...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


First Camping Trip of the Season

Memorial Day weekend found us enjoying the first family camping trip of the season.  We checked out the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park...and we determined we don't need to go back.  Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful coastline and so close to home, but it's sandwiched between the steel mills outside of Gary to the west and the NIPSCO coal-fired power plant to the east--not your most picturesque beach scene.  But this trip had been on our bucket list so we've finally crossed it off.  We took a side trip to Three Floyds Brewery in nearby Munster the day we arrived and enjoyed an outstanding tour and some delicious microbrews. But back at our campsite, it was another story.  I ranted about it in my original post, but wasn't feeling good about the negativity threaded so I'll just say that while we were looking forward to a long weekend powered down, eating and sleeping outside, most everyone else was "glamping" and very plugged in.  Needless to say, we managed to have a good time and Vera fared well, but we're excited for our Labor Day camping trip to one of our outstanding Wisconsin parks, which are--from my experience--quieter, more wooded, and hopefully generator-free.
This is our favorite camping recipehan ded down from the Sheaffer family of Glen Ellyn, IL.  We call it Foil Dinner and it's so simple and delicious.  You could even cook this in an outdoor firepit at home.  Also, I like to be conservative with the aluminum foil; if we use a piece that hasn't gotten gooey we just rinse and let it dry.  You could reuse foil for this recipe.

Foil Dinner

Aluminum foil
Green Cabbage, torn into leaves
Carrots, washed and chopped
Potatoes, washed and chopped
Onions, peeled and sliced
Ground Meat
Salt and Pepper

Spread out a large piece of aluminum foil and build your dinner: a layer of cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, raw ground meat in the middle, pat of butter, salt and pepper then keep building it in reverse.  Keep in mind that it builds up quickly so don't add too much to start.  Wrap it tightly in foil making sure there are no holes where the butter can seep out.  Toss it onto a campfire that has burned down to coals and let it cook for about 30 minutes.  Unwrap (be careful of the steam) and enjoy!


More Spring Cleaning

I've always thought it would be quaint to have a big spring cleaning session where I throw open the windows and clean the house from top to bottom including all cracks, crevices, and windows.  Well, this notion is just in my brain and I'm satisfied with that, though I've had some minor but important spring cleaning rituals this year.  Yesterday I emptied the basement upright freezer--the old inefficient one that, for me, was a selling point on the house.  It needs to be defrosted every year, but the trick is to manage the rotation of food so there are at least a few days I can unplug it and let it drip clean.  The freezer inventory spreadsheet I made last season (what a geek!) helped tremendously to keep a steady flow of inventory.  I managed to fit the remaining in the upstairs freezer, but not without a week's worth of meals planned and pulled out first.  It hasn't been painful at all, in fact, quite fun for me because I love the challenge of using leftovers.  It was Green Tomato Soup with Sage Walnut Pesto on Monday, a Spaghetti Pancake with Homemade Italian Sausage Bacon, and Garden Chives on Tuesday.  Tonight will be Beets Burgers, tomorrow Homemade Brats, and Friday the weekly Pizza with some frozen Green Tomato Sauce.

I'd like to share the the Spaghetti Pancake recipe, which I tweaked from one I found on Tea and Cookies.  Mine didn't do the recipe justice because I was working with one egg too few (I'm also trying to clean out the fridge before a holiday weekend of camping so we're out of lots of stuff.)  It was still delicious, but didn't hold together like a pancake.

Spaghetti Pancake with Sausage, Bacon, and Chives
Serves 4

3 c. leftover cooked spaghetti noodles
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 oz. cooked bacon, chopped
4 oz. bulk Italian sausage, cooked and crumbled
2 T. chopped fresh chives
1 t. salt, or to taste
black pepper to taste
butter or oil for frying, at least 1 t.

In a large bowl beat the eggs until smooth.  Add the spaghetti noodles and mix until they are all coated.  Mix in the bacon, sausage, and chives, salt and pepper.  Heat the oil or butter in a large frying pan, it should be well oiled.  Pour the noodle mixture into the pan and allow to set on the bottom.  Using a heat-proof spatula, run it around the side of the pancake to prevent sticking to the pan.  Peer under the bottom from time to time until the pancake begins to brown.  Turn over by sliding it onto a plate and putting the frying pan on top and flipping it over.  Cook until slightly brown on both sides and the center has firmed.   Turn out onto a plate and cut into wedges.

