August Food

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I admit it – as much as I love summer, love salads with fresh lettuce from our CSA, love making pickles and picking berries, and love getting away to the mountains as we do every year, I’m ready for fall.  Which means on some level, my garden enthusiasm for the year is starting to slowly wane.  It’s funny, I get like this every year just as the preserving, which I truly enjoy, ramps up.  It’s as though I know if I power through a few more weeks of Salsa Verde, Oven-canned tomatoes, and homemade salsa, I can start to rest on the literal fruits of my labors.

Of course, there’s the garden clean up to do in late fall, and this year we finally need to finish that last fence section, but in about 6 weeks the only thing left to do will be to pick the last pumpkins and squash and put the garden to bed for the winter.

I finished off the pickle making with one last batch of the bread and butter type.
We have enough pickles to put jars on every table at the wedding, and plenty for us as well.  There’s more pesto, to make,  of course.  Canning tomatoes and tomatillos is coming, but not quite yet – our harvest is increasing by the day but the volumes aren’t there yet.  I am ready for chilly nights, pumpkins on the porch, and no more weeding.  I want roasted vegetables, a pot of soup on the stove, and lazy weekend mornings followed by apple picking.  I want to be able to put on a pair of jeans without them sticking to my skin, and a pair of boots.

I love the 4 seasons.  I used to think I hated winter, but then I moved to South Florida for a couple years and while I loved so much about it – Florida is so much more than Disney and hot – it wasn’t home.  Since then I’ve come to like winter – the stillness of it, the softness of falling snow, even the ice.  I work from home more than half the time, which makes it easier – when the weather is bad I don’t have anywhere I need to be, and if I’m traveling, it’s hotels and no shoveling.  Winter is peaceful.  We don’t rush off to ski every weekend – I don’t ski at all – and often the most exciting thing to do, other than training runs for me, is to plan what’s for dinner.

Spring is exciting – there’s seeds to plant and outside to be excited about. Every time the first of our crocuses bloom, I get a thrill.  I still remember the first year here, watching the gardens unfold into flowers and greens.  That excitement never changes, nor does my optimism about my gardens.

But fall is by far my favorite season, with all it’s New England-y assets.  There’s the colors of the leaves, and the crunch of the way they feel under my feet.  There’s hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks.  The way the air smells, clean and crisp.  For us, there’s the Topsfield Fair, which for 10 days in October every year turns our town into candy apple-covered mob scene, complete with giant pumpkin contests and fried whatever-on-a-stick.

The garden will wind down , the wedding and all it’s associated planning and projects will be over, and once the fair comes to an end, there’s nothing other than starting to get ready for winter to be done.  For us that’s firewood delivery – we’ve used up most of the viable firewood the previous owner left us, insulating windows and doors, and making sure storm windows are ready.  A brand-new firewood rack for the porch should be here soon too, something we’ve been needing to get for a bit now.

For today though, sunflowers are in bloom at the farms nearby and the temperature hit a high of 89 degrees – it’s hard to imagine being cold again.  The idea of no fresh-picked salads, no sweet corn, no roadside farm stands is almost impossible to contemplate.  I want the fresh food to linger while the days cool, an impossible feat.

That said, I’m hearing small complaints of boredom with the grilled-chicken-and-salad-with-side-of-corn-on-the-cob repetition, which are probably the smallish people’s way of communicating their readiness for a change in seasons as well, or maybe just Mom’s lack of inventiveness on the subject of dinner.  So tomorrow we are having taco night, complete with Instant Pot Carnitas, homemade guacamole, and all the toppings.  I know when my ratings are dropping, and clearly, action is required.

Still, we’re in the home stretch of summer, and I might throw in some grilled corn just because I can.

 

 

 

Late Summer Delicacies

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This evening my daughter is off to a wedding with her father and grandparents, and my son stayed behind with Eli and I – he’s a little young as an attendee for evening weddings yet, and mostly happier to be left behind.

He dug his own little garden and planted, telling me that while he’s not sure yet he wants to be a gardener, he might be so he’s giving it a try.  And maybe we’ll get some late season flowers and wax beans as a result, which never hurts.

I spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, canning and preserving.  Pesto, pickles, and a start at tackling the bounty from our trip to pick blackberries, which typically ripen around now, just in time for my birthday.   I’m not quite sure yet what we’ll do with the ones we don’t freeze, but I’m leaning towards Blackberry Financiers, which are a favorite and store and freeze well, for a summery treat in the cold and dark of winter.   I have some wild Maine blueberries too – the net of this is that in and around the tasks we have in the final 12 days leading up to our wedding, there’s a lot of food to put up.

