Monday, September 24, 2012


It is the weekend of the Fall Equinox, a time to gather in the harvest, count up the blessings, ask forgiveness for the sins of the year, and prepare for the winter. Get your life into balance before the long slide into the Dark Times of Winter. It’s been a lovely fall here in the Northwest this year—warm and sunny, dry and clear for days on end. I believe we should shift our school calendar to reflect this season—stay in school during the rainy month of June and be free in September. But school has begun, both high school and college, and the struggle for balance continues.

Last Thursday night, I witnessed a rather frighteningly out of control party. At ten past ten, I heard some voices and decided to walk around the block and find out where the sound was coming from. I waked past the house o the corner and there were about 20 people there, loud, but approachable. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll come back to them when I finish my lap.” By the time I walked around the three blocks that consist of our party watch lap, at 10:30, there were cars parked in the streets, people screaming at each other, hordes of large aggressive males walking towards the house, taking up the entire sidewalk, and about 150 people in the yard, with more coming. They were all consulting their cell phones. I called the cops. They arrived quickly.

We spent the rest of the weekend in Eastern Oregon, camping on the Metolious, a beautiful cool clear fly fishing river lined with campgrounds and summer houses. Our favorite campground is near Camp Sherman. It is not trampled by too much love AND there is a great little store within easy walking distance. Mark visits it at least twice; he loves the sandwiches and iced tea and they have ice cream sandwiches as well. It is dark and quiet; for some reason, few people camp after Labor Day. We napped and read, went hiking into Marion Lake on Saturday, and had a fire in the evening. A raccoon stole our apples off of the table, but that was all the night life we had to deal with. We came home on Sunday afternoon, still spacey from the hours of peace and quiet. I started a batch of Challah in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Mark did the laundry. On Sunday night, we will watch the Harvest Moon rise from Chip Ross Park. Peaceful rituals carry us a long way in autumn.

Round Challah for a sweet year

I use the “Fresh Bread in Five Minutes a Day” system from Mother Earth News

1.5 T of yeast, dissolved in 3 cups of warm water
1.5 T salt
.25 cups of honey
1 or 2 fresh eggs from the back yard
3 T of melted butter
6.5 cups of white flour

Stir it all together, cover with a plastic bag, and let rise on the counter for two hours. It will be a wet dough.
Toss in the fridge overnight.
The next day, take out half of the dough and form it into a ball. You will need flour on your hands. Let it relax on a bed of cornmeal for about 20 minutes while you preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Slide into the oven, onto a baking stone and bake for about 40 minutes, until it thumps hollow, not damp. It will brown because of the honey.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Potato Harvest

This was my first post. As we just pulled 119 pounds of potatoes out of two 4 by 10 foot beds (a new record!), I thought I'd repost it. You really don't want to read my other piece for the week, which is how to call in a noise complaint. :)

