Monday, May 30, 2011

Mnding the Chickens

This Memorial Day weekend, everyone has been off at various cabins except me and Steve, so we had the WHOLE 80 acre farm to ourselves. We gardened, ate well, had coffee on the porch and even took a dip in the pond. This is exactly what we would have done if people had been here, but it still felt different somehow.

Of course, church was half-empty, lots of people leave town, so the whole town felt quiet.

My job was to take care of the chickens, and can I just say, I LOVE chickens! Each morning when I made my way out there (this morning in pajamas), the ladies were standing in their sun room clucking and squawking low, waiting for me to open the door. All seven of them file out together and get quiet. They make their way in a group down onto the commons and begin looking for grubs and stuff.

It was much harder to remember to go out at night and shut the door to the coop. It doesn't get dark until 9 p.m., and by then I was just not thinking about chickens. Last night we got home from a party around 9:30, and a little after 10 I turned on PBS, which was showing some kind of "best of" Laugh-In. They made the rounds of one-liners with various characters, and then Goldie Hawn came on and started by saying, "Who is taking care of the chickens? I mean, who watches out for the chickens? People are always telling jokes about them. Why did the chicken cross the road?..." then Colonel Sanders appeared and said something about how much he loves chickens, then someone else, then back to Goldie-- you get the idea.

Of course, by then I had my shoes and sweater on and was heading out the door. Who was taking care of the chickens indeed!! I'd completely forgotten!

It was a beautiful, dark night. It had been cold and windy during the day, but now it was already warming up (today it was 85). It smelled rich and green and the air was a little heavy. The grass is saturated, so I took the long way around the driveway and out to the chicken barn. As it is every night, all was quiet. I trusted they were inside, because they always are, and closed and latched the door.

The chickens come home to roost. Every evening, they go and take their places, lay an egg, and quietly sit on it. I suppose they sleep, too.

The contrast between the morning and the evening is quite beautiful. The ease of care and the reliability of chicken behavior is comforting. Latching the chicken coop, you really can feel like all is right with the world.

Three days and 18 eggs later, my duties are up. I do think I understand why so many people in this area are so well-tempered and steady. It's easy to see how they could have grown to love hard work and living simply. They grew up minding chickens.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Good Food

It's Memorial Day weekend, and the season of several (video) movies a week is officially over and the season of cooking has begun. Also, feel free to wear white pants and shoes after Monday.

After working today on The Art of The Saint John's Bible, volume 3, getting some kind of take on what Chronicles, Esther and 1 and 2 Maccabees are all about, I found myself thinking, now what?

I got out the hammock, which was dirty and needed its annual bleach treatment, and then was too wet to lie in and read. So the answer was obvious: COOK!

Tomorrow we have a birthday party to attend, and the instructions on the invitation were to bring an hoers d'oeuvre. For me, that meant making cheese, and I'm thinking Triscuits with homemade spreadable cheese and radishes from the garden.

Also, I hadn't yet made rhubarb bars, so I got going on a pan of those. The rhubarb had lots of really red stalks, which is unusual, and the bars turned out particularly pretty.

Then I turned my attention to dinner. I do understand why people love Deborah Madison. In my book-buying frenzy I picked up Local Flavors, her book that follows farmers' markets and offers recipes for the seasonal produce found there. Someone had left a bag of collard greens on my counter last week (I'm thinking it was my sister-in-law Annie, so I paid her back by planting 3 of my pepper plants in her garden this morning). I picked the leaves from the kale in my window box and had a good amount of greens. Deborah Madison suggests cooking them with bacon, garlic, diced potatoes, onion and red pepper flakes. That's it. Salt and pepper. No other spices, no red wine vinegar, nothing to add flavor. And they were phenomenally good. We ate them with some grilled pork with barbecue sauce and there are no leftovers. A little half-price Chianti from the wine sale and we figure the whole dinner for two was about $14.00.  (And really, it should have served four.)

One of my favorite dishes is from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It doesn't have a fancy name, and is basically garbanzo beans, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Again, a little red pepper. It is incredibly flavorful and feels good to eat. After I brought it to a pot luck, one woman went out and bought the book.

All in all, it was a great day. And there's still time for a movie. We have Blue Valentine from Netflix.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Spring continues to be wet, cold and windy. My tomato plants, which I hoped to plant this weekend, are huddled on the front step, toughening up as best they can while still being protected from the wind.

