Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Planned Garden

I have finally designed my garden. By comparison to other gardens I've designed, it's tiny. My past life of backyard gardening has been at a housing co-op of ten people and while I never actually grew a garden big enough for 10, I designed and built gardens on the scale (a crazy endeavor I fondly blame on being youth-drunk and excited about the new-found love of my life). I am proud to say that this garden is a model of restraint. Here are the details:

The loveliness of my new garden is in its simplicity. It is designed as one 4' by 20' raised bed and another 4' by 18' rectangle. The bed, which will run East/West and will have a 6' by 4' rectangle of potatoes and bush beans (with sweet peas in the spring), a 4' by 4' square of carrots, parsnips, and beets, a 2' by 4' rectangles each of kale and peppers, and two 2' by 6' rectangles one for okra and one for cabbages. parallel to this bed and just north of it will be my tall plants (north of the other bed so as not to shade anything out). I will have two rows of mixed tomatoes (6' by 4'), then a corn/bean/squash rectangle of 8' by 4', which will have a row of lettuce tucked in behind it (to take advantage of the spring light before the corn grows tall, and then to take advantage of the shade in the high heat of summer), flanked by another double row, 4' square of my paste tomatoes. The beds will be lined with calendula/marigold, daisies, chives (around the caggage and root crops), and borage (around the tomatoes). I'm sure I'll also plant Sunflowers (the decorative kind) along the north and east of the garden.

I've picked out a spot I like by my house, in case the landlords don't have room in their garden for mine. Other than this, I have a beautiful bed of garlic planted at my old house. My rotation plan for next year is to add a bed to the north, rotate everything one plot over and back (potatoes into roots and kale, roots into cabbage, kale into okra, cabbage and kale back into one of the tomato plots, cron/beans/squash back to a new bed, tomatoes into corn/beans/squash bed and back into the new bed).

I made a general plan with dimensions of each plot per vegetable/companion set and then I made a specific planting guide down to planting patterns (traingles or rows) and number of plants, distance of planting, etc. for each section (tomatoes - 8 paste, 10 total mixed, cabbage and okra - 11 plants each, 8 heads of spring lettuces, 6 heads of summer lettuce, etc.)

And that, my friends, is it. Please do tell me about your garden designs and plans this year. I'd love to know!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Designing the Garden

I've taught many a workshop on designing a garden, and I know from experience that it's hard to know where to start. That said, I have stopped dreaming about perfect gardens. It is enough for me, at this point in my life, simply to garden. A walk through Eden takes much more background work than I'm willing to put in. So, very realistically, here's what I do.

First, I take into account my goals. This includes how many veggies I'd like to grow, ideal harvest (data and tables can be found in this quintessential book ), and anything else I want. This includes dreaming big (if I had it in me)

Then, I observe my landscape. This is the part where I figure out what kind of space I actually have, how much sunlight I get, what my soil is like, where flooding or extra frost or wind damage happens, where roadway runoff may have oversalted my soil, where compacted areas might make it hard to till, where in the yard I never go and probably will never go to tend to a garden either, etc. etc. In reality, I do this at the same time as I figure out my goals. This is the "reality check" part of the project.

I combine my goals and my observations in site assessment, which is where I figure out how to meld my goals and my observations. Thus I pick the perfect general site and size for my garden. This includes basic things like "well...I guess I don't be growing good carrots because of how rocky this soil is" or "I can basically do whatever I want. Sweet."

Only after this point do I design my garden. I lay out beds and rows, I make measurements, I draw diagrams and maps. First I plan out the general size, shape and design of the garden at large, and once I have an idea of the general plan, I figure out what goes where (including an easy rotation pattern for future years (rotation refers to not planting the same veggies in the same place more than once every 3-4 years to ensure that pests and disease don't stay in the soil and attack the plants again and also for nutrient replenishment)), how much of each veggie to plant, and other charming features.

Once I plant my garden, I always make sure to have a detailed map of what I planted where, because next winter it'll be hard to remember what your rotation plan was, and you risk planting carrots in the same spot two years in a row out of sheer carelessness. I have a devoted Gardener's notebook so everything (including seed buying receipts and daydreams) goes into one place where it'll be easy to find. A file folder would serve the same purpose.

Always design from broad concepts to details. Knowing where the carrots go before knowing how big the garden will be doesn't make sense no matter how you swing it. Also - this will guarantee that your details will work towards an effective and comprehensive broader concept and actually meet your goals. Sewing together scattered details to form a well-design whole rarely works.

If you want the best design possible have fun and play around with it. sketch out several different designs with thick markers first, and then do several renditions with pencils for details. Move things around, try different shapes and patterns, even if you are absolutely sure where the garden will go, try moving it to learn something new about other potential landscape factors or how you might go about designing the layout of the garden itself. You'll be surprised how much fun it is and how much more effective it is to mix and match ideas from different designs than to just plough ahead with the first great thing you thought of.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Housekeeping Secrets

My landlords need an estimate for the size of the garden I want to build. I have yet to give them an answer. I can't tell if I should make raised beds or rows. I have only ever gardened in beds, but I just don't know if I can commit to the upfront effort of raised beds this year - especially when I'm not sure if I'll be here next year. The size of my garden (as well as how neatly weeded I'm willing to keep it) will be a deciding factor on whether or not my garden will be within the confines of their large garden or somewhere else on the property. It would be very nice to have a pre-tilled, already worked and improved garden spot, but I don't want to impose. Also, he's willing to till up a plot for me, which makes things much easier, though as any seasoned gardener knows, the 10-year garden's soil grows a healthier and happier crop than freshly-turned soil that is sadly low on nutrients and love (though, hopefully, also low on pests and diseases).

I've been pretty low-key on the projects front. I haven't even cooked for myself (besides eggs and canned refried beans) for the past two days. Monday I blame on a migraine, Tuesday I blame on my excitement to see Avatar in 3D (SO much fun!) Also...I've been plotting and planning and scheming books and writing and publicity and roommates.

I hope, therefore, that you will humbly accept these two incredibly smart housekeeping secrets I learned from one of my friends who truly knows most of what there is to know about keeping a frugal house and home. I had the pleasure of living with her and learning from her, and I hope she doesn't mind that I share these two little tidbits with you. She is second only to the women who raised me in people I have learned household secrets from.

A corn straw broom with a wooden handle, while more expensive upfront than those horrifically ugly and ineffective plastic ones with square heads will last you years longer actually work (without forcing you to resort to contraptions such as "Swiffers" which strikes me as a sponge attached to a stick and taken to the more disposable level) given that you know one simple principle and that is - hang you your broom from a hook or nail or simply stand it up upside-down. This prevents the broom from morphing under its own weight and becoming useless. Also, in case you haven't noticed, wooden tool handles are easily interchangeable and useful for a variety of things from limbo sticks to pinata sticks to stick horses.

As your knives get dull, there is something to do before dishing out for a sharpening stone. Flip over a ceramic cup. If it has one of those unfinished ceramic circles on the base as a footing, you can use this as a makeshift sharpener (Most 60's, 70's and even modern mugs should - the heftier and more unfinished the ceramic circle at the bottom, the better). Kitchen knives are sharpened at a 15 degree angel with a sweeping motion from the bottom of the blade to the top, pulled towards you. One hand should hold the hilt and pulling the knife across the surface and the other should be on the flat of the blade holding the blade at the right angle and giving it some pressure. repeat on both sides.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Life Without a Microwave

Okay folks - first off, you will never see me advocating avoiding anything on this blog because it's scary, going to cause cancer/world war III, or is simply "evil," however, I will advise you avoid things because they use too much energy and are questionable in their safety or the purpose they're billed for. Microwaves easily fall into the questionable category. They are, surprisingly enough, not much more convenient than a standard small pot or pan, and what you loose in taste and texture is so much, that I would suggest that you start phasing yours out. Even I, who deplore doing dishes, prefer to wash a small pot to losing all of the good, hard work I've put into my meal by reheating it in the microwave. Toaster oven or stove top is ALWAYS tastier. Also, if you experience power outages in you kitchen, chances are your energy-guzzling microwave is to blame. At the very most, it's worth considering your microwave a fancy and expensive bread box, or a mouse-proof cabinet.

