Monday, August 30, 2010

Keeping the Farming Under Control

No one can say I haven't thrown myself into rural life, at least the cooking part, with gusto. This year's garden is bigger and better than last year's, and I can add pickling to my new set of skills.

Perfectionist that I am, I am discouraged by the lack of zucchini (how can that possibly be?!) and the scarcity of my herbs. (My two types of mint shriveled up and died last week, which I never would have expected-- I thought the stuff was basically a weed that would take over if you let it.) I need a system for herbs and many other things. I will finish the season with paltry stores and though I'm improvising on some things to try to not waste any of the produce I've grown, my energy at this point is flagging. If I had a week off from work, or two, I would throw myself into this more heartily. Alas, such is not my current state.

I also am ready for next year, not jut adding some more plants but also knowing how to get an earlier start on fresh produce. But like I felt this time last year, the yearly cycle is too long for my impatient soul. I want to implement my ideas, like, right now. I'm ready to plow under and start over-- now. But they aren't even selling seed catalogues yet. That's obviously a good thing.

In this mindset, I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have not been able to put it down. I do, however, have to talk myself down on a regular basis. Let's face it, growing food for a family of four, or even, I suspect, for two adults, means running a small farm. And, I have to keep telling myself that she grew up with this, is from generations of people with gigantic gardens, if not farms. She'd been growing asparagus, in a variety of climates, for 25 years before she took on this task. Not that I want to take on this task. But the name of the game with vegetable gardens is more, and more ways to store and preserve the food you grow.

I, on the other hand, grew up with a flower gardener. We did have a bed of strawberries, which seemed miraculous, and now and then some fresh carrots my mother tucked into the bed along one side of the fence. But these were beds in our small suburban lot, socked in behind railroad ties-- still much more life than I ever saw in any of my friends' or neighbors' yards, but not a garden like the ones I pass now on my way to work. Also, I came to understand early as an urban adult, on the basis that I cannot keep a houseplant alive, that I do not have "a green thumb." This turns out not to be true, but it's still a deficit I'm working from. I never grew anything but a few tomato plants in pots until three years ago. (There's no question my mother was ahead of the game in terms of food co-op and healthy food. She did make her own yogurt, granola, and avoided sugar and packaged foods on and off.)

I keep taking stock: from our "farm" I can get eggs. And I can get good, local meat: beef, pork and chickens. At the farmer's market I can continue to get potatoes through November at least. (The St. Joseph Farmers' Market moves indoors in October and the winter market every two months has mostly maple syrup, jams, meat and, for awhile, potatoes and onions.) That's without doing any work at all. The first thing is to set clar goals: local is the first goal, and that can mean beyond our 80 acres.

When you boil down two whole countertops' worth of tomatoes and end up with one quart of tomato sauce, you realize that there is just no going there. Best to do my bit of canning (9 quarts of tomoatoes this year) and drying (5 bags of shriveled romas in the freezer) and eat the rest as we are able to keep up. Kingsolver does say you can freeze them whole on trays for throwing into stews in the winter, so I might try a little of that, now that I have a gorgeous new freezer.

When I read in chapter two or three that she was planting three 70-foot rows of potatoes, I realized I needed to not start identifying with Barbara Kingsolver too closely. I take pleasure in every chapter (although now she's hit zucchini and tomato harvest, late July for her and August for me, and I'm exhausted just reading about it). I'm also incredibly psyched about the idea of making cheese this winter-- and so happy she gives the link for where to get the supplies I'll need. (FYI, here's the link.) Telling Steve about it, he immediately wants to go into the cheesemaking business, and wants to know what kind of equipment we need, what kinds we can make, etc. Steve also often makes it hard to keep ideas under control. I know what I'll get him for Christmas, and can't wait to make our own mozzerella. But I am not becoming a certified artisan cheesemaker.

The name of the game, as she says in her chapter where she visits Amish friends, is boundaries, limitations. In this chapter she seems to mean staying home and driving a buggy so you guarantee the local side of things and are around to milk the cows at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., and taking the time to plow a field with horses and enjoy the birds and bees and fireflies. I don't mean that. I wasn't raised for that and don't think my body and time management and skills are going to adapt to that kind of life in the near term.

