Victory is Sweet

Last year’s experiment with growing stevia left me intrigued by its sweetness but not sold on its aftertaste.

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Happily, cold weather worked its sugar magic last fall and the aftertaste disappeared completely. Results of hanging those cold-snapped leaves to dry are good too, so stevia has now earned a spot in our pantry.

Easy Does It

I like to do things, but only in the simplest, most efficient way.

IMG_9813Essentially I’m lazy. If you are too, here’s your tip for the day: Next time you’re making a recipe that says, ‘on a floured surface’, use a pastry board. Sounds fancy, yes? No. All we’re looking for is something to contain your mess. Something you can pick up and throw in the sink or dishwasher. A cutting board, a tray, whatever you’ve got. No sticky counter, no gross sponge covered in flour paste, no excuse not to get cooking.

Ready, Set, Go

I don’t know whether we’ll get the 12″ of snow and power outages predicted for our area tomorrow, but I do know we’ll be eating well.

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I did my usual storm-prep cooking marathon today, making everything I could think of that can be eaten as is or warmed on our propane stove. Dishes are done, laundry is clean, firewood is in the house. Throw it at us, mother nature, we’re as ready as we’re going to get.

This recipe makes 24 muffins. If you’re fairly sure you’ll have power over the next few days, you can bake half, stick the rest of the batter in the fridge, then bake the other half when you run out.

Blueberry Muffins

Preaheat oven to 400.

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

8 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups flour

2 cups milk

2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen

Cream the butter.

Add the sugar.

Add the eggs.

Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk, stirring til everything is well-combined.

Fold in the blueberries.

Pour into lined muffin tin and bake for 22 minutes.

Kiss the Cook

Word to the wise: when choosing a life partner, be sure they like garlic as much as you do. You want them to be so distracted by their own garlic breath they don’t notice yours.

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At our house, dinner prep begins with chopping garlic more often than not. That being said, this recipe uses a ton of garlic even for us. Other than that bit of work, though, it’s quick to throw together, and it makes enough to keep us in leftovers for a good while.

You’ll notice I don’t give amounts for the spices. Don’t panic! I’m not cooking dinner, you are, and you’re going to make this your way. If you end up over-spicing, just serve it with some extra rice or wrap it in a tortilla; under-spicing, sprinkle on some more curry powder. Once you’ve made it a couple of times you’ll have found your perfect balance.

Curried Peas

1/2 cup chopped garlic

Olive oil

Curry powder

Ground black pepper

Red pepper flakes (optional)

3 Tablespoons butter

2 bags frozen baby peas

3 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Fill half of a one cup measure with chopped garlic.

Sprinkle a layer of ground black pepper over it.

Add a few red pepper flakes if you like.

Pour olive oil over the garlic to fill the cup measure.

Melt the butter in a very large frying pan on medium high heat.

Sprinkle curry powder over the surface of the butter. Don’t be shy.

Add the olive oil and garlic.

When the oil and garlic are dancing, add the peas.

Before stirring, add another layer of curry powder, along with a bit of black pepper.

Continue to cook at medium high for 5 or 10 minutes, until the peas are warmed through, stirring occasionally.

Add the chickpeas, topping with curry powder as you did with the peas, then stirring and cooking til everything is hot.

Serve with jasmine rice.

Golden Rule

In mid-winter, the bees in my hive are hopefully buzzing away in a tight cluster, keeping each other warm.

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It’s best not to take the lid off when it’s cold out, so I don’t actually know what’s going on in that box. While I could get lost in a thought experiment of the Schrodinger’s cat variety, instead I don’t think too much about it and order bees to be delivered in April, just in case.

Last year’s winter was long and very cold. My bees did not make it through, so the colony that is currently in the hive is the one I installed this past summer. Their shipment was delayed due to weather issues down South and they didn’t arrive until June, giving the bees a late start in building up their stores.

When keeping bees, the single most humane thing we can do is to limit the amount of honey we steal. Bees work hard to make every drop, and they do so for reasons that have nothing to do with humans having a sweet tooth. They eat their supply of honey all winter long, using the energy to keep their bodies moving. With no central heating, movement is the only way to keep the temperature up.