One garden is definitely in phase 2 for the season.  The spinach, radishes, and some mustard greens are done--they began to bolt so I gleaned what I could and composted the rest--the mesclun mix could go to seed any day, and some of the cucurbitae I planted last week are already popping out of the ground.  I feel like this is the first season I've been able to keep up with it.  Good thing Vera loves being outside in the garden with me; I can work while she plays (when will it be the other way around?)  I also did a bit more wild foraging this week.  We had a friend over for a playdate yesterday so I gathered some catnip from the lakefront and made some iced tea to go with some scones (from the freezer, of course).  She said the tea's flavor reminded her of the mint tea made by her host family when she studied in Morocco.  It has a definite earthiness and it very refreshing when chilled.  To make some, wash the catnip and remove any roots (you don't have to strip the leaves otherwise).  Heat up a pot of water and toss in the catnip once the water simmers.  Turn off heat, cover and let steep about 20 minutes.  Serve hot or cold.  (The ratio of catnip to water is your choice.)

According to Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, authors of The Urban Homestead, dumpster diving is an essential part of being self-sufficient in the city.  I can't say I've ever really jumped into a dumpster for something, unless you count the time I was six or seven and my friend lived across the street from the electric company and one day her older brother had the idea that we should go rifle through their dumpster...found some cool colored resistors and other components we had no clue about, but got chased away by someone on staff.  But ANYWAY, I have been more into curb surfing than actually going all the way into the garbage bin.  I've found and refinished and old desk; scored a metal plant stand, end table, and metal doo-hickey I use for filing my baking pans in the pantry, among other items.  My most recent find was a small chalkboard whose frame was a bit broken.  It called out to me "Take Me Home and Fix Me!" I examined the damage, tossed it under the stroller and spent about two seconds with the staple gun when I got home to make it good as new.  It will be a darling menu board or to-do list for our kitchen.  Still, I believe there are plenty of curbed items that should be passed up--a friend was just telling me about a great blanket he found by the garbage which turned out to have fleas.  Some things are better left for the trash collectors.

With the heat this week, it's been great for spending time in the cool basement.  I made another outfit for Vera and it cost me next to nothing--the turquoise fabric was from the thrift store, the purple fabric and pattern we from my mom's stash, I found the perfect color rick rack at a rummage over the weekend, and I had the perfect color buttons and thread on hand.  Aside from the energy to run my machine and my labor (which was enjoyable so it doesn't count) I couldn't have bought something cheaper and better quality at a big box store (not that I would.)  She may fit into this in the fall.  I can't wait to dress her up.


Spring Foraging

Saturday was a great day for a ramp foraging foray.  This is the first year I've preserved these wild leeks in some way.  Usually I gather a huge bag and by the time I use them in cooking they've started getting slimy in the back of the fridge.  Vera and I set out early that morning--or at least early by most standards on a Saturday--and went off-roading with with the buggy in the nearby woods.  It was a dew-capped morning so everything was a beautiful, glowing shade of green.  We saw tons of jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geraniums, Virginia waterleaf, mayapples, and finally the prized ramps, which are part of the lily family like other alliums.  Their leaf most closely resembles that of a lily of the valley.  Armed with my weed digger and a couple plastic bags, I went to town digging them up whenever I saw a large patch.  This was the latest in the season I've ever gathered ramps so I found them to be good size.  While I was in the woods I decided to casually look for morels.  I'd never gone "mushroom huntin'," as they call it in my small hometown in east central Illinois.   When we moved there in the late 80s the first thing my dad did was buy cowboy boots, then a friend took him hunting for fungi.  So until the last several years I'd always thought of it as an activity these rural folk partook in when they weren't fishin' or frog-giggin'.  I was reminded of this recently when my husband handed me a Newsweek article about the sport.  "Hillybilly Haute Cuisine" was the title and the writer reminisced about fryin' 'em up in Crisco.  (Gasp!)  I saw plenty of other mushrooms in the woods on Saturday, but not the elusive morel.  I'd heard that a moist day after a good rain was prime time for hunting.  I thought my thrift store eyes, which can quickly scan for the littlest details, would serve me well, but the little goodies were better at hiding than I was at searching.  So I went home empty-handed as far as morels go, but walked about with two bursting bread bags of ramps.  Vera slept through it all, as usual.

