Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kitchen Ode

One of the things that I love about our house is, despite its age (built in 1931!) it has never been seriously remodeled. There are a few chunks out of the woodwork in mysterious places but it is remarkably  unchanged, probably based on its excellent design. There are some layers of paint on the backs of the cabinets revealing changing tastes, but the structure is the same. This means that my kitchen, along with being tiny, is also the same as it was 80 years ago. I love it.

The first distinctive feature of the space is its size. It is, at its widest point, 9.5 feet wide and 10.5 long, but there is a chunk taken out of the room for the living room fireplace, so the actual space is closer to 85 square feet. There is room for a small table, two chairs, and a stepstool. We can stash the yogurt cooler under the table in the winter.

 This is the counter space. To the left of the sink is the dishes to be washed space, as well as a pull out cutting board for bread and cheese. To the right is the prep space-- about four feet square. As you can see, we keep the electric kitchen gadgets to a minimum-- kitchen-aide mixer, toaster, and electric kettle. I tried to put the kettle on the stove, but the plugs did not speak to one another. I can overflow onto the kitchen windowsill, as well as the table for a resting space. However, I've worked in professional kitchens where the personal workspace was not any bigger.

 Because of the tiny space, we have to special order our refrigerator. It is difficult to find a five foot tall fridge!   When we first moved in, I was concerned about the size, but now I love it. I do not lose food to rot in the far back reaches of the space-- there are no dark corners. Because we eat so much fresh food directly from the garden in summer, I do not need a huge storage space. And, in winter, we can leave greens and a big pot of soup in the larder on the way into the cellar, where they will keep for over a week. A small refrigerator cuts down on waste, both in energy and in food.

 The pantry is the best aspect of the kitchen. I loved really pantries when I was little. My grandmother, who lived in double-deckers in Boston and Somerville for years, often had a real pantry off of her kitchen. I would poke around, wiping shelves, sniffing spices, and talking about making cakes for hours whenever I visited. Although I would still love to have such a room, I am resigned to my very tall storage closet right in the kitchen. All of our bulk goods are stored on these shelves. It is very handy!

I am also blessed with an old stove. It has a huge oven and space on the surface to rest posts and pans. I never have to juggle  hot equipment while cooking or canning. Over the years we have had to replace the burners and the oven heating coil, but the stove is solid and beautiful. The old timer and stove light still work. In winter, it is the heart of our home; baking bread, potatoes, cookies, and dinner all at the same time.

I have an old cherry maple table and chairs which fit neatly into the space when the drop leaf is down. I found them while I was still in college. There was a used furniture store on my way home from the bus, which I often checked out. One day, they table and four chairs were there. Seventy five dollars for the set. That was a lot. But they glowed in the spring sunshine. I came back a week later and they were still there. The owner of the shop confessed to a friend that she was tired of them and was going to drop the price to  sixty to clear them out, not knowing that I was considering a major purchase. Hush, her friend whispered, but it was too late. I heard and offered sixty, and carried them proudly away.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cucumber Madness

           Cucumbers are taking over the kitchen….we eat three for lunch and five more come in at dinner time. It has been a good year for cucumbers. The weather has been warm; the beehive is active so pollination is excellent. I planted a few extra plants because of slow germination. Finally, Lemon cucumbers are just prolific and the “double Yield” variety from Territorial is, literally, a double yielder. I have had a whole series of twinned fruits. For whatever reason, the vines are heading towards the fence at a rapid rate.

            Every evening, I wander out to the back garden to check for dinner. Beans? Tomatoes? Collards? Cucumbers? I harvest what is ready and plan supper around the basket. Despite the occasional run away zucchini,  the system has worked in the past. This year, however, I check the cucumber vines before dinner, moving the leaves around, picking the green fruits.  An hour later, when I run out for fresh basil, I spot yet another fruit, large and golden, lurking at the base of the trellis. How is this possible?

            My vegetable bin is full of cucumbers. I have made four varieties of pickles, all from The Joy of Pickling: bread and butter, senfgerkin, Dutch lunch spears, and quick dill. Each batch clears out the bin for a week, but then it backs up once again. Last week, I pulled all of the cookbooks off the shelf and hunted down every cucumber recipe possible. Every night, we try another, but we are not complaining. Cucumbers are summer and summer can stretch out for another month.

Cucumber Salads:

·        Cucumbers, yogurt, mint, salt and pepper.
·        Cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet onion, feta and olive oil and vinegar
·        Cucumbers, sweet onion, paprika, rice vinegar, and sugar, salt
·        Salted cucumbers with soy sauce
·        Cucumbers, dill, and vinegar
·        Chinese noodles, peanut sauce, and cucumbers

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

And still....