I mean doing what I can do, enjoying it, and knowing when to quit-- retire to the hammock and read a book.

Note: the web site linked above,, is not just a place to learn about and/or buy the book. It is full of amazing recipes, links and etc, just in case you're thinking of edging into a life change...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yellow Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa

The great yellow tomatoes from my garden have made me really want to make a yellow tomato salsa. I knew it would have tomatillos in it, which were available at the farmer's market yesterday. So were beautiful, long curly sweet red peppers, small sweet onions and, well, almost anything else your heart could desire.

So I came home and fiddled with a recipe, making a salsa that is my own, and so delicious it is clear I will not have enough chips! (The photo does not do it justice-- trust me, it looks good, too!)

Susan's Yellow Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa

4-5 yellow tomatoes, chopped (I put them in the food processor for 6 or 7 pulses, but that was a mistake. Would be better if they were more chunky and if I'd drained off some of the juice.)
8-10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
2 small, sweet onions
1 clove garlic
2 long, red sweet chili peppers or one regular red pepper (there's no heat in this salsa, so if you want that, add jalapeno. I like to taste the tomatillos)
olive oil (a few tablespoons)
white wine vinegar (a few tablespoons)
salt to taste

Just put the tomatillos, onion, garlic and peppers in a food processer and finely chop. Chop and put tomatoes in a bowl, spooning out some of the juice if you want your salsa thick. Combine all the ingredients and mix. Enjoy!!! (Note: cilantro and lime juice would be appropriate to add to this salsa. But I really like this combination of flavors and think the white wine vinegar adds the right zing.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Future

I spend and have always spent a considerable amount of time picuring the future. This may be why I was able to move around the country so easily for so many years. I love the art of imagining a life yet realized. I wouldn't say it interferes with my current life or keeps me from being contented in the present, although maybe it does.

In any event, it's not a behavior I plan on changing. It means that I spend my bike rides thinking about the future, what I will do when I no longer need to work full time. I spend time while canning tomatoes thinking about the garden I will plant next year, and what I need to do to improve the soil in my garden, and what might work better in the raised beds next year, what out in the plain old bed.

These days, what I think about all has to do with life in this place, because for the first time in forever, I plan on staying in the place I'm in.

I think a lot about my writer's cabin: how it will look, what it will be like to go out there and write, what of my furnishings I've managed to hold onto so I can put them in there. I still long for a space that feels fully my own and which I can decorate the way I like to decorate.

Much of what I think about is completely mundane. I want to have one of those 5-gallon water jugs out there, because I drink a lot of water when I'm writing. I want a wood stove, and I wonder if I'm the kind of person who will go out there and light the stove in the cold, face the cold until the cabin warms up.

In this, the heart of harvest season, I also think about the next steps for living off the grid. I'm about to start reading Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life, about her year eating only local and seasonal food. I'd like to do that, but realize mostly the limitations of my growing season and my interest in hard work! After all, I only managed to can nine quarts of tomatoes, and really don't see how I could do another five (not that I have enough tomatoes for that!)

At the same time, I live in a place of real abundance in terms of good food. On our farm, Annie and Tim provide us with eggs. We have amazing local bakers, the Nelsons, and Steve also loves to bake bread. On the same road as the Nelsons live the Doyles, who are mushroom farmers. There is the St. Joseph meat market where you can buy large bundles of local beef and pork to keep in your freezer. If you want to really go crazy, there is a local producer of fine, grass-fed beef. The Willenbrings of Cold Spring keep us in asparagus, strawberries and corn (I do plan on growing my own raspberries, which they also provide at the farmers' market). Then there's the yak farmer, Mr. Hooper, who we sat next to at a wedding a few weeks ago. People swear by his yak steaks. I'd really like to find a source for ground venison for winter chili.

