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So, when am I going to get homegrown vanilla?


The vine is halfway up the two-foot tall trellis- I keep bending it to the side so it will wrap around the trellis, but vines want to grow upward.

The vine is halfway up the two-foot tall trellis- I keep bending it to the side so it will wrap around the trellis, but vines want to grow upward.

I bought thread at the craft store the other day, and the checker herself was shocked at how much it cost. She said something about it being cheaper to just buy a shirt than to make one. Never mind that I wasn’t making a shirt- you would think working at a craft store would accustom you to the idea that people do crazy things for hobbies.
A great example of this is my vanilla orchid.
I have had it for several years,  it is slowly creeping along the trellis I built for it, causing me to panic when it tipped over in the wind and most of the chunky orchid mix spilled out of the pot. I water it with buckets dipped out of the goldfish pond- weak organic fertilizer. The trellis is supposed to act as a humidifier, as well as a support. I baby it.
I moved it inside before it got cold. Vanilla is native to Mexico, warmer and moister by far than my back yard. It could never survive the winter here. The boy’s room has a south window, so all my tropical plants make his room into the jungle room in the winter.
The vanilla isn’t likely to bloom until it gets to ceiling height, and it is about 1 foot tall now.  No matter how big it gets, it won’t survive the winter outside. Once it blooms, I will have to pollinate the blossoms by hand, with a small paintbrush, then wait for the seedpods to develop, then ferment and dry them. Then make cupcakes.
Maybe someday, we’ll get a greenhouse. Just think how expensive that would make the vanilla pods- amortizing the cost of glass and construction into each little pod…
But for now,  I have a happy little vine in a very portable pot, which goes outside in summer, and inside in the winter, and gives me something to look forward to.

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Early tomatoes


We can all agree that home grown tomatoes are what make life worth living, right. (Oh be quiet- you like them in salsa and stuff, though, right? okay, then.) So, we can probably all agree that we want those tomatoes as early as possible, right?
Around here (zone 5, Northern front range of Colorado) the traditional date for safely planting out things that won’t survive frost is Mother’s day- mid May. There is no guarantee it won’t freeze after that date, but that is the average annual last frost date. This year we had a snowy April, and an actual cancel-school- snow day on May first.
That meant that the ground was cold- it was very wet, which is a good thing, but the soil was cold. I made the decision to delay tomato-planting until it warmed up a bit.
Tomatoes need warm air temperature as well as warm soil temperature- it isn’t just a matter of “not freezing” they actually need to be warm. (Interestingly, tomatoes are kind of the Goldilocks of plants, when it gets too hot, over 90, they stop blooming)
I checked the soil temp with my trusty meat thermometer, and it was 43 degrees. I had some walls of water in the garage. For those of you who don’t know, a Wall of Water is a plastic cylinder made of connected tubes which can be filled with water.  It creates a mini greenhouse, and the water absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. They are supposed to be self supporting. I set them up, (and then reset them up- they kept falling over- I don’t know if the cat kept messing with them or what the deal is, but that is why I don’t ordinarily use them- any one have any tips?)

Look how slouchy that one on the right is- if that falls over on the chocolate cherry plant I am going to be so ticked off.

Look how slouchy that one on the right is- if that falls over on the chocolate cherry plant I am going to be so ticked off.

Anyway, I set them up, then took the soil temperature again. It was 63 degrees after just a couple of days.
Now, variety choices. In the past I have gotten “Early Girl” because the fruits are, you know, early. 60 days to maturity, which means mid July, roughly. One year I was swayed by some garden porn, and bought Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, which has a great name, and an heirloom provenence, and is supposed to be heart-meltingly delicious, which didn’t ripen until late September, so I didn’t get to eat any. Mid- September is our average last frost date, so we have about 4 months to get as many tomatoes as we can.
This year I went to the garden center, and mixed in with all the Early Girls was a variety I hadn’t heard of before- 4th of July. I checked the label- 55 days. Which means first harvest on the…let me do the math..umm, 30 days hath September…carry the 1- the 4th of July.

The other variety I picked today was Chocolate Cherry. I have grown this before, and it is so delicious.  It ripens to a dark, deep red, very sweet. It is a bit slower to ripen, but very prolific.

So, I put them in the ground, carefully lifting the waterfilled tubes away from the planting spots, digging in some compost, plugging the tomato plants in deeply, then carefully replacing the waterfilled tubes back over the plants. I acknowledge that it might have been easier to dump out the water and refill, but I just couldn’t see doing it. It seems wasteful.

