Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Just Every So Often

...the colors alone make all the gardening effort worthwhile.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Simple Solar Cooked Meal

This exceptionally hot summer has given us tomatoes worthy of the name in July.  I usually have to wait until August for a good garden tomato.  Pretty soon here, the fresh tomatoes will be coming in like gangbusters, and hardly a meal will squeak by without the addition of tomato in one form or another. In a week or so, I may have enough tomatoes at one time to do some canning.

Sometimes after a long day of gardening and other chores, I want a break with dinner preparation. Less frequently, I have foresight enough to know when I'm going to need that break. When that happens, this is a recipe that gets me a long way towards having dinner taken care of before I've eaten breakfast.  I like it and share it with you because it's a solar-cooked dish that can be prepared by anyone with a place to set a bowl in full sunlight for several hours during the day.  I made this back when I was a college student, long before I thought about investing in a solar oven.

Here's what to do:

Ideally you've got a large clear pyrex or glass mixing bowl.  Barring that, a ceramic bowl with a dark glaze is a good choice, but any non-reactive bowl will work.  Cut up the equivalent of a few large tomatoes (about 1.5 lbs/ 0.75 kg) directly over the bowl into rough chunks, allowing all the juices to fall in too. You can mix and match your tomatoes - anything ripe from the garden is perfect.  Then peel a few cloves of garlic, chop them, and add them to the bowl. Drizzle in some olive oil, add a generous amount of salt (preferably kosher) and freshly ground pepper, and stir everything once or twice. If you want to, you can add a fresh sprig of thyme, oregano, sage, or torn up basil leaves. Or you can wait until the sauce is "done" to season it further. Cover the bowl with saran wrap (plastic, I know, but this is a good use for previously used pieces) and poke several tiny holes in the plastic with a toothpick.  Place it where it will get sun as much of the day as possible.  If sunlight is limited where you are, placing it on a dark surface such as brick or macadam will speed the cooking.

At the end of the day, this delicately cooked tomato sauce will be warm, luscious, and still chunky. A little bit of the moisture will have escaped by the holes in the plastic, but it will still have quite a bit of liquid.  Taste it and adjust the salt and pepper if you wish.  Now all it needs is the addition of an herb if you didn't add any before cooking.

You can cook some pasta and add the sauce, dressing it up with extra veg if you have any. Or you can toast thick slices of bread (stale bread would be okay), tear them into bits and toss with the sauce and some mozzarella cheese for a simple panzanella salad. You can mash stale bread cubes into the liquid, add some chopped cucumber, pepper and onion, and have a warmish sort of gazpacho.  This stuff is also superb over thick slices of grilled eggplant. If you happen to have some cooked white beans on hand, they pair beautifully with this sauce and some extra olive oil. If left to sit with this sauce overnight, freshly cooked beans will soak up much of the extra liquid.  The sauce would probably compliment steamed or poached fish beautifully too, though I haven't tried that.

In any case, I like having dinner half made and already in a bowl when 7 o'clock rolls around.  And I especially like a dish made largely from garden ingredients with free energy.  Try it; I think you'll like it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I'm in the middle of a blogging break, and will be for a few more days.  I've had to leave home for the funeral of a family member.  Last week was a bad one all around.

Thanks to all of you for the good wishes on my foot.  It's very much better.  I can walk on it without pain, though it still looks awful.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I've been laid low the last several days.  When the days were blazing hot last week, I went about my garden chores wearing my beat up garden shoes without socks.  I got an innocuous looking rash on the base of my toes which looked like it might be athlete's foot.  I didn't yet realize that it was an abrasion, and so treated it generally, just washing it, putting some salve on it, and keeping it well dry and aired.  Turns out, this was a bad move.

By Friday night it was looking not so great, and worse still on Saturday.  Sunday morning I was running a fever and I could barely walk on my foot.  It was clearly an infection, with my fourth toe swelled up and angry looking.  I did what little I could, keeping my foot on a heating pad, taking a variety of immune-supporting herbal supplements, and mostly letting my fever take its course.  It got above 101 F.  The infection had no pinpoint location, everything was swollen and ugly pink or red.  Had there been anything to lance, I would have done it myself.  But this was something beyond my abilities.  Monday morning early I took myself to a walk-in clinic, using a cane and wearing a slipper.  The doctor took one look at the infected foot and put me on antibiotics.  As an afterthought, he asked if I wanted anything for pain.  I thought it wasn't a bad suggestion, even though I hadn't thought to ask.  The pain had been increasing, and it was to get worse still before things started to turn around.  I'm glad I took his offer.  Yesterday any amount of standing or walking was painful and difficult.  At times I scooted to the bathroom on my butt.  Yay for wooden floors!

