Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Leek Harvest

Leeks pulled from the dirt and waiting to be cleaned up.

All those leeks I was so excited about a few months ago decided to bolt to flower and had to be dug. I got half the bed out about 10 days ago and the second half out last week. I had to loosen them with a spading fork first and then gently pull them out of the ground. D. had done an excellent job of planting them in a furrow and then hilling the soil up around them so they were about 6-8 inches under the ground and had nice long sections of blanched white, the part you want to eat.

Once I had lifted them from the dirt and laid them in piles along the row, I sat on a stool and cut the long green tops and roots off with a knife and tossed them in a pile. My overwhelming thought was that I could never be a migrant worker and that most of us probably never think about the people that do back breaking work in the fields from dawn to dusk to bring food to the American table and for a pittance. I was only at it for an hour each time and my back hurt.

Cleaning the leeks was challenging, their roots were like thick brushes and held lots of dirt that I had to pull free before cutting/ripping the roots down to the bottom of the leek, being careful not to actually cut into the fleshy part. I understand why leeks are so expensive. For one thing their growing season is something like 300 days. We started the seeds for these in July of 2007, planted the young plants into the ground in September, dutifully weeded, and hilled the soil around them for good blanching and mulched and watered them through the winter. The reward:
We harvested quite a few through the early spring and now have about 100 in the fridge.

Leeks are also kind of a hassle to clean, all that hilling makes them collect dirt in the places where the layers turn to green, so they must be carefully washed to keep them from being gritty- if they are real bad I just rinse and then slice them and put them in a big bowl of water to let all the grit settle out and then lift them into a strainer to drain before I cook them. So why bother you might ask?

THE FLAVOR. They are sweeter and more tender than other onions. Cooked slowly in butter or olive oil in a covered skillet that allows them to sweat a bit and get very tender, they are creamy and like no other onion. A favorite dish of late is to brown lumps of Italian sausage in olive oil, add a big pile of chopped leeks and cook till tender. In another pot cook pasta- orechiette or penne are nice- just before the pasta is done, add a couple of big handfuls of cleaned greens- your choice at this time of year, chard, spinach, or kale are good - add a ladle or two of the pasta water to the skillet and then strain out the pasta and greens and toss into the skillet with the sausage and the leeks. Add salt and fresh black pepper and top with a nice grating cheese and yumm is the word.

Now maybe because the leeks were trying to flower, they had all these baby leeks around the base of the plants. They reminded me of the lower register keys on a clarinet or possibly a wood golf club. Some had long green tops and I stuck them back in the ground, others were tiny pearls and I'm suspicious that if we put them back in the ground they might make a fall leek crop and set up a beautiful leek regeneration cycle. We'll find out.

With some of these leeks I fixed one of the most delicious soups I have ever made, EVER.

Here is the recipe, I call it Cream of Spring Green Soup

Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large stock pot

Rinse and chop 8-10 leeks and saute in the butter, put a lid on, lower heat and cook till tender

Add a quart of chicken broth and a quart of water and bring to a simmer.

Add a 1/4 t of cayenne and a 1/4 t of white pepper and 1 t of salt


The tender stems from two bunches of asparagus -about 6 cups (reserve tops for garnish)

2 cups of chard, stemmed and washed

1 cup of Italian parsley, stemmed and washed

Add more water or broth if you need to cover the veggies

Cook just until asparagus stems start to get tender

Add three cups of sugar snap peas and cook for about two minutes, just until the peas turn bright green.

Remove whole pot from the stove and put into a sink full of ice water and stir to cool quickly and preserve the bright green color.

When cool, puree in batches in a blender and then put through a food mill.

Cook the asparagus tips and another cup of snap peas, till bright green, refresh in ice water, chop and add to soup along with salt and pepper to taste and a little heavy cream. Can be served hot or cold. Also I think a little chopped ham, or crab or cooked shrimp added at the end would be good. You could make a smaller batch- I froze a lot of it to enjoy a cool taste of spring on a hot July night. DELISH!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tour de Coops, Henside the Beltline

So last Saturday- which feels like about a month ago- I went to Raleigh with my friend Susie to check out the Parade of Combs. For the third year running, Urban Ministries has sponsored a tour of inner city hen houses and chicken coops to raise money for their programs.

