Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Last Carrots of the Decade

I took a break from thinking about the greenhouse effect today and marched out to the frozen and depressing garden to dig up the last of the carrots. And just to be dramatic, I'm noting that they're the last carrots I'll be growing this entire decade.

The bottom picture is the row I planted back in late August (around the 20th). I almost didn't plant them because it was so late. But they're a respectable snacking size.

After my fingers thawed out, I dug into the freezer and found two chickens (young roosters to be specific) for chicken soup tonight.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I've been thinking about global warming a lot lately, what with "Climategate," the Copenhagen Climate Summit starting tomorrow, and of course, my book club book: Cool It 

I'm forced to pin down the numbers of carbon emissions, food miles, hidden costs, and on and on. I'm so bad with remembering details. But it's got me thinking about my applesauce.

I have been really loving popping open my homemade jars of applesauce recently. It's December. There are no more afternoons of grazing right from the garden. Frozen foods are awesome. Canned goods are fabulous. 

And then I start bragging to a fellow book club member about how small my carbon footprint probably is (right before I mention my jumbo-jet flights to south Texas to watch birds).  And it makes me think: How awesome is my applesauce, really? I know, I know: It tastes awesome. I made it, so that makes it awesome. I picked the apples and I get to remember hauling the bags up the sandy slope of the orchard driveway, the sign that told me "Open Your Trunk to Check Out" as I walked back down the hill with my sacks of apples, and the sneaky fantastic flavor of an apple right off of the tree. But does my applesauce *save. the. world.*?

Well, I'm not exactly sure if I care, but I am going to be thinking about my "carbon footprint" a little more seriously this Resolution Season. I'm not talking about the standard environmental audit. I've done that. I replaced all my light bulbs with compact fluorescents. I ride a bike about 50% of my commute time. Digging deeper. That's what the blog title says. I got some things to think about.

But in the mean time, I've got some awesomesauce to pop open and chow on. MMMmmm. I made it *just* the way I love it: plain, no sugar, no cinnamon, just apples. Apples from my neighborhood. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"So, what do you do?"

It's a question that we ask and get asked a lot. Over the holiday, I was asked a version of this question, "So, what have you been doing while you're not working?"  I mumbled a few things about traveling and gardening. I wasn't feeling especially open or reflective. But since then I've been thinking a great deal about just what I have been doing since I've been "out of work."

Along with plenty of time for reflection about what it means to be eager and willing - aching, really - to be working, but not needed in my trained profession, I've been engaged in plenty of work. There are many things I've had the time to do in the past several months that I simply didn't have the time or space for in my life before. When you accept a paid role, your responsibilities narrow to the immediate realm of your influence. It's necessary to focus. In the process, other things get shut out. There were many times while teaching that I felt very deeply a sense of focus and economy of mind. I was often giving myself permission to pay attention to the task at hand, to the small circles in which I could, and was expected to, affect positive change. In many ways this was satisfying. It was also just one way of being "employed."

I've had the opportunity to research, think, plan, and dream about better and more inspired ways of teaching. I've had the opportunity to read books that piled up next to my bed. I've had the opportunity to train for (and learn I'm not currently interested in running) an ultramarathon. I've gotten to explore and and experience beautiful natural areas of northern Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, and southern Indiana, and visit friends in New York. But a large part of what I will call my "free work" (because it's free in a couple of different ways) has been growing the garden in the back yard.

For most of the summer I didn't go anywhere near the produce section of the supermarket or even a farmer's market. I grew all the produce we needed. All summer we had lettuce, green beans, carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, beets, beet greens, tomatoes, summer squash, hot peppers, bell peppers, basil, cilantro, nasturtium, cucumbers, snap peas, broccoli, eggplant, and a constant supply of fresh cut flowers.   I just harvested carrots, spinach, arugula, and onions from the garden today. Last night we had pizza with our own tomato-basil-garlic sauce with a side of green beans from the stash we have frozen. I failed to measure and keep track of the pounds of produce I was able to grow this season, but it has not been inconsequential.

