Just peachy

Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate.  Just so seasonal peaches.  The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether.  But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.IMG_0787

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits.  Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious.  I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it.  I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer.  Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe.  I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious.  When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste.  Into the compost they go.  How did I get fooled again?

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The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree.  And not always those.  Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts.  We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue.  Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control.  You make your own luck, my dad used to say.  God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past.  Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true.  If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it.  A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight.  Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches.  But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential.  Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest.  Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.

If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.

Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground.  If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off.  Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness.  A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach.  If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe.  When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch.  This should just give under the finger.  If it is still firm-not ripe.  If it yields, give the peach a twist.  If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet.  It’s telling you to wait another day.  Accept it.

There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first.  Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over.  They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact.  They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit.  If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe.  A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits.  Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.  IMG_0773

Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave.  At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day.  Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat.   It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.

All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps.  Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin.  This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water.  One minute.  Time it.  Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam.  Less and the skins won’t slip off.  You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath.  If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking.  See the difference in the picture below.

 

Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them.  If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags.  This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare.  Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer.  To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it.  Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing.  When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first.  I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.

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Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment.  While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree.  I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.  IMG_0795

If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair.   Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area.  Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try.  Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits.  If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later.  Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.

If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.

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Which season is this, anyway?

IMG_1781I bought myself a new pair of galoshes.  I love that word, galoshes.  It brings to mind yellow rubber duckies and chubby kneed toddlers jumping in puddles.  Purple umbrellas, rain streaking down window panes, and good books.  So I have a new pair.  Sleek, navy blue and mid-calf, with a bright orange lining, they are my new favorite shoes.  Partly because I get to wear them every day, morning and evening, and sometimes in between.  They are made by a company called Hunter, the Rolls Royce of rubber boots.  The last pair I had were made by Hunter too, although I cheaped out and bought them slightly used on Ebay.  I got  what I paid for, by the way.  They must have been more than “slightly” used, because they only lasted a few seasons.  After a few weeks of doing my chores in wet socks this spring I broke down and bought a new pair directly from the company.  And not a moment too soon.  The pretty box lined in bright orange with the fancy Hunter logo gave me almost enough gratification to justify the price.  At least they are getting a good workout.  IMG_0747

It’s been a wet summer here in the northeast.  Wet and hot.  A wet summer following a cold late spring.  Following a weird winter.  But no one needs me to tell them that the weather is out of whack, all you have to do is look out the window, or better yet look at your garden.  I’ve got tomatoes splitting open on the vine before they ripen, peppers dropping all their leaves and huge eggplant bushes with no blooms on them.  My carrots are two inches tall and as fat as sausages, the watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins have no fruit at all, and the raspberries mold before I can pick them.  I have cabbage spitting open like hatching eggs and basil plants with leaves as brown and slimy as pond scum.  Things are composting before I can harvest them.  It’s wet.

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It’s in my nature, sadly, to point out the tragic and flawed first.  When someone comes for a tour of the garden, or is just walking through, I’ll delightedly complain about all the garden failures.  Maybe it’s my way of deflecting blame, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather.  I need everyone to know that despite all my efforts, things are not perfect, and I recognize it.  I make them note the worst so they know that I know the flaws exist.  That I’m not proudly displaying what is obviously not the way it should be.  It’s a terrible way to behave, and not very self-serving.  Most times, not only would they not have recognized the not-perfectness of things, but it robs them of the desired delusion that things really are perfect, and just the way they should be.  They leave thinking either I’m a downer, or just not very good at what I do.  Or worse, they feel the need to reassure me, and make me feel better for my multitude of failures. Ridiculous.

So, now that you’ve heard the worst, both practically and subconsciously, I’ll tell you the good news.  Onions the size of softballs.  Leeks that are three feet tall.  Abundant parsley, mint that is overflowing (isn’t it always) and cucumbers that just keep coming.  The garlic harvest was successful, fat white and purple heads drying on racks in the garage. The kohlrabi, while a bit tough on the outside, was none the less plump and crunchy.  And the summer squash.  Oh, the summer squash.  I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle where she informs her children that they lock the car doors in summer not to deter someone from stealing the car, but to prevent neighbors from dropping off  bags of calf sized zucchini on their back seat.   Lock your doors folks, it’s that kind of year.