            It’s been warm and sunny, but the light has shifted to golden and the potatoes are ready to be dug.  After lunch, I gather the wheelbarrow, six paper  bags, a water bottle, and a few hand tools and headed down the street to the second  garden.  Three raised beds are covered with dried, crunchy old potato vines. I push them aside, plunge my hands in, and haul out a huge red potato, followed by three or four small ones, pop them  into the bag, and move onto the next plant.
            Digging potatoes is like a treasure hunt. You know there is something down there—somewhere—but not exactly where or how much. There are always surprises—a huge potato that could feed a family of four, a migrant clump of red potatoes in the blue potato line, one that has dug itself deep down into the bed, below all of the others.  You never know. Slowly, the bags fill up and the scope of the harvest is clear. This was a pretty good one. The red potatoes did really well, but the rose fingerlings, usually a strong producer of complex, lumpy, knotty tubers, were sleek and thin this year. Why? Was it planting time? Water? The new beds? Or are the tubers starting to peter out, succumbing to disease?  I wonder as I dig, thinking about next year.
                Why do I plant potatoes every year? They’re cheap to buy, even the organic varieties at the market, and ubiquitous.  There are lumpy, dirty, and decidedly uninteresting as a plant. And, according to old diet theories, you shouldn’t eat too many—starch is bad for you.  But, for the last five years, I’ve planted five or six varieties of potatoes, first at the community garden and now here, in the second garden behind our rental. There are many reasons.
First, they are an excellent community garden crop. They don’t need hours of care, once planted, and no one knows what they are, so no one messes with them. Avery Garden has a harvest problem, but no one ever harvested my potatoes, buried under straw and dirt, hidden by dead vines.  You can go in at the end of the season and haul them all out in a morning.  The first year, the haul was much larger than I expected and my bike could hardly handle it. I barely made it across Western without spilling the harvest all across the highway. After that, I brought the trailer and Mark.
Then, there is the genetic component. I feel very close to my Irish roots when I dig the potatoes.  This is not something I had to study to learn, like I had to work at how to change the oil in my old VW Rabbit. It feels natural, like sliding bread out of the oven using a peel. I have done this before. Dug trenches, cut the saved tubers, buried them in the ground, weeded and watered, and pulled them out to the root cellar, to be eaten all winter.  I love eating  my own potatoes.
And that may be the crucial reason for this work. In a world that is rapidly sliding towards chaos—we are not going to be able to keep importing our food from around the world much longer—I am working towards a more direct food supply. I’m not participating in a Think Tank on Peak Oil. I am not fussing about carbon offsets to balance out my supply of tropical fruit through the winter. I am not depending upon others to feed me. In the small way, I am independent. We are, at my house, Potato Independent.  We will eat the potatoes that we raise and then, when they are gone, we will not eat potatoes until they come again.
So it’s warm afternoon, with fall coming on. The plum tree and grapevine down here are also calling me—but that’s another day’s work. Right now, I am hunting potatoes. One hundred and five pounds of potatoes, to be precise. And, when I am done, I’ll put them in milk crates and stack them in the space under the cellar stairs, where the temperature is always about the same, and be greeted by their earthy fragrance as I move up and down, putting by food for the winter.

Nova Scotia Potato Soup-- the best

Chop up onions and potatoes, twice as many potatoes as onions
Cover with water, barely
Simmer for hours-- a crockpot could be handy here. The longer it cooks, the sweeter the onions are.
When you have a lovely brokendown sauce, add a big splash of milk, a large spoonful of sour cream, some dill, salt and pepper. Taste.

Eat with fresh bread and green salad. For days....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fence Repair

We’ve spent the last week working on our backyard fencing situation. We already had a nice new gate, built by Mark Meyer last spring, wide enough to bring a bike through, but the rest was a post and rail sort of construction along the alley, which created a slight visual barrier, but not much else. When we acquired chickens, we fenced them in with bits of chicken wire stapled to the fence. It worked, mostly. Gracie, the Houdini of chickens, found all of the weak spots one fall and we plugged them up. We were down to a bi-monthly escape, and that was tolerable. But, last spring, a dog got in somehow and killed three chickens, including twelve-year-old George. At that point, we knew something had to change. At the same time, the fence around our rental developed a seriously threatening lean. So, we replaced the rental fence and hauled the six foot pieces of cedar down the alley to our own backyard. Mark began dismantling them as I considered our construction options. We discovered that we could use almost all of the old fencing, as the nails would land in different spots and the rotten bottoms could be trimmed off.

First, we needed a serious pruning/cleaning up of the two old hazelnut trees that frame the back yard. I asked around and Mark Meyer was willing to come in with his chainsaw and clean them out in exchange for an Orange Pound Cake. He spent two evenings right before dark working on the stubs of old branches that I had trimmed over the years and the brushy rootball that was creeping over the fence line. His work was much better than the professional guys I hired last winter…and they did not work for cake. When he was done, I yanked out the brambles and ivy and thrust them into our neighbor Al’s extra yard debris container.

We’ve  cut boards to fit the uneven ground, curving the bottoms up over the rootball, dropping the fence top down as we move away from the corner brush pile, and running part of the fence under our art installation of a repainted garage door left over from the garage to dining room conversion of a few years ago. A recycled wood fence is not something you can just measure, cut, and attach. There’s a lot of flex in change in the run down the alley. We're not done yet; there's more to do.

