Monday, December 26, 2011

Dark Days #4 - Holiday Edition - Pickled Peaches

Happy Holidays!

Charlie Brown trees look better in the dark.

We are celebrating two overlapping holidays this year - the eight days of Chanukah and the twelve days of Christmas! Even for households that only celebrate Christmas, I'd strongly recommend celebrating all twelve days.

Multi-day holidays are wonderful for a number of reasons, but the reason most pertinent to this blog is that it allows for enjoying all your favorite holiday foods for many days, not just the one-time Christmas dinner. This is an excellent reason to work on clearing out your pantry and freezer of summer vegetables, canned tomatoes and that single pint jar of pickled peaches that you were saving for a special occasion.

Because I'm still a local-eating amateur, I didn't try to make Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas morning brunch and Christmas Day dinner all with completely local ingredients. Yes, I admit that this is a missed opportunity for a true challenge in local eating... but I'm okay with that - there's always next year. However, I did end up using a lot of local ingredients over the past few days, including that jar of pickled peaches.

When my mom was a teenager, she had really gotten into canning during the summertime and reminisces about the very small peaches that her family friend, Alice, had growing on a tree in her yard - they were perfect for pickling whole. However, I had never seen peaches small enough to fit into a canning jar; the ones coming from the orchard were all far too large. Not that I didn't believe my mom's story, but I never believed that I would find apricot-sized peaches unless I grew them on my own trees.

Imagine my happiness this summer when I found some very small peaches (selling for a dollar a pound!) at a local orchard and knew that they were destined for a sweet and vinegary brine. Even though I felt compelled to eat most of them fresh, I did manage to make a jar of whole pickled peaches.

For Christmas brunch, we had scrambled eggs, bison sausage in a balsamic-rosemary-maple reduction, pickled peaches and regular canned peaches, and my mom's Christmas danish in the shape of a candy cane. The pickled peaches, to my delight, didn't taste like vinegar as some pickles do - just spicy and a little bit sweet. Overall, it was a pretty good locally-sourced meal, minus the traditional must-have Christmas danish. (Full disclosure - the balsamic vinegar was from Italy and the rosemary from the high and dry lands near Telluride, CO. Thanks to Julie for farming out there and thanks to Angie for sharing the good herb!)

To make your own spiced pickled peaches, you should try the recipe in The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving. There is also a recipe in the Ball Blue Book, which I have not tried.

Source citations:
Eggs - six happy hens in the backyard
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Feta cheese (in some but not all of the scrambled eggs) - from Wisconsin
Bison sausage - Yankee Farmers Market in Warner
Balsamic vinegar - Italy
Rosemary - Colorado
Maple syrup - sugar maple trees in the backyard
Peaches - home-canned, from Carter Hill and Gould Hill Orchards
Christmas danish - from my mom

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dark Days - Spinach and Pasta

Spinach is a Holy Grail vegetable for me. I plant it several times a year (spring and fall) in a specially prepared bed, water it thoroughly, and generally try to pamper the baby spinach into succulent green leaves. But it never seems to get beyond the baby spinach stage without some sort of problem - bolting, turning yellow, freezing solid, wilting in a 90-degree day in early June, being eaten by a chipmunk. However, I can go to my local farmers' market and find the most soft and delicate full-sized spinach leaves from several different growers. Hope springs eternal - and maybe next year, I'll find the secret to growing spinach.

This week, I came oh-so-close to the Holy Grail of the Dark Days Challenge - the 100% locally-sourced meal. But true local cooking continues to elude me - utilizing local seasonings is really tricky for me.

Looks like a dog's breakfast - tastes much better

Spinach and Pasta in Cream Sauce
- another fast weeknight dinner -

Part One - The Pasta
Boil water for cooking fresh pasta.
Get started on Part Two while you wait for the water to come to a boil.
(If you're using dried pasta, you will need to adjust the timing so that the pasta and the sauce are both ready at the same time.)
Cook the fresh pasta for 3 minutes, drain and add to the saucepan.

Part Two - The Spinach and Cream Sauce
Meanwhile, chop two cloves of garlic and 1/4 of an onion and saute in butter in a heavy saucepan.
Add a big bag of spinach and saute this until the spinach wilts - I had to add the spinach in two parts because it wouldn't fit.
Scrape the vegetables out into the serving dish.
Add two tablespoons of butter to the saucepan and melt over low heat.
Add two tablespoons of flour and cook about 3 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan constantly.
Slowly pour in one cup of milk and stir until the sauce thickens up slightly.
Add the vegetables back into the pan, turn off the heat, and stir to combine thoroughly with the sauce.
Season with chili-garlic sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
(If the sauce is ready before the pasta, put a cover on the pan to keep the heat in.)

Sources cited:
Fresh pasta - Vermont Fresh Pasta
Garlic, onion, spinach - Spring Ledge Farm
Butter - my neighbor's pantry (yes, we ran out of butter - too much cookie-baking)
Flour - Farmer Ground Flour (Trumansburg, NY)
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Chili-garlic sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper - the grocery store (non-local ingredients)

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Dark Days Brunch - Home Fries with Eggs and Greens

I grew potatoes for the first time this year. They may be my new favorite crop - they are so easy to grow and need very little maintenance during the height of the summer, when everything else in the garden needs constant attention. Plus, they store well for a long time.

1) You dig a trench in your garden and toss in a seed potato every foot or so.
2) You cover it with some soil, leaving 2 inches of the trench exposed.
3) Once the potato plant starts growing, you fill in the trench completely.
4) Ignore your potato plants for several months.
5) Once the above-ground part of the potato plant dies back, dig up the below-ground part.

UNH Cooperative Extension has a great two-page factsheet on growing potatoes - in case my lazy, laissez faire method doesn't suit your fancy. It also covers a bit of information on some of the diseases that can affect potatoes.

The best part about potatoes is that you don't know what you're doing to dig up. We unearthed potatoes in every size from marbles to baseballs (if baseballs were potato-shaped instead of round). The smaller potatoes are excellent for boiling up quickly for eating hot or making potato salad. The larger potatoes are great for roasting and for making a brunch favorite - Home Fries!

For the Dark Days Challenge this week, I knew that I would have only one chance to cook. We were tearing out the kitchen Sunday afternoon, so I took advantage of Sunday morning to cook a final breakfast. I wanted it to be a substantial meal so that we wouldn't have to cook again for a while!

Breakfast of kitchen demolition champions
I made special home fries with leftover bacon grease, onions, sliced bell peppers from the freezer, reconstituted dried tomatoes, potatoes and cheddar cheese. Then I fried up some eggs from our hens. And feeling like maybe I should eat some more vegetables, I sauteed a few wilty salad mix greens, just enough to soften them. A little salt and pepper over the whole thing, and some ketchup on the side - yum.