I found some tried and true preserved ramp recipes online at the blog Well Preserved that use both the greens and the bulb.  I tweaked the pesto recipe a bit to use sorrel, which is growing like a weed in our yard and probably going to seed very soon.  I think it's safe to say I'm on a pesto kick, what with the radish leaf pesto I made the other day.  It isn't even basil season yet and I've got more than 35 portions in my freezer.  I'm mentally tasting all the ways I can make bruschetta for winter appetizers, not to mention pasta, pizza, and soups with a pesto accent.

Ramp and Sorrel Pesto
Makes 3-4 oz. portions

1/2 c. ramp greens, coarsely chopped
1/2 c. sorrel, coarsely chopped
1 T. olive oil
1 t. lemon zest or 1/2 t. dehydrated lemon peel (check the spice aisle)
1/4 c. pine nuts or almonds (toasted)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. Parmesan or part-skim mozzarella cheese

Combine all ingredients in the food processor and process until smooth.  For freezing, portion into a dedicated ice cube tray or a mini muffin pan.  Once they are frozen, transfer the cubes to a freezer-quality bag, label, date and freeze.

Pickled Ramps
Makes 8-1/2 pint jars

8 c. ramp bulbs, loosely packed
5 1/2 c. white vinegar (5% acidity)
1 c. water
2 t. canning and pickling salt
2 c. granulated sugar
4 t. mustard seed
4 t. coriander seed
4 t. celery seed

Sterilize canning jars, rings, and dome lids according to instructions.  Add a 1/2 t. of each spice to the eight half-pint jars.  Simmer the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar for 3 min.  Add the ramps and bring back to a gentle simmer for 5 min.  Lift out the ramps with a slotted spoon and place them into the canning jars.  Add the brine, remove air bubbles and place in a hot water bath under a full boil for 10 min.  Let cool completely, label, date, and store.

Despite the success of our spring garden, which is now almost done, I've had one big disappointment.  Our asparagus never came back.  This would have been year three, which meant we could finally harvest.  I had dreams of posting all kinds of recipes using my homegrown stalks.  I've asked farmers I know, consulted books and websites and I can't find any information about why this perennial wouldn't have returned.  My only thought is that as they were installing the new fence, there was so much soil compaction that the asparagus just couldn't push through.  Ben and I shook on it last night that if it doesn't come back next year, we'll put a hot tub in place of the patch (Yeah right!  My growing space is too precious for that!)  I'm sure I'll still enjoy some local asparagus this season, even if I didn't grow it myself.  I'll be sure to share any interesting recipes.

All I have left to say is let summer begin!  We made some great progress yesterday in readying our patio for al fresco dining and entertaining this summer.  We hung the shade sail--pardon me (ahem), "Party Sail" and added some chili lights, which I had stashed in the basement and believe to have retrieved from my brother's fraternity house in college.  Last night Ben and I kicked it off by enjoying some local wine and beer in the yard.  We need to do more of that on summer nights.  Here's to christening the "warm season" here in Wisconsin.  Cheers!


More Spring Recipes

Today I made my first jell-o mold.  My mother would be proud because she always says she can't make pie crusts or jell-o molds.  I was reading something recently--I think it was by cookbook author Marion Cunningham--about the lost art of aspics, savory gelatinized dishes usually made with meat stock.  Those have fallen out of vogue, but Jell-O, of course, may be around forever whether you like it or not.  In trying to find a different way to use spring's bounty of rhubarb, I came up with a molded salad.  I've tweaked it a bit to use local ingredients (frozen thawed raspberries instead of pineapple), but it's up to you.  Cunningham's advice for dipping the bottom of the mold pan in hot water before inverting it was really the key to success.  This makes a refreshing dessert.

Molded Rhubarb Salad
Serves 10

4 c. diced rhubarb
2 c. water
1 2/3 c. granulated sugar (you can substitute all or some of the sugar with xylitol, if you prefer)
6 oz. unflavored gelatin
2 c. frozen, thawed and drained raspberries (or fresh, crushed berries)
1/2 c. chopped walnuts

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the rhubarb in water until tender, about 5 min.  Remove from the heat; stir in sugar (or xylitol) and gelatin until completely dissolved.  Add raspberries and nuts.  Pour into an rinsed, but not dried, 6-cup mold.  Chill until set.  Before inverting, dip the bottom of the mold pan in hot water.  Place a serving plate over the mold and invert.  Cut and enjoy!

