Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wishing for Spring

These pictures are from last spring. Sigh. That is all.

Paper Vs Cloth

I bought this huge multi-pack of paper towels in November. A few weeks later, I wondered what I was doing buying something so brutal to the environment.

Then we had a houseful of family for the holidays and then our plumbing exploded. So I didn't institute any new non-paper waste plans until last month.

Still, it's been almost two months of using cloth napkins, of drying our hands with cloth, of cleaning with cloth. I do have a roll of paper towels out, but I haven't used a single one. Widget Man did forget a few times and use one or two to dry his hands. And there was a fairly unpleasant incident that had to do with dogs and a mysterious brownish smear on the floor.

But other than that, we're all cloth all the time. And we still have seven rolls of paper towels in the pantry.


Last year I made and canned fig jam (from our own fig tree), blackberry jam, (from our own bushes), wild persimmon jam (from some trees round our property and the ajoining county public lands), wild dewberry jam (from an excursion with my good friends, who are expert dewberry patch spotters), and peach jam (from some peaches I bought from a nearby farm). We gave some away, and we ate some, but here it is February and we still have three open jars in the fridge and six jars in the pantry.

This is over-canning.

Recycling Bin

By recycling I mean stuff I'm going to use again, like newspapers and cardboard for weed mat in the garden. Since my house is small, and the kitchen is open to the living room, I don't have an out-of-sight space for unsightly things. So I went shopping in my garage and found this lidded basket to store the very small quantity of things for recycling. Actually, it's empty right now, since I use newspapers and cardboard as fast as I collect it. Since we don't get the paper, and rarely buy anything that comes in paper or cardboard, I have to collect junk on purpose for recycling.

Tomato Starts

I've planted Mexican Midgets, tomatillo, and a new-to-me heirloom variety called (don't snort) Black Sea Man.

The Mexican Midgets are extremely vigorous looking -- strong, thick stems, lots of foliage, great looking roots. The tomatillos are strong but kind of rangy. I guess that's OK. The BSM is looking a bit weak, at least to me.

The tiny seedlings are basil, which I had pulled out of the oven starting tray right before the debacle of the crop failure. So I guess all was not lost. I planted them in some to-go-coffee cups I'd collected over the previous month (despite my resolution not to get coffee in disposable cups). They work great and dry out less frequently than the other cups. It's a perverse kind of frugality/earth-friendliness -- buy something ridiculously wasteful like a coffee in a single use cup and then use it one more time.

The red cups are left over from a party, which is yet again a perverse kind of frugality.

Crop Failure! Part II

Gardening When It Counts suggests that the oven is a fine place to start seeds. It's insulated, protected, and by leaving the oven light on, you end up with the perfect temp for most seeds to germinate. Of course, that small bulb does not supply nearly enough light for the plants once they sprout. So it's just for germinating, not for growing.

Sounded great to me. My start table is already full of tomato plants. I figured I'd start some basil and peppers in the oven and by the time they were germinated, my tomatoes would be ready to outside to be hardened off before planting.

A great plan. Unless *someone* decides to preheat the oven before making a frittata.

That curled plastic thingy was the clear lid for the seed starter box.

Great Ideas from Gardening When It Counts

Gardening When It Counts offers some great advice on low-input gardening. The idea is to garden as if you had no easy way to haul in fertilizer and amendments, to control insects, diseases and pests, or to irrigate. Of course, you can still do those things, but operating as if you couldn't will make gardening easier, cheaper, and more productive. Some key ideas:

1) space plants widely. This allows their roots to reach maximum potential, so that the plants become more drought tolerant, stronger, and more productive. Wider spacing also means fewer diseases and slower transmission between plants when diseases do occur.

2) direct seed, rather than prestarting inside, when at all possible. Seedlings started outside are stronger and more adapted to their final environment. When seeds are grown inside, the environment is so benign, that even weak and disease prone seeds will grow. Then, when they are planted outside, they fall victim to any number of troubles. Moreover, seedlings grown in a windless environment never develop strong stems. Wind actually exercises plant tissues.