Three key tricks to making home fries -
1) Scrub the potatoes thoroughly. Keep the skins on.
2) Microwave your taters first for 2-3 minutes, piercing them with a fork before you nuke them. You want them cooked about halfway through before they hit the frying pan. (If you are anti-microwave, you can boil them for 3-5 minutes.) Thank you to Brynne for this breakthrough piece of advice.
3) Use a cast iron pan or another pan where you can really scrape the bottom of the pan without worrying about ruining the finish. You want the potatoes to develop a crusty exterior and this may result in some sticking - nothing a wooden spoon and some elbow grease won't fix.

I did pretty well on the local-eating challenge for this meal, although I found out that I had fallen prey to my own assumptions. I had assumed that Olivia's Organics salad mix (a Chelsea, MA company) would be sourcing their greens from Massachusetts; a search on the Internet proved otherwise, identifying that Olivia's sources from many farms all over the country, including California. Also, we tried some of our homemade ketchup and it tasted a little off, so we used store-bought organic ketchup instead.

Sources cited:
Bacon grease - leftover from bacon from North Country Smokehouse
Onions, peppers, tomatoes - Musterfield Farm
Potatoes - Buzz's garden (our neighbor lets us plant in his garden)
Cheddar cheese - Cabot Creamery
Salad mix - Olivia's Organics (most likely not local - darn)
Eggs - the backyard hens
Ketchup - the grocery store

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dark Days Week One - Cabbage and Sweet Potato Slaw

I had no idea until this year that you could grow sweet potatoes in New England. Sweet potatoes are a tropical root vegetable - not a cold-hardy friend of kale and red potatoes and other favored New England crops.

Like potatoes, sweet potatoes are not true roots like carrots or parsnips, but are tubers, underground stems that store starch. Unlike carrots and parsnips that are grown from seed, potatoes and sweet potatoes are grown from sprouted pieces of tuber. The "eyes" are clusters of buds, which will grow new leafy stems. Despite the similarity in common name, these two tubers are not closely related - sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae) and potatoes are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). They are both "New World" plants, native to the Western Hemisphere.

Apparently, it takes some trickery to make the sweet potato plants believe that they are living in a warm climate with a long growing season, rather than in Zone 5A... it's a matter of starting the sprouts indoors early until it heats up enough outdoors to plant them in the ground. The enormous sweet potato shown here was grown at Spring Ledge Farm a few miles down the road. A new crop for the list for next year - sweet potatoes!

On Tuesday, Adam and I cooked up one of our 20-minute go-to weeknight dinners. This dish doesn't really have a name - it's a skillet saute of cabbage, apple and bacon and whatever else you happen to have on hand, such as a gigantic sweet potato.

Still life with dinner and (some of the) ingredients

We were doing great with the local-eating challenge of Dark Days - (what's Dark Days, you ask?)
Bacon, slivered cabbage and sweet potato, sliced apples and caramelized onions fried in a cast-iron pan and sauced up with maple syrup boiled down from our sugar maple trees this March...
But then, Adam added some mustard, salt and wine to balance the flavors - not local ingredients.

I think this is pretty good for a first attempt, and actually, I was sort of impressed that we didn't need to use any oil or spices to make a really tasty dish. Of course, we could have used New Hampshire wine or hard cider and maybe next year, I could grow mustard, let it mature, harvest the seeds and make my own mustard using vinegar that I made myself. (That would be truly ambitious.)

Here's rough instructions on how to make this dish - I wouldn't call this a true recipe because it's a thrown-together dish with whatever you happen to have. It would be good with any number of sliced-up winter vegetables.

Cabbage and Sweet Potato Slaw

Fry up 1/2 pound of bacon; once crispy, remove from the pan.
Add 2 cups of thinly sliced or slivered sweet potato to the pan and brown.
Add 2 cups of thinly sliced or slivered cabbage and a thinly sliced apple; cook 2-3 minutes.
Add 1/4 cup of caramelized onions and a few tablespoons of maple syrup and grainy mustard.
Cook another minute, add a splash or two of wine and a sprinkle of salt.
Turn off the heat, add the bacon back to the pan, and toss so that the bacon gets coated with a bit of the mustard-maple sauce.

This is one of those dishes that doesn't look great, but tastes awesome.

Source citations:
Bacon - North Country Smokehouse
Cabbage and sweet potato - Spring Ledge Farm
Apple (a Calville Blanc d'Hiver) - Poverty Lane Orchards
Onion - Musterfield Farm
Butter (for caramelizing the onion) - Cabot Creamery
Maple syrup - the backyard
Organic mustard - no idea - it's made by Westbrae, which is part of Hain Celestial Group
Cheap white wine - somewhere in California
Salt - I do not know, but here's a map of all of Morton's facilities.

Dark Days - A Local Harvest Challenge

I'm trying some new things this winter.

1) I planted basil, arugula, lettuce and spinach indoors to see if I can grow my own micro-mix. The idea is to harvest the sprouts once they put out their first set of true leaves - and use it as a flavorful garnish for soups/salads. We will see how it goes...

2) I'm trying to keep some very sad-looking rosemary alive. It's so depressing I didn't even want to take a photo.

3) And, because winter is a slow time in the garden, I've signed myself up for the 5th Annual Dark Days Challenge, which is about cooking and digging into where our food comes from. I can dig that. Even when the ground is frozen.

hosted by the great folks at Not Dabbling in Normal

Basically, the Dark Days Challenge is to cook a meal once a week with local ingredients and then to write a blog post about it. It's called Dark Days because it's held during the winter (end of November to end of March), when most of us can't run out to the garden, pick some greens and call it done. It's called Challenge because we are surprisingly reliant on non-local foods - to my great sadness, olive and citrus trees do not grow in New England.

This is the fifth year in a row that this challenge has been posed - but it's my first year and I really have no idea what I'm getting myself into.

Local is defined as within 150 miles, generally speaking. Everyone gets to set their own goal, which is nice.

The rules of the game allow participants to list out a few exceptions up front, to make this fun and achievable, rather than insurmountable and depressing. Here's a list of my exceptions and explanations of why I am making exception for these - 
1) Spices and Citrus - Definitely not local and definitely delicious. Also good for the immune system.
2) Salt, vinegar and yeast - These all fall into the category of "I could make this myself" but my other life commitments may trump making my own sea salt or trying out wild yeast fermentation.
3) Flour - I just bought 50 pounds of organic flour from two locally-owned flour mills in New York. I feel that it would be excessive to buy more flour just for this challenge.

To make things more interesting and to maintain the theme of this blog, I have two more rules:
1) At least one ingredient each week must have come from my garden, yard or nearby woods.
2) My blog posts must in some way be related to gardening - this is a gardening blog after all.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sun in the November Garden

I usually think of November as a grey and dreary month. I should know because this is my birthday month and I was always a little envious of other kids who could celebrate their birthdays with pool parties and lawn games. When I think back to Novembers past, I think of rainy and sleety weather punctuated by grey clouds.

Since we had surprise snow right around Halloween this year, I pulled everything from the garden early and put the gardens to bed a few weeks earlier than last year. Note to climate-adapting self - build cold frame to keep winter greens from being squashed by unexpected foot of snow.

