Category Archives: Gardening

Let the Games Begin…

Buckle up, Buttercup.  It’s time to get started.

The weather is warming.  We have intermittent sunshine and rain with some longer stretches of warm sunshine.  That means garden.  However, I don’t have my garden plot from the last two years.

Our landlord is consolidating her garden plots into one area, so my plot (actually my old plot) is a part of that.  So, this year we needed to find new place for our garden.  It ends up that this will be the rather oddly shaped southern border to the property that runs alongside the driveway.

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For now things look a bit… shall we say… odd.  Last October I already knew that I’d be losing my plot, but needed to be able to plant my garlic.  I was allowed to plant my glorious garlic (I’ll share the garlic story in a future post) in the raspberry patch that will separate the area with my old plot from my new plot.  This is the only time that you will ever (I hope) see me combine garlic with raspberries.  Just the thought gives me chills.

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What you see here is the beginning of the desodding process.  The one good side to the unbroken months of rain that we’ve had (I have to keep reminding myself that we live in a rain forest and therefore that requires copious amounts of rain) is that the sod is really lose and relatively easy to remove (as far as desodding goes).  I did a few rows on my own, but Dave did most of the heavy lifting (literally).  I did do most of the sod cutting, however.

I’ll show more of the changes to this brave new plot as gardening seasons progresses.  For now everything that has been moved from the old plot is in complete shock.  The sad looking limp chives will hopefully rebound soon.  Only one kale plant made the move well, and I’m hoping that the parsley comes along too.

Other than that on the back deck I have two containers struggling through the wetness.  One is my standard bin of mixed lettuces, and the other is half arugula and half of something that I’ve completely forgotten what it is.  It might be chives.  It might be that I actually only put seeds in half of the container with plans on putting something (of indeterminate origins) else in the other half.  Time will tell.  I hope.

In the meantime Dave and I spent a well deserved day post-desodding on the couch.  Little Man didn’t mind too badly since he got more TV than normal, but he did object to the amount of Mommy and Daddy TV rather than cartoons.  Such is life.  🙂
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The Scent of My Morning

The morning is early, but you can feel the edge of the sunshine turning hot.  A quick shift in the breeze between cool dampness and dusty heat.  As I tromp out of one garden patch, moving the sprinkler to another bed, the scent of garlic perfumes the air. This is not the “aroma” of stale garlic from a cheap pizza joint, but fresh garlic growing inches from where I drag the hose and try to not stumble into the plants in my early morning haze.  In the interests of full disclosure it’s not really that early, but my level of functionality in the morning is… how to say this politely… slow.  Yet every morning as I move the sprinkler from that particular garden bed I catch the scent of garlic and think of it longingly.  I miss garlic.  I love garlic.  It’s early, I don’t plan on eating garlic right now, but it’s the true scent of the plant that makes me smile.  Every morning the scent of that garlic makes me think of food, which makes me laugh at the thought of a heavy garlic breakfast (not an impossibility in my household before the FODMAP… joy).  Then that thought always takes me to Turkey.

The first picked garlic head (with accoutrement) was gifted to me.  It was also the first time I'd actually seen the whole plant, including the curly scape growing out of the top.

The first picked garlic head (with accoutrement) was gifted to me. It was also the first time I’d actually seen the whole plant, including the curly scape growing out of the top.

Our landlord also let me harvest the remaining scapes from her patch.  Half of them ended up on our grill with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.  The other half are destined for some garlic scape pesto, but more on that later.

Our landlord also let me harvest the remaining scapes from her patch. Half of them ended up on our grill with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. The other half are destined for some garlic scape pesto, but more on that later.

I have no idea when I’ll get to return to Turkey or in what capacity, but the country and the people are lovely and I miss them both.  But in the mornings when I smell the garlic plants I reminds me of a less pleasant smell… at least at 4am… that of pancakes. Don’t tell my son that I wrote this, but at 4am on a dig site the last thing in the world I want to smell is cooking food, particularly pancakes.  For my first excavation in Turkey we had a dig chef who is arguably the best (and most fought over… literally) dig chef in the country.  Necmi is amazing.  Out of his love and caring for us, Necmi would prepare for us special food to start our day.  Pancakes.  The smell of those pancakes at o’dark hundred hour made me nauseous, but out of love for Necmi we would all try to choke one or two down.  Then around 8:30am-ish, after we’d been working at the excavation site for a few hours, we would stop work for second breakfast (the life of an archaeologist in the field does have some parallels to how hobbits eat) we would wish we had his pancakes.

Now I just need to figure out how to cure this glorious bulb.

