Category Archives: Growing

One of those people…

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True Confession: I’m one of those people who get really excited about holidays and birthdays. I know every day is beautiful blah, blah, blah…but holidays and birthdays are legit reasons to celebrate and be excessive and not have people look at you funny. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who get so excited about holidays and birthdays that I have a movie in my head for how I want them to go, and I work really hard to make sure that the decorations and food and…well, everything in my control…are wonderful.
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Only…I never share that movie in my head. Because really, who needs to ‘fess up to that kind of crazy, right? But what it means is that I put all this pressure on myself, and then the day inevitably winds up not matching my movie. And then I’m sad and irritated that it didn’t.

How many of you are collecting sympathy donations for my husband right now? Don’t feel too badly for him…he eats well. And I’m never annoyed at HIM (well, about that stuff, anyway) but I imagine that my end-of-the-day blues are not easy to ignore.

It happened again for Valentine’s Day. The morning started off well, with cards and silly gifts and breakfast, and then we walked the dogs and had lunch (I couldn’t help the cute–the beet soup and sandwich were our lunch). After lunch, we were invited to a 50th birthday celebration for a lovely woman we’ve met since moving to the North Country, and then we got home and snacked on melty brie with cranberry chutney…and here’s where my movie went awry.

I had planned a delicious, simple dinner (An awesome chicken ragu with bacon from The Kitchn, a salad, and a DIVINE Salted Caramel Creme Brulee from Fine Cooking. I’d even made the ragu and the custard in advance, so we could enjoy dinner without any pressure.
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But we weren’t hungry. Because we ate so much cheese.

And I was sad and annoyed. And then I was annoyed that I was sad and annoyed. So I decided enough, already. When I woke up on Sunday, I mentally hit the reset button and we went and had a Valentine’s Day Redux. We had a leisurely morning with breakfast and while Larry did a quick snow-plow of the drifting snow from the driveway, I packed us a light lunch to bring over to Vermont. We went to the Shelburne Museum to see the Kodachrome and jewelry exhibits, ran some quick errands, stopped into a bar for a beer and a snack, and headed home to finally have that dinner. Which was lovely.
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The moral of the story: I’m going to work on the whole birthday/holiday-movie-in-my-head thing. And I’ll be making that creme brulee a lot. I mean, A LOT, a lot. You should, too.
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And then it was Autumn

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I went away for five days and when I returned, Fall had arrived in the hedgerow to the north of us, with its mustard yellow, russet red, and piney green. The sun is setting right now and as I type, my view is of a lavender light settling over the mountain just beyond that hedgerow. To the west of us, the sky is still an icy, crisp blue. The light in Fall is one of the reasons I never want to live anywhere without seasons again. The hazy light of summer is giving way to the sharply delineating light of winter, and the transition is magical.

The garden is on its way out for the season. I may throw in some radish seeds, perhaps try some late kale under a row cover, but at this point it is mostly harvest and clean-up. There are collards, kales, and Swiss Chard to cut, de-worm (those things are having a field day right now) and blanch for freezing. The cranberry and cannellini beans need to be picked and shelled. The winter squash are desperately trying to fully ripen before the local rodents gnaw through them. So far, two of the Red Kuri squash have been half-eaten by what look to be rabbits, based on their, um…leavings.

There might be sweet potatoes, though I don’t know yet. The squash vines over-ran their garden area, and covered the sweet potato vines. As the squash vines die back, I’ll be able to get into the sweets and see what we have. It’s possible that, given the amount of compost laid on the bed at the beginning of the season, there are no real roots. I’ve only recently read that sweets don’t like a lot of nitrogen, and there was a good amount given by that compost. Fingers crossed. I’ll know better next year.

The red-skin (I have to look up the kind I planted, because I love them and want them again next year), Yukon Gold, and Russet potatoes seem to have done well. All of the reds died back and have been dug and stored, along with about half of the Yukons and 1/3 of the Russets. The rest are slowly fading, and I figure I’ll be digging those up in about a week or two (depending on the weather, of course).
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There are still tomatoes and peppers, both of which produced beyond my expectations this year. This season, I may be up to about 150 pounds of tomatoes processed by the end of this week, into jams, diced, crushed and whole tomatoes, marinara, plain sauce, and salsa. I’ve also cored and frozen a few pounds, and roasted pounds of cherry and plum tomatoes for quick sauces I can defrost. I was only somewhat joking when I told the tomatoes I needed them to distract me from writing, but they sure took me seriously. Part of the problem is that I think I might not be a very efficient canner–I’ll have to take a look at my process and see how I might be able to speed things up. I found a blog post that talked about an assembly line for prepping the tomatoes, and that helped some. More research to do.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about the mistakes I made this season, and will do a post soon about what I can do to have a more productive garden next year. Most of the things I learned are things I “knew” because I’d read about them, but until I had a 40 ft x 80 ft garden full of food in front of me, it didn’t all start to come together. This was a good year for learning.
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A** in Chair

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Ass in chair.