So far, it’s been a big hit with the neighbors. Most of them know about the chicken massacre. They have also done some chicken herding, so they understand the concept. Dogs cannot see in; chickens cannot see out. Everyone stays where they belong. I think they also like the height. Except around the brush pile, where the fence is six feet high—the chickens were walking to the top of the pile and hopping over quite neatly last spring—the fence is no higher that the old rails, so you can still see in as you walk by. Lots of people like to peer in, check out the crops, watch the bees, feed the chickens, pat the cats….the new fence doesn’t stop any of that interaction. It is not off-putting or unfriendly. And it’s all recycled wood, which is pretty fine and free.

Finally, clearing out the brush has allowed the fall blooming crocus to sprout up and, this fall, I’m going to bring back some more day lilies and asters, so there will be more flowers and herbs and less trash along the alley. Over time, it’s going to be a good example of site repair—making a pretty ugly spot look beautiful through time and effort, not money. And that pleases the whole neighborhood.

Orange Pound Cake (easy with a kitchen-aid mixer):

1 cup of butter, softened and creamed thoroughly with 1.5 cups of fine sugar
add 4 eggs, one at a time
measure 3 cups of flour, with 1 t. of baking soda, baking powder, and salt fluffed in
measure 1 cup of buttermilk and one t. of vanilla, and the rinds of two grated oranges
add half the flour, half the buttermilk, beat, then add the rest of the flour and buttermilk
Pour into a tube pan or two layers. Bake at 350 until done—toothpick test

Gild with either the juice of the oranges, mixed and heated with a little sugar or some lovely chocolate gouache frosting.

This also works with lemons—and maybe some lemon curd….

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gloating time

Late August in the Pacific Northwest can be a stressful time—we are pulled three ways. The mountains call; the air is cool and the bugs are gone, so it is perfect backpacking weather. School is starting, with all of its painful indoor meetings before the kids come back. And the tomatoes and apples, peaches and blackberries, are all pouring in at once.

This last week was apple and tomato processing central in the kitchen. I harvested at least a bushel and a half of Macintosh apples off of our tree in the front yard, climbing up the 14 foot orchard ladder and stretching as far into the tree as I could to grasp the last, biggest, reddest apples from the central branch. After tucking them into the basement, the whole house smelled of apples for a week. I sliced and dried many of the iffy ones and chopped the bruised ones into applesauce, using my new food mill to strain out the seeds and skins. We have, right now, 5 quarts of dried apples and fifteen pints of sauce, which should keep us this winter. I dreamed of latkes and applesauce in December while the puree bubbled in the pot. There are still three trays of fruit in the basement for fresh eating, as well as pies and crisps. It is nice to be apple independent this year.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I hauled home about fifty pounds of tomatoes from Sunbow. The first 22 pounds rode home on my bike on my last day of work for the summer and were processed after a long afternoon of school meetings. The second round was finished on Saturday. I sliced the fat, red fruit in half—or, occasionally, thirds—laid it on sheet trays, and slid it into the oven to roast. Forty-five minutes or so at 350 degrees wilted and concentrated the flavor. I then transfered them into half pint jars and processed them in the steam canner for thirty minutes. I can get a good rhythm going when I have time—two sheets always roasting, the canner always dancing, the metal milk crate slowly filling. While everything cooked, I cleaned the rest of the house. By Saturday evening, there were 55 halfpints of tomatoes sitting on the basement shelf, waiting for winter pizza and pasta, and soup. The rest of the years tomatoes will be dried or turned into salsa—small batch, when you have time after dinner projects.

The basement shelves are filling up. Before the tomato harvest, there are still huge holes. I’ve made pickled beets and plums, dried and canned plums and peaches, blueberries and cherries, strained honey, and created a few dried herbal tea blends, but there are gaps. Now, the shelves are almost full (which is good, because we are almost out of jars) and it is time to gloat. When I bring something new down, I have to shift jars around and then, when everything is resettled, admire for a few moments. Gloating season has begun.