That was a couple of weeks ago, and the 4th of July has blossoms on it. I haven’t seen any pollinators go inside- which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I have been busy. Does anyone have tips about that? The walls of water seem to be kind of a pain in the neck, but I am hoping they are worth it.

You can grow that- locally!


All politics is local, they say, and gardening is the same way. I have driven myself crazy for years reading books about organic gardening in Pennsylvania, or Upstate New York, or Maine, or Wales. I have tried to apply my learning to the ground here- dry, clay, and alkaline. I have finally learned to read Western-based garden books, or to temper my fantasies to something that is sustainable with the soil here, and the amount of rainfall here.

Every winter I am inundated with seed and plant catalogs. I read them, and place sticky notes, and highlight the varieties I want to buy. It is similar to the garden book thing- catalogs from Maine, or Oregon, or Pennsylvania won’t necessarily have what I need here- drought tolerant in Massachusetts is different from drought tolerant in Colorado.  Full sun in Michigan is different from full sun here.

This year, rather than placing an order to have seeds shipped to me, I will bike downtown, and go into our local greenhouse, where they order seeds in bulk, and will sell me little envelopes of whatever I want to plant. Well, not “whatever” …last year they didn’t have leeks in bulk, so I got a pre-packaged envelope off the rack, but they have many popular varieties that do well here. They have bareroot strawberries and asparagus and seed potatoes and onion sets. They also have people working there who, if they are not experts, they are informed, about where things are located in the store, and when to plant most things.

Your homework- find a greenhouse or garden center that is local to you. Locally owned businesses will only stay alive as long as we support them, and often the guys in the *cough orange aprons cough* don’t know much about the plants they are selling. You don’t have to bike (and in fact, I might not, but I should) but find a place that is local, and support it.

The lonely pile of seed catalogs this year- I am forsaking you for a local business.

The lonely pile of seed catalogs this year- I am forsaking you for a local business.

C.L. Fornari, amazing garden writer, has founded “You can grow that!” where on the fourth of every month, garden bloggers write posts encouraging anyone to grow anything.  Check her out at http://www.youcangrowthat.com/

Chris Kimball comes through again!


Because of a need to go lower fat, I was looking to substitute the foods we love with lower fat versions.

Spaghetti and meatballs is a meal we have in the rotation regularly-for years I have just been buying a bag of frozen meatballs, and microwaving a dozen or so while the pasta water boiled.  Then I read the label, and was astonished by the amount of fat.  This was low-hanging fruit- surely I could make meatballs with less than 12 grams per serving!

I borrowed a low fat cookbook from a colleague, and made calculations and adaptations for a meatloaf recipe. I was so proud- it was only 1.5 grams of fat for an entire serving of 6 meatballs. I used texturized vegetable protein, and 95% lean ground beef, and…Ummm…yeah. They were….really…I should have taken pictures of people eating them- glum. We did eat the whole batch, but not happily.
The thing is, the good people at Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchens have done the math, and done the experimentation, and come up with a recipe for meatballs that aren’t as crazy lean as my experimental meatballs, but they are really tasty.
Because that is the thing- at only 1.5 grams of fat per serving, no one wanted to eat them. So, what’s the point?
The two secrets of CI’s recipe are buttermilk and gelatin. The buttermilk totally makes sense to me- tang and richness and mouthfeel. The gelatin was a surprise- they explained that sometimes meatballs are made with veal, which I guess naturally has more gelatin, so you get a creamy texture. It gives a velvety feeling without being greasy.
I tried them, and they are so good. The original recipe called for 2 pounds of beef, and 1 of ground pork. I didn’t want that many meatballs floating around the first time I made the recipe, so I used just 1 pound of 93% lean beef. Another modification was to use leftover Christmas ham rather than the finely chopped prosciutto called for in the original. This was pure laziness- we had the ham, didn’t want to go out for specialty deli meats.  I think the ham also adds saltiness and umami, without adding fat.  The original recipe would make around 120 meatballs, which seems like really a lot- more than my oven could handle, but I suppose if I were having a big spaghetti party, I might make that many.

(Weird note about Cook’s Illustrated/ America’s Test Kitchen- I had a dream that Chris Kimball lived in our town, and all his quirky small town New England stories were really about here, and he was giving cooking classes and we went and he wore his little bow tie and everything.)

Meatballs- based on Cook’s Illustrated, with adaptations

3/4 cups bread crumbs

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup egg beaters

1 pound 93% lean ground meat

2 oz chopped ham

1/2 cup parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons italian seasoning

1 clove pressed garlic

1 packet unflavored gelatin dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

Dissolve the gelatin in water according to directions. In a large bowl, mix the buttermilk, egg and the breadcrumbs. Add the other ingredients, and mix together by hand, thoroughly incorporating the gelatin.  Form into balls- you could weigh them…I guestimated and came up with about 40 of them that seemed about the right size. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  At this point, you can bag them and put them in the freezer, or simmer some in sauce until the pasta is ready, and freeze the rest, or maybe you are having a big enough party, or you have a big enough family, to serve all of them at once.  Go for it.

