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!

On home-grown flour

Painted Mountain flour corn, seed gifted generously from Mike.  Riffing off my last post:  One cup medium-fine corn meal in four cups boiling water equals polenta; one cup medium corn meal plus three cups boiling water equals grits.  See how easy this all is?

One of the things most surprising to those considering a “local” diet is how truly dependent their normal diet is upon flour.  Though flour can be made of any grain, it’s wheat we Westerners are terribly dependent upon…surely there’s a way to grow one’s own?

I suppose there is; in point of fact, on commercial farms, spring wheat and regular rye are commonly grown between vegetable rows where I live (the wheat grows quickly, and its roots hold down the soil between the plastic-mulched crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.).  But wheat is not the normal commodity crop ’round here (ugh, we plow down our vineyards and orchards to grow corn and soy with shocking regularly here because–get this–we can’t find enough people to pick the grapes and fruit! sigh; this is a staggeringly sad factoid in a state with chronically high unemployment).  I’ve tried my hand growing hull-less oats and rye and buckwheat; all grew.  Dang, though, you need LOTS of grain to feed your own humble self.  My grains simply aren’t grown at that scale.

Child amongst the dent corn, August 2010.

However.  I do grow corn.  Armed with a handful of seeds in spring and with a $20 corn grinder in winter, whammo:  I am self-sufficient in dried corn and corn flour.

Can I just say there is NO good way to photograph this thing in action, at least not by me, not in this kitchen.  It is a corn grinder, and I do not lie that it cost $20 plus shipping: do the googles or the amazon to find it your own self:  I got the one with the deeper hopper.  BE WARNED it is not good if you’re looking to grind your own wheat flour:  it’s great, though, if you just want cornmeal on occasion, or wish to crack some corn for your chickens.

I grow dent corn, flint corn, and popcorn.  (I don’t grow sweet corn; it’s too easily had locally to make it worth my while.)  All can be ground; all make a decent flour.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange both offers all kinds of corn AND gives a whiz-bang what-for lesson of which type is used for what:  go see for yourself.  And because I am a fool for polenta, I bought a packet of SESE’s Floriani polenta-specific corn to try this year.

This cheap thing is great for home use.  After about five passes, the meal is perfect for a good polenta; after four, it makes great grits…and I’ve used it for bean flours (garbanzo, black turtle) too to good effect.  Oh, and I’ve ground up rice in it too:  rice mush makes a great breakfast!

Give corn-growing a try this year, or, barring that, use your muscles and grind your own.  Trust me, the taste of freshly-ground corn is worth the turn!

On the one-cup cooking lesson

October-seeded radicchio, slowly forming heads in the newer greenhouse.  Winter requires lots more patience than summer gardening.

Since the gardening tasks are rather light right now, my time and efforts have naturally moved indoors.  And my favorite place to be indoors is the kitchen, that careworn farmhouse kitchen which drastically needs an expansion to make it truly inviting and efficient.  Though I may find it wanting, I do enjoy working here.

One cup.  She likes wearing her hospital bracelet (shrugs).

And since she’s been able to stand, I have involved our daughter in the daily cooking and making that takes place in this kitchen.  It started small; she could pour and stir at 2-1/2, of course.  Now that she’s nearing 8 (!!) she is able to cook certain things, start to finish, like eggs many ways or roast chicken with minimal involvement from me.  But now I am requiring her full mental abilities in cooking:  I am having her memorize recipes and formulas.

Before you call social services, let me simply state that I am having her do things she likes to eat.  And because I am leftover-phobic, I have her make the small portions of bread-y things for the daily dinner.  This stress on “not too much” is where one-cup cooking comes in.  And because our winter meals tend to be soup or stew, the added bulk of breadstuffs helps weigh out the meal.

Like most kids, she’s a carboholic (and like most parents who watch their weight, her parents are carbophobic), so that one cup usually means flour.  One cup of flour (semolina or AP) plus one egg plus one egg’s worth of both water and olive oil makes a mean pasta…plus, she loves the French rolling pin.  One cup of flour plus one cup of milk plus one egg and some melted butter makes a nice crepe batter, shaken up in a mason jar…she’s good at flipping them.  One cup of flour plus two cups of cooked potato make a lot of gnocchi, enough for two dinners for us.  One cup of whole wheat flour plus a little salt and dried herbs, even some grated parmesan and enough water to hold it together make lovely crackers in the pasta roller.  And one cup of flour plus half a cup of chopped cold butter plus an egg’s worth of ice water makes a great crust for her favorite leek tart.

The one-cup rule applies to lots of other things too:  one cup of beans soaking overnight.  One cup of rice and two cups water in the rice cooker is plenty.   One cup of ground meat is enough to flavor any sauce or chili, or to make mini-meatballs (with a half cup of breadcrumbs and an egg to bind it together).  I could go on.  Basically, my goal is to have a child who is actively engaged and confident in the kitchen…and teaching her to be thrifty along the way shouldn’t hurt her.

I am always surprised when parents shoo their kids out of the kitchen.  Granted; she’s not interested in cooking every day, but I do encourage her to stick her head in to see what I am doing.  She does have setting/clearing the table duties, so she’s never without something to do, meal-wise.  But how else are they going to learn unless they break something or make a mess or burn something?  It’s how we all learn, and yes, it’s messier and slower.  Allow some time, and take a deep breath.

(Now, if only I could encourage my husband to cross the kitchen threshold on occasion…but that could be a slippery slope leading to his wanting to garden.  Uh, maybe not.)

On ugly produce

Dirty AND ugly

If someone hasn’t told you already, rely on me to say it:  Some, if not most, of the veg and fruit you will grow will not resemble grocery-store produce.

And what does this say about you, humble organic gardener?  Are you a failure for having cracked tomatoes, vole gnawed-upon carrots, the occasional sun-exposed greenish potato?  The scabby apple, the slug-eaten cabbage?  The (horrors) lacy flea beetle-eaten tatsoi, the wormy broccoli?  Do you SUCK at this growing thing?

You, most assuredly, do not.  You are simply the victim of inflated expectations. The stuff in the grocery store is frankenstein food, carefully chemically inflated, picked underripe, coated with wax and shipped long distances merely to fool you into thinking This is the Pinnacle of Produce.   Do not be fooled, and take heart.

Merely tasting any of your (painfully) (laboriously) (mother-hennishly) homegrown produce should assure you that you’re doing the right thing.  That you’ve befriended your vegetable peeler in ways that you never previously considered?  Consider this your new reality.  Get over it, and tell anyone else who would care to get over it, too.  It ain’t no beauty pageant.

