Saturday, January 24, 2015

January Garden

I’m not so sure how I feel about this year-round gardening thing. Sure, it’s great to pull some fresh veggies out of your backyard in the middle of winter, but I kind of miss the winter break. Not that I’ve been working too hard out there!

So, to recap, for the first time I tried a fall “garden.” In August I planted broccoli, a few brussels sprouts seedlings, and tried to start some onions from seed. In theory, the brassicas enjoy the cooling weather of fall, giving harvests between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The onions sprout and, like the garlic, winter over for a summertime harvest.

As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t work that way.

The brussels sprouts hunkered down and did nothing. One of them disappeared without a trace by September. Three attempts at seeding onions resulted in a half-dozen feeble seedlings which all got buried under the great Poop Drop in November (they were too small to work around). The broccoli did slightly better, but they were not about to adhere to my mental time schedule.

It wasn’t until the beginning of November that the broccoli started acting like broccoli.

Garden 11

 

Barely. I have been deeply grateful that I have real row cover material this year (thanks Mom & Dad), so I was able to leave it over the plants without worrying about them overheating, or being blocked from sunlight and rainfall. When we had a week or so of nights above freezing, I could easily enough uncover them for a little sunbathing.

IMG_20150107_161619_465

The flower pot is to protect the cover from the pointy-ish end of the support stick. I took this picture the first week of January, so you can see it took nearly two months for this crop to get anywhere near harvest size. Or five months from planting, which was probably another month or two after seeding.

These are some well-aged broccoli.

There was a little bonus under there, too. Over summer I let some of my springtime lettuce go to seed, and these guys came up close enough to the broccoli to include them under the cover. So I had a little fresh January greenery on my sandwiches for a week or so.

IMG_20150107_162136_408

Another week after these photos we were hit by a serious deep freeze, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills around zero. (Yes, it does get cold in North Carolina, just not for long.) So I harvested everything I could…four decent-sized heads.

IMG_20150107_171515

They’re smaller than the ones the farmers grow, but they are beautifully compact with a lovely dark color. I assume that means more vitamins.

I immediately blanched and froze them, filling a quart bag and a little bit more. I was surprised to find this hitchhiker during the process.

IMG_20150107_171858

I then checked all the other heads and didn’t find a single other worm! That’s amazing, and a big benefit to “fall” gardening.

I wasn’t sure if broccoli could survive a deep freeze under cover (I actually have two layers over most of it), so as an experiment I left behind the smallest main head, along with the decapitated plants. If they do survive, I should get a fair number of secondary heads, bumping up my harvest a bit. At the moment, the results are surprisingly indefinite. Some of the plants look completely dead, others have some dead leaves and some healthy ones, and most of the small heads are looking ok for now. I think the one main head I left is a loss. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about “fall” gardening, it’s that things happen at a much slower pace than in spring and summer, so I’ll let this experiment play to its end.

A week after my pre-freeze harvest, it was time to do this.

IMG_20150118_111056

Yup, I just started seeds for spring! And while the old generation gives its last gasp outside, the next one is just getting started inside.

IMG_20150121_131120

To quote my favorite author, “So it goes.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

How did that happen?

IMG_20150116_124546_851

Last week I was joking with a friend about how misleading my typical grocery store cartload looks. “There’s absolutely no produce,” I said, “but it’s because we buy all our vegetables at the farmers market.”

It wasn’t until today, as I pondered my most recent grocery list, that I realized how little we really buy there anymore. Every week or two I have to pick up dog food, milk and orange juice. More often than not I add some deli meat and cheese slices. And the rest is pure Guilty Secret food: Coke, potato chips, bologna.

But that’s about it. If you get rid of the junk, all we need from the grocery store is milk, orange juice, dog food and sliced things to put between bread. Everything else we have found ways to source locally and affordably.

This seems incredible to me, because it happened without my noticing. I became aware years ago that during the summer I would generally wheel my cart right past the produce section without slowing down. Since we had started to eat seasonally, it was simple to find salad fixings, potatoes, and squash at any of our local markets, at least during the high growing season.

Then about a year ago, a last-minute menu change necessitated a run to Harris Teeter for boneless chicken breasts. (Normally we get locally-raised leg quarters, or whole birds that we roast or break down ourselves.) After perusing the brightly lit shelves of the Poultry section at the grocery store, I hefted a packet of mostly-unfrozen breasts and carried it to where Miss Chef stood by our cart. “I can’t really tell, but I think there’s eight in here,” I told her. “I think there’s another layer underneath.” She gave me a patient, if somewhat pitying look and said, “No, there are only four. That’s how thick they are.”

