Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chicken Litter and Cranberries

I just heard Susy Morris of the blog Chiot's Run reflect on her constant striving to do things efficiently - Chiot's Run has started a podcast series, which is interesting and thought-provoking. In particular, she described how she has gotten good at working efficiently in the garden, so that it doesn't take up all of her time.

It is great advice to work smarter, not harder. But sometimes it takes the experience of working harder first to make you ponder, "Shouldn't there be an easier way?"

Case in point - cleaning out the chicken coop.

Here's some background - We use the deep litter method with our chickens, which is an unoffensive way to describe the rather unglamorous piling-up of chicken poo and pine shavings. Instead of cleaning the chicken coop like a cat litter box (i.e. always in cleaning mode), you cover the animal waste periodically with a new layer of pine shavings and allow a deep layer to accumulate over time. This is a low-maintenance way to keep chickens, but eventually you will need to actually clean out the coop.

Now, jump to a sunny day two weeks ago - I decide that I REALLY need to clean the chicken coop before winter, and that today is THE day. I open the chicken coop, and immediately notice the big pile of chicken litter directly underneath the chickens' roosts and on the edge of one of the nest boxes. It is enormous compared to the layers of chicken litter over by the food and water dishes.

Hmmm... I wonder if I can reduce the number of times that I need to clean out the whole chicken coop, if I start doing routine maintenance work in the chicken roost area, where 90% of the feces are headed. Wouldn't that be easier?

Yes. (Duh.)

Turns out that it's much easier to do some "kitty litter box" maintenance in the areas where chicken poo accumulates rapidly, and continue with the deep litter method in the rest of the coop. It's sort of a shame that this revelation has taken a year and a half to arrive, but I can already tell a difference.


Cranberries for syrup, apples for sauce.

In other news, this month's Can It Up challenge was for cranberries. I'm trying a new recipe each month in super small batches, so I can experiment a little without investing a lot in ingredients or time.

I'm a huge fan of pickled cranberries from Marisa at Food in Jars, but I had another recipe from Marisa's cookbook that I wanted to try - CRANBERRY SYRUP!

I love the simplicity of this recipe -
1) Put cranberries in pot, add water, boil until cranberries pop.
2) Strain juice from cranberry pulp.
3) Add sugar to juice, boil until mixture is syrupy.
4) Ladle into jars and preserve in a boiling water bath.

The verdict - I think I may have cooked the cranberry syrup too much, as the syrup has a soft set, almost like a runny jelly. It tastes fine, but doesn't dissolve well in sparkling water to make a cranberry spritzer.

I need to figure out some other ways to use my cranberry syrup/jelly - any ideas?

Deep red juice drips from boiled cranberries.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Garden to Bed, Back in the Kitchen

I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally had a killing frost this year. I was ready to tear out the tomatoes and cucumbers and green beans. Most summertime plants are looking pretty sad by the time fall rolls around - powdery mildew on the cucumbers, the pumpkin vines have died back, and even the sunflowers start looking weather-beaten.

Note to self: tomatoes don't ripen well here after Labor Day - must tear out tomato vines sooner. That's another crucial point I'm just starting to realize - certain plants have their peak and then start on a slow decline. The flavor and texture of late-ripening tomatoes is profoundly inferior to those ripening in the heat of summer.

The garden is not completely barren yet - I still have two plantings of huge Swiss chard and a planting of parsley so large that it resembles a shrubbery (a nice one, not too expensive). Both are very tasty, but somewhat overwhelming. I extend my gratitude to friends and family who have been pruning back the chard forest!

Apple cider boiled down into syrup
Because the gardening season is cycling into hibernation mode, I'm moving my efforts indoors into the kitchen. I've got a new venture for this transition into winter - I'm trying out a food preserving challenge called Can It Up!

Each month, our lovely host Hima at All Four Burners blog will post one ingredient which we should make into some sort of food that can be put in a canning jar and boiled in a pot of water.

For October, the ingredient was APPLES, so I made boiled cider, which is exactly what it's named. You press fresh cider at your parents' house with your sister's apple press, have your dad drive the cider to your house (because you forgot to take it home with you), and then you put the cider in a pot and boil it until it becomes thick and syrupy.

I did put these jars into a water bath for canning (boiled 10 minutes for quarter-pints - as estimated from somewhat similar jelly recipes), but most recipes I found for boiled cider recommended just storing it in the fridge for a few months.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Quiet Spell in the Garden

Other than the routine maintenance and periodic harvesting, it's a surprisingly slow period in the garden the past two weeks. It's an in-between time where I seem to have conquered some of the pest insect populations for the time being, and I'm waiting for more than one tomato to ripen at a time.

There are numerous factors that have contributed to this phenomenon:

  • The plants I chose to grow this year - for example, I grew cabbage (harvested a few weeks ago), broccoli (which produces small amounts of broccoli over the course of a few weeks) and Brussels sprouts (to be harvested in late fall). This breaks up the labor of harvesting over a long period of time.
  • The timing of planting - I planted pole beans, cucumbers and eggplants late, so they are not producing yet.
  • Seed packet mislabeling - I planted "carrot" seeds, but dill came up instead.
  • The quirky nature of plant growth, likely influenced by weather and nutrient availability - the okra loves the heat but not cool weather, lettuce hates hot weather, and I think several of my pepper plants have too much nitrogen to bother with producing flowers. My onions are not doing well, but I'm not sure why that might be.
  • Massive weeding operations two weeks ago. I had fallen behind with weeding and enlisted my husband's help to catch back up. For now, it's easier and less time-consuming to keep up on weeding.

So, what to do when you feel like you can take a break from the garden?