That said:  even though I am now growing for lots of other families thanks to my small CSA, there is stuff I won’t share with them.  Harvesting my potatoes and cabbage recently kind of brought this home to me.  I have absolutely NO problem peeling a green potato or two (as long as it’s not overly green) and/or chopping away a thick-cored, tough red cabbage, but my CSA peeps might!  So, what to do with my harvest of Uglies?

Soup.  Soup equalizes all ugliness, and is in itself quite transformative.  In the big pot tonight are a dozen spotty beets, three wormy leeks, a few scabby apples, and about four slug-riddled red cabbages:  clean off all their bad spots and bugs, chop finely, place in that big pot simmering pot of caramelized onions and garlic, a handful of herbs and topped off with a decent (homegrown/canned) parsley/celery-based vegetable broth?  This is the basis for a wonderful vegan red soup.  Once fully softened, it gets put through the food mill.  Wine red, appropriate for the harvest.  It’s up to you, CSA member, on how to garnish it:  feta?  yogurt?  croutons?  chives?  Look in your share this week and find some inspiration.

And the rest of you homegrowers not in my CSA?  Do NOT let anyone tell you your veg/fruit children are ugly!!

On tiny harvests (amongst the big ‘uns)

This bowl of unripe Concords and Niagaras made three quarts of verjus:  a quart more than last year, maybe this much will see me through until next fall

Sure, it’s September, so most of us in this hemisphere are buried in big harvests.  Did you know there are probably plenty of small ones out there waiting for you too?

I swear I am not piling on, you harvest-weary souls in bloggerland.  All I mean is there might be a few more little, perhaps overlooked things growing in your back forty that could augment your winter and spring dinners.  I am, of course, talking about rounding out your pantry by looking for…condiments!

Look under the withered buds for the seedpods:  you’ll see 2-4 of them, usually.  Try to get them while they’re still small.  They’re quite peppery!

It’s now that I attend the garden armed with little bowls.  Nasturtium seed pods are slowly ripening, you see, and so it’s time to put by a store of home-grown capers.    My patch of free-sown garlic has drying tops of bulbils singing in the breeze, and the fennel and cilantro has gone to seed:  these, too, can be pickled or dried.  I see that many of the paste tomatoes are ripening well ahead of this weekend’s timed harvest.  Tomatoes can be sliced thin, placed on parchment-lined cookie sheets and sent to the oven for a 200-degree beating overnight…insta-“sun”-dried goodness, especially if sprinkled first with sea salt and fresh thyme.  These go into the freezer to be dispatched at will this winter.

Bulbils of hardneck garlic

And then there’s the ripening apples.  Ch-ch-ch-chutney…! when paired with green tomatoes, garlic, a wee bit of hot peppers and sugar/vinegar.  The pantry has yellow and brown mustard seeds.  Those few small Italian plums left from last week might make a great mustard, paired with an apple or two.

Not-quite-ready grapes yield small very precious bottles of verjus:  lip-puckery brightness if a few drops are shaken out atop a hot dish.

Over the years I have cut out all condiments from the grocery store list, and it’s only gifts from far-flung locales that stock the top shelf of the fridge.   Cranberry ketchup, garlicky barbecue sauce…these are well within your range, especially in small batches.  Small refrigerator pickles like the nasturtium pod “capers” likewise aren’t hard (just 1T salt in a near-pint of white vinegar:  add the pods as they ripen).  Look around, find that second harvest.

I think I like fennel seeds and pollen more than I like the bulb.

And:  it’s fun doing something small when all you’ve been doing is putting huge monotonous harvests away.  Trust me on this, truly.

This is my 1000th post

and August marked my fifth year of blogging.

I love how lush the greenhouses look in the summer

So I took a week off to celebrate!  Hah.  Hardly.  As usual, we’re just terribly busy at this time of year.

The “other” ingredient in peach salsa:  fleshy tomatoes and fiery peppers

And of course the primary ingredient of peach salsa

I will mention one thing that was quite noteworthy and decidedly pleasant.  I met a blogging friend last week!  This marks the first time I have ever met a fellow blogger in the flesh, and it was a delight to break bread with The Slow Cook’s Ed Bruske and his wife Lane.  They’d been vacationing in Pentwater, a good two miles up the lake from us.  It was nice, after years of reading and commenting and emailing…to meet!  Hopefully it won’t be another five years before it happens again.

On eating one’s weeds

This should make a nice blended soup, don’tcha think?

The only bad thing I find about growing the brassica family (cabbages, kales, etc.) under row covers is what it does to the gardener.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Because cabbages, once planted, need no care until harvest I guess I tend to forget about them.  It’s like getting a bye as far as garden work goes: they, like the potatoes, just do their growing thing out of sight until needed.  After a week away from the garden due to the oppressive heat, so many (!) things needed care that I *should* be able to ignore those cabbages another week or more, right?  Wrong.  I am a masochist, so I took a peek under the rowcovers.

Ohmahgah, purslane city!  Time for a little Revenge, Served Cold:

PURSLANE GAZPACHO, for six (Note:  I find it best to cut the purslane by first gathering up all its sprawling arms together and cutting it off, pony-tail style, about an inch above where the branches leave the ground.  Purslane can be messy to clean if you pull it up roots and all.)

  • About a gallon’s worth of purslane leaves and branches
  • Two small cucumbers, peeled
  • Two to four fleshy tomatoes, preferably the ones that are green when ripe, like Aunt Ruby’s German Green, or Green Zebra, but any color will do
  • Four large cloves hardneck garlic (or more) to taste
  • A medium red or yellow onion
  • One small hot chili, stemmed, and seeded too if it’s really obnoxious
  • 2 cups tomato juice or water to get the blender working correctly
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chives or green onions for garnish; vinegar for taste

This makes a shockingly green soup:  the more red tomatoes you add, the more muddied the color so be warned.  Clean purslane in a few changes of water, and strip off smaller branches from the larger trunk branches, discarding the trunks (unless of course they’re small then use all of it).  Core but don’t skin the tomatoes, and clean and halve onions and garlic.  Reserve part of the tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and purslane, set aside.  Blend remaining ingredients (it might take a couple batches to get it all) in either a blender or a food processor, and place contents in a bowl.  Chop reserved veggies, add to chives/green onions, and add to bowl.   Test for salt (it can take a lot of salt) and add vinegar if it needs to be brighter.  Chill, serve.

