Friday, July 26, 2013

Fast Friday Tip: Panty Hose Tomato Ties

Don't spend another dime on fancy tomato ties from the garden center! Panty hose work perfectly for the task of keeping wayward vines trained where you want them.

I've always kept store-bought ties like the ones pictured below on hand, but always felt like I had to ration them out. The cost can really add up when you only get a dozen or so in a pack that cost 2 or 3 bucks. The cable ties on the far left are essential for other garden tasks, but can cut into the tender skin of your tomato vines, leaving them injured and susceptible to disease.

I personally don't wear panty hose, but bought some just for this purpose. This pair cost me only a dollar (at the handy dollar store within walking distance from me) and will give me dozens of ties. 

Just take the panty hose and cut a length from it. It will stretch out and tie easily around your vines. The material is soft and gentle and you won't have to worry about the homemade ties cutting into the vine and hurting your plant.

Now go search your drawer for some old hose you know you are never going to wear again, and tie up some tomatoes!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: Gaining Ground

Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm 

by Forrest Pritchard

I love this farmer memoir because it's funny, accessible, and deeply touching. Forrest Pritchard writes directly from his heart, and the resulting chapters move from amusing to hilarious, heart-warming to heart-breaking, finally culminating in both triumph and tragedy. It's not just a good model for our food system, it's simply an amazing read!

Forrest Pritchard is a farmboy at heart, as evident by his childhood memories of chickens, cows, pigs, crop fields and gardens—though not always all at once; his parents maintained full time jobs off the farm while continually starting various projects at home in an attempt to keep the family farm going. Upon graduation, Pritchard quickly sets his sights on staying on the family land and saving the farm from its steady decline into debt and failure, much to the chagrin of his dad, who had hoped his son would use his college education to get a stable job and 'better life'. The resulting adventures that follow Pritchard's new found dedication to the farm are woven into this page-turning book. Pritchard generously shares his foibles right along with his victories, and doesn't mind looking for the humor in his mistakes. All the of the great moments in the book are wonderfully enhanced by his writing style; he's a gifted writer with an English degree, and that shows.

Though he is light-hearted and humble, the bottom line is, his critical eye of the current farming system that surrounds him leads him to make risky and courageous changes. While farmers around him stick with the status quo--often out of desperation, more often out of a lack of knowing things could be different--Pritchard goes out on a limb to make the changes he thinks make more sense. He begins to analyze the ways that farming could be kept simpler, to better care for our now and our later. The changes he dives into can be very difficult (and yet sometimes so very simple), and at times costly, but Pritchard keeps the long vision in his mind as he works out a plan to create the farm of his dreams. The farm of his dreams slowly takes shape as a sustainable, healthy place, providing food to many different farmer's markets. The work is still very hard, but to Pritchard the hard work is meaningful, rather than a constant struggle to stay ahead. Pritchard's clear-headed bravery had me hooked, as I turned page after page to see how he would transform the family farm into an organic, grass-fed livestock operation. We need lots more Forrest Pritchards in order to heal our land and move forward in a better way of feeding ourselves.

One of my land-healing heroes, Joel Salatin, actually wrote the foreword for the book. Pritchard had visited his farm as a young boy and was ultimately inspired by the sustainable techniques Salatin has implemented for decades. Something in the foreword stuck with me: Salatin states that these type of farmer-memoir books should appeal to not just fellow farmers, but to the eaters who depend on those who grow food. People will feel more connected and mindful of the sources of their food when they read the entertaining, personal accounts of those providing it. I totally, whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment, but not just as one of the eaters. I want to be one of the growers, the providers, even if not in the rural-farm atmosphere. Though my path leans more toward suburban and urban food growing, I feel like I'm touching base with kindred spirits when I read about the people who are already embarked, passionately, in growing sustainable food. I'm motivated and filled with fresh inspiration when I read stories like Pritchard's, and ready to jump into my own plans, head first.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Red Beet Pancakes

I have a big confession to make. Besides the obvious fact that I have tried yet another pancake recipe (soon I'll need to make a category here on the blog for just pancakes). No, my confession is more devious than that: No one who consumed these pancakes knew they contained beets.

