No groundhog on the menu this week. He's been given a reprieve. The sun came out. We were supposed to have a dissection class, but one of the participant's family had a bout with some bug and wouldn't be able to make it. With all of the golden glow lighting up the landscape, the remaining participants made sympathetic noises, told the stricken how sorry we were for their illness, and, of course, we would not even imagine proceeding with the next portion of our studies until everyone was fit for duty. It was a huge sacrifice. But that's what you do for friends, right?
The snow is gone and our propane delivery person managed to slog his way through the soggy tundra to fill our tanks. It does the heart good to see such dedicated personnel, doesn't it? And who says that good help is hard to find these days? It was amazing to see how quickly the extensive footage of snow disappeared, leaving the layer of detritus that its weight brought down. The sides of the road are invisible under the fractured boughs along the berm. It's been so warm, in fact, that the friend of mine, whose sons make maple syrup, has been praying for colder nights. It seems the recipe for good sap flow is warm, sunny days and nippy nights. The weather does seem unseasonably mild, particularly after the ferocious snow storm.
While it is unusual for it to be this warm at this time of year, I couldn't resist the call to go out and play in the mud. St. Paddy's Day has become my traditional Starts Day, so I schlepped down to the cellar and pulled out my trays and markers, beginning my gardening journal for the year. I soaked my seeds, wadded up in saturated paper towel bundles, softening them up for the planting. Some wise gardening soul shared that her favorite trick to optimize her efforts is to do this and actually sprout the seeds. This way she only plants what seeds have demonstrated viability, so as not to waste time or space on a seed that won't be doing anything. Sounds like a plan.
This took an amazingly short period of time make pots, fill trays, and whip through all of my starts. The Hobbits dipped their fingers into the project and helped, so we were done in short order. And still there was more sun. And 70*... No way was I staying inside.
This is the year that I'm going to begin my herb garden, which shall be an entirely separate entity from my vegetable garden. I realized last year that if I start "tucking in" this herb and that herb, I would pretty soon have no room left for vegetables. Herb gardening, it seems, is much like any other gardening. You start out thinking that you are doing the garden, but after a short span of time, the garden is doing you. Herbs are no exception. So I figured that I needed to make space for the horseradish, the comfrey, the sage, the rugosa, the echinachea, the gumweed, the lomatium, the goldenseal, the, the, the...okay, all the other stuff that I feel that I just have to have in order to find fulfillment in the universe. Bottom line: no room with the tomatoes. Yeah, and I only have 36 of those started. For a 20 x 10 greenhouse. I know, I know...good luck with that plan.
After I paced it off, laid down marker rocks, and spread the bag of lime over the fallow ground, the sun was still shining. No way was I going to go indoors. Facebook and all of my lists would just have to wait. Besides, I need my Vitamin D. The compost pile called to me. It has been sitting there for at least two years, since I've been in a snit over my garden failure of year before last. Not to be confused with last year's garden failure. What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment. Third time pays for all.
So I rounded up one trashcan, two big buckets, and three Hobbits to haul wagon loads of this mature, black compost up a hill and begin layering it over the newly lain lime. I grabbed my shovel and stabbed into the loamy pile. And felt the reverberations up my arms and into my spine. And muttered imprecations at the rock that had found its way into my compost pile. This is not a totally unanticipated occurrence. I have to dig rocks out of the yard every spring that sprout up as liberally as the plantain. I moved over a foot or two and stabbed again. Another imprecation. Another rock. By the third stab, I was beginning to sense a pattern here and scraped off a thin layer of compost to discover that the pile was frozen. I did some mental math and realized that I'd never assayed the outside portion of gardening this early in the year. Mature compost piles freeze. Who knew? Hey, I'm from Louisiana, remember?