             Between the very hot summer—the long predicated effects of climate change beginning—and an article in The New Yorker on a magnitude nine earthquake lurking right off-shore, the summer has had apocalyptic undertones.  We started with a dry warm spring and low snowfall in the mountains, moved into an early heat wave the first week of July, followed by a second at the end of the month. For several days, both times, the temperature rose to at least 100 degrees in the valley. We are not accustomed to this dry, bakey heat and the plants and fish are suffering. Already, trees are dropping leaves and turning gold and brown. Fish are dying because river water is too warm and too low. Yards and gardens look September beat in early August.  It is not good.

            In the middle of the first heat wave the article on the Pacific Subduction Zone was published.  Because it was recently discovered, in the late 1980s, we have not really prepared for the potential earthquake. Apparently, over the last few thousand years, the Oregon coast has had a huge, sudden earthquake every three to five hundred years, and we are closing in on the time for the next one. Some people say it is overdue, some that it will not be THAT bad, but there has always been a lurking fear of the earth shaking here. This summer, the article said “everything west of I-5 will be toast.” We live ten miles west of I-5. Most of the state lives west of I-5, to be honest. Because we are not prepared—our pubic buildings are not earthquake proof, our alarm systems are limited, our schools sit on fault lines and in the direct line of tsunamis—civilization will collapse. It was a dire article, not helped out by a presentation I heard one evening while camping on the coast. “We will all be fine,” the official said, “As long as we are prepared.” He followed this statement with the observation that the last tsunami created all of the “haystacks” along the coast by scouring away the softer rock.

            Clearly, civilization is doomed. If we are not taken out by climate change or peak oil, then the earthquake is going to end civilization as we know it.  And how do we respond to this? How do we respond to any overwhelming sense that our world is ending? I’ve been wrestling with this question all summer, but found an answer, or, rather, several answers in a poem by Clemens Starck that I read to my students every year. We like it because it is about fixing cars, a cool car, and so, even my hands on boys respond to it.  But is also about how to deal when someone you love is dying.


Changing the Alternator Belt on Your 504

To do this the radiator
Must be removed. Two bolts on top, three
On the bottom, and disconnect
The hoses.
Four small screws, and the shroud
Comes loose. This leaves
The radiator free.

Lift it out carefully. Set it
Outside the garage, on the gravel.
Take five.
Contemplate the plum tree.

If the soul took shape
It might look like that—a cloud of white blossoms
Throbbing with bees…
In the rank grass,
Daffodils flaunt their yellow message.
Six fat robins
Skitter across the pasture.

It makes no sense.
Eddie Rodriguez is dying. You know
That you are dying too,
And still there is spring
And fixing cars.

With the radiator out,
The rest is easy.
After replacing the belt, reverse the procedure:
Radiator, hoses, anti-freeze.

Turn on the engine.
Be brave. Be sad. Check for leaks.
Wipe your greasy hands on a rag.
Drive on,
Brother, drive on.

For E.R., 1945-1987
Clemens Starck

            What I love about this poem is the delicate balance between the practical and the philosophical.  He walks us through the process of taking apart an engine, carefully and mindfully. When in despair, he suggests, it helps to do something with your hands and mind to repair a corner of your world. A friend of mine, when stressed, would organize the shelf about the sink in the kitchen where we both worked. Something in our lives can be put in order, even when the larger picture is chaos. There’s no point listening to a screaming alternator belt just because your friend is dying.  Fix something.

And then, in the middle of the repair, pause. Turn philosophical. Contemplate nature and the soul. Because we need these moments of peace in a difficult time as well.  We have lost a great deal and that loss haunts us, but the world still is a very beautiful place.  We need to be outside, watching a dipper climb a cliff, eating lunch with friends. We need the deep silence of mountain lakes, the damp breezes of the ocean, the long vines of cucumbers and squashes growing up the trellis in the back garden. We need these quiet times to help us confront the despair that threatens to overwhelm us when we contemplate the reality of death and the end of the world as we k now it.

In section three, he moves on, back into action. He finishes the task, acknowledges the pain, and drives on. I see this a metaphor for life in these times. Rather than give into despair,  remember that there “is still spring and fixing cars” and persevere. 

My class also loves Starck’s poem about the local Seven-Eleven. There are three in town and we spend about ten minutes every year, after I read he poem, discussing which one he is describing, using lines from the text to support our ideas. It is, to be honest, and English teacher’s dream. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Why Dry?

