Friday, March 19, 2010

Here Comes the Sun

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.

Stir Fry:

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.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Great White North

A friend of mine says she's going hunting. She's cleaning her rifle. She's loaded for...groundhog. Yeah. That's right. Groundhog. Particularly the one who lives in the climate-controlled environment enjoying all of the amenities of life while the rest of us are slogging out the dregs of winter. Keep your head down, Phil. That's all I'm sayin'.

I can't say that our week began with the most auspicious preparations. A power outage the previous week had revealed that our generator, serviced over the summer, wasn't actually as ready as we had hoped. Fortunately, it had only been of a short duration and since we'd had no other outages this winter, there probably wasn't anything to be concerned over. The utility company had been ruthless in their pruning efforts this past summer, as the misshapen and mutilated trees lining the local rural roads could attest. Trees intrepid enough to grow within the easement parameters were hacked, hewn, and even hawed to almost shrub-like proportions. Yep. The power people were set. Right? Riiiight. And so we hoped that their readiness would compensate for our own rather shakiness in that department. I mean, you try finding service for a generator this time of year. Pick a number and stand in line.

I spent the first of the week in a flurry of activity, because before the end of Tuesday afternoon, there were goosefeather snowflakes wafting their way down to settle on the solidified masses of previous snowfalls. We had planned a winter outing that morning, but I canceled so that way I wouldn't have to pick up Tool Guy from work. I had no intentions of making anymore uphill hikes in heavy snowfall to collect him. Been there, done that, bought the sweatshirt. And, indeed, when Tool Guy came home, stomping in out of the snow, he affirmed that, like the Princess on the Glass Hill, it was possible to come down, but impossible to go up. Then the power went out. With a futzy generator. Greeeeeeat. Just great. Fortunately, dinner was five minutes away from hitting the table and so we had a warm meal for dinner. Given how the week would go, this was being thankful for large favors.

The Hobbits were all troupers. Nay, they were excited. They always celebrate occasions that are marked by lighting the hurricane lamp that has followed us from Louisiana. Something romantic and adventurous about the soft, warm glow. And smoking wick. Yeah, I'm still working on the knack of trimming it properly. Where's Jane Austen when you need her? Nonetheless, we circled around the table after dinner and resumed work on lessons and reading. Everyone was feeling quite Little House on the Prairie-ish. We had to flip a coin to see who had the honor of blowing out the lamp. Yeah. I know. Gotta get these kids out more often.

When I woke up at 4 am and the staring red light on our smoke detector wasn't glaring down at me, I knew that we were in for more than just an inconvenience. I looked out the window and saw the relentlessly gentle parade of flakes continue to come down. Buckle your seatbelts, passengers...

In the morning, Tool Guy decided that it was worthwhile to argue further with the generator and he was able to persuade it to be of his way of thinking. Happy day! Heat. Hot showers. Sanitary sanitation opportunities. Hot food. Cold refrigerators. A man who can coax a generator to start is a man of inestimable charm. Think I'll keep him around a while. I immediately filled up several storage buckets full of water in case his persuasive powers didn't hold. I've decided that among the canning activities in which I will indulge this summer, not the least of these shall include canning water. Yep. That's right. Water. If I'm going to have extra jars taking up space down in the basement, the least they can do is haul their weight by keeping us stocked with water in the future event that the choke on our generator decides to resume its recalcitrance. Besides, I want to be able to flush, okay?

Did I mention that I had a co-op order to coordinate during this week? Yeah. No stress there. Because even with power from the generator, when cable is down, cable is down. Needless to say, when, thirty-six hours later, the power came back on, I flew into action. I spent the morning catching up on phone calls, ordering, email, as well as grinding flour, setting up bread, and anticipating whatever else we might need. The forecast was predicting another front of snow. As it turned out, I had exactly twelve hours to get everything that I needed done done and then, like clockwork, the power went down again. Tool Guy turned to me and inquired about the prospects of relocating South. I asked him if that meant that I wouldn't be able to go grocery shopping in the morning. Nope. My week certainly wasn't going according to plan.

