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.

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Kitchen Essentials and Venison Sausage

Eating locally and seasonally in Connecticut is a hard task unless you plan ahead.  Making things and storing them for future times is essential to a happy cook and a well-stocked kitchen.  In order to put up produce and meat, sauces and fruits, I have some essentials in my kitchen that I could not live without.  Below you will find a list of must-haves for preparing for leaner times. 

Freezer

I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetables, and fruit is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far better than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter months.  If you don’t have one, don’t want to incur the cost of a new one, there are several online sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.    

                Canning pot or Pressure cooker.

A canning pot is a lovely thing to have, and very useful for storing jellies, sauces, broth, fish, and some veggies.  Not all veggies are suitable for canning fresh, so we can mainly prepared foods, like chili and tomato sauces, sweet butters and jellies and cooked vegetables like sauerkraut.  We use ours most often during the fall months when we make and can sweets and sauces to give as gifts during the holidays.  We also jar hot sauces and pickles of all sorts, chilies, beans, corn and tomatoes.  If you lack a proper canning pot, take some time to look for one at your local thrift or consignment store, where they can often be picked up for a few dollars.  Without one, you can still make many canning recipes in a regular sturdy pot.

                Juicer

I love my juicer.  It was given to me by a dear friend who lived off the grid.  He had a generator for electricity, but every time he tried to juice he would blow a fuse.  When he parted with the juicer, he made me promise to make him juice anytime he came to visit, and even though he still lives at about 10,000 feet, deep in the mountains of Colorado, with no phone,  I’m still waiting to make good on my promise.  The juicer is a Champion, and very old and outdated.  It is essentially a big motor connected to a shaft that drives a shredder and some plastic implements to strain the juice, but it will juice anything.  I could put a potato in and get potato juice.  I use it for fresh fruit and veggie juice during the summer months, (carrot beet apple is my favorite) and in the fall I juice leftover kale and spinach, freeze the juice and add it to soups and stews during the winter to add flavor and green nutrients. 

                Dehydrator

Anyone can use their oven for a dehydrator, but it’s just so quick and easy to use one made for the purpose that this is on my list as well.  With the dehydrator there is no need to turn the produce, as it gets evenly dry in a much shorter time than using the oven.   We use ours to dry fruit for snacks, beef jerky, dried fish to be used in soups, and most especially mushrooms.  Dried and then frozen, mushrooms can be stored for years in the freezer, but they never make it that long.  Wild mushrooms are a treasure and  we hoard them in season and use them sparingly for the rest of the year.  I’m learning more and more about the wild world of fungi and I’m excited for a season of mushrooming this summer and fall. 

                Grinder/sausage maker

When you hunt or gather the majority of your own protein, having a grinder is a blessing.  Meatloaf, hamburgers, hash, and meatballs all require the meat to be finely ground.  The added benefit is, with a small attachment, ground meat can be stuffed into casing to make delicious sausage!  I love venison sausage, and many of our friends and family have come to love it as well.  It’s one of the things we give as gifts during the holidays and it is always well received.  My husband makes a garlic cheddar sausage that is mouth-wateringly good.  The recipe follows.

                Cheddar Garlic Venison Sausage

4 Lbs. Venison, ground fine

1 ¼ Lb. Pork fat, ground fine

8-10 cloves garlic, chopped fine

½   Lb. Cheddar cheese

2+ Tbsp. Crushed red pepper, depending on your spice tolerance

½ cup white wine

2 Tsp. Sugar

1+ Tbsp. coarse ground Black pepper

1 Tbsp. salt

5 feet medium sausage casing (you can get this from a butcher).

 Mix the fat and meat together and then mix in the remaining ingredients.  Mix by hand until everything is uniform.  Stuff the casings with the mixture into 4 to 5 inch lengths.  Allow to settle in the fridge for a day or two, to allow the flavors to blend.   Cook in water or stock, on a grill or pan fry over medium low heat.  These can be used like any sausage, served alone or with pasta, in a salad, or on sandwiches.  They freeze remarkably well.   Try substituting any game meat.  We made them with caribou once and they were just as delicious.

