...if you have a backyard and a kitchen, this blog might be for you!

a chronicle of tips and recipes on everything from gardening to canning and baking your produce, even if you're planted in suburbia...in fact, especially if you are planted in suburbia.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Garden Gets Its Second Wind

Granted, when the garden spot on the back patio looks like this:  
...there is little hope of growing anything fresh for the dinner salad. 

But many summer gardeners are surprised  to learn how much they can grow if they begin in early spring.  The first few years I gardened I, too, was a summer gardener only.  I grew tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, etc. but not much else.  Gradually, however, I began to branch out, or should I say branch earlier?  I tried backing my season up just a few weeks so I could get a decent crop of lettuce in before heat made it bolt.  And then, I decided I wanted to try for some radishes--also an early crop.  Exploring the garden center for these plants made me realize many things grow when a light frost is still a possibility, and some when the soil is barely workable after the winter freeze.
Eventually, I went full-blown with the spring garden plot.  Today, my garden looks like you see above.  Whereas a few years ago, it would have all been like the "back 40" of plain tilled soil, now the front section is already in full spring growth and giving me a small crop of salad-ready fare.  So what grows early, or throughout the winter in parts of the country that don't dip below freezing too often?
 Spinach and some early types of lettuce.  These are ready for harvest now, as are some of the radishes.  You can see the succession planting of the radishes below on the right.  The outer row was planted a couple of weeks after the inner row, so I should have radishes until the weather turns too warm for them, sometime in later June if I keep planting steadily.
 In front of the radishes, the snow peas are growing.  Soon they'll be tall enough to need their stakes, and eventually they'll bloom.  While they are not even close to harvest-ready yet, they are nevertheless a cool-weather plant that requires some time to produce its crop, so if you want to have peas in the early summer, you need to plant them during the season of light frosts.  Although they are in another part of the garden, much the same can be said of the brussels sprouts, although the dill growing up around them is ready to pick as a green right now, especially as it is self-seeded and needs some serious thinning.
 Onions planted a week and a half ago are popping up, and their bed could already use a cleaning as the maple seeds have blown into it.

While they haven't shown up yet--in fact, they might not grow at all seeing I used last year's seeds which might have been a mistake--carrots are planted in a large pot.  You can see from my soil that the rocky aspect makes in-ground planting of root crops unsuccessful.  Onions and garlic do alright, but carrots and potatoes come out rather mis-shapen.  They end up living in the container garden zone.  And come to think of it, it's potato planting time, in fact, it's almost past it in this climate zone.
 On the larger side of above-ground crops, the cabbage is coming along well...
 ...as is the broccoli.  These two larger plant varieties, as well as cauliflower, will be ready for harvesting even while the summer seedlings are just getting a good start.  In a couple more weeks, summer plantings of tomatoes, beans, squash, peppers and cucumbers will fill in the bare-tilled area, and as the spring crops finish their cycle, their ground space can be repurposed for the second succession of some of those summer plantings.  Of course, if you're using the soil this aggressively you'll need to do plenty of fertilizing and feed those plants faithfully.
 The windowsill is empty of life now, scrubbed clean of the rings left by those starter pots that  embellished it.  The sunflowers that were residing here are officially relocated into the wildflower garden, although they are still very small and very fragile.  Everything in the wildflower garden is in its infancy, but soon enough those little "handful" vases will have flowers draping all over them.

Now, while you're busy doing the "big work" of prepping a large portion of your garden for that seasonal change, might I recommend this technique for making a quick and easy egg salad lunch to plop on your bed of fresh spinach?  I did try this one before linking it here and can say it worked quite well.  What's more, it requires far less supervision than making a pot of boiled eggs, and for me this time of year is NOT the time to prove that a watched pot never boils!
Bonus blog linkhttp://www.larksongknits.com/2012/04/27/hard-cooked-eggs/

Happy cycling!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Garden Pilgrimage: Container Gardening in Florida

 Monday was Move-it Monday at Florida Friend's house--move-it as in move the seedlings that are already deciding to flower into permanent pots and relocating some of the herbs to better pots--some even as far as to a neighbor's house down the street. 