However, this November was a delight! We had more sunny days than I can recollect and the temperatures were crisp and welcoming. The chickens' water only froze once or twice before we installed a metal heating pad for the waterer. Because it was so sunny, I truly realized that the days are actually not that short... we are still getting 9.5 hours of daylight. Which is certainly enough to sustain some green vegetative growth. (Check out US Naval Oceanography's daylength calculator.)

Or enough to encourage the myrtle to bloom!! I also found a dandelion blooming in the driveway, but didn't manage to snap a photo.

November 20th, with Vinca minor in bloom

Eliot Coleman writes in his book Four Season Harvest about the funny trick of latitude - where he lives in Maine, he is at the same latitude as southern France. The climate is different, but the day length is the same. With a few adaptations to protect against the colder and drier weather, we can grow and harvest fresh vegetables... even in the grey months of the year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Food I Never Ate Growing Up: Brussels Sprouts

Last year, I wrote a post about Swiss chard, a leafy green vegetable that I never ate growing up... heck, I never even heard of Swiss chard until I was out of high school.

Brussels sprouts were another matter. I had heard of Brussels sprouts throughout my childhood. In children's books, movies and other incursions of pop culture, Brussels sprouts are often reviled and forcing children to eat them has been seen a cruel sort of punishment inflicted by their misanthropic parents. However, because my mom doesn't like Brussels sprouts, it meant that I never had to eat them as a kid. Phew - I was spared.

However, in the past few years, I have come to appreciate this wackiest member of the cabbage family. Brussels sprouts grow as little cabbages at the base of big cabbage-y leaves on a stout green stalk, which makes them visually arresting. They are also incredibly cold hardy - even our 12 inches of snow in October didn't phase them. Cold weather reportedly improves the sweetness of the sprouts, although I have not rigorously tested this hypothesis - I will pass on harvesting sprouts early to see if they are more bitter, I'll just wait.

Looks a bit like Christmas, eh?

Cooked properly, they lose any bitterness and sour cabbage flavor - and are instead a rich, crunchy green vegetable in a season where green seems a distant memory. I emphasize cooked properly - you want to make sure that the centers of the sprouts are fully cooked, otherwise you will have the full experience of bitter, sour cabbage. I would hazard a guess that poorly cooked Brussels sprouts over the years have contributed to their bad reputation in pop culture and conventional wisdom. Also, we've found that Brussels sprouts are something to enjoy in season (late fall and early winter) when their flavor is best - we have had bad luck with grocery store sprouts in late winter.

Here's Adam's favorite way to prepare Brussels sprouts and my favorite way to eat them - and this takes 15 minutes start to finish.

Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Heat a large saute pan or skillet with 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil.
Add 1 pound Brussels sprouts, cleaned, rinsed and cut in half (or quarters, if they are very large).
Cook the sprouts over medium-high heat, stirring/tossing occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until you can easily poke a fork into the center of a sprout. The outer leaves and edges of the sprouts should be nicely browned and delightfully crispy.
For another test of doneness, try to squash one sprout piece with the back of a fork - if it yields with moderate pressure (i.e. doesn't collapse instantly and isn't a brick wall), you're on the right track.
Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon.

Raw sprouts ready for their hot butter bath

You could also cook these in the oven, but it takes longer and you can't fuss over it in the same way that you can with stovetop cooking. If you're into no-fuss and have the time, heat your oven to 400 degrees, toss the sprouts with olive oil and salt and pepper, dump them onto a cookie sheet, and bake for 40 minutes until the edges are crisp and the insides are creamy.

I will say that the kitchen can retain a certain cabbage-y odor after cooking Brussels sprouts, so I would recommend washing the pan as soon as possible and using the range hood over your stove top, if you've got one.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Be Prepared to Expect Surprises

A leaden sky greeted me as I drove home from work today - seriously leaden, as if the snow were going to fall out of the sky as anvils instead of flakes.

I realize that my blog's byline is "be prepared to expect wonders" - a nod to Thoreau from his essay on his great faith in seeds. But today I am reminded that gardening is also full of surprises...

Particularly surprises from the weather.

It's been rather balmy up to now. First frost was this past Tuesday - four days ago...
Two days ago -- yes, that would be October 27th -- it snowed. (See photos below!)
And tonight into tomorrow, we are forecast to get 6-10 inches of snow.

Halloween does not usually look like this!

Yes, I'm surprised.
So were the tomatoes.
I really was not prepared - I honestly did not think that the snow would stick overnight!
So I did not cover my plants and the tomato vines met their chilly end.


I picked the last of the tomatoes, peppers and purple bush beans Friday after much of the snow had melted. Then I tore out the vines and bushes - the tomato and pepper plants were destined for the burn pile and the bean plants went to the chickens. 

The yellow mums are chill with the snow.

On Friday, the snow melted quickly as the sun's rays slowly wrapped from the east around to the south and then to the west. I was surprised with how long it took for the sun to make it over to our yard, which faces southwest. There is certainly a difference between summer sun and fall sun.

It will be really interesting to look out the window tomorrow and see what new surprises Mother Nature has bestowed upon us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Great Nation Deserves Great Gardens

I went to our nation's capital last week and was surprised at the scarcity of trees.

Washington D.C. indeed holds many of our national treasures - the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and its reflecting pool, and the Smithsonian Museums, just to name a few - and wraps them in all the best aspirations and values of our democracy. Anyone, no matter what race, religion or immigration status, can walk the Mall and visit the monuments and memorials installed there, and anyone can view the collections of the Smithsonian without needing to show identification or pay a fee.

But I have to say that I was a little shocked that D.C. has so little of what I consider to be America's most defining feature - the magnificent natural landscape. There's certainly no amber waves of grain in this city, nor purple mountains' majesty - just block after block of concrete, asphalt, steel and glass. The only trees I saw in my two days' visit were saplings in the planters outside the US Department of Transportation, a few anemic street trees near E Street, and the trees providing shade to the Occupy DC protesters in McPherson Square. Even these trees were not enough to distract my attention from the buildings, buildings everywhere.

Where are the street trees and landscaped medians? Where are the public gardens? Where are the streetside planters with colorful annuals designed to break up the monotony of grey buildings and grey sidewalks? Considering that Washington D.C. was built on a swamp and has to have enough concrete to provide an office for every lobbying group, advocacy organization, federal worker and Congressional staffer, I'm not expecting this city to look like Yosemite Valley. But it seems that Americans and foreign tourists alike are being let down when the only hints of America's impressive national endowment of natural resources in the Nation's Capital are housed indoors in the American Art Museum or hidden away in the National Arboretum several miles from the National Mall.

Gardens make even the starkest concrete jungle more beautiful, adding color, vivacity and charm into an otherwise moonscape-like setting. Gardens bring life to an inanimate, people-dominated world and remind us that our roots are still connected to the earth. Gardens can be a national monument to showcase the outstanding, amazing native plants of the United States - what could be more American than the National Tree, the mighty oak? I've never been to see the cherry blossoms bloom near the Jefferson Memorial in the spring, but I'd be willing to bet that a grove of mature oak trees would be just as stunning.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall Clean-up Time

There's a reason that my husband learned a clean-up song during kindergarten - the singing distracts five-year-olds from the fact that cleaning is not very fun.