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And I can’t forget the flowers. Almost everything was abundant, tall, vibrant and with enormous blooms.  My ‘Dinner Plate’ dahlias are actually the size of dinner plates.  It’s the best year I’ve seen for poppies, and the Sunflowers are 10 feet tall.  Of course the weeds are 10 feet tall too.  Some of the grasses growing in my flower beds have become ornamental.  I’m trying to go with it and resist loudly declaiming to whomever will listen that I didn’t plant it there, and I haven’t gotten around to pulling it out yet, and if it weren’t for all this blasted rain you wouldn’t notice it.

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I’ll let out a little secret.  We harvested about 6 gallons of honey from our two hives last week.  This is big news for all the folks to whom we give honey as a Christmas gift.  While a few of them no doubt have jars of honey stacked in the back of the pantry, I know for a fact the majority can’t wait for their Christmas bag of goodies from the Winter Pantry, the honey being the golden prize.  This years honey was pale, golden and sugary, redolent of clover blossoms, honeysuckle and apple.  Much different from previous years, when we’ve seen honey that has been almost molasses-like, dark amber and thick.  The weather makes a difference for the bees, too.

Not being a bee person didn’t stop me from helping this year.  Helping is a misnomer, really, but I was there, standing several yards away and trying to breathe deeply and radiate calm normality.  As if that’s my natural state.  Ha.  Only once did I do what I had promised myself not to; shreek, hop, and swat hysterically at my hair in an attempt to dislodge one furious lady trying in vain to defend her home.  Of course my husband, who is a bee person and for whom calm normality is a way of life, came to my rescue, and plucked the poor thing from my head before she could sting me and ruin both our lives.   He had repeatedly picked the angry things off his arms and neck without a peep, lifting out the heavily laden frames with calm aplomb.  Different nature, I guess.

And I must mention the fruit. The abundant rain and humid weather has certainly been a blessing for all the fruit setting plants.  Fat yellow plums are dripping off our diminutive trees and for some strange reason the birds haven’t yet discovered them.  Perhaps they are thrown off by the color?  It is wonderful to harvest so many unblemished fruits.   The downside being that they don’t spoil as fast, so I’m disinclined to make jam, or even to freeze them.  Sorry friends, no plum jam in the Christmas bag.   Instead they sit in big bowls on the counter and get gobbled down five at a time.  This time of year it’s not unlikely for me to make an entire meal of plums, blueberries and peaches while I stand at the counter dripping juice on myself.  Elegant.

 

Conclusion?  The weather is weird.  It’s different than last year, different than any other year before.  Science says it’s going to get weirder.  But nature will win out, in the end, I think.  And us gardeners, what can we do in the meantime?  We have to deal with what we get, acknowledge the bad and celebrate the good, and then go forth and try to be more responsible to the planet.  We plant and harvest and eat, we fail and succeed and mostly do the best we can.  It’s in our nature.

 

Morning Score

This morning, as I walked up the cool dewy driveway to feed the horses, I noticed something in their pasture that hadn’t been there yesterday.  The pasture grows rocks;  I know because I pick them up and toss them over the fence regularly, yet there still seem to be plenty around.  This didn’t look quite like rocks though, or any of the other paraphernalia the horses lose in the pasture, so I walked down to investigate.

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Hooray!  It was what I was hoping they might be…some puffball mushrooms.  They must have blossomed in the field after the hard, much needed rain we had yesterday afternoon. The horse had stepped on some of them, but I managed to salvage some good mushrooms  “for the pot”.  I didn’t have my camera with me, so I can’t show you, but there was clear swath of darker color in the grass where the fungus was growing, like a big comma, and there was a sweep of puffballs, the fruit of the fungus, blooming right down the center.

