A Minor Pleasure

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When scrabbling in the dirt in spring, I often long for badger claws. It would seem that I’m not the only one who ever thought of this, because now there are garden gloves with badger claws. Mine are the Garden Genie brand and I love them, especially for scratching seeds into the surface of wide beds and scratching mulch back from surfaces that I’m about to plant. They have claws on the right hand only. There is another brand, Honey Badger gloves, that are available with claws on the left hand or on both hands. In my view claws on both hands would be an impediment but then I haven’t tried them out.

I should also add that my old dog loves being very lightly scratched on the head with badger claws.

And here are some more crocuses, just because I can’t quit going on about them in early spring.

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Spring Ricotta

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This  time of year we are having some warm sunny days and the heavy meaty dishes of winter no longer feel quite right, but I still want something warming  and filling.

At the same time, my doe goat Magnolia is nearing the end of a lactation, getting ready to deliver kids in six or seven weeks. At this point she’s producing just a quart a day, but it’s still rich milk produced entirely on alfalfa and I’m not about to waste it.

So every evening, after filtering the milk, I make ricotta, and when I have a few days’ worth of ricotta saved up I make ricotta al forno. I stole the recipe from Sarah Raven many years ago, and I haven’t tweaked it very much over the years because it’s perfect as is. The main change is that I use egg yolks instead of whole eggs. Yum.

Ricotta, about 1 and a half cups, but a bit more or less won’t hurt.
Yolks of 5 eggs
Salt to taste
Half a cup of heavy cream
Half a cup of grated Parmesan
Half a cup of pine nuts
Cooked veggies as desired. Or none.

Kitchen note: homemade ricotta is drained until quite dry. If you are using store-bought ricotta, you might need to hang it in the sink in cheesecloth or a clean towel for a few hours and let it drain. Otherwise, the resulting dish can be watery.  Another alternative, if you don’t want to take time to drain, is to add one additional whole egg to help it firm up a bit, or leave out the cream.

Put the ricotta in the blender with the cream and add the egg yolks one at a time while blending.  Blend in the grated Parmesan just for a second or two. Add salt to taste.  Decide whether you want vegetables. This is an endlessly versatile way to use leftover but good cooked vegetables. The version shown above has a couple of cups of leftover grilled zucchini, red bell pepper, and eggplant.  In the early summer, fresh cooked peas are absolutely delicious in this dish.  A good handful of chopped fresh herbs may suit your taste.  Just be sure that the cheese mixture is already seasoned properly.  Pour it into a buttered 8 inch baking pan, adding any cooked vegetables or herbs that you wish as you go. Top with pinenuts and push them in a little bit so that they don’t burn. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until done.  Let it consolidate and settle down for 15 minutes, then serve in  generous wedges.    A topping of your best homemade tomato sauce adds pizzazz.  My husband likes it with a sprinkle of extra finally grated Parmesan on top and run under the broiler for a minute, which produces the brown spots you see above. Just keep an eye on it because it does burn very quickly.

In June this is absolutely glorious made with some chopped fresh herbs and topped with homemade pesto.  For those of us who eat low-carb, it is something to put pesto on.  This lactation will only last two or three more weeks, but by June I will have fresh glorious grass fed milk again and be back in the ricotta business.

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Flowers of Spring

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This year, for the first time, the blooming crocuses were not the first exciting gardening event of spring. Thanks to experiments with Agribon frost blanket, I started harvesting huge beautiful heads of broccoli in January. But the crocuses are still very exciting. Their rich intense stained-glass hues seem almost defiant on a winter day, and in morning sun they are a reassurance that you made it through another winter and it was all worth it. Last fall I finally remembered to buy enough of them to plant the big black pots on the sheltered east side of my house, and here they are blooming happily in mid February.
Even if you are mostly a food gardener, as I am, don’t forget to plant a few things that brighten your property and gladden your heart. I call it endorphin farming.  These early minor joys draw you outside in any scrap of pretty weather, and cause you to notice that green onions are sprouting, new shoots of fennel and tarragon and peas can be seen, fruit tree buds are swelling, and yes, the coming season will be beautiful and worth working for.

I remember some garden writer who moved to the Pacific Northwest writing about asking his new neighbor what he needed to know about winter gardening in Seattle, and the neighbor looked at him and replied bleakly “Prozac.” A few crocuses are a lot less expensive than a season’s worth of antidepressants, and have no side effects whatsoever.
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Spring Alliums

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One of the many reasons that I love green garlic and green alliums generally is that they are among the earliest things to come out of the garden, assuming that you planted in early fall. I have plenty of summer veggies in my freezer, but as the days start to lengthen I get ravenously keen for the first real, fresh greens, and by mid-February I’m eating out of the garden again.