That is why it's very clear to me how important it is to like "cold weather" crops. I used to think I liked to eat everything, but that's really not true. When it comes to gardening, it turns out there are a lot of vegetables I'm suspicious of or not interested in eating. I've never been an eggplant fan. I don't think I've ever bought radishes, though I don't mind them on the salads my mother makes. It never occurs to me to eat celery. I won't go near a kohlrabi or daikon, based pretty much just on the way they smell. My only experience with beets was with pickled, canned beets.

This year, going on the idea that everything tastes better when grown in a garden than it does when bought in a produce department, I planted some radishes, two rows of beets and an empress eggplant (the smaller the better when it comes to eggplant).

Well, I can attest now to the radishes. They DO taste better from my garden than they do from the store. I planted a variety called Cherry Belle. I wondered how I would know it was time to harvest them.

It was easy to know because they poked their beautiful red heads out of the ground. When I pulled one out, it was perfectly round, perfectly red and about the size of a 25-cent gumball. 

I thought garden produce was supposed to be ugly!

The flavor is delicate and crisp. They are delicious raw and even better on a salad. Some went into the Asian noodle salad I made for the graduation party last weekend. I have seen on a Facebook friend's page that you can use them as a topping for pizza, which is intriguing. I only wish I'd planted more! I've started some more seeds, which popped up overnight through the soil, and have scattered them where there are small spaces in the raised beds.

Maybe I should put in another eggplant...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

American Cress

When I was living and working on the campus of Saint John's University/Abbey, I was the recipient of regular spring gifts of watercress. The watercress was established by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, a monk of St. John's Abbey who was quite involved in the translation of the post-Vatican II lectionary in English. He is a bit of a legend at Saint John's, for his liturgical work and also for his mushroom collecting and other culinary adventures-- of which I count the watercress as a small piece of his legacy. Brother Walter, who also heads up the maple syrup operation each year as "chief tree tapper" and other functions, would bring me plastic bread bags full of the stuff. I went with him once when he collected it, in his waders going out into a shallow spring that fed Lake Watab, down below the Johanna Kiln. There was still snow on the ground, but this area of watercress was a bright green spot on the landscape. Walter managed to keep his balance and cut huge swaths of the stuff and there we had it-- the first greens of the season.

I hate to admit that much of what he gave me over the past several years went to waste. It is strong stuff, so a little goes a long way, and also it has lots of stems. Trying to prepare it for a salad was labor intensive. Still, I wanted some on our property, and took around various rooted bits to the wetlands and laid them in the edges of the ponds. However, that doesn't work. I knew from the reading I'd done that it probably wouldn't because you need running water, a spring is ideal, to grow watercress. 

This year, next to where I've planted the raspberry bushes my friend Deb gave me, Steve and I noticed a beautiful patch of yellow weeds/wildflowers that he couldn't identify. This past week when his friend came out who knows basically every plant in this region, Steve learned that what we had was a stand of American cress, also called land cress or bank cress. It is a perennial, but only does well in really wet springs, which is what we're having in spades. It grows near water, like this stand near our pond, but not in water (thus "bank").

According to Wikipedia, it's been cultivated as a leafy vegetable in England since the 17th century. So now I have plans, of course, for cress soup and salads. In another week I'll have baby spinach and lettuces, and the radishes are peeking up their red heads from the ground. So here we are, with cress! and I will probably avoid eating dandelion greens this year.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Minnesota Television

I am a fan of public television, which varies in different regions of the country. Since I'm in a "cultural critic" frame of mind, I thought I'd share what I love and dislike about Minnesota public television.

First, I love that we get three different stations. And the programming is not the same on all three. I can watch "Frontline" at 8 p.m. instead of 9 on Tuesdays, and so be free to watch "The Good Wife" at 9 p.m. Channel 17 always has cooking shows on for an hour or two in the evening, which I like watching better than any sitcom. There are old Julia Child programs, which are always fun, and another good cook with good guests, Ming.

Then there is my favorite, a show I don't think you'll see anywhere but Minnesota, "New Scandanavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad." Andreas is from Norway, and the show also features chefs from Sweden, Denmark and Finland (though I've only seen the Swedish chef, Tina Nordstrom, and Andreas. The hallmark of the show is the chefs setting up an outdoor cooking station and making dishes on the spot. There's lots of herring, salmon and lingonberries. Salt and sour cream and dill are frequent flavorings. These two are delightful, and the food they cook is simple, fresh and beautiful. I particularly enjoy their accents and the way they tie their shows to tourism information about different regions, festivals and holidays in their countries.