I don’t completely remember who gave this writing advice to whom; I think it was either Donald Murray or Donald Graves who gave it to Nancie Atwell. But it doesn’t really matter, because from the time I heard the story the phrase has stuck with me. It doesn’t just apply to writing, does it? It applies to anything we don’t feel like doing in a given moment. Ass on riding mower, ass down to weed the rows, ass in front of canning pot… Well, the last one could be someone passing judgement on me while I’m canning, but you get the point.

I have, in fact, been mowing, weeding (though not so much…) and canning in order to avoid writing. I have an idea for a story, and have self-doubted myself into staying away from the computer. Because who am I to think I have a story anyone will want to read? For that matter, who am I to think that anyone will want to buy my vegetables/eat my cooking/support whatever business I decide to engage in? The self-doubt is strong in this one.
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But today, after I canned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings, froze a pound of Romano beans and a pound and half of green beans, and started blanching corn–after taking the dogs for an hour drive in the Jeep–I asked myself what I was avoiding. The first answer is, “Thinking about the fact that if I were still teaching, I would have gone back to work today.” Just not touching that one. The second answer is, “Writing.” So, ass in chair, indeed. I thought I’d warm up with a blog post, since there hasn’t been one since the last third of July, and then I’ll move to that story.

Grow:
Tomatoes. Please ripen. I need you so I can continue avoiding writing can lots of tomato sauce and salsa and jam.

On a happier front, I got beautiful, juicy peaches from our older tree. Not a ton–about twelve–but they’re delicious. Fingers crossed that the peach tree borers don’t kill it; they’ve moved in pretty good, which is disappointing.

I also have beautiful peppers growing, which is a first for me. I’ve always bought seedlings and watched them fizzle out, but this year I started them from seed, and most of them are producing well. The trick is to be patient enough, and to get the weather, to wait for them to turn red. More fingers crossed.

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Cook:
There’s been a lot of that going on. Peach Jam. Peach Chutney. Dilly beans. Pickled Zucchini. The aforementioned pickled eggplant and hot pepper rings. Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika.
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Dear Universe: Thank you for Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika. And for author Marissa McClellan, whose book I found the recipe in.

If you like canning, I highly recommend Food in Jars (the blog and the book) and Preserving by the Pint, both by Marissa. She’s keeping me happily busy. The recipes I’ve made have been delicious (and the eggplant will clear your sinuses while it cooks) and I haven’t at all minded the odd amount that didn’t fit in a jar for processing. Especially that Tomato Jam. It took everything I had not to open one of the cans I’d just processed, so I could keep eating the stuff. Her recipes are easy enough to keep newbies calm, and interesting enough to keep non-newbies coming back. I fall somewhere in between.

Read:
I’m late to this party, I’m sure, but I recently finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and I adored it. The Grimke sisters are fascinating, and I’ll be looking up some of the recommended reading Kidd provides.

I also read The Town that Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. It’s about Hardwick, Vermont, which is the location of High Mowing Seeds (love, love, love their seed varieties), Pete’s Greens, and Vermont Soy, to name a few of the food-related companies that have taken off there in the last decade. I enjoyed it a great deal, and thought Hewitt did a good job of naming his biases and writing through them.

Right now, I’m reading Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. It’s pretty hilarious.

Write:
Yeah. I’m working on it.

Carrots! And teen pregnancy and Sarah McLachlan.