  • Go to the farmstand and purchase produce you don't grow in your own yard. Eat peaches, corn and blueberries while they are in season. Or put these splendid fruits and vegetables into your freezer or pantry. I am trying reusable Tattler lids this year for canning, and I am really pleased with how well they seal.
  • Figure out how to use up the fruits of your labor. I find it difficult to both garden and cook in the summer. So, a break from the garden should allow me to seek out new ways to eat my home-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs, like this tomato fennel pasta sauce.
  • Take time to enjoy the summer! There are other ways to get exercise than pulling weeds in the garden. I spent the weekend with my parents and sister, watching the Olympics and enjoying some down-time.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fall Planting Already?

We saw our first red leaves on the maple last week.

Incredible - it seems like a trick, but it's not.

This got me to thinking that tomorrow is the first day of August, and it's a short few weeks until fall rolls around.

This means that it's prep time - preparation for the fall garden. I'll likely plant carrots, beets, radishes and greens - spinach, lettuce, arugula, and I'll try out planting mache this year as well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The First Tomato

I've been watching one particular tomato intently for the last week. It's been slowly turning green to pink to orange-ish and then finally to red and to deep red.

It is a hybrid tomato that spent its first months in a greenhouse at a local farm, until I went on a farm tour and received a free plant to take home.

I do not have a photo, but let me assure you - this is a run-of-the-mill hybrid tomato that looks like something you could buy at the grocery store. It's not exciting on its own merits of taste and aesthetic appeal, but has earned its very own blog post by virtue of getting a headstart by early propagation. The first harvest of any produce is exciting, as it portends future bounty.

So, how will I eat this first tomato? I don't know yet. I feel like the first tomato of the year should get special treatment, but I can't seem to decide how it might be prepared. Usually, the first tomato of the year is a cherry tomato, and that's easy to figure out how to eat - straight from the vine.

Tomato with goat cheese?
Chopped tomato in scrambled eggs?
A composed salad with tomato wedges arranged around the edge of the plate?

What would you do with your first tomato?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Knee High by the Fourth of July

Did you know that you can keep track of the summer's passing by watching patches and fields of corn stretched along state highways and back roads? In the Northeast, we say "knee high by the Fourth of July."

This week, as I've been staking up many of my garden plants, I've noticed that there are several other vegetable plants (besides corn) that grow to be knee-high or even waist-high by Independence Day:
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Pie pumpkins, if you are trellising vertically
  • Sunflowers 
  • Brussels sprouts

Some of my Brussels sprouts and sunflowers were eaten back by a roving deer, who has been clipping the neighbors' pea plants. I am trying out a product called Liquid Fence to discourage him or her from a return visit. Liquid Fence is made principally with rotten eggs and garlic, which I should hope would be  a sufficient deterrent.

You know what else is great about July? You start harvesting baskets of produce, instead of handfuls. Yay for summer.
The scissors are in there for scale, not for eating.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Bumper Crop of Snow Peas

Every winter, during garden planning, I ask my husband what we should grow next year.

To which I get the same few answers: cucumbers, lettuce, cilantro and snow peas.

I think it's good to have a husband who knows what he wants; or at the very least, it's good to have a husband who knows what he wants in the garden. Garden planning gets a little easier when you have some standard vegetables that you know you will grow year after year.

I've had troubles in the past growing lettuce and cilantro, and this year, I've replanted my cucumbers three times. But so far, I've had really good luck growing snow peas.

And this year, we are getting a bumper crop of snow peas. Yahoo!

What do you do when snow peas start to cover your countertop? Eat them, and keep eating them because the pea plants are still flowering and producing new pods.

Get ready to eat them everyday, get yourself some friends who like snow peas, or get crackin' on filling up your freezer with 2012-grown veggies.

My favorite is to eat them fresh - even Briar the dog likes raw snow peas. But they also go great in stirfries with tofu and peppers, or you can make a cold snow-pea salad with peanut sauce.

Snow Pea Salad with Peanut Sauce

Wash and trim a large pile of snow peas.
Saute garlic, green onion and ginger in a small amount of oil in a large wok or skillet.
Add snow peas and saute for two minutes only - just to cook the snow peas a little bit to keep some of their crunch. (You could also add finely shredded carrot, peppers, cabbage, or other veggies at this time.)
Remove the wok or skillet from the heat, and stir in peanut sauce.
Transfer to a serving dish and put in the fridge to chill.

To make your own Peanut Sauce:

Put the following ingredients into a bowl, stir them together, and adjust quantities until you get something good.

Peanut butter - a few spoonfuls
Soy sauce - a small puddle
Very hot water - a small puddle (more if needed to thin to the desired consistency)
Rice wine vinegar - a few splashes
Simple syrup - a drizzle or two
Chili garlic sauce - somewhere between a pinch and a teaspoon (depending on how hot you like it)
Fish sauce - a splash

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Taking a break in early June

We went away this past weekend to visit the great state of New York. It was a wonderful time visiting Adam's parents and family friends, and we got to see some of the recent signs of revitalization in Syracuse, including the Onondaga Creekwalk.

Out for a creekwalk with Briar

Leaving the garden behind for a few days allowed me to take a mental and physical breather. In our climate, early June is a somewhat tense and impatient period. You've done all this work in March, April and May preparing the beds, planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, worrying about the last late frost, fretting over early heat waves... and then June hits - and you just have to wait. The plants have a lot of growing to do; even the early-planted kale and rapini (broccoli raab) isn't quite ready for harvest.

In early June, the weather can start to get really nice and sometimes it even feels like it's high summer. But to the plants, it's still late spring. Which means that it's going to be a while until I start harvesting baskets of produce from the garden. (Right now, I'm harvesting handfuls - check out my 2012 Harvest page to see what's coming out of the garden each week.)

