Monday, December 26, 2011

TREE!

It's that time of year when some people bring trees inside the house.  We are no exception, though it has been several years since we had a holiday tree.  Last year we were traveling to surprise my brother Jonny for his 60th birthday.  The year before I was in Oaxaca, Mexico for the entire month of December.  So it was high time for us to tromp around the woods in search of just the right cedar tree to drag home and erect in the living room.
Over the years we have had all kinds of strange trees, one year so large it reached the peak of our 16 foot ceiling, that was really too much, you could barely get into the room with the thing.  Another year we had one with a big hole on one side so you could more or less walk into the tree, that was unique.  I think this years tree is one of our best but it is really hard to do it justice in a single photo, it just seems impossible to capture the grandure of the thing. In this picture it looks kind of scrawny, it's really anything but.

The beauty of a cedar is the airiness of the branches and needles.  You can hang ornaments deep within the branches and see into the center and out the other side. 
To me this makes a cedar tree more special than a fir tree which tends to be thick and all the ornaments sort of perch on the outside of the tree.  At night the tips cast a filigree shadow against the ceiling around the bevy of hand made angels.




We have some very large ornaments and many handmade ones as well.  I consider this guy, Sterling Frog, to be the master of ceremonies.
Unpacking the boxes and rediscovering the many treasures prompts us to say "it's just like Christmas! Oh right, it is Christmas!"  As we pull out items that were given to us by friends, tin ornaments from Mexico, painted ceramic birds from Guatemala, remembering the many seasons, and trips and times with friends and family as we unwrap and hang the various treasures.
This little elf was one of my parents ornaments, a favorite from my girlhood, I hung him so he's looking down on me as I sit admiring the tree.  It's so nice to be home this time of year, not traveling for a change and just able to enjoy the tree.  We turn on its lights first thing when we get out of bed in the morning, watching it twinkle as we drink our morning coffee, nibbling on cookies or some other holiday treat.  And again at the end of the day, we spend some time soaking in the beauty and basking in the strangeness of having a tree inside the house, decked out as my father used to say "like and old whore".

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Stollen

Yesterday I mentioned the stollen. My friend Claudia asked for the recipe so I thought I would put that up here.  Stollen isn't one of our family traditions, although we do have some German ancestry.  I baked it for the first time a few years ago and it was so yummy I thought I would try again this year. It is expensive to make, loaded with dried fruits, nuts, eggs and butter, but it's even more expensive to buy, so worth the effort. 

I did a little research, looking at some other recipes, and learned all sorts of interesting facts about Stollen along the way.  Stollen is a traditional bread from Dresden, Germany.  Stories vary on when it was first baked, 1300's or 1400's, but most accounts agree that the original stollen was a bland affair made of flour, oats and water because of the ban by the Catholic Church on the use of butter during advent.  At some point-again records vary- some say 1400's others 1700's- a plea was sent to the Pope asking for butter to be used to bake the traditional Christmas bread. At some point, one of the Popes finally agreed and sent what is now known as "the butter letter" allowing the use of butter, but only by the family that made the request.  All others were required to pay a tribute to the church if they would use butter during advent, oh those wily Catholics.

Over the years the stollens were made larger and larger and special giant stollens were baked for the church and political dignitaries, some weighing over a ton.  Since 1994 Dresden has held a Stollen Festival that features a giant stollen baked by multiple bakers in many pieces and patched together to create a stollen weighing several tons.  The largest on record was baked for the 2000 stollen festival and weighed 4,200 kilos!  That's one big loaf of bread.  They construct it on a special cart, bring it to the town square and cut it with a special stollen knife, then sell the pieces to the crowd. They also have a stollen maiden.  It's a big tourism and publicity affair for Dresden.  You can read all about it here.

I wondered why the loaves were supposed to be so big and now I understand.  The recipe I use says to  make 3 or 4 loaves, I made 6 and even then I had trouble fitting them all into my oven at once.  I had to split the dough into 2 parts at kneading just to manage it all and then let it rise in two separate bowls, so if you're going to try making it, you might want to split the recipe in half unless you are having a party or want to give loaves to friends.  They do make a very pretty gift.  So with out further ado- here's the recipe from A World of Breads by Dolores Casella.  This is an excellent book that I use often, it has many variations and recipes for every kind of bread including biscuits, scones, quick breads, pancakes, yeast breads and more.


Stollen
2 cups milk, scalded and cooled
1 teaspoon of sugar
2 teaspoons of salt
11 cups of flour or more
2 cakes or packages of yeast (2 T active dried) dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
1 pound butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1/4 cup rum or brandy
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 pound slivered, blanched almonds
1 pound assorted candied fruits (I candied my own orange peel- I don't like the commercial candied fruit)
1 pound golden raisins or currants (I combined the candied orange with dried cherries, cranberries, golden and dark raisins and currants to total 2 pounds)
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t mace

Combine the scalded and cooled milk, 1 t of sugar, 2 t of salt, 1 cup of flour and the dissolved yeast.  Blend, cover and let stand until the sponge is bubbly.  Cream the butter and 1 1/2 cups of sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs and the rum or brandy and beat thoroughly.  Stir in 5 cups of the flour and the yeast mixture. Blend 1 cup of the flour into the nuts and fruits. (This was about all my kitchen aid mixer could hold, so from here I transferred to a very large bowl and mixed by hand). Add the rest of the flour and the other ingredients to the dough, using enough flour to make a firm dough.  Turn out onto a floured breadboard and knead quite thoroughly.  ( I split the dough in half here to work it - need until its silky and the dried fruits begin to pop out as you turn it, roughly 5-10 minutes). Place in two large bowls, brush with butter, cover and let rise until doubled (this took almost 2 hours of rising time).  Then punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured board again.  Divide the dough into 3 or 4 parts and shape each part into a thick oval shape (I made 6 oval loaves).  Some recipes have you fold the dough here, or put a layer of marzipan or other things in the center. Place on buttered cookie sheets and let the loaves rise until doubled. Brush with melted butter or cream.  Bake at 350  for about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes, depending on the size of the loaves (mine were done in under an hour because they were smaller and got a little too dark on the bottom because the oven was so crowded.).  If the tops brown too fast, lay a piece of foil over them.  While the loaves are still hot, brush them liberally with melted butter, allow to soak in, then if you like, spoon rum or brandy over the tops of the loaves and let that soak in and then sprinkle thickly with powdered sugar.

