Ode to Autumn

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Autumn came in fits and starts this year–the first cold, grey, rainy days of the year arrived at the end of October and then just as I was ready to start hauling out the firewood, sunny days and temperatures in the 80s returned in November. It was as though summer and fall were going round after round in a sparring match. But after an unseasonably glorious Thanksgiving weekend, with dinner in the garden, olive harvesting, and sunny trips to the beach, the rains finally arrived in earnest.

Letting go of summer always makes me a little wistful–no more walking outside to eat that burstingly ripe tomato right off the vine or sitting down for a sunny breakfast of sun-warmed luscious stone fruit, but at the same time I appreciate the distinct transition between seasons and all the memory and ritual that’s associated with it—the tidying away of summer and the preparations for the cold days ahead.

The last few weeks have meant wrapping up the harvest, planting all the winter crops, and mulching the soil with a thick layer of straw (which always makes me feel as though I am tucking the earth into a cozy bed for the winter.) The pantry is filled with canned goods and the smell of fermenting plum brandy.

One of my farmer/philosopher heroes, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote about the importance of the dormant months of winter as a time to sit back and be “lazy.” Apparently during the “leisure time” of winter, ancient farmers in Japan left behind Haiku. I love the idea of having a dedicated season for writing poetry!

At the moment, my “poetry” seems to be more at the stove than on the page. The change of season has meant saying goodbye to all the simple, fresh dishes served in the garden and ushering in the complex, slow-cooked, hearty meals—mushroom ragout over creamy polenta, braised greens eaten by the fire. How quickly the smell of fresh basil and tomatoes, with the hum of bees buzzing in the background has given way to caramelized roasting root vegetables with the beating of rain falling outside.

potato towers


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Every year I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my potato crop. There’s something about the joyful discovery of unearthing hundreds of tasty morsels from the ground that really brings out a childlike sense of delight in me. But then in the months after the harvest, when I discover I have volunteer potatoes sprouting up in places where I really didn’t want them, I start getting annoyed. There’s always that one (or ten!) miniscule marble-sized spud that goes unnoticed and starts replicating. Don’t get me wrong–in general I love plants that resow (and I’ve written about that before) but there’s something about potatoes popping up underneath and in the midst of other planting areas that I just don’t appreciate.

So this year I finally decided to isolate my potatoes in potato towers, a growing method I’ve always been curious to try. The basic idea is to plant the potatoes in an upright structure (usally some kind of wire tube) so that at harvest time you can just open the tower and all your potatoes spill out above ground. And the extra bonus is that this very tidy and contained approach is also supposed to provide higher yields.

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I’ve read about various methods for constructing potato towers but I ended up basing my decision on the materials that were most cost-effective and easily-available. I found chicken wire in 4′ width and bamboo fencing in 6′ width that I cut in half in to make 3′. So the final size of my towers is 4′ high (with the bamboo screen at 3′) and 2′ in diameter. I ended up with these dimensions rather arbitrarily but they turned out to be ideal in terms of my ability to load soil and compost from above.

Once the towers were constructed, I reasearched numerous planting techniques–some people plant at the bottom and then fill the towers only with straw while others continue to layer soil and compost as the plant grows. I wasn’t sure which way to go so I blended both approaches–first laying down a bed of soil, then the potatoes, then a layer of compost followed by a layer of straw.

Once the first potato leaves emerged (last week, about a month after planting) I added on another thin layer of compost and more straw. When the leaves poke out again I plan to continue mulching with straw only.

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As for varieties, I planted a different one in each tower (five total). I repeated three of my usual favorites–German Butterball, Yellow Finn and Banana Fingerling and then added in two I haven’t grown before–Rose Finn and Bintje. As I’ve mentioned before, I usually buy my organic seed potatoes from Ronninger’s, but they’ve now merged with a company called Potato Garden. As far as I could tell they seem to have the same great selection, so I plan to keep supporting them in this new incarnation.

Potatoes are right up there on my list of important vegetables to grow at home. First off, because they are a critical crop to eat organically. According to studies by the USDA, Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group, 79.3% of potatoes sampled were found to contain pesticides. Yikes. Secondly, because you can grow so many more varieties of potatoes than you can find in stores. (At last count, Potato Garden was selling over 75 varieties.) And lastly, because there’s nothing quite like a fresh potato from the garden, cooked up with a little butter (or rosemary and olive oil) on top. Yum!