Sorry, no photos…every time I cook something, I find myself admiring the photographers who take pictures of food. My photo shot of this recipe just turned up pink pasty stuff, then, you know, brown balls…of meat…

Pancreas don’t care


We have had a rough fall with health problems for Kate, my baby girl, who resents it highly when I call her my baby girl.
She had a severe stomach ache back in October, with vomiting that wound her up in the hospital. She was diagnosed with pancreatitis, which is unheard of in 12 year olds. They sent her home, and she trick-or-treated on Halloween, but didn’t feel 100%.
A virus bounced her back into the hospital- not the pancreas this time, but dehydration. They chalked it up to her immune system being worn out from the pancreatitis, and an overreaction. When her brother got the same virus, but milder, we felt oddly reassured.
She was better, still not 100%, but we went into Thanksgiving break feeling good- she could catch up on missed schoolwork, sleep in and get better. Then the Saturday after thanksgiving, she got another stomach ache, started puking, and was generally miserable. When we took her to her pediatrician, he told us to get in the car and drive to the Children’s Hospital in Aurora, about an hour away. Our pediatrician didn’t have the authority to admit her, but he had been talking to a GI specialist, and they would be expecting her.
A week of driving back and forth, rating pain on a scale of 1-10 and watching cable TV. She was better, but still not well. x-rays, ultrasounds and an MRI followed, then a procedure scheduled. ERCP (huh?) a tube to look down and remove a stone from her pancreatic duct, turns out it wasn’t a stone, just a stricture, a narrowing, that was preventing the digestive enzyme from draining into her small intestine. Essentially, her pancreas was digesting itself. No wonder she had tummy aches.
The pancreas does 2 main things, I have recently learned. It makes insulin, so the body can use glucose, and it makes lipase, so the body can use fat. All that stuff you know about saturated fat versus unsaturated? Pancreas don’t care- fat is fat, and when fat goes through the stomach, pancreas releases lipase.

Before thanksgiving she had chicken fried steak and onion rings. Thanksgiving day, rolls and butter and
pie with whipped cream. Black Friday, a McDonald’s hashbrown and hot cocoa with whipped cream. Saturday, chicken Parmesan and shiny breadsticks.  So delicious. But agony for her almost-maybe-healed pancreas.

So, they placed a stent, and for the first time in months, she is pain-free.

And, on doctor’s recommendation, on a low fat diet- less than 15 grams of fat per day.

All these years I have been keeping sugar out of the house, we hardly ever drink pop, we eat plain, unsweetened cereal. It turns out I have been fighting the wrong demon. It was the fat that was hurting her.

So, how do we change our diets, lifestyles, to have much less fat than we were previously, much less than most people in the US eat? I am not cutting fat out of my diet entirely- my hair would fall out, for one thing. But to show solidarity, we are switching to skim milk, and nonfat cheese, and I don’t know what else, yet. The puzzle is, how to keep a girl going through her growth spurts healthy and happy on 15 grams of  fat a day.  Most advice on low-fat cooking is also low-calorie cooking. She needs to learn to love fruits and veggies, I know that much.

So, I will have to experiment with low fat stuff- some I can just substitute out, but some I will need to work on.

I was going to post a lowfat meatball recipe…but it needs work. A lot of work. Like…I’m not even going to put the pictures in.  Any tips? America’s Test Kitchen has a “healthy” cookbook, so I’ll try that. What else?

Lemon Ginger Honey


Ginger, Lemon and Honey for a soothing drink.

This summer on Pinterest I saw a recipe for mixing sliced lemon with honey, and letting it age in the fridge. When your throat is sore, you add a spoonful to hot water and sip. I made a batch with chunks of ginger, and it is wonderful. I have researched it a bit, and the original post on Pinterest seems to have come from the blog “A Little Life.” The trouble with Pinterest is that it is hard to find sources for things. Also, the other problem is that it is a time suck. An incredible time suck.

The original instructions said that it kind of becomes “like marmelade” in the jar. It does, kind of. I used it at all stages of” marmeladification” and now that my jar is almost empty, I can’t say I can tell a difference between the first week and now. I do know that after my first cold of the year, my jar is empty, and I am making another batch.