WEEDER’S FRIEND PASTA SALAD  serves six depending on how much you like salad

  • 1 lb dried pasta like oriecchette (or really any small-ish and salad-friendly pasta), cooked al dente and then cooled immediately; tossed with 2 T olive oil, then chilled until rest of ingredients assembled
  • About a quart or more of purslane leaves and small branches:  after their cold-water bath, pull leaves, chop branches finely
  • About 2-3 cups of lambs’ quarters, young leaves only
  • Fresh turnips, cucumbers, kohlrabi and/or carrots, about 2 cups’ worth once cleaned and cubed
  • 2-3 large red beets and their leaves: peel, cube and steam beets until crisp-tender and chop and reserve beet stems and greens
  • 2-5 radishes, cleaned and slivered, or 1/2 cup or more whole radish seed pods (quite edible, and tasty!)
  • 1/2 cup or more chopped fleshy herbs to taste (oregano, parsley, basil, etc.) and some thyme leaves thrown in too
  • Chopped red onions or scallions to taste
  • 3/4 cup or more of your favorite garlic-heavy dressing:  this works well with a garlic/buttermilk or garlic/yogurt dressing, or a lemony vinaigrette, or, hell, fresh aioli!
  • 1 cup goat’s milk feta, crumbled, or to taste

Toss all veggies in a very large bowl with cooled pasta and the dressing.  The beets make it nice and pink-y red.  There should be a LOT of vegetables here:  about 2 or 3:1 as far as veg:pasta ratio goes, so you will need to jigger the dressing accordingly by adding the juice of half a lemon or enough extra dressing and/or onion to make it sing.  Crumble the nice salty feta on top, don’t spare the pepper grinder, and dig in.

On new potatoes

The child budding grammarian stands behind her latest victim

Last week my daughter scolded me on proper gardening terms and techniques.  The conversation went like this:  “Mama, when are you going to unplant those potatoes?”  “Unplant the potatoes?  Do you mean harvest the potatoes?”  She looked at me, exasperated.  “No.  “Harvest” is what we do to peas and artichokes and asparagus.  But we “unplant” the potatoes and carrots.”

And we do.  So schooled.

I am always happy to see volunteer potato leaves poking through the soil.  Yes, they remind me that I am an inveterate potato-misser when I do “unplant” them in the fall.  But even if they disrupt my tedious seedling rows, I know that those vigorous furls of greenery mean a crop of new potatoes for us around the end of June.  There’s nothing like baby potatoes, as that’s what they are:  with skin so thin that even the stream of the hose could tear them, they need gentle treatment.  And their flesh is so crisp and creamy…oh, I love my ground apples.

Here she is with the results of the unplanting (and harvesting in the case of the last peas and garlic scapes)

And so does my family.  Serving them up last week, I reminded everyone that it had been April when the last spud was served.  They hadn’t missed them (though I sure had).

Probably the best treatment for new spuds is cooking them en papillote:  wrapped in an envelope of parchment paper and stuck on a tray in a hot oven, they get steamed AND browned.  I make sure to add a lot of fresh herbs and the fattest grains of sea salt, a twist or five of the pepper mill, and of course our good friends Butter and Olive Oil.  I wish I was a great folder of parchment paper packages.  I have had some dishes served me in restaurants where the paper looked edible all on its own, its caramelized brown-ness, its beautiful folds holding in the moisture.  But I am not, so I resort to the stapler.  Sure, office supplies have a role in the kitchen!  What doesn’t!

Happy un-planting to all of you.

On the calm before the (garden) storm

A serious lack of dry wood (and dry conditions, as we haven’t finished its roof) have kept Loven out of commission most of this year.  She’s in fine form now though:  here’s the CSA portion of the WW sourdough, and a chicken, a big skillet of pilaf, a big pot of homegrown cranberry beans and some beets and onions are still cooking inside.

Even though I do my best to grow food year-round, it is in mid-June and mid-November where we experience a bit of a fresh-food desert.  Sure; there’s plenty of food to eat fresh year-round because much of it is grown year-round (salad, the onion family, root crops, cabbage family).  We’re human though and so we tire of eating the same things.

But:  new, seasonal things are ripening, whee!  Until we tire of them again, of course.

I like the pre-bounty of this time of year.  Every night means something new to eat, maybe just a few, fresh.  Last night, for example, was the first full harvest of favas.  Such a sensual pleasure, the whole fava experience.  I remember loosing the beans from their softly lined pods with my daughter when she was about three.  She put the empty pods on her fingers as “sleeping bags” and it was so apt:  I would curl up in that soft down too if I could.   The little pile of shells and the growing pile of bright creamy beans as we slip them from the beans’ inner skins:  we’re anxious to eat, and are not burdened by the task.  Earlier crops have likewise had us rubbing our hands together in greed, and we feel a happy anticipation during our pre-dinner trips to the gardens.

Year Five of seed saved from a Copra cross storage onion.  This is a good year for onions:  that cold wet spring seems to have favored them.  We knock their stems over a week before harvest to help store them later.

Despite the bounty, I try hard not to “miss” that which I normally can eat the rest of the year.  There is a shut, bolted, windowless door of the staple crops of potatoes, celery, carrots and beets: despite my efforts, potatoes will sprout; celery, carrots and beets will flower.  Unless the earth slips on its axis and we skip the frosts of early spring, these crops just try their hardest to be unappealing.  It’s a great survival technique.  Maybe I can jigger seed-starting just enough…or plant greenhouse spuds in January….

The distractions of the freshening garden though do help dull the pain.  Up tonight:  artichokes and the first squash of the season.  Oh, and strawberries.  Bon appetit.

On the CSA, part two

First pickles of the year:  Leek and garlic scapes, with chive blossoms for the cute factor

SO:  I said in a previous post that I have been running a small CSA-type scheme for unloading my veggies and other farm goods onto gullible friends, for money.  Let me give you a couple of tips on how I got here.

One of the first rules of manufacture is that increased production is more economical if you don’t need to retool and resupply.  If you can add another shift on your existing machines, then whammo, you can produce more widgets.  What does this mean for me?  Not that I sleep less due to a second shift, but rather that making six loaves of bread takes only a bit more time than making two.  Likewise, canning more pints of jam, planting more garden beds, etc.:  if I have the jars, if I have the garden beds, then canning more or succession planting the garden does not take me significantly more time.  I am already making the kitchen sticky with the jam, and I have already built those garden beds, and I have the seeds waiting.