As I walked back home with my loot I got to reflecting about mushrooms, for which I have a deep fondness.  They often grow in dead or dying material. In other words, they are a product of decay.  It amazes me that nature is structured in such a way  that life flows naturally from death.  Take compost, for instance.  I have a compost pile into which I tossed a rotting pumpkin last year, as well as all my other garden waste.  This year I can’t see my compost pile for the hybrid squash/pumpkin Audrey III growing there.  Abundance from decay.  And yet we still see death as a finality.

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Back in the kitchen putting away the mushrooms, I was chagrined to remember that I have two dozen jalapenos, 10 ripe tomatoes, 4 cabbages, 6 cucumbers, 2 giant zucchini the size of my arm, 3 peppers, a basket of green beans and a watermelon already stuffed in the fridge.  Why can’t I find a score of puffball mushrooms in February, when there is nary a fresh thing in sight?  So I’ll make some hot sauce, roast the tomatoes for the freezer (a yummy trick I learned from my mother-in-law)  whip up  some coleslaw for dinner, jar some pickles, freeze the green beans, and leave the zucchini in my neighbors car, but I am definitely having a mushroom omelet for breakfast.

 

MUSHROOM OMELET

2/3 cup mushrooms of any kind, diced

2 fresh local eggs (3 if you are hungry)

2 tsp. butter divided

1 oz. goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Heat a nonstick pan on medium low heat.   Crack the eggs in a bowl and scramble lightly with a fork.  Saute the mushrooms in 1/2 the butter until tender and most of the water has evaporated.  If the mushrooms dry out before they are cooked through, add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cook until it’s dry again.  Add the eggs and the rest of the butter and cover for 2-3 min.  When the eggs are mostly cooked, add the cheese to one side and gently fold the eggs onto the cheese. Turn off the heat. Cover again for a few more minutes until eggs are cooked through.

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Pretending, and other stuff.

Hello friends

You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Last spring I was offered my dream job.  I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend.  I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt.  It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better.  I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter.  I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too!  I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts.  Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though.  Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.

It’s freakishly warm, right?  What the heck!  I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall.   Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing.  I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows.  Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.  IMG_0679

I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth.  My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud!  What gives?  Anyone?  Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end.  Enough already.

I’m trying to pretend it’s winter.  Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today.  IMG_0677They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now.  Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend.  I could have probably left them in another month.

I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood.  I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.  IMG_0682

I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah.  For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl.  That’s right…pig cheeks.  and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item!  It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy.  More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish.  Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.

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The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy.  After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat.  Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit.  Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?

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The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy.  It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend.  Happy Holidays!

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Sprouts and Kraut

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Eight days have passed since I tucked my tiny fragile jalapeno seeds into their specially prepared pre-moistened fist sized cloth pods nestled in a self contained semi-hydroponic plastic covered temperature regulated solar nest.   Along with my tucking I did some quick praying to speed their journey toward new life, prolific growth and eventually their ultimate demise in my sauce pan. It sounds a bit hard-hearted when I put it that way.  Today when I ducked under the lights to peak below the plastic I was rewarded with six new pepper sprouts. Hurrah!

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The sad news is that it’s been eight days for my eggplant seeds as well, and not one of the precious babies has responded to my careful attempts to coax  them into existence.  What is it exactly that makes a seed grow into a plant?  I mean, I know all the things a seed needs, as far as moisture, soil, sunlight, etc etc, but what actually makes it have new life?  What mystery is at work that causes some seeds to crack open and begin splitting cells to form the complex structures and mechanisms  for photosynthesis?  This for me, and I dare say for gardeners everywhere, is one of the fascinations of gardening.

But what about those seeds that don’t sprout? Could I have done something differently?  Are they just “bad seeds”?  Who can tell me this?  Instead of worrying about them, I have decided to go against my nature, be patience, have some faith, and wait another week.