There is plenty to think about, as I let myself get deeper and deeper into the yearly cycle of this place. Just learning to balance eating the fresh harvest with the canning and pickling and freezing is an art all it's own. New garden vegetables are calling out to me: beets and radishes and arugula and the raspberries and blueberries. Someone said they have had good luck growing tomatillos, too.

As life continues to unfold, I will hopefully have the life I'm imagining now: writing and gardening and with good project work now and then, time to think and make things and eat and exercise and read all the Library of America volumes I'm laying in store for those days-- especially the cold days with the wood stove burning and a lamp on.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Orange Things

In the garden, I've moved from the green crops to the orange crops, carrots and pumpkins. I planted the pumpkins too early, which means pumpkins in August instead of late-September, but am so pleased with the three beautifully-shaped pumpkins that grew. I've picked two and the other is still ripening on the vine. Again, given the number of seeds I planted and even the number of gourd plants that came up, I can't say the crop was prolific, but it is beautiful. And it is a great feeling to discover a large pumpkin in the garden.

My carrot crop was probably the best of all. Yes, the tomatoes did very well, and even after eating them nonstop with our guests for the past two weeks, I had to break down and can 9 quarts to keep them from going to waste. But the carrots, to which I gave 1/2 of a raised bed, and which grew in thick and worried me that I hadn't thinned them enough, came in abundantly. Many, many of them were also large and straight, perfect carrots. It feels wonderful to pull them out of the ground. Next year I must plant more root crops, if for nothing else than the pleasure of pulling them up. They are crisp and tender and full of flavor. And even after giving away several bags of them to my sister-in-laws, I have more than I know what to do with.

What I would like to do is make a dozen loaves of carrot cake and freeze them. But I do not have freezer space for that. I did blanche and freeze two quart bags of them. I will make them for dinner all week. And then, perhaps, I'll have some time and energy for cakes.

Meanwhile, enjoy the photos of the orange things I've grown.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pickle Recipes

Sister Elaine gave me two more ice cream tubs of cucumbers, already cleaned and sorted into small and medium-small sizes. So I had another pickling adventure. I got recipes from Sister Elaine and from my friend Meg in Colorado. In all, I did 16 quarts of dill pickles, one quart of refrigerator pickles and 5 pints of bread and butter pickles (basically refrigerator pickles but "processed" for 10 minutes to seal the lids).

Here are the recipes, which I did some doctoring to:

Refrigerator Pickles (Joyce Schroeder Hoelmer)
7 cups unpeeled cucumbers, sliced, preferably with a mandoline about 1/4-1/2 inch with ridged edges
1 cup very thinly sliced onions
1/2 cup sliced roasted red peppers (from a jar-- or green peppers, but I don't like green pepper)
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp celery seed
2 tsp turmeric (this is what gives them that amazing color)
2 cups sugar
1 cup vinegar

Mix together cold, put in jars, cover and keep in the refrigerator. They'll last up to a year and are ready to eat in a few days. This was an AMAZING recipe.

Bread and Butter Pickles
yield: about 6 pints
4 lbs 4-6 inch cucumbers, cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 lbs onoin, thinly sliced
1/3 cup canning salt
2 cups sugar
2 T mustard seed (I didn't have any of this)
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp celery seed
1 tsp ginger (I skipped this)
1 tsp peppercorn
3 cups vinegar

Combine cucumber and onoin slices in a large bowl, layering with salt; cover with ice cubes. Let stand 1 1/2 hours. Drain, rinse, drain again.

Combine remaining ingredients in a large saucepot; bring to a boil. Add drained cucumbers and onions and bring to a boil again. Pack hot pickles and liquid into sterilized (still hot) jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Cover with caps and lids. Process 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Dill Pickles: I already explained how to make these with a simple recipe here. We opened one jar tonight, only two weeks after pickling and too early really... recommendation is a month. Still, it was good but too salty to my taste. However, it did not have too much vinegar, so in the future I'll keep about a 1:1 ratio (another recipe was 4c water: 1 c vinegar). I'm hoping the other batch with whole cucumbers and a different ratio of ingredients will work better. Basically the only difference was that I had better quality vinegar and a little less salt.

