A Slow Food experience

Everything happens in it’s own season.

Seeds fall, sprouts grow, flowers bloom, fruit ripens, matter decomposes. Life happens. Especially with weeds. Those invisible weed seeds are just hiding out everywhere, waiting to pop their tiny green heads into the world and thwart us gardeners. But even tomatoes will grow where tomato seeds have fallen, whether we want them to or not, if the conditions are favorable to them. Life is undeniable.

As gardeners, we try to orchestrate conditions to be favorable to our needs, the needs of producing food and flowers. Our actions can have some influence over the seasons of things, to a certain extent. We force seeds that wouldn’t normally sprout by adjusting the amount of light, the temperature, the humidity, even the wind. We trick things into growing outside of their seasons, even outside of their regions. We grow them under cover to protect them. We grow them in planters to contain them. We grow them in cloth or plastic to give them more chances at life, for our sake. But life is undeniable. Even when it goes against our interests.

There are very few times when a gardener is unhappy about things sprouting. Sprouting means life. It means growth and promise and hope and bounty. Most of the time.

Disaster!

I’m weeping in my cup this morning because my garlic is sprouting. And I don’t mean the garlic that I intentionally planted in the garden last December. I mean my stored cache of cooking garlic that I cured last summer to last me all the long winter months and then some. Sprouting. Green. Bitter.

It’s my fault, of course. It should have been kept in paper bags rolled tight to keep out the light. But for some reason I thought it would be nice to have it accessible in a basket in the kitchen, hanging from one of the rafters. I though it looked pretty. All the purple and white bulbs in a big pile ready to be chopped, diced, crushed, cooked and consumed. Did I mention I love garlic? I have unwittingly provided it with the right amount of daylight hours and what it believes are about 62 degree soil temperatures, so it has decided that now is the time to push out new life and reach for the sun. I have deceived it.

What do I do with it now? If I do nothing, it’s taste will get worse and worse. It will eventually realize it has no soil, no water, no actual sun, and it will start to rot. But the garlic I planted last winter won’t be ready to harvest until July. That’s five long months with no garlic.

But all is not lost, I think. It’s not yet too bitter to use. I could slit open each of the cloves and mine out the green shoot to use in stock. I could chop up the shell of each clove, press it and store it in olive oil in the fridge. I could even plant some in a box inside and see if it grows. But that’s a ton of work. Hours of work. Whatever I do with it, I’ll be crushing out it’s first hopeful bid for life.

What’s the big deal, you’re asking yourself. Crying over some sprouted garlic? Get over it, you’re telling me in your head. Pull yourself together, woman, and go buy some fresh. It’s only about 5 bucks for three cloves of organic garlic. Times 40.

In 2014 I went to the Connecticut Garlic and Harvest Festival in Bethlehem CT http://www.garlicfestct.com/ where I found people who celebrated garlic as much as I do. There I sampled many varieties of garlic and purchased several types to grow myself. Since then I have been selectively storing and planting my favorites for four growing seasons. This garlic represents four years of being on my knees in the heat of July, carefully lifting out the bulbs to cure them, and four years of being on my knees in December, fingers frozen as I poke the cloves down into the frosty soil. And over fifty months of garlic bread, garlic chicken, garlic vegetables, garlic shrimp, garlic aoli, garlic sauce. At least I have some still tucked away in the frozen earth, waiting for it’s proper time to make a play for life.

I’m actually doing it.

And so I peel and chop. And peel and chop. And continue to peel and chop.
And I remind myself, dear reader, that this is slow food. My fingers, sticky with garlic juice, are tarred with garlic paper up to the middle joint. My kitchen smells like, well, a really garlicky place. I’m doing this not because I can’t afford to buy fresh garlic. Not because I am a food hoarder. Not because I have too much time on my hands. It’s because this garlic represents my labor. My care. My intention. Even, yes I’ll say it, my love. I love this garlic. It matters to me. I am not willing to cast off the result of four years worth of effort and buy some anonymous garlic. I take pride in cooking with food I have grown myself. Surprisingly, I feel that my garlic has a certain provenance. It’s journey has become my journey.

If you don’t already think I’m nuts, just keep reading.

There is some concrete science that says that food grown in a certain place is symbiotic with the surrounding biome. The plants and animals (us included) that live in that place have a certain microbiota different from other places. Those microbes that are symbiotic with all life in that area provide tangible benefit for their hosts in the form of immune support and disease prevention. All this really means is that different places have different germs, and garlic you grow yourself in your own dirt might actually be better for you than garlic grown elsewhere, in different germy dirt. That’s one of the reasons we eat local, right?

If you’re looking for me today, I’ll be in the kitchen creating my newest signature dish, winter sprouted garlic soup. I promise it will cure the sniffles with one sip. Ask me for the recipe!

Potty Talk

My dogs love to eat poop.

My dogs especially love to eat frozen poop. Poopcicles.

My dogs love to eat frozen poop and wipe their faces on the back seat of my Subaru.

NAUGHTY!

OK, stay with me people. This actually is about gardening and food and seasonal living. Sort of.