I didn’t believe her. She still handled industrially raised birds at work, but I had gotten so used to the reasonably-sized breasts of pastured chickens—you know, the ones that are actually capable of holding up their own body weight—that my brain absolutely could not conceive of the size of these monsters. It wasn’t until we got the package home and unwrapped that I was really convinced. I was also a little freaked out, and wary about eating such freakishly overgrown meat.

That was my first hint that I was on a completely different rail than the average American eater. Our first forays into eating seasonally and locally came as an “every little bit helps” effort. Even if we still bought industrially grown bacon, at least our eggs were sustainably produced. Little by little we found new markets and vendors—Uno Alla Volta brought us mozzarella to go with locally grown tomatoes, Carolina Artisan Bakery made the bread to go around those sliced things, farmers started raising more laying hens to meet demand. Fish markets have exploded, mushroom growers are competing for most exotic varieties. And we’re swimming in it all, stocking our pantry with local flour, butter, potatoes and beans.

Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, we largely opted out of the mainstream food culture. We’ve made the mental adjustment to consider which farmer has carrots this week, rather than assuming we can always pick some up at Harris Teeter. And I don’t even go into the meat section of the store anymore (well, except when I’m having a craving for a bologna sandwich).

So no, we’re not perfect local eaters. We eat out way too often during the week, and not at the fantastic local restaurants I’m always promoting online. I am addicted to Coke (the legal kind). And I eat way too many sandwiches when I should be cooking some of that local pork in our freezer and cabbage in the fridge.

But the very fact of our shortcomings gives me hope. Because my concern about our local food movement today is that it doesn’t reach 90% of Americans. The people who want the most for their dollar still have to be convinced of the value of fresh, seasonal foods. But if we allow for imperfection in everyone’s food choices, maybe we can use the taste of ripe local tomatoes as a doorway drug. Maybe that’s the foot in the door that will lead them to try some of those carrots and pasture-raised eggs. Then maybe, like me, they will find themselves 10 years down the road with a grocery cart empty of everything but orange juice and Coke.

Because, c’mon, we all need a bad habit, right?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Garden Update: Before, After, After

It seems that Thanksgiving is, for me, more than just a time for feasting with loved ones.  Not that I have any problem with the whole feasting part of it.

IMG_20141127_122920_335

Say, er, goodbye to Falstaff. He was one of the “lucky” survivors of the 50 turkey poults I saw arrive at Carlea Farm back in July. Running an obstacle course of disease, owls, hawks and coyotes, 27 of the little buggers made it through to November. After four months of slow growth on pasture, gobbling up grass, weeds, bugs and some supplementary feed, Falstaff made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy a traditional harvest meal together.

As you can see, Miss Chef honored his sacrifice by making him both beautiful and delicious. Thank you, Falstaff.

Now it just so happens that the month of our harvest celebration is also the month best suited for me to ensure future harvests. Even with my first experimental fall plantings in place, the garden bed is mostly dormant right now.

IMG_20141120_151301_914

In the back, hiding my slow-growing broccoli plants, is my jerry-rigged row cover.  The material was purpose bought, but the posts are leftover from my raised-bed projects, and the edges are held down by a motley collection of rocks, pvc pipe sections and spare lumber. Most of the greenery you see is herbs—lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme. There are a few carrot fronds hanging out; they can survive all but the most intensely cold winters. As the trees lost their leaves, I used them to cover the soil in a couple inches of free, natural mulch. Some of my neighbors even helped out, though they didn’t know it.

By the way, did I mention Miss Chef recently bought a pickup truck?

IMG_20141112_130158_140

Not only is it super handy to haul home seven large bags of leaves plucked from a neighbor’s curb, it also serves perfectly to gather up some black gold for the garden. As I had two years ago, it was time to head on out to my favorite goat farm, Bosky Acres.

Michele, my favorite Goat Lady, has a herd of about 50 diary goats who provide her with the primary ingredient for soft goat cheese and feta. They also provide an infinite supply of manure, which gets piled up in a back pasture, where it slowly breaks down into rich compost, complete with lots of earthworms. Last time I took advantage of this free garden booster, I had to shovel it into double-bagged trash liners and load them into my trunk. I barely had enough to cover the whole bed with a scant inch of it. With the truck, I was determined to do it right this time.