Here's one more recipe, adapted, which is how I'm going to do it next time
Hamburger Dills: 1 5-gallon ice cream pail of cucumbers (9 quarts); 1/4 cup canning salt; 8-10 cups water; 8 cups vinegar; sprigs of fresh dill; 3 Tbs mustard seed; peppercorns (4/quart jar); pieces of white onion, pieces of garlic.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grill Frog

This little frog has been living in my grill all summer. I'd say 9 times out of ten, when I pull off the grill cover, there he is. He sticks to the stainless steel, either right along the edge by the lid or, as here, on the side shelf. It must be the perfect temperature-- warm and dark. I pick him up and put him back in the grass, but he always finds his way back. I have found him two or three times on leaves in the flower garden as well, where he turns bright green and camoflauges with the leaf he's sleeping on.

I love the steely grey he gets in order to hide on the grill. Still, when you pick him up, his legs are bright green. 

It's gotten so I look forward to finding him there and am disappointed when he's not.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


pumpkin with hail-damaged leaves
Last Saturday night we got home about 10:45 to discover that a bad storm had blown through about 30 minutes earlier. We'd been watching the lightning for about an hour as we'd driven north from Sleepy Eye and a visit with my parents to see Steve's parents. The duration of the front and the lightning was itself surprising, but we didn't hit any rain until we got into town. Rain was still really coming down, but as we entered our neighborhood we noticed all the leaves on the ground and a few large branches.

leek after hail
Some patio furniture wa blown over, but what was really eerie was the way the garage door was plastered with ash seeds and bits of leaves. That could only mean high winds and hail.

The effect on the garden was pretty stark. Surprisingly, although two of my tomato plants were blown over, they didn't seem to have sustained much damage. The vine plants were in terrible shape, and you could see the large slits on all the leaves. The few remaining spinach plants were stripped, the dill stalks and even the leek stalks broken in half. Some of my Asiatic lilies, long past bloom, were also snapped in half.

The vine plants may or may not recover. I'm fine with an end to the cucumbers, but I do hope the squashes recover and keep putting out fruit. The two butternut squashes are pockmarked from the hail, but the acorn squash were sheltered by the vine and leaves. Two very large pumpkins that were hidden in leaves are now completely exposed, the tattered leaves and vines broken around their swollen bodies.

corn field after hail storm

What's worse is the way one of the most gorgeous fields of corn, next to our house, was stripped down and left in tatters. I include a photo with the ears hanging there, exposed and vulnerable looking beneath the sad, fallen plants. Even their tassles seem somehow sad, like a worn and tawdry strip tease.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Well, I've made my first venture into the world of pickling. I'm not sure I'd want to call it a success-- the real test will be once the pickles come out of their jars. I will say that they don't look all that impressive, and the conditions/ingredients were not ideal.

I used the recipe I got from Sister Elaine Schroeder at the monastery. She has already put up 44 quarts of pickles, and Sister Josue, her partner in pickling, has put up another 48 quarts. That is a lot of cucumbers, which they pick at optimum size for baby pickles. My sizes varied, and I ended up cutting most of them in halves or quarters to fit more into each jar. I did six.

I was excited about the recipe because it did not involve boiled canning, though it does require a fair amount of boiling.

I started with the first step, putting the cucumbers in cold water with a half-teaspoon of alum in the fridge overnight. This supposedly crisps them up, and it was true that they had changed in texture overnight.

When you're ready to pickle, you make a brine, roughly: 2 cups vinegar, 2 cups water, 1/4 cup salt and 1/4 cup sugar. The other ingredients go directly in the jar: a little onion, a little garlic and a sprig or two of dill.

My dill was in great shape until a hailstorm on Saturday night broke off all the stalks. I had them put aside and there were still some green sprigs in the bunch. I'm not sure it matters if the dill is "fresh" or not. The bigger issue was the vinegar. I thought I had a large bottle of distilled white vinegar beneath the sink. I did, and a smaller bottle that was half empty. That bottle yielded 2 cups, but that only filled half the jars. The larger bottle, when opened, did not smell at all like vinegar. It is old, I'm sure-- I even wondered if it had been refilled with distilled water instead. So I made up for that by using white wine vinegar. I don't see why this wouldn't work, but white wine was not part of the recipe! We'll see how it goes.