3) some crops, like tomatoes and peppers, require early starting in seed pots, in order to fully develop in one North American season. In those cases, start seeds in a mixture of your own gardening soil plus a something to lighten it, like peat. By starting in ordinary garden soil, rather than a sterilized potting soil from a garden center, your seeds will develop in an environment more like your own garden. Plant several seeds per pot and expect some to fail. At this stage, failure is good. It means that the weaker seeds, those that would have been subject to disease in your garden, will not get planted out. You won't waste your time trying to grow less vigorous stock. Production will increase.

More on this great book later.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Winter Salad Greens

Mache is the sweetest, most tender salad green and we harvest it all winter and fall. It's one of the few non-bitter greens I've been able to grow in this climate that survive our droughty weather and my inconsistent watering. One warning, though -- it takes forever to sprout and many times I've given up on it, planted something else in its place only to have it finally sprout around the edges of my other plantings. This batch was hiding under the huge leaves of an artichoke plant.

By the way, the last time I checked, mache was about seven or eight dollars for two ounces in a plastic clam shell box at Whole Paycheck, err, I mean, Whole Foods.

Miniature Cabbage

I harvested six half-size cabbages yesterday. They were healthy and a pretty bright green. But very, very small. In fact, I cooked three of them with sausage and some leeks from the garden for supper. Apparently we just don't get enough cold weather here for cabbages to grow very large. In any case, they were mighty tasty.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Last of the Chamomile

I only managed to save and dry a few months worth of chamomile last season and I'm already almost out. It will be months before I have a big enough plant to harvest, sadly. So I'll try to plant many more plants this year.

What is a Huswife

What is a huswife? Well, the short answer is, she is the counterpart of the husman. That is, the husman and huswife shared a hus. That's all. They were husband and wife and they managed together the general oeconomia, or private economy of a particular household.

Here's a partial,but representative list, based the ten most widely printed texts of the 15th-17th centuries of the kinds of things a huswife might need to know how to do:

How to bake a costard, puff pastry, pie, cake, or buns
How to make meats ordinary whether bakes, boiled, or carbonadoed (grilled)
How to make an excellent sallat, whether simple, compound, boiled, or preserved.
How to make puddings of bread, liver, blood, or rice
How to tan leather
A very fine method to counterfeit gold, silver, pearls, and gems
How to make good beer and wine
How to adulterate wine, beer, flour, and sugar
How to make cheese and butter
How to spin, weave, or knit linen, wool, and hemp
How to dye fabric
How to choose, raise, breed, and butcher pountry, horses, cattel, and sheep
How to preserve meat and fruit
How to make jelly, jam, sweetmeats, sugared spices, and candied flowers
How to make “an excellent conceit” of a miniature, working cannon out of sugar, rose petals, and rose water.
How to ice a cake with edible gold and crushed pearls
How to choose, clean, prepare and preserve fish
How to order a great feast impressive to the eye.
Hoe to order a seeming great feast of less expense.
How to make love potions, perfumes, waters, and vinegars of great virtue.
How to know if a lover be true.
How to know the inner virtues of a mind which ought to be in any huswife.
How to comport oneself in public
How to treat servants
How to quicken the wit
How to preserve a man from drunkenness
How to clear the eyes exceedingly
How to provoke sleep
How to cure lethargy by violent means
How to preserve against the plague, dropsy, cold, cough, headaches, menstrual cramps, fever, toothache, backache, boils, pestilence, consumption, black jaundice, colic, heat in the liver, and pain in the spleen
How to set bones
How to increase a woman’s milk
How to dry up milk
How to ease childbirth
How to know a woman be maid
How to know if a woman be with child
How to know if a woman lie
How to make wrinkles dissapear
How to freshen breath
How to make false teeth
How to draw teeth without iron
How to make wigs
How to restore grey hair to color
How to breed hair exceedingly

Ann Firth observed that, "central to the notion of householding is stewardship, with its connotations of fostering and increasing available resources."