IMG_20141120_123730_926

I had to back Miss Chef’s shiny new truck into a back pasture, next to this grass-covered mound. (You can see the big, open-air goat barn in the background, and Michele’s house on the right.) I didn’t want to transplant all that grass into my garden, so first I had to pull back as much as I could by hand. And here I thought my weeding chores were mostly done for the year.

Then it was time to start shoveling.  And shoveling. I spend most of my days sitting in front of a keyboard, so my arms, shoulders and back were quick to let me know they weren’t feeling up to a whole lot of this activity.

IMG_20141120_123810_486

I had to stop for a break after a while. I posted the above photo to Facebook with the quip, “Right about now, I have to ask myself if stamp collecting wouldn’t have been a better choice for a hobby.” One of my northern friends commented almost immediately on the sunlight, which kind of put my aching muscles into perspective. So I got back to shoveling without further whining.

I stopped before I was completely tired and sore, because I knew there was only more shoveling on the other end of this trip. It was hard to judge from the spread-out pile in the bed just how much I had, but I was pretty confident it would at least cover the main garden bed. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough for a couple other side-projects I had in mind.

IMG_20141120_130016_627

The truck was parked uphill on soft dirt, and I had a little trouble getting moving. Fortunately, my years of winter driving in Ohio transferred well to Carolina clay. I backed up to a more level starting place and pulled out of there slow and steady, just like up an ice-covered driveway I once knew well.

Of course, I did stop to say hi to The Girls who provided me with such lovely fertilizer. Goats are curious creatures, though, and hard to take pictures of.

IMG_20141120_130308_027

“Is that phone tasty?”

Back home, I got out my trusty orange wheelbarrow and got to work. As I spread the compost over my bed, I started getting pretty excited when I saw how rich and fertile it looked. I also realized that I’d shoveled more than I’d realized, and I definitely had enough to put a good two or three inches over the entire garden.

IMG_20141120_160201_187

You know you’re a gardener if that picture makes you jealous. However, nature doesn’t like bare earth, so I pulled from my bank of dry leaves to mulch it over once more.

IMG_20141120_162702_486

Now, after two hours of driving and as much time shoveling, it looks just like it did before!  If you look at that white pot half-buried in the bed, though, you can tell that the dirt level is higher. But that’s about the only sign of all my hard work. At least for now. I’m hoping that come spring I’ll be able to see the difference in happier, more productive peas, broccoli and carrots.

That was all on the week before Thanksgiving. The day after, my black Friday wasn’t focused on hunting down deals on consumer electronics. It was spent shoveling the rest of that black gold onto some other beds, and creating new ones around our remaining blackberry plant and at the base of my favorite tree out front.

IMG_20141128_163357_331

No more weed-whip marks around this baby’s tender trunk. And yup, that’s the truck that made it all possible. Right now, though, I’m mostly thankful I got this job done.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pet Peeve

A friend’s recent post on Facebook dredged up a pet peeve of mine.  It’s still rankling around in my brain, so I thought I’d put it down here.  Not my usual subject matter, but when I started this blog six years ago, this was its original purpose.  (If you’d rather read about another amazing dinner event, click here to read the latest post on my food blog.)

Here’s the video that triggered my disbelief.  You can watch it or not; it’s a bland little instruction manual about folding fitted sheets.  It’s the very first line that caught my attention: “One of the biggest challenges you're going to face in your life is folding fitted sheets.”

Really?  I mean, yes, many people do spend their lives mystified by this modern convenience, but if it qualifies as a major event in your life history, you’re pretty darn sheltered!

This strikes a nerve with me because it resembles the kind of statements you hear on tv commercials all the dang time.  I think I’m particularly sensitive to them because, at an earlier stage in my life, I spent a surprising amount of time watching tv with no sound. 

It was mostly at the gym, where I preferred to listen to music while tracking miles on an elliptical machine stationed in front of a battery of suspended screens.  I might switch to a program that interested me, but was too preoccupied to bother channel-surfing, so got to watch plenty of commercials without their accompanying dramatic music or cheery narration.  Often, I had to imagine what intriguing product might follow shots of dimly-lit rippling sheets, or the fascinating conversation two people could be having to lead one of them to suddenly flourish a tube of medicated cream.