Rylee, one of my older daycare girls, wandered up as I was mixing up the batter and I tried to shoo her away. I knew if she caught on to what that red puree was, it would be the end of the story. It would taint her, and anyone she tattled to, from even trying the pancakes once they were finished. I had no success shooing her away, but was pleasantly amused when she exclaimed "Oooh, this is so pretty!" as she started stirring the batter herself. "What's in this?" I pretended not to hear. She sniffed the batter, and I expected her to wrinkle her nose. Instead she cried "I know! It's mulberries! Guys, we are having mulberry pancakes!!!" We do have mulberries on the brain right now, as you can see here on our garden blog, so I understood why she connected that color to our precious berries. I tried very hard not to giggle. Inside a maniacal laugh echoed, as I made my decision not to come clean about the secret ingredient (which made the batter such a gorgeous pink).

I could not have anticipated a more receptive lunch crowd. There are 9 kids here today, and each of them ate at least one pancake. Rylee, seeking a mulberry flavor, said "Hmm, these just taste like normal pancakes." I'll take 'normal' over 'gross, what is in these?' I ate two, myself, and quite honestly I could taste the beets. But barely. The bottom line is, these pretty pink pancakes are just really, really delicious. I'm not going to give away the secret, ever!

*note: I used three small beets that I had roasted and skinned (once roasted, the skin comes off easily).

Red Beet Pancakes (Serves 6) Weelicious

1 Cup All Purpose Flour
3/4 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
3 Tbsp Light Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Kosher Salt
2 Medium Beets, roasted & pureed (about 3/4 Cups)
1 1/4 Cup Milk
1/3 Cup Plain Greek Yogurt
1 Large Egg
3 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, melted
1 Tsp Vanilla extract
Accompaniments: honey, maple syrup, butter, raspberry sauce
1. Sift the first 5 ingredients into a bowl.
2. Place the rest of the wet ingredients in a separate bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine.
3. Add the dry ingredients into the wet and stir until just combined (you don’t want to overstir the batter — some lumps are good).
4. Drop about 2 tbsp of the pancake mixture onto a greased griddle or pan over medium heat and cook for 3 minutes on each side.
5. Serve with desired accompaniments.
* To freeze: Place the pancakes in labeled zipper bags and freeze for up to 3 months

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mulberry Joy

I was told that mulberry season is over.

Apparently our backyard mulberry tree didn't get the memo.

We are still gathering berries every day, though the peak occurred about 2 weeks ago. At that point the kids and I were picking cups full each day, and now it's about one cup per day. Compared to last year, the harvest is enormous; you can read about last year's pitiful mulberries HERE.

What do I enjoy most about having this mulberry tree, an accident planted into our landscape, presumably by a bird?

I'd like to say that a lot of the joy comes from nostalgia, since we had a mulberry tree when I was a kid. It was also a happy accident, born from actions completely unintended by either some bird or small animal. The tree grew in a somewhat inconvenient place, pushing its way into our gravel driveway, but dad refused to cut it down and he shaped a gravel extension--quickly named the 'turn-around'-- with the mulberry directly in the middle of it. My entire life that mulberry tree lived, so much a part of the driveway that it became difficult to imagine a tree-less drive leading to our house. I'm pretty sure one or all of us kids bumped it at least once while learning to drive.

While I'd like to say nostalgia is strong with that tree, I can't honestly say I have any specific memories of eating the berries. This year when I proudly told my dad that I'd made mulberry jam, he gave me a look and said "Well, why would you do that? You can't do anything with those berries to make them taste good. Mulberries are terrible!" Say, what? I quickly scratched him off my mental list of possible people to gift with mulberry jam. My dad always has a way of shocking me a bit with his strange juxtapositions; he was never willing to slay that inconvenient mulberry tree, yet he hated the berries! No wonder I don't remember much about my childhood mulberries--apparently we didn't consider them anything special. I'm touched that my dad cared so much for a tree, but surprised that he didn't appreciate the simple goodness of the fruit.