And let's not forget all those beautiful spring radishes.  I'm growing French Breakfast and White Icicle Radishes this year and have been harvesting most of them fairly young because in the past I've had many go to seed before we could enjoy them.  There's nothing worse than trying to cut or bite into a woody radish.  Along with all of those crunchy treats are lots of leaves.  You can certainly put them into salads though they're a bit hairy.  One season I tried juicing them along with some winter storage beets and carrots.  The flavor was so intense I had to hold my nose to swallow it.  Last year I got a new idea from my farmer friends Sandy and David at Pinehold Gardens.  None of us like to waste food, especially when we've put effort into growing it.  I have tweaked this recipe a bit for my taste.

Radish Leaf Pesto
Makes about 1/2 cup
This pesto has an intense spicy flavor; you may not find it interchangeable with basil pesto.  I suggest using it as a base for bruschetta topping.

2 c. radish leaves, washed and stems removed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 c. blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan or part-skim mozzarella
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the radish leaves, garlic, and almonds in a food processor and process until everything is chopped to a rough or fine consistency, depending on your preference.  With the machine running, add half the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Turn off the processor and add the cheese.  Process until the cheese is absorbed.  With the machine on, slowly add the remaining olive oil.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Transfer to a small bowl.  If you do not plan to use it immediately, cover with a thin layer or olive oil and store refrigerated in a tightly closed container.  To freeze, portion into ice cubes trays (use trays dedicated to making pesto) or mini muffin pans.  Once frozen, remove from trays/pans and store in a freezer bag. Label and date.  To thaw, put in a small dish and let sit several minutes before using.

My summer garden is almost completely planted.  Over the last week I've been seeding corn and beans.  Today I seeded all of my cucurbitae--cucumbers, melons, zucchini, summer squash.  To make the most of my urban plot, I have intercropped the next wave of vegetables in the original raised bed.  By the time the salad greens are done, my cucumbers will be poking through and soon after will need trellising.  I'll save the details about the trellises for a later date because they will be better understood with photos.  Leftt to transplant are the tomatoes and eggplant.  I didn't start any of my own bell or hot peppers this year.  I haven't had success doing so in the past so I decided to purchase some starts from a local grower at the Bay View Garden and Yard Society plant sale in the next couple of weeks.  This is the first year I feel like I've kept up with succession growing in our garden.  Hopefully we'll get the maximum yields and will have a lot of fresh produce and preserves to show for it.


Foraging and Rummaging

The Elkhorn Antique Flea Market yesterday was amazing, as expected.  It may have been the most fun trip we've taken there yet...and the season is just beginning.  I had a list of several things to look for, but was really zoning in on just one or two pieces.  If one tries to "see it all," it gets exhausting and overwhelming very quickly.  The kids were super troopers all day, bumping along in the wagon, and we went home with a truckload of cool old stuff.  My favorite find was a small red wooden bench that I placed in our vestibule.  Over the last couple of years I've been trying to make the most of our small house so this creates an additional useable "room" in our home.  I'd been wanting to outfit the entryway a bit to make a comfy spot for reading or knitting.  Our friend applied some warm-colored coats of paint to this area last summer and with a small lamp, rug, and pillows it's a glowing little corner for winding down in the evening with a book or watching a rain storm through the screen door.  (See bench at lower left in picture.)

To back up just a bit, Vera and I went on an urban foraging hike at Riverside Park via the Urban Ecology Center on Saturday.  I've done a bit of wild foraging, but was hoping to gain a little more knowledge and expand my repertoire this season.  The trek culminated with the group gathering violets and returning to the center to make a batch of beautiful violet jam.  Delicious! (P.S.  The photos are actually from last year's batch that I made at home.)

Violet Jam
Recipe courtesy of Matt Flower, Urban Ecology Center forager
Makes about 2 1/2 pints

1 c. violet blossoms, packed full
1 1/2 c. water, divided
2 T. lemon juice (or juice of 1 lemon)
2 1/2 c. sugar
1 package pectin
three-piece canning jars

Sterilize jars by putting them in boiling water for 10-15 min.  Place the blossoms, 3/4 c. water, and lemon juice in a blender and blend until it's a smooth paste.  Slowly add the sugar until blended.  Combine 3/4 c. water and 1 pkg. pectin in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and boil hard for one minute.  Add to the paste in blender.  Blend for an additional minute.  Pour into sterilized jars and cover with dome lid and screwbands.  Refrigerate (will last about 3 weeks) or freeze for a winter treat (be sure to leave 1/4-1/2 inch headspace if planning to freeze.)

