The Doctor is in!

This morning I went out to look at my garden, as is my custom most mornings after the bus has come and gone and I have a chance to finish my coffee.  Everything looked in order from afar, but as I honed in for a closer inspection, trying to sneak up on those pesky tomato suckers, I noticed my plants looked in somewhat ill health.  Not exactly sick, but queasy.  Now, I knew I took a risk by planting them in the dirt before Mothers Day, but the forecast looked good for an early planting, and I had been fastidious about hardening them off.  We did get a cold snap last week, but not a frost in our area, and they had looked fine the morning after.  The leaves were sort of yellowish, curling at the edges, with some brown spots on them.   What could it be?  Blight?  Bugs? Too much water? Not enough?  As I fondled each plant in turn, murmuring over them and worrying like the mother of a sick child (I have, after all, nurtured these babies since January!), It occurred to me that I might need some help.

I knew just where to get it, too.  I hurriedly plucked the worst looking of the leaves off pepper and tomato, hopped in my truck and beat feet (My dad’s expression) to the local greenhouse to talk with my good friend who runs the garden center.  She has been a resource for me over years, and one I have come to value and respect.  I knew together we could figure out what ailed my lovelies.  After a trot around the greenhouse with my fistfull of wilted leaves looking for my friend, who turned out not to be working that day, I decided to take a chance and ask someone else.  I found another woman and after a quick inspection she informed me that my plants weren’t that sick at all, but had a case of chill stemming from wet feet.  We had a chat, and she suggested in the nicest of ways that perhaps I had mulched too deeply, or perhaps too close to the stems.  The previous cold, combined with a wet wind and lots of rain has weakened the plants because the roots couldn’t breath.  She prescribed a treatment of kelp and seaweed mulch lightly applied to the area around the roots, and the mulch pulled back 6 inches.  It turns out everyone at that greenhouse knows stuff!  I rushed home to apply her advice.  Below is the result.  I’ll let you know in a week if my darling peppers and lovely tomatoes have recovered their former vigor.  ImageImage

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Ah, Springtime. For a minute.

When I moved to Connecticut almost 12 years ago, I came from Crested Butte, Colorado, a western slope former mining town turned fancy with a ski area.  It was at 8800 feet in elevation.  I had a garden, but in it I grew mostly grass.  And I didn’t even mind so much, because it was green.  I did manage some carrots, peas

and some herbs most years, but that was the sum total that my high altitude green thumb could manage.  I tried for 10 years to get a serviceable tomato, but nary a cherry could I produce in that elevated locale.

Then I moved to Connecticut, and the sheer amount of vegetation astonished me.  In fact, by mid summer I was entirely overwhelmed.  I had to cut the grass ALL the time.  And weeding?  Forget it!   I couldn’t stop things from growing, and that first year my cherry tomato vines grew to be over 11 feet long.  I chuckle to remember how delighted I was with my first garden and the 12 or so varieties of vegetable I planted.  Now I have over 12 varieties of tomatoes alone.

Springtime in Connecticut is both a magical and alarming time for me.  The new life clawing up out of the ground and unfolding everywhere happens so fast and forceful that it is almost frightening.  Each year in the early spring I wait expectantly for the growth to start.  It begins with the greening of the grass, and gently blooms into a haze of green on the tips of the trees.  Then I feel as if I’m rushing to catch and appreciate every last brilliant daffodil before the outrageous yellow of the forsythia emerges, but it all too soon blends in with the pinks and whites of the dogwoods and magnolia which give way to the purples and violets of the heavenly scented lilacs.  Before I know it spring turns to summer and the business of hacking back the vegetation that grows uncontrollably everywhere, blocking my view of the oncoming cars at the end of the drive, threatening to overwhelm my perennials.  And then the nasty posion ivy, the multiflora, the nettles.

There is usually a period of ease between these times, a period of calm wherein there is just enough vegetation to feel the world is a gentle place but not enough to feel as if things are out of control.   For me, that time is now.  Onions are beginning to poke out of the moist rich soil, and the first blossoms begin to open on the tomatoes.  The last frost was last night, and tomorrow I relocate my delicate seedlings into their permanent homes.  The lawn looks green, healthy and not too long.  I have to remember to take a deep breath and savor every moment before the deluge of verdancy I know will be coming.   Everything  is a mixed blessing in this delicate  balance we call life.

Cookbooks: We need them.