Once this separation of narration and image occurred to me, it was permanent.  So now, even with sound and picture running together, I still pay more attention than most to the smoothly delivered lines drilling into our nation’s subconscious day after day. Do any of these sound familiar?

“Now your pores can be practically invisible.”  Since when has it become shameful for women to display the fact that their skin is a living, breathing organ?  Are visible pores a sign of bad breeding or hygiene?  Do women who replace their skin with plastic become better sex partners?  Are wide pores on the TSA’s list of suspicious signs of terrorist involvement?  I must have missed a memo somewhere.

“Keep tiny hands germ-free and healthy.”  No.  Just, no.  Study after study has shown that children exposed to the horrifying messes of pets and—*gasp!*—the outdoors develop stronger immune systems and fewer allergies.  Yet the makers of disinfecting products continue to meet success with the message that keeping a white-tiled, sterile home is the only way a loving mother would raise her children.  (In spite of all the progress we’ve made, how many Lysol commercials feature Dad wiping down an otherwise spotless counter with a self-satisfied smile?)

“…the luxury and dependability you deserve.”  Really?  Do you know me?  Have you seen the dirty dishes on my counter, the projects on my desk I’ve been putting off, or the unanswered emails required difficult decisions?  It’s not like I’ve led the federal government to a new cost-cutting way of saving lives or feeding the homeless.  I’m not Ghandi, Warren Buffet or even Mary Poppins.  If my personal achievements aren’t relevant, it must be true that you believe anyone able to sit up and pay attention to a tv commercial is worthy of wearing a Rolex or driving a Bentley. So then, why don’t you just give me the damn thing, if I deserve it so much?

Go ahead, next time a commercial pops onto your tv, listen carefully to the assumptions it’s asking you to make.  With practice, you too might separate from the party line, and suddenly find that your list of “needs” gets cut dramatically.  As a bonus, you might even find some entertainment in these ridiculous sirens to our consumerist culture. 

Although I have to admit, my amusement is tempered with frustration when I realize how thoroughly brainwashed most of my fellow citizens continue to be.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gather: Día de los Muertos

Last weekend was the fourth of Miss Chef’s underground dinners, completing the first year of our seasonal events.  There were a few differences from the other dinners.  First, after dissatisfaction with a couple of people she’d had running “front of house,” we decided I would give it a go this time.

Second, when she told me she’d settled on the Saturday right after Halloween, I said, “You do realize that’s the Day of the Dead.”  And she decided to run with it, the first time we’ve had a theme for a dinner.  Having taught Spanish for five years, I thought it would be a fun, adult way to take advantage of Halloween without overdoing it.

sugar_skull

I did up our Facebook and Eventbrite pages with bright colors and this vibrant calavera, and for the first time I sent out the announcements without worrying about whether we’d sell enough tickets to break even.

A week before the dinner, Miss Chef and I were getting a bit nervous.  In spite of many people telling us they were coming, we’d only sold four tickets.  She said if she didn’t have at least six diners, she would cancel it—something I hadn’t even considered since the early days of this Underground adventure.

Then, as always, tickets started selling two days beforehand.  When the dust settled, we suddenly had 22 paying guests to feed.  It felt glorious, right until I realized this just upped the challenge level all the way around.

Part of that challenge lay in the fact that for the first time we’d have to provide all the table settings.  So we took a trek up to Ikea, on the far side of town from us.  Since Miss Chef has always capped the dinners at 30 people, we needed 30 place settings.  Sounds straightforward enough, until you consider that she uses different plates for appetizers, soups, several courses and desserts.  Not to mention the various salad forks, dessert forks, soup spoons, coffee spoons, steak knives, water pitchers, coffee cups….

Anyway, an hour or two later, and we had blown almost all our revenue on hardware.

2014 11 (2)

Oh, and did I mention Miss Chef had bought a truck a few days before?  She’d been wanting to for years, just something small we could use for home-improvement supplies, yard projects and Gather.  When she doesn’t have a kitchen available, she uses our grill, so we needed a way to haul that.  And I can’t complain too hard at the prospect of getting compost or mulch by the truckload, instead of buying those stupid bags from Home Depot.