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Which is why lunch was a simple arrangement of tomatoes and cucumbers from the CSA, basil from the front yard, and red pepper and feta spread with mozzerella from the farm we picked the blackberries at. Simple, tasty and absolutely beautiful, as summer food should be.

Dinner was slightly more involved, but only slightly – Rosemary Ranch Chicken, fresh corn, couscous and salad, but still one of those fresh summer meals that fills without leaving you feeling too full.  I’m sitting and listening to the cricket chorus, and our sunflowers are in full bloom, both sure signs that summer is coming to an end.

We are just a few days away from the wedding, and deep in the throes of both house projects and of food preservation for the summer.  So far we’ve put up several kinds of berries and made pesto and canned pickles – both the bread and butter and dill kind – and blanched and frozen kale.  The tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos are just starting to ripen, which means September weekends will be filled with sauce-making and salsa verde.

Summer meals are best when light, leaving the intracacies of cooking for the colder months.  Eli is always ready to grill, and we have a salad to complement our meal most nights.

Summer is, when done right,  is easy and delicious.  Soon it will end, and with that ending comes the chilly nights and more complex meals and flavors – curries, roasts, soups and root vegetables.  But for now, I’m grateful for the bounty of the season, for the pleasure of picking my Sungold tomatoes for the season and adding them to our butter lettuce from the CSA.  This is the time of year where everything is delectable, right outside the door, and for far too short a time, readily available.  I love all the seasons, but I will miss the summer lettuces and cucumbers, even when I happily trade them for squash and pumpkins.

For now though, I am reveling in the bounty that our warm season brings.  I hope you are as well.

 

Pickle Time

 

It’s a sleepy, IMG_1034 (1)chilly morning here already – 54 degrees, which is a little odd for August.  It almost feels like fall is arriving early, but this is New England, so we’ll likely get a heat wave soon.

It’s been a while – not because I was too busy (although I was pretty busy) or because I ran out of things to say, which I do once in a while, but because just as life was humming along with the final wedding details being ironed out, the downstairs bathroom renovation moving along, and the garden starting to produce tomatoes, my computer died.   And died just as I was about to kick off nearly 4 weeks of nonstop travel, which made the shopping for a new one a bit complicated.

While losing my computer for a few weeks wasn’t the end of the world – I have other electronics – it was beyond irritating, not in the least because it was yet another unplanned expense.  But today I finally made the time to sneak out and acquire my fabulous new HP Chromebook, and I am already in love.  I carry my laptop everywhere, and this one is going to be a pleasure to use every day.

So let’s see…where was I before all of that?

The garden is once again a jungle, this time of tomato plants, rather than the squash run amok from last year.  Sungolds are ripening, and this year, having trained the squashes and pumpkins up, they are not the majority of the chaos.  I planted a lot of tomatoes, and I think in a few weeks I may begin to regret that.

But despite that and all the busy, this year I’m making more time to preserve the fruits of my – and the CSA’s – labor.  The first of our endeavors was to freeze strawberries and raspberries that we had picked, but the more labor-intensive but utterly worth it effort was put into making bread and butter pickles, which are a favorite of mine.  Our CSA has had several weeks of all-you-can-fit-in-your-bag pickling cucumbers, and I’m taking advantage.

The key for pickles is the prep.  Salting and soaking the cukes, making the brine, prepping the jars.  Other than just setting the expectation that you’ll get a few dish towels messy while ladling the cucumbers into the jars, and you really do need a jar lifter so you don’t burn yourself,

It will take about 2 hours from start to finish to make 5-6 quarts, but in the end you will have the best pickles you have ever tasted.

I learned from my neighbors that pickle crisping additives can be replaced by putting a single grape leaf at the bottom of each jar.  Since they happen to have mature grapevines and don’t mind when I crib a few leaves here and there, I availed myself of them.  That said, there’s plenty on the market if you don’t happen to have neighbors with grapevines.

Today I’m on to dill pickles – I like this recipe from Practical Self Reliance, but there’s a lot of good ones out there.  The key for dill is to use pint jars and make sure you are using a recipe meant for canning.

Canning your own food is not scary.  I repeat, not scary.  Anyone can do it, I promise.  And when you are done you will have the best

You need:

Jars
Jar lifters
Couple dish towels
Wet towel for wiping off the rims of the jars
Big pot of water
Recipe for pickles (or whatever)

That’s it.  Add to that a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon, and you will have deliciousness to eat and give away.  And here’s the great news – you can often find jars free (get the lids and bands new) and once you have them, reuse them.  This can be a cheap, and tasty, hobby.