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I love to read cookbooks.  I collect and read cookbooks like other people read novels.  Not just when I need a recipe, either.  Last fall my mom sent me three cookbooks from her collection that kept me entertained for the whole winter season.  One was called Mediterranean Harvest, one from Mystic, Connecticut, where I spent much of my childhood, and one was a collection of recipes from lighthouse families in and around the Boston area, where my mom spent much of her early life.  I learned the differences between soil compositions in olive growing regions in Europe, the history of Cod fishing in the Atlantic and, well, that lighthouse keepers don’t eat very well.  The point is that good cookbooks have more to offer us than interesting recipes.  They can change how we view our food and shape our relationship with that essential and intricate love affair going on between our mouths and our environment.  That is why it is important to buy actual cookbooks, not just look for recipes online.  While getting a quick idea for something to make for dinner is invaluable, the knowledge, experience and insight that went into that recipe are usually not included.  Without that, we only get half the experience.  Becoming a good cook, and a responsible eater, is more than learning how to make something a certain way.  It is a process we embark on and develop as we eat, as we read, and as we garden and grow.  Go pick out a new cookbook today, and see what you can learn.  Do you have a favorite?  What have you learned from it?  Happy eating!

Pig in a…Bucket?

ImageWhen I was just a girl, maybe ten years old, one spring evening my dad came home with three tiny pink piglets .  We had known they were coming; we had spent the previous weekend renovating our old play house for them to live in.  The playhouse, two stories with a rooftop deck and swing set, had to be essentially chopped in half with a chainsaw to house the little squirmers.   As per the “Law of Ed”,  wherein if one nail is good than two are better, ten being best, the thing had been built like a fortress.  We put the modified house on sledges so we could drag it around with the tractor if they made too much of a mess of it.   It turned out to be quite a nice setup for the piglets.  They had an old pile of blankets in a corner and a nice window, with a ramp up to the door for their tiny legs.  We named them sweet things like Daisy and Maisy and Sunshine.  We loved them.  They were so smart and cute and….pink!

My mother had protested the acquisition of three pigs, saying one pig would be plenty for a family of four.  My father claimed at the time, and I still believe this even if it isn’t true, that pigs need to be in groups of three.  He explained that one pig alone thinks it doesn’t exist  and will not thrive.  Two pigs together look at each other and, seeing one pig, think they are alone and will not thrive.  With three, a pig can look at the other two and say to himself  “that’s me, and I’m in good company”, and they happily go about the business of getting enormous.

And that is exactly what they do.  The tiny pink wigglers who we carried around in our arms and fed with bottles of warm milk grew and grew.  Their tiny pink mouths got teeth.  And they learned how to use them.  In just a few short months the baby pigs went from about 20 pounds to about 400.  No lie.  And in less time than that they became mean.  Mean, mean, mean.

At 10, there was a short time when I was able to hold my own with the pigs, but after a time they could out run and out bite me, not to mention out number me.  Of course I was the one in charge of feeding them.  I can hear my father’s chuckle as he mutters something about “character building” .  Well, those pigs got the best of me.  They were kept in a large area fenced in with a low strand of electric wire.  Pigs are very smart, but the one thing pigs can’t do is jump, so a wire about 18″ off the ground is enough to keep them in place.   They ate just about anything; I think we fed them eggshells, along with any other kitchen scraps we threw away.  It was all mixed in with a bucket of ground corn.  Truly it was slop, and my job was to hop over the wire, run to the trough, dump in the slop,  turn tail and make it back over the wire before they could try to knock me down and bite me.  And if luck was with me, I’d clear the wire without getting a zap! At least that’s how I remember it.  I hated the pigs!

Then one crisp fall afternoon I came home from school and heard a curious sound.  It was a beeping sound coming from the back yard.  Beep, Beep, Beep.  It went on and on and on.  Beep Beep Beep.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was driving me crazy.  I wandered around the barn and the yard and the pond until I finally came to what was making that awful beeping sound.  It was behind the pig house, a backhoe, driving in reverse.  And the backhoe had a chain hanging from it’s scoop that was going down to a steaming 50 gallon bucket.  As I watched, the scoop lifted, and out of the bucket came…. Daisy?  Sunshine?  I couldn’t tell.  It was horrible.  The sight of that huge porcine body suspended over the bucket was absolutely shocking to me, and I will forever associate the sound of a backhoe in reverse with death.