Here's the how-to on reheating without a microwave:

Rice, other grains, and cooked beans are reheated by adding a bit of water to the bottom and simmering, covered, over a low heat. If you're impatient, turn up the heat and stir the grain every minute or so to make sure it doesn't burn.

Soups are reheated the same way they are cooked. If they're very thick, add some water or stir frequently so the bottom doesn't burn.

Casseroles and pan-fried meals For the sake of expediency and deliciousness, I'd reheat these by frying on a hot pan. Refried meals (like beans) are delicious because you've added oil (or, even better, butter), browned the bottom, and mushed things together, which makes everything taste better. if you don't like things mushed together, add a little liquid to the bottom, cover, and heat over a low flame. If you have a lot of time to kill, throw it into your oven or toaster oven, covered, on 350 degrees and wait.

Anything meant to be cooked in the microwave such as frozen burritos and tv dinners can be cooked (covered) in a pan or in the toaster oven. In the case of TV dinners, transfer to meal to an oven-safe baking dish before melting plastic in the toaster oven. This is the only case in which it will take more time to cook, but burritos are much less soggy when toasted or fried, and tv dinners will thaw very quickly in the frying pan but will still be disappointing. In the case of Ramen noodles and such soups, cover with boiling water until cooked or simmer for a minute.

And please, immediately throw away any recipe books for "microwave cooking." This is not cooking. It is, in fact, a farce. Anyone who thinks their 12-year-old child can't cook a meal without the help of the microwave would do well to wonder how 9-year-olds helped their mothers in the kitchen 100 (or even 70) years ago.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Opportunity Cost of a Calm Life

It has been warm enough outside that I have let the stove run cold on occasion so I can clean out the ashes that have piled up and knock the creosote down out of the stove pipe. The warm weather (40 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it harder to cook on the wood stove, since running it hot enough to boil water overheats the house.

Confronted with the calm and constant pace of life I can imagine this warm January slipping into May without a fuss, May fading into the high heat of August slipping into the November chill and back again without so much as a notice or even a reminder to do such things as marvel, or travel, or take a vacation. Wanderlust overtakes my hard-won practicality at times. My desire to save enough for a house and some land, or simply to always have a bit of savings on hand at all is drowned out by the sound of distant mountain streams gurgling through my daydreams reminding me that I long for mountains. And I do. I see photos of distant lands and part of my heart quivers and begs.

That I subsume these desires in working harder for a calm and oft-overlooked daily joy seems necessary, and even important, as to adventure before providing for the things one needs to live sensibly is a childish and self-defeating goal. But the calm and steady enjoyment of daily life does not drown out the sudden shouts of lust for a bigger adventure. It is not so much the risk of failure in big adventures that stops me, so much as that I truly believe that the life that is better lived, in retrospect, is one that doesn't make a particularly good story. Thus I trade adventure for calm. It doesn't always work, I'm afraid, in fooling me into believing that I want a simply calm and joyful life. Sometimes I want adventure. Sometimes I want fame and glory; I want to steal spotlights and be known for eternity. On days such as these my usual conviction that I want nothing more than to bring joy to my small circle of friends and family through a calm, well-lived life full of small and simple courage, cannot keep its flame lit in the gusts of lust for something larger.

I used to walk as a child, with my hand along brick walls, begging one of the bricks to slip under the pressure of my fingers and crumble into a world of magic and adventure. I used to beg my mother for a real magic wand - one that really worked - until I realized I was too old to give voice to such a wish. i did not, however, stop wishing for it. Not for the sake of getting all the dishes done, no, or for curing heartaches, but for allowing adventures to unfold in the middle of a dull day of school, or a long, languishing summer holiday.

It is adventure that I have become suspicious of. More specifically, the stupidity that, in times of adventure, can be misinterpreted as courage. It is the daily, plodding courage which I am truly floored by, and to which I aspire. It is not courageous to give into love and run off with the neighbor. Nor is it courageous to go backpacking in Europe at the expense of one's entire savings account. This courage gives only a short-lived good story and good gossip for the neighborhood. It is the daily type of courage, which necessarily lives through hardship and boredom, glory, and, yes, the occasional adventure, which makes grandparents' feet worth sitting at.

We are not made to fulfill all of our wishes. Our lives are a constant process of balancing the ever-quickening clip at which life trots along with the need for calm, peace, fulfillment, and adventure. This is not a child's birthday. We will not get everything we want and only have to write a thank you note in return. What a disservice we do to children by telling them they can be whatever they want to be when we all want to be more, much more, than just one person can ever aspire to.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Undoing Boredom

Ah, winter. You really are a blessed, restful time of year. I come home, cook a little, clean a little, read, and enjoy the general calm and freedom of not having much to do. Last night I even played dress-up in anticipation for some parties and events in the near future. The tasks of winter are small on a homestead. They revolve around staying warm and keeping oneself usefully occupied. If you put off for the summer what you could have done in the winter, it will not get done. Thus, staving off boredom should not only never be a problem but cannot be allowed to get in the way of productivity (boredom being self-inflicted laziness, not actually an outcome of having nothing to do). As far as I am concerned, boredom was invented once we found enough things that were just senseless enough to be considered doing something while actually doing nothing at all. As a result, doing nothing became a task rather than a delightful part of the calmer moments in life, and it became something we are now incapable of doing without the help of electronic devices. Just relaxing is no longer possible. In times before TV, internet, radio, and other all-consuming amusements it was typical for a person to find herself with nothing to do and actually enjoy it as a welcome break. Now we call that meditation and market it for incredible amounts of money and status.

When blackouts force us away from the TV and internet, cities suddenly become friendly, almost euphoric places. We suddenly find that there's an incredible range of things to amuse ourselves not the least of which are our neighbors. Also, we learn to calm ourselves without the aid of electronic narcotics. When one does not have a TV or radio (yes, I am guilty for this much of the time) droning on in the background, the brain has moments to relax, wander, and, occasionally, to attain enlightenment, if only for a brief moment. Most importantly, it cannot convince the body to sit still and play solitaire because it's busy listening to the radio and doesn't want to do anything else taxing as it's already doing something, thank you. This creates and encourages boredom and incredible acts of desperately doing nothing useful for weeks on end, simply because one is addicted to the TV or internet, or, heaven forbid, solitaire.

Therefore, I must now commit myself to that which I have dreaded for a while - I must turn the radio off. I am addicted. I have the radio on when I write, when I think, and when I do just about anything, and, to be frank, it gets in the way of my thinking real thoughts. I will permit myself my favorite programs, an hour in the morning, and an hour after work or Marketplace (for the purpose of winding up and winding down, respectively). But I do not need to be so saturated with music and the news. I know more about the daily news than anyone else I know, and it gets in the way of normal, social interaction. Also, it's hard to maintain my own opinions when they're constantly being shouted over. I can still listen to Podcasts of everything at work when doing menial tasks, since I have no choice, at work, but to do boring tasks. However, I am through excusing doing boring, meaningless things at home on my own time.

Living a frugal, seasonal, and self-reliant lifestyle is work, but it's pleasant and useful work. Given enough distractions, however, it becomes impossible. The radio forgives an hour, midday, listening to Late Edition, which I hate anyway, just because it's something to do. This regardless of the fact that I would actually rather chop wood - it's simply the hurdle of actually getting my coat on and starting that gets higher because it would require turning the radio off, which is, after all, already giving me something to do.

I am done!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Entertaining at Home

Perhaps there are those of you who read this blog for practical, self-reliant living advice. Other may read it for tips on hosting and recipes. In case you were wondering what one has to do with the other, I will let you know.

