Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Claire's Cooking

Renee Claire is putting together a cookbook of her grandmother's recipes. She has asked all of us to come up with our favorite "Claire Dishes." A simple request that is very difficult to fulfill. Claire had so many tried and true, faithful, delicious recipes that it is hard to come up with what I might call my favorites. They were all my favorites.

This afternoon I am sitting at my computer looking through the recipe box that she no longer uses since she has given up her days at the stove. I feel like I am going through a treasure trove as I read sauce-stained scraps of paper, recipe cards, and magazine cut-outs that she filed in a small wooden box. Most of the recipes bring back memories of meals at her table. Some, though, I don't remember eating; and I wonder if this is a dish I did not happen to taste, or was it a dish she was thinking about cooking but never got around to preparing. Either way, if a recipe is in this box, it is worth looking at.

Claire and Harvey married at the end of World War II. She began her cooking career at a time when the food industry was on the brink of tremendous change. Modern conveniences were hitting the marketplace and every home needed the appliances, the cars, and the processed foods that were advertised in magazines, newspapers, on the radio, and eventually, television. I keep this in mind as I read through many of the ingredients lists that call for cans of cream of mushroom soup, cheez-whiz, and cool-whip. Today I would probably just go for the real thing: sauteed mushrooms with real cream, grated hard cheese, and full-fat whipping cream. This would change the taste of the recipes, though, and if I found the change too hard to bear, I would just go back to Claire's way of doing it. After all, if we are looking for food that stirs us to remember a time when we shared a home-cooked meal prepared by the loving hands of a grandmother, the least we can do is fix it just the way she did.

On the Cooking page, I am going to begin typing in recipes from this treasured collection. They will all be under the heading Claire's Recipes. I know all of you who ate at her table will enjoy the result of your effort to duplicate her cooking. And if you didn't get the chance to eat there--well, all the more reason to try these recipes out.

The Senator

The Senator fell this week.

Several years ago I had the privilege of seeing this 3500 year-old cypress tree between Longwood and Sanford, Florida . It is believed that the tree was struck by lightening and had been smoldering internally for a couple of weeks. This week flames consumed the ancient tree.

Nature has taken its course.
The king is dead. Long live the king!

The profound effect this tree had upon me has lasted through the years. I've written about the tree on several occasions, but I could never capture the depth of awe that I experienced upon seeing The Senator. The following poem that I wrote a few years ago comes closest.

Ancient One

A millennium is nothing new for you.
You've lived through two,
And half again as much.

Ancient Monarch,
You tower above the lesser trees
And do not note my presence,
Though I tremble in awe of you.

Breath does not come easy
As I approach your sacred feet,
Made holy for having stood
So long in this same place.

You have watched generations of life
Live and die, and be born again.
Still you stand, in your silence
Knowing that what is now
Will cease to be;
And what is to come,
Will not last.

Ancient Seer,
You know the Unknowable Truth,
And speak to the Creator like a brother.
So familiar are you to Him--
--and He to You--
I have trouble telling you apart.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The New Coop

The first coop we bought for our chickens was a a fancy little A-frame that we thought would look nice in our yard. The description of the coop clearly stated that it was large enough for three, possibly four, medium-sized hens. As I have done in so many other instances totally unrelated to chickens, I disregarded knowledge and caved in to emotion. Surely, such an attractive little coop could be made to work. We had three  medium-sized chickens. The problem was we also had three heavy-breed chickens. By the time the chickens were getting ready to lay, it was obvious that our current set-up would never do. The chickens were falling out of the roosting area, they were having to sleep in the nest, and the weather was beginning to warm up. It would soon be stifling in the small sleeping area. I became concerned about their health--and mine. After all, we are raising the chickens because we want healthy food from healthy animals. There was only one thing to do--get a larger coop. Happy chickens lay eggs, and we wanted happy chickens!

Enter my son-in-law Henry. I am not going to carry on about all of the talents Henry has. I'll focus on this one--he is a master carpenter who works with wood as a way of relieving all of the stresses his real job lays upon him. He saw the need for a new coop, and he offered to build it--bless him! In one weekend he built the coop I have pictured below. On Saturday morning we sat together to draw up a plan, and by Sunday evening it was complete. The girls have been living in it since March, and it has just been a godsend for them and for us.

We sited the coop between two star magnolia trees.
 This left little room for a ramp, so we asked the girls to hop on a  concrete block
 to get into the coop. They easily complied.