Many people steal honey from bees in the fall, making their best guess as to how much the bees will need over the winter and how much it’s safe to take. I prefer to wait until early summer to see what’s left, and even then, I leave them a good supply. So I’ve not taken any honey from these bees, and won’t decide for a few months whether I should. The inner workings of a bee colony are incredibly complex and not completely understood. When striking a balance between our wants and the colony’s needs, I’d rather err in their favor, even if it means a little less gold in the pantry.

No Muss, No Fuss

Little did I know, as a teenager eating soup at my boyfriend’s house, that 30 years later that same soup would be a long-loved staple for our kids.

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Every family develops its own food culture. We construct it without intention, for the most part, picking up bits and pieces along the way, but it becomes infused with meaning. What this soup means to me is this: Welcome. No need for fuss. We’re family.

Vegetable Soup

6 or 8 or 10 carrots – whatever you’ve got – peeled and sliced

Celery, optional (My mother-in-law says yes. Everyone has their shortcomings.)

1 onion, peeled, quartered, and sliced thin

lb can crushed tomatoes

8 oz tomato sauce (whatever you use for spaghetti is fine)

1/4 cup barley

6 vegetable bullion cubes

4 cups water

Bring everything to a boil in a large pot, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for about 40 minutes, until the carrots are soft.

Straight and Narrow

After the first rush of excitement when the plant catalogs start pouring into the mailbox each winter, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the variety of plants available.

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While it would be lovely to have the money and space to plant some of everything, that’s not reality for the vast majority of us. Sure, maybe you can plant twenty kinds of seeds, but planting twenty kinds of fruit trees is less likely to be an option. Everything in the catalogs is bound to look appealing in the dead of winter. Narrowing down the choices is part science, part art, and part deciding you’ve packed and repacked your parachute enough times and taking the jump.

In order to spread the costs out and avoid decision fatigue, my own approach has been to focus on one section of our property each year, all the while keeping my big picture in mind: grow a variety of food, plant enough to share, give the plants what they need, minimize labor, and aim for pretty.

The area I am working on this year has a mulberry tree and a small wisteria, each about fifteen years old. The mulberry fruited its first and second years, but hasn’t since. This was a disappointment, as mulberries are one of my favorite childhood foods, so I knew I wanted more mulberries. Other than that, I was open to anything.

For each plant I considered, I researched the following questions:

Will it grow well in my zone? (Zone 6)

When does it fruit? (I’d like to be harvesting continually, rather than all at once.)

How big is it? (Will I have room for it, and will it thrive among nearby plantings?)

Is it self-pollinating? (If not, I’ll need more than one.)

Does it have thorns? (I’m anti-thorn.)

What kind of soil and sun does it need? (Wet, hot, shady, dry?)

Do I want to eat it? (Just because I can grow it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)

Do I like the way it looks? (I’d sacrifice looks for flavor if necessary, but it rarely is.)

Is there likely to be a market for excess? (Not a concern for everyone, but as I sell produce and preserves and hope to sell a greater quantity in the future, important for me to consider.)

I settled on three varieties of mulberry: Illinois Everbearing, Shangri La, and Weeping Mulberry. The Illinois is a large tree that begins fruiting in June. The Shangri La will fruit a bit earlier, beginning in May, and is mid-sized at about 20 feet. Smallest of all is the Weeping Mulberry, which is the kind I grew up with, making it more a nostalgic choice than a strategic one.

Along with the mulberries I’ll be planting two pawpaw trees, Sunflower Pawpaw and SAA Overleese Pawpaw. Again, one is a bit larger than the other. My objective is to create something of a food forest – a garden which mimics nature, where plants grow in layers, tall trees spaced widely to provide an open canopy, shorter trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants nestled around and under. Plants in straight rows may look tidy, but I want to garden as a participant in nature, not a director.

To begin my shrub level I chose three varieties of honeyberry (Blue Moon, Blue Pacific, and Blue Velvet) and to get started on the groundcover I chose wintergreen. The honeyberries will bloom early and the wintergreen late, extending my fruit harvesting season.

I’ll likely need more for the shrub layer, and will plant some bulbs and possibly some herbs as well, but we’ll be off to a good start this spring. All told, I’ll spend about $300 on this area. That’s about half as much as we spend each month on groceries for our family of four. Not small change, but I’d just as soon have my savings grow in my backyard as in the bank.