Though we live in a world where entertaining has come to mean going out to eat or seeing a movie or attending the theater, eating in is not only more charming but cheaper, more self-reliant, better for the environment, better for your health, and more malleable to the hostess's wants and needs. All things being said and done, a conviction in the values of frugality and self-reliance go hand-in-hand with entertaining at home.

Just in case you were wondering.

Cast Iron

Cast Iron is an old marvel that should never be abandoned. If you have cast iron pans and dutch ovens, you know what I mean. If you don't, I'm about to convince you to get some.

Cast iron is the original non-stick cookware. If treated well the pan remains stick-free and, instead of leaching toxic chemicals into your food as teflon has been known to do, it leaches iron into your food - a supplement that many of us, especially nursing mothers and vegans, need more of. Cast iron is also extremely cheap. I would suggest buying it new, unless you can find used pans (usually at yard sales and barn sales) that aren't completely caked with grease (though there is a method of cleaning these which is fairly easy). My favorite brand is Lodge Logic, which comes pre-seasoned and is a bit thinner than other brands. A new medium sized pan costs $12.00 and it will last you your whole life and then some - which is the other appeal of the stuff - it's indestructible. Don't order cast iron online. It's too heavy to be worth the shipping fee.

I would go ahead and buy a small pan (the perfect size for 2 eggs sunny-side up) and a medium pan (12 inches round is the perfect size for making lunch and dinner for 2-4 people). If you've gotten this far and want more, my next suggestion would be to buy a large pan (if you can lift it) for dinner for 6-10 people, a dutch oven (a deep-dish, lidded pot which is great for baking, stove-top cooking, simmering for long periods of time, and also useful for camping), and a griddle (a low-sided flat pan, either round or rectangular made for cooking pancakes and anything else that likes to be flipped a lot). You can also buy lids (which I wouldn't recommend as it encourages bad habits - see below), all sorts of intermediate sized pans, and pots too. I'd stay away from cast iron pots. They lend a bit or a metallic taste to things that need to simmer for a long time, and heavy-bottomed steel pots work just as well.

How to treat your cast iron
The basic technique for keeping your cast iron stick-free is to rinse it immediately after use with hot water (no soap!), scrub with an abrasive to get the bits out (some people say never to use steel wool, though I do) and then put it right back on a burner so that all the water in it boils off. Turn off the heat and immediately drop a bit of oil in (just enough to lightly coat the entire pan) and rub into the pan with a towel. I keep a special cast-iron-only rag on hand because you will never be able to wash black grease off of your nice towels (some people just use paper towels, I have also used brown paper bag bits).

Bad Habits
If your pan or dutch oven smells, this is because you store it covered for too long, allowing smells to settle. From now on, store food in another container and, when not cooking, do not put a lid on your pan. Store your lid and dutch oven/pan separately. The way to de-funk cast iron is to preheat an oven to 300 degrees and, while it's heating up, rub salt into all of the internal surfaces of the pan. Don't be meager on the salt. When the oven is up to heat, put the cast iron in, close the door, and reduce the heat to 250. Let it sit for at least an hour. Then, while still hot, rinse it out with water. The water should evaporate off on its own, but if not, return to the oven to dry. The next thing you cook in the oven will be too salty which is why the first crepe was said to be "for the pan."

Once your pan is adequately seasoned, you should only have to season it properly with oil once or twice a week, unless you're cooking something acidic (such as tomatoes), which will strip the seasoning. Washing your pan with soap strips the layer of grease that keeps the pan non-stick. Don't do it.

Like all things old and long-used, cast iron is incredibly forgiving. If something goes wrong, all you need to do is to salt the pot, heat it in the oven (if it's really bad, go at it at 200 degrees in an oven for 4-6 hours), however, things probably won't go wrong, and if you occasionally wash it with soap, it'll be fine - just be better about seasoning it with oil that week.

In case you need another reason to go for cast iron, all real cornbread is made in cast iron pans.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The perfect brunch

One of the surprising joys of heating only by wood is that, when I get home from a weekend away, I can extend my vacation by a few hours as I sit on the couch under a blanket reading while i wait for the house to slowly absorb the heat radiating from the stove. It is a rare and too-often neglected pleasure, I think, to take time off simply to sit at the hearth with a book or with family and enjoy relaxing.

Another rare pleasure is brunch. I grew up with Sunday brunch almost every week. One of my fondest and most enduring memories from childhood was this weekend ritual. I would try my best to remember to wake early on Sundays so I could run downstairs and eat brunch with my favorite adult family friends, the only occasion on which I would stay at the table long enough to see the meal finished. Waking up early had two benefits - the first was that I actually got dressed and downstairs in time to stake a claim on an egg bagel, and the second was that I genuinely enjoyed Sunday mornings' adult company. Waking early backfired when I mixed up what day it was and woke up early on Saturday instead of Sunday, which was the day on which we spent mornings cleaning, or at least being nagged to clean.

This kind of ritual is one that I aspire to. One of my personal heroines, Miss Manners , advises that we do not do enough morning entertaining and err on the side of dinner parties, which are much more ornate as a rule, require more preparation, and have a tendency to fall short of expectations. Since brunch is a rare pleasure for most, it is always charming, and since few people eat as much over brunch (since no one actually comes before eating a small breakfast), it is much easier to prepare for and serve.

Brunch starts between 10 and noon.

My favorite brunch menu:

- Bagels (ONLY if you live within a 100 mile radius of New York City, or within certain other urban centers, which is the only place one can get bagels that are worth eating. Otherwise, stick with toast). Buy bagels fresh in the morning or the night before. Buying bagels in the morning is a perfect task for cohabitants who just get in the way or children who are old enough to drive and managed to wake up early enough.

- A spread of bagel toppers - this includes at minimum cream cheese, butter, and lox (homemade is easy enough (Look out for a recipe soon), but can also include tomatoes and cucumbers (if they're out of season, I'll forgive the absence or the purchasing, whichever you'd rather I forgive), plenty of dill, sprouts, flavored cream cheese, other cheese spreads, and sweet spreads such as jam, Nutella, dulce de leche, and sweetened condensed milk.

- Eggs - If you have bagels these are optional, and if you get into a brunch habit, i'd keep it at bagels and a spread of breakfast toppings, but eggs are a very easy way to impress people. See recipe below for an easy way to do it.

- Potatoes - Only do this if you don't have bagels, otherwise, it's starch overload. If you are going to cook potatoes, I personally like them cut in quarters (for small potatoes) boiled (until they're almost done) and then fried with caramelized onions, salt, and black pepper, preferably so they are slightly burned. Serve with sour cream and dill if you're clever, or with ketchup if you want your guests to walk all over your delicious cooking and top off an herbed souffle with this faux-vegetable so they can't taste anything except for corn syrup, vinegar, and tomatoes. A guest should never ask for ketchup unless the eggs and/or potatoes are too bland to bear (and even then - realize you might be considered very rude).

- Fruit, yogurt, and honey for dessert, though you can also simply put out chocolates, serve hot chocolate, or have fruit only. Don't serve melon after dessert, most guests will have trouble with their digestion if you do so, and you don't want to make them feel rude about not taking any melon. If you must serve melon, just have it out on the table so people can eat it whenever they want to.

-Tea and coffee on the table the whole time (only allowed in the case of brunch, in my opinion)

Herbed souffle

You'll need:
- Fresh or dried sage, oregano, thyme and/or marjoram and rosemary (in that order of most-to least - for 10 eggs - start with two hearty three-fingered pinches of sage , then a single three-fingered pinch of oregano, and a two-fingered pinch of both thyme and rosemary (three-fingered pinches include all fingers except the pinkie and two fingered pinches include the ring finger as well. a pinch refers to just the thumb and the index finger)
- A clove of very throughly minced garlic
- Eggs - 2 per person if there will be bagels, 3 per person if there will not be.
- about a half cup of Heavy Cream per half-dozen eggs (no, you cannot replace this with skim milk, lowfat cream, or half an half. Don't even try). Don't bother measuring the cream. just pour it. Being off by even half the amount won't hurt. Add more if you'd like.
- Salt and pepper
- A cast iron dutch oven or a casserole dish. Individual ramikins are great if you have them, and help keep the souffle hot, and therefore puffy, for longer
- Egg beater or a wisk
- Butter!