Big Mama Thornton is using  one of two nest boxes. The coop has space for  four boxes,
 but  two are  enough for our six chickens.

We are using the two extra nest box spaces as areas to hold water and food.
  This comes in handy if we are late letting them out in the morning.

The clean-out doors are in back of the coop. By designing the coop with the raised part
 in the back, Harvey (6'2") is able to clean the coop without having to bend over.

The nest boxes are built inside the coop rather than jutting outside the front of the coop. There are six ventilation holes on each side of the coop, in addition to the large screened area in front--lots of fresh air.

At first we didn't know if the hens could jump up to the roost, so we put a small portable roost  under the  large  green roost you see at the top of the picture. The small roost wasn't needed and was soon removed.

The tops of the nest boxes are covered with tin (edges carefully placed so the chickens do not cut themselves) so the chickens are not able to sit on top. The roosting bar is partially blocking the view of the curtains
 I made for the nest boxes.  There was a bit too much light in the coop, so I cut a piece
of fabric into strips and stapled it to the front of the boxes.
Works great!

The chickens' litter is cleaned daily. I don't think any chickens ever had it so good.
 Their coop is becoming known around the neighborhood as the Chicken Hilton.

Laura is coming to check for an empty nest.

The morning is a busy time--hens coming and going.

Rhoda is taking advantage of her perch to check out the neighborhood.

Generally, the hens lay six eggs a day. Six eggs for six chickens.
If happy chickens lay eggs,
our chickens are definitely happy with their new coop.

Thank you, Henry!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lâche pas la patate! (Don't Drop the Potato!)

One of the childhood games I remember playing was called "Hot Potato." Several of us would sit in a circle; one of us holding an object dubbed the "potato." The object of the game was to toss the potato to another person in the circle who, in turn, had to quickly, without fully wrapping fingers around the "hot potato," toss it to another person--and so on until you missed the catch or were deemed to have held that potato too long in your hands and were declared "burned" by your fellow players.

January to June must be the busiest time of the gardening year. I've been starting plants from seeds, transplanting seedlings, watering the garden, turning compost, watering the garden, fertilizing, spraying, and did I mention watering the garden? This blog has been preying on my guilty mind, but there was just no time to get here. Now that temperatures are up in the nineties, I am trying to postpone the heavy-lifting until late afternoon. I thought this might be the perfect time to spend a minute to show you the potato harvest.

Luckily, my friend Jim stops by on a regular basis to give me some garden guidance. I told him I thought my potato plants were looking poorly--pale green, spotted leaves, spindly stalks--what did they need? The answer was simple: they needed to be harvested. 

The cage has been removed and the plant emptied
into a large bin for easy potato diving.

Low and behold! I had no idea they grew down there
at the bottom of the plant!

French fingerling potatoes--all shiny and new.

Just a beautiful sight.

Jim explains the difference between old and new potatoes--dark
ones are the seed potatoes, lighter ones are the new potatoes.

I am thrilled with my little harvest.  Isn't life grand?

Old and new potatoes to be roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Buttercrean and Russian bananas harvested
a few days later went into my annual
potato salad.
Growing potatoes in containers can work. There is room for improvement, however, and there are a couple of things I will do differently next time. I will err on the side of planting too few potatoes per pot instead of too many in order to give the potatoes more room to grow, and I will probably not go quite so high with my "hills." I think the plants could have used a rest from having to reach so high throughout their growing season. They should have been able to kick back and relax after stretching a foot and a half up the cage. At least, those are my theories. And of course, my garden is always about experimentation.

Now, back to that wonderful Cajun French idiom, "Lâche pas la patate!"  (Don't drop the potato!) Unlike the game I played as a child, this phrase isn't really referring to a potato at all. It means that you should keep going, manage all of the things you have to do, and get them done. No small task for a gardener. No small task for a gardener who wants to keep a blog about the experience. But here I go. "Lâche pas la patate!"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Patio Potatoes

Another experiment!

Always looking for another way, I set about finding a way to grow potatoes in containers. My limited garden space and my expanding desire to grow more plant varieties left me with little choice but to rely on container gardening for a few of the vegetables--and potatoes made the cut. I planted French fingerlings, Russian bananas, and a yellow-fleshed variety whose name escapes me at the moment. I know I was supposed to plant seed potatoes, but instead I went straight to Fresh Market, bought bags of organic potatoes, and stuck a few of them into each pot. 