The mulberry tree in my backyard has swiftly burrowed into my heart, and it's not due to childhood memories. Though, the joy I feel when mulberry-picking has such a child-like feel to it! I have even climbed the tree to reach the tantalizing black-ripe gems. In my flip-flops. Luckily I gingerly got back down after common sense kicked in (and before any kids spied me and got the idea it was safe to climb trees while wearing flip-flops), and changed into shoes. Along with climbing the tree, we got the ladder out several times to reach some of the challenging branches.

I get a bit lost while picking mulberries. There's the easy-going mental challenge of seeking the black blobs among the green leaves and berries of other shades, ranging from white to pink to 'almost-there' deep fuschia. The challenge is easy enough to let your mind wander to a million other things, but just tricky enough to keep your eyes sharp. There's the satisfying pluck of a perfectly ripe berry, which gives almost no resistance to the tug of your fingers, as if just waiting for you. There's also the miraculous way that, after you've canvassed a branch and think you've picked every current ripe berry, when you come back around from the other side of the tree to double check, there are one or two more. You are left to wonder; did I miss those berries the first time around, or did they actually ripen within 10 minutes? Though it's vaguely frustrating to see tons of berries way up in the top branches, inaccessible without doing some tricky ladder work, that's okay. Leaving some to the birds is long as they leave the lower branches alone. Oddly, the birds have not seemed to take notice this year. We have a nest of cardinals actually living in the brush next to the mulberry tree, but someone told me cardinals don't eat mulberries. I won't name the someone, because I'm thinking the statement is totally false, but hey, these lovely cardinals haven't seemed to touch a single berry, so I'm going with it.

What have we done with our generous harvest of mulberries? As I write this, a huge bowl of them sits in the fridge, the pile slowly growing with the daily berry contributions, waiting to make more jam. Our first harvest came inside with us for a cupcake party that was already in progress. We welcomed the berry bonus!

Second harvest went to jam, using store-bought pectin.

Third harvest went to THIS JAM, which although more runny and containing whole berries, is surprisingly wonderful on buttered toast, pancakes, biscuits, and even a sandwich if the roll is sturdy enough.

Licking the plate clean is a sure sign that the mulberries were delicious

I'm not quite sure what my dad doesn't like about the taste of mulberries, since they are very mild. I'm thinking if he'd just give a mulberry jam sandwich a chance, he may change his mind. ;) The simple mulberry flavor is becoming one of the treasured flavors of summer around here!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Compost Ball

The husband bought it. And built it.

June 2011-Craig's contribution to my new garden obsession

We admired it. And filled it.

It makes for an interesting green globe sculpture in the midst of our garden, always in the background...

...And it provides nutrient rich, sweet-smelling compost for our plants!

We love this compost ball! We have three systems; this ball, a bin made of pallets, and a vermicompost (worm) bin. The ball is pretty and keeps all the bugs enclosed, so it's nice having it right the middle of our garden space. 

This ended up being a really awesome gift from my husband. Admittedly, it is expensive (as you can see at this link), and it's now difficult to find online. Hubby got it at a steep discount before it seemed to vanish.

Generally I stay away from expensive gadgets, and my cheap simple pallet compost bin does the job just fine. But for some spaces, having an enclosed plastic bin is almost crucial. Our tiny (but incredibly productive) garden along the side of the house is really not conducive to an open compost pile due to the space, and our pretty plastic ball is just the right fit.

Although my particular composter is now hard to find, there are TONS of options, with varying price tags, to be found! Stop throwing away yard waste and kitchen scraps and put them to good use!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sourdough and Water Kefir--My First Attempts!