Grow:
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After a strong spring-planting showing, life got a little crazy around here, and I didn’t plant a lot of other things until late(r) in the season. Carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes…they all got a later-than-I would-have-liked start. But the hot weather is here, and the plants are psyched. The winter squash are starting to run, the summer squash are producing a million little baby squash, the tomatoes are taking over their area, and the eggplant has doubled in height and width the last week and a half. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m pulling carrots for the first time this week, and they’re uh-maze-ing. I’ve never grown them before, so this is very exciting for me! The only carrots I’d eaten for the last seven years were from our CSA shares, and when I had to buy grocery store carrots to bridge the gap between our last CSA stragglers in the veggie bin and the ones from the garden, I was very sad. If you have only ever had a grocery store carrot, even an organic one from Whole Foods, I beg you, PLEASE find your nearest farmer’s market and buy some of their carrots. You will be astonished. And if they’re pretty freshly pulled, all you have to do is scrub them really well; no peeling required.

Cook:
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The spring lettuces are bolting in the recent heat spike, so I pulled a head of Romaine yesterday, along with radishes, some four to six inch zucchini, green onions, basil, mint, and parsley. I–well, my niece, Maddie, who is staying with me right now and a huge help in the kitchen–diced the zucchini and the radishes, slivered up the herbs and green onions, and then we tossed them with a can of drained tuna, some olive oil, cannellini beans, salt and pepper. Maddie pronounced, “More pepper,” so we made it happen and then served it over a bed of Romaine. It was the perfect light lunch for a hot day. (Today, we had ice cream.)

Read:
I read two books last week: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva and Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles. I picked up One Man Guy because I so, so, so loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sanchez. Lately, I’ve enjoyed reading about romance written from the guy’s perspective, by guys. One Man Guy was funny, and Alek’s best friend Becky was an hilarious character. All of the characters were enjoyable, actually, even when they were doing things you didn’t want them to do. It isn’t as beautifully written as Sanchez’s book, but it isn’t by Sanchez, so…

Living with Jackie Chan is a sequel to Jumping Off Swings, though I’d say you don’t have to read the first one to enjoy the second. It’s another one from the guy’s perspective, and is about Josh, who has moved to a new school district for his Senior year of high school, to get away from the daily reminder that he casually impregnated a girl in a one-night stand. Josh is having a hard time dealing with what happened, and the book is a look at his story the year after the baby is born and given up for adoption. I enjoyed it, and think both genders probably would. If students were doing a genre study, they could use this with Hanging onto Max by Bechard, and The First Part Last by Johnson to look at the male perspective of teen pregnancy.

Write:
Larry and I saw Sarah McLachlan in concert this past weekend! She was amazing! I never wanted the show to end!

I experienced a first at the concert. This past year, I and the students chose song lyrics that were meaningful to us, and we annotated them with an explanation of why. I chose “Fear” by McLachlan. Though it’s primarily about a relationship, the chorus of, “And I fear, I have nothing to give, I have so much to lose here in this lonely place…” hit me hard each time I heard it. Leaving teaching had me wondering all year, “What else do I have to give?” She performed the song on Saturday, and in the middle of it I just started sobbing. I still don’t know the answer, and it is frustrating. I’m trying to be patient with myself, but…well…not always my strong suit!

I still don’t know the answer, but McLachlan’s music is again helping me think. Her latest album, “Shine On,” has a number of songs about being strong(er) and positive, and the song, “In Your Shoes,” is where I want to be right now. Here’s a link: http://www.sarahmclachlan.com/lyric-lounge/in-your-shoes/

Meanwhile, the weeds grew as fast (faster?) than the eggplant, there’s kale, spinach, and other greens and root veggies to be sown, and there’s a lot of summer left to enjoy. Tomorrow: more ice cream. And some carrots.
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Mid-summer

Grow:
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Cortland Onion
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Rhubarb Swiss Chard
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Garlic Scapes
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“Black Cap” Raspberries (do these count as “grow” if they’re growing wild taking over the property?)
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Sparkle Strawberries

Cook:
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Chinese Cabbage, Black Bean, and Bacon Saute
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Swiss Chard with Freekah and Pomegranate Molasses (adapted from Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipe in Jerusalem)
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Strawberry Muffins
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Strawberry and Black Raspberry Cobbler adapted from The Seasonal Baker by John Barricelli<a
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Chicken Salad with Romaine lettuce, Watermelon Radishes, Basil, and Mint

Read:
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Write:
The garden continues to do its thing, while I try to keep all the plates spinning. Unpacking boxes is a fits-and-starts ordeal, and trying to decide whether to grow, cook, read or write is a constant tug of war. There has been a bit of all of it the last week and a half. Balance is over-rated, right? An eight hour day in the garden, followed by a ten hour day reading, followed by a five-hour round of cooking/baking/preserving is fine. As long as it all gets done, right?