Patience is something that gardeners must cultivate, but when it's is in short supply, I recommend getting away for a while. The garden will keep growing without me, and I can always tackle the weeds next week.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Ever-Expanding Garden

Watching plants grow is a life-affirming practice, and you long to have more.
I can now see how gardening can begin to take over your life.

We built two raised beds three years ago on the far side of the driveway.
We started with two.
The pink stuff is creeping thyme in flower - the bees love it.

A day later, we realized we could build a bed on the near side of the driveway.
And so, we had three.
Peas, chard and turnip greens

Last year, our neighbor asked us if I'd like to grow vegetables in his garden.
And so, we had four.
Garden four is larger than the other beds put together.

This year, we discussed at great length, "Why not put raised beds in front of the house?"
And so, we have five.
New Garden Beds
Look now while there are no weeds.

Actually, we had been growing fruits and vegetables in front of the house for a few years, but the soil was poor and the drainage off the roof directly onto the garden plants wasn't great either. To fix these problems, we built raised beds, set them farther out than the drip edge of the roof, and filled the beds with well-aged composted manure from a local hobby farmer. I have a lot of hope for these new beds.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How to Ignore Your Garden

A friend gave me a copy of Martha Stewart Living to peruse over the weekend, and I found out that the magazine includes a feature at the beginning of the magazine called "Martha's Month."

You might be interested to know, for example, that Martha's to-do list for today included yoga as well as inspecting the garden edging & paving and repairing broken or missing sections. She's also headed off to Morocco next week to give a speech at the Business of Luxury conference. Sounds pleasant, no?

My to-do list includes nothing so wholesome, attentive-to-detail, or glamourous. And it hasn't included much of gardening lately either. I've been pushing off a lot of tasks that I would normally like to tackle during the month of May.

If you want a really good excuse to ignore your gardening duties, I suggest you bring a new member of the family home who needs a lot of attention and love.

Our new furbaby - Briar

Having a new puppy is wonderful, but it sure is time-consuming. 

All hope is not lost for a good garden season this year. Having a short growing season, such as we have in New England, means that there's still plenty of time to locate a source of aged manure and get the plants into the ground.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thinning out the seedlings

Exciting things are happening outside in the garden - it's true, although I have no photos to share today. Working late and having rainy days does not lend itself to taking well-lit garden photos, even though I'm pretty excited about how pretty the gardens are becoming.

Indoors, the seedlings are coming along okay. The broccoli and marigolds are looking great and the watermelons are starting to form their first set of true leaves. I thinned the basil seedlings and used them as micro-greens in a salad - yum! (Broccoli micro-greens are also quite tasty.)

Miniature basil is cute but full of bite and flavor.

Turns out that warm-climate plant seedlings grow better in warm and well-lit environments. I visited my friends on Sunday and viewed their seed-starting table complete with heat mat and fluorescent lights, and noticed a huge difference between my tomato and pepper seedlings and theirs. I think that I need to have two different set-ups for seedlings next year - one for my heat-loving plants and one for cold-climate plants that don't need the extra coddling.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May Showers

May Day 2012 was a wet one - 0.79 inches reported in Concord, NH. This follows a dry April with less than 3 inches of rain and no snow. If you're interested in weather trends, the National Weather Service does monthly summaries and other reports - this link is for summaries from the regional office in Gray, Maine. If you don't live near me, check here for your regional forecast office.

It's hard to celebrate the beauty and sunshine of May on a dark, wet and chilly day... but the geese and their five goslings didn't seem to mind.

The fuzzy things in between the geese are the baby goslings.

The garden didn't mind either - it's been rather dry here, so the soaking rain really gave a good watering. The indoor seedlings were a little more sluggish - cool temps and cloudy days slow their growth. You can see that the marigolds have their first set of true leaves starting, but the watermelons are still just showing their cotyledons, or seed leaves.

Seedlings reaching toward the sun

The weekend forecast is looking good, and I'm planning to turn over my neighbor's garden and plant as much as I can. The springtime showers do lead to flowers, but May also brings black flies - the more that I can do before black fly season, the better.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Inattentive Gardener Experiment

I'm trying a new experiment this year - what I'm calling the no records, no special attention version of seed starting.

At first, this was unintentional. I planted tomato and pepper seeds in reused flats, but I didn't have my stash of reused plant markers on hand to write the types of seeds planted in each row. Then I went away of vacation for a week and then tried to catch up on all the work I'd missed for another week - the seed tray was still on the kitchen table, unlabeled and unwatered. To my surprise, after three weeks of utter neglect, the tomatoes had sprouted!

Taking this as a good sign, I then planted another tray of seeds, also that I didn't bother to label. But this time, I moved the trays to the sunny but unheated front porch. I know that gardening books say to use supplemental lighting and keep the temperature reasonably warm (or quite warm if you want your pepper seeds to germinate) - but I thought I'd like to find out if seedlings can handle the microclimate and sunlight levels on the porch, without needing extra energy.

Little bits of green

I'm hoping that with a few years of experience gardening under my belt, I'll be able to identify the seedlings when they are ready to plant outside; last year, I confused some cucumbers seedlings for squash and ended up with a funny-looking squash patch.

If my inattentive seed-starting experiment works, it's a frugal success story. It it doesn't and I end up with spindly, leggy seedlings, then I'll know better for next time.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Signs of Spring

Red-winged blackbirds congregating in the branches of oak trees, our neighbors raking leaves, ducks pairing up on the lakes, and a little girl dressed up in an pastel-colored Easter dress, heavy wool sweater and bare feet - all these things tell me that it's spring.

Spring is an optimistic time of year all on its own, but this year, I feel a jolt of extra enthusiasm when I go to check out the garden. We started on the yard and garden four years ago, and had our work cut out for us, tearing out a dozen years' worth of neglect and overgrowth. Our work is ongoing - we'd like to build a set of stone steps on the far side of the house, we need to continue cutting out old stems from the  lilac hedge, and there's that pesky front garden bed next to the porch that offers no easy planting plan.