I was so excited to find out--through Facebook-- that Craig's aunt Lori has recently been experimenting with water kefir and sourdough! By the way, do you pronounce it KEE-fur, or keh-FEAR? I'd always heard it in my head as the former, but Lori pronounces it the latter. Threw me off the first time I heard her say it..and I still don't know which way I like to say it. But, anywho.

After reading Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz not very long ago, fermentation was 'fresh' on the brain (that has to be some kind of weird opposite pun)..and to say I was extremely enthusiastic is an understatement. Craig's sister can only shake her head when I get overly excited about the most mundane things--I do tend to get a little over the top. I may have jumped up and down when Lori offered me starts of both her sourdough (which she started from nothing but rye flour and water), and water kefir grains.

Lori said she'd have the starts ready for me at the 4th of July family gathering. I could barely contain my joy; you'd have thought someone had told me I'd just won the lottery.

The 4th of July gathering is a huge deal each year. We head deep into the country, an hour-long drive of nothing but fields and farmhouses. The boys anticipate swimming in the huge pool at Aunt Nancy's (with a rustic barn right in the background), and I anticipate catching up with Craig's maternal family, the kindest bunch of people you'll ever meet. The family is surrounded by a large Amish community, and there is nothing like sitting on the front porch of Nancy's house while Amish neighbors drive by in their buggies and wave. I mean, hello? Good old fashioned country joy, anyone?

Lori lives across the road from Nancy, and she took me over to get my 'babies'. While I was there, she showed me her gardens and fruit trees, as I gawked the whole while. I eat this stuff up, and she sensed it, and we bonded. It was great. Did I ever mention that finding out I have kindred spirits in my midst, under my nose without ever having known it, is one of my biggest joys in life?

I put Patrick in charge of holding the kefir babies, and I tucked the sourdough into a cupholder for the hour drive home. I couldn't wait to start experimenting.

The kefir fermentation is a process that is going to take some practice. This link offers lots of helpful tips. It likes eating sugar, and that is what makes it bubbly and delicious. One of the things I've been using to make the final bubbly kefir is my sour cherry syrup (click here for my post about 6 ways with sour cherries).

The sourdough has been an experience in trial and error. After two disastrous loaves, I finally made the perfect free-form loaf that just absolutely blew me away. The texture was there, the bubbles were there, the tang was there. I used the recipe that Lori gave me, as follows. I modified it just a bit.

As the summer progresses, I hope to practice my sourdough and kefir methods! Just starting out though, I have to admit--the success I'm having is fun and tasty. 

Rustic No-yeast Sourdough Bread  

--bake at 475 for about 15 minutes
1 cup room temperature starter (leave out overnight if you keep the starter in the fridge) 3/4 c. room temp water 3/4 tsp. sea salt 2 cups bread flour (variable--could be more or less) Mix ingredients and knead for 5-6 minutes. Let the dough rise till doubled, then shape into a loaf (whatever shape you desire) and place on baking sheet (I always use parchment paper, but you could grease the pan instead) . Cover and let double again (when you press with fingerprint, the imprint stays). Bake at 475 for around 15 minutes (depending on the shape of the loaf and your oven). When you put the bread in the oven, give a good spritz of water with a water mister to create steam. This will help create a nice crust! Put it on a cooling rack to cool. Sourdough is supposed to keep at room temp for several days. I suppose it depends on the humidity in your house, though.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Six Ways with Sour Cherries

My sister-in-law Casey has a really gorgeous sour cherry tree in her front yard. In an attempt to further my foraging skills, I decided I'd pick a whole bunch and figure out what to do with them.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Three Sisters Soup

This recipe was shared on Tasty Tuesday!

This is one of my all-time favorite soups. That's saying a lot, being that I am pretty much obsessed with soup and am certain that I could live on only soup the rest of my life. There is just something about this one--its simplicity, warmth, and hearty bite--that makes me come back to it again and again, especially in the fall, when the winter squash is pouring in.