Total time was about 5 hours- mostly rising and baking- work time was about an hour I guess- not including the candied orange peel which was another couple of hours.   This isn't a quick or easy bread, but its well worth it.  It keeps well, Casella recommends storing it a couple of days to mellow before cutting it.  I have quartered 2 of the loaves and wrapped them tightly for the freezer, a perfect size for us for breakfast.  It's also very good toasted with more butter- swoon.
Five out of six loaves, they look like they've been snowed on.  The tradition of powdered sugar is supposed to represent Christ in diapers!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Eat Your Butter

The Groaning Board

We moved four pounds of butter and five pounds of sugar through our kitchen last week in the form of 8 kinds of cookies, 6 loaves of stollen, and a pint of chicken liver pate.  Why you might ask were we baking so much?  No, we have not opened our own catering business, though we felt like that's what had hit us as we baked batch after batch, day after day. Well yes, its Christmas time, and we decided to host a winter open house for 40 friends.  Hence the baking commenced.  In addition to the cookies and the bread, we also made a batch of peanut brittle and candied fresh ginger, orange rind and lemon rind, then dipped it in dark chocolate.  The candied fruit was the top hit of the day, especially since the ginger was grown one county over by my brother and sister-in-law, super fresh, super delish.

We had a mighty fine time as we gorged on cookies, drank a gallon of hot cider, two gallons of eggnog and several bottles of wine.   Nothing says winter holidays like eggnog and our local Maple View Dairy makes a very fine version, rich and thick with a nice level of nutmeg.  In a review of the liquor cabinet which we don't frequent that often, I discovered we possessed 7 bottles of different kinds of rum!  Barbados, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Virgin Islands, Jamaican...so that was what I was pushing to spike the eggnog to those who were partaking. The house was packed with folks and it was great to have so many friends around us enjoying good food and friendship.
Stollen with homemade orange-flavored butter, the next most popular item on the table.  

We did have a good time getting everything ready, and our house is now super clean. The only problem is all the leftover cookies, I might as well be spreading that butter directly on my hips.  David was worried we wouldn't have enough so got up and baked two more batches Sunday morning, needless to say, we had plenty.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eat Your Veggies

In an effort to combat the onslaught of calories that have already begun to creep into my diet and thereafter inevitably onto my waistline, I'm making a vow to take a long walk every single day and eat more veggies.

It's hard to go wrong with carrots like these at the ready.  These were sweet, tender, crisp and thin skinned.  I gave them a good scrub and down they went with lunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.  Bugs would have been jealous.  I could dig another 20 bunches like this before we eat all that are in the garden.  In addition, I added a few large handfuls of fresh spinach and some side shoots of broccoli  to leftover pasta at lunch time and felt like my halo was tight.

Tonight we'll be having roasted peppers and shrimp over pasta and a green salad with radishes.  It's amazing that we are still eating fresh peppers though we are getting down to the dregs.  The plants finally took it on the chin before Thanksgiving, when the temperature dropped into the 20's, that was the death knoll.  We picked all that were of size and put them in a paper bag closed at the top.  Over the past 2 weeks they've slowly been ripening up.  We've lost a few, and some have gotten a little dried out and shriveled,  but overall they turn red and are still sweet and good to eat.  When we finally run out of those we'll have lots in the freezer, both fresh chopped and roasted and peeled, to get us through the cold months.  Today I cut down the plants and put them in the compost pile, pulled out their cages and put those away, raked up all the dead leaves and piled those in the bin to rot down and become more food for the garden next summer.

As long as I've been gardening in this climate it still floors me that on December 11th we can still be harvesting lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, collards, beets, carrots, kale, chard, bok choy and cilantro.  Very little has needed protection.  There is one gorgeous head of cauliflower growing out there, always a challenge for me, only a few of the plants survived and only one has a decent sized head at this point.  We've covered those plants for the 20 degree nights of this week and hope they will put on a bit more growth.

I've joined the 10% Campaign sponsored by the NC Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS).  Each Sunday I try to remember/estimate, how much money we spent on local food in the past week and how much money I saved by eating homegrown.  This is a bit of a challenge but also rather eye opening as to how much we are actually saving, or what it might cost us to buy all the stuff we grow if we were purchasing organic from the store or market.  For the 2 of us, it's working out to between $30-$40 a week and I think I actually tend to low ball.  I don't count all the fresh herbs for example.  So the goal is to eat/buy at least 10% locally each week, I think we are at about 40-50% because of the garden.

I feel sure that if we didn't have the garden, we would not be eating nearly as well as we are.  And on that note- I'm off to prepare another in a long line of excellent meals featuring loads of local food, including the shrimp.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thankful for Oysters

Thought I better squeak in one more post before November whooshed on by.

My life has been a whirlwind over the past 2 weeks.  The weekend of November 18th-20th I went up to Asheville to attend the NC Writers Network Conference.  I've just recently joined the organization and this was my first conference.  It was exciting to be with so many other writers and hear and learn about the many genres and styles that everyone was writing in.  There were folks working on non-fiction and memoir, fiction and poetry too. The weekend was action packed, I learned a lot, got some good feedback and critique and got inspired about writing.   I was reminded that to truly sell yourself as a writer is tons of work and lots of self-promotion is required plus the actual time to write-oh yeah-don't forget the writing part! 

