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Tip #18: Make it a boat

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Eggplant. Winter squash. Summer squash. Zucchini. Russet potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Tomatoes.

Fill’em, bake’em, and serve’em.

I am not always interested in a meal that has a bunch of separate components sitting next to each other on the plate. Sometimes, I want my food in one tidy package. (Not the plastic kind, of course.)  When I do not want soup or a casserole, which also fit this craving, I like to stuff and bake (although not necessarily) vegetables. One of the great things about “boats” for dinner is that they are a great way to clean out the refrigerator and use up those odds and ends of nuts, seeds, and grains in the cabinet. In my experience, kids like the whimsy of stuffed vegetables, too.

I grow Carnival Squash–which is shaped like Acorn Squash and prepared the same way, but has a prettier skin and slightly sweeter taste–mainly so that I can fill it. Most often, my go-to filling is a chopped, cooked green, quinoa, scallions, dried fruit, pistachios, and feta. A little crunch and a little chew, a little sweet and a little savory; we love it.

This week, I had sweet potatoes to use. They last forever…until they don’t. We were at that point. There was also a cup of chopped cauliflower, two cups of blanched Swiss chard, the heel of a local nutty-tasting cheese, a cup of a cooked wild rice blend, and some leftover ham in the refrigerator. I not-quite-caramelized an onion, added a clove of garlic and the greens, and cooked them until they were tender. After baking the sweet potatoes, I halved them and hollowed them out (leave about a 1/4″ border of the flesh, so they don’t collapse) and mixed the flesh with the greens and ham. I sprinkled a little cheese in the bottom of each sweet potato half, over-filled them with the mixture, and topped them with the remaining cheese. Back into the oven they went, and dinner was done. The fridge was a little less crowded, too. I call that a win-win.

This method works with any vegetable (or fruit) that has a skin that will hold up after hollowing out. Some of them (most of them) will need to be baked and then hollowed, but tomatoes, zucchini, and summer squash (even cucumbers, filled with a cold salad) can be hollowed out without baking first. A metal spoon is your friend here.

I would not necessarily say that serving dinner in one contained package is less work than the separate components on a plate, (unless you’re combining leftovers) but it is a fun way to mix up what you put on the table each evening.

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Back to the strangeness

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It is snowing.

Mostly, that makes me want to run around shrieking and throwing things, but I remind myself that tomorrow it is supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny, so the ever-growing coating of white stuff outside my window will disappear rapidly.

It helps. Kind of. I still feel a shriek bubbling up occasionally.

This has been an odd winter-into-spring here in the North Country. Winter never really made an appearance until mid-January, and except for some pretty low temperatures in February and March, it was not ever that cold. Everything is relative, mind you, and “not that cold” hereabouts is in the thirties and forties. Or even twenties when it is a sunny day with no wind. When “cold” can be -27, you take it where you can get it…

Anyway, back to the strangeness. Winter held off until spring this year, and we have had quite a bit of it this April. There has been more snow this month than there was between November and March–at least it feels that way–and about two weeks ago we had a low of 15. Those kinds of temperatures that late in the season can be bad for blooming fruit trees, so I have been holding my breath a bit, waiting to see what will happen. The Nanking cherries are blooming, which is a positive indicator, so I am hopeful.

Today feels especially gray because of the fact that I had been hoping to plant out my cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and escarole early this week. I am itching to be in the garden and this game of up-and-down with the temperatures is making it hard to decide what is going to be best for the plants. Lots of people accustomed to this kind of thing will point out that today’s snow is a great boost of poor-man’s nitrogen for the garden, so there is that. And there are those 50 degree temperatures with lots of sun moving in for the rest of the week.

With all the gray and white out there, oatmeal seemed like a great breakfast today. We are out of propane for the stove, of course, because that is how life goes. But boiling water in the electric kettle and pouring it over quick oats does a suitable job, so oatmeal with maple and raisins it was. I am hoping the propane delivery will happen before I head to work–they have to get in the house to do a leak check–or there will not be any cooking here for dinner. Or breakfast, again.  But there is coffee, so the general public is safe when I finally venture out there.

Snow in late April. It is awfully pretty, but I am ready for that daffodil, tulip, and lilac kind of beauty.