Undaunted, I turned to Dog and sent him after the pick axe. Yeah. You heard that right. Pick axe. Hey, the sun was still shining and time's a-wastin'. He came back in short order and we all resumed work. I taught them the lyrics to "You Load Sixteen Tons" while I hewed away at the compost pile, filled the buckets which they used to fill the trashcan, and we all muscled up the hill for the dump. It only took us two days to move a compost pile the size of a VW. No doubt we provided ample entertainment to our neighbors as we carried slabs of frozen compost--the freeze was only a layer on the top--to the garden site and played at discus tosses. The Olympics may be over, but the spirit lives on.
As winter is winding down, I find that I'm still in love with the warming herbs. Hey, these 70* days aren't going to last. There's got to be at least one or two more snowfalls and several hard frosts before the shouting. Since I laid in a generous supply of what I needed to make chai tea, the smells reminded me of an old favorite Chinese food recipe: five spice stir-fry. I had an antique bottle of the five spice powder haunting the back of my cupboard. When I say antique, I'm not referring to the bottle, but to the spices. God only knows how old this bottle was, but I think we moved here with it. Nine years ago. Don't look at me like that. It's all I can do to keep the clothes closets rotated for each appropriate season. But with a fresh supply of The Real Thing spices ready to hand, I decided to take the idea of Five Spice Powder and make something like a Five Spice Infusion. So here's what I did.
Five Spice Beef Stir-fry
Five spice infusion:
2 star anise pods
2 cinnamon sticks
12 whole cloves
1 tsp. whole fennel
1 tsp. whole peppercorns
1 quart of water
Early in the day or the day before, pour water into heavy sauce pan and bring to a boil. Add all of the spices and lower heat to a slow simmer. Cover, allowing to simmer for about 20 minutes before removing from heat. Leave covered and allow to infuse for 2-4 hours. Strain out spices and reserve infusion to make sauce just before serving.
1 pound beef steak, thin sliced - I usually freeze the steak and then partially thaw, running the meat through the slicing blade on my mandolin. This is usually marinated overnight in a solution of wheat-free tamari sauce and water.
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4 whole carrots, bias sliced
1 cup broccoli, separated into small pieces
3 celery stalks, bias sliced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
Lard or coconut oil for stir-frying
1-2 T Sesame oil for flavoring
3-4 T Wheat-free tamari for sauce
2-3 T tapioca starch
In a wok over high heat, melt lard or coconut oil (approximately 1-2 tablespoons) and add onions, garlic, and carrots. Stir fry carrots for 3-5 minutes before adding chopped broccoli. Stir fry another 3-5 minutes before adding celery slices. After about three minutes or when vegetables are cooked to taste, remove the entire contents of the wok to another container. (While these ingredients are cooking, drain marinating meat in a colander.) In the wok, melt another tablespoon or so of oil and add mushrooms with a dollop of wheat-free tamari sauce. Stir fry mushrooms until cooked and add the wok contents to the already cooked vegetables. Pour a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil into the cooked ingredients and stir. Add more oil to the wok and stir fry the drained beef strips until cooked to preference. Drain the cooked meat, discarding the liquid, and return all of the cooked ingredients to the wok.
In a heavy sauce pan, pour five spice infusion, less one cup, and wheat-free tamari sauce and bring to a boil. In the reserved one cup of five spice infusion (which should not be warm--cold is good, actually), stir in tapioca starch until dissolved. Add the infusion and dissolved tapioca starch to the boiling pot and stir continually until the sauce has thickened and the milky appearance has become more translucent. Pour sauce over stir-fry and stir until all of the pieces are completely coated.
Serve hot over steamed rice.
Our sunny days have disappeared in a deluge of flood warnings. I remain unperturbed, however. I got my peas in the ground in the greenhouse. Which is an improvement on last year, when I missed the pea planting opportunity altogether. While I was at it, I decided to put down some broccoli and cucumbers, too. Hey, let's garden dangerously. If they don't make it, I still have time to start some more, right? Meanwhile, I've started a new compost pile, since the old one has now surrendered its space and is gone. I'm feeling all kinds of virtuous about getting it done so early.
Marilyn Monroe was wrong. Pickaxes are a girl's best friend.