Now I just need to figure out how to cure this glorious bulb.

But back to the garlic.  This is one of those crops that I’d never actually seen in “the wild”  before moving to Vancouver Island.  I had a good working knowledge of what the plant looked like, having cooked with garlic bulbs all of my adult life, but that doesn’t prepare you for the reality of the three foot high stalks, the buried/hidden bulbs underground (are they growing down there?), or the Seussian curly scapes that signal the garlic is almost ready to harvest.  Nor does it prepare you for the realities of how to actually harvest the thing.  Fresh garlic needs to cure or dry before it is used, but these are seriously thick stalks.  Can we even braid them into some form of bulbous hair-like creation?  And if so, where do we put them.  And if we can’t braid them, where do we store them?  Fresh garlic is like a gremlin, don’t get it wet.

My glorious harvest of scapes.

My glorious harvest of scapes.

The bulk of this garlic-based malaise is actually not mine to carry, but my landlord’s.  We did not plant garlic because I figured it was a moot point since we couldn’t eat it due to Little Man’s FODMAP restrictions.  That was… shall we say… shortsighted of me.  SInce then I’ve found ways to use garlic (like in garlic infused oils) in cooking for LIttle Man, and there is the fact that Dave and I can eat garlic even if our son cannot.  While the low FODMAP thing is working great for Little Man, my weight has gone up, my nails shatter just by looking at them cross eyed, and I’ve started coveting my neighbors garlic patch.  Luckily our neighbors are kind, sharing people, and I have some fresh garlic curing downstairs as we speak with the promise of more garlic later in the season for us to plant for next year.  The world is a kinder place because of it.

Garlic Scapes

A Red Wheel Barrow

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.
-Poem by William Carlos Williams

I first read that poem in high school and promptly forgot it.  It was nearly 10 years later, after university as I worked in the “real world” that I decided I liked the ivory tower better and wanted to go back to graduate school.  Only after starting graduate school would I remember the rainwater glazed wheel barrow.

I was in Turkey for my first archaeology field season when Williams’ wheel barrow came to mind.  Maybe it was the pastoral setting with sheep, goats and turkeys rampaging across the golden countryside.  Maybe it was the horizon dotted by slow moving tractors harvesting grain that would feed most of the country.  Or maybe it was the fact that I’d discovered how intensely, mind numbingly boring archaeology can be at times.  I’m not sure what the impetus was, but I was in immediate need of poetry.

Don’t get me wrong, I love archaeology, but there are days when you’ve come across nothing, nothing, nothing, but more dirt, nothing to get your mind working on anything.  It was one of those mornings where I’d found nothing but more dirt… again… that I found myself quoting poems memorized in high school.  Emily Dickenson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”  Random Shakespearean sonnets.  And what bugged me was that I couldn’t remember the one about the wheel barrow and the chickens. It just seemed to fit somehow, but I couldn’t remember the words and there was no wifi for miles and miles.

In fact, not only was there no wifi, but there was no electricity, no running water, no cars at the village across from our excavation site.  My favorite thing was to watch as the donkey drawn cart come trundling over the hill, dangling with plastic bowls, metal pots, children’s toys, and other paraphernalia that the local villagers might want to purchase.  Often on those same days we would see the ice cream donkey hoofing it over the hill.  The donkey was led by a young boy and had two large, orange, insulated drink containers strapped to his sides, both filled with the local ice cream that is blended with pounded orchids giving it a distinctively gummy texture.  It’s an acquired taste.  At the time I didn’t know that this was not the glorious rainbow sherbet that just the mention of caused my parched mouth to water.  When I finally gathered up the courage after weeks of excavation to get some ice cream from the lad… I ended up burying it in my back dirt pile the minute he was over the hill again.  Maybe it was just his local batch, but it had the overall flavor of what I can only imagine old tires must taste like.

My garden plot needed a bit of elbow grease, especially with the amazing kale finally going to seed after a mild winter.

My garden plot needed a bit of elbow grease, especially with the amazing kale finally going to seed after a mild winter.

What brought all of this to mind was me digging in the dirt of my garden patch.  After our relatively warm winter, my plot had begun to look rather… what’s a polite word for it… scruffy… unkempt… bordering on embarrassing.  I hacked away at the clumps of stubborn grass and filled my borrowed red wheel barrow to the rim twice with fluffy, green toupees to dump in the pig pen.  The pigs seemed to have fun tossing them in the air.  Or at least I think they are having fun.  They might have been vehemently stating that fluffy, green toupees of grass are not delightful pig snacks.  Just to be sure I brought them some wonderfully wilted vegetable scraps later.  Those pigs have long memories.