As much as I hated those evil pigs, and had prayed for their immediate demise, I was truly astonished and saddened to see on of them actually dead.  I vowed never to consume even a mouthful of their flesh, even out of spite.

Until, of course, my father introduced me to thick cut home cured maple bacon.  Then I got my revenge.

Tonight we are having Roast Pork Loin with Potatoes.  The pork has been rubbed with a mixture of 1/2 cup agave, 3 tbs honey Dijon, 1 tbs thyme and 1 tbs black pepper.  Rub the pork with half the mixture and roast for 1 hour at 300 F.  Add 3 large cut potatoes dressed with salt, pepper and olive oil to the pan, flip the roast and rub with the rest of the mixture.  Roast about another 45 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 150 F.  Enjoy with a green salad, or steamed kale or spinach.

Cattails. Yum!

I wonder how many people have said or thought that in the last 50 or 100 years.  Not many, I’d bet, but perhaps I’m wrong.  I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and find that it’s more than I think.  I know there is a semi-secretive but emerging group of wild food specialists out there, but I thought they stayed mostly to mushrooms. 

Speaking of pleasantly surprised, I was after my recent cattail adventure. 

Our pond is overrun with cattails, and up to a few days ago I looked on them with disapproval mingled with despair.  Our pond wants to be a swamp again, and the cattails are the first determined step it is taking to revert to its natural state.  In the past we have used a backhoe to dig them out when they got to be too abundant, and on occasion my husband will don full waders and attack them with hoe and shovel, but it seems to be a futile attempt: they continue to populate at an alarming rate.  Well, yesterday I got my revenge.  I went out to the pond, sharp knife in hand, and cut all the new shoots just emerging from the shallows.  I peeled off the outer green stalk, took them home and ATE THEM!  HAHAHAHA!Image

The surprising thing was that they were actually good.  Really.  Good. 

Cattails can be great fun, especially for kids.  Bashing each other with the cigar-like heads and creating a haze of cattail spores is a treasured summer pastime for those with ponds nearby.  The heads can also be used as impromptu torches.  They smoke wildly and make a terrific mess, but it’s still fun.  Then recently I was killing time reading a book called Foraging New England by Tom Seymour and learned that cattails are edible.  I thought I’d give it a try. 

Eating something entirely new can be a daunting experience.  For a few minutes after I ate them, I thought I might get a stomach ache.  Not because I felt funny, but because they were so entirely different.  If someone had served them to me on china and called them something fancy, I might have relished them right off the bat, but plucking them out of the mud and scraping off the tough outer layer, then slicing them on a salad, made me a bit skeptical of their authenticity as food.  I tried to remember the first time I had had endives, or leeks, as they have a similar flavor, but I couldn’t come up with anything.  Then I remembered trying fiddlehead ferns for the first time.  Earthy, delicate and entirely delicious, fiddleheads are one of those strange spring delights that my children anticipate, harvest, cook and serve to us each year.  Finally, after not getting sick, and realizing they tasted pretty good,  I decided that they might have a place in my repertoire of “wild things I eat.”

First I tried them raw.  As I had been thinking about endive, I started there, and made a salad with celery, Bibb lettuce, endive, and sliced cattails.  For protein I added some chopped grilled salmon and some bacon, and topped it with a crumble of chevre and pine nits.  It was entirely delicious.Image

Then I decided to try them cooked.  Everything (in my opinion)  goes with eggs, so I decided on an onion and cattail scramble, served with salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce.  (My favorite is homemade, but Cholula is a good store-bought second).  That was a success. The cattails held up well, and didn’t get mushy as I feared.  Next time I’ll try sautéed fennel and cattails with garlic cream sauce as a side.  I even served them to a young friend of my son in a salad and he gobbled them up, not even noticing they were there. Image

 

If you have any nutrition information for cattails, or any tried and true recipes, I would love to hear about them! 

Grandma Sadie’s Deer

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Last week my Dad sent this email to my boys.

Dear Nate & Simon:

Your Great, Great, Great Granny Sadie Smith (your mom’s dad’s mom’s grandmother) lived on a farm in southern Quebec.  One crisp fall morning, all the men went out hunting and left Sadie at home with the kids and the chores.  Later in the morning, she spied a large buck out by the edge of the garden.  Taking a rifle in hand, she snuck out onto the back porch and dropped the deer where it stood.  She gutted it and managed to drag it into the barn and hoist it up.