Counting the days to harvest!

unintentional egg hunt


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Straw is something I always have to have on hand. Either for lining the chicken coop and nesting boxes or for mulch somewhere in the garden. But since I don’t have a barn (or anything even remotely like that!) it’s hard to find a good spot to store the large bales (which at their smallest are about 2’x2’x4′). The solution I’ve come up with is keeping partial bales in waterproof plastic tubs outside in the garden and then stowing a full bale right under the chicken coop. It’s a good dry location and a whole bale fits underneath with just a couple inches clearance on top.

On Friday I was adding another layer of straw to my potato towers (which I realize I haven’t even written about here—subject for a future post) and had finished up the loose straw in my plastic tubs. So I walked back to my chicken coop and bent down to pull off some straw from the end of the bale underneath. As I separated off a section of straw, I was startled by an egg rolling off with it. What? I crouched lower so that I could see the whole top of the bale and was shocked to discover a large pile of eggs right in the middle! What a funny surprise.

I have no idea how my chickens were managing to squish themselves between the bottom of the coop and the top of the bale, but I guess it must have made a cozy adjunct nest. Unfortunately I don’t know when they started doing this or how old the eggs are so sadly I didn’t feel comfortable eating them. But throwing away a dozen organic eggs was a depressing thought. Then I had an idea–every year my kids love dyeing eggs but no one ever wants to eat dozens of hard boiled eggs afterwards. Why not just dye these before tossing?

At first I thought about blowing out the insides and coloring the shells only, but I realized this would be too delicate an operation for the kids. So I decided to hardboil them, let the kids dye them and then toss them out. Since the process of art (and life) is the continual cycle of creation and destruction, this seemed an appropriate solution. And if you’ve never dyed brown (or blue-green) eggs, the beautiful deep jewel-tone colors they become put the traditional bright pastel colored (white dyed) eggs to shame.

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garden planning mania


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I’ve written before about how sometimes I am a very meticulous gardener–carefully documenting what, when, where, how I’m planting. But at other times I can be completely impulsive and whimsical–planting this and that, here and there and thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to make a note, I’ll remember what I did.” As a result, every year when my seeds start sprouting I inevitably find myself staring quizzically at a some of the leaf shapes wondering what plant will surprise me.

But this year I’ve been determined to really be much more methodical about my planting. I’ve been keeping very careful records of everything I’ve been sowing and also thinking through the best possible strategies for companion and succession planting. So imagine my delight when I accidentally stumbled on an online garden planner being offered by Territorial Seed. I’ve never used any kind of software for managing my garden before but so far this planner seems like a fantastic idea. I’ve been playing around with the free demo for a few weeks and now I’m becoming obsessed with garden planning!

What impressed me right away was that I could customize the planner to my exact growing region (by zip code) and it found the first and last frost dates for my area from a weather station right in my neighborhood. Based on that it plugged in the recommended planting dates for sowing indoors and planting out. Even though I already know that info for the crops I’m used to planting, the really handy thing is that going forward the planner will send me email reminders when it’s time to start sowing the various plants I’ve selected. Love that! Even after all these years of gardening, I still find that time just seems to get away from me and before I know it I’m starting certain seeds weeks later than I know I should. A sowing nagger is just what I need.

Also, all the plants in the database are coded according to botanical family and the planner keeps track of what I’m growing where. So if I keep my whimsical impulses in check and remember to plant according to plan, not only will I not have any more “mystery plants” but next year the planner will warn me if I plan to plant in a way that violates standard rotation practices. How cool is that?

One of the things I love most about gardening is how many learning opportunities it provides. The more years I grow fruits and vegetables, the more I find to discover and explore–new varieties, new growing technologies, etc. etc. My hope is with this planner I’ll be able to really be able to streamline my garden information and make this (and future) year’s learning even more efficient and productive. And in the meantime, it’s also very fun. Check it out!

p.s. Also curious to hear about any other garden planners people have used!

what’s old is new again


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Several months ago I was watching Lisa Cholodenko’s film “The Kids are All Right” and had to laugh out loud when Annette’s Bening’s progressively-minded character goes on an angry rant about the latest trends in her hip Los Angeles social circle. She exclaims in a mocking voice,

“I’m sorry guys, but I just can’t, with the f**king hemp milk and the organic farming and heirloom tomatoes. ‘Oh no, don’t throw that in the trash, no man, you gotta throw that into the composting bin so the f**king worms can sh*t all over it and turn it into glorious mulch and we can all feel better about ourselves.’ God! What a bunch of bullsh*t!”