Make the souffle
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
- Butter your baking dish, bottom and sides. Go ahead and use a lot of butter.
- Combine eggs, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper, and cream in a deep bowl. Beat the hell out of the mixture until it starts to get frothy.
- Pour the mixture into the baking dish and set in the hot oven It should take between 15 minutes and a half hour depending on the amount of eggs. If it's in ramikins, it could take as little as 5 minutes though. The souffle is done when it has finished puffing up to unbelievable proportions and is slightly browned on top.
- Serve immediately or the souffle will deflate.

Due to the fact that you want to serve the souffle immediately, I'd go ahead and put it into the oven when brunch is supposed to start, assuming the by the time people sit down and tea and juice is poured the souffle will be done. Don't get up and check on it every second though - that makes for stressed out guests. For 10 eggs, check at the 15 minute point, and then again every 5 minutes if it needs more time.

If you're going to err on the side of adding too few herbs or too many, go for too many. If you make bland food you will forever be seen as someone who cooks bland food and no one will want to brunch with you. Over seasoning, however, is a mistake anyone can make, and it's harder to do in this case than to under-season. Add enough herbs so that it looks appetizing - that's how you know you've got enough. Appetizing means well seasoned, not bland or over-done. In the case of salt, one should always add just enough, or if you don't know how much that is add just short of enough and when you need to add more on the table do so immediately and visibly, perhaps adding "the eggs need some more salt, I'm sorry" so guests don't feel rude about salting their eggs in front of you and so that guests don't think you like, and therefore will continue to cook, bland food. If your food is inedible, admit it immediately and insist that no one eat it. If you're worried you might over season the eggs to this point, try a batch on yourself first.

In case guests forget:
- If you want to continue to be entertained please keep in mind that for all engagements including brunch guests must arrive at the appointed time, or no more than 15 minutes late.
- Once you consent to going (once again, to any engagement, and yes, you must submit a Yes or No response. "maybe" counts as no and you know it, but that gives you no right to say it) you cannot back out unless something major comes along (excuses not allowed include: another engagement that sounds better, a party that went too late the night before, or "I don't feel like it." Excuses that are allowed (I have included all of them): the death of any member of the immediate family or your own, extreme illness ("I feel a cold coming on" doesn't count), or an invitation to have brunch with the queen of England).
- Owning a cell phone does not change the rules, sorry.
- You must offer to help, but should not have to expect to actually do so short of helping to set out the meal or doing some dishes, and only this if you are a very close friend or family
- Thank the host, and, if possible, reciprocate by a similar show of hospitality, or at least offering several times.
- It is brunch, so bringing a present for the host such as wine or chocolate is unnecessary. However, expect to do so at dinner.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Little Gift

I've been busy with a few projects, a lot of which involve my friends' kids. My close friends are having a baby, so I'm working on decorating a onesie for the baby (it's the kind of onesie that folds over itself, and the outside is going to have the "Drawing #1" from The Little Prince and the inside is going to have "Drawing #2" shhh don't tell!). On top of this little treasure (and about 4 birthdays coming up in February - ahh!) My landlords have 4 kids, who frequently have birthdays. Their youngest daughter is scheduled to turn 6 on the 21st, which left me scrambling to make a present 2 nights ago. I made her a little bag with a pretty button closure that she can wear around her neck for putting her little finds into. I put a little shell in to start her off on her adventures.

This was a great project seeing as I have yet to fix my sewing machine and it was small enough to easily be done by hand. Also, I used up some pretty fabric scraps I had lying around which I thought were too small to be good for anything. Total, it took me about an hour and a half, including time to search up and down for an appropriate button, ribbon, and strap material.

Here's a quick how-to:

Thread that matches the color of the purse's exterior fabric
Pretty outer fabric (it helps if it's a heavy material)
liner fabric that compliments the bag's fabric
a button
a short length of ribbon

Cut a rectangle twice the size of the finished pouch with seam allowance (about 1/4 inch on all sides) in both the pretty fabric and the liner fabric.

Fold the exterior, pretty fabric in half so the wrong side faces out and sew up both sides, leaving the top open, so you have a little pouch. Leave the top seam unfinished, because first you have to sew the liner.

Sew the liner exactly as you did the pretty fabric, but do not turn it inside out. Since it's the liner, you want the seams to face out, because the interior of the pouch will be the visible part.

Now sew the two together. Do this by flipping the exterior fabric right-side out, stuffing the liner into the purse so it lays flat, and then folding the hems on the top of the purse over the liner. Sew around the entire mouth of the purse so the liner is sewed into the hem and the pouch looks pretty, finished and opens. If you sewed it closed, you did something wrong.

Now get out your pretty button (I used a large, wooden tear-drop shaped bead) and sew it onto the front center of the pouch. If you're careful, you won't sew it into the lining, and will sew only through the back of the main fabric. This is difficult, however, and I did not succeed in this endeavor. If I were practiced at this, I might have suggested you sew the button on before attaching the lining, but I am not so practiced.

Next, attach a pretty bit of ribbon to close the purse. Make a loop with the ribbon just big enough to close around the button when attached to the interior of the purse. Sew the ends of the ribbon into the inside of the back of the purse so that when looped around the button, the ribbon holds the purse closed.

Finally, you're going to make and attach a strap to the whole thing so it can hang from a child's neck. I braided several strands of yarn in a matching color, you can also use ribbon, or a knit cord, or just about anything you have on hand. In order to attach the strap, I sewed the ends into the inside of the bag. If I were neater and more practiced (once again) I might have done this part before sewing the lining as well, so that the sewn-in ends could not be noticed on the inside. Clearly, I have much to aspire to before becoming a professional bag maker. My advice on sewing in the strap is to go ahead and use too much thread, and use it as an excuse to reinforce the side seam. A simple X - pattern will secure the strap if layered a few times. If your pattern and button are simple, you could sew the strap onto the outside of the bag and have hanging yarn tassels.

And, voila! a little purse for a little child. A quick, easy, and have-everything-on-hand type of project. Feel free to put some nice little presents inside if you're so inclined and have little things (like shells or pretty river stones or marbles).

A Note
Since this is for a child, I'd go for reinforcing all seams. Children break things at incredible rates and are not delicate. Therefore, err on the side of building something mildly indestructible if you want it to last more than a week.

But seriously, when will I do this?
If you're wondering how I can go through so many little projects the answer is that procrastination is a powerful force of creativity. Since I have no internet to occupy my time I am left with no choice but to do crafty little things to put off things I should be doing, like cleaning, organizing, and making money on the side. Also, I work a strict 9-5 day, no more (I never put in days until 8 PM) which gives me plenty of evening time to kill, and does not pay me well enough to stifle my creativity through shopping. I hope that when I'm older, making more money, and more practical that I will not be addicted to internet and will save instead of spending.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Notes on Aesthetics

I'll be the first to admit that I am a fairly shallow person. But wait - don't dismiss me right off the bat - please give me a chance to explain myself. Yes, I make decisions based on aesthetics. In fact, I would go so far as to say aesthetics are a primary driving force in my decision making process. But now I'm going to argue what some may cherish as the indefensible - that decisions based on aesthetics is a practical, and dare I say it, (yes, I dare) sustainable option.

No, I did not go crazy. No, I am not recommending that we all drop everything and go shopping at Neiman Marcus. Quite the opposite. Last night as I was walking back and forth from my neighbors' (aka landlords') cellar-style basement in the 3-hour process of doing several batches of laundry, I had the chance to think about, of all things, my lantern. Yes, I am one of those rare people that uses an old-fashioned kerosene lantern instead of a flashlight. Why? Well, to be completely honest, I think it's just the cutest thing in the world. Also, Flashlights are just so darn loseable!