I was wiped out by the time I got home but there was no rest for the weary with Thanksgiving on the horizon.  My brother Jon and his wife Candy came to town for the week so there was much merry making, visiting, and long walks together.  And as it was Thanksgiving, we cooked and cooked and cooked some more, which meant endless dish washing, and eating too, can't complain about the eating.
Remains of the oyster fest
 I had the bright idea of getting a half bushel of oysters through our Community Supported Fishery.  I learned a few lessons about oysters:
  • A half bushel of oysters in the shell equals well over 100, that is a lot of oysters.
  • People from the mid-west (half our guests that night) don't eat a lot of oysters, if any at all.
  • Oysters are hard to shuck
But I did remember how much I love raw oysters, they are juicy with brine and biting into one with a squeeze of lemon on top is like eating the sea.  The oyster fans on hand enjoyed them. I discovered after the party that the best tool for shucking is an old fashioned "church key" -a bottle opener on one end, can opener on the other.  We possess three of these but didn't make the discovery til later, when we were shucking the second half and wondering what the two of us were going to do with all those oysters.  Well we had some fried, we had some more raw, and we put the last into a delicious oyster stew cooked up with the oysters of the woods we came across on one of the walks we took together.
Oyster mushrooms carefully tucked into a shawl to carry home
The weather was spectacular and we spent much time outside when we were not busy cooking and eating.  Over the weekend David and I worked in the garden for hours, transplanting and moving things around before the rain and cold set in.  The creeks are slowly filling again and here you can see the brilliant sky reflected from above.
It's always good to be with family especially at holiday time, but also nice to get back into the normal routine after everyone has gone.  I've got a busy work week coming up and then looking forward to some slower days as December rolls along.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Week of the Ginko Leaf Drop

The Ginko Biloba, also known as the Maidenhair Tree, is apparently a living fossil.  Living fossil is an informal term for any living species which appears similar to a species otherwise only known from fossils and which has no close living relatives. The one we are familiar with, that has fan shaped leaves, is the only variety left growing on the earth, although there were many other ginkos in earlier times and they're preserved in the fossil record.  You may have heard that Ginko can be taken to enhance memory and slow dementia but there is apparently little scientific evidence to back up this claim.

The Ginko is an unusual tree and is apparently more closely related to ferns than to trees because it reproduces through sperm which actually "swim" to the flowers for fertilization, much like ferns, mosses and algae.  You can read more about the tree and this amazing form of reproduction here.

The slide show below is of our ginko tree, which was planted about 8 years ago.  These photos were taken over a period of two weeks. The last two pictures were taken in the past two days.  It's another interesting thing about ginkos, they tend to drop all of their leaves rapidly, within just a few days.  When I was a student at UNC Chapel Hill in the late 70's there was an ancient ginko tree on campus and each fall there was a contest to guess "when will the ginko drop its leaves?"  Aside from the unique fan shaped leaves, my favorite thing about this tree is its transition from deep green to gold, sometimes it seemed it turned more golden over the course of a single day.  And the pale yellow field of leaves on the ground once the tree is bare is almost as lovely as the sight of the tree as its turning.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Wired for Sound

 I'm not sure if I've voiced it here, but I have been absolutely on fire lately.  Kind of like that flaming maple leaf up above.  Electric, wired for sound as we used to say.  I could blame it on the moon but I've been this way for over a month now.  I could attribute it to the change in the weather from hot to comfortable, which has me outside more and enjoying the world again, no longer trapped inside an air conditioned house wishing the fall would come.   But more than that, I just think I am finally figuring out what it is I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life and I'm really excited about it.  Ideas are pouring into my psyche almost faster than I can process them. It's a little scary sometimes, and at extreme moments I wonder if I'm suffering from some sort of mania, but all in all, I feel fabulous and fired up about my future and whats to come.

Now this might seem strange in a time when the world is really struggling on many levels.  And until recently I'll admit I was pretty down myself wondering what else could go wrong with the economy, our political system, wars, drought and famine, climate change and all the other problems on the planet.  And it's not that I have stopped worrying about all those things, but some how, I'm feeling better, like there is a shift in the universe, critical mass working towards a revolution that will bring us around before the cataclysm.  Maybe its the Occupy folks and the recognition of the 99%, or the discovery in searching around the web of all kinds of groups and websites dedicated to good news, right and simple living and how we can still save the world and take care of everyone at the same time.

This week I came across the concept of Plenitude Economics or as Tree Hugger defines it: Work Less, Play More and Stop Screwing the Planet .  Hop on over there and watch this 5 minute video based on the book and concepts of Juliet Schor.  The basic premise is that if we all worked a little less, there would be more jobs to go around, we would all be happier and we would have more time to dedicate to our families and friends and to sustainable ways of being, like growing gardens and taking care of our communities and the earth.  Its worth taking a look at.

This video and concept struck a chord with me. Over the past few years I've been able to work part-time, doing work I enjoy and that I find meaningful.  As a result I've  had more time to pay attention to the world around me, to be in my space, spend more time on the vegetable garden, take more walks in the woods.  I enjoy walking out to hang the wash on the line, experiencing the day,  paying attention to the weather.  Before I would have used the dryer because I didn't have time to hang-up the clothes and take them back down, but now, I have the time, and I find enjoyment in the very act of carrying the clothes out and back, feeling the air and sun on my skin, smelling that fresh scent on the sheets when I climb into bed at night.  And I'm saving a few kilowatts off the power bill. 

These are the small and simple things that really make life worth living.  We should all have the opportunity to have these moments. I want to keep having them and figure out how to help other people live freer and more simply too.