In other words, I am doing it already, whatever “It” is:  making milk products, baking, gardening, fermenting, canning.  I have added nothing new.

The other thing that is required is a shift of mind.  I needed to stop thinking everything I made or grew was precious.  I needed to change my relationship with that which I produced.  Scarcity produces value, you see, so…if there is no scarcity, one’s perceived value of all that mache or arugula is lessened.  It helps matters I suppose that my spoiled and fussy family is not in love with anything I make or grow (it’s the downside of abundance, you see) with the possible exception of asparagus or cajeta (goat-milk caramel).  I doubt I would ever be able to grow enough spears or boil off enough milk to satisfy the gang here.

The counter to the less-precious stance is that all the best goes to us.  There are tons of things I do not share!  I had read in Nina Planck’s Real Food years ago that her truck farmer parents would reserve all the best produce for their customers, and I vowed never to do that to my own family.  Who is this for?  My family, or my bank account?  Fortunately, I have a real job that takes care of my bank account’s balance, so family production remains top priority.

Likewise, all this stepping up of production takes time.  I shouldn’t be so flip with my “six loaves is as easy as two” if those to whom I am speaking have never baked a successful loaf of bread, or have brown thumbs, or find the process of canning intimidating.  Listen:  I have been at this for a while now…I am not fresh on the farm, or new at anything except maybe milking.  There’s been a lot of hours logged, in other words.  A lot of rock-hard loaves of bread, unsealed jars, and failed crops.  Learning experiences all, is all I can say.  Failure has its uses.

If there’s something you are good at producing, then you should certainly try to share it, or even sell it!  Fortunately for you Michiganders, the Cottage Industry bill is now law, and you can sell your soaps or granola, jams or baked goods…anything that can sit on a counter can be sold by you at a farmer’s market (there are requirements, of course).  You can also home-process and sell your own chickens, turkeys and other poultry, and legally sell your own honey and maple syrup.  Other states are getting wise too:  check with your state’s Department of Agriculture for more information.

Two weeks of refrigeration and then they’re edible

On the value-added CSA

It’s been about a year ago now that some friends* convinced me they needed to pay for my food.

(This food of course was a gift before that date.  Yes, I have some dumb friends.)

There was a tipping point, though.  Excess vegetables are something most gardeners experience at one point or another (case in point:  zucchini), and even four chickens can produce more eggs than three people can reasonably consume per week.  But if you combine large gardens with year-round greenhouses, a lot of laying hens and then throw a milking animal into the works, well…excess is not the proper term any longer.  It’s something else.

Over the last year I have formalized the process of purchase.  I have a somewhat small a la carte list wherein other friends purchase items individually.  But my stalwart “customer” friends get a box of goodies per week.  A typical box-scheme CSA is usually where a set fee is paid upfront for a season of weekly boxes, and you get what you get, fresh, of what is harvested.  My setup is  different than the typical model.

I maintain the “get what you get” thing because I am truly not a masochist, despite years of blogging evidence to the contrary.  But I do it with a weekly fee, usually paid by the month (and the month has either 4 or 5 weeks in it, so the fee fluctuates accordingly).  And because my gardens are big but not huge, the food that goes in the weekly boxes is not all what’s harvested per week.  Instead, that’s where the “value-added” label comes in.

So the typical year-round share is:  a quart of yogurt and about 10 ounces of herbed chevre.  A quart of vegetarian soup or a quart of veg ferment (sauerkraut, kimchi, sauerruben, lact0-fermented beets) and a loaf of whole-wheat sourdough bread.  A gallon bag of salad (herbs at the bottom) and a gallon bag of other greens.  A dozen eggs.  And finally one canned good item (jam, chutney, salsa, tomato sauce, beans, peaches, applesauce, etc.).  Year-round fluctuations are in the vegetable/fruit kingdom: more garden-fresh to less, more stored-veg (squash, potatoes) to less.  It works, my friends are happy.

And my gardens and animals pay for themselves now…in fact, they’re creating a profit.

*”Friends” is completely accurate.  I would not do this with people I do not know and trust.  The sale of raw milk and its products is illegal, and indeed, my friends know the risk of consuming it.  They also help around the farm.  The payments help them (they know the value of the food, and therefore think it’s only fair) and they help my hobby’s bottom line.

On multiple harvests

blooming lacinato

Early spring means late spring in the greenhouses.  And late spring in the greenhouses means it’s probably time to evict the winter residents.  I’m moving through second, third and even fourth harvests from the greenhouse beds while on the way to pulling them up altogether.  I’m feeling a bit of pressure to stop, drop and eat!  It’s time, you see, to transfer the tomatoes and peppers to nursery hot beds.

So, we’re on a green binge.

Especially now that the new push of growth has begun, I look, eagerly, for sprouts and leaves.  And nearly everything is fair game. This is the time of year to eat what you could never find at your grocer’s, or even at a farmer’s market.  Order up!

Self-seeded beets:  1.  fleshy leaves, 2.  the roots are bound for quick lacto-fermented pickles

Kales:  Lacinato 1.  broccoli-like blossoms, 2. leaves, and 3.  peeled stems, great for stir-fry!  and Red (Russian) kale  1.  broccoli-like blossoms, 2. juicy, salad-bound leaves

Kohlrabi:  1.  the root of course but 2. the leaves, like all of the brassica family, are quite edible.

Cabbage: 1. De-headed, I leave some leaves attached to the rooted stem. In a few weeks, I get 2. a leafy second harvest (shown above).

Carrots: 1.  Roots of course but 2.  did you know you can eat the ferny leaves too?

The flowers of arugula and mache now grace some salads

And I am not above eating the roots of plants that are arguably grown for other purposes.  Parsley and celery fit this bill.  They require a bit of scrubbing but they taste just like celeriac, the fat root of the family.

On fresh-herb season

Spring is here.  It’s here on the calendar, anyway; March came in and went out leonine, ferocious.  The only thing that tells me it’s the end of March and not the end of February is the strength of the sun.  You feel the strength of its life-giving rays no matter how chill the air.

bed of chervil

The herbs are certainly clued in to the seasonal change.  It’s at this time of year, thanks mainly to the greenhouses, that I am a fresh-herb fool.  The tender shoots of chervil, chives, tarragon, parsley and thyme just ask for snipping.  Even the new growth on the otherwise woody herbs of rosemary and sage (greenhouse-grown) and outdoor marjoram, oregano and winter savory are fleshy.  The bunching onions (scallions) are also shooting to the sky both indoors and out.  And mint, my nemesis, gets a bit of a smile out of me before I yank it out of the ground.

