Monday, April 20, 2015

Experiments with Vines

Vines in pots
          The warm weather has brought out the lawn mowers, lilacs, and lounging in the sun. It has also been excellent planting weather. In the past week, we have transplanted all of the starts for the summer greens bed, set out new herb plants, direct sowed a few flowers, and begun an experiment with the vining crops, like cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkins, which like warm soils for germination and good growth.

            For the last five years, I have started these crops in four inch pots, sometimes at school, sometimes in the back yard on the potting bench, and then transplanted them in the middle of May. It keeps the starts cozy. They also appreciated the protection from slugs and pill bugs. It is a functional system. Last year, I put them out a few weeks earlier and covered them with min-cloches made from gallon milk jugs. They really liked the extra warmth. This year, I have an experiment.

            One set of seeds--- three each of all of the vining crops—were sowed directly in the ground. I turned over just that spot in the bed, planted, and then covered the seeds with a gallon jug to keep the soil warm and a little dry.  Keeping off the rain cuts down on the slug activity. The cover also keeps the cats from digging up the seeds and the rabbit from eating the new leaves.  The other set of seeds is planted in four inch pots, sitting on the potting bench. I need both sets to germinate for full crop production, but, because I started a few weeks early, if the garden beds do not survive, I can plant in pots and recoup my losses. It may even benefit the zucchini to be staggered.

            I am curious to see if, in July, it really matters. If I can direct seed and cloche cover, it saves a step, especially during warm springs like this one. However, the potting system is more flexible, allowing me to start the seeds according to the moon, not the occasional dry spell. We shall see.

Sticky Buns
Vines in bed

I use about a third of the recipe for my bread. Whole dough works better, texturally.

Melt two tablespoons of butter. While waiting, roll out the chunk of dough into a rectangle. Spread butter over all, then sprinkle with brown sugar. The dough needs to be evenly covered, but not thickly. Cover the sugar with coarsely chopped hazelnuts and a handful of raisins. Roll into a log, cut into six pieces, and place, standing up so you can see the roll, in a pie pan. Allow to rise for half an hour, bake in a 350 degree oven until golden and meltly, and flip onto a plate. Do not eat too soon or you will burn your mouth!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Moments of Being Happy

Saturday afternoon, for a series of complex reasons, I was left at our local coop with the groceries, near the magazines, for about ten minutes. I picked up Mother  Earth Living, one of those healthy life-style magazines, and landed on the page “How to Be More Happy.” Get a good night’s sleep. Eat well. Focus on the positive.  These are the positive moments of the last week.

Thursday afternoon, Parent Teacher conferences.
Not my favorite activity. They are exhausting.

I look up to see a mother-son pair heading my way. The student was totally lost first semester, but has done a 180 and is shining this semester. His work is in on time. He comes early to ask me questions. He talks with everyone. He sits down with his mom. His shoulders are back, his head up. He makes eye contact. We all smile. I compliment him on his radical change of behavior. “What happened?” I ask. His mother nods. She is also wondering. “I didn’t like not doing well,” he said. “I always got As and bad grades weren’t me. I decided I needed to work harder.” I cannot stress how unusual this is—for a ninth grade boy, on his own, to decide to do better and follow through on it. It speaks well for his future. His mother and I listen. She nods proudly. He son will be ok.

Saturday morning.

On Saturday, despite a downpour, we head for the hills and a long loop walk on logging roads through the OSU forest. There are Bleeding Heart and Fawn Lilies along the roadside. The moss is fat on the Douglas fir trees and sparkles in the sun. Dogs run ahead of their owners. I can hear the voices of my companions solving the world’s problems behind me, but I am not interested. The steady pace of the walk, rising and falling along the ridgeline, is peaceful. I have never been good at sitting meditation, but the rhythm of  walking clears my mind.