Happy pickling!

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Summer Bounty

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I woke up this morning a little too early, with morning rain rolling in.  The kids have been with their grandparents this week, but they are finally due home later today.  It’s a mellow week – I work for a few days, then we’re off to the mountains for a bit.

The combination of rain every few days combined with sun means the gardens are growing and everything is lush and beautiful.  The chickens are let out most days to perform one of the most critical jobs on the farmlet – eating ticks and other bugs.  Deer ticks are a huge problem here in Massachusetts, and chickens are one of the best defenses for our little space.  They view them as nothing so much as tasty snacks.

Our CSA started up a few weeks ago, and is supplying us with lots of greens.  We are enjoying salads almost nonstop.  My current favorite is a little feta, some lettuce and tomatoes, a sliced-up mango, avocado, and toasted pumpkin seeds.  It’s a really great combination of savory, sweet and sour,  but really any type of salad this time of year will do.

We’ve mostly jettisoned pre-made salad dressing for the simplest and most delicious kind – squeeze one lemon over the salad, add salt, pepper, and olive oil, and toss.  I’m never going back to a bottle of dressing.  Ever.

We’ve also been getting broccoli and kale in enough volume that it’s time to start blanching and freezing it for the cooler weather.  It seems almost ridiculous in June to be planning for winter, but it always comes, and the more food I preserve now, the less we will need then.

The Honey Locust tree is in bloom, dropping waterfalls of  beautiful white flowers all over the driveway.  The blooms last only a few days, but create the sense that driving up to the house is a Hollywood dream sequence, with flowers wafting over you in slow motion.

The garden is growing beautifully, and other than the rabbits that tunnel under the fence a la Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden to compete for the bounty, we should have an amazing harvest this year.  It’s a late-summer garden, mostly tomatoes and peppers because of the effort to build and finish it, but it’s almost time to add fall greens, and finish the fence and gate.  In the middle sits a small fig tree, planted just a few weeks ago, but starting to leaf.

All in all, we planted 5 fruit trees this year – a Cinnamon Spice apple to replace the one that is dying and needs to be removed (it tastes just like it sounds), a Seckel pear, 2 apricots, one an Iranian variety, and one a Japanese Ume type, and the fig tree in the middle of the garden.  My dwarf cherry didn’t survive the winter, but I will wait until next year to try again on that.  I bought my trees from Trees of Antiquity, started by a preservationist in order to save some of the older, less planted species.  Since preservation is part of what is so important to me here, paying a teensy big extra to know that I’m continuing a line of trees that has grown for hundreds of years makes me smile every time I see the tiny leaves growing on what amounted to little more than sticks with roots when they arrived.

One thing that has been critical in building and preserving this land is amending the soil.  Last year nearly 16 yards of organic compost went into the new garden, and this year I’m adding more everywhere I plant.  The mostly ignored front of the house got some newly-divided daylilies from the Moms, but when I started digging I realized the soil was mostly dust.  A few buckets of compost later, the daylilies are preparing to bloom.

I never grow tired of listening to the rain, especially when I can just sit and enjoy it.  All too often, I sit on Saturday mornings and make a to-do list.  But this morning I decided that despite all the important things that must be done, so too is it important for me to reflect on how far we’ve come since that cold December night when the children and I first arrived.  Not even 3 years yet, and we’ve added so much to this place.  And it keeps adding to us.

I hope your home brings you as much joy as ours does.

In Celebration Of Fathers

Summer’s bounty has started to arrive.  Our CSA started this week, with lettuce, scallions, broccoli and some other goodies, plus a quart of fresh-picked strawberries.  Not much other than the dill that quietly naturalized in the garden is ready to eat yet here at Sithean, but in a few weeks I expect that to change.

Eli and I had an unexpected evening alone last night, and pulled out all the stops on dinner at home to make Half-baked Harvest’s Chicken Souvlaki Bowls, which were pretty delicious, and fun to eat on the weekend that we’ve finished up Whole30.

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I don’t plan to make Whole30 a lifestyle – cheese and wine are far too important to me – but we did feel healthy and lost some weight, so I suspect we’ll be having some periodic stretches of it in our future.

Today we’re celebrating Father’s Day at a bluegrass festival – us, the kids, and my ex-husband, headed off to picnic, listen to music and eat from food trucks.  That’s not probably typical, and it does occasionally feel pretty awkward to all of the adults involved, but I don’t think I would change it for the world.  As a matter of fact, when I look back on my life in old age, I think I will value that combining of us together not just as 3, and hopefully someday 4,  co-parents but as friends and as a mutual support system.  It’s intentional, and it’s actually pretty great.