Also on Minnesota Public Television are some first rate survival and wilderness shows. There are documentaries about people who homesteaded in the Boundary Waters or Alaska. There are also documentaries about great blizzards or the architecture of old homestead farmhouses. Some date back to the 1980s, and they seem to show periodically. I never get tired of watching them.

On the other end, is the unwatchable "The Red Green Show." I have not been able to watch enough of it to tell you much about it. It insults my intelligence and is not funny. It is 100% charicature of the Great North-- possibly Canada, or possibly Minnesota. Whenever I see it, I think of the constant showings of "The Benny Hill Show" on Chicago public television. Or that British comedy about the department store that played constantly in the San Francisco area, along with "Tales of the City."

If you move to a new place, watch public television. You'll learn a lot, maybe even how to cook a lingonberry tart.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

First Harvest

The rhubarb has been, like everything, slow in coming in, but I did manage to get four cups of rhubarb picked on Friday for the first dish from the garden. With some remaining frozen strawberries and help from, I made strawberry-rhubarb compote with shortcakes. I didn't really like the orange rind in the biscuits, but I subsituted orange marmalade for some of the jam in the compote recipe and that was delicious.

Last night, which was the first night of eating dinner on the screen porch, I "harvested" the baby arugula from a window box I started back in March when I was planting seedlings, and it was enough for two small bowls of salad-- a squeeze of lemon, champagne vinegar and olive oil and they were good to go. I took photos to mark the occasion, but the CF card wasn't in the camera!

Last night's dinner was a great homemade chicken korma and I did have a few sprigs of cilantro I grew from seed to garnish that as well. It's the time of year I look with interest at the dandelion greens, but I haven't gone there yet. It seems like it would be too close to eating grass! And mostly, I think indoor planting doesn't result in much in the way of food. I have some lovely looking, but quite sparse, kale plants. I put a few seedlings out and instead of "taking off," they got windblown and shriveled. The basil and some other herbs I planted indoors also look weak and I'd diagnose them with "failure to thrive."

Starting peppers and tomatoes makes sense, but I don't see getting a good planter of lettuce going with my current set-up. Some things just need to start in the ground and tough it out.

And so those two meager bowls kind of depleted my indoor veggies. Other than rhubarb, I now will have nothing to eat (a sprig of cilantro and basil here and there) from the garden for probably three weeks. But there is promise out there, including little fields of lettuce and spinach dotting the landscape. There are tiny beet seedlings and snow peas almost ready to reach the first rung of the fence. Most exciting of all, most of the asparagus plants have little stems poking up through the bottom layer of dirt. I can't eat from those plants for three years, but they are alive!

Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcakes

4 cups 3/4-inch-thick slices fresh rhubarb
3/4 cup sugar
2 T water
2 T strawberry preserves
1 tsp minced orange peel (note: I used 1T raspberry preserves and 1 T orange marmalade, which complemented the allspice and gave it a more sharp flavor)

1/4  tsp ground allspice
1 quart strawberries, hulled and thickly sliced

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
6 T sugar
4.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 T minced orange peel (I would skip this in the future, and maybe use another T sugar)
1/4 tsp salt
9 T chilled butter, cut into pieces
3/4 c plus 3 T whipping cream (or half and half)

whipped cream or ice cream

For compote:
Combine first 5 ingredients in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until rhubarb is tender but some pieces remain intact, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and add allspice. Cool completely. Stir in strawberries. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled (3 hrs or overnight). This last seems optional to me!

For biscuits:
Set oven to 400 degrees. Combine first 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Add ubber and cut in using pastry blender or rub with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. (In the future I will use my food processor for this step. It's the only way I know to quickly make good "coarse meal" of dough.) Add 3 T cream and stir until dough comes together. (Again, the food processor is good for this, since you can add a little more at a time to make it come together.)

Turn out dough onto lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 6 turns. Flatten dough to 3/4 inch thick round. Cut out biscuits using a cookie cutter. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet about 20-23 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool slightly. If making ahead, can reward them in 350 degree oven for five minutes before serving.

Cut biscuits in half, load on the compote and top with ice cream. (Garnish with mint, optional.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Future of Television

As an early adapter, I'm not very impressive. I'm guided more by my desire to live simply than to try something new. Although I've had a Honda Hybrid since 2002, I've actually all but given up my cell phone, which is now prepaid and has no message system attached to it. No iphone for me, though I do love my ipod touch, especially for the epicurious app that lets me get recipes right in my kitchen.