For early green alliums, plant some in a block that you can cover with Agribon or other frost blanket material. I like to put a short row of my regular yellow storage onions in this block in September, and each will divide and make four or five superbly sweet green onions in early spring.

Garlic is another must, and my favorite for early green garlic is Chinese Pink, because it is super-early and is eight inches tall and half an inch in diameter by mid-February if frost protection is used. Plant your early block with the cloves about three inches apart each way. When I’m ready for green garlic I pull alternate stalks, and leave the rest 6″ apart to mature for my earliest garlic bulb harvest.

In the case of leeks, there isn’t even any need to replant in fall. Plant extra in spring, cover with frost blanket in late fall, and they will winter over nicely for February eating.

Contrary to much popular advice, I don’t suggest that you even think about cutting the green leaves off and discarding them. They are delicious. They are also the healthiest part of the plant, full of the antioxidant allicin which has multiple health benefits. Do cut them in fine cross-sections, about a quarter inch long, to  eliminate  any possible stringiness  in the leaves.

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I love a good assortment of green alliums chopped up and sautéed in butter with salt to taste until they are succulent and sweet. Keep the heat medium-low and let them cook at least twenty minutes for best flavor. I eat them as a side dish, but they would also be great on slices of crisp baguette, in an omelette, over scrambled eggs or rice,  on a broiled fish fillet, or nearly any other way that you can imagine.

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Two years ago I stuck some garlic cloves in a flower bed planning to harvest them for green garlic, but forgot all about them in spring. After two growing seasons they’ve divided so much that the leaves are as fine as grass. I’ve started harvesting the tops and chopping them finely to use as a fresh seasoning. They have a stronger but cleaner flavor than garlic chives. I love them over egg salad, green salad, broiled or grilled meats, on soup, or anywhere that you might crave a hit of freshness and garlic. They give some distinction to a regular or low-carb pizza.

Energy and Us

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Project manager Daniel and our solar array.

Many of the projects that I undertake require a little thought but are nonetheless very easy to initiate. Trying a new kind of broccoli, or even a new apple tree, is as simple as remembering to order the seed or plant at the right time, taking care of it, and waiting patiently.

One of the biggest and most worthwhile projects that I have undertaken required a lot more forethought, and Lord knows it required a lot more money,  but it created a whole new dimension to my little urban homestead.  The decision to take our house solar was one that my husband and I talked about and read about for a long time before we committed. It was going to be very expensive, because due to some quirks of its construction and siting our house uses a lot of power in the summer.  It was going to be difficult to plan, because I did not want solar panels put on our older roof  and wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any yard space to the panels.  But I wasn’t prepared to give up the idea of going solar either. After studying many aspects of the question, I sincerely believe that solar energy is a big part of the future  and will help us live  on our beautiful planet in a healthier way.

Ultimately we decided that the driveway was the biggest piece of real estate really going begging around our place. There was room enough there to power the house and then some, but because of trees that I refused to consider having damaged, posts could only be put on one side, making it a rather interesting piece of engineering.   No problem; Osceola Energy came to the rescue.  This New Mexico solar firm responded immediately to our idea and took care of everything, including the engineering consultations. Owners Galina Kofchock and Adam Harper, account manager Victoria, and project manager Daniel  made it happen.  They kept us informed every step of the way, dealt with all the necessary inspections and permits,  and  cheerfully accommodated sudden homeowner impulses, such as the snakes that you see ornamenting one of the beams.  When it was finished they provided us with an app that allows me to watch my panel making energy, if I feel so inclined.

It matters enormously  what solar company you choose. By the time my solar structure was built, I had heard enough horror or disappointment stories from friends and acquaintances to know how badly it can go if you get the wrong company.  So ask around and check references before you commit. But I can honestly say that, if you are in New Mexico,  I can recommend this company strongly and without reservation.  Since the solar array was finished, we have used them for electrical jobs large and small and have been pleased with their reliability, communication, and workmanship every single time.  They take the small jobs as seriously as the large jobs.

I am a firm believer in living on Earth in as healthy a way as possible. There is a moral as well as a practical dimension to producing your own food and your own energy.  Being able to power your own house is part of a general picture of resilience, and resilience is good for your daily mental health.  There was a community element as well, since many people walking past the house stopped off if they saw me in the front yard, to ask about the solar array and our experience with it.  I met some neighbors that I would not have met otherwise, and it has been fun.

 

 

The January Garden

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Here in agricultural zone 7 we have a fairly short winter, and I have never gone in for winter gardening.  I don’t have a greenhouse, for the simple reason that I have never been able to make up my mind what kind to get or where to put one. By late fall I have a freezer full of summer food, and I spend the long nights by the woodstove, catching up  on my reading and deciding what to try next.