Anyway, back to Gather.  Our Día de los Muertos event was held at Atherton Market, where I’ve been volunteering and Miss Chef has added to her regular Saturday morning market route.  It was indoors, with plenty of space, and even offered a large sink we could do some washing in.  Our last site didn’t have any hot water available, and the cleanup was just this side of traumatic.  Fancy stoves we don’t need, but hot soapy water is a deal-breaker now.

As soon as Miss Chef had decided to adapt her menu to match the theme, I jumped in with the clever idea of providing blank sugar skulls for our guests to paint.  Lynn, our resident pastry chef, agreed to provide the colored royal icing for the decorations, and it fell to me to make the skulls themselves.  I ordered a mold off the internet and spent an afternoon making them…but then, with our numbers jumping at the last minute, I had to get up early to make a second batch  Saturday morning while Miss Chef was at the markets.

IMG_20141029_171640_923

Just two ingredients: sugar and egg whites.  I had no idea how many skulls I’d get out of one 6-cup recipe, so I bought a big ol’ 10-pound bag.  Turns out I only needed about 8 cups total.  Oh well, holiday baking season is just around the corner!

Just a tiny bit of egg white gets the sugar to wet sand consistency, enough to hold its shape when it pops out of the mold.

IMG_20141029_173134_889

It was all very easy, once I got the system down.  Of course, the cat had to inspect everything as I was working.

IMG_20141029_173510_017

Elbows Paws off the table, Princess!”

The reason I had to get up early for these is that, without a week’s worth of drying time, they had to bake at low temp for four hours to get properly rock hard.

IMG_20141029_175622_596

All in all, the whole project went off very well, and I was out of the real cooks’ way right on time.

Although, to be honest, time was in short supply…after a day of prep, we all left late for the market, and weren’t halfway set up when the guests got there.  For my first time as front of house manager, I felt I was doing a terrible job.  Fortunately, most of the guests are also friends, and with a few extra hands, we got everyone settled.

Sadly, I was a little late sharing the story behind the sugar skulls, and some of the guests were too happy sitting down with their first glasses of wine to go play.

2014 11 (12)

 

2014 11

Miss Chef was feeling a little panicky too, but by the time the salad course came out, I had caught my breath and my stride and was able to start taking pictures.

This was before the salad dish, so not my photo—this is posole soup, which came with a little history, thanks to Miss Chef’s having taught the Latin Cuisine course a few years ago.  This traditional soup was eaten by the ancient Aztecs, as a side benefit of all the meat available after human sacrifices.  When the Catholic priests hit the scene, they insisted on substituting pork for human flesh, as it’s apparently the closest in flavor.  Yum?

2014 11 posole

Next dish—scallops!

2014 11 (4)

22 plates, including one vegan and a gluten-free vegetarian, and no heat lamps!  The scallops were paired with a butternut squash purée and emperor’s rice.  Here’s a picture I stole from one of our guest’s Facebook posts, because I didn’t get one of the finished product.

2014 11 scallop

The beef course was coffee-molasses glazed flank steak with a black bean tamale, cilantro gremolata and crispy fried pepper bits.  The upright garnish is popcorn shoots.

2014 11 steak

I would say this was the general favorite, as the diners sucked this down so fast I barely had time to refill water glasses before it was time to start clearing the empty plates.

Regardless of how tired our feet get or how much our backs may hurt, the guests always seem to have a great time.

2014 11 (18)

Lynn’s dessert was a cream puff with pumpkin and goat cheese mousse, a “swoosh” of chocolate and toasted pecan brittle.

2014 11 (29)

As if this weren’t enough, we had a special guest chef helping out, and he happens to be a self-described Chocolate Guy—he does some work with Callebaut chocolates.  So he put together an after-dinner treat that was so good, most of the guests actually found enough room after six courses to actually eat some of it.

2014 11 mignardise

I was too busy clearing plates, filling water or trying to catch up with dirty dishes to hear what all of these were.  Actually, our Chocolate Guy had spent a good portion of the night washing dishes, which saved my bacon when we needed more dessert forks.  Still, gathering up all the dirty pots and pans, leftover food, remaining supplies, decorations and general trash was a daunting prospect.  By the end, it’s possible that some of our crew may have become just a little hysterical.  (Warning: loud volume, mildly improper language)

Today, almost a week later, we’ve just cleared the last of the clean dishes out of the living room, storing them away in the shed until next time.  Already the sore feet and backs are just a fuzzy memory, and for some crazy reason we’re actually looking forward to the next event in January.

Because when you live with a chef, crazy is catching.