Variations: Substitute violet blossoms with multiflora rose petals, white and yellow clover flowers, purple loosestrife flowers, bouncing bet flowers, autumn olive flowers, honeysuckle flowers.

Adding herbs such as lemon balm can also impart unique flavors.

Note:  This makes a gorgeous Mother's Day gift (think ahead for next year.)


Another Work Day

Today I completed another phase of getting the garden prepared.  I received two cubic yards of mulch and made quick work of it during Vera's nap; I spread it around the perennials in the front garden as well as mulching the paths between raised beds and around all the other plants outside of the raised beds.  This morning I also planted some popcorn and multi-colored ornamental corn, which we grew in the past to grind into cornmeal.  My new gooseberry and elderberry bushes are in and look happy with a layer of bedding around them.  I also made an impromptu stone edge around the gooseberry patch with the stones I didn't use for the front raised beds.  Update: I decided to wait until next year to do the last raised bed in the front under our windowboxes.  I was feeling a bit overwhelmed as of this week and realized it was creating a lot of stress to figure out when and how I could go get more stones.  So it will wait.  We have plenty of irons in the fire this season.  I tend to be quite ambitious when it comes to veggie gardening so sometimes I have to rein myself in.

I am finally posting pics of the new fence, gate, and living awning.  The awning replaces a hemp canvas awning I ruined last fall as I was trying to clean it.  Oops!  This one is passive solar as it will support vines (like pole beans and peas) and create shade for our front room in the summer and when the growth dies away in the winter, it will allow more light into the house to warm it.

No recipe today, but I do have some recipe ideas.  As we were preparing our strawberry rhubarb crostata where I work at Sheridan's on Fridays I realized that the juice we drain from the homemade fruit filling could be used in so many tasty ways.  We made a quick strawberry rhubarb sorbet with it, but once the gears started turning we realized we might also make syrup for pancakes, waffles, or crepes, and a vinaigrette for a spring salad.  The main idea is that even this by-product will not go to waste.  And we get another dose of this season's delicious strawberry rhubarb loveliness.  And who couldn't use more of that?

Tomorrow is the first Elkhorn Antique Flea Market at the Walworth County Fairgrounds and man-o are we excited.  My friend Karen and I are anticipating another fun summer of taking the kids along and drooling over miles of awesome antiques for a few hours.  If you're an antique lover and haven't checked this out, it's an absolute must.  It took me about 6-8 visits to finally cover the whole market and by that time I felt brain dead.  We've got our lists, I'm packing a local spring lunch, and the wagons are shined up (one for the kids and one for the goods).  Stay tuned to hear about our finds.

Thought I'd include an updated pic of the original raised beds with all the salad fixin's in full bloom.  What a difference a couple of weeks makes.


Saving Resources

This time of year I save more greywater from cooking and preservation.  I mostly use it to compliment our rain barrels in watering the garden.  When I use the hot water bath canner, I let the water cool down post-processing then pour it onto the garden (except the one year I pret'near killed a hydrangea and successfully knocked out my blueberry bush by watering them with some too-hot canner water into which some vinegar had seeped from a batch of pickles.   I thought the acid would be good for both of those plants since they thrive at a low pH, but the heat was too much.  Do not do this at home!)  I also save water from hard-boiled eggs--a practice that one of Ben's aunts who's an avid vegetable grower told me adds nutrients to the soil--and today I saved the water from rehydrating some dried shiitakes.  Some say these mushrooms have special powers for longevity so I thought I'd try watering my plants with their "tea."  One can save greywater by showering with a 5-gallon pail and using it to bucket-flush the toilet or for watering outside.  I've also saved water from our basement de-humidifier and used it to wash clothes, a practice we can only take advantage of in the summer, of course, when the air down there is moist.  They predict that water will be the next natural resource over which we'll see global struggles if we aren't already.  Think critically about this precious resource and consider reusing your greywater.  If nothing else, maybe you'll see your water bill go down.