On another note, after several failed attempts to set up a lacto-fermentation system for my sauerkraut, (I’m too cheap to purchase a proper crock and weights) I finally settled on a glass jar with a smaller glass inside to act as a weight pressing on a piece of plastic that I cut to fit the jar.  The benefit of glass is that I can monitor the moisture level so that no dangerous bacteria can breach the salted water and spoil the cabbage. Plus it’s fun to watch the bubbles!   The trick is to make sure that all of the food is below the level of the water so no nasty bacteria can land on a stray floater, travel down and spoil the food.  The brine acts like a barrier.  Meanwhile chemistry dictates that the Lactobacillus bacteria, which is on most surfaces already, is changing the sugars into lactic acid, a natural preservative, probiotic and probable anti-carcinogen. (or something like that). If you want to try it yourself, there are plenty of good sauerkraut receipts online.  In 4 to 6 weeks we’ll be chomping away at the heavenly kraut, increasing the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems and preventing cancer at the same time.  Another Hurrah!

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Hope and Gardening: spring planning

February and March may seem like the absolute doldrums for gardeners in the North East, but for me this is really where the fun begins.  Starting in mid January my daily run to the post is enhanced by the plethora of seed catalogs and gardener supply fliers that inundate the more mundane sampling of bills and offers of credit.  These magazines, filled with flawless, sparkling, brightly colored fruits and flowers not only bring the remembrance of springtime just when it seems like winter will never end, but spark the planning and scheming process that every gardener goes through each year.  Moreover, for me they offer not just ideas and choices of what to grow, but actual hope for the delights of spring, and desire for a bountiful garden, in much the same way that ads for fancy skin cream lure us in with the unattainable promise of youth and beauty.  I know it sounds foolish, but there it is.

This winter, when John Scheepers and Gurney’s and Burpee came to tempt me with their seductive photos, I threw them immediately into the recycle bin, and here’s why.  Last fall on my birthday I received a wonderful present from a girlfriend of mine.  It was a gardeners journal, a subscription to Heirloom Gardener, and a seed catalog from Baker Creek.  She knows me well.  I devoured the magazine.  I learned more about GMOs and gardening history in the US, and I vowed that never again would I plant a seed whose origin was questionable.  I saved the seed catalog for February.

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The decision to plant a non GMO garden was a big one for me.  While I profess that organic is best, I’m not above sprinkling my soil with a little Seven when I can’t get rid of those pesky ants around my eggplant.  Even thought I detest chain department stores and all they do to wreck local economy,  I’ve been known to buy a tomato plant at Home Depot on impulse. While I tout the values of a nutrient rich, homegrown local and balanced diet, I’m the first one to order pizza when I’m too tired to cook.  So Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a hypocrite.  But now it’s time to step up to the plate.  Genetically modified food is bad. Bad for us nutritionally, bad for local economy and a just plain bad for the environment.  Get more information on this at www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more

When I plan my garden in the spring I start with a list of what I’d like to grow.  Then I make a map of my garden and, referring to last years map, add each thing where I feel it would grow best.  When I actually do the work my plan often changes, if, for instance, I bought more tomatoes than will fit in the allotted space.  Sometimes I cluster, other years I might mix it up, say putting the carrots in with the beets or planting every other tomato and pepper.  My garden is quite small, so I often cram.  Every year I plant some things from seed, like beets, and beans, and carrots, and some things from plants that I purchase, like tomatoes and squash and melon.  The only things I start from seed indoors myself are pepper plants and this mostly because I have more of a selection than I can find at the greenhouse.  Deciding to choose heirloom and non GMO plants means that I have to either find a source for heirloom plants, or grow them myself.  While there is a local CSA that I believe sells plants in the spring, I didn’t want to limit my choices, and since I have had some luck with peppers, I decided to go ahead and start my entire garden from seed.  That means all the tomatoes, melons, squash, eggplant, cucumber, spices, cabbage and peppers.  Yikes!

Last month I finally made my choices from the Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog.  I highly recommend this company to anyone who is a vegetable fanatic.  Their selection is unbelievable and their knowledge extensive. Their website has tons of valuable information and it’s just fun to browse.   Check it out at www.rareseeds.com   After days and weeks of poring over the descriptions and photographs of exotic and divine vegetables (am I the only one who finds vegetables alluring?) I ordered 38 types of seeds.  10 types of tomato alone, with names like Green Zebra and Black Prince. Where I’ll put them is still a mystery.  I made a schedule by counting back in weeks from the average last frost date (May 20th).  I borrowed some growing lamps and purchased seed pots and starter mix.  I rearranged my bathroom and tub area to fit the seed trays.  I planted the onions and the eggplant.