My 6 step method:

  • Scrub a lemon- organic is probably better, since you are ingesting the peel
  • Slice thinly and place in jar- 1 small lemon is good for a pint canning jar
  • Peel and chop a thumb sized knob of fresh ginger root, add to jar
  • Cover in honey
  • Use a chopstick to get rid of air pockets, if necessary
  • Seriously, you don’t have a chopstick floating around?
  • I got a really nice set from my secret santa last year. Secret santas are the best.

See- another one of my “not-really-a-recipe recipes”

As the lemon juice mixes with the honey, it becomes very liquid, then becomes more viscous. My first jar has maybe one more scoop left, which might be a bad thing, considering this cold.

Radical Apple Pruning


 

We have a giant apple tree that has been butchered in the past, then ignored, the butchered again, by the city tree trimming crew. It is probably about 50 years old, and most of the apples are developing way up high, because the major branches go up high, then bend over…after researching a lot, hemming and hawing and reading, online and in books, I have decided to renovate it. Slowly, over a few years, I’ll take off major limbs and train young branches to be the new major limbs, at a more convenient height. Convenient for me, not the squirrels.

Let me tell you about apical dominance… there is a chemical in plants that causes the  buds on the end of every branch to be dominant- it turns off the other buds back down the line. This chemical, auxin, is affected by gravity. If the end bud on a branch droops down, there aren’t many buds that will be activated. There will be buds on the tree up high, before the branch starts to droop. So we have very few apples down where we can reach them, and a bunch up high, which then fall down to be half-eaten by squirrels.

 

Another thing about apical dominance is that when the end bud is cut off,  other bud back down the line are activated. This is good when your pinch back flower chrysanthemums to make the plant bushier, so you get more flowers in fall, but not so good when the city crew whacks back your apple tree on a semiannual basis.

Since it is a standard tree, not a dwarf, it is really big. Branches are growing up into the power lines, and the city crews want to prevent that, but they don’t care much about the tree other than that. Every time the city comes to prune, they take out the center aggressively, which causes it to grow back aggressively. It’s pretty bad. There are seven major limbs, up to about 6 inches in diameter at the trunk, and they have kind of an umbrella effect, going up, then curving way down.
I have thought about it a lot, planning, and checking, and finally decided to take off one of the seven major limbs. Next year, I will take out another, never removing more than 25% of the leaf area at a time. Hopefully this will prevent major regrowth of water sprouts. I wanted to clean up the south side of the tree, since that is where I have recently sited a veggie bed and I wanted it to have more direct sun.

So, I chose my first limb, sawed it, then spent some quality time wondering how to get it down without seriously hurting myself. Seriously. It was tangled in so many other branches that even when it was cut all the way through, it just sat there.  I moved the ladder and made some more judicious cuts, then spent a pleasant afternoon cutting it into reasonable lengths for our chimenea.  Next year, I’ll select another limb from the North side of the tree, and work on that one.

The most helpful book for me in this project, which has mostly been a project about thinking, is Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning. Tons of illustrations, tons of examples, written by a woman on a mission.

Chipotle Buttermilk Grilled Chicken


I’ve been sold on marinating chicken in buttermilk for a while- for fried chicken, it makes the meat tender, and the crust, which for me is the whole point, crispy. For a long time I used smoky paprika as the spice, with garlic powder and whatever other random spices. Then I saw a jar of leftover chipotle chilies in the fridge, and wondered what would happen if I used them. Miracles, that’s what.
Well, maybe not miracles.
I had opened the can for soup or something- pulling out one of the chilies to puree with tomatoes from my garden. You don’t have to use the entire can at once- the rest can go into a jar in the fridge. Not forever, obviously, but it can be stored.

Chipotles are jalapeno peppers that have been ripened, then smoked. They can be purchased dried, in bags, or canned with adobo sauce. They are hot and smoky and rich tasting. For me, jalapenos are just heat, with no depth. Chipotles have depth. Also, the tang of the buttermilk calms down the heat- you can adjust the proportion of chilies to buttermilk until you get a level you like. That is what I’ve been doing since March.

As this recipe has evolved, I take “a few” chilies, with sauce, and mix them with “some” buttermilk and “some” salt.  It depends on how much chicken you are doing. In these pictures, it was 3 chilies, 1 cup of buttermilk and a pinch of kosher salt. This was more than enough for a whole young chicken that I cut up to grill. In these photos, I put the mixture underneath the skin, which made the skin extra crispy, and the meat very moist- even the breast meat.I have also used this with “convenience” frozen skinless chicken breasts, and it is good with that, too.