However, when I go outside these days, I'm not thinking how much work remains to be done...

I'm thinking about how well the daffodils have spread over the past few years,

how nicely these little lilac root sprouts have taken to the hillside,

how glad I am that the ground warms up faster in raised beds, 

how thankful I am that spring has come again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Last of the Dark Days

March 31st marked the end of the 2012 Dark Days Challenge. March was a tricky month for local eating, due to travel plans, work demands, and the onion box running low in the pantry. This weekend, I grabbed the very last yellow onion to throw together a quick lunch - my final Dark Days meal.

Pasta from the freezer, canned tomatoes and tomato puree and a yellow onion from the pantry, and a chunk of butter out of the fridge - that's all you need for a hot and simple pasta-with-red-sauce lunch.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen's version of Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking"

Dump a quart of canned tomatoes and a pint of thick tomato puree in a pot.
Drop in one half of a halved onion and a few tablespoons (3-5) of butter.
Heat up the sauce to a boil and then let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Break up some of the tomatoes into more appealing chunks.
Spoon over just-cooked, still-warm pasta.

It's so good that we ate every bite before it crossed our minds to take a photo. Then, we were too eager to get back outside to do yard work to take a photo of our empty bowls. Spring is a good time - full of new energy and enthusiasm for any bit of green or glimpse of spring migrants.

Here's to the end of Dark Days, and to the start of the gardening season!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cucurbitaceae - Loofahs, Lemon Cucumbers and Super Pumpkins

The Cucurbitaceae is a family of vegetables native to tropical and subtropical climates in both the New World (North and South America) and the Old Word (Africa, Europe, Asia) - consisting of such familiar household staples as cucumbers, squash, gourds, melons, and --- wait for it --- loofahs!

Really, it should not come as a complete surprise that we might be able to grow useful household items in the garden - after all, linen is made from flax, hemp cloth is made from hippies a certain green plant, and beets can make a beautiful pink food dye. But I can honestly say I had never contemplated WHERE loofahs might originate. From the loofah gourd, of course.

A sampling of cucumbers from 2011
In my 2012 garden, I am going to pass on the loofah gourd this year, in favor of pickling cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, watermelons, sugar pie pumpkins, super pumpkins, zucchini, yellow summer squash, butternut squash, and Hubbard squash (if I can manage to fit them all in). 

I'm excited about the lemon cucumbers, which are small, mild-tasting cucumbers that will hopefully grow prolifically. In addition, this will be my first year trying to grow a big pumpkin - a.k.a. a super pumpkin! I just found out that growing enormously large pumpkins is serious business. Like racehorses, super-sized pumpkins can be tracked by lineage, with the seeds of the award-winning Biggest Pumpkins being in high demand among a certain crowd. My super pumpkin seeds come from a 1,095-lb pumpkin named Urena from 2007, whose parents were the 1,100-lb Wallace (dad) and the 1,195-lb Zunino (mom).

By the way, the reason why it's easy to track the parentage of pumpkins and other cucurbits is that they have two different types of flowers - male and female. Unlike many other garden plants that have both male and female parts in the same flower (termed "perfect" flowers), cucurbits produce two types of "imperfect" flowers, one with stamens (the male reproductive part) and one with pistils (the female reproductive part). It is a simple process to use the male flower of one variety and hand-pollinate the female flower of another variety. Here's an informative article from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana about breeding your own plants, including a step-by-step on hand-pollination pumpkins or squash.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Fabaceae Family: Cosmopolitan Beans

This post is all about beans... hopefully, it will be more interesting or useful than a hill of beans.
The Fabaceae is the bean family, which includes, among many others, the pea, the green bean, the lentil, the soybean, the fava bean, the black bean, the chickpea, and the peanut.

Snow peas in a tangle of vines
The bean family is considered "cosmopolitan"because these plants are found throughout the world. The bean family is extremely important to many food cultures, providing a wonderful source of vegetable protein that is portable, storable and flexible. By flexible, I mean that there is a wide variety of ways that beans can be prepared - beans can be eaten raw, dried and then cooked, smushed into hummus or peanut butter, ground into flour, fermented into tofu, tempeh, soy sauce and miso, and even concocted into red-bean ice cream.

Personally, I prefer fresh green beans to dried beans, and so I am devoting a good amount of space in the garden for both bush beans and pole beans (Rattlesnake and Kentucky Wonder). However, if I don't quite get to all the Rattlesnake beans in time, I've read that these taste something like pinto beans when dried and cooked. I'm also planning to grow a lot of snowpeas, as these flat green pods are a favorite in our household - and they freeze really well. Depending on space constraints and my ambition, maybe I will plant green shelling peas, as you really can't have pasta primavera or chicken pot pie without peas. This year will be the first year for trying to grow soybeans for edamame-eating purposes; I've ordered the Beer Friend variety from Fedco. (How could you not love a soybean that is a friend of beer?)

Hard to believe my garden will look like this in 3 short months.

For Dark Days Week 14, our challenge within a challenge is to cook a vegetarian meal. While the easy way out would have been to make this egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, I worked with my husband to make a green bean noodle casserole with mushroom sauce. I need to work on my egg noodle-making - the first time was not the charm.

Local ingredients - eggs, wild mushrooms, onions, shallots, butter and milk.
Flour from King Arthur Flour (local company, but grains grown in the Midwest)
Frozen green beans from Trader Joe's - I thought I had some garden beans left from last summer, but I couldn't find them in the chest freezer.

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Weekends, Cat Naps and Puff Pancakes

It's Week 12 of the Dark Days Challenge and Leap Day 2012 is rapidly approaching. Wow - January and February have simply flown by!