            When I first began food preservation, I was very interested in applesauce and jam; they were both easy and familiar. I’d made applesauce back in high school, large pots of it, and froze it in “seal-a-meal” bags, laid in our small freezer like slabs of bacon.  There were hundreds of recipes for jam; once I figured out the slight shift in bubble structure that indicated the perfect “jamming” temperature, I was off.  Our shelves were lined with half pints of blackberry jam and pints of applesauce, followed by a foray into Dilly Beans. Life was good and I repeated the process the next year, adding home canned fruit—until we had a serious backlog of jam and pickled beans. Then I realized that we did not eat much jam and the canned fruit, except of peaches, was too sweet, unless we had an old batch of sour yogurt. And I was still buying dried fruit for work and backpacking trips. Something was off. I bought a cheap food drier and we have never looked back.

            Drying fruit makes far more sense than canning.

First, it is fast and easy. I can slice up a pile of apples (peal still on) after dinner, laid them out in the drier, turn it on, and go to bed. If I set the timer to turn off in six hours, we have dried fruit in the morning. I toss it into my vintage Magic Mason jars, check it off of the master list, and put it on the basement shelf. Italian plums and figs require a little push and spread motion to expose more surface to the air, but, overall, drying fruit is a one step process.

Second, it is healthy. I gather my fruit at the peak of the season and process it directly, with no added sugars or preservatives. Much of it is organically grown, either by design, in my backyard, or neglect, when I harvest from the abandoned alley trees around the neighborhood. Drying preserves all of the fiber, most of the nutrients, and all of the flavor. Mixed bags of dried fruit are our favorite winter snack; we both keep a stash in our desk drawers.

Dried fruit is tasty. We have all purchased pieces of fruit from the grocery store that are well traveled and know the consequences. Despite the fancy label, an apple in March often tastes dry and mealy and an orange is often a disappointment. A piece of dried fruit, however, is always good. Peaches and pears are sweet and flavorful throughout the winter when dried. Over the last few years, we have moved almost totally away from buying “fresh” fruit out of season, because of the dried fruit stash in the basement. Why bother?

Finally, dried fruit is flexible, unlike canned fruit. It travels well, so we take it backpacking and camping, as well as to work. We eat jars of dried fruit out of hand all winter long. When we long for “fleshy” fruit, I make compotes, mixing several types together with some warm juice to plump it up. I also toss handfuls into oatmeal and granola, muffins and scones, and pasta sauces.

When I first started drying, several friends asked about the carbon footprint of running the drier all day, and, it is true that our electric bill goes up in August. Wouldn’t it be more energy efficient to purchase the fruit that was dried commercially? Although I have not done any calculations, I am not convinced this is so. The fruit I dry travels less than five miles to my house, always on bike or foot. It is often raised without any summer water; it is not sprayed with chemicals. This reduces the carbon footprint considerably. Then, it is not shipped from the factory to the store, then to my home. We have also totally eliminated packaging. Finally, unlike canning, the jars and lids can be used over and over again. I have some lids with six or seven years of notes on them! When I consider all of these factors, I am not concerned about my drier. And, yes, I am interested in a solar drier, although I wonder if it would work given the dropping light levels and cool nights that come around at the peak of drying season.

 If I were beginning food preservation again, I would start with a drier, not a canner. I use my steam canner all summer long, processing pickles and roasted tomatoes, as well as canned peaches, applesauce, and grape juice. But the drier processes the most important foods we put up for the winter—all of our foraged fruits.

Lemon Icebox Pie: the perfect pie for a 98 degree day

8 oz cream cheese
1 can sweetened condensed milk
zest and juice of three lemons

Toss it all into the food processor and whirl until smooth. Pour into a graham cracker crust and set in the refrigerator overnight. Top with whipped cream.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Timing for Fall/Winter crops

Just planted fall crops
            Despite Steve Soloman’s recommendation to leave half of Pacific Northwest garden beds for fall/winter crops, I have always struggled with the timing.  Seeds planted after the Summer solstice never grow well, if they germinate at all. Plants put in later do not thrive; they know that my energy is pulled off, towards the new school year, when September begins. And, if I do get the sowing times correct, there is never a real space for the plants in late July, when they have to be in the ground.  This year, however, I think I have figured it out --and I am praying that writing about my success does not bring on a horde of locusts or hungry chickens in the early morning.

Step one: plant early varieties of potatoes together in one bed, as early as possible, like when the volunteers start to push up in early March.  Not only will this give you a nice July harvest of taters, and eliminate some watering, it will also  free up a bed just when you need the space.

Step two: plant the seeds in six-packs in early June, as part of the last round of seed starting. They can sit on the potting bench, in the shade, right on the pathway between bike parking and the house. It is easy to cheer them on and keep them moist.

Step three: after about three weeks, bump them up into four inch pots. This, I think, is key. Trying to keep young plants in a tiny pot makes them rootbound and retards their growth. In a four inch pot, they have room to move around and develop some nice roots while waiting for a space in the garden beds.

Step four: harvest the early potatoes in late July, after they have dried down. While digging the potatoes, turn in all of the straw and leaf much that has surrounded them for months, thus increasing the organic matter in the soil.