 

Chipotle Buttermilk Chicken

Chicken parts and pieces- I used a whole chicken that I cut up

2 or 3 chilies in adobo

1 cup buttermilk

generous pinch salt

 

Puree the chilies and salt, add buttermilk and blend well

 

I used my stick blender to puree everything.

Thanks to the Boy for taking this picture.

 

Pull the skin away from the meat, and pour the marinade between the skin and meat. Yes, this is gross, but it tenderized the meat and crisps up the skin. It is easiest on breasts and leg quarters. With the wings, I just tossed them in the buttermilk mixture.

Marinade for an hour or so.

Set up a gas grill or charcoal grill for indirect heat- that is, outer burners on, inner burners off, put the chicken in the center, lid down. Or, on a charcoal grill, pile your charcoal on one side, put the meat on the other side.

Place chicken skin side down and cook for around 15 minutes, then flip and cook until a thermometer reads 165.

Yummy. Smoky and crispy, and hot, without being painfully hot.

 

Toad in the grass


Eggs and bacon, on top of spinach and greens. Squeeze of lemon, pop the yolks, mmmmmm

My college roommate introduced me to a dish called Toad in the Hole- a fried egg in a hole torn in a slice of bread. I don’t know how I grew to adulthood without knowing about this concept- combining eggs and toast in a happy little unit.

It has taken me another 20 years to find out about cooking an egg on a bed of sauteed greens- the same homeliness of the egg, with the virtuous feeling of eating a pile of spinach. I have been calling it Toad in the Grass, which I realize is a horrible name, but I have seen it elsewhere as “baked eggs” which seems like an even more horrible name.

This batch is made with spinach and beet greens from my garden (the beets were supposed to be micro greens, but I kind of forgot, and now they’re macro).

Saute the greens in olive oil and the water left on the leaves from washing them.

This is about two cups of mixed spinach and beet.

When the greens have reduced by about half, crack an egg or two on top. Cover and let cook until the eggs are mostly done. Then turn on the broiler and cook the gooey stuff on top. I added parmesan cheese this time, but I don’t always.

T

The eggs look kind of like eyes, maybe call it green monster? Another horrible name.

I also had 2 slices of pre-cooked bacon (you should cook bacon in the oven- it works really well) that I threw on top. Sooooo yummy.

Strawberries- you can grow that


One of my peak experiences in gardening was not in my own garden, and in fact, I didn’t do any of the cultivation. Friends of mine in college lived in a house with a strawberry bed, next to a flagstone path. One beautiful June, I would go to their house, sit in the sun on those red sandstone pavers, and eat perfect, ripe strawberries.

Of course, I had to have strawberries and a flagstone path at our house, when we finally bought one.

just a few more days…just a few more days…

I actually have planted strawberries in many locations- before I got married, and moved every year or so, after I got married, and …moved every year or so. It may seem ridiculous- planting a fruit that takes several years before it produces in house and apartments that I knew I would be moving out of. Maybe it is ridiculous, but it seemed like a good investment in karma.

Strawberries do produce sparingly the first year, but after that, they spread and produce more. They reproduce by sending out stolons, or runners, with baby plants on the end.  I let the “daughter plants” take root and grow, so I always have some plants that are 3 or 4 years old, and about to peter out, some 2 year old plants that produce well, and some baby plants that are getting established. Most gardening books recommend cutting off the stolons the first year so you get more fruit.

New vocabulary word for the day- stolon.

A few years ago, I was at my sister-in-law’s house, and she was transplanting strawberry plants out from under a huge pine tree. Apparently, the birds that stole her berries perched on the tree, and ummm…seeds grew…in perfect packets of fertilizer. Yeah, you know what I mean, bird poo. They didn’t get enough sun under the tree to produce very well, but it made a perfect nursery for baby plants.

Strawberries are heavy feeders, so I give them compost, and mulch them pretty heavily, except where they have grown into the gaps in the path, where I can’t get mulch to go.

I plan to transplant these guys out of the gaps in the path, and may try them in containers.

Here in zone 5, the front range of Colorado, they ripen in early to mid June, this is later than you can get them in the grocery store, but oh so much tastier. And organic. And with a very small carbon footprint. Here’s where I get preachy and link you to a story about strawberries from California.

If you order plants in winter, you can get a bundle of 25 for around 25 dollars. They go a foot apart, so that is a lot of space to devote to  strawberries, but you can tuck them around other things- for example, there is a giant rosebush in the same bed with my strawberries, as well as iris and a mock orange. They are also available this time of year in nurseries. In fact, at the grocery this weekend, they had hanging baskets of them in the doorway.

I have had slug issues in the past, but this year has been so dry, I don’t expect them. I’ll put out saucers of cheap beer just in case.

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