As it's now closer to Easter than Christmas, I don't think I'll be getting around to sending out my winter holiday cards this year. When the weeks are just packed of pressing work, deadlines, and night meetings, the weekends seem all the more precious and the mere glimmer of a thought about a moment of down-time beckons seductively.

The mighty hunter cuddle-kitty
One antidote to this whole ultra-busy time is, of course, to take a cue from the cat. Magalloway knows the value in a well-timed nap (by well-timed, I mean, just about any time of day for any amount of time). He also recognizes that it is important to do the things you want to do when you feel like doing them - for example, when he wants to catch a grasshopper in the garden, he will focus on it so intently it makes you think that time is standing still.

Leisure time = arranging apple slices in a pie pan
This past weekend, we decided to do our best feline impressions - taking a nap on Saturday afternoon and making a large, elaborate brunch on Sunday. It was wonderful to just sit at the kitchen table without feeling a rush to move onto to the next task at hand - yeah, I can dig that.

And what could be better for a leisurely brunch than apple puff pancake? This is one recipe that you can't rush - it is leavened by beaten eggs and only rises to its full golden-brown height in the last minutes of baking. It's beautiful, sweet, simple and satisfying.

Apple puff pancake fresh from the oven

Local ingredients -
Empire apples - Cardigan Mtn. Orchards
Eggs and maple syrup - the backyard
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Flour - Farmer Ground, Finger Lakes of NY
Butter - Cabot Creamery

Non-local ingredients - 
Brown sugar
Cinnamon and allspice

Monday, February 20, 2012

No Sap, but a Red Sauce (Dark Days 12)

Adam made his decision this weekend - no maple sugaring this year.
I'm a little disappointed, but at the same time, this has been a year without winter.
It doesn't feel right to celebrate the spring thaw when the winter hasn't frozen your soul stiff.

There are practical reasons as well to skipping the sugaring season; among the practical issues are that the sap barrel can't be kept cold with a blanket of snow and that we've already missed the early part of the run, which produces the lightest and prettiest syrup.

Instead of boiling sap, I tried my hand at boiling down tomato puree with some sugar, vinegar and spices to make a quick tomato ketchup. I adapted a summer grilling recipe to a "late winter/early spring/I don't know what season it is, but the chickens are happy to be outside" recipe boiled down on the wood stove. I'm calling this the heart of redness sauce, because the color turns out to be an impossibly deep red - primal and intoxicating like Joseph Conrad's novel.

Into the heart of redness - so tasty

The Heart of Redness Sauce - a winter riff on "Hot Tomato" Jam from James McNair

1 pint tomato puree (or unseasoned tomato sauce)
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 dashes of Sriracha hot sauce (a.k.a. Rooster Sauce)

Mix up all the ingredients in a medium or large skillet. Stick this on the top of the woodstove, or on medium-high heat on your stovetop. Let it boil down 20-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you get a thick sauce that mounds up on your spoon. (Keep an eye on this, because it really depends on how thick your tomato puree or sauce is.) Take it off the heat and let it cool down to a manageable temperature for eating.

"a.k.a scrumptious"
This sauce is SO GOOD! We spread a thick layer on top of lamb burgers seasoned with black pepper, red wine, garlic and sesame oil. Adam gave the burgers and sauce a solid nine out of ten - a.k.a. scrumptious. That's pretty high praise, so I think you should try this at your house, too.

For Sunday dinner, we had lamb burgers with the heart of redness sauce, baked sweet potato fries and Empire apples. The Dark Days Challenge is starting to get a little more ingrained in my cooking. We pulled out some ground lamb from the freezer and I searched for a lamb burger recipe that would not require an additional trip to the grocery store.

Citing my local sources -
Ground lamb - Yankee Farmer's Market
Garlic and sweet potatoes - Spring Ledge Farm
Tomato puree - my garden and Musterfield Farm
Empire apples - Cardigan Mountain Orchard

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Family Solanaceae: Garden Plan 2012 and Dark Days Meal (#11)

I sat down one night last week and started sketching out my garden plans for the spring.

But first, I needed to sketch out what I grew in my garden last year. In order to promote fertile soil and reduce crop disease and pests, it's a good idea to rotate your garden vegetables so that you're not growing nitrogen-hungry tomatoes in the same soil each year. 

I found it helpful to draw 2011 on the left-hand page and 2012 on the right-hand page of my garden notebook. The beds are scaled in my mind, but not on the page... this is more of a schematic than a rigorous planting regimen. This is also a work in progress - note that I am using pencil, not ink here.

Click to open a larger picture in a new window.

I counted over 40 seed packets in my little storage box saved from previous seasons, and having ordered 20 new packets this year, I realized that sharing my planting plans might "get into the weeds" pretty fast. I figured it would make sense to report out on my garden planning on a botanical family basis. So, to start off, let's meet the Solanaceae family...

The Solanaceae is a New World family (i.e. native to the Americas, not Eurasia) of tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, deadly nightshades, belladonna, mandrake (not the shrieking variety of Harry Potter fame), petunias, groundcherries, and many other plants. (For a full listing, visit the USDA Plants database.)

I have a few types of hot and sweet-hot peppers (cayenne, cherry bell, and orange pimiento) that I'm hoping to start as seedlings next month. I have not had much success getting sweet bell peppers to fully ripen, so I think I'll stick to the farmer's market for acquiring a stockpile of those.

For tomatoes, I have ordered Cherokee Purple, a big, meaty heirloom that looks positively wild and unkempt but tastes fresh, sweet and juicy. I also have seeds from previous years of several varieties of cherry and paste tomatoes. I have found that smaller tomatoes ripen faster and more uniformly in our garden microclimate. My neighbor, who lives two houses over, grows outstanding Brandywine tomatoes, but I have the hardest time getting my full-size tomatoes to ripen.