PS: I've added a gadget to my home page, over there on the right, where you can put in your e-mail address and you'll get a notice when I've posted to the blog so you don't have to keep checking all the time for something new.  If you're so inclined, check it out and sign up, it's easy to do.  And thanks to all of you that have commented and written about the blog since my plea for feedback a few weeks ago, that has helped me immensely to feel better about moving forward and blogging more.  I appreciate all my readers.  Thanks.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Week of Delicious Food

Kneading the sour dough 
You may wonder how my efforts with the sourdough have been going since I procured some starter a couple of weeks ago.  The rye I remembered so fondly was a bit heavy, but the flavor was nice, caraway is so distinctive.  I tried pancakes and thought they were a little thin, we normally make a multi-grain buttermilk pancake and they are hard to top.  The sourdough pancakes did have a stretchy texture that was interesting and the flavor was nice, we were thinking they would be good as crepes, or probably similar to the injera bread that they serve with Ethiopian food.  Today I tried the french bread recipe in the Tassajara Bread Book and the loaves turned out enormous and lighter than I would expect french bread to be.  I think in future I will make the loaves smaller and not let them rise quite so long.   They did have a crisp crust and good sourdough flavor.

Seems we have been cooking and eating up a storm.  Last week we made butternut squash ravioli and served them with garlic-herb butter, topped with pecans and fresh Parmesan.  They were stupendous and not that hard to make.  And bonus- half the batch went into the freezer for a super easy dinner sometime soon.  We are still eating all kinds of fresh things from the garden, loads of salads, spinach, the last of the green beans, red peppers, sweet potatoes and herbs.  The shitake logs are sprouting again, the food just keeps coming.

This was also our week to receive our Community Supported Fishery share from Core Sound Seafood.  Here David is basting the scored flounder with hot oil.  Not a diet dish, but WOW! this fried flounder topped with a Thai garlic sauce was spectacular.  Beautiful and tasty too.  We served it with a side of shitake mushrooms sauteed with red peppers, purple onion scallions and green beans over udon noodles.
Tomorrow starts another week that promises more glorious weather and hopefully the first head of fall broccoli from our patch.  The woods have gone all golden brown and the leaves are coming down.  Soon it will be time to break out the rakes and tidy up.  I'm trying to get in as many bike rides as I can before the weather turns to winter.  I hope autumn can hang on for a little while longer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Banner Birthday Celebration

It's been a good week on Trout Lily Lane.  The weather has been glorious; warm, sunny and the leaves are hitting peak.  I've been working outside, cleaning up the front garden, weeding and cutting things back. 

Yesterday was my birthday and it was an excellent day from start to finish.  I met my friend Alison for what has become our regular morning swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Such a great way to start the day.  We went out for a swell breakfast, I went to vote and then came home to spend the afternoon puttering outside.  Dinner with our buddies John and Michele; homemade pizza, fresh salad and champagne.  Then off to Playmakers theater to see The Parchman Hour.  An excellent play about a group of Freedom Riders in the 60's who were arrested and incarcerated in the notorious Parchman penitentiary in Mississippi.  To maintain their sanity, they organized nightly variety shows from their cells, singing and telling stories and jokes to get through the long nights.  Good music, singing, choreography and historical references.  Enjoyed by all. We topped off the night with dessert at the Lantern where I had a warm chocolate cake with roasted peanut ice cream, very tasty, but the star dessert was a coffee creme caramel.

If the quality of yesterday was any indication, I think its going to be a banner year.
In the yard the little Japanese maples have really come into their prime this week.  We have several that David dug from my fathers yard, seedlings of uncertain parentage, they have all developed quite well, some turning red others coppery at this time of year.  I look forward to seeing them mature over time.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall Back Into Darkness

The time changed last night, always a weird thing.  And I woke up at 5:00 new time, 6:00 old time and I couldn't go back to sleep.  After coffee and writing my morning pages I wandered up to the corner to watch the light move over the land and sky.  The cows were still hunkered down from the night, birds were beginning to twitter and twitch in the hedgerows.  The air was very still and I could hear a great horned owl hoo hoo hoo-hoo off in the distance.  A flock of geese honked across the morning sky looking for breakfast.  Three planes took off from RDU, the first one catching the sun from below the horizon, making it look like a huge shooting start.  I could hear the traffic on I-40 even at 7 AM on Sunday morning- the cars never stop moving down that road, 7 miles from us and I can hear it still.
I decided today must be the day to deal with these purple onions gone awry.  I've been watching them sprout for weeks and saying, "I need to do something with those,  I really do"  The purples are the first to go, followed by the whites, the yellows are built for storage and should hold well into the winter.  But these, I couldn't let them sit another day or I knew they would be wasted.  So I cleaned them up, saved the sprouting greens to use as scallions, and sliced all the rest into rings.  

With one pound I made these lovely pickles.  They were easy and are crisp and mild.  I poured boiling water over them in a colander and then set them to steep in the vinegar with herbs and peppercorns.  The remaining three pounds are caramelizing on the stove as I write.  I want to get outside and enjoy the beautiful day but those onions need my attention at the critical moment of reducing and browning, they should be done soon and then I'll be set free from my onion penitence.  I only had to throw a few into the compost, too far gone.

Tonight dark will come early, it will be a shock.  But hopefully I will rest well and adjust easily to the new schedule. I do appreciate having earlier morning light, but it is a trade-off.  About 6 weeks still until the winter solstice, days continuing to shorten until that point. I hope the energy and joy I've been feeling lately can remain with me during the dark days to come.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

GREENS!