Things have turned around now.  It doesn't look a great deal better, but the redness is receding slightly.  I can tell because the doctor marked the edge of the infection with a sharpie marker.  The pain and swelling have reduced enough to let me walk on that foot now, even if I favor it with a pronounced limp.  It was a relief to be able to tend to the poultry this morning, knowing I could move the pens, if slowly and carefully, and that I could clean their waterers and give them fresh water rather than obliging them to make do with what remained from the day before.

This has all given me much food for thought, which is good because I've done a whole lot of sitting around the last few days.  There's no doubt in my mind that without antibiotics this would have been a very serious situation.  Maybe with the herbal supplements and many hot foot baths my body would have fought off the infection.  Maybe.  But I can just as easily believe that I might have ended up with amputated toes or a whole foot lost.  I might even have ended up dead.  In earlier times, the chances for one of the more extreme outcomes would have been very high indeed.

I'm not into illness.  I'm sort of the stoic type.  But that doesn't mean I was toughing it out and ignoring something that obviously should have been attended to.  It just didn't look remotely serious when it first appeared - a little abrasion because I took my socks off and did routine garden work.  Big deal!  Well, it turned out to be a very big deal.  This is chastening on several levels.

I'm chastened because even though I rarely make use of our health insurance, it's there, and I didn't worry about paying for my treatment beyond finding an approved doctor under my plan.  I know not everyone enjoys that luxury.  I'm chastened because I now have a better appreciation for what it's like not to be able to move easily even around one's own home.  I know how quickly a kitchen can disintegrate into a smelly mess when dishes can't be done and neither the compost nor trash get taken out.  (My husband's traveling for work this week.)  I've a new appreciation for leftovers and more sympathy for those who find it very difficult or impossible to cook due to physical limitations.  I had to leave the garden to fend for itself.  Fortunately we've at least gotten rain in the last few days, but I could have lost an awfully big investment of my time, effort and money simply because I couldn't get out there for three days.  If I'd been incapacitated and alone last week, lots of stuff would have died in the heat.  Our garden isn't our livelihood, and I know its loss would have been minor in the economic scheme of things these days.  But I can see how an infection like mine could cost other people, other families, a great deal more than a backyard garden.

Anyway, I'm on the mend by the looks of things, and I've got a follow up appointment to confirm my impressions.  Aren't you glad I spared you a header picture?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Grillable Bread - Onion Naan

We're nearly out of our usual no-knead bread. I try to get a ton of bread baked and stashed in the chest freezer by mid-May, so that we have homemade bread all summer without the need to heat the house up by baking. Baking is a winter habit in our home. Alas, I was low on the bread flour we buy in 50-pound bags, and I didn't want to buy another one and hold it over the summer because this flour contains the germ of the wheat. Wheat germ contains fat, which goes rancid rather quickly in warm weather. So keeping 50 pounds of the stuff was out of the question with our summers.

Enter this recipe for naan, made with all purpose flour, and able to be grilled on a charcoal or gas grill. This is a fast rising dough, needing only 1 hour in warm weather to be ready for shaping and cooking. I usually give the dough more than that, part of the time in the refrigerator to slow it down and allow flavor to develop. I adapted this recipe from one by Mark Bittman, from his Best Recipes in the World cookbook. Leave it to me to figure I could improve on the best. This recipe makes a dozen flatbreads.

Grilled Onion Naan

1 Tbsp. active dry yeast
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. live culture yogurt
2 Tbsp. milk
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly diced
2 tsp. salt
4 cups all purpose flour (you can substitute a whole grain flour for a small part of this volume)
1 egg
3/4 cup water
extra flour for kneading
oil for the bowl

Thoroughly combine the yeast, sugar, yogurt and milk in a small bowl. Set this aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the diced onion, flour and salt. Process for about 30 seconds so that the onion is finely diced. Add the egg and process another 15 seconds. With the blade running, add the yogurt mixture through the feeding tube. Then add the water in a moderate stream until a more or less uniform ball of dough forms. You may not need to add all the water. The dough should be fairly sticky but not as liquid as a batter. Add water or flour a tablespoon at a time if the dough is either excessively dry or wet.