This, of course, means it’s time to make about 7 months’ worth of herbed butter.

There’s nothing easier, frankly.  Chop shockingly fresh herbs and mix with unsalted (or salted, your call) softened butter.  Add lemon or orange zest if you wish.  I place the butter in ramekins, about a 1/4 cup per, and freeze them; once frozen, I remove them from the ramekins and wrap them tightly with freezer paper and refreeze.  I also make tubes of them in the freezer paper like refrigerator cookies.

The uses for herbed butter are nearly endless.  And knowing I have it saves me a lot of time:  just a couple tablespoons added (even still frozen) to the soup pot before serving, or atop fish or mild meat or with pasta or grains?  Oolala.

On growing calories

On Friday morning in the milkshed I heard a thought-provoking EarthSky episode.  (They’re all thought-provoking.  This one just happened to hit home because it discussed one of my main interests:  namely, growing one’s own food, and the effort and land that it takes to do so.)  Mostly, it was a discussion of simplifying the measurements so we can understand, universally, how much land can feed how many people as efficiently as possible.

By 2050, our planet might need to feed 9 billion people. How do we improve Earth’s food systems – the way food is grown, harvested, transported, and distributed – to meet that challenge? The first step is to observe and measure the way we farm now….

Sean Smukler: To improve the system we have right now, we need to know what works where, and why.

Sean Smukler is an agricultural ecologist at Columbia University and a co-author of the July 2010 article published in the journal Nature. He said creating a common system of measurements – for example, how many calories a farming region can provide per person, or how much energy is expended per unit of food – will help move the world toward farming methods that can feed 9 billion people….

Nine billion.  The mind reels.  I *know,* incidentally, that with current effort and garden space I can marginally feed nine people.  My garden and greenhouses currently make a huge dent in the caloric needs for us three…the other six or so are using my goods as supplemental fare to their own diets.  And this is with me not putting much effort into growing pure calories, pure carbohydrates.  Let’s face it:  I spend a considerable amount of time fussing with my salad stuff!  Nary a calorie there.  Fancy-pants salads:  Tell me they’d feed the starving.  They won’t.

But if you’re worried about the lights going out and your needing to feed your own, can I make a pitch to you?  Consider the humble potato.  I may not blog about them much, but…I grow more potatoes than I do any other vegetable.  They are surprisingly easy to grow, are tolerated by almost all people, store well for months and their yields will always be at a bare minimum twice what you stick in the ground!   In point of fact their yields can be crazy.  Really.  Truly.  And you don’t need to spend a minor fortune to get started.  IF you can find organic potatoes, chances are they’re not sprayed with anti-sprouting nastiness, so…plant what you can find at the grocery store.  Or go to your local feed store:  they might not have more of a choice than a red, a russet, and the rare Yukon Gold, and they won’t be organic, but…they’ll be cheap, and they’ll grow for you.  You don’t, in other words, need to spend $12/pound for seed potatoes from some seed supplier far, far away.

Not everyone can grow potatoes of course:  they hate the hot summers of the southern U.S.  Sweet potatoes, however, LOVE hot summers.  I have grown them successfully here too for years, me who hangs out on the 42nd parallel, here where it got above 90 exactly 3 days in 2010.  And like regular potatoes,  you’ll have them forever, but growing slips is a bit harder than sticking a sprouty spud in the ground.

Winter squash is also a safe bet for you if you’re looking for carbohydrates that, like potatoes, store well.  I have crazy luck with winter squash, but it’s not due to me, it’s usually due to my compost pile:  it’s from here I tend to harvest a good portion of my seedlings!!  Squash in general are nutrient pigs.  If you can plant them IN compost, they’re more than happy.  Consider well the signs of bugs but other than that, they’re fairly hardy and prolific if you have the space for them.

And then there’s beets.  Not everyone loves them, but as far as sugar goes…we do make sugar out of certain varieties of them.  Look to their sibling chard for an easily grown shot of greenery, too.

Carrots are another high-calorie root crop.  I succession plant them four times a year so that I always have them; I plant the larger storage varieties to harvest in my greenhouses in the winter.

Tomatoes.  You’re all growing tomatoes, right?  Canning them is a safe bet for long-term storage.  You can also dehydrate them, especially the small varieties.

So yeah.  Throw in dried corn, beans, and a variety of green leafies, and you’ve got a fairly well-rounded diet out in the garden.  Add a fruit tree or three, and bingo! lots of carbohydrates, home-grown!

On a great winter salad

Late fall and winter is the time of year when many CSA subscribers groan with disappointment when opening up their box shares:  what, kale AGAIN?  what am I supposed to do with all this kale?

Fear not.  I have a salad that you might like to try, oh you-with-too-much-kale.  It is eaten quite greedily and regularly by all members of the household, but my daughter in particular is terribly fond of it.  (Imagine that:  a child who asks for a raw kale salad in her lunchbox!)  And, bonus:  it’s a fun salad for a child to (help) make, too.

ZESTY RAW KALE SALAD (vegan as noted, see variations below)

  • Take a good handful of kale leaves:  we prefer lacinato (also known as black (cavolo nero) or dinosaur kale), but red, white or Russian kale works too; I haven’t tried it with a Vates (scotch, crinkled) but if that’s what you’ve got then by all means use it.  Wash then stack the leaves (including stems if they’re not too tough) together like a stack of cards, and, if they are really wide, roll them together.  Julienne by cutting them the short way into fine match-sized strips; if the strips are over an inch long, cut them again.  Place the kale in a large, good-looking bowl.
  • Toast in a dry skillet:  a good cup or two of fresh breadcrumbs.  The crumbs should be toothsome and not on their way back to being flour, so…avoid the food processor and mince the bread with a knife. Let cool.
  • Pound to a paste in a mortar:  as much garlic as you can tolerate (for us, five big cloves) with sea salt and pepper to taste.  This is a fine task for a small person.  Add the juice and zest of half a lemon, or more, and a good glug of olive oil; mix well.
  • Pour the garlic mix over the kale and toss well, then toss in the breadcrumbs.  Adjust seasonings, lemon, to taste.  This salad should be good and garlicky, enough to scare off any vampire!

It gets better as time progresses, too, so…you can macerate the chopped kale with the garlic dressing a day ahead of time and then toss in the toasted breadcrumbs right before serving.