First mess of collards, last bowl of tomatoes

We have been eating greens every night and it's such a pleasure.  Good and good for you, after a summer of eating beans, squash, tomatoes, corn and cabbage, it's a treat to be back to good old greens in so many forms.  I've been sauteing kale and beet thinnings, spinach and chard. Tonight I'm going to shred that pile of collards above and saute them up in some olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes, toss in a little water and put on the lid to let them steam until they are tender.  We'll have a squash casserole that I froze in July and a chicken breast to round out the meal.
Tender mesclun in the garden ready to cut

  A lettuce salad is pretty much required daily to stay on top of the crop.  Ripe peppers, tomatoes, blanched and chilled green beans and radishes dress them up.  I also buy those giant storage beets this time of year.  I don't think you could ever grow one that big in NC.  You can find organic ones at the grocery, they are ridiculously expensive, but who knows how long it took them to get that big.  I'm talking about beets that weigh a pound and a half.  Wash and dry and rub with oil and wrap tightly in tin foil.  Roast in a 375 oven for about an hour to an hour and a half or until a small sharp knife sticks easily in.  Cool and peel, they are tender and deep purple and sweet as candy.  And one 24 ounce beet can cover a lot of salads, so don't blanch when it rings up as $4 or $5 at the store! 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Fall Clean-up

Stained Glass Dogwood
The power went out this morning just as I was sitting down to write an e-mail to my friends asking them to read my blog and leave me some comments.  So instead, I bundled up and headed out into the chill morning to work on the veggie patch.  I spent 5 hours and made fantastic progress.  I picked the last of the green tomatoes, pulled down the vines, took down the trellis's, the posts, pulled up the landscape fabric, worked up the beds and sowed clover.  I cut back the asparagus and weeded them.  The oxalis had been creeping in all summer from the path.  It will be back, already having gone to seed, but it looks better.  I raked leaves from the pathways and added lots of stuff to the compost pile.  I also squeezed in a load of wash that was almost dry by the time the rain started this afternoon. 
Tidy Garden
Now I'm settled inside and am going to write that e-mail, so if you're reading this, hey, leave me a comment, it helps me know you're out there and liking what you see.  A hot bath is in my future thanks to all the bending, digging and hauling I did today.
Coral bark maple, aglow even in the rain

Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Frost and Flowers Still in Bloom

Peppers wrapped up in their blanket for the night
We had our first frost last night with a temp of 33 this morning at dawn.  It's supposed to be 29 tonight so we broke out the remay again and tucked in the pepper plants to keep them snug as they are still laden with fruit.  With chilly nights the leaves are hitting their peak; hickories golden, dogwoods and sourwoods deep red and maple leaves, that look like licking red and yellow flames, litter the ground.  The fig tree will now drop its leaves and give off a scent of coconut as you pass by.  The ginko will start its slow transformation from green, to lime, to pale yellow, to gold.
There are still a few flowers in bloom, the asters and mums will fade soon now, they've been putting on a show for several weeks.  The Nelly Moser Clematis above has cheered me with a nice set of late flowers.  And a new plant that David brought home, already spectacular with its purple flowers, has leaves that have now started turning from a velvety greenish-gray to crimson.  I don't know its name but it promises to be a highlight in the garden, a tender perennial that supposedly dies back in the winter and regrows to 2-3 feet in the spring.
We had a swell brunch with our good friends John and Michele; prosecco mimosas, whole grain pancakes, maple syrup, soysage and an apple-walnut salad.  Afterwards we took a long walk around the land and up the mountain, marveling at the turning leaves like stained glass against the blue sky.  I relish the change in the season, the coming long nights, fires in the stove, making the house feel toasty, safe and secure.

It's good to be alive.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On Bread and Cooking

I’ve been having a hankering for the sourdough rye bread I baked years ago from the Tassajara Bread Book.  We’ve been baking the New York Times no knead bread for several years.  It’s so easy and with a miraculous crust thanks to the trick of baking it in a very hot oven in a heavy enameled pot for half an hour with the lid on so it steams and then a half an hour without the lid to finish the perfect crispy crust.

In search of starter, I called up my friend and neighbor Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill fame, where David and I worked way back in 1986 when they first opened.  She gifted me with a couple of cups of her sourdough starter that she told me they've been using for bread at the Grill for 18 years.  Now that’s a tradition and I think there is nothing like longevity when it comes to food.

With a cold gray forecast on the horizon for today it seemed the right moment for baking.  Last night I pulled out my grandmothers’ chipped, sienna brown, crockery bread bowl and mixed together flour, water and starter and set it on top of the freezer, constantly warm, to steep, stew and ferment.  This morning I took a cup of starter out of the sponge, the whole batch now stretchy and with a mud like consistency, to keep for next time.  I added the rye and wheat flour, salt, oil and caraway seed, kneaded the dough and set it to rise.

This is not bread machine bread, I never understood the appeal of those machines that churn out a strange square loaf.  My father bought one in the 80’s and went on a bread baking craze, trying all kinds of recipes out on willing visitors.  But that bread was never right to me, the crust and shape all wrong.  I would prefer an uneven loaf any day. I think he finally came to the same conclusion and eventually stowed the machine in the back of a cupboard where it gathered dust for the rest of his life.

When I pulled out my old Tassajara book, published in 1970, it brought back fond memories from my youth.  It was from this book that I taught myself to bake bread as a teen.  The thorough instructions of kneading and rising made all the difference.  While the no knead bread is easy, I missed the feel of dough under the palms of my hands, pushing and folding, pushing and folding until the dough takes on a smooth and resistant quality.  Only by doing it again and again can you know the perfect feel, that you’ve added just the right amount of flour and worked the dough long enough to develop the gluten that promises a nice loaf with good crumb.

The simple paperback book is stained brown with age, pieces of oatmeal stuck to the pages, a flip through them reminded me of the many recipes I’d tried, successes and failures in my early years of baking.  It was from bread that I launched into my career in food. I first worked as a baker at the Pyewacket Cafe, Chapel Hill’s original vegetarian restaurant that recently folded after a long and happy life of over 2 decades.

In 1980 I took it on the road, moving to Austin where I worked my way up through several restaurants finishing with a four year run with Sweetish Hill Bakery and Restaurant.  There I worked with other young chefs under the tutelage of Patricia Bauer-Slate.  She was generous with the sharing of her knowledge gleaned from cooking school in Belgium.  It was there I established my base of classic French cuisine, poring over the pages of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French cooking, perfecting the mother sauces; Hollandaise, BĂ©arnaise, veloute and bĂ©chamel, demi-glace made from beef bones browned with vegetables in the oven and then boiled into a rich stock, later reduced with tomato to a sweet, dark glace.