Previously, all my experience with gardening away from my own "zone" on the planter's guide has been of the spectator variety.  I've been to botanical gardens and seen delightful vistas, with only the occasionally glimpse of an unobtrusive gardener working quietly in some almost hidden place, but I didn't get anywhere close to the hands in the dirt side of gardening. 
 But this garden pilgrimagedid get my hands in the dirt, and I found it to be a unique opportunity to compare the planting plans of a gardener whose mind is in zone 5 to that of the gardener in zone 8.  For instance...
 ...as she potted the two pepper plants, she thought out loud, "If I plant the peppers here and here, then even after they're big, I could grab the pot easily if I need to move it quickly for a hurricane..."  Not a concern I ever face in the land-locked Midwestern garden.
 The fact that it's a container garden at all is another example of the difference in our soil types.  If you could combine my clay-heavy plot with her sand-heavy soil, you could get a nice loamy medium, but unfortunately, bringing a truck load of clay down to exchange for sand in kind isn't practical.  Where I live, incorporating seasoned manure and bags of peat help enough to make the ground usable, but for her to grow tomatoes and peppers, she is almost dependent on the soil she brings in with containers.
 A big magnolia tree is yet another yard feature that must be considered. While I have a maple that is shading more of the yard every year, I still have a large patch that is sunny from dawn until dusk.  She, however, must calculate where to put the pots.  The tomatoes are getting a trial run here at the foot of the steps of her deck.  If all goes well, they'll continue residing there permanently across the block from the ghost peppers California Friend sent her.
Last but not least, the topsy turvy found temporary hanging space on a shepherd's hook, but might relocate to a higher location if a sturdy enough support can be found, which puts me in mind of a last observation:  some things are the same in all gardeners' worlds.  One of them is not so much environmental as incidental:  plan for things to not go as planned.  For example, allow time for an extra run to the store to buy that other bag or two of potting soil you find you need, and don't be surprised if you don't need a bungee cord somewhere before it's all said and done.

Happy migrating!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kitchen Pilgrimage: Irish Oatmeal for Breakfast

 That first morning at my Florida Friend's house, I entered the kitchen and found Mr. Florida Friend at the stove stirring a pot of steel cut oats.  Cooking is a hobby of his, and he has enjoyed--can you believe it?  enjoyed!--making several meals for us.  My own husband is intimidated.  "Are the troupes coming here anytime soon?  Is this a precedent being set here?"  I may need to order him a subscription to a cooking magazine like Mr. Florida has gracefully arranged on the cookbook shelf.
 The primary difference in  preparing these oats from the kind that comes in a box of packets marked "instant" is that they are NOT instant.  You need to have time to stand and stir them stove top.  The payback, however, is the wonderful nutty aroma that wafts up to you as you do.
 While Mr. Florida worked with the oats, Mrs. Florida Friend prepped the champagne mango for a side dish.  I learned her simple technique for prepping mango, a fruit I rarely see in my apple orchard part of the world:  nestle half of it in your palm, cut a cross-hatch grid, and then with a spoon, scoop out the fruit.  Looks like you diced it large, but the fruit is too soft to dice it any way but this one.  And it was some of the tastiest fruit I've ever had! 
Here's the naked oatmeal--well, it had a spoonful of dark brown sugar on it--but later I added golden raisins and dates and had a side of wheat toast with current jelly. 

This was a kitchen pilgrimage that wasn't just a virtual trip as all the rest have been.  I think more of them need to be live and in person, because the results were a delightful way to start  a Sunday! 

However, it was a leisurely breakfast.  So, just in case you'd like to try these creamy and richly flavored oats, you might want to check out the bonus blog link:  and the way I'd probably cook this at my house.

I've never tried them in the crock pot, but I'm far more curious now to try!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Seeing What Grows

 “As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of aloes which the Lord hath planted, [and] as cedar trees beside the waters.”Numbers 24:6

What you see is the view that greeted me as I sipped my first cup of coffee this morning.  It's not my usual view because this is not my kitchen window.  It is my friend, Lisa's. 
I am a part of the scene now.  I helped select the tomatoes.  We bought them yesterday after I arrived. I know the story of the African violet whose flowers I called so very pretty. "It is new here and hasn't had time to die yet," she joked.  And she has an aloe plant.  Like in the verse above, my visit to this Florida friend taking me far from my Midwestern cornfield life is very much a spreading forth of a sort of garden.  Tomorrow, we'll make it even more concrete:  transplanting her tomatoes and tidying her flower beds because these are tasks we both enjoy.  But it will be more than that for what the Lord is planting is also taking root in good soil and growing.

Sometimes, it is good to get knees sunk deep in the garden soil, and get the view focused on the placement of the tiniest of seeds.  Other times, it is good to stand up and step back and look at the garden with different eyes.  Eyes that see its larger dignity:  that it represents a planting that lasts for far more than one earth-garden cycle.

Take time to concentrate and see:  because sometimes an aloe plant in the window can be much more than just an aloe plant in a window...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sabbath Rest Taken in the Mind of a Worm

I missed a Sabbath Rest post last Sunday as I had company.  I'll miss it next weekend as I'll be someone's company...so here's a mid-point Sabbath Rest to hopefully bridge the gap.

Today I find Isaac Watts lyrics bouncing around in my head, and while I have perfectly pleasant childhood memories associated with standing in church and singing, "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?" I begin to realize now as an adult that it is equally important to respect and recognize that God in His infinite wisdom surely had some reason to classify said worms a little below the angels and even give them future charge to judge angels.  This is a thing I think we struggle to hold with any semblance of gracious balance.  So today, I quote Francis Chan in his book Forgotten God, with his reflections on the thoughts of a butterfly:
Years ago, when a random thought came into my head, I decided to share it with my wife.  "Have you ever wondered what caterpillars think about?" I asked.
Not surprisingly, she said, "No."
I then proceeded to tell her about the confusion I imagined a caterpillar must experience.  For all its caterpillar life, it crawls around a small patch of dirt and up and down a few plants. Then on day it takes a nap.  A long nap.  And then, what in the world must go through its head when it wakes up to discover it can fly?  What happened to its dirty, plump little worm body?  What does it think when it sees its tiny new body and gorgeous wings?
As believers we ought to experience this same kind of astonishment when the Holy Spirit enters our bodies.  We should be stunned into disbelief over becoming a 'new creation' with the Spirit living in us.  As the caterpillar finds its new ability to fly, we should be thrilled over our Spirit-empowered ability to live differently and faithfully.  Isn't this what the Scriptures speak of?  Isn't this what we've all been longing for?...
...I don't want to keep crawling when I have the ability to fly.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Something Old, Something New

 I don't know it if was yesterday's visit to the Victorian tea house or what, but today as I sat at the dining room table having my morning coffee and doing my typical morning menu planning and correspondence, I thought about how such morning work is a classic feature in old novels like those penned by say Daphne du Maurie or a Bronte sister.  Nowadays, however, that correspondence happens on an iPhone and the menu is written with a mechanical pencil if it's put to paper at all.  And, any blotting that might happen won't involve ink, more likely it involves spilled coffee. 

One of the things that had sparked my curiosity yesterday at the tea house was a recipe for lemon curd.  We were served some very flavorful lemon curd with our scones, and I wondered how hard the stuff was to make.  I thought I remembered having an old cookbook with a lemon curd recipe so I went digging through my old cookbooks and did find the recipe in a book simply titled Basic Home Preserving, a book published a generation ago.
 It called for putting butter, Castor--or superfine-- sugar, pared rind and juice of 6 large lemons, and 8 beaten eggs in a double boiler to cook, followed by straining into a clean bowl, discarding the rind, returning to the double boiler and cooking again for 35 to 40 minutes until it is the consistency of curd.