I am a fan of television, and though I think it would be virtuous of me to just disconnect the dish and not get any programming, I have been unable to pull the plug. We were among the first to get a Roku box from Netflix to stream videos on our television, and I could almost get by with that. It was a first step toward computer-driven television. So I haven't gotten a DVR, because I don't really want to pay to save more television shows. I want to watch less! And I definitely want to pay less than $600-$800/year for television.

Yesterday, I took the first real step and bought a cable to connect my rather outdated laptop to our pretty new television set. It's just a VGA cable, basically turning the television into a computer monitor. It also just connects video, so I brought down some speakers to run with the computer for sound.

As an experiment, it was successful. I was able to watch the episode of Upstairs, Downstairs that I missed, and the sound was only slightly out of sync and the images only slightly choppy. Later that night we had less success downloading a PBS Frontline episode, and settled for an episode of 30 Rock that was pretty badly synced. It was still funny!

I'm thinking what's in order is a dedicated computer (preferably a netbook) and an HDMI cable. And with those one-time investments, I could possibly return the dish! It's odd to think of the future resembling the past, but it means we would get down to radio as our primary news source (which it is already) and a limited television schedule. If we had to think of what we want to watch, instead of flipping channels to find something, I'm thinking at least the time I spend watching infomercials for extreme exercise programs will diminish.

And this morning, reading the campus electronic bulletin board, I ended up at a Web site that has a "live loon cam" focused on a loon nesting in Central Minnesota. I really like the idea of having something like that up on the television. Kind of like the yule log.

So here's to the future! And I'd welcome any advice on computer set-ups, etc.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

National Celebrations

I could not call myself a proper blogger if I didn't make some mention of the big Wills and Kate wedding Friday. I had not planned on watching it, but got sucked into the BBC rebroadcast at about 10 p.m. Friday night. What I found most interesting was the procession by the public down the mall to Buckingham Palace to catch "the balcony scene," as the media kept calling it, as if it were Romeo and Juliet. People moved in an orderly fashion behind a row of Bobbies, until the entire area was filled in. While this slow-moving procession was happening, the BBC coverage kept switching to other places where parties were happening: Kate Middleton's home town, Hyde Park and other parks and places.

I delighted in watching a national day of celebration unfold much more than watching the wedding, although that was nicely done. A friend in Scotland said that she had no interest in the wedding but had ended up going from party to party all day, drinking cheap champagne and mingling with friends. This sense of an international day off to celebrate something as simple as the marriage of a young couple was truly refreshing.

Saturday, in the glow of this lovely experience, I finished making my way through the Historical Books volume of The Saint John's Bible. I've been writing on the illuminations for the third volume of the series: Art of the Saint John's Bible. I finished by writing about two illuminations: "Square Before the Water Gate" in Nehemiah and "Esther" in the book of Esther.

Both Nehemiah and Esther were written after the people of Israel returned from exile. Nehemiah recounts the story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. At the center of the book, the part related to the illumination, all the people are called together inside the newly constructed walls of Jerusalem and the book of Moses, the book of the Law, is read aloud to them. There are also people on hand to explain what's being read. It's a really unusual means of establishing national identity after Exile: here is our story and the way we have been called to live. Like many before them in the historical books, the first impulse upon hearing the story is to rend their clothing and go into mourning. But, although there are plans for a national day of confession and mourning to come, the priest Ezra declares that this day will be a day of feasting and celebration. Everyone is commanded to have a big party, to celebrate, and so they do.

If you want to read a Biblical princess story, you can't do better than Esther. She is the beautiful virgin, a natural beauty among those who need cosmetics to attract attention. She is a member of the underclass in the Persian Empire, a Jewish orphan (worse than a commoner!), who nonetheless wins the hand of the king. In fact, the king will do anything for her. She saves his life by uncovering an assassination plot and then saves her people from the pompous and evil Haman. What caught my attention, however, was the account of the wedding. "The king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers-- 'Esther's banquet.' He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality" (Esther 2:17-18).

For me, it was working with these passages that connected the past to the present. How long has a royal wedding been an occasion for deep celebration. In these times of deep trouble-- wars and natural disasters-- how I long for a day of international celebration. There will be time for mourning and resuming the struggles of life. For a day, let us celebrate who we are and our collective story with hope and joy. Given the response to the Royal Wedding, it seems that many people share this longing.

photo of the crowd on the mall from: