Bringing in the Last

Yesterday afternoon, I dumped all the potted annual herbs into the wheelbarrow and brought in all the tender houseplants from the back deck.

Thunder was grumbling, and days of rain and potentially even a little snow are in the forecast. I didn’t want to haul in frigid, heavy, sopping wet pots at the last moment. So, amid rumbling and flashing and the first spatter of drops, the season of patio plants ended abruptly.

A little later, a bolt of lightning splintered a tree by the kitchen, nearly causing me to spill boiling tea-water on my foot. Then wind forced open the mudroom door, hail flew in with a clatter, and THEN the weather radio sounded a warning.

There is no “fall garden” this year other than what’s out in the older beds already, mature, planted in spring. Some of the newly-built raised beds are filled with a combination of “black dirt” (which is farm field soil, stripped off so that excavators can get to the gravel underneath) and barn cleanings–a mix of straw bedding and goat manure. I combine the two because black dirt from an industrially-farmed field, while gorgeous-looking to those who garden in less-than-ideal soil, is nevertheless a dead medium. There aren’t any worms, no organic matter. When it’s dry, it blows like the Dirty Thirties; when it’s wet, it pools and runs to gullies.

DSC05815I see whole big fields of it in places–fall cultivated bare to allow for earlier spring planting, and I wonder how much soil that farmer will lose before they wise up to what their grandparents learned the hard way.

A couple of the newly-filled raised beds are serving as winter nurseries to perennials I dug from the yard in Clinton–I don’t want to lose what I worked on if the house should sell after the ground freezes, and I don’t want to ask for stipulations about digging plants in the spring. A couple beds have asparagus crowns dug last weekend from a plot now outside the new garden boundaries. Some of the new beds still stand empty, and I guess they might stay that way till spring.

I had the idea I’d get all the beds filled and the newly-defined garden fenced this fall, but the list of what can be accomplished before freeze up is shortening along with the days. I also remember thinking I’d get a plot tilled and the small high tunnel erected down on the south lawn. The frame and plastic for that is still in the shop in town.

DSC06017Yesterday evening, casting around for dinner ideas, I decided to make lasagna–not because I was particularly in the mood for it (it was excellent!), but because I could combine the making of it with processing the rest of the ripe tomatoes in the house. I also had some soft goat cheese in the fridge from a local farm tour last week, and that’s not something you let go to waste.

Now, with the weather tending toward chill and damp, and the fact that some animal (probably a squirrel) is competing with me for the last of my lovely heirloom tomatoes, I am planning to cut them down and bring a wheelbarrow-full to the chickens. If critters are going to eat the last few, I ought to get something in return (theoretically speaking, since my hens have not yet begun to lay eggs).

DSC05983I don’t think I’ve ever pulled healthy tomato plants before a frost, but their production is waning, and I’d like to bare those beds and get compost worked in sooner rather than later. Another first: two days ago I pulled all the sweet pepper plants but two–again, waning production and a desire to beef up the soil organic matter before winter closes in.

Yes, and to make room for the garlic that still needs planting, though I have it on good authority that with a power drill and ice auger, it’s possible to plant it in December, even.

It’s a bit of a relief to be bringing in the last–to know that the constant inflow of baskets and boxes and buckets of produce is coming to an end, and what we’ve got is it until the first greens of spring. Sure, there’ll be a few more trips to the farmers market for winter squash and onions, to the orchard for apples. We’ve got currants and elderberries in the freezer that are destined for jam, jelly, and syrup, the canning of which will warm the house in the chilly damp weeks ahead.

But it seems clear from the forecast, and from the geese gathering by hundreds in the sloughs, that the Time of Too Much Eggplant is coming to a close, and the stored-up Feast of Fall is about to begin.

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Red Currants & Random Mangoes

Yesterday dawned a sprinkly day out here in the bump of western Minnesota. A good day to relax a bit after a couple hard days of cutting small trees, pulling odd bits of chicken wire, tomato cages, rocks, and fencing out of the weeds, and string-trimming clear various patches of ground around the house and yard.

The red currants are ripening alongside the chicken coop–a jungle of big bushes smothered in red berries. So far, the birds haven’t really attacked them, so I suited up in long pants, socks, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt. About the time I stepped out the door, it decided to rain in earnest.

The first thing I learned about red currant-picking was to scale down the size of the vessel you think you’re going to fill. I went out with my biggest stockpot and soon realized there’d be more rainwater in there than berries. But I did manage to get about 3/4 cup clean-picked (no stems) before deciding it was enough for now.

And then I had to figure out what to do with them. It certainly wasn’t enough for a batch of jelly. I didn’t feel like making muffins or scones. So, I decided to experiment.

My lemon basil needed cutting back from the flower stage, so I grabbed some of that, and I simmered the currants and basil leaves with a tiny amount of water and about 1/3 cup sugar. I threw in a little splash of white wine because it was there. Twenty minutes later, I strained the fruit mixture through a fine sieve and called it good.

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It tastes a little like Twinings Four Red Fruits tea, only sweeter and thicker, of course. Yummy. I drizzled some over roasted veggies last night, and John is talking about finding some salmon to use it with. Next time, I’ll make more–maybe enough to do it as a jelly. There are a lot of currants left in that jungle.

Fresh basil (whether sweet or lemon or another variety) is a great complement to a lot of fruits. If this sounds weird to you, consider that basil is considered a natural complement to tomatoes–which are a tangy-sweet fruit even if we treat them & eat them like a vegetable most of the time.

The success of the red currant-lemon basil syrup inspired me to look at other interesting fruit-basil pairings, and since I just happened to have a random ripe mango sitting in my kitchen, I figured why not try something with that?

I don’t buy mangoes often. They’re obviously not local, and because of that, they’re often not of very good quality by the time they make their long journey up here. But, I had a weak moment in the grocery store with my son, and when he asked for one, I thought, at least he’s asking for something healthy, and bought it.

The mango has been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen island ever since (a couple of weeks), and it finally started to feel soft enough to use–which usually means half of it is rotten. But, I peeled it and it wasn’t too bad. I always start out thinking I’m going to slice a mango in a completely civilized manner and then end up squashing and squeezing the super-ripe flesh off the pit. Oh, well.

I added a sprinkle of sugar, a few drops of vanilla extract, and some slivered sweet basil leaves, then immersion-blended the pulpy mass to a smoother consistency. We had it over peach ice cream, and it was fantastic. There was a little left over, and I couldn’t find a small enough storage container to justify taking space in the fridge, so I just hid out in the kitchen and gobbled the rest with a spoon.

When I went down to shut the “girls” into the coop last night, I decided to see if they like currants, too. Several fruit-laden branches have pushed their way into the enclosed run, and I popped a few berries off to see what would happen. It only took a couple before all the hens were in a mad rush to grab the gleaming red berries as they fell. Guess it’s good they can’t get to the rest of the patch!

Making Food Real–Making Real Food

To work at a food co-op is to stand at the crossroads where people make serious decisions about food.

For a lot of people, those choices aren’t ones they’ve had to make before. They’re faced with a health crisis (or their child or spouse or partner is), and many of them are utterly confused–sometimes even terrified. That’s the day they first walk in our door.

It’s a huge responsibility to be that volunteer on that day when a mother comes in whose child has been found allergic to some of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs on the planet (along with a few less ubiquitous foods that are common substitutes for the ubiquitous ones). What can I feed my child, she asks? Can you help me feed my child?

Good God, you think, how can I help this woman? And, how can I not? And, what if I make a mistake?

Or the young man who never learned, growing up, to prepare food from scratch, but who must now learn to cook on his own because the food that the corporations have been cooking for him (and for his favorite restaurants) are making him diabetic, or allergic, or deathly ill. Do you know how to make pizza, he asks?

Heading down the road one day, I was listening to an MPR discussion about the Blue Cross & Blue Shield television ads wherein parents come face to face with stark decisions about food, obesity, and the health of their children. One of the guests suggested that many people do not know what to eat, or how to eat in a healthful manner. The host challenged him–that everyone knows, after all, that broccoli is a healthy choice and chips are not.

Well, yes, they do, don’t they? But I don’t believe that’s the problem he was getting at.

The problem is that a lot of people don’t know what the heck to do with broccoli frozen in a package, let alone a fresh head. They might try to do something (like boil the heck out of it–which is how most vegetables they’ve ever come in contact with have been served), and it might (yeah, OK–it definitely will) come out nasty, and they will dump the mess and look in the cupboard for something quick and easy–resolving never again to waste their money and time on that awful green glop.

That’s to say nothing of a fresh, homemade loaf of bread–the kind that comes without a label emblazoned with “low calorie” and “no trans-fats!” and without high fructose corn syrup and wood pulp filler. To a person who has never bakked, creating a loaf of bread or even a pizza dough from scratch is magic (OK–sometimes I still feel that way about bread, even after making hundreds of loaves).

And then you have the constant fear-laden and contradictory messages about food and nutrition coming from every direction: fat is bad (wait, no, olive oil is good, but trans-fats are bad!), carbohydrates are bad (except eat your fiber!), potatoes are bad (no, wait–they’re good!), eggs are bad (no wait–they’re good!), eat chicken (but only eat the skinless, boneless white breast meat!), calories are bad (so drink this zero-calorie, chemical-laden version!).

I thought at first that Michael Pollan’s rule about eating “[real, whole] food, not too much, mostly plants” was a bit simplistic, but that might be just what we need. The other thing we need is to teach cooking again–somehow, some way. Because it’s hard to eat real food if you don’t know how to prepare it. And a lack of food prep skills is especially hard to deal with when various allergies or health issues complicate the equation.

There are times when I’m tempted to simply invite people to come and stay with me for a week (a month? a year?) because it’s the best way I can think of to help them navigate around food and its preparation–as an integral part of daily life.

The next best thing, I guess, is this series of seasonal cooking and preserving classes we started up here in Big Stone County last spring. Tomorrow night, the subject is “getting the most out of your meat budget,” and I’m slow-simmering a pot of stock for it now. We’ll talk roasting birds and making stock (slow and fast versions), meals, recipes, and even some meat-canning basics.

The classes aren’t just for absolute beginners, of course–there is plenty to learn even for those “seasoned” in the arts of the kitchen. If you are interested in attending, drop me a line in the comments, and I’ll e-mail you directions. Either that, or drop by The Granary Co-op in Ortonville tomorrow and pick up a flyer!

The Insistence of Abundance

I left the house three nights ago after picking something like five pounds of tomatoes over the previous couple of days. No big deal. Brought a few with me, distributed a few more, left a couple in a bowl on the counter.

A day and a half later when I returned, there were thirty pounds ripe in the gardens.

Last Friday and Saturday, I harvested eggplant. There are six bushes out there–not a lot, really. I never expect too much of eggplant in such a northerly clime. Except that this year, the plants are over three feet tall and about as wide–and there were forty good-sized fruits ready to go–and that’s in addition to the dozen or so I’d previously picked, and the dozens and dozens more still sizing up on the monstrous plants.

I congratulated myself when I used up half on a pickled Italian eggplant recipe and gifted most of the rest to a thankful friend.

And then I picked twenty more yesterday. My chiles are likewise enormous and exploding with fruit despite having been feasted on by rabbits every time they grew a new set of leaves this spring (that is, until the neighbor’s cat demonstrated its place in the food chain), and then there’s the summer squash…well, that’s definitely living up to the cliché.

The only reason I haven’t resorted to scouting for open car windows or unattended porches late at night is because the varieties I grow are unusual enough to make the culprit obvious. And god knows what I’d get back in addition to my squash–probably a Sidump’r full of zucchini secreted in my garage when I went on an errand.

It’d turn into something like the cucumber war a fellow farmers market vendor and I had going a couple of years ago. I didn’t dare leave my stand for fear I’d end up with fifty more cukes than I’d brought–and I’d brought a LOT. There’s more than one reason it pays to check out what varieties your fellow farmers are bringing to market. You start to think they’re breeding in the baskets–but when the children look nothing like the parent–you know something unsavory is going on…

This is the time of year when food gets pushy. You can’t turn around without tripping over a basket of peppers or a lug of peaches, and the house and gardens are lush with the insistent perfume of perfectly ripe produce–produce that, in its perfection, cries out, “Preserve me now or lose me forever!”

How can you resist?

And yet how can you give every peach, every pepper, every luscious tomato and milky ear of corn its due? How can you tuck every last little pickle in the brine when every time you turn around, there are ten more crying on the vines?