Ahhh…

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Today was the kind of day I wait all winter for: not too warm, so we can gradually get used to being warm, but warm enough to have lunch and a few beers outside with friends. (Hot dogs! On the grill!) The above photo was taken around 4:30 or 5; otherwise, we had abundant sunshine all day.  I haven’t figured out yet whether or not the pink tinge on my face is windburn or a hint of sun, but it’s nice not to look like I dust my face with powdered sugar. Winter pallor: not sexy. On the other hand, it means it’s time to break out the sunscreen again. Not so sorry about that.

I used to think my favorite season was summer, but I’ve come to realize over the last five or so years that the excitement I feel as I walk around the yard greeting the first buds on trees and the plants pushing up through the ground may mean that my favorite season is spring. Daffodils! Tulips! Lilacs!

I’m feeling a little giddy at the thought of all of those flowers.

Hurry up and wait

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The best advice I have about spring is the advice I find hardest to follow.

Wait.

It was mid-60’s here today, with moments of sunshine that were warm and not just bright, like they have been for the last three months. If a gardener was tempted to stick seeds in the ground, the sodden, cold mud that’s just below the surface of mulch and debris would be a good reminder that it will be awhile. But, oh, it’s tempting to think I can be out there planting things.

Instead, the first warm spring day of the year is reserved for clean-up. I do most of the vegetable garden in the fall, and some tidying of the flower beds if I get around to them. But by October, I’m tired. I’m ready to be done for a few months, and I’m canning my brains out to preserve vegetables and fruits for the winter. (I don’t even put that much up, in comparison to some–most?– people who can. I have no idea how they do it.) So, if I’m being honest, flower bed clean-up isn’t high on the list.

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I don’t feel too badly about that admission, though, because except taking out things like peonies and phlox that can over-winter powdery mildew, most of what I leave has seeds for birds, and provides shelter for critters. In fact, the catmint could probably hide a small city, it’s such a matted, enormous clump. Another benefit is that the hydrangea mop heads, echinacea seed heads, lily seedpods, and grasses offer some visual interest in an otherwise bare garden. (That picture is post today’s clean-up. I’m leaving the grass and hydrangea, because things are still pretty bare…)

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Finally, spring clean-up is like a discovery expedition.  Cutting back the catmint and spearmint, I found the green whorls of tiny new foliage. The day lilies were already putting up new green beneath the flattened gray foliage of last year, and under the mulch, the reddish tips of a peony were showing. One patch of chives is also on its way, though I had to look pretty closely to find it. Exciting stuff. (And probably puzzling to the drivers going by while I had my head practically hidden in the juniper and my bum in the air while I was looking for the chives.)

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I also planted some seeds today, which helps with that “I’d like to have my fingers in the dirt” feeling that I get around the end of February. Celeriac, escarole, leeks, and bunching, red, and yellow onions are nestled in their pods, sitting on a heat mat under the grow lights. The escarole should be the first thing that comes up; I’m looking forward to the excitement that comes with that first tiny green.

This first spring day is usually also a good reminder of muscles that winter makes me forget I have. My calves, hamstrings, and shoulder muscles are moaning quietly in sympathy with each other after the three and a half hours of bending, reaching, crawling, lifting, and pulling. Because heaven forbid I start slowly.

The aches and pains are okay, though. On the northwest side of the house, there’s a witch hazel getting ready to bloom for the first time since I planted it a few years ago. Those scraggly, wispy, crimson flowers–followed by a profusion of others from spring through fall–make everything worth it.

Clutching at mental straws

I am sitting at our kitchen table clutching a gigantic mug of tea with milk and sugar, and clutching at mental straws, both for comfort. I made the mistake of looking at preliminary poll results for Super Tuesday (a name we’ll have to change now, I think) and I’m reeling. I keep hoping some reporter is going to pop up and say, “You’re on Candid Camera, America!”

I zig-zag between thinking, “Oh my god, what has happened to this country?” and, “It will be okay. It’s only four years. America has had terrible presidents before, and survived.” And I know I’m jumping to conclusions that are by no means predetermined, but I am fighting down a panic attack over thoughts of what might happen to this country if Donald Trump is elected.

What kind of message is America sending when a large percentage of voters are choosing a man with the kinds of values Trump seems to have? What kind of message does Trump’s success send to Black people, hard-working immigrants, and non-Christians who are citizens of this country? Equally important, what kind of message is America sending to the world? It is naive to think that how the world views us is irrelevant; 9/11 taught us that very clearly.