This year, though, I decided to try some very low-tech strategies to prolong my season.  This came about largely because in September I happened to visit a local nursery for supplies and saw a single lonely six pack of young broccoli plants going begging.  It seemed a shame to let them become trash, so I brought them home and planted them with the vague idea that they might winter over. After a little more thought, I ordered  a roll of Agribon-19 plant protection fabric, a lightweight nonwoven fabric that conveys about 2 degrees of frost protection.  It is 13 feet wide and comes folded double, so I put a double layer over the 10′ row of little plants and held it down with stones and bricks around the edges. I did not use hoops or any other kind of support, just left plenty of room for the little plants to grow. (Please note that you cannot do this with tomatoes, peppers, and other plants that have a “growing point” at the top of the plant. In those cases you have to support the fabric and keep it off the growing tip. But the majority of cold-weather garden plants do just fine this way. )  I watered periodically, but did not pay any other attention to the plants until I noticed small heads of broccoli forming. Then I  started checking more regularly. Naturally, because of the cold, the plants grew more slowly and the heads formed more slowly than they would in warm temperatures. This was an advantage.  I found that the heads would hold for up to a week before harvesting with no loss of quality.

The heads were unusually tender and sweet. I liked them best just steamed with a little butter or olive oil and salt. Not every plant produced well. Two of the six plants began to form heads, then the infant head “browned out” and died, although the rest of the plant looked healthy.  I am not sure if this was a disease or what it was, and hope that maybe one of my knowledgeable readers can clue me in.  But I harvested four beautiful heads, and they are continuing to form healthy side shoots, including the two plants that did not form heads.  Not a bad return for my minimal effort, with an investment of $2.99 for plants and about $10 worth of frost protection fabric which can be reused.

Two weeks ago, after the encouraging broccoli results, I planted three beds of salad greens, cooking greens, and more broccoli. Two beds are covered with a single layer of the lightweight Agribon-19 and the other with the much heavier Agribon-70, which gives about 8 degrees of frost protection but lets less light through. So far, all the beds have germinated well. I will be reporting on results. I still want a greenhouse, but this is looking good as a cheap way to keep fresh food on the table.

Good candidates for  growing this way are lettuces of all kinds, chicory, practically everything in the brassica family including broccoli, kale, and collards, arugula, green onions, green garlic,  and who knows what all else.  One of the beds that I covered is one where I have let edible weeds go to seed in the past, so I will watch with interest to see if I get an early crop of those too.  I have planted some snow peas undercover as well, to see if I get a substantially earlier crop this way.  In my climate we have a lot of wind storms in the spring, and just giving some protection from wind might speed them along.

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This picture is a cautionary tale: you can see here that before using the lighter cloth, you do need to cut away any old stems etc. that are sticking up, since they can tear the fabric.

Also, because of the decreased light transmission, the plants growing under fabric are essentially hothouse plants and will have to be hardened off to full sun gradually in the spring.  I speculate that the more bitter greens such as dandelion would be tastier and less bitter when grown this way, but don’t know for sure yet.  I am greatly looking forward to finding out.

 

Green Alliums Madeleine

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In my home state of Louisiana there is a popular dish called Spinach Madeleine. It combines spinach, bacon, onions and garlic, flour, cream, and (no kidding) Kraft Jalapeño Cheese Rolls, back when those existed. True Louisiana cooks now use Velveeta Mexican cheese instead. It’s really delicious, a testimonial to the Cajun ability to bring gastronomic harmony out of any degree of chaos. I use a mild grass-fed cheddar instead. I never tire of this dish, which made the River Road Cookbook go viral back before the Internet existed.

Recently I found myself interested in the lovely warm flavor of sautéed green onions and green garlic, as well as being interested by their high health benefits, and decided to try giving them the Madeleine treatment. My freezer is full of sautéed green alliums, so this was a quickie dish for me, made with equal parts of sautéed green onion and green garlic. If you’re starting from scratch, you will need about 10 ounces of spinach and three standard bunches of green onions, chopped in 1/4 inch slices and sautéed in 1/3 cup of olive oil until tender.

Other ingredients:

1/4 lb bacon

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon flour or porcini flour

1/3 cup cream

2 cups grated mild cheddar, preferably grass-fed

1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle chile (optional)

1  pinch (no more) grocery-store chili powder

Cut  the bacon in strips or lardons and fry brown in their own fat over medium heat. When done, add the chopped garlic to the pan, stir a minute, and add the flour or porcini flour and stir for 1-2 minutes. Add the green onion mixture and cook over medium heat until heated through. Stir in the cheese and seasonings and stir just until the cheese is melted. Turn into a buttered baking dish. Top with buttered bread crumbs if you like them. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, and brown the crumbs just a touch if you used them. Yum.

If you want a look at the original recipe, it can be found here: http://www.jfolse.com/recipes/vegetables/sidedish45.htm