When the men returned from hunting, they complained that the deer were scarce and it would be amazing if they got any venison this year, at which Sadie told them not to worry, there would be no concern about that.

The men started to argue with Sadie and tell her that they knew the woods and they knew the hunting and they knew about the scarcity of deer in the area and that she should tend to her chores and her obligations.

She agreed to do that and advised them that her chores did not include butchering the big buck in the barn so:   THEY should get to their chores and finish them before they could eat any supper.

Love you all.

Grampa

This fall I proved to be my great, great, grandmother’s, er…..great, great, granddaughter.  I got a tag for private land deer in Connecticut and filled it with a small buck that I shot early one morning from the back porch.  I shot the deer while I was expertly concealed in a rocking chair behind the climbing hydrangea, ensconced in camouflage, under which I  still had on my jammies.  I had spent the previous four mornings in a tree stand out at the pond, seeing nothing and freezing my butt off.   It was a lovely shot, and felled the deer instantly.  Before school Nathan and I gutted it and dragged it back to the house.  We hung it to cure under the porch.  I was very pleased with myself.  It was the first whitetail I had ever ‘hunted’.

I’ve been a hunter for most of my adult life.  I have hunted elk in Colorado, caribou and moose in Canada,  pheasant, chuckar and partridge, even squirrel and rabbit, and now deer in Connecticut.  The first large animal I killed was a young caribou in Newfoundland.  Afterwards I cried.  I still cry.  And then I pray.

I kill animals to eat them and to feed to my family.  Do I like to kill?  No.  It’s the worse part of hunting.  Do I like to hunt?  Yes.  It’s great fun.  I hear so many people bash hunting and hunters while gobbling a  hamburger that it makes me sad.  Choosing to eat animal flesh and tricking yourself into thinking that you have no part in the death of animals  lying to yourself.  It’s like putting a bag over your head and telling yourself no one can’t see you.  If you eat meat, you participate in the  killing of  animals, just indirectly.  And participating in something  you condemn indirectly, in my mind, makes you a coward.  Worse of all, in most cases it’s  participation in abhorrent practices, like the American beef industry.  How can any person watch the documentary  Meet your Meat (I won’t put the link because it’s too gruesome) Or Frankensteer,   (http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Frankensteer), or even Food Inc. (https://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Food_Inc.) and still choose to purchase beef in the grocery store , while condemning hunting at the same time is beyond me.  It indicates the extreme alienation we have from our food.   Choosing to kill animals, whether domestic or wild, and therefore taking responsibility for yourself, or becoming a vegan, is the only sane response.  In choosing to hunt I can have some control in the death of the animal, and strive to make it as humane, painless  and respectful as possible.  My killing is done with skill, honor and gratitude for the lives I take.    It’s not easy either.  I’ll probably always cry.

But enough about that!  What’s for dinner?

VENISON STEW (makes about 6 servings)

Here is a recipe for venison stew that is an old standby because it is so easy and versatile.   Stew likes to cook long and sit, so make it in the early part of the day.  It’s perfect for those days when you have a busy evening schedule and don’t want to end up stopping for pizza on the way home.  This stew comes out differently every time, depending on what you have and what you add.  Feel free to experiment.  I’ve even used a half cup of bourbon instead of the wine.

INGREDIENTS

3 tbs Olive Oil

1.5 lbs Venison, Chopped into small cubes 1/2 inch

Salt and pepper

1 Large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic or more if you like it, chopped

1/4 cup organic cornmeal

Some old red wine (a cup or two will be enough) The flavor will be different depending on the wine, but it’s all good.

Dash of Worcestershire

Broth (chicken, beef, turkey, vegetable.) enough to cover the meat and vegetables completely and then another 2 cups. Perhaps 5 cups total

Bouquet garni: either fresh or dried.  If dried, I make a spice packet and put it in a empty tea bag.  Just fold it up and staple it again. Use 1/2 tsp. each of rosemary,parsley, basil, oregano, bay leaf.

Vegetables, chopped into small bites. (here’s where you can get creative) Use what you have in the fridge.  This can include  parsnips, turnips, white potatoes, carrots. For green vegetables try green onions, celery, leeks, peas, parsley.   You don’t need a wide variety, but make sure you have about 4 cups of vegetables total.