So speaking of water, I've actually been enjoying the rain over the last couple of days.  Not only is it bringing life to the garden, but it's giving a certain glow and brightness to the whole landscape.  I've never been much for dreary days, but I'm appreciating them more this season as I've savored the spring more altogether.  I feel particularly in touch this year and have enjoyed the gradual growth and development of all the spring ephemerals.  What a difference a year makes in the clouded head of a still-new mother.  Last year seemed like a blur.

With this spring growth, we're seeing fruit forming for the first time on our Black Tartarian cherry tree.  When we planted the tree, a wonderful house-warming gift from my parents, in 2006 we didn't know that it required a pollinator.  After some research I made this discovery and also learned that our friends parents, who live across the alley, had a tart cherry tree in their yard.  The question was, was it within pollinating distance?  We knew it could take 4-5 years to set fruit in the first place and wondered if it would take that long to find out if it was even getting pollinated.  Looks like its worked.  Now comes the job of keeping the birds (and apparently other animals, so I've heard) away from the fruit.  I'm planning to make some "ornaments" out of the shiny used dome lids from my canning cabinet to scare them away.  Stay tuned to find out if that works.

Yesterday I planted patio pots with annuals.  I didn't buy any last year, and really missed having them.  Maybe it's just the trip to the greenhouse to pick out flowers that I missed because it reminds me of going with my dad to do this every spring.  I have to attribute any knowledge I may have of flowers to what he shared with me on those trips.  I hope he thinks of me too when he purchases his plants each spring.  I went with a metal theme this year for the pots--perhaps in an attempt to add some feng shui to the backyard.  I had some old metal sap buckets my parents dug up at an antique store, but complimented them with some faux-buckets made by putting salvaged ductwork around terra cotta pots.  Once the plants fill out no one will ever know they're not actual pots.  So I decided to put these pots together while Vera was down for her afternoon nap.  Some of the pots were quite large and I didn't want to fill them completely with soil because they'd be too heavy.  I knew I had a huge bag of styrofoam peanuts up in the garage "attic," a spacious storage area in the rafters that only Ben had visited before.  I'd left all of that climbing and hefting to him.  This time I had to retrieve the supplies myself.  I got the ladder and climbed up.  Long story short I was nearly stuck up there.  I crawled all the way up into the rafters then couldn't figure out how to get down.  I had thoughts of the worst--hearing Vera on the garage monitor wake up crying of hunger or wetness and not being able to respond because I was stuck in the rafters.  I persevered and somehow got down, but not without some minor heart palpatations.  Note to self: carry my cell phone when I make future risky attempts like this.

This week I've also spent time crafting.  I FINALLY finished a pair of green knit socks I'd been working on for at least two years.  Like my first sock knitting instructor said, "the hardest part of knitting socks is completely the second one."  No kidding.  They are very plain so I think I tired of the project and put it aside.  Next time I'll incorporate a pattern or a cable to better hold my interest.  They're wool so now I'll have to wait till winter to wear them anyhow.

I also did some mending today.  Occasionally my fix-it pile gets backed up and I just have to focus one morning on chipping away at it.  Ben had a couple pairs of holey jeans on the pile so I went at them figuring he'd need them for the long-awaited dudes camping trip this weekend (this is the trip where they sample the homebrew that by this time has already been tasted.)  My grandma once gave me a quick and dirty hand-darning lesson to use on socks, but since then I've found the darning setting on my sewing machine comes in very handy.  It's actually quite fun and much neater than hand darning in the case of jeans.  And I'm glad to breathe just a little more life into some clothes, even if they're just for use in the yard and woods.

We enjoyed our first French breakfast radishes tonight on a salad.  These were small because I'm still thinning them, but a delicious and bright addition to our nightly salad.


Spring Inspiration

One of my homesteading goals is to develop my life skills.  This includes craft skills.  My friend, Karen, recently gave me a quick and dirty beading lesson during a playdate as we attempted to keep the kids (especially Vera who apparently LOVES jewelry) out of the bead organizer.  My goal is to use beads from old necklaces (or ones I find at thrift or antique stores...or the upcoming antique flea markets) and use them to string new necklaces.  Like I really need another hobby, but I think it will be fun.  And I'm always looking for more creative outlets.  Not to mention I can now repair my own broken necklaces instead of farming them out to Karen.  Especially since Vera likes to play in mommy's bracelet box and stretch things out till they bust (yeah, we won't be trying that as entertainment again!)  Here is my first necklace.  It was challenging to figure out what beads can go together, but I think it turned out alright.