After heavy showers and clouds all week, the day is clear. I mow and trim out the backyard and consider, once again, how much bigger it looks when mowed. After raking and replacing the chairs, I check on the beehive—comb, pollen, honey, and the queen is out of her box. The hive is buzzing, but not aggressive. I cut off one branch to increase the  amount of sun on their front stoop and settle in with a book and my notebooks, dreaming of plants. In the garden, the leeks, spring greens, and peas are growing. Tulips and alliums are blooming, and the bees have discovered the comfrey and wild hyacinth blooms.  One cat perches on the cinder block in the flower bed; the other curls up on a blanket draped over a chair. The bunny chows on the freshly mowed grass. The world is peaceful.

Whipping cream will not splatter!

Coconut Cream Pie: This makes many people happy

Three parts— prebaked crust, pastry cream, and whipped cream, made in that order.

Pastry Cream:

1.5 c milk
1T butter
Start to warm in the pan. When the butter melts, it is ready.

Meanwhile, whisk six egg yolks, from backyard eggs, into .5 c milk, .25 c cornstarch, and .5 c of sugar.

Pour this mixture into the warmed milk and stir. Slowly heat the whole mixture, stirring regularly, until it thickens. Pour off into a bowl, add a splash of vanilla and a large handful of dried coconut, cover with plastic to avoid the film, and cool overnight.  Assemble right before eating.

Lap the bowl when done.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hot Cross Buns

I decided, this year, to change up the way I made the Hot Cross Buns for our annual pagan/Easter celebration. For years, I have made a rich dough with sugar and butter, kneaded the mass twice, shaped the rolls and baked them the night before. The problem was, rolls sweetened with sugar tend to dry out a bit overnight. I wasn’t happy with the results, but I was not willing to wake up early enough to start them on Easter morning. I love my friends—but not that much. I just put a little more cream cheese on the tops.

This year, I decided to address the issue head on and made several changes.  First, I decided to use the wet dough into the fridge method, rather than the heavy kneading system. This cut down the preparation time from hours—knead, rest, knead, shape, rest, bake—to minutes. Measure ingredients, stir, rest overnight, and shape the buns in the morning. When you are looking at

 HCB for 18 people, this is a vast improvement.  Three loaves of bread dough in a lump is a challenge to knead well. It also allowed me to easily bake the buns in the morning, so that they were fresh and soft when people arrived.

Second, I added some whole wheat flour to the mix—2:1 white to fresh ground whole wheat. This improved the texture considerably. I changed out the butter for oil, which was a milder flavor, and did not add milk to the mix, but just water. The eggs came from the back yard. The most significant change in ingredients, however, was the shift from sugar to honey. Honey naturally retains moisture in baked goods, including bread. A Whole Wheat Honey loaf is golden and soft, slightly sweet, and very long lasting.

Finally, we had two spreads for the HCB. They are always crossed with a sweetened orange cream cheese, but I also put out the jar of lemon curd that was left over from Christmas. Nothing is bad with lemon curd on it.

NEW Hot Cross Bun recipe:

This should make about 24-28 buns, depending on how you divide the dough.

3 cups of water
1.5 T yeast
1.5 T salt
3 c ww flour
4.5 c white flour
1/3 c honey
¼ c canola oil
2 eggs
1 T cinnamon
1t cloves
2/3 cup of chopped apricots

Whisk yeast into water. Stir all other ingredients in until well combined.  Let set out while you decorate the hard boiled eggs, about two hours. Put in the fridge overnight, covered with a plastic bag. In the morning, cut into bun sized pieces, shape, allow to rise for half an hour, and bake until done. Remember that honey browns quickly and does not indicate doneness. When cool, frost.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Equinox

          The Spring Equinox, the moment when day and night are the same length, but stretching towards the light, is a rainy, muddy, petally time in Oregon. Spring is in full bloom—daffodils and grape hyacinth line the walks, dogwood petals fall on the sidewalk, wild fruit trees bloom in the woods. Unlike the Fall Equinox, there is no thought of holding back, of striving for balance, of preparing for the long haul of the dark winter. Now is the time to go full on—long walks, late nights, tending starts, having friends over for dinner, and beginning all sorts of new projects, usually outside, while finishing up the holdovers from the winter. 