Getting the kale out was the easy part.  That grass toupee was obnoxious.

Getting the kale out was the easy part. That grass toupee was obnoxious.

But that brings me back to the wheel barrow, glazing rain water and chickens.  So much depends upon…  Still makes me smile.  As I swung my scythe of doom for weeds (aka a borrowed hoe that I likely should not be swinging like a scythe) poems from high school streamed through my mind.  Foremost has been the white chickens by the red wheel barrow.  Though in my mind this is followed by a curly haired little boy chasing the said chickens amid much cackling from boy and chickens.

The grass toupees are gone, and I've moved the parsley and chives to their

The grass toupees are gone, and I’ve moved the parsley and chives to their “new” garden plan locations.

Let the gardening games begin...

Let the gardening games begin…

10 Things I Learned About Pickling

I am not an expert… yet… on pickling, but here are a few nuggets that I’ve learned over my pickling this season.

Rows of Pickles1.  Be aware of where you get your cucumbers from.  We practice organic gardening, so there are no pesticides or fertilizers in our soil to be concerned about.  If you buy your cucumbers from the store that is not the case.  It’s best that if you can’t grow your own (and don’t have any desperate friends, neighbors or coworkers who have grown too many cucumbers), then try to buy your pickling cucumbers from the farmers’ market or local farm stand. Be sure to ask about how the cukes are grown (specifically for pesticides, etc.), since anything that is one the skin of your cucumbers will end up on your pickles.  Even aside from the pesticide issue, most supermarket cucumbers are either slick with waxes or so expensive that it makes pickling seem like a waste of money.

2. If you want crisp pickles, whole or sliced, include a small, fresh grape leaf in the bottom of each jar.  I first read about this from Alice Waters, but have come across it multiple times.  Apparently grape leaves contain alum, which will help your pickles stay crisp when processed.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

3.  Always trim off about 1/8 of an inch at each end of the cucumbers (whether for whole or sliced pickles).  The blossom end of the cucumbers contain an enzyme that keeps your pickles from staying crisp, so you definitely want to remove that.
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4.  Pickles are fun to make, and feel a bit more like potion brewing than preserving.  You can be creative with your blend of spices, since pickles can be pretty forgiving.  And if you’re not free to experiment, where’s the fun in pickling.

5. If you are experimenting with different spices in your pickles, use a light hand.  The first batch I made were so heavy in spice that it gave the pickles a slightly weird taste, and in effect wasted a ton of spice.  A little goes a long way.
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6.  Always wear latex gloves when packing the hot jars with vegetables for pickling.  They protect your hands a bit from the heat.

7.  When pickling (or doing other types of preserving) don’t answer the phone, the door, or a plaintive dog wanting to go in or out.  Choose a time when your kids won’t be needing your attention, or you can otherwise stay focused.  You’re dealing with hot substances and you want to be focused and uninterrupted.
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8. You can be creative with the spices you use in your pickles, but don’t vary from the water, sugar or vinegar levels in the recipe.  Those are tested to preserve your foods the best.

9.  Never ever tell someone that you are interested in trying pickling things (especially if they have a garden), unless you want to be inundated with enough fresh produce to feed a small army.

A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

10.  Your own homemade pickles taste better than anything you’ve ever had in the stores.  But that may just be because of the energy you put into making them.  🙂

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The Tyranny of Cucumbers

“Did you ever think in your life that you would have made so many pickles?”

Dave recently asked me this at 1am in the morning as we were wrapping up a marathon pickling session.  I gave one of those chuckles that comes from pure exhaustion and set the timer for the processing of the last four jars of cured pickles.  The answer to Dave’s question was a resounding “no” not in a million years would I have ever thought that I’d have made any pickles, forget about the 40 some odd liters… yes liters… of pickles I’d made over the last few weeks.

When the lady farmer landlord asked if I’d be interested in making pickles, I’d jumped at the chance.  Almost literally.  Then I realized how many cucumbers one healthy plant can produce, forget about the fact that the cucumber bed at the farm has 7-8 hills of cucumbers, each hill housing 2-3 vines.  Oh my…

If you’ve ever seen cucumbers grow, you would know that they are ninja vegetables.  Their camouflage is so perfect they put invisibility cloaks to shame.  The lady farmer landlord and myself and Dave and Little Man would comb over a vine, plucking any cucumbers we would find.  Little Man’s contribution is a bit quesitonable here.  It mainly consists of him dropping an action figure into the plant accompanied by much “argh, I’m faaaaaalllllliiiing…” and then demands that his figure be saved.  We would pick it all, from the tiny pinky finge- sized cukes to the fat field cucumbers that are too big to be whole pickes, but would make good relish or pickle slices.  I state that all 3-4 of us were combing through each fine, picking everything, and 15 minutes later we’d see the vine from a different angle and find 3 more cukes hiding there.  Then the next morning when I’d be watering the garden I’d see more smirking at me from under the leaves.