And fathers – in all their forms – are hugely important.

My father had – has – a lot of mental health issues that impacted our relationship over the years.  I spent a very good deal of my childhood years wishing for a ‘normal’ childhood.  It wasn’t all bad, and I still often treasure memories of tromping around Boston on Saturdays with him and my sisters, but there’s a good deal I would rather not have happened as well.

Having a parent who isn’t a good parent is a tough thing and all too real for too many kids.  In my adult years, I’ve realized that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts he gave me is a long list of what not to do with my own children.  One of those not-things?  Ensuring that their Dad, I and Eli fully align on the really important stuff and avoid conflict about the small things.  We put the kids at the center, and every decision is a result of that.

My ex and I have carefully crafted a friendship out of the end of our marriage. We still irritate one another, but we also trust one another 100%.  We’re not always in agreement, but we always align, and we still enjoy one another’s company.   He’s helped around the house endlessly, especially in the early days, and we’re completely committed to helping one another out when it’s needed.  He’s a great Dad and a great human.  I’m lucky.

To enter as a stepfather and a partner into a situation that is as complex as that is requires a special kind of patience and thoughtfulness.  Enter Eli, who handles it with immense grace.   In some ways, I’m sure it would be easier for him if my ex and I weren’t quite such good friends.  But he makes it work, and better than that.

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I’m not sure there’s anyone on earth who could have stepped into the stepfathering role quite as wonderfully and generously as he has.  Great with kids, committed to learning both them and great parenting, always up for a game or an art project or a Nerf battle outside, he brings not just love and support to me, but light and fun into our house in a way it wasn’t there before.  He loves us all, and shows it all day, every day, in endless ways.  He bears kid moods and meltdowns, relentlessly adapts to our traditions, and brings his own flavor of joy to everything we do – making even dinner time fun and interesting.

He was the thing we didn’t know we were missing until we found him.

Life with him is so, so much better than it was before, and if I thought I was lucky always, I didn’t know it like I do now.  It’s not perfect, and everyone is still adjusting, but even so – this is the best life has ever been, and it keeps getting better.

Add to that my children’s wonderful grandfather, Angus – whose limitless patience, candy jar and love of them is a joy to behold, someone who I adore and admire as a person and I am lucky to know, my amazing and adored brothers-in-law, who are  truly great fathers as well as visibly loving and adoring my children , and I’d say my kids are doing pretty good in the father, uncle and grandfather category.

Today as we sit on a blanket and listen to bluegrass, I won’t be wishing a thing was different – even if it rains, or there are mosquitoes, or the kids eat too much sugar and get overtired.  That’s the small stuff.  The big stuff is the 3 central adults in their lives surrounding them to give them experiences and time and teach them what it means to take a less-than-ideal situation and make it something great.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you.  May your day be filled with love.

Love

How Does My Garden Grow – June 2019

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It’s foggy this morning, but finally back to being warm, after a week of weather chilly enough that we caved and put the heat on at one point.  The outcome of the rain and chill is a landscape that is even more impossibly lovely and magical than before.  Living here in this fairy-tale landscape is a gift.

I’m giving up a day in the garden today for a milestone with my daughter – after 2.5 years of dedicated work, she’s off to her first horse show.  All week we’ve been madly prepping – an extra lesson, shopping for all the attire she needs, polishing boots and packing snacks and extra clothes for the day.  It’s not the kind of thing we can budget for frequently, but it’s worth every dime.  My daughter, who generally asks for nothing, wanted this more than anything.

We’re deep in getting the garden together, but we also took a little time out to introduce the chickens to the yard.  It’s time for them to start earning their keep by eating ticks and other garden pests.  Statler the chicken, one of our adored Polish breed, took a bit of time to explore whether tree-climbing was also a ‘chicken thing’.  We’re not sure what she

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thinks but she seemed more interested than distressed.  Her sister, Waldorf, and their other companions seemed to find the earth more interesting.

Eli and I have been hard at work on the garden.  It’s a combination of building, weeding and planting at the same time.  We need to finish up in the next couple weeks so we can turn our attention to projects on the house itself.  This is some hard work, but it’s also a labor of love.   We’ve managed to plant tomatoes of all sorts, peppers, both the sweet and spicy kind, cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lots of herbs, rhubarb, carrots, a couple sugar pumpkin plants, and a Japanese cucumber we are trying out this year.   So far, so good.   The Thai basil is looking a bit sad, but I think a little heat will perk it up.

We’ve mostly gotten the flowers planted as well, with the only holdouts being the two climbing rose bushes that we got to train up the butterfly gate.

