Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Labor of Love

Having only the weekends to put together our garden/farm is a bit frustrating. Although we've done so much already, it feels like we still have a long way to go and it's already heading towards the end of March. My boyfriend had a blast last weekend playing with the commercial sized rototiller we rented from a local home improvement warehouse. It made the work a cinch and what better way to get through work than to have a bit of fun? Granted I could not have handled this beast. It requires upper body strength. Lots of upper body strength. I'm working on that with all the manual labor, but I'm not quite there yet. I'm still getting over my "allergy".

We laid in about ten bags of steer manure and tilled it under quite a few times.

It actually looked pretty good for a bunch of amateurs!

Since we accomplished this on a Sunday afternoon, and I was just off my cooking binge, we let it rest for a week. You should always wait a bit to plant after adding manure to your soil anyway, especially if it's not composted manure. It could burn your plants.

Being impatient, I put in two seven foot rows of tomato seedlings the following weekend. I alternated with marigolds in the hopes that they would work as a natural deterrent to horn worms and other little buggers that might want to chomp on my plants. What I didn't plan for was the snails or slugs that ate the tender leaves off my seedlings overnight, leaving me the itty bitty stems. Too bad for them that we had eggs for breakfast. We roughly crumbled the egg shells and put them around the surviving seedlings. So far there are no more damages. The theory is that the sharpness of the shells don't feel good on the snails/slugs under body so they stay away. Works for me!

I started by digging two trenches about 6" deep. I then laid chicken wire in the trench and walked down the center of it to create a "u-shape" with the chicken wire. The I shoveled the dirt back in essentially making a chicken wire cradle. Anywhere any chicken wire was sticking up I folded it over the towards where the plants were going in and covered it with dirt.

After I completed the super-sized chicken wire baskets to keep the gophers at bay, I put in the seedlings.

This coming weekend, if all goes as planned, we will be putting in the fence so I can start adding my other crops. I need my parameters ya know!

In Like a Lion....

March has definitely "marched" in out here in So Cal. While the rest of the nation is experiencing a prolonged winter we are having weeks of warm balmy weather, followed by weeks of cold damp, sometimes rainy weather. Whenever it gets cold and gloomy, my east coast upbringing kicks in and I want to cook comfort food. Stews, chili, bread, anything warm yummy and comforting. With St. Patrick's Day looming I decided to get my Irish on and cook some Irish Soda Bread Muffins, Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes and Pumpkin Stuffed Pasta Shells. None of these things really goes together, it was more about the level of comfort. And no, pumpkin has nothing to do with being Irish.

My mom is the ultimate Irish Soda Bread cook, so it was almost sacrilegious that I was making a muffin version of this yummy bread. I was actually afraid to tell her! I found the recipe on the "Taste of Home" website. It was easy, quick and delicious. This recipe was definitely different than my mom's bread. Whereas her bread has this crumbly, biscuit look to it, the muffins were fairly smooth with a lovely sheen of melted sugar glowing on their little muffin tops. They were more cake like than mom's bread, too. I came home this past week with a lovely Irish Soda Bread from my mom. It only took us two days to polish it off. It's still my favorite and although the muffins were good, this leprechaun prefers mom's.

Next up were the Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes. If you put a glass of Guinness in front of me I would look at you like you had three heads, and I would promptly offer the Guinness to the dog. The men in my family really enjoy it and I cannot fathom what is remotely good about this stuff. While I wouldn't drink it willingly, I will cook with it. And amazingly, it does chocolate good (and chili, too, but that is another blog post). These cupcakes can be adjusted to grown-ups only with the addition of a whiskey ganache and Irish cream frosting, or you can leave them bare for the whole family to enjoy. The first time I made them I went the full monty and used the ganache as a filling and frosted them with the Irish cream. My 1 1/2 year old niece burst into tears when her mommy took it away from her. She was enjoying the frosting. It broke my heart and I vowed next time I would work around the liquor aspect and make sure I had a kid friendly version. I also found that using the ganache and the frosting was just too rich for me. I like to taste my cake. I feel the frosting or ganache or sprinkles or whatever is on the cake should be a complement to the cake - not a competitor. This time around I made the cupcakes bare. And you know what? They were good! Now, be forewarned - this recipe is not a 25 minute from start to finish recipe. There are quite a few steps and if the phone rings, or the dog decides to chase the cat outside into the garden, you can't walk away from the recipe once you've started it. It's also what I consider a "messy" recipe. If a recipe takes more than two bowls to create, I consider it messy. I am really frugal when it comes to creating a mess for myself to clean up, so the fewer bowls and utensils that get used, the happier I am. I also have a tendency to double my recipes so that may have something to do with it, too. For those of you willing to try this out, here's the link to the recipe I used: Have fun!