We’ve now put a kaybash on picking cucumbers for pickling.  Anything else can be done with them, eat them raw with a little vinegar, make a delicious cold soup or dip (for a cold cucumber yogurt soup, check out my Turkish Cucumber and Yogurt Soup (aka Cacik) recipe), slice them with fresh tomatoes and drizzle them with a little olive oil and balsalmic vinegar for a sliced salad, and the list goes on.  You can make jewelry with them for all I care, just don’t ask me to make more pickles…  please…  🙂

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Kosher-Style Dill Pickles

One of the biggest hurdles to deal with in making pickles is how to keep something submerged in water crisp.  One way is to use a fresh grape leaf in each jar.  Grape leaves contain alum, which helps to keep the pickles crisp.  Also, the blossom end of the cucumbers contains and enzyme that softens pickles.  So trim off a little of both ends of the cucumbers to make sure that those enzymes are removed.  Now get pickling!

Ingredients
8 lbs. small pickling cucumbers (such as Kirby)
1 cup pickling or kosher salt
3 tbsp. pickling spice
9 cups water
7 ¾ cups white vinegar
7 small, fresh grape leaves
7 bay leaves
7 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
7 dill sprigs and heads, halved

Directions

  1. Wash and scrub the cucumbers under running water. Trim 1/8th of an inch off of both ends of every cucumber, and then poke them all over with a fork.
    A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

    A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

    Poking holes to aid in curing the cucumbers.

    Poking holes to aid in curing the cucumbers.

  2. In a large, non-reactive bowl create four layers of cucumbers each one topped with ¼ cup of the kosher salt. Once the layers are completed, fill the bowl with cold water to submerge the cucumbers by ¼ inch. Use a plate to weigh down the cucumbers, and let them sit for 12 to 24 hours.
    A first layer of cucumbers.

    A first layer of cucumbers.

    A layer of kosher salt.

    A layer of kosher salt.

    The final of four layers of cucumbers and salt.

    The final of four layers of cucumbers and salt.

    The cured cucumbers after soaking in the salted water for 24 hours.

    The cured cucumbers after soaking in the salted water for 24 hours.

  3. Prepare your canner (or large stock pot), jars and lids.
  4. Drain, rinse and drain the cucumbers again.
  5. Wrap the pickling spice in a double thickness of cheese cloth and tie it securely. In a large pot combine the packet of pickling spice, water and vinegar. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue at a hard boil for one minute. Discard the packet of pickling spice, and keep the brine hot.
  6. Working with one jar at a time place one grape leaf, one bay leaf, one half of a garlic clove, and one half of a dill head at the bottom of the jar. Pack the jar tightly with cucumbers. Place one half of a garlic clove and one half of a dill head on top of the cucumbers. Pour in the hot pickling liquid leaving ½ inch head space. Remove air bubbles and add more pickling liquid if necessary. Wipe the rim and place a hot lid disk on the jar. Skrew down the band to fingertip-tight.
  7. Place jars in the canner and return to a boil. Process for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let the jars sit in the hot water for another 5 minutes. Carefully remove the jars from the hot water and place them without tipping on a towel-lined counter top. Let the jars stand for 24 hours, then check the lids to be sure they are all sealed. Any jar that is not sealed can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Jars with good seals can be cleaned and stored. If any pickles protrude above the brine in their jars, simply turn the jars over weekly in storage to keep the different ends from drying out. Enjoy!
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Click here for a printable version of the Kosher Style Dill Pickles recipe.

 

Saving Your Harvest: The Zucchini Edition

A good friend of mine once described August in Maine as a time of “random acts of zucchini.”  In her small town where people did not necessarily lock the doors of their cars, people would come out of church or the bank or the local cafe to find anonymous bags of zucchini in their front seats.  I found myself envious of those hapless holders of bulging bags of squash.  When we first moved to Vancouver Island one of our neighbors had a bumper crop of zucchini and cucumber, and would offer us bulging bags of produce whenever Little Man and I came walking by.  I would cruse by her house as often as possible with the hopes of catching her eye.