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy cast iron pot or dutch oven on medium heat.  Salt and pepper the meat generously .  Add half of the cubes of venison and  fry until browned.  Remove from the pan and repeat with the rest of the meat, saving the juices.  Next, turn the hear down to medium low and add the onion, cooking  until translucent.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and soft, but not browned.  Replace the meat and juices  in the pan with the onion and garlic.  Sprinkle the cornmeal over the meat and onions and stir. De-glaze the pan with the wine, and add the Worcestershire sauce .  Then add the vegetables and enough broth to cover the food plus another two cups.  Add the herbs, and turn the heat to high.  When the stew boils, put it onto the smallest burner on the stove and turn the heat down to low.

Now leave the kitchen and do all the busy things you have to do for the next  3 hours.  If you happen to think about the stew, give it a stir.  Make sure there is enough liquid in the pot that the vegetables and meat stay covered.  Later, when you smell something wonderful coming from the kitchen, turn the stew off.  It’s fine to leave it to sit on the stove for the rest of the day.  It must cook for at least  2-3 hours, but can be cooked as long as 5 if you happen to forget about it.  Serve the stew with a green salad, crusty bread, cornbread, or even crackers.

Local, Sustainable, Healthful and Clean

Whenever I consider eating something, I try to stick to some basic rules.  Each one is not hard and fast, and I do tend to make some exceptions, but I try to stick to them most of the time to ensure that my diet stays at least relatively healthful, wholesome and environmentally sound.  My rules are that the majority of what I bring into the kitchen and eat should be from local sources, sustainable, healthful and clean, and by doing this each time I shop or prepare, I know I’m making good choices for myself and my family.

Questions to ask yourself.

Did I grow/harvest/collect/hunt or fish this?

If it came from my garden, or I got it in some other way and know its source, I know it is good for us. Ideally you should be able to answer yes to this question most of the time.

 Could I have grown this?

Maybe I didn’t grow it, but it is something that I could have grown if I had the time/space/energy.  This is a dangerous one because lots of things might have been grown locally, but were in fact planted with genetically modified seed, sprayed with toxins, picked before their prime by exploited workers, packed in non-renewable packaging, and trucked from 1000 miles away, like most veggies we find in the store.  If it passes the “I could have grown it” question, see below.  Anything from a farmers market should answer yes to this question.

 Did it come from my area?

Is it something that has been eaten in season by people from your area for eons? If it’s a kiwi in December, and you don’t live in the tropics, you might want to put it back.

 Did someone I know make this?

This is a good test, and an easy one.  It is a pleasure to answer yes to when you have something special, like a gift of honey, or fish.  If you know who got it and where, it’s probably safe.

 Is it fresh/clean/organic?

Has it been polluted in any way? Is it rotten?  Poisonous?  Has it been cleaned properly? This question rules out lots of stuff in the supermarket.  Most produce items have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals.  Organic is a good choice, but not always enough.   This question also pertains to things you might hunt, fish or gather for yourself, like mushrooms, squid, or rabbit.  I will emphasize that all gatherers should have knowledge about what they are seeking and how to collect and clean it properly.  That is one benefit of technology today.  All the information we need is at our fingertips.

 Is it seasonal?

Most fresh foods should be in season before you decide to put them on your menu.  While there are a multitude of ways to store fresh produce and staples for later times, if you will be eating it fresh, you want to make sure it is in season.  It is one way to insure that it doesn’t come with too high of a carbon price. 

Exceptions

Olive oil is a must in our house, and we try to choose extra virgin organic oil.  For important information on olive oils, check out http://www.truthinoliveoil.com/ The book Extra Virginity has some shocking information.  A must read for olive oil lovers. 

Nuts are another staple.  Almonds, especially, are very beneficial to health, so we usually keep a supply of them in the house.  Good, fairly inexpensive nuts can be found at Trader Joe’s.  

Salt and spices.  Every kitchen need a good supply of fine herbs and spices, and I only grow herbs.  For salt I always use Norton’s coarse kosher salt or natural sea salt, never table salt.  Here is a photo of Trout baked in Salt.  Coated entirely, the salt makes a crust that can be cracked off.  For the recipe, see here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/whole-fish-baked-in-salt-crust-recipe/index.htmlImage

Today I am out to hunt the abundant cattail root.  A delicacy in spring, and a staple for the summer, cattails grow wild in any swampy area throughout New England.  The roots are mild and can be eaten raw, while the new shoots, paired down to reveal the white inner parts, are similar to leeks.  Sauteed with butter and salt, they make an excellent side dish. 

Happy Eating!