What was funny to me was realizing that something as old and ignoble as composting (which I’ve not only been doing all my life but which pre-dates Moses—really!) has now somehow become so trendy it’s subject to derision. It’s as though the whole idea of compost has been composted itself! (For those interested in knowing more about the history of composting check out this article by the University of Illinois extension.)

Regardless of whether composting happens to be “in style” or not, it’s still makes sense and it’s easy to do. Collect vegetal waste, let it rot, put it back into the soil. It’s that simple. Why throw something out when you can put it to good use?

Over the years I’ve composted with many different methods. When I was a child we had a simple wood-frame compost box in the backyard that my dad built from scrap wood. When I moved out on my own I used a variety of smaller portable premade bins, tumblers and worm boxes (all of which work well and are readily available in local home and garden stores or online at places like compostbins.com). But once I had a family and a larger garden I outgrew the standard containers and just started composting in big uncontained heaps (very slow and not so pretty.)

I must confess that after a lifetime of using these various composting methods I started to develop a “fantasy composter” that I yearned to have. (Some girls want diamonds…well, what can I say?) I had always liked the basic wooden frame that I had grown up with but wanted something even larger that allowed easy access for turning over and removal. I had my heart set on a classic three-bin system.

Well my dream finally came true last March when a friend offered to build one for me. Since then, it’s been producing loads of wonderful “black gold” for my garden. It’s easy use since the front slats are all removable, making it a snap to turn over the compost and move it from bin to bin. It makes me so happy every time I harvest a pail of rich, beautiful compost and see the wonders it does for my garden.

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For those interested in building a three-bin system like this, there are lots of places to download free plans online such as this one from Seattle Tilth as well as a variety of others offered by a Washington public works agency.

And while I’m on the topic of composting, there’s also the issue of collecting your kitchen waste. I’ve had numerous ugly and stinky containers sitting on my kitchen counters over the years and the best one I’ve found by far (not ugly and not stinky!) is this stainless steel compost keeper. It’s really a very tidy way to contain your old peelings until you can get out to the bin.

Even if you live in an apartment or aren’t a hardcore gardener, it’s still possible and useful to compost. And honestly, you don’t have to start drinking hemp milk or stop shaving your legs in order to do it.

home is where the hearth is


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Since today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer author who (along with my parents and grandparents) first kindled my homesteading spirit, I thought it would be an appropriate time to write about my recent explorations into hearth cookery.

One of the things I've always loved about summertime adventures is the opportunity to cook outside over a wood fire. There's nothing that beats the flavor (and enjoyment) of preparing food in this simple and rustic way. For years I've thought about bringing the same fun indoors for the winter and cooking in the fireplace. But since I only have a traditional 50's era residential fireplace and not some kind of spectacular colonial walk-in hearth (or even Alice Waters' fancy wood-fired oven), I thought it would be a cramped and awkward mess.

But as is sometimes the case when it comes to my passions, my enthusiasm overruled my concerns this winter and I decided to embark on a series of Friday night suppers cooked in the open-hearth. The first few weeks the kids wanted the campfire basics–hot dogs, S'mores and their favorite grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in my vintage Toas-Tite. But I had my sights on serving up real homesteader meals.

I got out my cast-iron dutch oven and made baked navy beans with molasses and salt pork right in the coals. I upgraded the kids from the Toas Tite to real pie irons and let them bake their own cornbread to have on the side. After that easy and hearty hearth meal we were all hooked.

Next I decided to invest in a cooking grate to expand our cooking possibilities. In keeping with our Laura Ingalls prarie inspiration, the next meal was pan fried trout breaded in corn meal and cooked in salt pork drippings (a nod to On the Banks of Plum Creek), fried potatoes and the kids made apple turnovers in their pie irons. The pie crusts on the first few turnovers were a bit charred (we're still working out the heat and timing for the pie irons) but the trout and potatoes were wonderfully delicious.

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Now I'm looking forward to expanding our repetoire with larger cuts of roasted meats and more baked goods. I also want to set up my firebrick from my makeshift pizza oven and see if I can get a good wood-fired pizza made in the fireplace. Can it be long until I start contemplating a full-fledged rotisserie?

But besides the culinary upsides of cooking around an open fire, I also think the act of gathering the family around the hearth to prepare a meal in a slow, deliberate and communal way has further-reaching emotional benefits. It not only brings the kids closer to the idea of their food and how it's cooked but it's warm and cozy and the kind of thing that memories are made of.