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While I tell myself that it’s the best thing to do, I remain nervous about starting all the seeds myself.  I’m not a very technical person but I’m smart enough to know that if I was, I’d have a better chance of growing healthy plants.  There is a science to it that I have yet to figure out.  My policy of flying by the seat of my pants and hoping things work out for the best might not serve me so well in this instance.  If I were so inclined, I would spend some time figuring out optimal light cycles, temperatures, nitrogen mixes and hardening practices for different types of plants.  Then again, it’s just nature, after all, and there really is no stopping it.  The worst case scenario is that I have to source the plants after all.  It’s not like I’ll never eat another homegrown tomato if my seeds fail to thrive.  And there is hope!  Even though there is still 2 feet of snow on the ground, my 300 onions are already an inch tall.

I’d love to hear from anyone with any advice or expertise on starting plants indoors.  My set-up is not very complicated, but advice on light times, bulbs, best starter mix, or just about anything would be much appreciated.  Happy growing!

Pheasant Season

As I’ve mentioned, fall is one of my very favorite seasons, in part because beginning in late October and running through Christmas, Connecticut hosts a hunting season for pheasant.  Throughout the state there are controlled releases of birds on state land at irregular times during the week.  These are then hunted by upland bird hunters, usually with dogs to help them find, or flush, the birds.  Peasant is by far my all-time favorite animal to hunt, and I look forward to the beginning of the season all year.  They not only are a blast to hunt, but they make a delicious addition to the November menu!

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I first hunted pheasant, as well as chukar and grouse, with my dad.  I was perhaps in my twenties (I can’t remember because it was SO very long ago!) when he invited me along on a private hunt.  At a private club, the way it works is that when you arrive you determine how many birds you want to hunt, usually 2-4 per person, and the guides will set them out for you in the hunting area.  The birds are raised in huge pens nearby.  You relax for a while and then off you go to find the birds.  We didn’t have our own dogs then, so we used the dogs that came with the guide service.  This may seem to some like an unfair advantage over the birds, but let me assure you it is not.  Pheasant are not like wild chickens.  They are crafty and very fast and can often outsmart a dog by leaving a confusing scent trail, running in circles, or just generally blending into their environment the way God made them.  It is neither easy to find the wily creatures after they are freed nor is it easy to fell them, although I must say that pheasant are slower in the air then the average game bird. That’s one of the reasons I like to hunt them!  I need all the advantage I can get.

Back then with my dad I was an average shot.  I remember missing the first bird, but I got some that day.  Over the years when I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would often head south and east to Blanca in the fall and hunt birds there.  I was never a crack shot, like he was, but I hit most of what I aimed at.  Recently, when we were back in Connecticut, he and I decided to tune up our game by going over to Millbrook  New York and spending the day at the Orvis shooting grounds called Sandanona.   http://www.orvis.com/sandanona  They have a world class sporting clay course for wing shooters.  This was a real treat for us, and not something we could do very often.  100 clays at 20 stations each to practice on.  By the end of the day we had sore shoulders and tired arms, but we were smiling. He was smiling somewhat more than me, as he had schooled me at each station, hitting  approximately 70% of his targets to my somewhat less then 50%.  Needless to say I was a bit discouraged.  So the following Christmas, after a whole bird season of listening to me gripe about what a bad shot I was, my darling husband gifted me a trip to the Sandanona shooting school, where I would be taught the proper techniques and principles of wing shooting in a half day class with an expert.  I couldn’t wait.

The class was super fun, and I learned a ton about how to shoot.  I learned that my gun doesn’t really fit my body.  It’s too short, and canted too little to line up with my eye when I draw it up.  But I love my gun.  My dad gave it to me and I’ll never get rid of it.  I learned that even though I am right handed, I am “left eye dominant”, which means that my left eye leads and my right eye follows.  I learned that because of this I should be shooting left handed.  So I tried that.  It’s like walking with shoes on the wrong feet tied together. Not even safe.  I learned that I could compensate by using a patch over my left eye, to force my right eye to work.  I tried that and actually fell down. With a loaded gun. My shooting went below 30%.  I spent the next season practicing closing my left eye instead of my right while I draw.  Draw, close, aim, fire.  I hit a few birds, but didn’t even make my bag limit for the season.