Despite my success growing potatoes last year, I'm going to pass on growing them in 2012. They take up a lot of space, and there are excellent and inexpensive sources of potatoes at several local farms. I'm also going to skip growing eggplants - I don't love them enough to allocate them space in the garden this year, plus I can buy them for a good price at both the farm stand and farmer's market in the summer.

Leftover soup for lunch!
Speaking of getting good prices at the farm stand, when the tomatoes start coming in July and August, they don't tend to stop until the frost hits. August/September is a great time of year to ask your farmer about special bulk prices on canning tomatoes. You will thank your farmer at the time of your purchase, and then again in February when you crack open a jar of tomatoes (or pull a container out of the freezer) to make tomato soup.

For my Dark Days meal this week, I tried a new recipe for Cream of Tomato Soup. Despite its origins with a very reputable source (America's Test Kitchen), I found it to be overly complicated for a simple soup and the results were just so-so. Fortunately, there are more tomatoes in the pantry, so I will have the opportunity to try again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dark Days 10: Red Fruit Cobbler

I've been watching the crabapples hang on the tree in the backyard all winter.

Crabapples are supposed to have wildlife value, but I'm guessing that these are so tart that they are a food of absolutely last resort.

Fortunately, I've been able to make a fruit-based dessert in advance of Valentine's Day that is much more appealing than crabapples - this week's Dark Days entry is for a red fruit cobbler made with strawberries, sour cherries and pears.

Sour cherries, dried pears and sliced strawberries
It's true that the pears in my photo are not red, but if you soak dried pears with a jar of canned cherries and a jar of canned strawberries, the pears soak up the red sugar syrup.

Cobbler is one of our favorite desserts, so I was pretty happy to realize that it can be a locally-sourced menu option. For cobbler, you need 6-8 cups of fruit mixed with a bit of sugar, flour and spices placed in the bottom of a baking dish. Then you mix up a moist buttermilk biscuit dough - flour, butter, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk, sugar and salt - and drop that on top of the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the biscuit is golden.

The fruit turns into a thick, chunky sauce.
Because I was using canned fruit preserved in a sugar syrup, I just added flour and a little nutmeg - no extra sugar needed here. Cobbler is also wonderful with peaches and blueberries.

Sources cited:
Sour cherries - Parlee Farms, Tyngsboro, MA
Pears - Poverty Lane Orchards, Lebanon, NH
Strawberries - Edgewater Farms, Plainfield, NH
Flour - Finger Lakes Region, NY
Butter - Cabot Creamery, VT
Milk - MacNamara Dairy, Plainfield, NH
Baking soda, baking powder, spices, sugar, salt, vinegar (to make "buttermilk") - the grocery store

Dark Days 9: Potato Leek Soup

February is fast-approaching, which means I've been thinking about onions.

Onions can be transplanted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring, and you need about 4-6 weeks to grow onions from seed to transplanting size. This whole seed-starting thing is all about working backwards - you start at the date that you want to put your plants in the garden and subtract the appropriate number of weeks to find your seed-starting date.

In my case, I want to start my onions in mid-February, so that I can be prepared for planting out onions on April Fools' Day or shortly thereafter. I have a few raised garden beds that warm up and dry out well before the ground does, so I have been able to get peas and some cold-hardy transplants out in early April. 

Here's a great show-and-tell article from MOFGA about starting and planting onions. I had very little success growing onions last year, so I hope this year goes a little bit better.

It's good to have things to look forward to, especially when we've had more freezing rain than snow this winter. In the meantime, as I wait to pull out the grow lights and seed-starting mix, I've been cleaning the house and working on using up my stockpile of food from last season. 

I tried making soup again, as my last Dark Days soup was a dismal failure - and turned out a hearty and simple potato-leek soup. This soup is not much to look at; its resemblance to wall plaster is striking and somewhat unappetizing. But fortunately, it tastes really good!

The chickens prefer that we eat vegetable-based soups.

I used Deborah Madison's recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but this soup is so easy, I'm not sure you need a recipe, other than to get the proportions of leek to potato correct. I love easy.

Potato leek soup takes 7 ingredients - in order of addition to the pot, you will need butter, leeks, potatoes, salt, water, milk and pepper. If you do not have leeks, you can use scallions.

Locally-sourced ingredients:
Butter - Cabot Creamery
Leeks - Spring Ledge Farm
Potatoes - my garden
Milk - McNamara Dairy (purchased at Spring Ledge Farm)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dark Days 8: Spinach Goat Cheese Flatbread and a Giveaway!

Now that the snow has finally arrived, I am in no rush to get back into the garden. Before it snowed, I felt like I should be doing some sort of yardwork, even though the ground has been frozen solid for weeks. Now, I am blissfully relieved of my obligations to do yardwork or compost-turning until spring comes.

Instead, I have turned my gardening attentions indoors - I am forcing some paperwhites and a red amaryllis to bloom indoors, and I'm trying to nurture the houseplants with a little more care than usual. Also, I've been doing my garden planning for the spring (click here to enter a giveaway for a seed catalog).

In the meantime, I can't live on the beauty of flowers and houseplants alone, so I spent a good amount of the weekend cooking. I am really fortunate to have Spring Ledge Farm's greenhouses so close to my house. They are open Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings through the winter, and their spinach is fresh, crisp and oh-so-very-green. For dinner last night, I made two small flatbread pizzas with garlic-infused olive oil as the base, and spinach, red onion and goat cheese on the top. That's a bit of grated Parmesan that you see in the photo - I'm trying to use up a last little bit of this cheese that has been "aging" in the fridge for months.

That's some creamy chevre.

Garlic-infused olive oil sounds really fancy, right? It's not hard at all and takes about 1 minute to assemble. 