Right.

The black cap raspberries are coming in strong right now, and I’ve picked three and a half quarts in the last week. One quart went into a cobbler, and the rest went into today’s jam. I sweetened it with honey and brightened it with lemon juice, and again followed the instructions on the Pomona’s Pectin box. After licking the spoon, I couldn’t figure out why the dogs were looking at me so strangely. Then, on a walk past a mirror, I saw the huge blob of it on my chin. I’m glad I didn’t leave the house that way! It looked like a dried but particularly nasty wound.
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Jam!

The raspberries are the very devil to pick. I have yet to collect any without new scratches. They’re worth it, though. I could wear long clothing, but it’s hot. I’d rather be scratched, honestly. I’m sure there’s some fun psychology there.
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The kale, collards, Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, onions, scallions, and lettuce are doing well, and providing lots of green to eat. Watermelon radishes are adding some crunch, and garlic scapes add some zing. Alpine strawberries continue to grow like mad, and I stand in the garden and reward work with mouthfuls of the tiny berries. They’re too fragile to survive the trip to the house, which suits me just fine.

Grow, cook, read, write. And on we go.

From bush to jelly in 82 easy steps

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I woke up yesterday determined to pick some of the Nanking cherries that were ripe and glowing on the bushes. It turns out that picking these beautiful red fruits on a beautiful summer morning requires no determination. Simply being out there with the dogs, eating a few cherries for every few I picked, was a peaceful and enjoyable way to start the day.
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I was so inspired that from there, I went and picked some of the black-cap raspberries that are growing wild (read: taking over) by the pool house (read: rustic shed). That was a little less peaceful, but the scratches all over my arms and legs are worth it. I’m combining them with strawberries and making a cobbler. My stomach is grumbling just thinking about it.

The raspberries yielded a quart and a half, and the Nanking cherries yielded 2 and a half quarts, by the time I decided there were other things I might need to do besides picking fruit. The cherries are incredibly tiny, so other than eating them fresh and pulping or juicing them, the eating options are limited–there’s no way I’m going to pit them, ever. I found a recipe online for jelly, and figured, “Why not?”

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I then proceeded to dirty every dish in the kitchen, along with dish towels, counter tops, and cabinets.

At least it’s a beautiful color.

This was not the recipe’s fault, but mine, as I kept waffling about what exactly I was going to do with the four and a half cups of juice the cherries yielded. I finally landed on a jelly recipe on the Pomona’s Pectin box (see the box for instructions for jelly from juice). My jelly is clouded, because I couldn’t be bothered to strain the juice through cheesecloth, but it tastes wonderful. I used a half cup of honey with four cups of the juice, and the final jelly is tart-sweet. We’ll look forward to saving some for the winter, when its brightness will be wanted.

Picking fruit. Making jelly. Roasting chickens. Making chicken stock. Life is slow right now, which feels right after a momentous change. I’m enjoying the steps in making and preserving things, and the opportunity to focus on minutiae, after the grand scope of uprooting my life, is good.
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Endings and Beginnings

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“Placing a book on the shelf
is the end of a new beginning.
Picking up a book
is a start to a new end.”
       –Cate D.

Endings and beginnings are on my mind these days. And while leaving my students has made this ending hard, their words and encouragement and belief in me have eased the way.

Tomorrow is officially the last day of school. It is a half day, so not much gets done beyond the hugs and photos and yearbook signing. Today is the “real” end, especially for our eighth graders. The high-honors awards are in the morning, and then students divide by teams to receive content-area and other academic awards, along with their certificates of completion. I will never forget C’s joyous, jubilant reaction to the news that he was, indeed, going to high school. (He was pretty worried.)

At the end of the day, we return to the auditorium for the poetry jam. I am continually astonished by the words these thoughtful teenagers share. I know teenager-bashing is the norm these days (really, when hasn’t it been?) but if you could meet my kids, you’d know that the world is going to be just fine.

As a going-away present, the students collected money for me to buy a tree for the farm. I have been instructed to buy something beautiful, and indeed I will. Along with it, I will make something–some kind of sign–to indicate that my students were the contributors. A bench, to sit on while reading, seems appropriate.

Above that, though, they made me a book of their poems. They gifted me with their words–some chose a poem they wrote earlier in the year, others wrote new poems, just for me. I have already read through it twice. At the end of the day, the students I love recognized me in the currency I love: words. There could have been no greater gift.