Patricia held weekly classes for her chefs teaching us how to bone a duck, make a galantine, prepare sweetbreads, pates and sausages.  In 1980 no one was talking about cholesterol.  We kept a 5 gallon stock pot on the back burner of the 10 burner stove with clarified butter cut from chunks out of a 50 pound block.  The bakery there was famous for its crusty French loaves and authentic croissant and Danish made from freshly rolled dough filled with more slabs of butter.

When I returned to Chapel Hill in 1986 I went to work for the Barkers.  I first found them at the Fearrington House restaurant and then went on to Durham and the newly opened Magnolia Grill.  Watching and working with Ben and Karen I honed my skills in the new American cuisine.  This food was intricate, multi-layered in flavors and ingredients with a focus on fresh and locally grown.  I developed a new appreciation for my family’s southern roots and my French cooking background as I learned from Ben ways to take the old standards in a whole different direction.

My professional cooking days ended in 1989 when I returned to school, tired of the long hours and low pay of restaurant work.  It’s not the glamorous world it’s cracked up to be these days with so many famous chefs, restaurants and cooking shows.  They say the average American only spends 25 minutes a day preparing food, though they may watch 2 hours of cooking TV per day!  I have no regrets about my years spent in kitchens.  I learned to love food and to prepare it in every way imaginable and from that foundation I continue today to appreciate food, now more simply prepared than in the days of yore, but fresher than ever, much of it straight from the garden.  Most days we spend more than 2 hours cooking, and without TV, I never watch food shows anymore.

I pay homage to Patricia, Karen and Ben today as I sit down to a lunch of vichyssoise made from our homegrown leeks and potatoes, finished with cream from the dairy up the road and topped with fresh chives snipped from just outside the kitchen door.  Topping it off, a fat slice of freshly baked sourdough bread, spread with homemade butter.  What better way to spend a somewhat gloomy October afternoon.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Year in Vegetables

Georgia Streak, a new tomato for this year.  We will definitely grow them again.  Like a sunburst inside and out, sweet and meaty and more prolific than many heirlooms we've tried.

 I thought since the vegetable season was winding down it was time for a reckoning of how much food we grew and put by this year.  Not that the season is really over, but all the major crops are in and I'm pretty impressed with what we managed to grow in our roughly 40 by 60 square feet of garden space.

For storage crops we pulled the following from the ground:
  Onions; Yellow, white and red                          70#
  Garlic                                                              60 heads
  Potatoes; red, yellow and butterball                  20#    
  Sweet potatoes                                                50#
  Butternut squash                                              10 squash   

In the freezer we've put by:
  Tomato Sauce                                                   9 quarts
  Whole tomatoes                                                2 dozen

  Peppers;
    Bell:  yellow and red chopped                          2 quarts
    Mixed: Roasted and peeled                              3 dozen
    Serrano chili paste                                            1 pint
    Whole serranos                                                1 quart

  Snap Beans;
    green and yellow                                              4 quarts
    Chinese yard long                                             2 quarts

  Shell beans;
    Borlotto                                                           2 quarts
    Black-eye purple hull peas                               5 quarts

  Leeks, chopped and sauteed                              2 pints
  Basil Pesto                                                         2 pints 

  Okra                                                                 1 quart
  Blueberries                                                        2 quarts
   
Canned:
  Fig preserves                                                    30 half pints
  Dill Pickles                                                        6 quarts
                                                                                             
On top of that we ate a mountain of veg over the course of the year starting in April with the earliest greens. Spinach, lettuce, arugula, kale, Swiss chard and beet greens filled our plates from April through June.  We had cabbage too along with sugar snap peas. I wager we harvested over 30# of asparagus but I wasn't weighing it, just eating it as fast as I could and giving the rest to friends for 5 weeks in April and May.  There were root crops; carrots, beets, radishes and turnips.  So many we couldn't eat them all.  Last night I roasted a big pan of mixed veggies including 5 big turnips that had been in the fridge since June!  They were still tasty.

When the warm weather rolled around it was beans, beans, beans; haricot verts, blue lake, yellow wax, Garden of Eden, and an Italian flat variety called Pension.  I also grow a small trellis of Chinese yard long beans, so generous and easy and great in stir fries.  There were 4 kinds of cucumbers; Diva, Tasty Jade, Suyo Long and a pickling cuke, we were required to eat one or two a day for many weeks.  There were 5 kinds of squash, three kinds of okra, 12 varieties of tomatoes, and 4 types of eggplants. 
In July we consumed loads of tomatoes and in August the peppers started rolling in along with the shell beans and the second planting of snap beans. 

Clockwise from the back, shell and snap beans, tomatoes with pasilla chiles on top, roasted peppers and fresh peppers.

In fruit we picked about 4 or 5 quarts of strawberries in late May from our small 3 by 10 foot patch.  The blueberries came next, even with the birds we picked enough to eat all we wanted for at least a month. In July we had some nice fat blackberries. Then in August the figs came on like gangbusters, so fast and furious I had to put up 2 batches of jam.  We ate so many we feared for our digestive health :-) July and August also brought the biggest cantaloupes we've ever grown. Several topped 10 pounds and all came up voluntarily from seeds in the compost I put in the beds when I planted the onions in February.  They know when to sprout and conveniently take over the onion bed after the onions have been harvested.
The corn was my only real disappointment this year.  I hadn't grown any in many years because of raccoons, but David erected an elaborate electric fence to protect both the corn patch and the fig tree so I gave it a whirl.  The plants tasseled and released their pollen before the ears had really formed and so the corn was tiny and also kind of starchy.  Maybe not a good variety, but I'll probably give it another try next year now that we have a protective enclosure.
An especially swell summer dinner plate
Now the fall crops are coming in, beautiful tender mixed lettuces, spinach, kale and beet greens. The peppers are still loaded with fruit and a few tomatoes continue to trickle in.  Broccoli and cabbage are heading up.  Beets and carrots are starting to form under ground.  The garlic for next year is in the ground and sprouting bright green shoots.  All of this food growing is a ton of work, but the rewards are great.  How fortunate we are to have more than enough food when so many go hungry.  Knowing that it is organic and fresh and nutritious right from our own back yard makes the work worthwhile.                