Garlic-Infused Olive Oil -
Take a clove of garlic, smash it flat with the flat side of a knife, chop it finely and put it in a small cup or dish with some olive oil. When you're ready to assemble the pizza five minutes later, dump the olive oil with garlic chunks onto the dough and spread it around the whole pizza all the way to the edge. Also great with crusty bread or breadsticks.

Sources cited:
Pizza dough - Bread flour from Champlain Organics, honey from Cutting Farm, sugar, olive oil, salt, yeast from the grocery store
Red onion - Kearsarge Gore Farm
Goat Cheese - Vermont Cheese Company
Spinach - Spring Ledge Farm
Garlic - from Vanessa's garden
Parmesan cheese - originally from Wisconsin, it's been in the fridge so long, it might now be considered a local product.
Olive oil - Italy (definitely not local... but oh so tasty)

Garden Planning Giveaway - D.S. Landreth Seed Catalog

Imagine America in 1784, one year after the end of the Revolutionary War.

The official treaty ending the war with England was ratified on January 14, 1784. There was no Constitution and no President. (Those didn't come about until 1787 and 1789, respectively.)

Most of New Hampshire was the very fine edge of civilization surrounded by wilderness. Our town was chartered in 1748, but not incorporated as a town until 1784 - the population at the time was just over 300 souls. (The 1783 census for New Hampshire wasn't even 65,000 people!) To give you an idea of what I mean by wilderness, the last time someone in New Hampshire was killed by a black bear was in 1784.

However, a few hundred miles south, the city of Philadelphia was the second largest city in America and much more civilized. Although the American capital was moved away from Philly in 1783 after a soldiers' revolt, Philadelphia had been the meeting place of both the First and Second Continental Congresses. In 1784, Charles Wilson Peale opened his natural history museum, the first daily newspaper in America started production, and Ben Franklin invented bifocals and wrote to his daughter that he disapproved of the eagle as an American symbol, preferring instead the noble turkey.

In this very same year, 1784, the D.S. Landreth Seed Company was founded in Philadelphia, PA. This company is still in existence today, and I feel like I'm holding a little piece of history when I look through the pages of their 2012 seed catalog. This seed company is older than the United States and introduced some iconic garden plant to our country, such as the white-fleshed potato and the tomato and the zinnia.

Summer garden dreaming on a winter's day
I read about the financial straits that this company is currently in and felt compelled to contribute in a small way to the preservation of an heirloom company. Lisa Boone with the LA Times pointed out that Landreth specializes in heirloom varieties, which helps to preserve genetic diversity of food crops and flowers. There was a big push in the fall of 2011 to buy catalogs to raise enough capital for the company to renegotiate its debt. I don't usually purchase seed catalogs, but I must say that I am not disappointed with my purchase.

The catalog includes a lot of advertising art and old articles from the seed company's past, which is quite interesting.

There is also a nice synopsis of the origins of each type of plant, and succinct but useful descriptions of the different varieties available for purchase. I am pleased with the diversity of the offerings for vegetables, herbs and flowers - and I love that there are full-color photos in the centerfold. The tomato pages simply make my mouth water.

Also - my favorite part - there are pages devoted to a children's garden, a patio garden and crops important to African-American history and culture.

The photos bring summer to your living room.
I purchased two copies of the seed catalog, one for me and one for you! I am very pleased to be offering my first blog giveaway. I will mail this catalog anywhere in the US or Canada, if you are the lucky winner.

To enter, leave a comment and tell me what your ancestors were up to in 1784 or a little something about your favorite vegetable. The giveaway will be open until January 31st, 2012.

Disclaimer - I did not receive any compensation for writing this review or holding this giveaway. I purchased two copies of the Landreth seed catalog because I wanted to help give this historic company a chance to reinvigorate itself in the 21st century.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dark Days 7: Lessons Learned from Winter Squash

This week, I bring you two tales of good intentions and not-so-good outcomes.

Kitty happy meal?

I bought a pile of butternut squash and pie pumpkins from Musterfield Farm in September and put it in dry storage in our garage. I put it on a wooden tray up on a high shelf stacked on top of a bucket, which meant it was difficult to see and difficult to pull down.

Last week, I went through the hassle of pulling the tray off the shelf. Guess what I found - one completely putrefied and moldy squash and one icky pumpkin. Straight to the compost for those. I also found a squash with one small soft spot, so the chickens got a special squash treat.

The rest of the winter squash are still fine, but they do not last forever, so I guess we will be eating squash more often in the next few months.

Moral of the story - Check on your root-cellared vegetables frequently.

This week, the Dark Days Challenge organizers have posed a special challenge - the one-pot meal. I had roasted a butternut squash and a small pie pumpkin earlier, and had the puree hanging out in the fridge. Butternut squash soup with garlic and ginger was calling my name.

I didn't quite manage to answer that call. I used onion, garlic, carrot and dried celery as the base of the soup, and got the proportion of dried celery to fresh veggies wrong. Even though I used all local ingredients (except for the ginger), this week's challenge was a failure. The bottom line is that I have a golden-colored soup that tastes like celery instead of squash.

This is a disappointment, my first Dark Days failure. I have still been eating the soup for lunch at work, with chunks of bread thrown in to mop up my sadness.

Moral of the story - 1 teaspoon dried herbs equals 1 tablespoon fresh. Forgetting this rule equals a waste of time.

P.S. The photo above shows Magalloway scoping out the day-old chicks in their transport box. He decided that they were much too loud to eat, so we have the happy outcome of keeping chickens and a pet cat who is interested but afraid of them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dark Days 6: Tzaitziki Eggs

Gardens help us cultivate the idea of "Waste not, Want not" -

We can save seeds from one year to the next.
We can use mulch to save water and hours of weeding effort.
We can convert leaves, spent vines and other yard waste into compost.
We can give the unwanted caterpillars, slugs and kitchen scraps to the chickens.
We can collect used egg cartons and put new eggs in them to store, sell or share.