Take the dough out and place it on a well floured board. Knead it 8-10 times and form a ball. Place this ball in an oiled bowl with a capacity at least twice the volume of the dough. Cover and place in a draft-free spot for 1-2 hours, or keep in the fridge for 5-6 hours.

When ready to shape, take the dough out and form it into a thick roll on the floured board. The roll should be about 2 1/2 inches thick and about 20 inches long. Cut it in half and then in quarters. Cut each quarter into three equal pieces. Roll each piece into a little ball and set them on the board. When they are all finished, cover them loosely with plastic wrap or a clean towel. Let them rest for 15 minutes.
Holding the dough in your hands, shape each ball of dough into a flat oblong, roughly 5 by 9 inches. Start by thinning the dough in the center and then work outward in a circular fashion. Let the dough hang from your fingers, always working at the top, turning it, gently pulling it, gradually stretching the edge so that the dough elongates and thins. Each naan should be quite thin in the middle, slightly thicker at the edge, but try not to have any paper thin areas as these will burn quickly on a grill. If you stretch one part too thin (hold it up to a light to tell), pinch the dough together over that area to make it thicker. Dust the shaped naans with a little flour and place them on a baking sheet as you finish each one.

Cook the naan over a moderate charcoal fire or high heat on a gas grill. Holding the naan on your fully open hand, slap the dough down on the grill and make sure no part of it folds over on itself. Don't overcrowd the grill. Keep an eye on them as they can move from cooked to burnt in very little time. They will cook very quickly, no more than 2-3 minutes on the first side, and less on the second. Keep tongs handy to turn them so each side is nicely cooked. If you wish, you can brush the naan with melted butter or garlicky olive oil as you remove them from the grill.

These naan go well with just about any grilled meat and are much better than store-bought buns when folded in half for hamburgers. They also compliment BLTs and Indian dishes. Or put some good, soft, thinly sliced cheese on the naan while still on the grill, as soon as the first side is done and you flip them over.  We've been making these naan quite often. It's not the same as the multi-grain round loaves we like to slice and toast to eat with our eggs, but it's good fresh bread that doesn't heat up the house. You can also omit the onion if you want a more all purpose bread, but you'll need to add just a bit more water when mixing the dough. They'll also bake up well on a preheated baking stone in a hot oven if you want to make them indoors in wintertime.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Poultry Schooner


This is our new lightweight poultry pen.  We call it the Poultry Schooner.  It measures 3 feet wide by 10 feet long, which means it provides exactly the same area (30 square feet) as our mobile chicken pen that we use for rotational grazing in the backyard.  I'm very pleased with it for a number of reasons.  First of all, it has two handles on the purlins (click the picture to biggify) that allow me to move the pen entirely by myself if it came to that.  I prefer to move it with help, but in a pinch I can do it alone.  Secondly, it's designed to fit over our newly established permanent beds in the garden, which are all three feet wide.  I'd heard the idea of building mobile chicken housing to precisely fit the dimensions of garden beds, but it didn't make any sense to do it until the dimensions of our garden beds were fixed and known. Now that the beds are established, a pen fitted to them makes all the sense in the world.

Still, the more pressing reason for getting the Poultry Schooner built was to provide housing to our growing turkey poult.  In our state of unpreparedness for a new species, we've kept him in the crudest pen you could imagine - a length of 36" chicken wire bent into a tube - during the days for about two weeks.  He (-we're hoping it's male, but we don't really have any clue) is rapidly getting too big for such a small and flimsy pen.  Now the turkey has as much space to roam as the chickens do, and less company.  He does really like to be near the hens though.  He'll start up his distress call if he's outside and can't see them.  They took an interest in him at first but mostly now seem pretty blasé about his existence.

In the fall, the chickens themselves will be put into the Poultry Schooner and placed on our garden beds after the harvest.  They'll scratch around, dig up grubs to eat them, aerate the soil, add manure, and, if we throw in some of our semi-decomposed compost, they'll happily speed that process along for us by scratching and pecking at it.  Thanks to the dimensions of the pen, they'll do it all neatly, bed-by-bed, as I chose.  I recycled the simple nesting box from the girls' '09-'10 winter quarters.  I'm pretty sure I'm allowed to steal good ideas from myself.