Variations: Toast sunflower seeds or chopped walnuts right along with the breadcrumbs.  Add red pepper flakes to the garlic mix.  Add as much hard grated cheese as you would like; pecorino has a nice salty bite to it.   Feta is great crumbled on top, too.  If it’s really too zesty for you, then tame your serving with a tablespoon or two of plain yogurt or sour cream and mix well.

On winter’s bread

The start to a great breakfast:  four day old and still delicious bread, hot coffee, and lots and lots of fresh eggs

Wisdom is acquired by experience, not just by age, said my most recent fortune cookie.  Granted, I do understand this truism has a lot of gosh-that’s-so-true-ism when it comes to bread-making.  It is, alas, a skill.   You have to spank a lot of dough to understand the stretch and rise of what makes it what it is.  It honestly is not hard, though.  And I truly think that if anyone has an earnest desire to make his or her own bread, then one should start with the no-knead methods and variations.  One will realize how wonderful yet…unimproved that method is, mainly because the bread doesn’t keep long and has no real taste.  Eventually, using a sourdough starter or levain is the way to go.  And making one’s own levain isn’t as hard or as wasteful as it sounds.

I tend to keep on top of cooking-slash-cookbook trends.  I am not saying I am a purchasing consumer of said books so much as I like to learn the culinary lingua franca…it’s me eating up the culture of cooking, as it were.  And it’s another year, another batch of books of bread cookery that came ’round and were duly inspected by yours truly. And again, over and over, bread-bakers and cookbook-writers claim that the only way to make a sourdough starter at home is to throw away two-thirds of the volume of flour to do it.

Do you honestly think that your average baker threw away two-thirds of anything to make bread a hundred years ago?  Two hundred?  Two thousand years ago?  And the history of bread is five thousand years old  (give or take) so…I am just sayin’.  I think, have always thought, this oft-repeated instruction is profligate, another example of our throw-away culture, this time with us literally throwing away our cultures.    It doesn’t have to be that way to make or even maintain your own levain.

One of the least scary descriptions of home-grown yeast and its needs comes from a recent cookbook:  Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (which is excellent, by the way).  “Actually, there’s no need to be scared of yeast, it’s pretty good humored and, like many of us, it has a sweet tooth and likes to be warm, so be nice to it.  The average warmth of a kitchen provides a suitable environment in which yeast can grow….”  The average warmth of the kitchen provides a suitable environment for children and husbands to grow, too.  Even know-it-all wives get schooled in a warm kitchen.

Granted, I have a starter (its name is La Mama) that I have had running for years now.  I did start it by throwing half or more of it away and it galled me.  But if I don’t get to baking twice a week I don’t think La Mama is dead and just start over.  Nope; ever the tightwad, I use what I have, making something hurriedly with part of it (English muffins, pancakes, crepes) while I add more flour to the majority of it to revive it.  If it is not really actively bubbling, it takes a couple of days to make two loaves of bread this way, but…I don’t feel guilty about wasting even a cup of the stuff.

Hey:  it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, and we gardeners still have a yen to get our hands dirty, so, why not get out the flour?  Probably the best compromise of all is a no-knead loaf with some of your own bubbling sourdough starter.  Please see the recipe in the comments.  And…get baking!

On beans in food

Beans.  Versatile thing, beans.  I grow a lot of them, both in variety and quantity.   We usually put away about 20-30 pounds of dried beans a year, and eat the green ones fresh as they come in.  And shell beans still remain my favorite thing out of the garden.  It’s fair to say I am crazy about beans.

For all I grow, there are others I do not:  lentils remain the prime example of  pantry staples NOT from my gardens.  Chickpeas too.  Everything else, though:  we eat about one dinner a week where beans are the primary part of the meal.  Chili, baked, burgers, falafel, and soupsoupsoup!  Warm lentils on cold salad, potted beans and chicken (rillettes, basically) on toast.  Pasta e fagioli.  We loves our beans.

Beans and more beans.  Might as well make a couple of pots of them.

But it’s only once during winter I make the dish that is the Queen of Beans.  And I made it this weekend for friends.

Cassoulet. This one humble bean dish (for that is what it is:  a dish of beans) has, etymologically at least, spawned the equally humble casserole, which, at least for us Americans, leaves a bit of a nostalgic tang in our mouths.  Yes, indeed:  the hot dish of Minnesota/the Dakotas and parts of Wisconsin and the casserole of all other points south have this one singular bean dish to thank for spawning the cream-of-mushroom, potato-chip-topped “casseroles” served on many dinner tables, church basement events, and potlucks.  Can I say there’s hardly anything left to compare these two dishes other than their names?  It’s true.  One is a stew, one is a baked item.  Both, though, find their origin in inexpensive, humble ingredients.  You’ll probably not find a recipe, say, for truffle casserole.

I am incorrect in calling it “one singular bean dish.”  Wars I am sure have been fought over less than the true recipe for cassoulet.  Let us just say that the ancient southwestern French dish of this name is a bean stew baked in a cassole, which is a conical ceramic bowl with a base half the diameter of its rim, and a height that is about three quarters of its rim.  (Does that description make sense?  I will simply say it’s baked in a very pretty bowl that gives it a lot of surface area to give it a nice, crisp, crumbly top.)  It is a bean dish that is normally cooked with preserved and fresh meats (typically, but again, not always, duck confit and simple fresh pork sausage).  The beans however are a constant:  they’re a very large white haricot bean called the tarbais.  I am trying to find a source in the US:  anyone?

If you’ve read me long enough or if you know me personally, you’ll know I am a cheapskate who’s prone to going to extreme lengths to make things herself.  And making this wasn’t hard, just slightly time-consuming.  I used my own goose, beans, spices and veg.  I found local pork and pork sausage.  In other words, it was peasant in spirit, as I was the land peasant who grew the goods, and my friend the potter threw the cassole.

And leftover cassoulet?  What leftover cassoulet?

On preparing for the high holy day of local food

Ruby (center) and Earl (top left) with this year’s birds

The American Thanksgiving holiday:  there’s a lot to like about this day of belt-loosening gluttony.  All the world ’round has harvest festivals of some slice or another that’re trussed in tradition and stuffed with myth and baked to a golden brown glory mostly by the women of the household.  Ours is no exception, as we like our edible myths here.  The reality, though, is that it is a lot of work, especially for this hausfrau.

