even.  Surprisingly not bitter like its fruit.

And hairy.

Last year I grew them on trellis netting.  Smart people grow them on wires so they can unhinge them from the top and allow the fruit to dry.  This year, I will be a smart hops farmer.

Sure enough, they’re edible, and sure enough, some previous group of hungry gardeners, Europeans mostly, have figured this out…indeed, there’s a market season for the green ones in Italy (bruscandoli), and the Belgians blanch and even pickle them (jets de houblon).  So to tame their sprawl and fill my maw, I brought some in to the kitchen.

Like asparagus, they’re best fresh.  I have seen plenty of recipes for risotto con bruscandoli,  which sounded fine…but risotto’s a dish I make annually with the first big harvest of asparagus so I didn’t wish to upstage that primary vegetable.  I blanched them in a bit of water to knock the hairs off, then sautéed them with young leeks, the first of the green garlic and some olive oil…and then tossed the lot into a waiting dish of hot fresh egg-y pasta, spring herbs and about a teacup’s worth of new ricotta. A dash of chive blossom vinegar and a bit more butter, salt, and pepper…toss…mmm.

A fine quick spring repast.  Shared with a chilled glass of white wine and a large salad, this meal might just be repeated…next year.

Actually, I did repeat an eat:  the next night I braised some with asparagus and green garlic.  We had company for dinner and it was a hit.

On rushed seasons

22 March is shockingly early for the first (measly) asparagus harvest, don’t you think?

The girl barges in through the back door Wednesday afternoon and announces “It sure is quiet out there!”  That morning’s trip with the dogcrate full of roosters guaranteed that the regular sounds of backyard bucolia have returned here.

My call to the butcher’s wife brought the usual guffaw from her.  “SEVEN roosters? You ARE a softie, honey.”

Jellybean and some of his wimmin.  What you can’t see is his torn-up wattle, poor thing.  Now he’s back to being #2 Rooster.

Er, not really.  The seven in question were late-summer chicks too small for the Thanksgiving turkey trip to the butcher in question.  We endured their presence until we just couldn’t (“we” includes the harassed hens and of course the now bloody and pissed-off Mary Ellen and Jellybean) any longer.  And since one guy was keen to “sleep” in the huge blue spruce which shades the henyard…well, let’s just say an early spring’s open windows and one obnoxious night bird are not exactly compatible.  It’ll buy you a trip to freezer camp, dude.

I envy those of you who are actively eating down the contents of your freezers.  I am somehow unable to ever see the bottom of a freezer (understandably, not a bad problem to have), what with the seasonal binges like a rooster harvest.  Things simply get replaced.

The new greenhouse:  I had planned on harvesting these greens by the end of April, not March…

One thing not easily stored is the lettuces.  My best-laid plans of harvesting one  older-lettuce-filled greenhouse and then moving on to the next baby-lettuce-filled greenhouse are crappy plans indeed with daily lows beating average highs here.  Three solid weeks of temperatures in the 70s/80s mean that the 100s experienced in the greenhouses are not good for anything currently in there…including the 100 cells seeded with tomatoes.  Sigh.  Time to reboot, clean out, reseed.  Weather, you know, just happens.  My plans would’ve been perfect in a normal year.

The routine on Sunday and Thursday nights:  gather ye CSA bags as ye may…

But what are we going to eat in May?  I wonder!  Better start seeding lettuce rows for the fickle world outside.

The nightly haul:  leeks, lettuces (Amish Deer Tongue and red romaine), atop bolting collards, asparagus and onions…with herbs. 

On sap, and mycelia

Perhaps it’s laziness, but this household’s married couple tends to use Christmas for getting we’d-buy-it-otherwise presents for each other.  This past holiday was no different in that regard, but it had an odd exception:  the favorite household tool (the cordless hammer drill set with a 7/16″ bit) would be put to good use in aiding both of our presents.

