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

    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
  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