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moment of Wonder

I had the good fortune of attending the Natural Learning Initiative's Design Institute last week at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.  Two days of presentations and workshops on getting kids outside, exploring nature and teaching adults how to learn to play again so they can help kids do the same.

It's a sad fact that many kids don't get an opportunity to splash in creeks, play in the mud, search for bugs, climb trees, use their imaginations and take risks in the wild world anymore.  NLI's mission is to help create spaces and places where kids can once again explore the natural world and in so doing develop a greater sense of self and stewardship for our fragile planet.  

This is my third year attending the design institute and each time I've been struck with an overwhelming combination of sadness and hope.  Sadness that the childhood I remember with so much freedom and opportunity to test my limits is outside the framework of most modern kids.  Hope that efforts like NLI and their colleagues around the world are making it possible for kids to have these kinds of experiences again.

I heard about a place in the British Isles where children go with school groups and birthday parties for a "barefoot swamp walk" pretty much as it sounds, they take off shoes and slide into a waist deep trench of water and walk, sometimes crawl, through the mud.  When they finish they scream for another turn and finally get hosed down  before changing into warm dry clothes.

Phil Waters, a play worker at the Eden Project in Cornwall spoke about his latest effort, "Muddy Shorts" an outdoor adventure program for kids with disabilities where they have the same opportunities as children without disabilities to play in mud, build rafts, get wet, climb in nets, sit in old airplanes, toast marshmallows over open fires and enjoy being outside.

When I first heard Phil speak three years ago I thought- though the term play worker feels oxymoronic- I would love to have that as my job title.  Don't know if that will every happen but it sure is good to know that there are people in the world who are helping kids to play again.  And there are things going on right here in our own community thanks to NLI and BCBSNC and others.  More on that in a later post.

For now- suffice it to say that having the chance to have a freshly hatched and tagged monarch butterfly placed on my nose in preparation for flight was a once in a lifetime experience.  Having it wander around on my face for 10 minutes was pretty spectacular too. As I stood with my eyes closed and faced the sun to help my friend warm up, I was filled with so much pleasure and joy it brought tears to my eyes.  Or was it the tickling feet of the butterfly that made me cry?  The cause is not important, the depth of feeling is what counts.  I'm so lucky to have the chance to be a part of this movement of bringing kids back outside.
Click photo to enlarge and see the citizen science tracking tag on this butterflies wing

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trout and Ocean

Once again I am firmly ensconced at the Barrett Cottage, corner of Trout and Ocean, Topsail Island, NC for the third year in a row on the third week of September.

This morning I woke at 6 and peered out the door to see a crescent moon high in the sky, hanging at about 12 o'clock over the ocean.  The moon was surrounded by bright stars and the first blushes of orange appeared between the storm clouds piled along the horizon across the ocean.  I made a cappucino, grabbed a couple of chocolate chip cookies and headed for the upper deck where I took the top photo.

I then walked over to the beach and took this one.  No wires or telephone poles.

I walked towards the pier and watched the sky show.  A pair of dolphins fished just past the breakers and they guided me up the beach.  The tide was low and the sand was broad and glistening with the red and pink light reflected from the rising sun.

It's day 4 and I'm feeling well entrenched.  Swimming, yoga, reading, bike rides, beach walks and lots of fresh seafood for supper. 

My companions are 3 fine ladies and we'll be joined today by another.  It doesn't get much better than this.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fire Season is Around the Corner

Now that its September, we've been working on getting more firewood together, should have done it sooner but its just been too hot.

We started in late spring taking down a 100 year old oak that had died up in the cow pasture.  My brother Chris, his father-in-law Ray, David and I worked all one day cutting the smaller tops and starting on the trunk.  My brother decided it was too big to mess with and said we could have it.  Good hardwood that we can get to easily is hard to come by and David was determined to harvest this tree.   He whittled away at it over the summer, working a few hours at a time on cooler mornings, reducing the double trunks- each two feet across-into 16 inch sections, the length of our wood stove.  Finally two weekends ago, Ray returned to the scene with D and I and we spent 8 hours with the hydraulic splitter reducing that monster to stove size pieces.  Over the course of the next week we hauled it back down to the house, first in the trailer and I finished it up on Wednesday using the pick-up truck for the last two loads.  I think all in all it made about 6 truck loads, probably 3 cords, and should get us not only through the coldest weather this season but probably into next fall.

The downed tree had started to rot while it was still standing, so it had a million grubs and beetles and larvae tunneling and eating away at the bark. All around and under the logs were toads and lizards.  David said "we upset a few ecosystems" as we dismantled that scene of decay.  The splitter popped some of the logs apart in neat slabs, other times it tore at the red fibrous wood of the tree, stretching and pulling at the sinewy grain.  As I pushed and pulled the lever of the splitter over and over I thought the wood looked like pot roast or some other red meat.   Some logs revealed the ancient core of branches and burls, I could see the strength that lay within the wood, able to hold that tree so tall and solid, but I could also sense the amount of energy that had been captured there, by years of sun and rain and photosynthesis. Now that energy will be translated back into heat to keep us warm this winter.

I always say "You gotta love a project that has you moving heavy objects multiple times". In this case; onto the splitter, onto the trailer, off of the trailer, onto the wood pile and later, into the other wood pile and then finally into the fire.  Who needs Curves?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Otters!