You boil the brine and while boiling, stuff the jars with cucumbers and the onion, garlic and dill. Then pour the brine over the pickles until the jars are full, and let them sit a few minutes until the pickles and water start to change color. This was hard for me to see the first round. Then you pour back the brine, reheat it to boiling again, and repeat the process. The third time you pour the boiling brine into the jars, you seal them. They should seal as they cool and be good for a year. One jar sealed with a loud pop pretty soon, but I haven't heard anything from the others yet. If they don't seal, we'll just eat them earlier and keep them refrigerated.

I actually don't like dill pickles. I'm a bread-and-butter pickle girl, preferring those ridged slices of sweet pickles. But I like the idea of pickles! I really like the idea of making them. Even if this batch doesn't turn out, I'll try again, although probably not this year since the hail has probably put an end to my lovely cucumber plants.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What Eating Local Really Means

It's funny to me how used to variety in my eating I've become. Having a garden, I had this idea that I'd be making these complex dishes with all my produce all summer. But the fact is that the carrots and the lettuce don't come in at the same time. Nor do the snow peas and the onions. What I'm starting to do is, instead of looking for recipes that focus on the main ingredient I'm currently harvesting, I am just putting the ingredients I have together and pouring vinaigrette over them and eating it. In this way I've discovered two wonderful salads.  In June, I pretty much lived on lettuce and snow peas with vinaigrette. For the last week it's been  cucumber, cherry tomatoes and blanched green beans with dill and/or mint and/or oregano and a simple white wine/lemon/oil vinaigrette. It's light, crisp, crunchy, fresh and flavorful. The flavors blend well. It's colorful. The green beans don't hold up well if you have extras, but for the most part it's good the second day as well.

Yellow and red tomatoes are coming in now, so I can make my cold tomato soup, and there's still basil for caprese. I'll have my next batch of lettuce at the same time I'm harvesting carrot, which will start the salads up again, especially if the cherry tomatoes are still producing.

August looks like it will be a crazy week of guests and work, but somehow I want to have time and figure out how to make pickles and also, in addition to freezing more beans, dry tomatoes and can salsa and tomatoes. We'll see how it goes. It may just be a matter of eating things as they come...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Terry Gilliam via Tim Burton part 2: Terry Gilliam

After watching Alice in Wonderland, when Steve and I were processing the visual genius of it, and wondering where that came from besides Tim Burton's head, I kept bringing up Terry Gilliam. In the "live action as spectacle" world, I have trouble thinking of another director who has built the world(s) that exists in his imagination/head as completely as Terry Gilliam. Brazil introduced us to a world that Terry Gilliam invented but in realistic, not animated, terms. The sheer scope and magnitude of the world in Brazil is best expressed this way: "Generally called 'sci-fi noir," [Gilliam's film world] is "a view of what the 1980s might have looked at viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker.'" This quote, by James Berardinelli from a review on, is one of the great quotes in the Wikipedia entry on the film, which is well worth reading.

The thing is, I could talk about scenes in the film, actors in the film (DeNiro as the freelance heating and air conditioning repairman), images in the film, etc., but I could not relate from memory anything significant or coherent about the film's plot. I could not tell him what it was about, beyond the fact that it was about a sort of Kafka-esque bureaucrat living in a bleak future of cubicles and small hive-like apartments with a Big Brother type government and business world. What happens to him, what the conflict is, and how it is or is not resolved, was completely beyond me. And I have to say, after watching it again two weeks ago, I cannot give much more coherent an account of the plot. I mean, I could, but it would not make much sense or be very interesting to read.

The problem is, it is way too complicated. What is going on in Terry Gilliam's mind is really just way too complicated. The story is so complicated that the film struggled for a title, and finally settled on just naming it after the recurring theme song in the movie. The word or place or song "Brazil" has nothing to do with what the film is about.