My call to the butcher’s wife a month ago had me crestfallen at her guffaw of laughter.  “Sorry, sweetie, we closed our calendar for turkey processing three weeks ago!” she snickered.  Sigh.  See, I have not one turkey to do in, but two, actually three; one for selling, one for eating…the other, well, she’ll just be “dinner on the hoof” until we feel like eating her.  And my father in law emailed recently to say “can’t I just buy you a bird for the day?  I mean, I don’t like the idea of eating something that I’ve talked to every time I come over to your house,” which made me laugh.  (“Don’t talk to them then,” was my response.)  So it looks like I will need to take a day off to actually butcher the birds.

It’s okay, really.  Every year, I shuck another side dish; by this point, well, the side dishes are spare (three) and the desserts are singular (pie).  Soup course, salad course, cheese course, check; everything else though?  It gets baked in the masonry oven this year.  And yes:  I made sure to size the oven door to fit a 25-pound, rack-lifted, home-grown bird in a roasting pan.  Functional design does matter, after all.

I wish all of you a great harvest holiday…and may we all be thankful for, and appreciative of, what we have.

Earl concurs, as he’s thankful he’s not table fare

On images

Sunday night came and went without me having thought about my weekly Monday morning blog post.

It is not that I don’t think I am doing nothing blog-worthy:  quite to the contrary, my life has been chock full of topics. It has just been such that photographing them has been getting in the way.  (Photos of the child’s piano recital this weekend?  Check.  Farm/blog stuff of things like mucking out a barn?  Uncheck.)

I will leave you with a mental image instead today.  My brother came to stay this weekend and he and I sat grinning rather foolishly at each other across the table on Friday night.  The reason for our grins?  The meal we were eating.

Two weeks prior, he had come up to help with generalized farm tasks.  He doesn’t mind the mundane nature of shelling beans or corn, thankfully; I put him on dent corn detail.  You twist the dried kernels from the cob into a bowl, then you toss the kernels into the breezy air and catch them back in the bowl.  This separates the nasty bits from the kernels themselves.  It’s fun, at least for a while.

So, Friday night, I took a couple of scoops of that cleaned corn and ground it, then cooked it (polenta if you’re fancy, cornmeal mush if you’re not) and added fresh chevre at the table; we topped it with some mushrooms in broth (chanterelles and chicken-of-the-woods, sauteed with shallots and finished with kombucha vinegar; magnifique) with a steaming bowl of cooked greens on one side, a large bowl salad on the other…it was good.  Great, even.  And simple, hand-made fare.

On loose ends

I got a request for what I thought was a throw-away bean dish from my daughter Thursday night.  “You really need to make that shell bean toast thing again,” she said.

Can I just call this the Lazy Gardener’s Redemption Dish?  I take Deborah Madison as a cue here:  there’s a similar dish in one of her books that is quite divine.  But considering how I do know that not all of us can keep up with picking our green beans, this is a dinner that takes advantage of your distraction.  It takes a while to make, and, unlike most of my meals, comes fully plated (a la a restaurant, completely unlike the normal family-style serve-your-own dinners that I make, which is probably why my daughter liked it:  it is special somehow).

This is what you will need:

Shell beans.  Onions, garlic, dried herbs of choice; chives, fresh herbs of choice, especially parsley.  Vinegar or wine.  Bacon, or not.  Big thick cuts of bread, old (good) bread works well.  I assume you have olive oil in your house, as well as salt and pepper.  Butter.  And an hour to an hour and a half of your time, depending on both how dried-out the beans are and whatever else you’ve got going on.

Take about 3/4 of a cup of shelled green beans per person.  What are shell beans?  They’re the beans that are too overgrown to be green (mange-tout) beans but not dry enough to be dried beans.  You typically can see the beans telegraphing through their shells at this stage but the shells aren’t so dry they rattle like bones…hopefully that gives you a picture.  And because they’re in this in-between stage, the time it takes to cook them falls somewhere between dried beans and fresh ones:  your time will vary accordingly! While you’re shelling them (which does take a while), make up your mind if you’re doing a vegetarian dinner or a meaty one.

Hopefully you are chatting with someone while cooking, and enjoying a post-work glass of wine.

If meaty, then dice some bacon (“some” being relative:  I use ends, which are something I can pick up for free from the boutique local butcher:  they don’t fit in the cutter and are therefore worthless; otherwise, it’s about 2 pieces per person.  Dice with a pair of kitchen shears, it’s fastest, easiest to clean) and brown, reserving the grease.  If veg, sweat a diced onion with some dried herbs in a good glug of olive oil.   If you’re doing veg, then spend some time slicing and dicing up a good slice or two of that lovely bread you are going to use:  you will need to make some GOOD bread crumbs for this dish to toss on top.  Saute the crumbs in hot olive oil and throw two diced cloves in at the very last minute; remove, salt to taste.

Remove and dry the bacon and cook the onion in that lovely grease OR progress to the next step if veg:  you’re going to put the beans in the oil/onion, and add a whole bunch of minced garlic.  My family LIKES garlic so for us that means half a head or more.  Saute for a couple of minutes then put the same 3/4 cup of broth or water in per serving of beans, or to barely cover.  Cover, simmer, and taste:  add salt and pepper and more herbs as you think it needs it.  Add a good glug of vinegar to the beans after they’ve cooked for about 10 minutes.  For me, that means a shy tablespoon per serving if I am using my own cider vinegar; it means a half teaspoon per serving if I am using Balsamic or white wine vinegar.  Taste again after the vinegar’s  foamed up and cooked down.  Tasty broth?  Good.  Keep cooking the beans until they’re al dente, not too mushy.  You want to serve them sloppy:  they should be standing half-deep or more in their broth, so add more liquid as required.  If  you’re doing veg, add a good pat of butter in at the last minute.

Toast or cut up and then butter that bread.  Set two slices per person (one if it is a monster loaf) and scoop out a plentiful helping per slice, topping with minced chives and parsley, maybe some hot pepper flakes or a twist or two of the grinder, then either crumbled bacon or those garlicky toasted bread crumbs.

This is a humble meal, but a tasty one.  I usually serve it with a big salad, and finish with some simple sliced fresh fruit, some tea or an apertif.  It’s good to gesticulate a lot while telling stories over this meal.  I sure do.  Discussing or, better, solving world problems also helps.  Or, you can do chicken jokes:  this works for our six-year-old.

On morning mental math

Sunday evening harvest at a neighbor’s apple orchard:  it’s all who you know.  The girl was so excited for a ride.  We got 8 bushels, gratis.