The top experience of my week would be my sighting on Thursday.  On my morning walk as I was passing the pond, I was startled by something large slithering through the grass and plopping into the pond, the sound repeated almost immediately.   I knew they were too big to be snakes or turtles. As I looked across the water a huge smile crossed my face as out of the ripples two young otters popped their heads up and started huffing and snorting at me as they swished and swirled around in the water. Then I heard a third animal snorting and here came mom.  The three hung together, sort of hiding behind the tip of a pine tree downed across the water.  They held their heads up and sniffed the air, as curious about me as I was about them.  The babies would swim around a bit then go back to mom.  We checked each other out for a while and then the babies swam over towards an old beaver lodge in the dam.  I walked that way but they disappeared, I think they must have gone up inside the lodge, one minute they were there, then they were gone.  I always hope they'll stick around whenever I see them, but its rare to spot them at all and always in the past its been a one time thing. They are gone in search of food or another watery place to swim, play and hunt. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Frogs Are Happy

Yesterday was the strangest day.  Tropical storm Lee passed through here and brought a couple of inches of much needed rain.  But it didn't come steady, or all at once, but rather in spurts.  The sun would come out for a while, and then there would be a deep long rumbling of rolling thunder, then suddenly hard rain.  Then the sun would shine again, then more thunder, then RAIN.  And it went on like that for most of the day.  A break in the afternoon was followed in the evening by the same pattern repeating itself again.

I was happy for it, we didn''t get much rain at all from Hurricane Irene and the creek is still dry, only now there are some big puddles down there.

If you know me you might know I have an affinity for frogs and have a small collection of froggies.  David found the one above in a pile of leaf mulch one day and brought it home for me.  We could have uncrumpled it but agreed that the squished nature of this little guy added to his charm.  So here he sits on the kitchen window sill, giving me a smile when I'm there at the sink working at something or other.  The pattern on that leaf there is pretty groovy too.

Windows are open again and that is also a blissful scene.  So quickly we had become accustomed to the air and night sounds that when we closed up again for a couple of nights due to the return of the heat and humidity, despite the AC, we suffered and woke in the wee hours tossing and sweaty from the lack of fresh air in the room.  As David says "When the windows are open, the rooms feel so much bigger."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fall is in the air

It's the first of September, and I realize I managed to go all the way through August without a single post! August was a busy month that included a camping trip to Grayson Highlands State Park to escape the heat.  The altitude there is 4500 feet so we had a few days with cool air and high winds, lots of walks up the gorgeous Wilson Creek. It was almost too cold to swim, but we did.

Later in the month I traveled to NYC to attend the American Community Gardening Association annual meeting and was blown away by all the amazing things people in NYC are doing to bring gardens and fresh food to folks in the inner city that haven't previously had much access to real foods.  They're setting up farmers markets, teaching teens and adults in the community to grow food and sell it, providing CSA shares at low-cost and on a pay by the week basis to low-income seniors.  I could do a whole post on that trip and should.


Back here at home we have finally gotten a break in the weather- I can feel fall in the air as the temps and humidity have dropped to a much more comfortable level, we've even been opening the windows at night and letting in the cool air and soothing night sounds of crickets, frogs and owls.

In the veg garden it is definitely pepper time. The red bells pictured above are the most spectacular.  The Pasilla plants are taller than me and loaded with long, slender, deep green chiles, ready for roasting. 
 These ragged looking cucumber plants are still putting on a couple of cukes a day!  I planted about 12 plants of three varieties, (Tasty Jade, Diva and Suyo Long) back in April and they are still producing.  How many cucumbers can you eat?

Today I worked on getting the fall garden going.  I planted seeds for carrots, beets, radishes, spinach and lettuce.  Also set out broccoli and cauliflower plants.  Still have cabbage and collards to get into the ground but need to prepare the beds first.

The summer garden is still going pretty strong, I've pulled out the first plantings of beans but the second planting is looking very good and is about to start producing.  I've been harvesting purple hull peas off the first planting already as well.  Below is the third patch of beans with purple hull peas on the right half and Italian flat beans on the left.  There are also a couple of butternuts that have volunteered and are creeping along the edge of the path. At the back is one of my fall plantings of carrots and beets and beyond that the last of the cantaloupes which are pretty well played out.  The tomatoes are finishing up as well.  Given the intense heat and lack of rain in July, things look remarkably good
I am thrilled at the break in the weather, the prospect of autumn and the transition to fall crops. I've missed the greens.  Going to try and get more consistent about posting.....


Monday, July 11, 2011

Gertie Pays a Visit

The other day I was sitting at the little table in the shade where I rest between bouts of garden chores.  There I write in my journal, sip a cold drink, relax and take in the view.  I kept hearing a crunching sound coming from the front garden.  I couldn't determine if it was in the trees, perhaps a squirrel or a bird?  Or on the ground, lizard or turtle?  Eventually Gertie showed herself as she crossed the path near where I was sitting and David fetched a blossom end rotted tomato from the garden for her.  She happily chomped away and then headed off to do whatever it is turtles do all day, hunt for slugs and snails I imagine.

It finally rained, hallelujah. We got about 2.5 inches last week- the first rain in about a month.  All the plants seem happy and the grass is growing so I'll have to mow again soon- the only down side to rain that I can figure.  But following the rain are predicted the hottest days we've seen yet, tomorrow is to hit 101 with a heat index of 105- oh mercy.  I'm glad I don't have to be outside much and can hide in the comfort of the AC.

The garden continues to shower us with delicious beans, squash and cukes, the tomatoes are being slow to come on as we got them in late but I think in another week they too will begin to pile up.  I made 3 more quarts of dill pickles yesterday to add to the 3 I made a couple of weeks ago and I think that will be enough for one season.  The blueberries are hitting their stride and we are picking about a pint a day so I'll probably start to freeze some of those soon as well.  There are benefits to summertime in the form of fresh food, I just wish it wasn't quite so hot.

I snapped this photo a week or so ago, we've been enjoying nibbling on these yellow fennel flowers, the bulbs haven't really formed and are tough, but the flowers add a sweet fennel flavor to salads or a breath freshening chew when you pass by out in the garden.  The sunflower is a volunteer. Call me common, but I like the look of the laundry as the back drop.