What now?  I’m trying to get back to a place where I can forget my limitations and just shoot.  Where I can let instinct take over for ability.  I need to un-think shooting.  I’m trying to be OK with the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just not a very good shot, and I’m trying to remember that even though I love to shoot, what I really love is to walk in the woods on crisp fall days with my husband and my son and my dog.

Here is a recipe for one of our very favorite fall meals.  If you want leftovers, you had better make 2.  It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort.  FYI the easiest way to get the meat off a pheasant is to cut the skin of the breast and peel it back, and then filet the breasts off the bone.  Then continue to pull the skin down over the thighs, exposing the legs.  Break the leg joints at the end of the ‘drumstick’ and again at the hip.  Use a knife to separate the legs from the body.

Pheasant Pot Pie

6 cups water

1 pheasant, breasted, and legs skinned

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp parsley

1 tsp. thyme

1 bay leaf

1 cup diced potatoes

1 cup diced turnips

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced leeks

1/2 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup chopped onion

4 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

1-2 bullion cubes

1 pie crust.

In a stock pot, bring the water to boil and add the pheasant and the spices.  Reduce heat to low and simmer the pheasant for 20 minutes or until cooked through.   Allow to cool, reserving the liquid.  Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and mix in a large bowl.  In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring constantly until the roux begins to darken.  Stir in the bullion.  Add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the reserved liquid broth to the roux and stir until you have a smooth gravy.  Freeze the remainder of the broth for future use.  Mix the gravy into the vegetables.  Cut the pheasant into bite sized pieces and mix into the vegetables.  Put all of it into a pie plate or a 9″ round cake pan,mounding to fit.  Cover it all with the pie crust, sealing the edges to the pan.  Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour.  Serve warm with a nice salad.

November Soup

I’m a big fan of soup.  I serve it year round, from hearty stews in the dead of winter to a cooling gazpacho or an avocado bisque in the heat of July.  When chillier winds start to blow in November, soup is definitely on the menu.  It’s cozy warmth really help to bring the family together around the table when the darkness comes early.  And they smell so good too! 

Tonight’s soup is a perfect dish for early fall, as the ingredients are what is naturally on hand.  Parsnips from the garden and apples from the orchard make this soup a creamy delight.  Non-dairy, and not too sweet, it’s scented with cumin and coriander.  Perfect as an accompaniment to a roast or stuffed chops,  or serve it on it’s own, with a hearty bread like sourdough or cheddar biscuits and a green salad.  With only a couple of ingredients it’s super simple to make and can be made ahead.  It will keep in the fridge for a few days, too.

For a nicer flavor, roast the parsnips in the oven for about 40 minutes on 350.  You can peel them first or just leave them as they are.  It will slightly caramelize the sugars and make for a richer soup.  Any variety of apples will do, but my favorites are good old Mackintosh or Gala.

Parsnip and Apple Soup

2 tbs good Olive Oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 firm apples, peeled and chopped

8 to 15 parsnips, depending on the size. (more for 1″ or less at the crown)

3 1/2 cups (or more depending on desired consistency) of chicken or vegetable broth

Sprinkle of cumin

Sprinkle of coriander

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion in the olive oil until tender.  Add the apples and a dash of salt and and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft.  Add the parsnips and the broth and cook for 20 minutes if you roasted the parsnips first, 40 minutes if not.  Allow to cool and puree the mixture in a blender, or use a hand blender right in the pot.  Sprinkle with the spices and stir.  Serve alone or with finely chopped parsley or a dollop of yogurt. Enjoy!