So lets think about poop for a minute. I’m talking about horse poop, although I’m sure they would eat cow poop too, if we had a cow. The horses eat the grass. They digest the grass. That keeps them warm. Then the horses poop out the grass. It goes onto the ground and the worms come to eat it, and they digest it, and they poop too. (yep, Everybody Poops) THAT goes into the ground, making healthy soil, and the grass grows healthier. And the horses eat the healthy grass. The magic that is happening in this very specialized system that I have grossly oversimplified is called …..Drum roll please….Bacteria.


Enter the Dogs. What is actually going on here is the dogs are capitalizing on a healthy system. They are trying to get something they need into their diet by eating the poop of other animals. It’s not because the poop tastes good, although it might. I wouldn’t know. Dogs, being carnivores, don’t have a ton of naturally occurring good bacteria in their guts, but horses do. That’s why we put their poop on our gardens. The dog eat the horses’ poop to get the good digestive bacteria.

This is where it comes from!

Can you see where I’m going with this?

I just finished reading The Mind Gut Connection, by Emeran Mayer. I strongly recommend that anyone anywhere sick with anything read it immediately. Even though I know you all will, I’ll give you a synopsis anyway.

  • The gut is larger than the brain and every bit as complex.
  • The gut has trillions of microbes, including bacteria, in it. The microbes are our personal ecosystem.
  • The Microbes (actually the metabolites they produce), interface with our brains. They control most of our hormones, as well as our immune responses. They can also produce cytokines when they are unhappy, which cause inflammation.
  • Personal microbial stability = good health and emotional wellness.
  • Things that kill our personal gut microbes are bad for us. (pesticides, antibiotics, corn syrup, commercial wheat gluten, emulsifiers etc. etc.)
  • Things that are good for our microbes are good for us. (organic produce, fermented food, wild foods)
  • We must ‘farm’ our microbes to keep them healthy.

I’m not saying we should be eating poop, although that’s fast becoming a treatment for certain illnesses. Just consider, the next time you stop for a doughnut and a caramel mocha latte, what is happening to your gut bacteria. The next time you have to take a Z-pak, realize that it’s wiping out all the good guys along with the bad. No wonder it gives you the runs.

I know we all get sick, and the best treatment for severe bacterial illness is strong antibiotics. But remember that a healthy gut can (and does) wage war on invasive bacteria. Your personal army of microbes, if you keep it strong and healthy, will prevent you from getting sick in the first place.

Once you’re there and you’ve been coughing for weeks, fever of 103, chest x-ray, and you’re gulping down those steroids and antibiotics and sucking on the nebulizer, it’s time to do some serious bacterial rebuilding. If you just plain refuse to eat poop (just kidding!) there are other ways to rebuild your internal microbial army. They are called FERMENTED FOODS.

Kim chi, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, fermented cheese, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh, sourdough. These are some of the common ones available at the grocery store. Get them and eat them every day. Or ferment your own. It couldn’t be simpler. Put some vegetables in a crock with some salt. Cover them with water. Wait 4 weeks. Eat. It is actually that easy.

So go forth my friends, and colonize your guts with healthy bacteria. Farm your internal microbes. Eat well, live well, be happy.

Down Time

Ah, January. One of my favorite months. Not only because its often snowy and sunny at the same time, like today, but because I don’t have to be doing doing doing every minute of every day. I’m speaking as a gardener when I say there is always something to be doing in the garden. Except in January.

This is my down time. The time when I get to relax and just think about the garden. I can plan what steps I need to take in the spring. I can lay out my vegetables on my garden plan. I can shop seed catalogs. I can daydream about it, or not, but I don’t have to show up every day and get my hands dirty.

Sure, there are other things to be doing in January, like shoveling snow, but I don’t feel the urgency of things needing to be done yesterday, the crisis of time passing while weeds are growing, that I feel in the warmer months. It feels nice to relax.

It’s also wrestling season, another one of my favorite times. Well, not the wrestling part, actually, that isn’t terribly pleasant. The part I love is watching my 17 yo son kick some booty on the mat. That part is super fun. He’s really good.

Since this blog is about gardening and eating (mostly), you’re probably wondering what is on the table at Winter Farm this snowy season. Well, we are enjoying the moose meat that my son, (also a world traveling hunter) brought back from Newfoundland this fall. We have a bunch of duck, goose, pheasant and venison in the freezer too. I’ve been having fun cooking from Hank Shaw’s cookbooks Duck Duck Goose, and Buck Buck Moose. https://honest-food.net/ He’s a terribly clever chef of wild game.

So what am I doing with all my free down time? I decided to write a novel. Ha ha, I know. I can hear you all laughing. As you should. I don’t really know how to write fiction, and so I’m learning as I go. Playing catch up and realizing it is nothing like I though it would be. Hard work. I have a whole new respect for authors. Anyone out there with advice for a wannabe author?

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.

IMG_0749

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.

IMG_1799

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.

IMG_0730

IMG_0729

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.

IMG_1159

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.

IMG_1160

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.

IMG_1163

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.

IMG_0683

IMG_0684

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?

IMG_0685

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!

IMG_0686

 

Sprouts and Kraut

IMG_0112

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!

IMG_0111

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!

IMG_0113