Fancy Living

Since our plumbing exploded at the same time we were remodeling our kitchen cabinets, things have been looking pretty crazy in our house. We spent almost a month washing dishes with a garden hose dragged into the kitchen from the front outside spigot. We flushed toilets with buckets of water. We hauled laundry to the laundromat. Our dining table is piled high with the contents of our food pantry. And the cleaning products that normally live under the sink now reside on the counter by the sink.

Little by little we’re restoring order. We’ve got running water again, thus a dishwasher and washing machine, hot baths, and flushing toilets. Now every time I go to the bathroom, I utter the word, “Fancy!” as I exit. My husband’s response to clean sheets is likewise, “Fancy!”

Tonight my husband finished rebuilding the bottom of the undersink cupboard, where we had punched holes looking for the leak. He replaced our lovely custom-built pullout trash can as well. Our big fat lab Daisy is pretty disappointed since having the trash out in the open meant she could snuffle through it for tasty bits every time we turned our backs. Now the trash is safe, under the sink, from her powerful Labrador urges. She might not agree but we think that is awfully fancy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Last of the Basil

It's been a couple of years since I've bought basil, even though it's once of my favorite herbs. I grow a few plants in a neglected corner of the yard and eat it all summer long, in green salads, insalata caprese, and sauces. Last summer I dried a ton of it, and have been using it all winter. Unlike that bitter, one-note dried basil powder from the spice isle, home dried basil, stored in am airtight container, hand crushed right before use, is mild, complex, and fragrant. We only have a bit left though. This year I'll try to dry twice as much.

Crop Failure!

Last night a mighty wind blew and sent my carefully tended lettuce seedlings flying. Since I can never get lettuce to seed in this crazy Central Texas climate, I'd been starting it in a seed tray on my deck, keeping it in full sun, cool breezes, misting it twice a day to cool the soil, and even yesterday, began adding a seaweed/fish emulsion to the mist. They were very lovely seedlings, strong, tall, nice even leaves. I was planning today to transfer them to a newly built lettuce bed in my garden. Here's what they look like now.

Last week I lost my mind and made actual yellow cake cupcakes with chocolate ganache glaze. With actual white sugar. And actual white flour. I plead a few mitigating circumstances. 1) I had been cleaning out my cupboards and found a container of white flour and another of white sugar wedged in the back. God knows how old. 2) I was watching TV and someone was eating cupcakes. How could I resist? 3) I had the house to myself. 4) I was hungry.

My husband thought it was a trick. "Are those corn muffins?he asked. "Miso topping, maybe?"

The cupcakes did not last long.

How to Use 50 lbs of Figs

Last spring our young fig tree lost its herbaceous mind and refused to stop producing figs. We ate them fresh, warm off the tree, in salads, as dessert, with a dry, sharp cheese like Manchego, poached, in compotes.

I made jam and then I remembered that we don't really eat jam. About fifteen jars later. So I dried a bushel or two in my dehydrator. Then I put them in an airtight jar and forgot all about them until I started cleaning out my cupboards a few weeks ago.

What I've discovered is that dried figs are an excellent natural sweetener. I've used them, reconstituted and pureed in baked goods. I added a bit of puree to add sweetness to tomatoe sauce. They make a nice glaze for pork. The best recipe yet, though was in some Mexican style mole. (Mole should have an accent on the last e but I don't know how to do that. So to be clear, I'm talking about the traditional Mexican sauce, not the small burrowing animal.) Here's the recipe:

3 dried pasilla chiles (from last years garden), soaked until soft, stems removed
1 dried jalepeno (from last years garden), soaked until soft, stem removed
lots of comino
2 tbs good quality chocolate powder
4 dried figs, soaked until soft
salt to taste
1/4 c olive oil
1/4 c almond butter

Blend until smooth, add enough water or broth to cover beef, pork or chicken and simmer until meat is tender. When meat is done, reduce to a thick sauce. The sauce should have a taste balanced between the bitter of the chocolate, sweetness of the figs, and spiciness of the chilis and comino. Any kind of nut butter may be used. Lots of people use unsweetened peanut butter or sesame paste. I often use pecan butter.