The Season of Bounty

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It’s that time of the year when a quick evening browse around the garden with a cocktail yields a colorful basket of produce.  For a little while this early summer, I could get away with gathering into my upturned shirt, but with the warmer days and rainy afternoons, the harvest has begun in earnest, and I try to remember to bring out a basket along with my drink.  Garlic and green onions, early tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, carrots, early beets, peas and peppers are all coming in by the handful.  I always try to balance my desire for fresh produce with the realization that if I leave it a while longer, it will grow bigger, but there is nothing like the taste of sweet baby carrots and tender beets steamed with a bat of butter on a steamy summer evening.  My favorite dish of the early summer is, of course, a simple salad of fresh newly picked veggies.  The thinly sliced Peruvian white habanero adds a super kick to this tasty dinner.Image

I am surprised to see the blueberries ripen so early this year, as I usually think of late July as blueberry season, but I predicted this to be the year of the berry, and it seems I have called it right.  Even the tangy and delectable wild black raspberries in the hedgerow are beginning to ripen early, and I got a sticky purple handful this morning for my trouble.  Unfortunately, as they grown amongst the nettles, I also got a prickly wrist.

On another note, for those of you who read “the Doctor is in”  I’m happy to report that my pepper plants are all thriving.  Many of them lost all their dark green foliage to the cold snap we had in May, but the smaller, lighter green leaves are beginning to thicken out the plants, and on many there are the first blooms.  Some did better than others and are already fruiting, hence the spicy salad, but most peppers like the heat, and will produce best from late July into early September.  During this pepper heyday, you will find me in the kitchen, gloves on, chopping peppers for hot sauces and salsas as fast as I can.

Strawberry Fields Forever

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June is here and delights are beginning to come in from the garden.  Among the radish and peas, the lettuces and green onion are the strawberries, the most wonderful of all fruits and the one that really makes it feel like summer .  Of all the berries, the strawberries are the earliest and, in my opinion, the tastiest.  At least I say that until early July, when the blueberries are ripening, and then early august when we taste the delectable raspberries and blackberries.  But for now we indulge in the sweet, tangy, indescribably yummy strawberry.

I have a small berry patch that I often think takes up too much real estate in my tiny kitchen garden.  Most of the year it looks stringy and sad, almost as if the plants are dead or dying, but not so.   Come May, out come the shoots and flowers that, ever so agonizingly slowly, turn into hard green fruits and then ripen into luscious berries.  I have everbearing plants, which means they produce fruit all summer, although not as prolifically as they do in June.  Come August, they are growing wild and trying to climb down the sides of the raised beds and into the paths.  They are so hearty and vigorous they can root into the deep pine chips I use as mulch on the pathways.  Each year I cut back the runners and plant some back into the bed in the bare spaces, replace some older plants, and reluctantly throw out the rest.  They are so hearty, in fact, that one year I ripped them all up and, not able to throw them out, kept them in a bag in my garage.  Then, regretting my decision, I replanted half of them back into another bed, where they took, and bore berries the same year.

As hearty as they are, strawberries are a funny plant.  They only produce for a few years, and will shoot out runners that can overtake the garden rapidly.  They use an enormous amount of nutrients and therefore should be moved every 3 years or so to a different spot in the garden. They are best heavily mulched, which both keeps the berries out of the mud,and protects the crowns from cold.  They like water, but not too much, and must be in well draining soil.  Weather will affect the crop and determine ripening times; with warmth and abundant sunshine they ripen quickly, rain and clouds cause some delay.  Some varieties do well in containers, and are a good choice for those with not much space, but they must be watered regularly.

Besides eating them fresh on granola or yogurt, one of our favorite things to do with berries is to make ice cream.  Following is a simple and delicious recipe that can’t be beat.  Image

1 pint fresh berries

1 1/2 cups cream, divided

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

Wash and crush the berries with a potato masher until pulpy.

Heat 1 cup cream in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form on the sides of the pan.

Mix together egg yolks 1/2 cup cream, and sugar in a medium bowl

Add the hot cream to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, and then return the mixture to the pan.  Over medium low heat, whisk the mixture until it becomes thickened, 5-10 minutes.  DO NOT BOIL.  Allow the mixture to cool completely.

When custard is cool, add to an ice cream churn and follow the manufacturer’s directions.  YUM!