And then, just as you are looking around at the empty boxes and bushels and nodding and thinking you’ve got on top of the work at last, you turn around to see that one of the kids (kids! yes–you have them, don’t you remember?–and friends, too–who, you imagine, are leisurely chatting with your other friends on their lovely, breezy deck overlooking the lake, admiring their automatically-watered flower gardens, and asking after you before one of them makes that little circle next to their temple and they all laugh and forget you)–one of the kids left the back door open again, and a cooler of green beans and a basket of muskmelons (already attracting fruit flies!) have somehow snuck in to demand your immediate attention.

Your mother’s and grandmothers’ voices start to lecture in your brain–waste not, want not!–and something about starving children in China.

You start to feel faint and realize that you yourself haven’t had a bite to eat all day because eating now might take time from preserving all this food to eat then (whenever then is–you imagine yourself about five months from now splayed out on the couch with a pot of tea, a plate of scones, and a jar of that peach preserves now bubbling on the stovetop–perusing next year’s seed catalogs for ever-more productive varieties).

ENOUGH.

Go fix yourself a snack–maybe a dollop of that preserves out of the pot and a few musty crackers from the cupboard (if you can get to it)–whatever you can scrape up in a moment or two. Walk away from the pots and the kettles and the canners and the crates of insistent abundance.

Go outside into late summer’s luminous sunshine and lie on the hammock. Or the grass. Or sit in a deck chair. A glass of chilled white wine will do you good. Eat a few bites. Breathe in–taste air that is not clouded with endless steam and the cooking odors of every fruit and vegetable in existence.

Relax.

Relax a little more.

Now get up, take one more breath–this one of resolve–and get back inside and scrub out that crock.

The cucumbers are breeding again.

Inspirational Kimchi

I don’t know what it is with all the food allergies and other food-related issues lately, but I sure do see a lot of it–especially in young people. It seems like every time I am in the Granary Food Coop lately, we have a new customer seeking out special diet foods for themselves or their children.

I’m no doctor or dietician, but I have to wonder about the cumulative effects of all the additives, preservatives, chemicals, and toxins in our food and in our environment.

I have a strong belief that the constant barrage of crap we’ve put into our food supply and into the environment we are a part of is backing up on us–and especially our kids–and that has a lot to do with why we’re suddenly such a allergy-ridden, freaked-out, and generally sickly population.

But this post isn’t to argue about that. This post is to talk about a way to make something tasty, wholesome, and health-supporting.

In almost all cultures, there is a tradition of fermenting whole, fresh foods to increase their storage life and digestibility. Heck, fermentation IS culture–the culture of friendly bacteria and enzymes. Wild, huh? They say that small servings of live fermented foods (as opposed to fermented, then cooked/pasteurized) support immunity, too. Did I mention they taste good?

And fermentation is really easy. As the label on my Lismore Colony sauerkraut says, all it takes is “cabbage, water, salt, and patience.”

Today, I didn’t have cabbage, but I did have a few turnips, a bunch of carrots, and a few sunchokes. I also had garlic, green onions, dried hot peppers, and a nub of fresh ginger. And I had a strong desire to make a batch of kimchi after H and I slammed through the last of this deliciousness I picked up a few weeks ago at the Bluff Country Coop in Winona:

Driftless Delicious!

I also have Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation, on my shelf. And that was pretty much all I needed except for some salt. And some patience.

I sliced the turnips, carrots, and sunchokes thinly and put them in a brine of 4 cups water and 4TB salt, then weighted them down under the brine for a couple of hours while I worked on other things. After the veggies were softened, I drained off the brine and rinsed the veggies with cold water (they were REALLY salty).

Then I mixed the brined veggies with a paste of smashed and chopped garlic (4 cloves), grated ginger (a couple of tablespoons), a small bundle of chopped green onions, and some mortar-and-pestled dried chili peppers.

The whole mess of it is now pressed into a wide mouth quart jar–pushed down so the liquid left in the veggies rose over the top (and you can add a little of the reserved brine back if needed) and weighted with another jar.

After snapping this last image, I covered the preparation with a towel to keep out dust and floating animal fur. I keep wishing I’d started this ferment a week ago, so I could be eating it instead of just looking at it.

Now–what was that last ingredient I needed?