Now that we have our garden of dreams I made sure to plant zucchini, as well as a variety of summer squash called Sunburst (aka Patty Pan).  I had been warned about the size that these plants could achieve, so I wasn’t as surprised by the size of the plant as I was about where the zucchini grew.  At first neither Dave nor I could find the actual zucchini, partly since I imagined zucchini growing like pumpkins stretched out along a long vine.  Instead, they grow like octopus arms, branching out from a central stalk-like structure.  Once we discovered where our squash actually grew, we were off to the races with trying to keep up with preserving and eating our crop.

Zucchini Blossoms

Zucchini blossoms promising a good crop.

I’ll be sharing some of my favorite zucchini recipes soon, but first I want to share a simple way to preserve your zucchini for those times when your garden or farmers’ market may not be producing.  I have been experimenting with (and loving!) pickling and preserving, but I have to say that my favorite method for saving my harvest is my freezer.  Zucchini freezes really well, particularly when it is shredded.

If you have a food processor with a shredding attachment this is going to be the easiest food storage ever.  If all you have is a handheld shredder, that works too.  It just takes a little more elbow grease.  The key to freezing the zucchini is to measure out the portions.  So here’s what I did…

I love my food processor!

I love my food processor!

Using my food processor with the shredding disk attachment, I shredded enough zucchini to fill my large mixing bowl.

The first, but definitely not the last, bowl of shredded zucchini.

The first, but definitely not the last, bowl of shredded zucchini.

I then used my 1 cup measuring cup to portion out mounds of shredded zucchini onto my parchment paper lined baking sheets.  The parchment paper keeps the zucchini from freezing/sticking to the baking sheet.  I was able to fit 6 1-cup mounds on each sheet.  As I unmolded each scoop I would gently press it down to slightly compact the zucchini and to make storing the frozen zucchini easier.  Then I covered the sheet with plastic wrap, gently pressing down between the mounds of zucchini to remove some of the air.  I then placed the entire baking sheet in the freezer overnight.

Measure your zucchini before freezing it so you know exactly how much you need for any recipe.

Measure your zucchini before freezing it so you know exactly how much you need for any recipe.

The unmolded zucchini.

The unmolded zucchini.

Press down on the zucchini to compact it and help it freeze better.

Press down on the zucchini to compact it and help it freeze better.

Filling the sheet pan.

Filling the sheet pan.

A full sheet of future zucchini hockey pucks.

A full sheet of future zucchini hockey pucks.

The next morning we took our little zucchini hockey pucks out of the freezer and put them into bags for their long sleep in the freezer.  Now that they are frozen in 1 cup increments, I can pull them out whenever I want and I’ll know exactly how much I need to thaw.

Lovely, frozen zucchini hockey pucks.

Lovely, frozen zucchini hockey pucks.

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Stay tuned for an amazing zucchini bread recipe… and an even better zucchini brownie recipe… where you can use these frozen zucchini in the dead of winter when nothing is stirring in your garden beyond the snow flakes.

First Sunflower

There are many things that I’m learning through our first year of having a real garden, and the over arching bit of knowledge is that if there is a rookie mistake to make with a garden… I’ve made most of them. Making the plot too large, over planting, watering at the wrong time of day, watering the wrong parts of the plant, planting tall plants that block sun light and water from shorter ones, and the list goes on. But I’ve been lucky that the garden is amazing and I’m having a blast feeding ourselves and extended family from our garden, as well as trying to figure out how to save our harvest for the upcoming months when the garden will be but a dream for next season. It’s been eye opening to realize how much I care for that little plot of ground. A plant suffers and I’m obsessed with figuring out why. Is it wrong that I’ve already started dreaming about next year’s garden? Probably…
In the meantime, we are moving fast to keep up with the plants and trying to be creative to make our favorite greens delicious for our 3 year old. Oy! I welcome any ideas.

20140728_153514For today I want to share the pictures of our first blooming sunflower. This one was right at my eye level when it bloomed, and I’m 6′ tall. The rest are all well over my head, which means they are of dinosaur proportions for Little Man. That is part of my inspiration for the garden for next year… a dinosaur part of the garden for Little Man to play in… We’ll have to see how it works out next spring.

CenterI love these flowers.  Not only do they dwarf me, but it’s one of those things where I’ve seen pictures of them for as long as I can remember yet I’ve never had one of my own.  I’ve seen them in bouquets and in the distance, but not growing in my own yard.  I love the bumble bees that dance around centers, and the way that the petals glow when back lit by the sun.  Now I’m starting to wonder if the seeds of this variety can be eaten…  Hmm, now I know my homework for the evening…

Retro Sunflower