Before Brazil, actually, we watched Gilliam's most recent film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It's also Heath Ledger's last film, and in fact he died during shooting. This fact becomes really interesting after you watch the third film in our festival, Lost in LaMancha, about Gilliam's failed attempt to make a film version of Don Quixote. Among other disasters on the film are the loss of its star, the rather elderly and frail Jean Rochefort, to a complex back fracture that made it impossible for him to ride a horse.

In the case of Imaginarium, the show had to go on, and go on it did, with actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law playing different aspects/faces of Ledger's character in the elaborate fantasy scenes that comprise the final act of the film. Let's just say, it didn't really harm the character or plot much, which is saying a lot about the importance of character and plot in a Terry Gilliam film. Imaginarium's plot seems hung on even slimmer and yet at the same time more convoluted stuff than Brazil, which makes it sort of tiring to watch. But the spectacle inside the actual imaginarium, and especially Johnny Depp's ability to be in alternate universes (which he does so brilliantly in Tim Burton's worlds) makes it hard to take your eyes off the screen.

Gilliam's brilliance, appetite for extravagance and desire to push to extremes of filmmaking to realize his vision are shown in the documentary, Lost in LaMancha. He shows himself to be a gifted visual artist, as he continuously doodles scenes from the film he can literally "play out" in his head. He is able to communicate this vision to a group of talented costumers, light and art designers, and actors (sometimes-- I think this might be the weakest link, as the actors, without solid motivation through a workable and meaningful plot, seem at a bit of a loss or play-acting rather than inhabiting the world of Imaginarium). His glee at walking in his realized vision and seeing it on screen is thrilling to see.

And, like many artists, his theme and what interests him are more or less the same, played out again and again. He is interested in exactly what his films do: the world inside someone's head. In Brazil, a happy ending is exposed to be only a dream in the main character's head. In The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, the wild exaggerations of a grand liar are played out on screen, In Imaginarium, a man builds a portal to engage people with their own fantasies in the imagination of Dr. Parnassus as part of a strange bet with the devil that he can get more people to choose creativity/imagination than sin/escape. It is no wonder at all that the story of Don Quixote, the frail knight living driven mad by reading too many romantic adventure novels who lives in the false world of the novels instead of seeing the world as it really is, appeals to Gilliam. It is perhaps the first, best account of what fascinates him: a world, romantic and larger that life, which he desperately wants to make real.

I see his film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is in pre-production for 2011. Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall are attached to the project, which is somewhat promising. And for those of us who love and shake our heads at all this "tilting at windmills," it will no doubt be a spectacle worth watching.

Terry Gilliam via Tim Burton, part 1: Tim Burton

The headline should be the other way around, if one were to be chronological in one's analysis. Terry Gilliam and Brazil, which changed the way I and a lot of other people saw the possibilities of movies, was made in 1985, and Tim Burton didn't really wow us until three years later, with Beetlejuice in 1988, followed by Edward Scissorhands in 1990. (Many were wowed by Gilliam even earlier, with Time Bandits in 1981, but I was a junior in high school then and doubt this film came to my local cineplex. Though I was introduced to dystopian films and their power, at about the same time, by Blade Runner, which is a whole different essay.)

We had a little Terry Gilliam film festival at our house this summer after watching Burton's Alice in Wonderland. My primary reaction to that film is this: How on earth did anyone think that what James Cameron created in Avatar was better or in any way more interesting-- even, if not especially, visually interesting-- given what Burton provided us with in Alice. Now personally, I don't think the special effects in Avatar even hold up next to the basic work of any recent Disney or Pixar film, but in the Disney production that is Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, visual spectacle at the service of storytelling and character-building reaches its highest level. James Cameron may have spent way more money doing his film, employed many more people and invented a camera, but when you see what Tim Burton has been able to do in Alice, you have to ask yourself-- so what? Why invent a new camera? Can't you do something just as good, if not better, with current technology? And isn't that way more impressive? At the end of the day, a film is judged on how it looks and feels, and how it makes us look (at the world) and feel, and Burton has created a world and characters that made me crave more and feel deeply satisfied.