One of these things is not like the others.
I'm trying to bring that frugal ethic indoors this winter - specifically, to address the issue of food waste.

Like pinatas, New Year's resolutions are only made to be broken. So, this is more of an exercise than a resolution - just a thing to start doing and keep doing. In the summer, I typically end up cramming vegetables in every available cubic inch, so in winter, I certainly appreciate a clean and organized fridge.

I'm a pretty horrible housekeeper, so I can't give you much guidance on how to clean and organize your fridge, or create a weekly menu plan and matching shopping list. One thing that I do know --- if you do not eat your leftovers, the storage containers will start multiplying... rapidly...

To use up a bunch of odds and ends, I cobbled together a nice little dinner. I call this very successful experiment in leftovers... Tzaitziki Eggs!

Tzaitziki Eggs
Butter for the pan
A handful of minced onion
A few eggs
A sprinkle or two of feta cheese (I love feta with eggs - it's great.)
Tzaitziki sauce
-- Melt the butter, cook up the onion and add the eggs and cheese. Scramble this all together.
-- Scrape out onto a plate and top with tzaitziki sauce.
-- Finish with a few grinds of pepper. Taste this before you add salt, as feta can be quite salty.

Amazingly, I had minced onion, 4 eggs separated and chilling in little Pyrex dishes, leftover feta, and leftover tzaitziki. This required no cracking of eggs, no knife or cutting board - just a cast iron pan and a few grinds of pepper.

This is one of those dishes that you shouldn't knock until you try it - I am definitely going to make this again. This is definitely the lowliest of the low in terms of cuisine, but I believe you could transform this idea into a tasty Greek-style frittata for a classy Sunday brunch.

In case you do not have Tzaitziki Sauce lounging on the second shelf of your refrigerator, you can make this really fast. I call this recipe the Winter Version because true tzaitziki contains cucumbers - but  it's going to be six months before I see a local cucumber.

Tzaitziki Sauce (Winter Version)
1 cup of Greek yogurt (or regular yogurt drained in cheesecloth)
1 large clove of finely minced garlic
1 heaping tablespoon dried parsley
1 heaping tablespoon dried dill
-- Combine all ingredients; adjust seasonings to taste. Let sit for a few hours or a few days in the fridge to develop flavor.

Sources cited:
Butter and Greek yogurt - Cabot Creamery, VT
Onion and garlic - Spring Ledge Farm, New London, NH
Eggs, parsley and dill - my gardens and henhouse
Feta cheese - the grocery store (so probably the cheese is from Wisconsin)

In terms of local-sourcing this time around, I did pretty well - every thing was local except the feta. I have not found a reasonably-priced locally-produced feta cheese in the food stores that I frequent. Sounds like I need to research this more to track down some feta.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dark Days #5: Hard Cider

Oh, what a difference a year makes!

This time last year, you would have found me perusing my Fedco seed catalog with a big mug of tea, as shown below.
Ahh, the zen of garden planning.

2012 has brought some changes - this is my seed-purchase planning spread this year.
No zen this year, more like ordered chaos.

You may notice that my collection of garden books and catalogs has rapidly expanded. And I've swapped the tea for hard cider.

No, garden planning is not so stressful that I'm driven to drink! Today is Thursday and that means it's Growler Day at Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, where locals can stock up on the offerings of the day at a discount.

While hard cider was the original American adult beverage of choice, it is not well-known today. What I've been enjoying this winter's evening is nothing like Woodchuck or Hornsby's; Farnum Hill tastes much more like a dry white wine. I'll let owner Steve Wood tell you about it himself - here's a clip from the PBS production "The Botany of Desire" where Steve was interviewed. (The feature-length documentary is based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name, written before he started on his lengthy, multi-book quest to find the answer to life's most persistent question, "What's for dinner?")

Garden planning brings out the eternal optimist in all of us, but each year, the motivation changes a little. Discovery of new or different varieties, hard lessons learned from the year prior, and surprising successes all play a role in the general feeling of "anything is possible" for the upcoming year's garden.

For 2012, I've got three primary motivators for my garden planning:

1) I'm feeling ambitious to really work on season-extension this year, so I can be working in the garden from March through December. 2012 will be the year of the cold frame.

2) Julie introduced me to some new tasty vegetables that she grew in her education garden at the Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farm in 2011, and that I really want to grow this year. Julie's enthusiasm for growing and eating vegetables is positively contagious. Specifically, I want to try out salad turnips and braising greens (choy, mustard greens, broccoli raab, etc.) and garnish kale.

3) My aunt and mother-in-law gave me gifts of garden books for my birthday, full of tips, recommendations and layouts. I've relied on the good words of Mel Bartholomew and Eliot Coleman for garden planning help in the past, but I'm really enjoying The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch and The Kitchen Gardeners' Handbook by Jennifer Bartley this year. I will review these books in more detail this winter.

I'll also share my planting list and seed order with you all shortly. Readers, are there any new varieties you're planning to try out this year?

As this is a Dark Days challenge post, I should mention that I did eat more for dinner than just hard cider. The hard cider is an excellent local beverage pairing with my meal this week, but unfortunately, I fell a little short on the local choices for the food part of the meal.

Adam cooked black duck and Canada goose breasts with shallot and sweet cherry, and I prepared a side of homemade pasta, rosemary-infused olive oil and Parmesan cheese. The duck and goose were local (well, they are migratory, but were shot flying over Great Bay in New Hampshire), and the pasta and rosemary-infused olive oil were homemade, but the shallots, cherries and cheese were all from far away lands. Not a great week for Dark Days eating... but a very good week for Dark Days drinking.