But this recipe seemed to be awfully time-consuming and labor-intensive...not an uncommon feature with older recipes. So I checked my Ball Blue Book to see if a similar recipe might be included there.  Sure enough, in the freezer foods section of the book, a different recipe was given for lemon curd.  This one only had one slightly unusual direction:  pressing 6 large egg  yolks through a sieve to make sure all the whites are removed.  Then, sugar, lemon juice and lemon peel are whisked into the egg yolks and the mixture is put over medium heat where it is constantly stirred with a wooden spoon and cooked until the curd coats the back of the spoon.  This should only take about 20 minutes.  Butter is stirred in at the last, stirred until it melts, and then the curd is placed in freezer jars and chilled until the mixture sets, maybe an hour or so.  Finally, pop them in the freezer and you are finished.

The point is, home preserving allows much room for variation.  Some of the more complex recipes may have greater depth of flavor, but the simpler versions may well be worth the choosing...
...especially if you want to allow a little time for other things, like arranging some cut flowers to grace your sitting room or taking a half hour to work on that baby blanket you're crocheting for a friend.

Happy choosing!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dining Pilgrimage: Ruby Pear Tea House

 On a day when you find yourself needing a gardening break, during the time of the year when the lilacs are in high scent and the dogwoods blow open freely; when the sky is a brilliant blue, that's a good time...
 ...a good time to visit an authentic tea house.  I went with two friends...one nearing a generation older than me and the other a generation younger.  All three of us have a common love of things girly in the Victorian style.  It was a first visit to the Ruby Pear Tea House for all three of us, but we agreed we'll surely return.
 We were escorted down a dark, tall-ceilinged hall where we caught glimpses into the various rooms: some for high tea parties...
 ...Others for standard luncheons.
We arrived mid-afternoon so the "afternoon delight" snack was what we chose.  The menu included flavored teas delivered to each of us in our own individual tea pot with tea cozy, scones with lemon curd and berry jelly, cookies and a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

There's something magically feminine about being in such a place having such a repast (words like repast just fall out when you're in that environment.)  If you have an opportunity to patronize such an establishment (more Austen novel lingo spewing forth) I expect you'll find it just as delightful as we did!

Happy gardening break!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Sharing Is NOT an Option

Some things are meant to get a share of your garden:
The local food bank. 
The friends who only come to visit once a year.
Thieving dark-of night or daylight bold as brass rodents,  twitchy birds, bugs in pestilence formation--these do NOT deserve a share. That's why you take the time and trouble to go to your local hairdresser and get her sweepings (That's right! human hair) or to the local garden center and secure something like this:
I suppose you could crack a few eggs in a bucket, stir in some hot pepper juice and crushed garlic and leave it to steep in the sun for a few days on the back patio.  Still, buying it commercially is awfully simple, and is less likely to cause your neighbor to give you the evil eye if he tries to have a backyard barbecue when the wind is wafting from your house toward his.  (This would be especially true if you've already exhausted his patience with the smell of your compost heap.)

This combo of aromas--atrocious as it is--specifically deters critters like deer (if you're in an area where they're an issue) and rabbits and squirrels.  It does work!  For some reason, they don't like this concoction dousing their breakfast greens.  Can't say I blame them. 

Most such products--particularly if they're organic--can be used even same day as harvest, if you think you'd want to do so!  But this time of year, the crops are hardly ready for harvest anyway.  More likely, you're just trying to give them a fighting chance for survival!
Those little snow pea plants I mentioned last week?  You can see above that although the first shoot was gnawed off near to the soil line by some hungry varmint, a good spraying gave a second shoot the freedom to take off and grow--this much in one week.  One of these days it will produce succulent snow peas, which thankfully will NOT carry that flavor of peppers, rotten eggs and garlic!
 Moral of the story:  sometimes smelling bad temporarily is a good thing!

This week's bonus blog link visits the blogger who inspired this very post.  Kudos to her as she attempts "one more time" to grow tomatoes despite an aggressive and audacious squirrel population in her back yard!