In the gray half-light of a predawn Monday I am madly pulling Blue Coco pole beans off their vines.  I am puzzling a math problem in my head that goes thus:  If it takes me x time to do something and x+y+z=the time I have before I have to leave the house, why is it that if I shift x with z I am late?  The time is the same.  Yet late is what I will be if I don’t get these things harvested.

Yes, I think I have it all figured out, this harvest, these tasks, but I didn’t quite figure that it’s still REALLY too dark at 6 in the morning after milking to harvest said beans.  And they’re blue (dark purple, actually) beans after all, which makes them even harder to see.  So here I am, running around the garden with hair quite wet from the shower, an hour later than I thought I would be out here.   Mondays are a delivery date for two of my CSA customers, and I need to bring the beans and the boxes to our daughter’s school with us.

I am doing other math in my head too.  One is a simple check of the status of three nappa cabbage (big enough, even though I can barely see them) and the carrot row:  I have just cleaned out the small fermentation crock so I think kimchi is next-up for cooking.  Do I have a knob of ginger, I wonder, as I nearly trip on a hose in the darkness.  Another is a mental calculus about how quickly meat birds grow in relation to the hen-raised birds.  I do believe I need to call back the butcher’s wife and bump up The Date With Destiny I had slated for the Freedom Ranger meat chickens out in the tractor.  I have just let out the yard birds (regular chickens) and two of the dashing young roosters have followed me to the garden gate and have commenced a crowing session.  It’s more like throat-clearing, actually, with a touch of teenaged bravado.  The meat birds in the field are responding, which is amazing to me because they’re a full six weeks younger than these two scrappy creatures at the gate.  I wouldn’t call it outright crowing but I do give them all an A for effort.  And I am doing a mental check on how much freezer space I have.

Beans, zucchini, and tomatoes now picked, I run into the house and bag them up into waiting paper lunch bags.  The share for these two customers is as follows:  one quart each sauerkraut and yogurt, one small chevre, two servings of savory bread pudding, a monster red pepper, the aforementioned vegetables and a dozen eggs.  And a good dozen apples.  I would say that’s a decent harvest.  And I am late!

On a quick end to the canning season

Look at all that empty space!  It makes me so happy!

For the first time ever, I have all my major canning* done before 1 September.

And even more importantly, I have done less of it than in years past.  What is up with that?  Shouldn’t I be, you know, squirreling away as many canned goodies as I am able for the future?  The answer I am coming up with is “No, not necessarily.”

I suppose a bit of background needed for this seemingly contrary stand.  One, I have assessed with the years what it is exactly we eat out of the canned goods and have adjusted accordingly.  Pickles are virtually nonexistent, for one example, and I will never again can beet greens for myself, as I ate them only grudgingly.  Two, I began to do a lot more root cellaring of certain vegetables, but even that has waned in the last couple of years to just potatoes, apples and onions.  And three, most importantly, I am now growing food year-round.  And considering the nutritional superiority of fresh produce over the canned stuff, I feel less compelled to run to the basement for a jar than to grab a basket and go harvest something for dinner.

The majority of the jars you see on those shelves above, then, are convenience items needed to put together a quick meal.  The bottom shelf holds stocks and beans and bean soups.  The next shelf up holds salsas, chutneys, and mustards:  these will continue to be filled as I find the time.  All of the second shelf down from the top is tomatoes and tomato products, from juices on the left progressing to sauce to sauce with stuff to ratatouille and glut sauce to barbecue sauce and ketchup.  The top shelf is fruits to butters to jam.

And the holes in the shelves?  It’s not apple season yet so one of those shelves is destined to hold apple sauce.  And, hah, the bottom-most shelf is either going to hold bottles of home-bottled wine(!) or a rack for cheese-curing later this fall.  Whee!

*I only use a pressure canner, which is how I can get away with having chicken stock and bean salsas and the like. And, produce-wise, the freezer only holds fruits, chevre and meat now, no veggies at all.

On a certain kind of crazy

Dent corn, she sure do grow tall:  the girl is 4′-2″…these now-tasseling stalks are easily three times her height.

But the calico and blues top out at 5′ or so.

This time of year, I think having something like A.D.D. or O.C.D. is actually helpful.

I have a dear friend who’s a shrink…a good friend to have, incidentally, much like friends who make their own food or like to repair cars or computer glitches.   Our discussions of certain-things-wrong-with-brains include many “disorders” that actually serve some purpose.  And it’s at this time of the year when I have exactly eight food-processing functions going on in the kitchen right now that I think having a piece of crazy might be helpful.  (I haven’t held up a mirror to myself lately so maybe I am already a bit nuts, and it’s already working.)

Looking for another five-pound weight to throw down on top of the parmesan cheese I am pressing, I realize the half-gallon jar of fermenting beets, sitting nobly off by itself, would do the job.  So on it goes, fitting snugly into the press, and lo, those other weights set nicely on its top.

Funky smells, sticky floors, bubbling pots, a full counter of canned jars and a sink full of drying dishes:  It’s August all right.  Every morning and evening is taken up, somehow, with some form of food preparation.  There’s other preparation that is happening daily too:  the freezer birds (turkey and chicken) need twice daily care, the egg birds need love, the goat needs milking, the weeds need pulling…and then there’s the harvests.  It’s a bit maddening.

For those of you who think I somehow squeeze more in my days than most:  I don’t quite know if I do.  I know I don’t sit down much except during working hours!   And I do go to bed really early (mainly to read) wherein I am in bed by 9:00, then up by 6.

Boundless energy?  I doubt it.  Just a serious seasonal case of put-it-away-for-later-itis!

On produce imperfection

Breakfast:  5 types of potatoes and blue and white eggs

Retrieving some weeny-looking potatoes from the depths of the chilly root cellar this morning, it occurred to me how few of my spuds were grocery store- or Martha Stewart-perfect.  I usually have to peel off a spot or two from the smaller ones before eating them.  This is not terribly unusual:  our clay soils are “heavy” and not the best for potatoes.  The very same potatoes were grown in the sandy soils of the school’s garden and they achieved monster, spot-free proportions…it made me momentarily wistful for a looser growing medium.  Momentarily, that is.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere.  Not all you grow looks perfect.  This is beyond okay:  the taste is reason enough to do it.  Taste, and a small smirk of satisfaction.

The school’s potatoes went mushy and sprouty at about twice the rate as the home-grown ones did:  a lesson learned for the children (eat them quickly) and a lesson learned for me (stop whining about your clay).