I've always wondered at how we are so busy with paid employment and entertainment that we don't have time for the very basic work of feeding ourselves. I don't mean that as a condemnation, just an observation. We value fame, wealth and excess. We hold these things up and give them our time, attention, and life's energy.  The very basic acts of growing and cooking our food aren't granted the same respect or priority. We want our food cheap and fast so we have time for other things. What other things?

I'm still not being paid a living wage for the skills I've acquired and the energy I have to give. But growing our vegetables this summer has certainly been good employment. I've been lucky in that I've chosen a profession that no one goes into to get rich. The greatest rewards of teaching come from daily interactions with students and knowing that you've challenged and inspired as many as you possibly could have. I've also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to think about work in many different ways. The lives we build for ourselves are fragile; the universe seems to be shouting this from every corner. So building a purpose in life isn't just about getting a prestigious job and getting paid well, it's about the many different types of work you cultivate and engage in, the diverse ways in which you employ your life's energy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Native Fruits

I LOVE apple season. (I just finished eating some apple cobbler a few minutes ago.) In both New York and Michigan, apples have been abundant and apple-picking a source of outdoor fun. Seasonal foods thrill me. You spend an entire year without something, and then for this brilliant, glowing span of a season, the weather, colors, tastes, and smells sing a delicious, novel song. It's kind of like this with apples, but you can get apples all year long. You can still go pick up a bag of Chilean apples at the grocery store in April.

Being in the Midwest this fall means that I've been able to enjoy another seasonal thrill that is a little harder to come by: native fruits. Specifically, persimmons and paw paws. Since I discovered persimmons on my college campus in Indiana several years ago, there's always a little part of my brain that registers October with a bright orange persimmon exclamation point.

Persimmons, not quite ripe

Native persimmons are much smaller than the imported ones you might find at a grocery store. The important thing to know about them is that they taste like you're licking carpet unless they're completely, falling off the tree, mushy-slop ripe. Once they're to that point, they're heavenly. I've heard lots of Hoosiers talk about persimmon pudding, which I gather is more like bread pudding than custard or actual pudding. A friend recently showed me his mushed-up, seeded pulp in a pint bag in the freezer. He planned on making persimmon pudding after he'd collected enough fruits. I'll happily try making the pudding, but really there is nothing better than eating a cold fruit off the ground, spitting out the seeds, and shoving your hands into your pockets to warm up while you search for more.

Paw paw fruit

This is the first time I've ever eaten a paw paw and they've been the highlight of my fall food world. I've heard of them for many years. I've seen plenty of paw paw trees, but never a single fruit. (They are the largest native american fruit.) I just learned that they're also called the "Indiana banana." There's a town in Michigan called Paw Paw. (A friend of mine grew up there.) But Chris was out in a field, as he so often is, and found a grove of paw paws nearby. He was able to haul home nearly 20 pounds of fruit.

They don't look all that appetizing. I mean, they're walnut-green, oddly shaped, and spotted brown. Inside, they're whitish with huge black seeds. The flesh, however, is the combination of mango/pineapple smell with an avocado/banana texture. The skin is pretty bitter. Chris mentioned that he's found plenty of paw paw skins left behind by wildlife. Again, I can't imagine that it gets much better than just tearing one open, squeezing out and slurping up the good parts, and then spitting out the seeds. We have enough fruits, though, that as they ripen I'm freezing them for a future paw paw pie.

© Rock Garden Project

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Puree de Pommes

Actually, it's compote de pommes, but I think puree de pommes sounds much better. I can hear the Parisians screaming at me.

I have never actually made applesauce before. Until now. I can't wait to pop open a jar in two months, when the last apples in the bottom of the fridge are withered and mushy.

I looked for organic U-pick apples around here, but they were over 100 miles away. Just down the road three miles is a lovely orchard though: Clearview Orchard. They have U-pick peaches, apples and pumpkins. We grabbed some peaches right before a windy rainstorm. I've read that peaches are some of the worst fruits to eat when they're not organic. All of our food is loaded with neurotoxins. But I settled for local and the fun that comes with foraging on your own block.

I put up about 10 quarts of applesauce. I also dried a bunch of apples, but those disappear really quickly around here. I'm hoping to get out to the orchard for one more big pick session. Northern Spy apples are supposed to be a good keeper, so I'd like to fill up on those before the season's over.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Second Frost

I just have one major issue with hunting: it always involves sleep deprivation, and I'm a sleep deprivation wimp. I'm feeling a little bit like a zombie this morning. However, killing a deer with a bow is slowly working its way onto my "bucket list." But it was Chris that killed the doe last night. Between the tracking, gutting, and hanging of the deer, it was a late night. Some of it was simply the timing of an evening hunt and some of it was that we're STILL living out of boxes, so Chris spent some time looking for some necessary hunting gear.

Chris won't admit this, but he's a pretty impressive hunter. He's one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met when it comes to ecology and animal behavior. He never takes for granted an interaction with the natural world. Combine those things with lots of energy, focus, and attention to detail, and it makes for a pretty cool experience when you get to tag along.

Thanks to Chris, venison is our main source of animal protein. My concerns about industrial protein have a little bit to do with the recent Sunday NY Times front page story about contaminated beef. But I also have this fascination with being connected with my food's "story." Part of that story includes Chris's hunts.

We woke up to a frost this morning. I hadn't even thought about covering the beans during all of the attention that the deer got last night. They seem to be fine after the frost. I harvested a few of the largest pods. I plan on saving seeds for next year.

Friday, October 2, 2009

First Frost

The last pile of basil ready for drying.

The food dehydrator. Mom and Dad got it for me when I was 14. I love this thing!

Several pocketfuls of peppers and tomatoes are safe from frost.

The habaneros were beautiful right before the freezing temps.

Goldfinches and black-capped chickadees spend lots of time playing hide and seek and snacking in the sunflowers.

The tomatoes look like my late '80s wardrobe.

The big pot of fluorescent tomatoes cooked down to two quarts of orange-ish pasta sauce.

The spring-planted garlic harvest and the last garden bouquet pose for a portrait.

The peppers are cozy in the hoop house after having survived the first frost.

Some sorry looking flowers on the first morning of October

We woke up to a frosty, new world on October 1. Because the forecast had been calling for lows around 28F, I recruited Chris in a hasty harvest of some remaining vegetables and herbs. We picked all of the orange habaneros, all of the red serranos, and almost all of the green or red jalapenos. I had brought in all of the remaining tomatoes earlier in the day. There were several clumps of basil left, two summer squash, and a pile of sweet red and green bell peppers. We pulled the plastic up over the remaining peppers and eggplants in hopes they wouldn't outright freeze yet. On the way in, our fleece pockets packed with produce, we were both wrapped up in the excitement of the changing seasons. I was mourning the end of the abundance and bright colors, and Chris was celebrating the beginning of the hunting season saying, "I love frost!" (I almost karate-kicked him into the compost pile, but I understood how he felt.) It's been a beautiful fall. It's been a bountiful summer.

From the $14 and change in plants and seeds I invested in the garden this spring, we got plenty of very good food. A couple of things didn't work out like I'd hoped. For one, all of my baby broccoli plants that I grew from seed thrived for about three gloriously cool weeks in the garden until a groundhog snuck in one night and mowed them all down, right as they were starting to look tasty. I just left the stalks there with the hope that the groundhog would recognize my offering and stay away from other things. The potato harvest was fine for the summer, but scant enough that we won't have any into November. Finally, I love to share my produce. But I also made the mistake of not being specific when I told the neighbors to help themselves to squash, beans and sunflowers while we were on vacation. I came back to the garden and wondered if the groundhogs had completely consumed every last winter squash I'd been tending to all summer long. Well, no. Just like I had suggested, the neighbors helped themselves to the squash. Duh. I forgot that I might want some of that. It's fine. I know they appreciated it, and I consider it a good price for the rental of the garden space. We did find one lone winter squash and roasted it a couple nights ago. It was fantastic!

On the other hand, some things went very well. We've had green beans for ten solid weeks. I kept picking and they kept coming. The Black Valentine variety that I grew was perfect for the kind of bean eaters we are. When we went on vacation, I let them grow into big, beany pods. Now, I'll harvest the black beans in a couple of weeks. I've never done that before. The tomato crop was okay, considering the widespread late blight that we could not avoid here. I'm not sure that I would have had the late blight, except the neighbor got her tomato plants from a "big box" store. It wasn't devastating because we had plenty of healthy tomatoes. The green zebras seemed to be immune to the fungus. The other heirlooms seemed to be resistant. Summer squash were numerous, as usual. We have lots of beets, and I'm not sure how to store those yet. I got a modest garlic harvest, but the thing is, I planted the cloves in the spring. It did very well for a short season. Carrots have suffered many groundhog attacks, but I've got a few rows left out there and we'll just see how far they take us into the fall. I bet I'll buy carrots in early December. Oh well, it was a transition year and I'm grateful to even have had the space to grow food. I've been reflecting a great deal, as fall tends to make me do that. But I've also been very busy preserving lots of produce. Along with the garden, we also had some free asian pears offered to us and I found a local orchard down the road with u-pick apples and peaches. For the next several days I'll be drying, freezing, and canning.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Autumn Gold

While we were up North, the garden turned to gold.

The tomatoes (Green Zebra , Orange Banana Paste, and Yellow Jubilee) were tumbling off of the withering vines.

We've got the late blight, too. (I learned that you can't even cut off the bad parts and dry them... the fungus is still in there and turns the drying tomatoes brown and icky.)

Year of the Pepper

My first year of gardening was "The Year of the Cantaloupe." I learned that when the melons are ripe, they scream "I'm ready!" by setting sail a hypnotizing sweet smell on the prevailing breezes (kind of like the way the local grocery store pipes the rotisserie chicken fumes up to the main entrance right around dinner time, but with a great deal more magic.) Several years later, when I started mini-farming in central New York, there was "The Year of the Potato" and "The Year of the Carrot." The blue potatoes were big and beautiful. We ate the new red potatoes like candy and harvested many of them as they bulked up before fall. The next year the carrots were mediocre in the spring and summer, but when I left them in the ground until December and then dug them up from their snowy hiding place, I was sure I had discovered buried treasure. They were big, sweet and very, very pretty (for carrots).

This year I am rich in red bell peppers. I've never had much luck with them in the past. I think I got one notable yellow bell pepper several years ago from my "shade-grown" garden under a massive Norway maple behind our rented house. So far this year, we've eaten seven or eight and given away several more. There are at least 15 more out in the garden. I plucked green peppers earlier in the season from the eight laden pepper plants so that they would focus their energies on just two or three on each plant. The habanero, serrano and jalapeno plants aren't doing too bad, either. Perhaps the soil is very good there. Maybe it was the moderate weather (not too wet, not too dry). I think it helped that I was gone for two weeks and returned to the stoplight red fruits glowing like they were electrified.

Thus far, we've eaten them fresh or roasted them for burrito stuffings. I'm not sure I'll need to preserve any, but we'll see. Maybe I can do some roasting and freezing. Now, I'm just pinching myself that I have pounds and pounds of organic, sweet red peppers right in my back yard.

Monday, August 31, 2009


We're doing some backpacking these next two weeks. I dried some tomatoes for the trip. I'm leaving the beans, that have been so productive this summer, to fizzle out. Also, the tomatoes are showing signs of late blight. (I get an ominous feeling when I go out there lately.) We'll see what's going on when we return in mid-September.

Here are some pictures from the trip:

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Two weeks ago, I sent Chris to the office with a large bag of summer squash as a stealthy attempt to implement my "trickle down squash" theory of gardening. The fact is that I am rich in summer squash. I go out to my garden and gather a pile of this golden fruit and bring it in to the kitchen for immediate use. If we can smuggle this stuff to office kitchen counters around the city, we'll be able to spread the wealth. Almost all of the squash was swiped by co-workers. Unfortunately, the papaya pear summer squashes were the last to be adopted. I think it's a matter of education. These little pear-shaped squashes are less watery than the traditional yellow summer squashes, and can be used in exactly the same ways. I used both kinds of squashes in the torte below.