We're enjoying the bounty of rhubarb coming from the garden right now.  Tonight, as the pork chops were finishing in the oven, I decided to whip up this cake.  I was going to make rhubarb muffins tomorrow, but thought I'd work with the oven now since it was already heated.  I love the sweet tartness of rhubarb and I think it has the most amazing scent as it's sliced. (As I'm sitting here blogging someone just crept into the kitchen to steal another piece...as if I wouldn't be able to tell.)

Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake
Serves 8-10
Adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess
This is an amazingly moist cake.  You can substitute regular cornmeal for the polenta, but I like the "crunch" the coarser meal adds.

1 lb. 2 oz. rhubarb, washed and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. plus 2 T. polenta
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. unsalted butter, soft
1 c. plus 2 T. plain yogurt
9-inch springform pan, greased and lined with parchment paper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put the sliced rhubarb into a medium bowl with 1/3 c. sugar and let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.  (Don't let the rhubarb stand for more than 30 min. in the sugar or it will make too much liquid.)  Mix the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and polenta.  With a fork, beat the eggs with the vanilla in a measuring cup or small bowl.  In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar.  Gradually add the eggs and vanilla, beating while you do so.  Add the flour-cornmeal mixture alternately with the yogurt.  Mix until just combined.  Fold in the rhubarb with its sugary juices.  Do not overmix.  Pour into the pan and bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let cool before serving with fresh whipped cream or ice cream.

Today I transplanted some kale into the newest raised bed in the front yard.  I've temporarily run out of hardware cloth to protect my seedlings so I used some cloches (French word for "bells") to keep the critters out.  Cloches are mainly used to create a mini-greenhouse environment when you want to harden off a seedling--they let in the light and sun, but keep out the wind and cold.  I found some inexpensive pieces from old lights fixtures at the ReStore so they look more like the old-fashioned French covers.  I also used some plastic gallon jugs that I'd cut off and tried last year (keeping them out of the garbage at work).  The glass cloches look nicer, of course, but whatever you have access to will do.  This week I'm planning to order the bulk mulch to cover my pathways in the backyard garden and re-mulch the front cottage garden, which hasn't been mulched in a couple of seasons.  There's been a good bit of erosion so we're overdue.  It's all coming together.  It's been a mad dash to get it all done so I can then relax.  The more I think about that statement, I wonder if it makes sense.


Leisure Time

I don't know how I've managed it, but I've been able to sew quite a bit lately.  Vera is always finding new and interesting things to play with in my basement craft corner (yarn, thread, ring tops from canning jars) that she can entertain herself while I sew.  Today I finished a sunsuit for her; she probably won't fit into it until next summer, but at the rate she's growing I can't afford to make her anything that will "just fit" now.  I used a vintage pattern I found at a flea market a couple years ago.  I don't know the year of the design, but handwritten at the top of the pattern is "1 1/2 yards at 50-cent." I can't remember when new fabric was that cheap, not to mention the pattern itself was only 35-cents.  Today one can spend anywhere from $8-17 on a new pattern.  I love using these relics along with vintage fabric.  For this project I chose a combination of fabric from my mom's stash and from my thrifting trips.  As I was sewing today I thought about my mom teaching me to sew.  It started with 4-H projects when I was in grade school/junior high.  After cutting out all the pieces for a garment, but before sewing any of them together, she'd make me finish every edge with a pseudo-serger stitch on her old Singer machine, which I found very user-unfriendly at the time.  This sewing detail was a true pain in the rear then and it certainly never got me a Grand Champion ribbon at the County Fair, but it did get the judges' attention and gave me a much greater appreciation for well-crafted clothing.  I think my mom is an amazing seamstress, especially when she can remotely help me troubleshoot on a project--like with this one when I was having trouble attaching the bias tape around the bib of the sunsuit.  Her e-mailed directions worked perfectly.  I may never be as good as her, but I hope to pass the sewing skills I do have on to Vera.