We were surprised how many people have chickens in their suburban backyards and saw more than 20 different breeds along the way. We visited 8 different coops; they ranged from simple chicken wire and recycled wood enclosures, to a mobile house that got moved around a shady backyard, to what I termed the Taj Majal of coops. This last one was built to match the 50's bungalow of the home where two gentlemen were keeping their 4 hens.

My favorite quote of the day was from our first stop, a little sunshine yellow house with chicken art on the fence posts. A mid-forties mom who, when asked why she got the chickens said, "It was a mid-life thing, first I started the vegetable beds, then the compost, got a rain barrel and I was reading this book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and around about Chapter 5 they got chickens and that was it, I just had to have some."
She went on to say her husband was a CPA and thought it was a crazy idea but finally agreed. They screened in the area under their high back deck for the birds, I wonder if she'll think better of that location when the weather starts to heat up?
It was a fun time and we also learned a lot about keeping chickens including the spiritual benefits. One owner, the professor of a workshop called Chickens 101, said it's really about watching the birds, he claims that chickens are grounded like nothing else.
All the chickens had names and the owners were quite attached. It felt like the new "in thing" for yuppies to have a coop in their backyards. I was pretty inspired but not enough to run out and get a little flock, something that I imagine I would like to do. With vacations coming up- I don't want to tie myself down to a hen house that needs daily attention, and luckily, we get all the excellent fresh eggs we can really eat from the farm next door so their isn't major incentive to start my own flock, other than I think it would be a cool adventure. Eventually it will probably happen, but not quite yet.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Strawberries for Gertrude

Meet Gertrude. She's our resident turtle. We've been seeing her around the place for at least five years.

We know its Gertie by the light areas on the back edge of her shell. We've watched her lay eggs in our garden three different times and Mr. D once saw the hatchlings. It's a long slow process as she digs the hole, getting it just right, feeling with her hind legs to determine if the hole is the proper depth and size. Then in a turtle labor trance she jerks her head a few times and slowly pops a long white rubbery egg out into the hole and feels again with her hind legs that it is properly positioned before squeezing another one out.

It's hard to believe she could have more than one in her little body, they are about an inch and a half long and half an inch wide. We've gotten tired of watching as its so slow, so we aren't sure how many she actually lays. When we've witnessed the egg laying, we mark the spot so as not to disturb it until the eggs have hatched. Supposedly the incubation lasts about 3 months, so we mark the calendar, but we've only seen the babies one time.

We feel a little guilty since we put up our groundhog/rabbit fence because now Gertrude can't get into the vegetable garden to snack on some of her favorite foods. So we've been feeding her strawberries whenever we've seen her around in the last few weeks. She turned up her nose at some out of season cantaloupe that D tried to feed her from the fridge the other day. Discerning locavore that she is, she would have none of it.

The strawberries are about done so we'll have to find something else for her until the tomatoes start coming in, her other favorite food.

Isn't the skin on her neck amazing as she reaches out for another juicy bite?

Check out my May Chapel Hill News Column which sports a super photo taken by Mr. D. of a male Rose- Breasted Grosbeak at our feeder.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Migration Time

Fairbanks peonies in full bloom
I'm just in from a morning walk. Yesterday the trees were filled with migrating warblers, stopped in their tracks on their journey north by the cold and rain. Magnolia, Chestnut-Sided and Canada Warblers flittered through the branches in droves snapping up every bug and worm they could get their beaks on.

Today was almost quiet in comparison, yesterdays travelers having ventured on to points north. I could still hear the buzzy "beer, beer, bee" call of the Black-Throated Blues, they tend to linger for a couple of weeks here on their way to the breeding grounds. I heard the squeeky wheel call of the Black and White Warbler too but could never spot it. A few American Redstarts flashed me with their reddish orange, black and white feathers.