It's nice to know that there are some things that can come together even in sticky spots. We might have been low on coffee and cream--which might be characterized as a state of emergency in its own right--but we had plenty of everything else, despite an inability to get to the grocery store. Our storage shelves had a sufficiency of whatever we needed to get us through the tight places. Even bread baking went on as usual. Speaking of which, I've been playing around with making my bread egg-free. A few people asked me if it was possible. And I'll be honest...I'd never considered it, throwing as many eggs as was rational at the bread recipe in a desperate bid to have it succeed the first time. Which it did. And, for one who claims to cook dangerously, I had never worked up the nerve to leave them out and have it potentially flop. But when our egg supply disappeared, I had a greater incentive to see if it was possible. Guess what? It is. So for those who asked, here's the egg-free bread. My baking pans hold about four cups of dough, so the recipe is sized accordingly. Your needs may vary.

Everything (Including Egg) Free Sourdough Bread

These days, I'm making my starter with a blend that looks roughly like this:

1/3 cup adzuki bean flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup red quinoa flour
1 cup millet flour
2/3 cup rice flour

I measure heaping cups of these, because I want there to be a little starter left over to help feed the next generation. As I've mentioned before, teff or fenugreek makes a great lactobacilli magnet if your starter needs to be perked up or restarted.

4 cups sourdough starter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup flax seed meal (opt.)
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup potato starch
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. guar gum

Mix ingredients together, bringing up to high speed once the batter and dry ingredients are incorporated. "Knead" for about five minutes. The consistency needs to be something between toothpaste and cake batter, so add water or a couple of tablespoons of flour as necessary to achieve this. Pour batter into pans lined with baking parchment. I've gotten quite addicted to the ability to pop the bread pans into the refrigerator and let them rise until I feel like baking them. To prevent a skin from forming on the surface of the breads, I lay a sheet of plastic wrap or baking parchment over the top before storing in the fridge and then peel off when I'm ready to put them in the oven. Bake at 350* for approximately 1.5 hours or until done. When baked, pop out of pan and onto cooling rack, waiting until completely cooled to cut.

The Hobbits have pronounced this to be my best bread ever. Yeah, I know. You've unearthed my secret. I keep them on such a short leash that anything new I do feels like an improvement. I have to say that I'm pretty fond of it, too, though. Prolly 'cause I keep myself on the same short leash. At any rate, when I let it rise sufficiently--and therein lies the art of much is high enough without the bread collapsing--I get this towering loaf of bread that doesn't need the lift from eggs to make it lofty. For the egg-free folk, enjoy!

Bread in hand, we were well-provided for. In spite of twenty-four hours without government snow removal and an inability to achieve the roads to go anywhere, our widow's cruse of gasoline held out--with a bit of judicious rationing--until the power came back on almost forty-eight hours later. Which was two days before some of our other neighbors regained grid connectivity, Lord love 'em.

Secure provisions are reassuring when you have snow encroaching on your window sashes. Or the handrail on your entry stairs. This isn't for the faint of heart. The propane delivery person announced himself "too old for this" and refused to return until there was a cleared path to the backyard. Yeah...that's gonna happen... My die-hard neighbor, who has relationships with his walk-behind snowblowers that looks like other men's relationships with their classic cars, threw in the scarf and hired a back-hoe to clear his driveways.

The blizzard of 2010 will be something that the Hobbits will talk about when they are our age. They'll tell about the "roughing it" and the igloos they constructed--Princess has quite an architectural bent--and the tunnels they burrowed through the yard. When I was her age, we had two inches of snow and, in Louisiana, it left the same kind of impression as the footage does now.

Meanwhile, as I'm digging out from under, I'm also digging around for groundhog recipes.

They're gluten-free, right?