Down the line, after the turkey is just a fond memory of a good meal and a few quarts of turkey stock in the pantry, I have homesteading tailpipe dreams of adding quail to our livestock portfolio.  This is all in the theoretical stage; I've done only cursory research on raising quail.  But I designed the Poultry Schooner so be suitable for multiple species.  If we put quail in there, we'll have to refine the nesting box-bucket, since the opening where I reach in to get the eggs is plenty big enough to let a quail out.  That would be an easy fix though. I have heard that one can put quail in an active garden bed and the birds won't destroy the plants the way a chicken would.  A thirty-square-foot pen could house a fairly impressive number of quail at a humane stocking density. But we'd probably make do with a dozen or so.  Anyway, it's all speculation at the moment.

The Poultry Schooner was built much along the lines of a mini-hoophouse, only with as lightweight materials as possible. The frame is made of 1x2 lumber, and the purlins supporting the hoops of 1x1.  We used chicken wire here because I've never seen any raccoons on our property.  I was warned against using it where raccoons are a concern because the holes are large enough for a raccoon to reach through.  But I was also prioritizing light weight, and this is certainly lighter than hardware cloth.  The hoops are made from 7' lengths of somewhat stiff black plastic hose, and though they are lightweight as well, they lend a surprising amount of structural support.  They attach to the bottom frame with a single screw running through each end, plus a bracket sold in the plumbing aisle for supporting pipe.  They also attach to the 1x1 purlins at the top, providing extra side to side stability for the whole structure.

It's hard to say what our expenses were for this project, since we had some materials lying around (chicken wire, the plastic hose, whitewash paint, staples for the staple gun, some of the 1x2, and 1x1), but we spent at least $50 for new materials just for this project as well.  I'd guess the total came to over $100, which seems extravagant to me.  So I figure we'd better get more use out of it than just housing our Thanksgiving turkey.  Guess I'll be doing some reading up on quail.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Horrific Heat

This gardening year certainly has been a change from last year.  We got rain almost every single day in June last year.  This year it's been incredibly dry and unseasonably hot since the beginning of June.  I've never had to water a garden so much in my life, and I've gardened in three extremely diverse climates.  Frankly, it's been a struggle to keep the plants watered.  But for a brief respite last week, the daytime temperatures have reached into the 80's and 90's most of the last four weeks.  Today, we're supposed to see 97 F (36 C).

I spent about 90 minutes watering the garden this morning, starting at 5 am.  I got some help from my husband's rain barrel, which he rigged up so that we could lay out a slow drip line through my three sisters planting.  All the corn fields around us look parched.  The plants are stressed, with their long leaves tightly furled and pointing upwards, giving them all a spiky appearance.  My own popcorn plants look somewhat better, but they're still not thrilled with the dry heat.  I hope the constant drip from the rain barrel along with my spot watering will see them through.

So far, the plant in the picture above is our only definitive casualty of the heat.  That's one of our two Hokkaido squash plants.  Over the last few days I watered it like crazy.  In the heat of the day, no amount of water seemed to perk it up, though it bounced back in the cool of evening.  Yesterday evening though, it still looked miserable and limp. It looked no better this morning, despite the extra watering I gave it yesterday.  Hokkaido is a northern region of Japan, where the sort of heat we're having would be very unusual.  So I guess it's no surprise this plant couldn't hack it.  The other Hokkaido plant looks to be doing alright, and I hope I can keep it alive.  I grew these last year and they are not prolific producers.  So the loss of one plant will mean a serious reduction in our squash supply this year.

On the other hand, a simple row cover has allowed us to keep several lettuce plants alive and well through the infernal heat.  This is a double layer of floating row cover, arranged so that the bed is shaded to the south.  It's pinned up on the north side to allow good airflow and prevent the row cover from making the bed even hotter than it otherwise would be.  It seems that simply keeping the soil temperature cooler, and the dark leaves out of direct sunlight allows the lettuce to tolerate the excessive heat and dryness.

They're saying we may get some rain on Friday, but we have another week of scorching weather to get through first.  I guess we have no worries about the late blight at the moment.  But this is a steep price to pay for that reassurance.

P.S.  Most of you who asked for kale seed have a small packet on the way in the mail.  I temporarily ran out of envelopes, but the rest of you should have your packets this week.