For anyone interested in getting into serious fireplace cooking, I highly recommend reading The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America by Suzanne Goldenson and Doris Simpson. It gives a great background on the history and implements of early American hearth cookery as well as recipes specifically adapted for cooking in this way. The coals await!  

UPDATE 12 February 2011

Last night I tried out the pizza idea. I placed one of my pizza stones on the grate and surrounded it on three sides by firebricks. Then I balanced another pizza stone on top. It created the perfect little pizza oven right in the fireplace. I tried to measure the temperature with an oven thermometer but couldn't get an exact reading–just that it was over way over the maximum 600 degrees. Yay! I was hoping for something in the range of 800 degrees and think I might have gotten close. We were able to cook a series of tasty winter broccoli raab and potato pizzas each in about five minutes time. They had a wonderfully crispy crust (as always, thanks to Peter Reinhart's fantastic dough recipe) and a smoky wood-fired taste. Quick, easy, tasty and fun! This is something I'll definitely be doing again soon.

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sausage fest


In the same way many people have rediscovered the wonderful qualities of heirloom fruits and vegetables, they are also seeking out the almost forgotten goodness of heritage meats. Just as you can’t compare a mealy factory-farmed hothouse tomato to the robust flavor of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato (they hardly seem to even be the same species!) there’s a big difference between standard feedlot meat and pasture raised heritage breed animals. Once you’ve tasted the succulent buttery flavor of a meat like Berkshire pork it’s hard to believe it comes from the same animal as the CAFO pork that is sold in most stores (not to mention the horrendous difference in ethical treatment). Fortunately, we have companies like Heritage Foods that are making many kinds of humanely-raised heritage meats available. 

Back in November of 2008, I wrote a post about my first experience eating Mangalitsa pork. Mangalitsa is a Hungarian breed of lard-type pig directly descended from wild boars and which has a rich woodsy flavor that, in my opinion, is unequaled in the US. (The only pork I’ve ever enjoyed more is the ham from the acorn fed Ibérico in Spain). Thanks to our friends at Wooly Pigs we have a source for getting the wonderful Mangalitsa meat so last week I did a big pork buy and invited a few pork-loving friends over for a sausage-making party.

We started with three ten pound butts, skin on, bone-in. The first step was removing the skin to be saved for making Chicharrón (the subject of a future post.) Next we removed the back fat (some to be added back into the sausage mix, the rest to be saved for making lardo–yet another future post!)

Then we cubed up the beautifully marbled meat and seasoned it with a mix of spices–sweet Spanish paprika, black pepper, toasted fennel seeds, sage, kosher salt, and raw sugar. Although there’s a long history of sausage-making in my family (my Italian grandparents routinely made their own salami and more) we weren’t using any old family secrets this time but instead were primarily following Michael Ruhlman’s recipe for Italian sausage from his book, “Charcuterie,” with some influence from Paul Bertolli’s, “Cooking by Hand” as well. Both are excellent references for sausage-making.

 

After mixing the cubed pork with the spices we chilled the meat overnight both to let the spices permeate and also to have the meat at a good temperature for grinding.

 

The next morning friends arrived and the sausage-making swung into high gear–rinsing out the hog casings, grinding and mixing the meat (we used the grinder attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer), and stuffing and linking the sausages. None of the steps are particularly difficult but they are labor-intensive and time-consuming, so it’s nice to have a lively group of friends to share the work and the fun. (Note: sausage-making lends itself to a lot of silly off-color humor!)

While we were working we took time out to snack on fresh soft-boiled eggs straight from the chicken coop with a salad of crisp dandelion greens picked from the garden. The perfect taste of spring! We also did the first sampling of my homemade Nocino which I had put up last July as well as enjoying some of last year’s Limoncello which is always a crowd-pleaser. And of course we also did quite a bit of sausage taste-testing as we went along.

At the end of the day everyone went home with a sense of accomplishment, a big bag of sausage and the feeling of having had a fun (if tiring) day. The succulent Mangalitsa pork nearly guarantees delicious results, but the added satisfaction of knowing exactly where your food comes from and taking part in many of the manual steps for the final outcome makes every bite just that much more enjoyable. 

(Note: All photos in this post courtesy of Rich Dahlgren.)


timing is everything


Last month I was driving on the freeway in intermittent rain when an intense double rainbow appeared. As I drove closer I was able to see the lower arc in its entirety. Moments later it began to fade and then was gone. It was one of those instances when you know you’ve just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch something magical.