Bonus blog link: http://heysparky.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/look-at-me-im-sailing/

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Morning Meditation

"A pilgrim was walking along a road when one day he passed what seemed to be a monk sitting in a field.  Nearby, men were working on a stone building.
'You look like a monk,' the pilgrim said.
'I am that,' said the monk.
'Who is that working on the abbey?'
'My monks,' said the man. 'I'm the abbot.'
'It's good to see a monastery going up,' said the pilgrim.
'They're tearing it down,' said the abbot.
'Whatever for?' asked the pilgrim.
'So we can see the sun rise at dawn,' said the abbot."
--Meditations by Thomas Moore

This Easter, pledge to tear down what obstructs your view of the dawn...and look for that leader who will bless such a work at your hands' doing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Week Meditation

Holy Saturday, and more Meditations with Thomas Moore...

...and with a sleeping kitty.
The Book of Common Prayer offers the following prayer for this day, the ultimate day of rest in Christendom:

O God, Creator of heave and earth:  Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

"Withdrawal from the world is something we can, and perhaps should, do every day.  It completes the movement of which entering fully into life is only one part.  Just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, everything we do needs an empty place in its interior...Simply getting away from linear life, going away in mood or reflection, walking away from the action, or shutting down business as usual:  this is all the start of retreat and the core of the monastic spirit--only a walk away." 
--Meditations by Thomas Moore

Empty your schedule a bit today, take a soul walk--all the better to appreciate the empty tomb tomorrow!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Holy Week Meditation

Good Friday, when the near-gloaming sky is cloudless and the air is still. 
The birdhouse is empty of all but fading beams of light.
Jesus answered and said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?"  --Mark 10:51

"Early Christian monks went out to live in the desert in order to find emptiness.  Modern life is becoming so full that we need our own ways of going to the desert to be relieved of our plenty.  Our heads are crammed with information, our lives busy with activities, our cities stuffed with automobiles, our imaginations bloated on pictures and images, our relationships heavy with advice, our jobs burdened with endless new skills, our homes cluttered with gadgets and conveniences.  We honor productivity to such an extent that the unproductive person or day seems a failure.

Monks are experts at doing nothing and tending the culture of that emptiness." 
--Meditations by Thomas Moore

Reaching for less, not more this Easter weekend...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bread Machine Basics

 Considering it is the season of penitence and confession, I have something to admit. 
I lusted after a bread machine long before I got one. 

Now that I have one, I'd be quick to recommend it to anyone who likes the taste of homemade bread.  I do know how to make bread by hand.  I do love the feel of kneading dough--for about 2 of the requisite 5 to 8 minutes.  I enjoy punching the dough down.  But...some tiny joys simply don't have the power to outweigh the convenience of machine-made bread. 
Today, as I bake a loaf of Italian bread to go with tonight's spaghetti, I think I'll share a few pointers about bread machine use for those of you who aren't familiar with these devices or who are closet-lusters like I was. To you lusters, I say go get one!  To those still wondering, I offer some basic info:

My bread machine has a feature I use almost exclusively called the Super Rapid setting.  That means I can have a finished loaf in 1 hour, as long as I'm willing to use 4 times the yeast required in the standard loaf's 4-hour setting.  (Still only 4 tsp. per 2 lb loaf in the quick bread setting, so not a budget-buster.)  One drawback of the super rapid setting:  I can't make the super healthy breads on the speedy setting, but these quick breads are not particularly un-healthy.  Besides, those super healthy breads call for things like liquid lecithin and powdered whey, unsulphured molasses and carob powder--all of which I'd need a shopping helper to help me find in the health food store. 

No, for this recipe, all I need are very common ingredients--water at 100 to 115 degrees--very hot tap water seems to work; cooking oil--I like olive oil for my Italian bread; simple sugar; salt; powdered milk; bread flour; Italian seasoning and quick-rise yeast.  For my seasoning, I used a mix of last year's dried herbs (thyme and basil) and fresh trimmings of oregano and parsley. 

A few things to note with a bread machine: generally, you'll be told to add the ingredients in the order they are listed in the recipe, saving the yeast for last.  In fact, make a small indentation on top of the dry ingredients, one that doesn't go so deep as to reach the wet layer.  Put the yeast in that indentation.  Best to keep the yeast away from the wet until the cycle for kneading gets underway as the liquids activate the yeast too soon. 