The Little Green Heron showed himself to me, back to spend the summer on our pond. He's not green at all, but sports a back of slatey gray and a cream colored throat that streaks down across his velvet purple breast. Indigo Buntings, and Common Yellow Throats skulk in the low shrubs at the marsh end of the pond while Scarlet and Summer Tanagers jump through the high canopy calling for mates.

A female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak has been at the feeder for several days, following a male that was here briefly last week. Red-Shouldered Hawks, Black and Turkey Vultures circle in the sky. Nesting flycatchers squeak from all sides; the Acadian with his two-noted "pizza', the PeeWee sings "pee wee, pee you" and the Phoebe calls its scratchy name out loud.

On the home front, the leeks need to be dug as they are bolting to flower, the asparagus are slowing down and the snap peas are speeding up. All the seeds I planted last week are up, okra, beans, cukes and squash, reaching for the sun after the two inches of rain that fell last weekend.

The rose trellis is finally completed. The rose, which had been lying on the ground, carefully tied across the posts, still looks a little awkward but we have faith it will fill in and naturalize with time. I'm planning to put three Jackmanii clematis one on each main post to help fill the monster up. Hopefully it will eventually shade the West side of the house a bit and break up that giant wall.

The little Chickadee that we returned to the nest last week was spotted the next day, being eaten by a snake. I had said to D when he put it back, though I heartily approved of his actions, that we were changing evolution, that bird perhaps was not meant to live. Well- our intervention was clearly unsuccessful, the harsher side of the natural world at work.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I'm Back

I've taken a much needed break from the blogging after the April marathon! And its been an amazing week. I've worked a ton in the veggie garden, planted peppers, okra, beans, squash, melons and cukes. Weeded, watered and generally tidied the place right up- its looking pretty fantastic out there if I do say so myself.

We are still picking and eating lots of asparagus and now the sugar snaps are starting to come on, yumm. The greens are going to town as well and we've been eating spinach, chard, kale, and tatsoi. We've been harvesting leeks to go along with everything else. It's stir fry season.

Speaking of stir-fry- a major project this week- mostly done by good sir D- was to plug about 20 logs with 1000 plugs of shitake mushroom spore. We've done it once before and it was really worthwhile, as we have had a semi-steady stream of shitakes for about 4 years. The old logs had played out though so it was time to start some fresh.

It's work getting this done, gathering the logs, which should be oak and about 6 inches across and freshly cut before the tree leafs out so they aren't too sappy inside. Then you have to drill holes in a diamond pattern all around the log, pound in the wooden plugs that are inoculated with the spore and cover each hole with wax. It took probably 10 hours or more from start to finish over several sessions- but- in about 6-8 months they should start to produce and continue on for 4-5 years. It's kind of like planting the asparagus bed, lots of work up front for lots of bounty later.

D also finished building the monster rose arbor he'd been working on for awhile on the west side of the house and the two of us with ladders managed to arrange the "New Dawn" rose, whose seriously thorny vines were trailing along the ground for 15 feet, up onto the trellis and make it look halfway decent. It will be a while, but I think it will fill in and I want to add some clematis to the mix. The rose is covered with buds so we got it up there just in time.

Tonight while on our garden tour, D spotted a baby chickadee that had fallen out of the nest pot hanging in the Japanese maple. He picked it up and tried to put it back in and it squealed and jumped back out. After a bit of a scramble through the flower bed he caught it again and managed to get it back inside where this time it stayed. In a minute the mom was at the house, squawking. They'll be fledging soon but this one was just a little bit too tiny yet, and incredibly cute.

Also in the birding world we had a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the feeder Monday night and Tuesday morning, chowing down and letting us take long looks, D took a bunch of pictures, I'll try to post one this week. Also had the first scarlet tanager in the yard this week, the summer tanager has been seen and heard regularly and black-throated blue warblers are in the woods. Otherwise it seems it's been a very slow migration this year with out many sightings of the more exciting passerines. Not sure if its the weather or some greater cosmic or environmental shift, hopefully not the latter.

In other news, the strawberries have been excellent, picking about a pint a day for the last 10 days, last night we guilded the lily when D ran out to Maple View for some vanilla ice cream- MMMM Good.