Each month, I have been reading Notes from the Garden by Henry Homeyer, the local gardening guru in my region. This book is a collection of his newspaper columns, organized by month, and I've been reading along as the months go by. The essay collection is wide-ranging on the topic of organic gardening and reminds me that I know very little about gardening. One of the October essays also gave me the kick in the pants that I needed to do a thorough job of fall garden clean-up this year. It's not as catchy as the clean-up song, but the essay certainly got the message across.

The kitchen garden at the Old Manse in Concord, MA - a bit of garden tourism during fall clean-up time.

The hardest part about fall garden clean-up is finding time to fit it in. There are so many other fun things that you could be doing - this year, Columbus Day weekend involved not one but two sets of family get-togethers, including a lovely visit to Concord and Lexington, MA and apple-cider-making. Unwilling to set aside what I had just learned from Henry Homeyer, I spent almost all day on the long-weekend Monday outside in the garden. I focused largely on two major garden cleanup tasks: taking diseased and weedy plant matter to the burn pile not the compost pile AND weeding the empty bed before putting down slow-release organic fertilizer and mulch.

My compost pile, like most home composting operations, does not heat up sufficiently to kill weed seeds or kill many plant diseases (fungi and bacteria don't die easily). An interesting experiment to test the weed seed theory is to "plant" some compost and see what grows - we got some sheep/alpaca/chicken manure a few years ago and a surprising number of nettles started sprouting in our vegetable beds. So, I took a wheelbarrow full of vegetation up to the burn pile, which we will light up during a long dark winter night.

The second part should earn me extra brownie points from my future self. By weeding now, I'm helping myself get ahead of the weeds in the spring; they will have less of a head start. By amending the soil, I'm enriching the garden and allowing plenty of time for nutrients to become incorporated into the soil ecosystem. I hope at some point, I'll have enough aged chicken compost to be able to spread a layer over the gardens each fall, but I'm not quite at that point yet.

More fall clean-up lies ahead, as we haven't even had a hard frost yet... but it's nice to feel ever so slightly ahead of the cleaning cycle.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

For the love of Indian summer...

Nasturtiums are pleasing to the eye and peppery on the palate.

It's been autumn for almost a full week now, but it's still feeling quite a bit like summer. We were forecast for a record high today! This is a perfect time for visiting local tourist spots that are too busy in the summer and will be inundated with leaf-peeping tour buses in October. It is also a wonderful time for embracing the last hurrah of the summer garden.

I'm still harvesting a pint or more of cherry and plum tomatoes every other day. And I'm still pinching back the suckers on the tomato plants - the tomatoes clearly still think it's summer.

The nasturtiums are also capitalizing on the balmy weather. After a very slow start this spring, the nasturtiums looked anemic for months, but managed to survive and even started blooming about a month ago. Now, they are absolutely covered with blossoms and are crowding out the basil. It's just beautiful!

The red light district for pollinators - complete with fringe and fishnets.

And just in time - the bees and hummingbirds love to visit the nasturtiums and our other late-blooming garden flowers. The hummers are getting ready to fly south for the winter, and the bees need to stock up for their overwintering as well.

I do anticipate a frost in the next few weeks, which will wipe away all remnants of summer... but until then, I will soak up the sun, wear sandals as frequently as possible, eat fresh tomatoes and nasturtium flowers on my salads, and smile at the extravagant profusion of orange flowers and variegated green leaves every time I pull into the driveway. Long live Indian summers!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mad Money

I sold my first eggs this week! Yay!

The ones in the blue tray, I'm keeping for myself.

The eggs I sold are still a little on the small side, so I discounted the price to $2.50. You can see that the eggs are getting bigger, though - compare the egg on the right with the one on the left.

I've haven't made any side income in several years, so this extra $2.50 in my pocket seems very, very cool. And somehow not inconsequential, even though $2.50 doesn't go very far these days.

$2.50 may look inconsequential,  but it sure feels nice.

This inspired me to contemplate at length what sort of special jar I should choose for keeping my egg money. Right now, I've grabbed an old-school wire-bale Ball jar so I can watch my mad money grow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

You Know It's Summer When... You Eat Tomatoes Every Day

Fresh tomatoes are a pure summer delight. The flavor is sweet, the texture firm, and the colors stunning. Though early and late season varieties have been bred to extend the season for tomatoes - I particularly like the ambition of the variety named "Fourth of July" - tomato season in northern New England is a boom time of just one month. (Unless it's a late blight year, like 2009, where tomato season was a complete bust - but that's another story.)

While my first thought of tomatoes evokes Italy, tomatoes are actually native to South America and were cultivated in South and Central America as food crops. European explorers sent the tomato and its Solanaceae family cousins (potatoes, peppers and the important cash crop of tobacco) back across the Atlantic. The Italians and the Spanish embraced the tomato as their own, and in an interesting quirk of history, Americans did not start eating tomatoes until they became popular in Europe. (For more on this, check out this History Channel snippet - click on the picture of the tomato.)

It's the tenth of September now, and just this past two weeks, "all the lights are turning green to red." Unlike the David Grey song, tomatoes turning green to red means that you've got to kick it into high gear. While canning, freezing and drying tomatoes is an excellent way to handle your summer tomato harvest, you've just got to eat a lot of fresh tomatoes while they are at their most summery flavorful ripeness. Especially if you've stopped eating the bland, mealy supermarket tomatoes for the other 11 months of the year, it's practically mandatory to get in while the getting's good.

Right now, the getting is really good - and what's even better, you don't even have to work hard to appreciate the flavor and beauty of fresh tomatoes. I'd like to share 9 simple dishes featuring fresh tomatoes during this "what? more tomatoes?" end-of-summer time. I'm loathe to call these recipes, as there is so little work involved and there are no measurements - and the first doesn't even require a plate.

1) Eat cherry tomatoes by the handful, or eat a ripe heirloom tomato like an apple.You may want to eat the full-sized tomato outside because the seeds have a tendency to go everywhere.

2) Sliced tomatoes with a sprinkling of sugar. Sounds weird, but this was a favorite in my family growing up, and reinforces that tomatoes are indeed fruits, not vegetables.

3) Caprese salad - sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves. We typically dress this with some ground pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil over the top.

4) Halved cherry tomatoes mixed with creamy goat cheese and fresh herbs.

5) Oven-roasted plum, grape or cherry tomatoes. Slice in half, toss with olive oil, and put in the oven at 350 until the fragrance from the oven overpowers you (between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the size of your tomatoes). This is excellent to put on top of a piece of meat.

6) Tomato-cucumber-feta salad. Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with chunks of feta tossed with a little oil and vinegar.

7) Tomatoes with yogurt-dill sauce. Sliced tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes served next to a dollop of Greek yogurt with fresh or dried dill, garlic powder and onion powder.