Still to go are more tomatoes, more greens, butternut squash, and a few other things.  In August I’ll plant some more kale and greens.  I didn’t get to tomatillos or beans this year, but 4 new fruit trees are set to arrive any day – Japanese and Iranian varieties of apricots, a Seckel pear, and a fig tree.  This year, we’ll take extra caution with protecting the new trees for winter, since the bitter cold has devastated the ones I have planted to date.

Eli has taken on most of the construction tasks while I weed, move dirt and plant.  We’ve gotten a 5th garden bed built and planted already, and next weekend at least 6th should get done, if not more.

The garden with 5 beds planted

It’s looking beautiful, and I find it nearly impossible to describe how it feels to dream of a potager garden and then see it come to life.   The old bricks I used for the first few beds will eventually need to be replaced, and there’s still a full half of the garden to build, but it’s transforming before my eyes into the paths and beds of my daydreams, complete with Hollyhocks along the front edge.

This was the beginning.  This was the daydream that became a sketched plan over tea with my neighbor, that became an almost-finished fence and brick beds that became the place where I go to play in the sunshine.  So much labor and time went into it.  Sweat equity that I treasure as much as the finished product.  When I look back over my life, it is the things that I’ve built and grown and tended that matter the most.

My children.  Eli.  And this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Managing Food Waste

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It’s cold and soggy out tonight, despite it being nearly June.  We had a lovely, summer-like Memorial Day weekend, but the weather turned this morning, and it’s cold enough that the heat is back on.  Still, I got tons of time in the garden – more on that later – and the soaking rain means I don’t have to water plants any time soon.  I’m excited for the season – our garden is partially planted, and the CSA starts up next week.

Our life at Sithean creates a little too much waste, like most of us first-world folks.  Despite the fact that we use cloth napkins, try to buy in bulk and garden/have a CSA, the amount of waste still astounds me, and we’re working on it.  We can’t reduce in all ways, but we’re going to try.

One thing we do manage pretty well is food waste.  Our food-waste management program has 7 distinct areas, and together they serve to help minimize our load on the environment, at least in this one way.   None of them work perfectly, mind you, but it is something I feel pretty proud of generally.

  1. Kids create a lot of leftovers.  Eli and I are midway through Whole30, so we’re not eating a lot of the kids’ food. Under normal circumstances he finishes a lot of what they don’t eat.  I do occasionally, but significantly less.  This is simple and doesn’t require a farmlet or any special equipment.  He simply waits until they are done with breakfast or lunch before figuring out what he’s eating.  Dinner we eat together, but we still have been known to polish off what they don’t. 
  2. Compost.  We have 2 compost bins and we compost peelings, icky fruit, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags etc.  This eventually becomes soil for my garden.  Coffee grounds in the summer also directly fertilize my rose bushes about once a week – roses love leftover coffee.  I keep a small compost container on the kitchen counter, and we empty it as we fill it, every few days.  I know we’re eating healthiest when we have to empty it every day or so.
  3. Bunnies.  Apple cores, broccoli stems, zucchini ends, lettuce leaves and other vegetable pieces supplement their bunny pellets, hay and 2-carrot-a-day habit. In kale season, they can give my blanch-and-freeze process a run for it’s money in their kale consumption alone.
  4. Chickens.  Chickens are omnivores, and ours, at 3 months old, are just starting their scrap-consumption.  There are a few things that aren’t good for them, and I don’t ever feed them chicken (eww) but otherwise all the scraps go to them.  They love their extra treats, we love not tossing food, and in a few more months there will be eggs galore.
  5. Reuse.  Leftovers from dinner are often lunch.  Roasted chickens become soup.  Mushroom stumps and onion peels add flavor and complexity to the broth.  Parmesan rinds flavor soups and stews.  So many things can be transformed into another in the kitchen.  Fruits that are starting to get soft or slightly less appealing go into our smoothies.
  6. Refrigerator and pantry management.  This is the most labor-intensive one, and requires constant monitoring to ensure that nothing is going bad, and adaptation to recipes to ensure that things get used up on time.  It’s the one we are the least skilled at remembering to do, of course.
  7. Eating less and preserving more.  This too, is hard.  But it’s good for our health and our waistlines, as well as Mother Earth.  The less food we buy, the less there is to go to waste.  In the summer, when the CSA and the garden are producing food we preserve for the winter months.  I reuse my canning jars over and over, and every jar of salsa or sauce I make is one less I buy later.

I’ve still got so much more to do to reduce our footprint.  But food waste management is a skill I have been perfecting, and it’s not much effort.  Need help in managing your food waste?  Share your thoughts in the comments!