Garden Planning

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If you live in the North East, it’s that time of year to begin planning out your garden.  Unless, like me, you have been planning since December.   That is when the John Scheeper’s and Burpee’s catalogues start to arrive in the post.  This is not to say that I have a plan.  I don’t   It’s just a plan in process.  The plan won’t actually be finished until about November, when I pull everything up.  Then I get a month of respite before I start my seeds for next year.

How you plan your garden says volumes about who you are as a person.  Here is an example.  I started 12 kinds of peppers in my bathtub this January.  I carefully marked each container so I could tell the difference between the Aji Jamaica and the Aji Major after they came up.  I watered them and kept the lights on them religiously, never really noticing that my painstakingly crafted markers were disintegrating in the constant moisture.   Truthfully, I kind of knew what was happening, but forgot to do anything about it as soon as I left the bathroom.  Some might say that that’s just lazy, and they’d be partly right, but the fact is I secretly don’t care that I can’t identify them anymore.  Now it’s a big mystery what might evolve from my luscious leafy pepper bushes, and I’m delighted to watch it unfold as the peppers bloom and grow.  That’s just who I am.  I try to be orderly, but the mystery and randomness of life pleases me too much to try very hard.  I would tell you that a garden is a microcosm of the larger world, and in that I’d be right.  I would tell you that the mystery and randomness one finds while gardening is how the world operates, but as it turns out, that’s just true for me.

Here is how I know.  Some years ago I helped some very wonderful people to start their vegetable garden.  They had bought a house with an existing garden that still held the remnants of summer, and they were inspired to plant again the following year.  The challenge was that the garden was hideously overgrown and they had never gardened vegetables before.  It was an interesting exercise for me in more ways than one.  I took it on as a personal challenge and began to plan…my way.   What I found over time was that my way was not necessarily their way, and in the end I admiringly backed out of having much of a hand in their garden.  My way leaves much to the whims of nature and admits that nothing is truly within my control.  For them, it was just a bit unstructured and random.  They wanted a more orderly and precise garden.  Well planned, I should say.  They chose vegetable types and locations in advance of whimsy and availability.  They chose to plant in marked rows that had been laid out in advance.  It was all slightly shocking to me.  In the end I admit that I learned quite a bit from their gardening practices, and continue to consider myself divinely fortunate to know them. 

Some people crave order.  Some people thrive on chaos.  I may be little of both.  I tell myself it is the sign of a flexible mind.  Which kind are you?  

Cilantro Sea Scallops

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Scallops are a treasure from the sea, but due to over harvesting, were in declining populations until recently.  Federal regulations that started going into effect in the late 1990s have helped scallops make a huge comeback.  But inshore there are still far fewer sea scallops than there used to be, and so farmed sea scallops are now being harvested in the Northeastern Atlantic and Pacific.   Seafood watchdog groups list them as a good choice for people who eat seafood, as they can be harvested without damage to habitat and have low levels of mercury.  When you purchase scallops, ask your grocer where they came from, as some farmed scallops are imported from Japan!

Here is a super easy recipe for cooking sea scallops that is as healthful as it is delicious.  It should be served with Black rice, which takes longer to cook than white or brown, but is worth the wait, as it is more flavorful and better for you then either of the others.  Lundberg makes a Black Japonica rice that is an heirloom variety, which means it has not been genetically altered.  It is grown in an eco-friendly manner that conserves water, maintains soil integrity and supports a healthy ecosystem.

Cilantro Sea Scallops

3 Tbs Butter

1.5 lbs Fresh Sea Scallops

3 Tbs White wine

3 Tbs fresh chopped cilantro

Sprinkle of salt

Lemon wedges

Brown the butter over high heat in a large saute pan. Add the scallops and allow to brown,  don’t move them around.  When they are cooked about halfway through, maybe 3-4 minutes, flip them over and brown the other side.  After 3 more minutes add the white wine, de-glazing the pan.  Add the cilantro and the salt and toss to coat.  Serve these delectable morsels with black rice and wedges of lemon.

Enjoy!

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!