            Garden planting starts in earnest around the Spring Equinox—a time also known as Spring Break in Oregon, as all of the schools have rainy, cloudy week off.  The garden starts from Candlemas need to be planted out under the cold frames. Kale, cabbages, mustards, and peas are eager to grow in the new, thin, spring sunshine, but still need protection for heavy rains, probable hail, and hungry rabbits. The tomatoes need to be bumped up into four inch pots and distributed on Easter weekend.  The next round of garden seeds need to be planted: collards, beets, chard, herbs, and more broccoli and cauliflower.  Eager for spots of color, everyone buys primroses and pansies to gather in pots around the front steps. The season revolves around the planting of seeds in the ground and one full Saturday afternoon will be devoted to potatoes. Creative fencing abounds, as the chickens are still living on a fallow garden bed, but want to run around the yard in the afternoon. By May Day, the coop will be under the laurel tree once again and the summer fencing established.

There are two important. Rituals for Springtime: Distribute the Surplus tomatoes and Hot Cross Buns. The first occurs on a Friday afternoon in early April, when I give away all of the excess tomatoes—usually between fifty and sixty plants.  Mark claims that it sounds like a drug deal as we hunker down around the plants and negotiate amounts and varieties. The plants leave home and I spend less time in the evening moving starts back inside. The other event is Hot Cross Buns, an Easter brunch involving  Hot Cross Buns (obviously), coconut cream pie, winter root vegetables, and a huge salad, along with decorated eggs and a peep hunt. Some years, we gather in the dining room and listen to the rain pounding on the roof, dodging out quickly to hunt for marshmallow peeps and peanut butter eggs wrapped in raincoats.  Others, we set the table up outside in the garden, watch the bunny run around the yard, and blithely toss shells into the herb gardens.

By the end of March, the winter stocks are getting low. If I am lucky, a couple of squashes remain on the shelf and the onions have not quite started to sprout. I have to spend some time brushing the ghostly tendrils off of the eating potatoes and some small tubers are tossed on the compost pile. Tomatoes are long gone. Parsnips and leeks are starting to send out seed stalks and must be eaten. The Farmer’s Market is full of raab of all sorts, as their crops also shift into seed production. Although we still have lots of dried fruit, pickles, and salsa, the vegetable stores are going away. Greens, however, are thriving. Mustard and collard leaves the size of my head fall out of the produce bag from Sunbow Farm. We eat greens almost every night and I hunt through the cookbooks looking for new seasonings. The asparagus is just appearing, so we will have small sides of it sautéed with garlic for dinner. Or I will cook it with morels and eggs, with a side of whole wheat toast for dinner.

Out at Finley Wildlife refuge, things are blooming. Fawn lilies fall down the hillside. Fairy slippers and shooting stars catch our eye, magenta in the heavy dark leaves. Toothwort, Trillium, Spring Beauty, and an occasional Fairy Bells bloom in the woods. Wild mustard and English Daisy dominate the disturbed areas. The Big Leafed Maple is also blooming, and sends a spicy, sharp scent into the air. Newts are laying eggs. Birds are building nests. Everything is turning green.

In the evening, we come home for dinner, once again in front of the fire. Spring flowered plates, chicks, and decorated eggs rest on the mantel. The table runner is a mottled, batik green with underlying magenta hints. A green and pink table cloth covers the dining room table with pink depression glass candle holders. We will eat potato leek soup, Irish soda bread, and salad for dinner, then work on finishing up a pair of hand-knit socks. It may be Spring, but the floor is still chilly.