Step five: plant out, tossing a handful of Biofish fertilizer into each deeply dug hole.  Water in, and place your signs.  I was so pleased with the final results that I even corrected the misspelling of “cauliflower” on one of the signs….although it was washed off the next day.

Apple Butter

Gather a laundry basket full of apples, preferably from an abandoned/unloved tree. Rinse them off, let them dry in the sun, and haul inside. Chunk the fruit, cutting out bruises, worms, and rotten bits, but not worrying about peeling or cores. Toss into a big pot as full as possible, add about a cup of water, and cook quickly down to mashed apple. Set your food mill, with the medium hole screen, on top of the crockpot and send the pulp through the mill. When the crockpot is full-- and mine just about matches a pull pot-- add a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon, and turn it on low. Leave on for about 24 hours, stirring whenever you walk by. Preserve in half pint jars-- hot butter into clean jars, then  canned for 15 minutes-- and eat on toast all winter. My crockpot, full, makes eight half pints of apple butter. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Blueberry Picking

          Blueberry picking….the ultimate July experience in the Willamette Valley.  Our valley is packed with farms—berry, vegetable, fruit, nuts, wheat and oats, mint—and many have farm stands and u-pick sections, but, everyone agrees, blueberries are the best. They are tasty, there are lots of subtle variations in the flavor, they have a long season, and, best of all, there are no thorns to dodge while you pick.  I went out to pick earlier this week, armed with two large Nancy’s yogurt containers (just enough for a pie, with some table nibbles left over) and a bucket.
            In was a warm, sunny morning and the place was hopping. Everyone picks early here, to avoid the mid-day sun. A little breeze blew across the fields.  I wandered  to the far corner, searching for the perfect combination of ripe berries, loaded bushes, and quiet.  I started to pick.
 Plonk, plonk, plonk. The berries landed in the bucket as I stripped them from the laden branch. Nearby, two college kids discussed the relative merits of small, but flavorful, berries versus large, easy to harvest berries.
              Plonk, plonk, plonk. My bucket began to fill. In the distance, I could hear a small family picking. Two women  discussed the merits of various elementary schools in Corvallis (a preferred topic in our town), while their kids ran around eating and picking. As always, one small boy was on the constant look-out for the biggest, ripest patch and called everyone over every time he found a new one. “Look at these!” echoed over the fields.  “Don’t eat them all,” his mother admonished.
               Plonk, plonk, plonk. My mind drifted from the deeply philosophical to the pragmatic. Picking berries is one of those perfect occupations that require just enough of your brain so that you can think. A pie. Dried berries. A bowl for eating…is there enough to can as well?

        Plonk, plonk, plonk. The big bucket was filled. Onto the pie and traveling containers…I tucked the bucket into the shade of a bush. Cars hummed by on the secondary highway near the farm, creating a quiet background sound. The family left. It was only me and a few other serious pickers left, the people who pick fifty pounds for the freezer and eat our local berries all winter long on their cereal.  I could hear their berries hit the bottom of the bucket as well. “Good picking this year,” someone comments. “But early,” someone else replied. Climate change hung in the air for a moment, but we all brushed it aside. It was warm, and sunny, and the blueberries were ripe.

Blueberry Pie

Make a double crust.

Six cups of blueberries
1/2 cup of sugar
peel of one lemon
3 T flour
pinch of cinnamon

Mix it all together and pour into crust. Either weave a lattice top or use a small cookie cutter to create an attractive top. (Stars or hearts work well.) Back in 350 oven until bubbly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Planning forSolar Panels/greenhouse, Part Two

The garden bed before construction
The greenhouse/solar panels project is progressing. We have determined that we will need eight solar panels to cover our energy use for the year, and they will be laid, in two rows, landscape, over the greenhouse, about twelve feet in the air. This will minimize the visual impact and raise them well above any local shrubs and foliage, thus increasing efficiency.  The greenhouse itself will tuck underneath, with an asymmetrical bay window in the front, projecting a little beyond the edge of the old flower bed and the raised beds of the vegetable garden.  It is already creating more of a room around the dining table, which is tucked into the ell of the house and ties in nicely to the flourishing gardens in the back. There’s been considerable geometry used in the back yard this week.

Once the frames are all constructed, the green house will have a clear plastic roof and walls made from old double paned windows from a farm shop, then framed simply in fir. There will be a narrow green metal band around the bottom to mimic the garden shed, and a red wooden door on one end. Inside, we’ll set a claw foot tube, Mark’s tea plant, and all of the starts for next year (along with a folding chair and probably a high up cat perch). Although the solar panels will have a much greater impact on our energy use, we are far more excited about the greenhouse!
Cleared ground

Two days in

four days in