Some bread machines offer other recipes for the making, things besides standard breads.  Mine makes jam--although the one peach chutney jam I tried didn't make enough jam to be worth the trouble.  Two half-pint jars couldn't compete with the ratio of jam to box of quick-gel that can be achieved in easy stove top methods--usually something like 6-8 pintss.  Besides jam, the machine also makes pizza dough and cinnamon rolls.

While the machine whirred in the background and began to kick up that amazing aroma of baking bread, I set up the extra herbs for drying.  Soon the pruned parsley plant will fluff up bushier, and I'll be able to use the clippings to refill the empty herb jars from last season as they are running sparse after a winter of cooking.  The bread machine beeped its last just as I pulled a jar of cherry wine jam from the freezer to thaw in the window sill.  (The bread maker's first beep signaled the end of the last kneading cycle--just in case I wanted to pull the dough out then so it could rise once more and be baked in the oven.  So many options!)

One last pointer about bread machines:  take the pan out of the bread maker if  your machine gives you the option.  Let it cool on a cooling rack and not in the machine.  This arrangement keeps the loaf from getting soggy.  Soon, it will pop out of the bread pan and be ready for slicing.  Patience is a virtue here!  Yank it out of the pan too soon and the loaf might tear apart as you try to pry it hot off the mixer paddle.  But overall, such an easy way to have fresh bread!
Blog-link Bonus:  This tag-on is for you if you don't expect to have a bread machine any time soon, if you don't want a long complicated process, and if you want something fun and quirky for your family's Easter table:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sabbath Rest: the Garden as Service

While not a particularly religious quote, the following excerpt becomes deeply religious, I think, when taken as an analogy to our larger world of service to our fellowman.  It offers food for reflection on how we incorporate that service into our daily lives.  This being Palm Sunday--a time  when the idea of good times and hard times are so closely aligned in the life of Christ--may we also pause and consider the fuller spectrum of our service to others' needs.

"For ten years, I cared for my ill and elderly mother while she was bedridden and slipping into oblivion.  Ultimately, she died at home--peacefully--holding my hand.  It was worth it.  But it was the hardest thing I ever did.  At times my garden and my gardening was an immense comfort and satisfaction.  It grounded me.  It soothed and restored me.  It reminded me of the basics.  It regularly ushered me into a contemplative time and space that allowed me to see the bigger picture.  It also gave me something to show and tell to my mother that she could still understand and take pleasure in.  She loved to look at and touch the bright delicious fruits and vegetables and hear the stories about what they were and exactly how I grew them.  She couldn't remember the stories, but she liked hearing them.  And she still enjoyed good food.  Really superb food of the most flavorful varieties, picked at its prime and prepared optimally--it is a special pleasure.  My mother enjoyed that great food until the end.  The garden helped sustain us both, physically and emotionally.

However, there were plenty of times my gardening fell apart or overwhelmed me instead of sustaining me.  There were medical emergencies that took my full time and attention for weeks.  The garden wouldn't get tended until they were over.  Many times I lost entire crops and much of the season's labor because of my inability to tend the garden at critical times.  I myself sometimes suffered from health problems and injuries that interfered with gardening.  When I most needed help, my garden often created pressures and contributed to my problems instead of relieving them. 

These days, we tend to design our gardens and our gardening for good times, times when everything is going well.  That isn't what we need.  Reality is, there is almost always something going wrong.  Hard times are normal.  My experience of gardening while caring for my mother helped me realize that.  I needed to garden differently.  My garden needed to be designed around the reality that life has its ups and downs.  It has good times and bad.  How to garden in the best of times was not the issue.  I didn't need a "good times garden."  I needed to understand more about how to garden in hard times.  I needed a more resilient garden.  And I needed a garden that better enhanced my own resilience, in all kinds of times, good and bad."  --The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe

Blessed resilience to your personal ministries in life...