8) BLTs! This is the best use of those monster heirloom Brandywines or Cherokees where a single tomato slice will cover the whole piece of bread. This sandwich is so good that we actually made a special trip to buy Boston lettuce so that we could eat BLTs on the front steps on Saturday night.

9) Pa amb tomaquet - I think we are all familiar with Italian cuisine involving tomatoes, but how about a Spanish dish? Barcelona is a beautiful city with its own wonderful Catalan language, and a fabulous, dead easy dish called bread with tomato (pa amb tomaquet). Slice up a baguette or other crusty bread and toast it or grill it. Rub it with a clove of garlic - you want to get chunks of garlic into the holes of the bread. Rub it with a half of a tomato, scraping the tomato flesh into the bread until you have only the skin left. Brush or drizzle some olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

What's your favorite way to prepare fresh summer tomatoes?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Keep on the Sunny Side

It's been sort of a rough week. Our neighbors to the west in Vermont experienced catastrophic flooding, I had 4 straight days of outrageous headaches due to a mystery virus (or maybe it's Lyme disease - the test won't come back until Tuesday), and I've missed work during a particularly deadline-ridden period of time.

But guess what?!

It's not all about me. While I've been trying to sleep myself back to feeling better and worrying about how Vermont is ever going to rebuild all those destroyed roads and what deadlines are more "flexible" than others, guess what? The universe has not stopped for me. Life is going on, just as it always does.

Fortunately, it's late summer and the weather, the garden and the chickens don't particularly care how I'm feeling. They're all doing great. The weather (once Hurricane Irene blew past) has been gorgeous, the tomatoes are finally ripening, and the Red Star hens have started laying! It's hard to stay focused on yourself when all these great things are going on in the larger world.

This egg was still warm from the hen.

The first egg-laying was so exciting for me, and it couldn't have come at a better time. When you're feeling like all you want to do is crawl back into bed, but you've just found the first 3 eggs from your pretty hens, how can you not make yourself a lovely breakfast with optimism?

I decided to make sunny-side up eggs.
Since they started laying on September first, we have received 7 pretty brown eggs from our Red Star hens. (As you can see above, one was a double-yolker, but the others have been on the small side, typical of new layers.) The New Hampshire Reds are two weeks younger, so we don't expect them to start laying quite yet.

I'm very very happy about the eggs, and also very happy for the lesson in perspective I received along with those sunny-side-up eggs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sad Day for Sunflowers

I was out on a little excursion Sunday afternoon to buy canning peaches. As I drove down the interstate, I watched big cracks of lightning course through the clouds, and a minute after I walked into the orchard barn/farm stand door, the wind came up and the rain came pelting down. It was a pretty marvelous storm!

There is something very invigorating about a good summer thunderstorm, especially if you have to rush around closing windows, taking down laundry or running back to your car carrying a box full of fruit. (Or pick up 150 chairs that were just set up outside for a wedding ceremony, bring them inside, wipe them off and set them back up in time for the wedding - but that's another story.)   I think this is the first really good t-storm we've had this summer.

When I got home, our power had been knocked out (pretty typical) but otherwise the property was in pretty good shape - just small tree limbs and branches scattered across the driveway and yard. It wasn't until later that Adam noticed our casualty of the storm.

These sunflowers previously stood 7-8 feet tall.

The sunflower stalks couldn't quite withstand the wind gusts, and the biggest stalk snapped in two. Oh, summer's beauty cut off at the knees - the sunflowers were absolutely vibrant and gorgeous and just starting to set seed. They gave me such pleasure to see new blooms open up every other day or so. I feel unduly sad about this, but it really seems such a shame.

The most robust stalks of sunflowers broke, but the two spindly ones were just bent over and now we've propped them back up with a stake. Not a complete loss - but it still makes me sad.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hens and Hornworms

A few surprising things I've learned about chickens from keeping six in the backyard:

1) Chickens really do flock together. The hens take turns being adventurous and taking off to explore various corners of the backyard, but it's never very long before the rest of them catch up.

2) They will eat anything particularly if they can peck it into small pieces. Until I learned better, this included the foam insulation sealing various holes in the house exterior. I also learned that hens have no problem pecking four-inch long tomato hornworms into bite-sized green chunks.

Action shot at the start of the hornworm feast - the race to get the worms is on!

3) Hens never stop talking. When we are home, I'll let them out to free-range the mosquitoes in the backyard, and it's nice to be reassured from their calls and coos that they have not run off.

4) Chicken feathers are soft! I guess I had never really thought about it before. It feels really nice to pet them. "Yellow" is still the easiest one to catch and hold for long periods of time, but the others calm down as soon as they realize that they have been caught.

5) Hens are astoundingly hard to photograph. They never seem to stand still, and it's almost impossible to sneak up on them unnoticed. I will have to research this further, or set up a chicken observation blind.

Who cares about posing for close-ups when there's worms to be pecked?

According to the chicken-raising book I have and the all-knowing Internet, the hens are supposed to start laying sometime next month. I'm awestruck at how fast these animals can go from being fresh out of the egg to making new eggs - it's incredible. I suppose I shouldn't count my eggs before they are laid (or chickens before they are hatched?), but I'm really quite excited about fresh eggs!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The High Season

Two days ago, I picked two overflowing baskets of vegetables plus the carrots and beets that wouldn't fit in the baskets. Last night, Adam informed me that I really need to go out and pick beans or they are going to get too large. The vegetable drawers in the refrigerator are stuffed to the gills. And last week, I found this:

The giant and the gherkin
Cucumbers blend in really well with their foliage and so it is very easy to miss a pickling cucumber and have it grow to a very large size where it loses its value for pickling, but still can be used for slicing.

The first few months of vegetable gardening are mostly manageable - there's the bed preparation and planting, which is time-consuming, and the weeding and staking and harvesting of lettuce and other early summer plants... but now we're into the high season. The garden seems to have hit its stride and is churning out produce like crazy. It's exhilarating and exhausting, amazing and overwhelming. And fortunately, very very tasty.

FYI - I've fallen off the horse with weighing and reporting on just how much produce I've been picking, but I will try to get a report together. It's going to be really interesting to compare this year to last.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Exotic Herbs - Chinese Parsley?

Common names of plants and animals can be funny, strange and confusing. Think of the groundhog, woodchuck, or whistlepig - all the same furry brown animal, all not pigs (or chucks).

Chinese parsley is another misnomer - you probably think you've never seen or tasted this herb, but oh, I bet you have. Does this look familiar?

Glossy green, serrated broad leaves - beautiful!
It's Coriandrum sativum - better known in America as cilantro!

I have no idea why this herb would be called Chinese parsley. It only vaguely looks like parsley, and no one would mistake the distinct flavor of cilantro for parsley. Wikipedia tells me that cilantro grows wild over a large region of southern Europe and the Near East - it seems to be certainly not a native of China.