Using Leftovers

I love the challenge of using leftovers; it makes me feel like a real home economist.  It's the time of year I start panicking (not really) about cleaning out the freezers to make room for all the goodies we'll want to freeze from this season's garden.  My freezer inventory sheet is still proving to be useful, but we have a long way to go before adding the new stuff.  The goal of this week's menu plan was to use at least one thing from the freezer every night.  I managed to make enough empty space I had to freeze water-filled gallon jugs to add more thermal mass for efficient cooling.  On Tuesday I pulled a bag of risotto out of the freezer and used it that night for a veggie stir-fry dish with a coconut peanut sauce.  The same rice was used again the following night in pan-fried salmon cakes without Ben suspecting much.  Actually, when he did guess that I'd used the rice, he was excited at the variety that one bag of frozen rice could provide.  Because the texture of the rice changed after thawing, this was an ideal way to use it.  With a generous portion of the beautiful mixed greens now flowing freely from out garden, this was a complete meal with little preparation needed.

Salmon-Risotto Cakes
Makes 6 cakes

7 oz. canned or fresh/leftover salmon
1 c. frozen, thawed leftover rice or risotto
1/4 c. fresh, frozen, or dried bread crumbs
3/4 t. dried dill
salt and pepper to taste
Coconut or grapeseed oil for panfrying
Mixed salad greens

Flake and pick out any bones from the salmon.  Combine salmon, rice/risotto, bread crumbs, and dill.  Season to taste.  Shape into patties or press into a ring mold and remove ring.  Freeze about 30 min. to 1 hour before pan-frying.  Heat the oil in a large saute pan.  Add the salmon cakes and cook 3-5 min. on each side or until browned.  Blot on a paper towel before serving.  Toss the salad greens with your favorite vinaigrette and serve aside the salmon cakes.  Save some vinaigrette for the cakes, if you prefer.

The new fence, gate, and living awning were completed as of yesterday.  I can't say we did the job ourselves due to time constraints, but we hired a fine craftsman for the job.  I promise to post some pics when the weather clears up so I'm able to get the dirt, etc. cleared from the backyard.  There's still mulching to do and a little clean-up, but otherwise it's done.  My next project has already begun.  I still have two more raised beds to install in the front yard.  One under the front window over the mass of concrete where our blackberry bushes currently poke out, the other at the top of our front hill.  I have to move some perennials first, but plan to start this weekend, weather permitting.  Tonight after work I made a couple trips to The Brickyard to pick up some reclaimed Lannon stone from an old church.  It was a messy day to be out schlepping stones, but I didn't have much choice.  All of my outdoor projects have been time-crunched this year.  Between the backyard raised beds and the ones in front it's been a dash to get them installed by the time I need to get the seeds/seedlings in the ground.  The kale I plan to transplant into the front bed is growing by leaps and bounds in the greenhouse.  It will be happy to have a new home soon.


Taking One for the Team

I'm determined to get the max out of our garden this summer--use every ounce of produce whether it's fresh or preserved somehow.  The whole point of expanding my food growing space is to cut down on what we require from outside sources, especially non-local ones.  Last year I was a bit overwhelmed in the spring as I adjusted to being a new mom so some of the lettuces bolted before I could cut them and my radish crop amounted to nothing because I didn't take the time to thin--they were very densely seeded so most of them just ended up as spindly little of roots.  I did salvage some of the leaves to make an interesting radish leaf pesto, but otherwise they went to the compost bin.  This year I've been keeping up with thinning them out.  I've realized that sometimes the veggies have to take one for the team.  In past seasons, it's pained me to sacrifice even one little beet so that the others might flourish.  This year I'm hoping to savor the by-products of these vegetable sacrifices.  Last week I used the radish thinnings to start a tossed green salad.  It was a delightful slightly spicy treat.  Today I had to dig up a few garlic bulbs because of the intercepting new fence.  So I'll use the green garlic this week in place of what's left of our stored garlic from last fall.  We'll see what the next tasty casualty might be.

The spring garden is bursting with life.  We've had a few salads already and I feel that many more are just down pipe.  In fact, I decided not to harvest any tonight for dinner, which I fear may have been a big mistake.  It can take just one day without eating a green salad to get backed up with greens in the garden.

I've taken photos of the mustards (my favorite is the beautiful "Red Streaks" pictured here), mesclun mix, spinach, frisee--onions, and the pea shoots that are finally emerging from the front window box.  The remains of my low-budget holiday light display--some long ash tree branches I stuck in the windowboxes around which I wove white lights--have evolved into a pea trellis.  The living awning will be installed this week so we'll see if the peas can reach that high.  Since we moved our trellis away from diving distance of the windowbox, no squirrels have been able to dig up my seeds (knock on wood).  And the fence is underway!