After two days of baking it was time to get down to the serious, heavenly-comfort-food-that-won't-rot -your-teeth-out meal. Now some of you maybe thinking, euuwwwwwww PUMPKIN stuffed shells? Well, the recipe name is kinda of misleading. The shells are stuffed with a mixture of sauteed onions, ground beef and spinach, and the pumpkin is added to the cheese sauce making it a glorified mac-n-cheese casserole. The recipe comes from Rachel Ray and is geared towards kids. I don't know about you but the kids in my house range from under 20 years old to over 50 years old. I never know who is going to have the more immature reaction. So I simply didn't inform any of them about the pumpkin the first time I made it.  Turns out I should have doubled the recipe. I was thrilled that everyone really enjoyed it because it is jam packed with vitamins and iron. Way better than taking a pill.

The recipe is set up a bit awkwardly for me. As I mentioned, I don't like to have an abundance of dirty bowls, etc., after cooking. As we all know, clean up is part of the cooking process, so I'm all for making it as painless as possible. Rachel will have you do everything in multiple steps, in multiple pots and pans. Not me. I adjusted for my needs. I cooked the pasta shells and strained them. I used the pasta pot to make the sauce. I sauteed the onion in a large pan, then added the ground beef, then added the spinach in batches, covering the pan between batches to get it to wilt. I didn't bother chopping the spinach up because I used "baby" spinach leaves. You could also use frozen chopped spinach to make it even easier. I stuffed the shells and put them in the baking pan prior to making the sauce. The sauce is a little tricky in the beginning because you have to be sure to really incorporate the flour and by using the pot you boiled the shells in you have a larger surface to deal with.  This sauce also takes a bit of babysitting so it isn't lumpy and let me tell you - it's very much worth it. One other aside, if you like your meal to be seasoned well, you may want to up the salt and pepper amounts with this one. The pumpkin lends a sweetness to the sauce, which in turn lends itself to a bit more salt.  As with all recipes, it's simply a guideline - you can tweak it to your personal preferences. I doubled the recipe this time. The leftovers were gone in two days.

Monday, March 4, 2013

To Bake or Not to Bake

Yes, that was the question this weekend. After successfully making Crockpot Apple Butter I had the notion that home made English Muffin Bread would be the perfect companion for it. But I also had to finish moving the tumbled brick in the backyard to make room for our new vegetable "farm". I say that tongue in cheek because it is by far the biggest vegetable garden I have ever undertaken. When I got up Saturday morning I still had the same rosy outlook about getting out there and doing some hard labor like I did last weekend. It was a beautiful warm sunny day and I was going to get out there in my shorts and t-shirt in an attempt to get some color on my vampire white legs and arms. Which meant I had to shave my legs. Or more truthfully, mow them. This is not a particularly fun experience in my little 36" x 36" shower so I decided to take a bath. And, it just so happened I had come across a recipe for "Soft, Silky Legs in a Bottle" by Jillee ( I am extremely addicted to "Herbs and Oils World" on Facebook and find some of the greatest links to DIY recipes there for body products or cold and flu remedies, even insect repellent. Besides, who can resist a title like "Soft, Silky Legs in a Bottle"? It required a whopping three ingredients to whip up and I happened to have them all on hand. I substituted coconut oil for the olive oil mostly because I have more coconut oil available than olive oil. Anyway, you mix up all the ingredients, soak in the tub then essentially give yourself a spa experience. Now, after the second application you can either use a mild soap to remove the oil or leave it on as a moisturizer. I opted to leave it on. I emerged for my rock hauling with shiny, moisturized, oil sheened skin. Hmmm, hindsight. It's always 20/20...

As I stuck my shovel in the first pile of rocks I realized my back was already protesting. Maybe it was the relaxing bath I had just recently emerged from. It couldn't be that I wasn't used to hard labor (snigger). I don't do exercise. Not willingly anyway. I know, I know, shame on me. My big fat excuse is I work all day, come home, take care of the kids, the cats, the dog and the house. I don't want to gear up and raise my heart rate before bed. My boyfriend was so sweet to point out that I was probably suffering from a build up of lactic acid in my muscles because I don't work out very often. He's a really good, smart man. He added the "very often" at the end of his statement so I didn't feel a complete and total fool. He knows I don't work out - at all. Sadly, I really couldn't whine about it because he was right. He suggested I drink lots of water to help get the lactic acid out of my system. Note - it really helped!

I've digressed. Back to my shoveling rocks. These lovely rocks have been part of the border pathway in my backyard for almost three years. They have weedcloth under them, and dirt settled between them. Remember my lovely shiny, moisturized, oil sheened skin that was going to get sun kissed? Fuggadaboutit. I was now a dirt magnet. Shovel up some rocks, toss them in the wheelbarrow, ensuing dust cloud comes back at me and sticks - to - my - legs. Now I am not only miserable because I am full of lactic acid and feeling pain, but also because I can give PigPen a run for his money. Oh yeah, and because I have to pee. Alot. Because I'm drinking water to flush out the lactic acid.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. I persevered and got the rocks moved, cleaned the dirt off, and managed to plant the start of our Spring garden.