Cilantro is also known as coriander, and the seedpods are often ground into coriander powder. I consider cilantro leaves and coriander seeds to be completely separate flavorings - the leaves are for Mexican and Latin American dishes, and the seeds are for Indian cooking. I'm sure there are plenty of other national cuisines that use cilantro in other ways, and probably a huge number of fusion dishes involving cilantro in either form.

I've had a difficult time growing cilantro - far more failed crops than successes over the past three years. But the successes are pretty fabulous, and with herbs, a little bit goes a LONG way. So even a meager handful of cilantro brings a ton of flavor and can fancy-up a basic dish.

Salsa that tastes like summer!

At a family party this Tuesday, I chopped up the leaves from 8 or so leaves of cilantro and mixed them in with a jar of Wegman's brand salsa. WOW - I was so surprised - the salsa went from run-of-the-mill blah-de-blah-blah to a fresh zinger that just begs for tortilla chips!

I highly recommend this as a quick recipe (a.k.a. a fixer-upper for grocery store food), because there's many times when 100% homemade is just not practical. This is perfect for last-minute get-togethers and hot, hot days of July and August.

Cilantro-fied Salsa
1 16-oz. jar of salsa (from the store or your own pantry)
6-10 stalks of cilantro, washed, stems removed

1) Dump the salsa into your fancy serving dish.
2) Finely chop the cilantro leaves. I like using the chiffonade technique, but another good technique is to use kitchen shears.
3) Mix about half of the cilantro bits into the salsa; taste and add more cilantro until you have the desired flavor. (I recommend this taste-and-add approach because too much cilantro tastes like soap to me - not a successful outcome!)
4) Put the salsa out with some chips, pour yourself a mojito, and kick back to enjoy the summer!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lettuce and Peas, an Early Summer Delight

A bouquet of fresh lettuce - lucky me!
Where I grew up, peas and lettuce were a springtime delicacy, enjoyed during the months of May and June. People typically started peas on St. Patrick's Day, and enjoyed peas in their pasta primavera during the season of primavera (spring in Italian). Not so in the land of New England - peas and full heads of lettuce are harvested firmly in the territory of summer, especially when the spring is a little on the wet and cold side. So, it's after the Fourth of July and the daytime temps and humidity feel like summer. But with peas and lettuce overtaking the garden, it still seems a bit like spring!

This week, the lettuce has succumbed to the heat and the peas are starting to go... but I've still got both peas and lettuce in the fridge, sustaining spring for a few more days.

A jungle of pea vines - see if you can spot the pea pods.

Peas can handle cool weather but not hot. The seeds go into the ground as soon as it can be worked in the spring, grow like crazy during warm spring days, and as soon as the temperatures start reaching 80 on a consistent basis, the leaves start to look a little peaked, and then a little yellow, and then it's time for the pea vines to go to the compost heap. Make way for the heat-loving peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.

Lettuce is similar - cool weather keeps it leafy and low to the ground, while hot weather triggers the plant to bolt, or to start growing upward to set flowers. Bolting also spurs the production of secondary chemicals, which render the leaves bitter and the sap milky. There are some lettuces that have been bred to handle hot weather, but the best season for lettuces is spring to early summer, yielding soft, mellow salad greens. When the lettuce gives up, it's time for plants that can take the heat - cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here's a simple recipe for snow peas - perfect for days that feel like summer!

Snow Peas with Garlic Scapes and Almonds

Heat olive oil in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.
(For a little spice, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.)
Add 2 cups of snow peas and 1/2 cup of garlic scapes; saute about 5 minutes.
Let the peas turn bright green, but still have their snap to them.
Then add 1/4 cup sliced almonds; saute for 1 minute.
Pour in a splash or three of a good aged balsamic vinegar; saute about 30 seconds more.
Scrape the pea mixture out onto a plate, and enjoy hot!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Backyard Wildlife Sightings - Forest Chickens and Wood Frogs

Chickens at 2-1/2 months chasing mosquitoes
We've been doing a lot of work around the house this weekend, and have been letting the chickens free range while we are outside to keep an eye on them. They love it, and it's really a lot of fun to watch them.

They really like to hang out in the "comfrey forest" in the side yard, as comfrey provides cover and also a tasty snack. I think this must be something like chicken heaven - a nice, leafy lunch buffet where you can hang out, socialize, scratch in the leaves, and take a nap.

The beech grove right behind the barn is also a popular spot, as there are a lot of insects and worms in the leaf litter. I hope that the girls get to work on the tick control - I've found two ticks on me in the last two days from wrangling the chickens back into their coop.

I raked out the side yard this afternoon. This is one of those chores that falls to the bottom of the list and stays there - permanently. The side yard is shady, damp, full of mosquitoes, and is not visible from the road or most of the house - and thus, I have neglected it for at least a year. Neglect has not improved the situation.

Rana sylvatica - Wood Frog
Unless you are a wood frog - then you think my neglected side yard is pretty fabulous. I was really, really surprised to unearth this little guy while raking, and even more surprised that I could catch it. Wood frogs range in color from pinky-brown, like this one, to tan to brown. The best way to tell if you've got a wood frog is by its black bandit mask around the eyes.

I just updated the 2011 harvest log, if you'd like to see what I've been pulling out of the garden, other than loads and loads of weeds. Click on 2011 Harvest at the top of the page.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June Jam - Music and Strawberries

One might say that our little New England town is on the sleepy side. If that is the case, June Jam is the yearly wake-up call, a Saturday afternoon-into-the-evening outdoor live music event at Musterfield Farm. It seems that the whole town turns out to listen to a variety of local musicians and bands, catch up with neighbors and hang out on the grass with a picnic. I can't recall any other time where I've seen 3-year-olds, high school students, forty-somethings, and maybe-just-a-tad-older folks all dancing at the same time.

I'm sad to say that I did not attend June Jam this year. Instead, I was working on a different sort of June jam all together. Saturday afternoon, I was out strawberry picking at Edgewater Farm, and later that evening, Adam and I prepared the berries for freezing and jamming. Adam thankfully did most of the berry prep for freezing - wash, cut off tops, set in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and put in freezer. Meanwhile, I sliced up enough strawberries to make 8 cups, enough for one batch of jam using the last box of lower-sugar-needed pectin. I put the sliced strawberries in the fridge to macerate overnight, and made jam on Sunday night.

A profusion of vegetable growth - picture taken post-weeding

Also, on Saturday, I worked on addressing the grass situation. No, not the grass on the lawn - it was too wet to mow. But the grass in the garden - that needed to be taken care of, wet or dry. Two out of three raised beds were growing vegetables in addition to grass, and I picked some peas, chard, lettuce, arugula and scallions. I thinned some carrots, as well. Above you can see one of the beds I had planted in April-May.

A less successful garden bed - all the light green you see is grass.

The third bed was planted later in early June, and I was very disappointed in the germination of seeds in this bed. The brussels sprouts that I transplanted in early spring is doing fine, but other than that, the bed looks pretty sad. Out of 16 radish seeds planted, only two came up. I will have to replant this bed, once I finish clearing the grass out. Good thing that the days are long - there's plenty of work to be done.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oh, Happy Day - It's Summer!