Smitten Kitchen's Summer Squash and Potato Torte. I used our pink and purple potatoes and cooked it in the iron skillet.

Friday night's pepperoni-zucchini pizza. Underneath the toppings is a tomato sauce I cooked up with our yellow jubilee tomatoes from the garden (and froze until I needed it). It was amazing!

Cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tomato Horned Worms

First, I found these.

Then, I noticed this.

I was out in the garden, talking on the phone, when I started to notice little - no, big - poops on the tomato leaves. Distracted by my conversation, I wasn't predicting what I was going to find as I followed the stems upward. Whoa, momma! The first caterpillar I found was staring me right in the face when I finally spotted it. It always works this way, you finally find the culprit and then the signs are everywhere! There were four huge caterpillars. There's probably one left out there that will completely mow down the entire tomato patch tonight.

I wanted to feed them to the rooster.

But he (that polished off a pound of rotten potato salad and two-thirds of a loaf of bread) won't try them. I even tried 'the airplane' and the fake eating "num, num, num, num!"

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tastes Like Pickle

I don't even like pickles. I just ate two. They're crunchy, and if I liked pickles, I'd eat more. Okay, I might eat more. Everything tastes better when you make it!

However, I just discovered a more suitable use (for me) of my loads of cucumbers on Urban Veggie Garden Blog here. We had this for dinner last night. Chris said, "This is why you have a garden, isn't it?" Oh yes, oh yes. Feta makes it beta.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Some Minor Food Preservation Tasks

This is my first pickle adventure. I made 4 quarts using the Betty Crocker recipe I found in my cookbook. These are not fermented, they're "canned." I just boiled up some vinegar, water, and salt, and added it to the sliced cucumbers, garlic, and fresh dill waiting in the jars. I processed them in the boiling water bath for the 10 minutes the recipe said to (and then I plugged them into the wall). I added crushed hot peppers to two of the jars because peppers seem to make everything better. I haven't eaten them yet because you have to wait a week. It would be great if they taste good, but I really just hope they don't kill anyone.

And on that note, I will share another food preservation task I've been doing a lot of lately: freezing green beans. First, I'm kind of afraid of the pressure-canner. Really, I'm not sure that kind of equipment is for me. Sure, I've felled trees with a chainsaw and driven some really questionable pick-up trucks, but this pressure-canner stuff isn't something I want to jump into without a guru nearby. Somehow I've always known that I should stay from things that could explode. Plus, Chris and I decided to invest in a freezer for the deer (and other assorted small animals he kills) and the chickens we were raising. So that leaves me with plenty of space for frozen fruits and vegetables. Barring an extended power outage or the Peak Oil scenario coming true in the next couple of years, I think the freezing option is really the best. Frozen stuff tastes better and has more goodness left because you haven't boiled the hell out of it.

But you do have to do a bit of boiling to keep the natural enzymes from breaking down the vegetables and turning them into cardboard, even while they're frozen.

I start by rinsing the sand and Japanese beetle guts (I'll explain later) off of the beans.

Then I cut the stems off and slice the beans into shorter pieces so as to avoid flinging butter all over the dining room table and my face at dinner time. (Who am I kidding? We eat while sitting on the couch. All the more reason to avoid long bean pods, I suppose.)

These sexy beans are waiting for the water to get to a rolling boil.

Here's the set-up. Left: pot of boiling water with a strainer for easy removal of beans. (I tried picking them out with my fingers one at a time and decided there must be an easier way.) Right: big bowl of icy water. Get that water rollin' and dump in the beans. Boil for 3 minutes. Cool them in ice water for 3 minutes.

These beans are chillin'. Three minutes (or until I get done checking Facebook). Then I bag 'em into dinner-size servings, smoosh all the air out, and freeze.

I know: so simple. I don't care. I'm just learning how to do this stuff right. Thank goodness for the internets.