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!

Food and Chemotherapy.

Here is some information specifically for people suffering from cancer and the illnesses associated with radiation and chemotherapy.  I’m posting this article for a friend because this relates directly to my beliefs that we can prevent, and sometimes cure, illness and imbalance with healthy eating and proper nutrition.  We all know someone who has suffered from cancer, and I hope to post more from David in the future regarding which foods are most helpful in the prevention and treatment of this widespread illness.  I added my favorite juice recipe at the end.

Top Tips for Managing Chemotherapy and Radiation Side Effects

Though not a proven cure, nutrition plays a key role in a patient’s fight against cancer. A proper diet is especially beneficial in controlling possible side effects from chemotherapy or radiation. While cancer treatment can have harsh effects on the body, a nutritious diet can give the body what it needs to endure them.

Cancer patients, especially those with pancreatic, stomach, or lung cancer, can develop cachexia. According to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, cachexia involves unintentional weight loss and muscle atrophy due to the body’s misuse of nutrients. The body’s natural process of building proteins is disrupted, which then causes a patient’s body to metabolize nutrients improperly. Though replenishing lost calories would seem to be the remedy, it has actually proven futile. A healthy diet, however, is crucial. If a patient has been eating very little, they should gently increase their food consumption. Also, some studies have shown that fish oil supplements are helpful when treating this particular side effect.

Ulcers and general mouth soreness are additional adverse reactions to radiation. With radiation attacking rapidly developing cells, healthy cells are destroyed along with the malignant cells. To treat mouth ulcers, patients should avoid spicy and acidic food. Such food will only cause further irritation. As suggested by the Mayo Clinic, one should opt for soft foods, such as steamed vegetables, as opposed to crunchy items that can aggravate one’s mouth. When drinking, patients should use a straw to keep the liquid away from any sores.

Chemotherapy lowers the body’s white blood cell count, which has a detrimental impact on the immune system. With this being the case, chemotherapy can increase a patient’s risk of infection. To reduce the risk of contracting an illness, practice proper food preparation. Adhere to expiration dates, and always separate raw and cooked food. Macmillan Cancer Support suggests that patients utilize their diet to help them fight infections. Consuming the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables will help fortify your body with adequate vitamins and minerals. Before eating produce, wash the food thoroughly and peel it. For the most benefit, patients should prepare their own fruit and vegetable juices. Not only will this preserve the vitamins and minerals, but the product will be free from any added sugar.

While cancer treatment can cause cachexia, mouth sores, and decreased immunity, patients can use a healthy diet to their benefit. From fruits and vegetables to supplements and textures, nutritious food plays an important role in the fight against cancer.

Super-charged Yummy Juice

1/2 large beet

3 large carrots

1 grapefruit

a hand full of kale

1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled.

Press all ingredients through a juicer and enjoy!

 

Boozing in the Garden

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As much as I like my cocktail hour, I’m not talking about me here!  I’m talking about slugs, and how they love beer.  I went through two bottles last night alone filling up my little plastic dishes in order to attract those nasty little slimers that sneak around and gobble up anything they can climb on.  They had gotten into my cabbage, my strawberries, my beets and peas, my radishes.  All those telltale blemishes on my delicate veggies!  If you don’t put a stop to them, they multiply, but you never notice cause they are hard to see and mostly come out at night or in the rain. They don’t like direct sunlight.  But suddenly they are everywhere and most of the vegetables have either holes in their leaves or pieces gnawed out of the fruits.  Fortunately, there is a simple way to knock them out, literally.  Just place some shallow dishes of beer around the garden and the slugs flock to them, suck up that frothy concoction and pass out, drowning themselves.  You don’t even need good beer; save the microbrew for yourself and pick up a six pack of PBR for the slugs.  They aren’t choosy when it comes to drinking.

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