Many articles I’ve read espouse the theory that it is disenfranchised white males, terrified of losing their majority, who respond to Trump’s antics (what else should I call them?). But poll numbers across the nation would indicate that it is not simply those white males who are supporting him. If it is, then they are the only Republicans showing up to the polls.

How does a citizen who lives in a country founded on the principals of freedom, justice, and equality (even if the birthing has been a long, tough one and is still not quite over) give any credence to a man who spews hatred at his worst and tomfoolery at his best, every time he opens his mouth? Why are the racist, bigoted, uneducated, half-formed ideas of a man with no consistent platform or ideas for running our country resonating with so many citizens? A man interviewed about his support for Trump said it was like voting with his middle finger. Really? This should be considered an admirable way to make a decision?

What happened to voting as an act of thoughtfulness, or of hopeful defiance, instead of an act of rage? I am disgusted with our current two-party system, and with the utter disregard our politicians seem to have for the ordinary men and women who make up this nation. But when I choose my candidates, I do it with the idea that voting is an act of hope, not a “fuck you” to the people of this country with whom I don’t agree.  I’m all for change, attained by radical means if necessary, but the idea that a president who thinks, “saying it like it is,” is an acceptable excuse for hate-mongering goes against everything decent for which our founders strove.

And we haven’t even gotten into whether or not the man has any capability to handle the president’s duties in foreign policy.

I am truly frightened for the future of this country if Trump is elected president. It feels like it will be a reversal of everything we have achieved in the last 150 years, both on the “freedom and justice for all” stage at home, which is pretty wobbly, and on the stage of world opinion, also wobbly. The slog toward November is going to be a long one.

Galloping away in the dark

One of the reasons I live in the North Country, with its long, usually sub-zero winters and too-short season for flowers, is the deer. I don’t hunt, and I don’t have any particular attachment to venison. I don’t think they’re always beautiful animals, though they are graceful. It’s the opportunity to see them in as close to their natural habitat as possible, along with the fox, the coyote, and the wild turkey.

Last night, the dogs woke me up just before midnight. I let them out back, used the bathroom, and went to let them in.  They were standing side-by-side, looking northwest into our (pathetically puny but I’m trying) fruit orchard. It’s not uncommon for Shiloh to ignore me, but unusual for Montana to do so. After a few seconds, he trotted reluctantly to the door. I walked out to get Shiloh and was stopped by the sound of hooves galloping on frozen ground.  In the barely available light from the side of the house, I could see a group of deer running toward the woods.

The noise froze me for a few seconds–not to be confused with the freezing from being outside in my nightshirt in February–and I could feel the sound in my bones.  Midnight is the fanciful hour, and my head went to a band of dashing marauders on horseback, stealing from the (completely bare and frozen) garden to feed themselves. A gust of wind snapped me out of it and I herded Shiloh inside.

This morning, a small group of deer was back, crossing the field to the north of the orchard. They were wary, moving in fits and starts and not stopping until almost to the edge of the woods. They browsed a bit and then stepped into the trees. Their now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t ability is always a bit startling, like they’ve vanished out the back of the wardrobe or slipped on an invisibility cloak.

I grew up in the suburbs; my wild encounters were limited to birds, the occasional snake, and the even more occasional skunk. I didn’t know that being able to see animals in their wildness would be such a moving thing. It is magical.

Lunch

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Doing something about all the food I found myself whining about the other night. (Insert eye-roll here)

The Kitchn posted this recipe the other day, and it sounded great to me. But I wanted to use escarole instead of cabbage, and fennel seeds instead of caraway…so I did. I also added a little red pepper flake to the squash while it roasted (along with the fennel seed) instead of adding it to the dressing. I toasted the walnuts on the pan with the squash for the last few minutes it was roasting.

I think almost any winter squash (other than spaghetti–although it might be worth playing around with) would work here, as would a lot of different assertive greens and the nut of your choice. I’d keep nuts of some kind, unless you’re allergic (duh), and the celery (you could use fresh fennel bulb–it would be awesome) and apple. They provide a great crunch against the softness of the squash.

Here’s the link to The Kitchn version.  Make it as is, or change it up at will. The Kitchn Delicata Squash salad