Now, I freely admit that I chose a lantern over a flashlight (and, for that matter, old family photos over posters, rare and sentimental finds over silly tchotchkes, and second-hand cashmere sweaters over Target brand anything) for aesthetic reasons. Here then is the crux of my argument - things that are aesthetically valuable are not cheap. They are things we want to keep. Therefore, they create less trash by inspiring us to do what mama and papa always told us to do, which is to be respectful and caring towards our things. As you may or may not have caught on yet, this lesson that mama and papa taught you is an environmentally-conscious one as well as a fiscally responsible one. The problem is, cheap and disposable items that are not a pleasure to own and carry encourage wastefulness and disrespect. Why would I want to play nice with an ugly, plastic flashlight? Sure, a lantern is a more expensive up-front purchase than a flashlight, but I promise I will not buy another lantern for at least 20 years and will replace the glass if it breaks, and wicks and kerosene (cheaper than gas by the gallon at the local gas station) as needed. I know that the lantern will save me money and be much less wasteful in the environmental scheme of things. And I get the added pleasure of ice skating with a lantern in a skirt and long winter coat (just for kicks) and walking back and forth with baskets (yes, baskets) of laundry to hang for drying besides the stove. Now doesn't that just sound like a lovely life?

As for the distinction between second-hand and Target brand anything, please, I beg of you - Target brand (or Wal Mart, for that matter) looks cheap. It's horrific, it breaks, and it's mass-manufactured so everyone's seen it before. Nothing screams "abuse me!" quite as much as something that will happily break for you at a moment's notice, was so easy to come by, and whose maker you do not know. Now don't get me wrong, I shop at these places too - but it's for things like the cat's litter box. Instead, I peek into the second hand shops around the area (there are at least 4) at least a few times a month, and make a habit of constantly trading free things with friends and over freecycle. That way not only do I feel lucky to have found the beautiful things in my life, but I can replace my nice, wool sweater after i've patched it one too many times without buying a cheap, acrylic one. I look for things for the house and for myself all the time. The secret to thrifting is that you have to buy things as you see them and can afford to, which will not always be at the right time. If you're moving in 6 months, go ahead and buy that nice set of china. You'll regret it in 6 months if you don't (a note - this only applies to places where there is plenty of storage. Sorry, city folks).

If I've sold you on the lantern concept and there are no good barn sales around you (lanterns are a very rare find at thrift stores), you can find beautiful and affordable ones and all of their replacement parts (including to your old one gathering dust in the barn) here, at my favorite Mennonite-owned store: Lehman's

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I said it about a week ago, and now I've finally gone and done it - It's time to order seeds! So I chose my favorite seed company - our very own Hudson Valley Seed Library and picked my favorites. Not only is the seed library an incredibly exciting local venture into the often nebulous world of seed companies, it is also a lovely and friendly organization. Thanks to buying a membership I got several free seed packs (see below) and discounts on all of my purchases (which is fairly exciting). Being the wonderfully thoughtful and community-oriented business that they are, the Seed Library works with local artists to design art packs for a selection of their seeds which are beautiful and fun to have around. My favorite perk though? - they're small enough to keep me from buying EVERY seed I can possibly think of wanting! Which is important, because even the 20+ seeds I bought will be excessive for my home garden.

Here's a note from their website for the curious:
"We have three kinds of seed packs now to help distinguish between our seed sources. Our Art Packs are the colorful, flower shaped packs that have original artwork from 16 different New York artists. Our Garden Packs feature a design made by us and contain seeds from responsible commercial sources pre-selected by us to do well in the Northeast. Our Library Packs, which feature an image from an antique 1881 New York seed catalog, contain only local seeds- either grown here on our farm, another New York farm, or a mix of seeds from other seed saving members.

Here's my order:

Membership Pack
Garden Pack All American Parsnip -- included with membership
Library Pack Amish Paste Tomato
Library Pack Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry
Garden Pack Benning's Green Tint Patty Pan Squash
Garden Pack Bibb Lettuce -- included with membership
Library Pack Black Krim Tomato
Garden Pack Blue Lake Pole Green Bean -- included with membership
Art Pack Borage
Library Pack Bridge to Paris Pepper -- included with membership
Library Pack Calendula
Art Pack Calico Popcorn
Garden Pack Chives
Garden Pack Clemson Spineless Okra -- included with membership
Garden Pack Danish Ballhead Cabbage -- included with membership
Library Pack Garden Peach Tomato
Art Pack Painted Daisy
Library Pack Purple Podded Pea -- included with membership
Garden Pack Red Russian Kale -- included with membership
Garden Pack Royal Burgandy Bush Beans -- included with membership
Garden Pack Royal Oakleaf Lettuce -- included with membership
Art Pack Ruby Queen Beet
Garden Pack Scarlet Nantes Carrot

My Reasoning
Yum! As you can tell from my selection - I tend to ignore flowers. I try, really I do, but I have trouble focusing on them. This year, I'm giving in to what I've always known to be true about myself and only growing 2 flowers - calendula, which I need for salves, and borage, which is a perennial and is easy.

I have avoided certain productive veggies that are just too easy to come by in the summer. I'm not a huge fan of cucumbers, but when I need them, the local farmstand (aka - my landlord's farm/garden) will always have them - and they're too prolific for my small needs. Plus, I prefer pickled pattypans (seriously) to pickled cucumbers (same goes for zucchinis). My landlords have a large and prolific herbs section of their garden, and I have decided to rely on their surplus rather than to grow my own.

Then there are my splurges - 3 kinds of tomatoes? Absolutely! 1 for canning and drying (Amish paste - which will be the most dominant plant variety in my garden) 1 for fresh eating (Krim) and 1 for fun (peach). I love tomatoes. Love them. And they make summer worth it (which is why last summer was not worth it)

I already have garlic in the ground and potatoes for planting in the cellar, plus the library doesn't sell these. The only thing left is to get onions, some extra herbs, and possibly a few herbal favorites from Fedco, which I will share with you when I buy.

Share your list with me. I'm so excited and invigorated now that I cannot wait to go home and plan my garden!

Also, check out this wonderful and well thought-out article. We need more of this kind of debate in our lives: (I found it on Bitten)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Woman's Secrets

Call me old-fashioned (okay, I know you already do) but I think a woman goes from being attractive to deadly with the help of a few simple tools. So boys - just skip this one (okay, I know you won't, but pretend).

I'm not the kind of woman who does my hair. I'm sitting in a cafe right now in clothing I reserve for house work. I didn't know there would be an attractive man playing a guitar. But I do at least have some defenses. And here's a short list.

Most of my feminine secrets have to do with smell. I hate commercial perfumes. I think they smell cheap (even the expensive ones) and make a woman smell like an identifiable product rather than a sensual secret. A woman's scent, in my humble opinion, ought to be elusive and specific. Being part of a short and recognizable list of scents is irritating - especially when you walk by someone wearing your perfume and suddenly realize that in a dark room, you and the woman you just walked past could fool your lover.

My scent is very simple - it is a mix of just two essential oils. No, I will not tell you what it is. I chose it carefully - I wanted to smell vaguely of a comfortable and joyful kitchen and of warmth and femininity. It is a little less than sensual, but it's mine, and I like it. I'll probably add a sensual scent soon, but seeing as Patchouli is absolutely not an acceptable scent to wear unless you want to smell like Woodstock (thank you, 1970's), and I don't much like Ylang Ylang, I'll have to wait to find a better essential oil to throw into the mix.

My soap, my shampoo, and my body oil are all infused with the same scent. I drop a single drop of the pure essential oil mix behind my ears and on my wrists before going out (more than one or two drops is always too much!). My hand salve, however, has a different smell, with only a trace note of one of the oils, because it seems to me that hands, which work, should not smell overly manicured - it just doesn't fit that I am a woman whose hands work.