That moment got me thinking about the old saying “timing is everything.” No one knows this more than a gardener–getting a crop planted too early or too late or having an untimely frost–sometimes success or failure comes down to nothing more than timing. From day to day, month to month, year to year. Of course beyond the garden I’ve also bandied the phrase around many times in regards to personal relationships–when something didn’t work out it was easy to chalk it up to the timing being off.

But somehow even with knowing and using this phrase in so many
situations for so many years, I’m not sure I ever felt it’s full potency
until recently. I’ve become acutely aware of how so many things in our lives truly do boil down to a simple matter of timing. There are so many things you cannot plan for or force; you just have to leave it all up to time. Whether it’s being in the right place (or the right mindset) at the right time, or just allowing the time that healing takes, or the time to get to know someone or yourself. Everything is on its own schedule and we are just along for the ride.

As I sit here today I think about where I was on this day last year--planting rueplants and frankly, in a lot of personal pain. What a difference a year makes. Not because of anything I’ve done or anywhere I’ve been, just because of time.

Timing is everything!

thinking in images


When I first started this blog I wrote something every day, then that slowly evolved to once a week. Now it appears I'm at once month! I initially started slowing down the pace because other aspects of my life were becoming more demanding. But lately my blog silence has been simply because words haven't felt like the right means of communication and self-expression. (Even writing this post now feels forced and awkward.)

For the last few months I've found myself thinking (and living) in images. Photos are flowing and words feel stuck. I first noticed this in one of my September posts titled, "no words today." Since then, I've been spending more time on the Flickr account I set up to support this blog than on the blog itself. And by looking at the 50+ recent images in my photostream I see that I actually have been blogging–it's just been photographically.

Like all things, I don't expect this situation will be permanent. It's just part of the ebb and flow of creativity and life. But for now I think I'll be swimming in the sea of images…until I come back to the land of words again.

And who knows what the new year will bring?

Wishing everyone courage, compassion, tolerance, determination and serenity. May you do your greatest good in 2010!

mushroom hunting


Foraging and eating wild mushrooms is something that seems to strike terror in the heart of many Americans. Everyone is all too familiar with the newspaper accounts of whole families dying after consuming a tasty meal of mistaken mushrooms. But in other parts of the world where the history and knowledge of careful mushroom identification is passed along from generation to generation, eating wild mushrooms is a commonplace occurrence.

I grew up with Italian grandparents and other family friends who routinely foraged for mushrooms. So at a very young age I was not only eating finds straight from the woods (with never a worry about being poisoned) but I also knew exactly what porcini looked like in their natural (unsliced, undried) state (and that they were more properly known as Boletus edulis. What a nerdy kid I was!)

In the last few years there’s been a rediscovery of foraging and all types of wild edibles. Groups like ForageSF in San Francisco are forming communities around wild foods and foraging. I’m a big supporter of this trend, but I’m also cautious. Anytime something becomes a fad there’s the potential for lots of people to rush into it with only a limited amount of knowledge. And at the risk of sounding like I’ve joined the ranks of fungi fear-mongerers, it’s true that in this case lack of knowledge can be fatal.

Right now it’s porcini season here in Northern California so fungi foragers are all crazily trying to beat each other to the mushroom motherlode. Luckily porcini don’t really have any deadly lookalikes so theoretically it’s a good one for beginners. The more serious problem is that no novice is going to stand a chance against the veterans when it comes to knowing where and when to find them!

For anyone who’s interested in foraging for mushrooms, I recommend finding a local mycological association to start learning through whatever classes, workshops, and forays they offer. This past weekend I was part of a group foray organized by the Mycological Society of San Francisco.  The wealth of knowledge in this group (and others like it) is always awe-inspiring and extremely humbling. I’ve never been out with these people without having my head nearly throbbing by the end with newly absorbed information.

This past weekend our group found a fair number of the prize porcini, but the area had been pretty well scoured by large groups of Russian families doing the same thing. My bounty included quite a few beautiful specimens of Coccoli (pictured above). Of the many varieties of mushrooms we found, I chose to feature this one in my post–not just because it’s what I found most of–but more so because it’s a perfect example of why I am still a very cautious forager. Coccoli, while edible, happen to bear a striking resemblance to one of the most deadly mushrooms in the world, Amanita phalloides (known affectionately as the “Death Cap.”) This is the kind of thing that’s good to know when you are starting out in the world of foraging!

That said, I encourage people to get outside and find their own food. Just do it wisely and sensibly!