English Muffin Bread is just gonna have to wait. If I'm lucky, I'll have some awesome vegetable stew to soak it in.

Friday, March 1, 2013

An Apple Day

When I got home from work last night I finished prepping the six pounds of apples I had started on that morning in order to make "Crockpot Apple Butter". The recipe is from where I was actually looking for some insight into canning. Being an east coast transplant I noticed the Apple Butter recipe and my mouth started to water. For those of you not familiar with Apple Butter it is like adding apple saucy apple pie to your warm buttered toast. Yummmm!

The end result is wonderful. I used Granny Smith apples because they were what was available in the store and it's best to use a tart apple. I had asked a friend if he knew anyone who had apples for sale where he lives over in farming country, but we really are past the season, so store bought it was! The hardest part of this recipe is the almost 13 hours it requires to do it's thing. I pondered my approach for a bit and figured overnight on a work night was best since I would be getting up early the next day anyway. Also, it's pretty comforting to sleep in a house that smells like apple pie all night long. When my alarm went off in the morning I stumbled into the kitchen to take the cover off the crockpot for the last hour of cooking and then went about my workday ritual. When I emerged from the back of the house I lined up the jars I had sterilized the night before, got the immersion blender out and got to pureeing. The recipe says to use a food mill but I don't have one, so it was a toss up between the food processor and immersion blender. The blender ultimately won out because it was easiest to clean in the end. I'm not too proud to admit that...  NOTE: The one thing I want to warn everyone about is that the blender created a kind of suction along the bottom of the crockpot and when it would let go, hot apple butter would go flying. PLEASE be very careful if you choose this route.

Once the apples were pureed I used a ladle to scoop up the mixture and pour it into the jars. The jars are so small that using a funnel seemed like overkill. My yield was about twelve half pint jars. I only had nine actual jars so I am guessing here. I did not "can" this batch. I didn't have the time and I feel that in this small of a jar everyone will use it up rather quickly. I did, however, have time to enjoy warm apple butter on my toast, along with a cup of tea. You can't get much better than that!

The best part of this whole process is that it was made with love. My little guy was watching me go through the process and was very excited to take a jar to school to give to his aide. Homemade goodies make everyone smile. You, the cook, may be a bit tired after the whole process, but I promise you will still be smiling at everyone's joy when you share the love.

Now that I have apple butter, it seems like a no brainer that I should make home made English Muffin Bread to go with it.  We'll see how I'm feeling. I still have rocks to move in the garden this weekend...

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Over My Head

My boyfriend and I have always had discussions about living off the grid - why not use the "free" resources our world provides for us, etc. We have big dreams about going solar (living in SoCal close to the beach it makes perfect sense), growing our own fruits and veggies for ourselves, family and friends, eventually giving up gas powered vehicles - all the stuff some people associate with granola and hugging trees. Now, don't get me wrong, I have no issue with hugging trees and I really enjoy granola. However, I'm certainly not ready to give up my carnivorous ways yet! LOL

Anyway, we had a brilliant idea to remove a large portion of lawn in the backyard and put in a huge vegetable garden. We both work full time so I made sure he was willing to dedicate our weekends to getting this done. So far, so good. I'm getting an awesome work out, and am looking forward to reaping the benefits of our hard work. I am also thinking to myself - what the heck am I doing? I paid good money a few years ago for all this landscaping that I am now taking up!

Of course, being the optimistic gal that I am, I immediately went on line to Hirts Gardens and started cruising all their vegetable plants and seeds. Needless to say, my kitchen counter is now the seedling incubator and nursery. Some of my seedlings are hardy and some have decided they don't want to hang out any longer and have wilted away. Honestly, I have tried coaxing, begging and kissing them into staying with us, but alas it just wasn't meant to be. Others are already outgrowing their little starter pots and I find myself recycling water bottles, mayonnaise jars, anything that will provide the next stage for my hardy seedling to continue growing while we're still creating the garden space. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of these may end up being grown in containers.
I have also come to the conclusion that we are no longer gardening, we are farming. I could be wrong but in my mind a garden is a handful of plants, not a 20' x 20' patch of land that is going to be home to 25 different types of veggies. A garden is peaceful, fun, exciting. This is an exercise in learning about companion plants, nitrogen levels, and soil PH. Animal manure or plant based manure? Mulch or hay? I have faith that we are going to come out of this a little dirty, a little tired and alot smarter. I also think we're going to come out of this with alot of produce. Which leads me to my next education by necessity - canning and preserving. But that can wait for another day. That is, if my seedlings can stay seedlings for just a little while longer.