After watching several You-tube videos and reading about the necessity of hilling potato plants, I came up with the following set up. The plants are "hilled" with a mulch of dried leaves and straw, and now that they have reached the top of the wire cage, they are going to have to fend for themselves. 

A few blossoms are appearing on one of my plants. Hopefully there will be more. I'd like to say I grew the potatoes that go into the potato salad I make annually.  Any more potatoes than that would require that I take another road trip to drop them off to family members who are already master potato growers. 

A small harvest would be fine. I'm pretty sure I'm going to get my wish.

Monday, April 18, 2011

These Are Really Supposed To Be On The Chicken Page

Here are a few pictures of five of our six hens--Big Mama Thornton (Black Star) was on the nest when these were taken.

Left to Right: Black Australorp (Laura); Lace Wyandotte--backside view (Lacey);
Buff Orpington (Buffy); Black Sex Link (Stella); Rhode Island Red (Rhoda)

Dust bathing near a mushroom bed.

Mushroom logs are just visible.

When they hear my voice, they come flying over to see what kind of treat I've brought. Usually its sprouts and yogurt or fresh greens. I know--I do spoil them.

They are really lovely chickens.

Beautiful birds--and they give me eggs!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Il Fait Chaud!

I have been surprised by the number of "volunteers" that have shown up in my garden: sunflowers, tomatoes, squash, zinnias, and others that I have lumped into the general category of Weeds. As I weed out the intruders, I blame our compost for not being hot enough to kill the seeds that I so nonchalantly threw into the pile. Of course, blaming the compost pile is just kicking the dog. There is someone to blame, but it isn't the dog (we don't have one). I have a feeling I have met the enemy, and it is us!

Steps had to be taken to get our compost pile into shape. For a compost pile to get really hot, between 140 and 160 degrees, you need to have an appropriate mix of ingredients: 1 part nitrogen to 3 parts carbon. That means that high nitrogen sources like vegetable wastes from the kitchen or garden and  manure must be layered into a pile with a significant amount of carbon sources like dried leaves and mulches. In addition, the pile must be turned regularly. This requires getting out there with a pitch fork and moving all 100 cubic feet of material (5x5x4 feet) from the layered pile to another pile, preferably right beside it, thereby turning the original pile upside down. This aerates the material and serves to stimulate all the microorganisms, causing them to throw a big party, eat a lot of food, and generate an awful lot of heat. Turning the pile every few weeks should cause all of the material to break down within a couple of months into beautiful black compost that will fertilize the garden without adding to your personal stress level by forcing you to decide whether the green you see emerging from the ground is something you planted this season or something you ate last season.

So off we went to get the compost pile in order. It took three hours of hard work, but we had everything turned and rebuilt, with heat coming off of it almost immediately.

Now you may think you have read the main point of this post, but you haven't. There is more to this story, and it has to do with the fact that the long awaited day has arrived--our chickens have begun to lay!!!

Our first egg was delivered by Laura the Australorp on March 27 at 9:48 a.m. (How's that for dramatic effect!) It just so happened that I was watching the coop as she came down the ramp and made her announcement to the world. We immediately gathered the very small first egg, and though the egg had a  crack where she had perhaps given it a peck to see if it really was real, we just could not keep from grinning as we examined the color and hardness of the shell. After turning it over several times, noting its heft, we decided that because of the crack, the egg would have to go into the compost pile.

After an appropriate period of ooh-ing and aah-ing, both Harvey and I went our separate ways to work on the lists we had made for ourselves. About forty-five minutes later, we met in the kitchen for coffee. I asked to see the egg so that I could check on the color and consistency of the yolk. The egg, however, had already been put into the compost--buried in the pile where all of those partying microbes were. Of course, there was no getting around it. The egg had to be retrieved so that we could crack it open to see the inside, and of course, that was Harvey's job.

Harvey returned, grinning as he put the hot little orb into my hand. "It's probably cooked," he said jokingly.

And there you have it. An egg that almost meets the requirement for a soft-boiled egg--cooked in the compost pile in a very short period of time!

Tonight's supper is a foil-pack dinner (bits of steak, potatoes, and carrots wrapped in foil) a la compost. It's great to know we have our own alternate source of energy--and it is some hot!

P.S. Just joking about dinner, but who knows....