Irish Soda Bread

2 c white flour
2 c whole wheat flour
1 t salt
1 t BS
3 T sugar
nice handful of currants

4 T butter

1 !/3 c butter milk
1 egg, beaten

Mix dry ingredients together, then rub the butter in. Add milk and egg. Stir. Knead lightly. Form into a circle about two inches thick. Slide onto baking stone in the 350 degree oven and bake until golden. Eat with butter, honey, and jam.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rainy Weekend

            Rainy weekend….Up and down the Willamette Valley, people looked out the window at the rain on Saturday morning, poured another up of coffee, and settled down on the couch. Life feels right when the skies are cloudy in March (and November, December, January, February, at least half of April and May…). We’ve had a run of beautiful, warm, bright, sunny weather and it just felt wrong. Yeah, we all basked in the warm sun, took long walks and bike rides, planted out veggie starts early, but, underneath, there was a current of guilt. “Global Warming…climate change… something’s weird… this cannot last…snowpack is down….” You could feel the discomfort in the air.  We need clouds to feel safe, snugged in, protected from the world in the valley. This weekend, they returned.

Raspberry Cream Pie, for Pi Day
Make a crust from graham crackers or nilla wafers.

14 oz of condensed milk
¼ c of sour cream
¼ c of lemon juice
zest from one lemon
2 ½ c raspberries

Toss into the cuisinart and whirl until smooth. Pour into the crust and chill for several hours.  You could add whipped cream to the top, or drizzle some chocolate sauce over it all. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Painting Lessons: The Line is all

I come from a long line of housepainters. My grandfather painted interiors and hung wallpaper professionally; he even had his own store for several years. I loved paging through the thick books of samples, patting the red flocked paper, considering the impact of stripes with flowers, of different color combinations of the same patterns. (It was the late 1960s. Paper was wild!) I also loved watching him work, a shock of thick grey hair falling over his milky blue eyes, softly singing the song about the bedbugs and the cockroaches in Chelsea jail while he spread the paste over another strip of paper and pushed it up the wall. We did not talk much—men of his generation did not have much to say to their granddaughters—but it was companionable. He painted and papered all of the houses my uncle built, as well as constantly redecorating all of our homes.  He knew how to cut in a neat edge around a window frame, to box the electric switches in with paint, to keep splatters off of the glass.

My mother inherited his skills. Her hand was steady and her eyes were clear. The walls of her shop were lined with her oil paintings, a slowly evolving lesson in style as she worked her way through several community art class teachers. But she could also paint a wall neatly—and freehanded several series of dogwood blossoming branches on her bedroom walls. They were lovely. She did all of the interior painting and attempted to teach me as well. “Patience,” she would say, “Slow down. Breathe.  Do not overload the brush. Angle into the corners. Work on coverage. You have holidays.” I was not a good trim painter. I was not a great roller, either, but that was the less dangerous task, so I often rolled while she cut in. In my family, the ability to cut in was a sign of adulthood. I was a late bloomer, covered in paint.

When we bought our house, I was forced to work on my technique. That summer, it was me and the house. Mark was working. I did not think to hire anyone to help. How long can it take, I thought. I have all summer. I will be fine. It took all summer. I balanced on ladders, one foot on the rung, the other on a sill, for days, reaching for the trim just beyond my brush. I do have good balance and an affinity for ladders, even when I back into a freshly painted wall. 

I was still painting in mid_August, when my mother came to visit. The kitchen doors, inside and out, were still white, not the contrasting yellows and red.  She smiled and reached for the brush. While I worked on one, she took on the other. I know she glanced over several times to make sure I was not overloading the brush, but I had learned that lesson in July. Then, she moved into the door. While I watched out of the corner of my eye, her knotted and veiny hands reached for the paintbrush and drew the first line, absolutely straight, down the inside panel of the door.  Her breath, and her line, were perfect. 

Bean and Barley Soup-- all local 

3 cups of cooked Indian Woman Beans
1.5 cups of cooked barley
1 bag of frozen corn

Saute an onion in olive oil with a couple of cloves of garlic. Add the beans, barley, corn, a handful of fresh parsley, salt and pepper and allow to meld. 

It is not exciting, but it grows on you until it becomes comfort food on rainy days.