On the first day of summer, my garden gave to me... A handful of strawberries.

We just got back from vacation late last night and I ran out the door this morning, late. So, it wasn't until dinner that I had a moment to look at the garden. I picked my handful of strawberries, cleaned them up, and ate them in short order - it was wonderful.

Then I ate greens pizza cooked on the grill and rushed back out the door to a night meeting. No photos, but I wanted to share my excitement of strawberries and the first day of summer.

Happy summer and happy gardening!

(Photos and recipe for greens pizza to come later this week.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Seeds have been sown, chickies have grown...

I spent a lot of time this past week getting my gardens and my neighbor's garden prepped and planted for the summer. We are headed out on vacation on Wednesday, so I was definitely feeling a bit of pressure to wrap up the spring planting. No thanks to the mosquitoes and black flies, I managed to hack away at my neighbor's garden in 1/2-hour chunks before running inside to avoid the flying hordes.

I may not look smart, but I can surely get those skeeters.

In a fleeting attempt to control the mosquito population, we've been putting the chickens out in the yard while we are at home. They do go crazy for mosquitoes and any other flying insect, but I don't really believe that six little chickies are going to make much of an impact. The pen is just two pieces of wire panel that we got as a side gift from Freecycle (Adam went to pick up metal roofing and the landowner asked Adam if he wanted any wire panels in addition -- yes, please!). The wire panels lean against each other forming a circle and I placed a window screen on top to keep Yellow from escaping the pen.

Free-standing open air chicken pen - not predator-proof

They love it, and I'm half-tempted to build them a little chicken tractor so they can stay outside all summer. The latest issue of Mother Earth News says I can make one for $200 bucks, but I'll just need to learn how to weld first! (Sorry, I don't think I'll be welding any time soon - gardening is enough of a hobby to keep me occupied for years.)

Fresh from the garden this week:
Salad greens!! including Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, mesclun and a few types of lettuce.
Mint - I made some awesome refrigerator tea with fuzzy mint, chocolate mint and black tea.
Chives and scallions

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Perennial Surprise

We were away for the Memorial Day weekend and had a chance to gawk at the rich farmland along Lake Ontario and the beautiful mountain farms and homesteads of the Green Mountains. We found no shortage of daydreams during the many hours in the car each day. (Ahh, wouldn't 10 acres of field on the Lincoln Gap Road and a sailboat on Lake Champlain be lovely?)

The heat switched on over the weekend and has stayed on, and we returned to the tail-end of the lilacs, the urgent need for thinning salad greens, and a few surprises in the form of blooming perennial shrubs.

I had purchased three or four small perennial shrubs on sale two autumns ago and planted on the base of the wooded slope in the side yard. One shrub was eliminated through the indiscriminate dumping of excavation debris - to be fair, the pepperbush was not exactly thriving or much larger than any of the other vegetation. I vaguely recalled having bought more than one azalea, but I could not find it this spring and figured it had also succumbed to death by clean fill.

Pink azalea flowers look like a bit like hibiscus.

Well - the darn thing did survive! I walked up the side steps and saw a ball of pale pink tropical-looking flowers lying on the forest floor. The azalea had taken a beating, and the flower stalk had been knocked or perhaps trampled to the ground.

Oh so pretty... I love the radial symmetry.
The other wonder of the side yard this week is the rhododendron. Our first spring here (3 years ago), I found a scraggly, half-dead rhody planted in the center of the patio behind the studio and relocated it to the very edge of the side yard. The scrawny plant took a while to establish and never flowered until this weekend. The photo doesn't do it justice, but it is a beautiful bright red color and attracts bees like crazy!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Break from the Rain

Today was the first day in over a week where it didn't rain, alleluia. The plants did not mind too much, as the extra moisture and cool temperatures allowed them to establish their roots and acclimate to the garden. I did mind the rain, as I did not acclimate very well and had to wear shoes and sweaters.

The perennials have really greened up. The peas and spinach have been slowly growing, and the onions seem to appreciate the moisture. The lilacs have had electric purple buds for a week, but now have gone whole-hog into unfurling their petals. The scent is just wonderful!

Today was also the first day for harvesting in quite some time - I cut a mini-bouquet of lilacs, cleared out the over-wintered spinach, cut back the arugula, thinned the over-wintered scallions, and grabbed a few stalks of chives. Adam also picked a colander full of chocolate mint. We had our friends/neighbors over for spinach-arugula-chive-scallion quesadillas and mojitos - it was great!
Flowers and spring greens make me happy.

We just moved the little chickies (two-week-old Red Stars) into the coop with the big chickies (one-month-old New Hampshire Reds) and they seem really happy. The coop is nothing fancy just a plywood box with a lamp, but it is a step up from a plastic bin. They are also very happy to eat any little flying insects that may enter their domain - they are extremely coordinated when it comes to mosquito control!

Here's a photo of Yellow - she's got big wingfeathers now but her head still looks goofy.
Yellow might be my new best friend.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Answer to Slugs, Compost and Vegetable Scraps

3-day-old New Hampshire Red
Long awaited, the chickens have arrived!

3-day-old Red Star
We ordered two different breeds, New Hampshire Red and Red Star, three of each - and because the breeding houses are organized according to a schedule, we received the first three chicks during the last week of April and the second three chicks this past week. They will have to live separately until they are full-grown so that the big ones don't pick on the little ones.

Being first-time chicken owners, we really don't know what we're getting ourselves into. And we've have several interesting discoveries already.

Ooh - what's in the box?
First, the chickies come home in a Happy Meal box. Magalloway is intrigued but actually afraid of the baby chicks - they make so much noise and hop around erratically.

Second, the saying "Birds of a feather flock together" definitely holds true for chickens. The chicks do everything together; if one wants to have a snack, they all scurry over to the feeder. If one wants to take a nap under the heat lamp, they all huddle around into a chicky-pile. (Very cute, but hard to photograph - they tend to wake up when people come near enough to take a photo.)

Third, baby chicks grow really fast. We were amazed to watch how the New Hampshire Reds' wing-feathers  and tail-feathers grew day-by-day. The two-week-old NH Reds look completely different now and are "huge" compared to the baby Red Stars. Both breeds as adults will be reddish brown and fairly similar in appearance, but it's fascinating how different they look as chicks.
"Yellow" at two weeks old - we have temporary names for the chicks.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The 2011 Gardening Season Opener

It's been very busy in the garden the past few weekends. The long-anticipated "is winter really gone?" season is now over, and gardening is into full-swing. There always seems to be twice the amount of work than expected and half the amount of time necessary to complete it. Fortunately, the sun doesn't go down until after 8:00 pm now, so I can sometimes fit in a little bit of gardening after work (on those days when I don't have a night meeting).