Body Oil
Body oil is a simple alternative to commercial creams that you slather on after a shower. Oil is super-moisturizing, and if your skin isn't too oily, it will go a long way in softening your skin and making it more radiant. It is a simple blend of one or many oils with some essnetial oils (optional) for scent.

If your skin borders on oily use almond or sesame (not the roasted kind!) oil as a base. These are light oils. I use a blend of St John's Wart infused olive oil (calendula infused oil is also great - find insturctions on infusing oils in this post) in an almond and canola (it's cheap) oil base with a bit of jojoba oil. I keep this in a squeeze bottle in my bathroom. It makes my shower experience much more decadent. You can also use coconut oil, which is convenient because it's solid at room temperature, but melts onto skin. If your skin is really dry, Shea butter is a great oil to use.

Whatever you do, do not use too much cocoa butter, or you will smell like a stripper.

I'd suggest spending some time with your collection of essential oils before choosing a blend for yourself. My collection is really very small - 6 or so oils, only 3 of which I use exclusively for scenting things, the rest I use for household and other purposes - for more info see this entry). Figure out which oils you gravitate towards for scenting things like baths and footbaths. Figure out what kind of base notes you like, and higher notes when it comes to your own smell. Do you like flowery scents or earthy ones? Combinations or simple, single scents? Start experimenting with a few drops. When you've settled on a scent, mix a small batch and use it for a week.

Once you're sure you love this scent and it's yours, mix it into your body oil, your homemade shampoo, (in Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair: Natural and Healthy Personal Care for Every Body - I can't justify handing out so many of her recipes for free, so go and buy the book! It's well worth it) and make a small batch (keep it tightly sealed!) for use as perfume.

Solid Perfume
if you have a small glass jar (1/2 oz would be ideal) that seals tightly you could make a solid perfume. Make a simple salve by mixing two parts olive oil to one part pure beeswax. Put the oil in a double boiler (a small pyrex measuring cup works well and is an easy way to measure beeswax into oil to get the right ratio) with slivers of beeswax. Once the beeswax is melted entirely into the oil, stir with a chopstick or pencil, and pour into the container. add your essential oil mix until it is as strong as you want (30-50 drops, approximately), stir, and cap tightly to keep the essential oils fresh. Reserve the remainder of the unscented salves for other batches or other salves. Tthis makes a very thick salve, which is necessary since you'll be adding so much essential oils. to make a thinner salve, simply add an additional part of oil. You can melt and reconstitute the salve as much as you need without hurting it.

Enjoy smelling like a wonderful, unique version of yourself.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Making our lives easier

If you're going to buy a book I recommend here through rather than your local bookstore - click directly on the link in the blog to buy it and I'll get a tidbit from Amazon! Also, there's a direct link from which you can search on the bottom of the left sidebar. Search from here and I'll also get a tidbit (so basically - start all you amazon searches here).

Here are some books I've mentioned recently:

(okay...fine...I never recommended The Little Prince...but it's my favorite book!)

Thank you!

Compost - outdoor and worm bins

A friend asked me a very sensible question about starting to compost in the winter. Here are my 2 cents:

You can start composting at any time, dead of winter or high heat. In the winter, not much will happen, except that you'll keep your food scraps out of the trash. If you're generating a lot of compost, it will stay warm and will most likely attract rodents, so keep that in mind. If it's just you and one or two others adding to an outdoor composting bin (or pile) it'll take you a while to accumulate enough compost for it to heat itself up and start decomposing. If you're hoping to use the compost in the garden, I would suggest bringing in some neighbors into the composting or it'll take you a long while to get enough compost to actually make it decompose fast enough and be usable. Compost likes to be 50% carbon (dry things like leaves, wood shavings, and straw) and 50% nitrogen (wet things like kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, and manure), and damp (though not wet). If it smells badly, add more carbon. In general, you'll tend to be short on carbon.

A sensible urban alternative to outdoor composting is starting a worm bin. here's my tutorial:

Get a large rubbermaid tote (like a big craft bin). Drill 15 or so holes in the bottom and top of the tote. The bottom holes are for drainage and the top for ventilation. Lay down mesh (such as a window screen or you could use cheesecloth or burlap - but you'd have to replace that from time to time) so the worms don't crawl out. Put the bin on bricks or styrofoam blocks or whatever you have lying around and set a tray under the bin to catch excess moisture. Alternatively, you could drill a larger hole (about 1/2 inch to an inch) about 1/4 of an inch up from the bottom of one side of the bin. Cover the hole with mesh and stand the end away from the hole on a brick so that the excess moisture drips into a little try out of the hole. you can use this moisture as fertilizer too. Some people swear by it. My jury, however, is still out. Don't worry about mesh on top. Worms don't like air or light.

Shred some newspaper or brown paper bags, moisten this mixture, and put it in the bottom of the tote. throw in a handful or so of soil and put a wooden or plastic divider with holes big enough for worms to get through in the center of the tub so you have 2 compartments. Put food scraps in one half of the tote and add worms (see below for more info on worms). Store your tub in a warm cabinet or closet. Worms aren't very active in the cold and can die if temperatures drop below freezing.

When all of the food has turned into worm castings (which is basically a nice, clean soil - this should take a week or two depending on your worms), put fresh food scraps in the other side (you can keep a typical compost collecting bin on your counter in the mean time), give the worms a day or two to switch sides, and take out the castings, which are ready for use in a garden or for indoor plants (you can store this in bags, totes, or buckets until the summer). If it starts to smell, drill more ventilation holes - it shouldn't smell. Replace the newspaper from time to time and the screen you're using (if it's burlap or cheesecloth) to keep the worms in.

The best kind of worms for a worm bin are Red Wiggler Worms. Put a post on Craigslist that you want them for free, and someone will be sure to oblige.

And enjoy!

Cat toys

If you're renting in the country and are being frugal, chances are your most expensive asset after your car is your cat or dog. After vet bills, it's unlikely that there's much money left for toys, and let's face it, pet toys are the aesthetic equivalent of jell-o and they're the fastest way (short of having a baby) to completely ruin your rustic decor, or, if they're squeaky, your sanity.

I made a lovely little cat toy this morning which almost made me late for work. I have trouble justifying buying cat toys not only for the above mentioned reason but also because my cat plays with anything she can get her little paws on. For the past few days her toy of choice has been a turkey feather that she got out of a vase I had moved onto the floor in the process of rearranging. She has been very taken by it, chasing, pouncing, and tumbling with the feather whenever she isn't lounging by the stove. I decide to make her play a little more fitting for a civilized household, so got out another turkey feather, tied them together with a bit of yarn, and hung the feathers from an upper rung of the ladder so the feathers hung at perfect cat height away from the wall but out of the way of foot traffic.

You could do this by hanging feathers (or just about anything - though cats really love feathers) about a foot from the corner of a wide door frame, from the mantel, or anywhere else you can hang a discreet hook or nail that's far enough from a wall to avoid causing damage by clawing. If you don't have feathers lying around try using branches or anything that looks furry or vaguely mouse-like. a little catnip pillow also works (there's a great design for a catnip mouse, if you like sewing, in this wonderful book Country Wisdom & Know-How). Yarn is a great string to use because, doubled or tripled up it is quite strong and it is bouncy - which is fun for the cat - and chances are good that you have some spare yarn lying around the house.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Not enough wood for the winter!

It seems as though I have come to a point where I have no choice but to acknowledge what I suspected might be true all along - I need more wood. I was told two stories at the start of this winter, from which I drew my own conclusions - one being that two cords was enough to last all winter, and the other being that two cords was enough to last from January through the end of winter. Both stories are probably right depending on who you ask, but I have people over frequently enough and enjoy a warm house enough to fall into the latter category. Unfortunately, i bought two cords to last all winter, considering myself more frugal and less invested in creaturely comforts than it turns out I actually am.