2012 has two brand-new projects on the edible agenda,  you see.  We’ll be maple sugaring and cultivating mushrooms.  The drill’s duty?  It gets to tap the the trees for their sap and riddle holes in hardwood logs and pine stumps for the spore-drenched plug spawn.  (The mushrooms will be addressed closer to Fungi Season.)

Tom got a big box of goodies from Sugar Bush, a Michigan syruping supply house.  I am keen to support Michigan companies and these folks were very helpful.

The sugaring has been an interesting prospect in this odd weather year.  We actually did a few cautious taps to our trees in early February, but the ups and downs in temperature have started and stopped the flow accordingly.  Ours are not sugar maples; we have silver and red and both will work for sugaring but aren’t as “easy” (read:  you have to collect and boil more sap) as sugar and black maples.  We use sap collection bags, not the traditional pail, because they clean up and store more readily than do metal pails…and they’re cheaper.  Once we collect enough sap, I’ll show you the boiling-off process.  There is fire involved, heh.

Soule hook

And our daughter reminded us once again of the maple-sugaring passage of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods:  Laura, her sister and cousins got to drizzle their soft-boiled syrup into the snow to make sugar taffy.  Maybe we too will get a sugar snow and can try that ourselves.

Side view of bag hung on hook

On what a gardener does in the off season

What do I do to occupy my time when I don’t have weeding to do?

I hate this stuff.  And yes, that’s snow less than a foot away.

Well, who says I don’t have weeding to do?  Have you ever heard of henbit?  This mint family weed does not let Old Man Winter stop it from growing AND flowering; it loves the greenhouse beds and paths, and it’s a bear to evict from those little spaces between lettuces.  Ahem.  Sadly, no hens like it…nor do turkeys, bunnies or goats.  That puts it in the truly worthless weed camp.

So perhaps I don’t get a vacation from weeding, ever.  But the down season does allow me to attack the list of things I had set out to accomplish, um, the year before

Too good to be sauced, yet.

…like making applesauce.  Right about now is when the putative bad apple spoils the lot (bad potatoes, too, come to think of it).  I sort through the stores and pull out the spotty and the wrinkly, or the varieties which look fine but whose texture is off, and sauce them.  The apples are kept in half-bushel baskets on our back porch/mud room.  It’s an unheated porch and it does freeze, though not that often–cool enough, then, to keep apples–and it smells great.  The half-bushels work because they’re shallow enough to find the bad ones and the bottom apples do not get as smooshed as they do in bushel baskets.  We like our sauce saucy, not lumpy; I simply cook the thinly sliced/peeled apples and run them through a chinois.  Sugar, salt and spice is added to taste, then process the jars in the pressure canner.

Molasses-smoked ham

Smoking is another.  Despite the cold I am often quite itchy to be outside, and tending the smoker is a guarantee that I am in and out all afternoon as every 20 minutes or so I’m flying out the door to verify that the smoker is indeed still smoking.  Trimmings from our apple trees and grapevines as well as the yard’s ever-shedding maples are used as smoking fodder.  I do both hot and cold smoking.  It’s an opportunity to get creative:  hams, side pork, pork belly, fresh sausages, salmon from a friend’s fish CSA, boiled eggs, home-made gouda and mozzarella…even dried whole paprika peppers are game.  Some things don’t require much smoke at all whereas others can take all day. “Whatever’s available in the time I have” remains the rule of what gets smoked when.

And it’s not quite my least favorite time of year (indoor seed starting) but we’re getting close.  I do drive my husband crazy in that I am sloppy-organized whereas he is tidy-organized (both systems work, right?) but it’s usually late January when I mess up tackle the pile of grown/saved, newly purchased and old seeds.  (Of course, I do need to upend things in order to make things tidy, don’t you?)  This year it’s been a bit easier:  I got a fabulous sieve from Fedco…what a great way to do the final shake/sort of saved seeds.  And I love that the box it came in called it the Almighty sieve.  Indeed.

The bomb

One should appreciate the off-season, and I do!