In between the raindrops, I've planted out all my cold-hardy seedlings (cabbage and onion families), watched my peas sprout, and planted strawberries and a cherry tree. I've also done a lot of "re-organization" that has entailed digging up almost all of the shrubs I've planted in the past 3 years and moving them to a new location. I'm hoping that I will stop "re-organizing" soon, because it's not good for the shrubs to be moved so much, and it's not a very fun task! Speaking of not-fun tasks, Adam and I have both done some work on weeding - somehow the grass loves to grow in the garden but not in the lawn.

A few insights from May-time gardening:

  1. I was reminded why sandals and shoveling don't mix. It's impossible to keep your feet clean and it's just uncomfortable to feel grit between Chaco straps and bare skin. Not to mention that I had to get out an old toothbrush to make my sandals look presentable before going out last night.
  2. My mom is SO great! Not only does she come to my house to visit on the day before Mother's Day and comes bearing olive oil and balsamic vinegar, BUT she also volunteers to help clear leaves and put a variety of plants in the ground. All while wearing a crisp white Oxford shirt. Thanks, Mom! Love you.
  3. Having raised beds really makes prepping beds and planting seeds or seedlings easy. It is certainly an investment of time and materials in the first year, but the second year, I'm just amazed at how quickly I can get seeds into the ground.
  4. I now know what niche I can fill if I ever want to write a book on gardening. It would be called "Front-Yard Pocket Gardening." I had bought 25 strawberry plants and wanted to figure out how to use them as edging, or ideally as groundcover around my cherry tree sapling. And then I wanted to know if I could get away with interplanting low-bush and highbush blueberry in a mini-hedgerow. The Cooperative Extension has great fact sheets on gardening, but they are geared substantially toward the 20X40 row garden in someone's flat backyard. And finding advice about care for fruit trees, grape vines and small fruit is prolific for a production operation or a large yard, but quite scarce for "I have 8 feet between the house and the driveway, and the powerline is 12 feet away."
  5. For all the effort so far, the garden still doesn't look that great. It's really really exciting to see seeds sprouting and leaves unfurling, but it's not beautiful quite yet. See photo below - not what I would call "garden artistry."

Garlic, peas, spinach, scallions and the onion family
Up next - tomorrow, we will welcome 3 new Red Star chicks and move our 2-week-old New Hampshire Red chicks out to their new coop in the shed!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Still.... Seeking Spring... Desperately

Guess what April showers have brought this year?
April SNOW!!

It has been spitting snow off and on, and everyone seems to be getting really tired of it. I was just at a meeting with a colleague who had dressed in well-coordinated, pretty pastels and then had to dig out her winter jacket. Fortunately, not all spring colors have to be covered over. The crocuses don't seem to mind the weather at all.

I snapped this shot of the crocuses near my office, not in my own garden. But I have spotted a few signs of spring from my garden, which I'd like to share with you:

Chives - These start growing immediately after the snowpack melts off, and cold weather doesn't bother this herb at all.

Daylilies - Even though they won't bloom until the summer, their green leaves pop up almost as fast as the chives.

Blueberries, lilacs, and crabapple - The buds are starting to show a little bit of green. And there was a small flock of juncos frolicking in the lilac hedge this morning.

I'll leave you with a recipe for a refreshing beverage that will get you excited about spring. Even if the weather seems more like winter.

Lemonade with Maple Syrup

1) Dig through your produce drawer and pull the lemons from underneath the parsnips, onions and other root vegetables. They are under there somewhere... I promise.

2) Juice the lemons into a pitcher and try to get as much pulp out into the pitcher. If there is not too much pith, you can peel the lemon and throw the pulp into the food processor.

3) Pour in maple syrup and stir up it well. Add water and ice cubes. Take a few taster sips to adjust the sweetness and intensity to your liking.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Desperately Seeking Spring

The front yard on Friday - you can start to see lawn!

We wrapped up maple sugaring two weekends ago, not because the season had ended but rather that we had exhausted our initial enthusiasm and wanted to go visit friends. So that's what we did - left our semi-snowy home on Friday and took a little trip to the Hudson River valley.

People hiking the Appalachian Trail northbound are often said to be "chasing spring" as they trek northward from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina until summer takes the East Coast by storm. For us, this trip was more like "desperately seeking spring."

It was a great trip full of springtime pleasures - we went bike riding, listened to peepers, went for a hike on a trail with no snow and no mud, and watched painted turtles sunning themselves while we sunned ourselves on our friends' dock. And when we got home, it had warmed up and the snow had melted significantly! And on Monday, it was 70 degrees in the afternoon! I did yard work until it got dark, and it felt absolutely wonderful.

The front yard on Monday - much less snow, still no green.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sunlight and Maple Syrup

Yep, I was wrong. In my last post, I downplayed the effect that Daylight Savings Time would have on me, because I work late and it's usually getting dark by the time I drive home. Except that it is downright invigorating not to walk out to the parking lot and drive home in the pitch dark, and sometimes I even get home with enough time for a walk before night falls. It's really fantastic.

I was also wrong to think that spring would come in a pleasant stepwise fashion. I've lived in New England and the Northeast long enough to know that spring is an ephemeral season, ever changing and predictable only in its unpredictability. We can generally depend on the ski areas staying open into the middle of April and the ground to be warm enough for planting tomatoes on Memorial Day, but anything can and typically does happen between March 20th and June 21st - wintry mix, floods, ice storms, 70-degree weather, weeks of continuous rain (or so it seems), mud season, black flies and maple syrup. Case in point - it was so warm that I didn't wear socks this past Friday, and yesterday it snowed five inches.

This weekend, the extra daylight was much appreciated as we hosted our second annual maple sugaring party. This party is actually just a ruse to coerce our friends and family into hanging out with us as we stand around all day waiting for maple sap to boil down into maple syrup. And it does take ALL DAY to boil down maple syrup - we figure it takes about 12 hours for us to boil down 20 gallons of sap into a half gallon of syrup. (For you math fiends out there, the ratio is 40 gallons of sap yielding 1 gallon of syrup - or 39 gallons of water that need to be turned into steam.) Commercial maple producers and serious hobbyists have specialized equipment to move the process along faster and are substantially more efficient. We have an abundance of scrap wood and free time, so we boil in a big pot over an open fire.

We got a late start this year on the boiling, so even though we stayed out until the sun went down (and much later into the full moon night), we ended up finishing the syrup the next day. It was a beautiful thing - sweet-smelling, amber-hued maple syrup on a Sunday morning. We're storing the jars of syrup in the fridge until we can distribute it to our partygoers.

The sweetest part of springtime - maple syrup
The non-linear tendency of a New England spring may be morally trying and spiritually disheartening, but it's great for maple syrup producers. Maple sap runs and is extracted by maple syrup producers when temperatures get below freezing at night and about 40 degrees during the day and before the trees bud out - not exactly the balmy springtime weather we might wish for. However, if we had ever-improving weather during springtime, the trees would bud out quickly and the maple syrup season would be short indeed. But with the on-again, off-again nature of the weather, there's usually around 6 weeks of maple sugaring season starting sometime in late February and ending sometime in late March or early April.

Stay tuned for the results of this upcoming weekend's maple sugar boil... we're hoping to have another 20 gallons to boil down.