This means that it's time to either buy in another cord of wood, or seriously ration my wood use. I think you can sense the direction in which I am leaning. The only annoying part of buying anther cord will be stacking it - a 3 hour endeavor which isn't too much fun when it's nice out, let alone when it's cold. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of stacking 128 cubic feet of hardwood, suffice it to say that it's a job made especially for burly men and sturdy farm women, and I have much to aspire to before becoming either of those.

I think I realized it at the time, but it behooves me now to inform my formerly frugal self that wood is cheaper in early autumn. It follows that the smart thing to do would have been to err on the side of buying too much wood, just in case this happened.

My dearest readers, what you can learn from my mistake is to buy and/or split 3 cords of wood, not 2, for winter - especially one as cold and full of house guests as this one is proving to be. If you don't use all the wood it will not rot (unless you dig it underground or just leave it in a pile to rot), and you will be more likely to burn early autumn fires during those early cold days when most of us are too cheap to start up the stove - not a bad thing by far. Plus, when you think about how much money you save by heating with wood rather than oil, I think you will agree with me.


A quick, personal PS:

I am looking for a roommate. Since there are quite a few of you who read this blog, please let your friends know. It's a beautiful place I live in, though work has a tendency to be scarce. Maybe you have some independently wealthy friends, or friends who go to Bard college (which is nearby), or friends who want to farm, or who are really set on relocating, or who are willing to live cheap and work/trade for rent that you could tip off? Leaving a comment would be a great way to initiate contact. There is a potential for work-trade for some or all of rent/heat costs. I would really appreciate it!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sprouting Seeds, Dreaming Dreams

At home last night I could not bring myself to look through the seed catalogues. I am not ready for the decadent laziness of winter to come to an end. Don't get me wrong, I would love to run outside without 7 layers on as much as the next person, and I know that it's still only early January, and I'm nervous I don't have enough wood, but I do find the winter's glorious laziness to be a spa treatment, just as much as I find the meditation of gardening to be a balm for the over-stimulated soul. That being said, I'm nervous and humbled every year before the commitment of gardening. I dream for weeks before planting my first seed about the impossible miracle of a seed sprouting and growing for me. How is it that this tiny seed will grow for me? Am I worthy of its life? Why would she want to grow in my garden? As absurd as it seems, these questions start running through my slowly waking mind as the sun moves toward her longest day. There is nothing left but to be awed and humbled by the miracle of a seed growing for me in my garden.

So if you have the energy to look forward into a new year of garden work and toil, and if the miracle of a sprouting seed doesn't humble you to the point of immobility, check out this awesome blog which tells you all about how to check the germination rates of your old seeds which, it turns out, you don't have to throw out! So if you're prone to overdoing it (like I am) it might not all be for naught. And if you're in the Northeast, do order a few seeds for them. Their artist packs make for great presents, and they're very much worth supporting.

Ah, but my dear readers, I'm worried about the spring. not to the point of immobility, but to the point of vivid dreams. I've worked full time before while having a large garden. It's possible, and even enjoyable, after a day of office work to come home at 5, when the heat has abated, and work until 9, when the sun is just setting, in the garden. But I am worried. What if the potatoes won't grow for me, or the soil turns out to be too rocky to smile on me? What if I really don't want to work full time at this desk through the summer? What if I'd rather be making salves and teas and jams and selling them at farm markets? What if, what if, what if!?

But, my dear readers, we must all work for a living, and that, in itself, is not and cannot be a tragedy. The tragedy, I find, is when it forces us to dream our dreams in secret.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The January Garden To-Do List

Every year, usually around May, I realize with a sudden flash of fear and clammy palms that it will be another one of those years where I will always be at least one week behind. This year, that happened today, IN JANUARY, the same day I found my favorite seed catalogue in my mailbox.

Thankfully, I am no true homesteader. My life and livelihood doesn't rely on getting onions into seed trays anytime in the near future. In fact, I fully intend to wait until the end of February to do anything along the lines of starting seeds. Hell, I don't even have a garden to speak of! A whole new year of garden planning and seed ordering and seed starting awaits!

So, to keep you from breaking into a cold sweat sometime in March, here's a quick reminder: Gardening starts in the winter. (Other things that homesteaders do in January include ordering hives and bees, hunting small game, and trying not to freeze to death) So start your gardening adventures now and stave off winter boredom. Here's how:

The January Gardener:

-Plan garden
-order seeds

Planning your garden
This time of year is when you can day dream all you want. If you don't have a garden, plan your garden now. Helpful tools include John Jeavon's guide: How To Grow More Vegetables, which I would go ahead and buy. I would go ahead and scour your library's garden section and talk to anyone you know who has a garden and ask for tips.

Here are some of my garden-planning tips to live by:

- Don't over do it! (I have always overdone it.) No one person needs, in their first (or even third) garden enough space to have a small farm, unless you intend to sell produce and farm. If you are a part-time gardener, figure out how much time you'd like to spend in your garden and about how much produce you'd like to harvest and plan accordingly. You will never eat a 20 foot row's worth of lettuce, and 20 feet of tomatoes is only plausible if you intend to can them.

- Plan your garden out on paper, and work from concepts to details. First plan out where the garden will be and how big you want it, then move onto how to lay out beds and how to make the beds (double digging, sheet-mulching, etc.), and only then figure out what to plant where. When figuring out what to plant where, your future self will be grateful if you plan in a simple vegetable rotation plan.

- When thinking about where to put your garden, consider important details such as shade (you want good southern exposure), runoff, soil compaction, soil structure, previous gardening in the area, and anything that grows in the area that might thwart the garden (such as a black walnut tree or thistle).

- Plan your garden close to home. A garden in a distant back corner of the yard is not a garden you will ever tend to. put your garden somewhere that will require your attention - preferably on the front lawn staring you down on your walk to your car. That way, you will see every weed popping up and will be compelled to actually work in your garden. If you refuse to plant in the front yard, at least plan your garden next to a path you walk on every other day or so (such as the path to your compost). You will want to be in the garden at least 3-4 times a week (depending on the weather), so plan accordingly.

- Do not lay down anything permanent, like stone paths, for the first few years. Just trust me on this one.

- If there are deer where you live, you will want a fence. The easiest dear fence is wire stretched across posts- one string 2 feet off the ground and another at 6 feet up. If there are rodents, rabbits, and groundhogs (who just don't respect fences), I'd invest in a garden-friendly cat.

Ordering Seeds

-Once again, don't overdo it. (and once again, I always do). Seeds don't last forever (most don't at least), so buy only as much as you need, which is a surprisingly small amount

-Catalogues are always cheaper than buying at nurseries. Fedco, Seed Savers Exchange, and local seed libraries such as Hudson Valley Seed Library are awesome, grass-roots sources for seeds grown, saved, and kept alive by family farmers and the like. Most other seed catalogues carry seeds owned by major conglomerates such as Monsanto without letting you know.

- Quick vocabulary: Organic seed refers to seed grown by certified organic standards. Organic farmers are required to use organic seed. You can grow your plants organically even with conventional (read: non-organic - grown with chemicals and whatnot) seed. Open Pollinated (also known as "OP" or "heirloom") refers to seeds that are bred and saved using traditional seed saving techniques. Seeds saved from plants grown from open pollinated seed will produce a second generation true in kind. You can only save seed from open pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants are not hybrids. Hybrid seeds (commonly listed as "F1" in catalogues) are high-performing seeds made from two very different varieties of plants that were forced to cross. This forced cross creates a seed that will produce a plant in its first generation (F1 refers to the first generation cross) that has certain favorable traits - usually productivity. However, any seed saved from plants grown from hybrid seed will produce a second generation of plants that is completely confused and not true to kind. This is because seed breeding is actually a long and extended process that requires the stabilization of traits over several generations. If you want to know more about seed saving, check out this book. In general, I would buy OP for the variety and the beauty, with the exception of sweet corn, which, in its OP form, isn't actually sweet.

- Don't even bother buying: seeds to commonly found perennial plants that need to be split or grow abundantly. Instead, talk to your friends and neighbors and see if you can split some of their plants. So many people have rhubarb that needs to be split, or bee balm that you can transplant, etc. that it just doesn't make sense to wait 3 years for the plants to mature. Things that fall into this category include: comfrey, mint (which grows so abundantly that it would be a sin to pay for - excepting special varieties) almost all flowering bushes, most perennial herbs (which are easier to propagate by cuttings or transplanting than seed), etc.

-Certain things aren't typically grown from seeds - and so you shouldn't look for the seed. The examples of these are potatoes and garlic (which should have been planted in October anyway). Also, people tend to buy onion sets rather than seed - which are second-year onion bulbs which will grow faster and easier than seed.

Enjoy your garden plans and don't stress too much! We're all in this together.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Progress (ish)

I have a marvelous friend who has taken on my hopelessly neo-luddite self and this little blog as a marketing project. So, without further ado, I give you my biggest fear: Me. on Twitter.

And, while we're having a meta moment, my father gave me a cute little hand-me-down camera while I was in Jersey visiting, so I might add pictures into the mix, even though I find this very intimidating. To be honest, this blog is already a rather time-consuming hobby, and photos only promise doubling that commitment. but if one of you is a publisher (or with the Times Style section) who wants to publish my book, I'll post pictures, just say the word.

Notes on spices and Delicious Crackers

Note on spices
It came up this weekend that someone mentioned that they didn't really know how to use spices in their cooking. Since spices define a meal and are the basis by witch we differentiate different styles of cooking, I figured it deserved some space. First off, you will not use your spices if they are not fresh, accessible, and clearly marked. I keep my spices in 1/4 pint jars (they were cheap and easy) on a fairly large spice rack that hangs on the wall right above my stove. Know how you cook - if you measure everything, go for a jar (like the 1/4 pint) which is easy to dig into with a spoon. If you'd rather shake, go out and buy some jars with lids that have holes for shaking. Never keep spices for longer than a year or too, and if they don't smell like much, they won't taste like much either. Have clear labels. Clear jars help because colors are an easy identification key. Keep in an order other than alphabetical - which isn't very sensible (and plus, there are far too many spices that start with the letter C*). Try ordering spices by cuisine or savory/sweet - there's some overlap, but this will keep things easier when you reach for the spices to make your Dhal.

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

- In General most people mess up by not adding enough spices. Especially in highly flavored cuisines like Mexican, Indian, Thai, Cajun, etc., it's really hard to overdo it (except with hot pepper). So go for a lot of spices. for a meal serving 4 people it's not unheard of to add around 2-3 tabelspoons of spices. Go for gold. if you overspice, add more of something to soak up the spice - like beans or rice. If you're scared of overdoing it, add spices gradually, and wait a while for flavors to meld before tasting. Try out a few recipes for high-spiced dishes just to get a sense of ratios and how much spices and herbs to add to different kinds of cooking. In general, dried, powdered spices are added early on in cooking so that the flavors can develop, flavor the oil, seep into the food, and really build character.

- Fresh, leafy herbs such as basil, cilantro, and parsley, should be added towards the end of cooking, because the flavors have a tendency to fade (a major exception to this rule in my kitchen is adding parsley to soups that are watery to develop the veggie stock flavor early on in cooking - some people may say this adds a bitter note to vegetable stock, but I have never found that to be true). Fresh and dried hardy herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage should be added early on or closer to the halfway point in cooking to allow some time to soften and the flavors to meld into the dish.

- Mexican Spices are powdered Cumin, oregano, hot chili, (including commercially mixed chili powders, which usually include cumin, oregano, cayenne or another hot pepper, and paprika for color). Add these spices when sauteeing onions. The flavors for these spices come out best when sauteed and cooked a long time. Onions should be fairly well covered with spices and look brownish-reddish (depending on how much hot pepper and/or paprika is added). At the end, immediately after turning off the heat, add cilantro if desired or called for. Jamaican cooking generally replaces most of the oregano with a lot of thyme. Add thyme closer to the halfway point than you would oregano.

-Indian Spices are a long, long list of things. Go for fresh ginger (an easy way to cut up this annoyingly hairy root is to freeze it and then grate the sucker on the small part of your hand grater). Usually you'll be using less than an inch of the root. The spices you will be reaching for include cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, (which are the ingredients in curry powder), to be added when sauteing onions, and mustard seed. For the slightly sweet dishes you might also reach for cardamom, or the pre-mixed garam massala, which I keep on my spice rack because I just can't figure out the ratio and all of the ingredients in this delicious spice mixture. Less commonly you might reach for Asafetida, fenugreek (which I have never gotten the hang of using) and some other lesser characters like curry leaf. You will be surprised by how much spice you will have to use. it's a lot. The rich flavors of Indian cooking are made up entirely of spices plus a splash of lime, some sides of chutneys and spicy pickles. When adding whole seed spices such as cumin seed or mustard seed, pop the seeds by sautéing them separately in a small pan in very hot oil until they start popping and jumping around. add this to your meal with the hot oil just before the dish is done. Whole seeds add a very different flavor and texture to your final dish than the powdered variety, and they're not really interchangeable.

- Thai I'm no expert by far - but I've found that lemongrass (cut into 1/2-in pieces and simmered for a long time, then removed prior to serving - treat as a bay leaf), a lot of lime, and basil added to the normal curry palate (see Indian spices above) with some extra ginger and coriander and less cumin is the basis of making a satisfying Thai dish. Thai spices, such as galangal are hard to find, so go for extra ginger and lime. A lot of cilantro and basil on top once the dish is done is also a must for most dishes.

- Cajun is a cuisine I haven't come into my own in yet, but I'd love to master it. it's delicious and a surprisingly rare treat to find a hostess serving - especially in this age when Asian cooking is chic. Either buy a commercial spice mix or mix one yourself and pretty much cake whatever it is you're cooking with it. A recipe can be found here. I would not shy away from adding allspice.

-Cayenne in recipes can never be trusted. Figure out just how spicy your cayenne is (it's never the same between years, brands, etc.) and feel free to add more or less than the recipe calls for, or to replace a part or all of what is called for with Paprika, which is less spicy (and frequently not spicy at all) but adds color.

On to the next of today's topics:

Delicious Easy Crackers

I made these crackers for new years since I had a stale baguette to contend with. They're basically croutons in the shape of a cracker - yum! Bakeries throw out bread every night. If you can get in as the workers are sweeping up (just as they're closing) you might be able to snag a few "day olds" which the bakery cannot sell the next day. If you land a few stale baguettes, here's what to do to make absolutely divine crackers. I did this without measurements, so feel free to adjust. I'm approximating from my visual memory

- 1 stale baguette, cut into slices as thin as you can manage straight across (no need to cut on a bias unless you want long crackers)
- 2 cups olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 Tablespoon dry sage
- 1 Teaspoon thyme
- 1 1/2 Tabelspoons powdered onion
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Black pepper (however much you like)
- Salt (go for salty - 3 generous 3-finger pinches (that's 3 fingers not including the thumb))

The method
Mix olive oils and spices in a large bowl. once thoroughly mixed, add in the baguette slices and mix (with your hands) until all of the bread is well-coated. spread these out evenly on a cookie sheet and put into a hot oven (I'd go for the 450 mark - or on toast in a large toaster oven) for 10 minutes or until the crackers start turning golden brown and are no longer stale in the center. Transfer onto another cookie sheet to get them out of the oil that no doubt will be sitting in the original cookie sheet.

I served the crackers With a sage-y white bean dip (cook cannellini beans, add a lot of sage, and mash with cream and olive oil as you would mashed potatoes), but really, they were delicious enough to eat alone.

*Just for fun - Spices that start with C (let me know if I missed any): Cayenne, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, chives, chipotle, and (if you're really an acclaimed Indian chef) Curry leaf.