...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.


Summer is Breezing By

Every year Independence Day creeps up on me so quickly!  Maybe it's that I have a bunch of friends and family with birthdays all clustered together in the first few days of the month and I'm never prepared with cards and wishes for them all.  As kids, my mom used to taunt us with the idea that the 4th of July meant was summer was half over.  Ahhhhh!

"Art in the Park"
I certainly don't feel that way now, in fact the summer fun has just begun.  We're trying to strike a balance between scheduled and unscheduled time, being around the house and yard and being out around town and in nature.  This summer our plan to not plan has finally worked out; the last three Sundays anyway, we've taken spontaneous morning bike rides, enjoyed family naps, and spent the afternoon reading outside.  Now that's what I call summer!  Our unplanning plan was prompted in part by the austerity program we instituted after our kitchen remodel.  It's been totally fun to discover all the summer events Milwaukee has to offer for free, if not pennies.  Ben and I had a long-awaited date night last week--dinner and a movie--for $30.  And for kids!  Although we've paid to attend a small handful of educational classes at the zoo, local nature centerpublic museum, and area dance studio there are also an overwhelming number of free activities at the Milwaukee public libraries, and other local libraries, county park wading pools, and the performing arts center just to graze the surface.  Though I grew up with the luxury of a teacher for a mom who had summers off, it's recently been brought to my attention that summer scheduling for working parents is a huge challenge.  I'm sure we'll find that out eventually.  And with all of these structured activities, let us also remember how important unscheduled time is for kids to learn at their own pace, read whatever books they choose, explore nature, and just "be kids."  Like I said, we're trying to find a balance and so far it feels like we've had some success.

Learning early how to identify and pick wild edibles.
On that note, lately I've been foraging for wild black raspberries and mixing up simple desserts of fruit crisps or fresh cut up fruit with local maple syrup-sweetened plain yogurt.  I'm still trying my darndest to pare down the freezer and pantry and haven't made any new batches of jam thus far.  Probably just in time for this season's blackberry harvest, I pulled a bag of plump frozen homegrown berries out of the freezer to make this bread.

Sweet Cherries, Strawberries, our Red Currants and Rhubarb to be made
into a simple fruit crisp with whipped cream
Alabama Blackberry Bread (Gluten-Free)
Makes 2 loaves

This recipe originally called for blueberries.  I'm not sure if substituting a different berry takes away from it being "Alabama" in style.  You could sub. strawberries, raspberries, or any wild berries if you choose.  My husband is my best critic and he really enjoyed this.  I love all the warm spices in it.  

3 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour (I use Bob's Red Mill)
Gluten-Free Blackberry Bread
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. xanthan gum
2 T. ground cinnamon
2 c. granulated xylitol (or sugar)
1 t. ground cloves
1 t.  ground nutmeg
3 eggs, well beaten
1 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 pints berries
2 t. lemon extract
1 c. chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease 2 9-inch loaf pans.  Mix 1/4 c. xylitol/sugar and half cinnamon and set aside.  Sprinkle pan and top of bread with this mixture.  Place flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, xanthan gum, xylitol/sugar, cloves, nutmeg, and remaining cinnamon in large bowl.  Make well in center of dry ingredients.  Add eggs, oil, and lemon extract.  Stir until dry ingredients are moistened.  Stir in berries and nuts.  Divide batter between two loaf pans.  Bake 1 hour or until skewer inserted in center comes out clean.  To remove loaves from pans without losing sweet topping, try putting a sheet of parchment paper half the width of the pan into the greased bread pans, up and over the edges of the pan then pour in the batter.  This will give you a handy way to lift the bread right out of the pan.  Let cool before cutting.  Keep refrigerated.

Here's to keeping cool, calm, and unscheduled this summer!



Taking a little breather this week and foregoing a post.  Nothing too Earth-shattering has happened.  Long overdue date night and a free sitter.  Taking it all in.  I'll return next week. Thanks for reading!


What's Become of Our Cherries

The "Before" photo. (That jinxed it!)
I've called it a crime scene, it also reminded me of a page out of Orwell's Animal Farm, and it just keeps getting more interesting.  The word is out about the fruit-growing operations on our urban plot.  No, it's more like a newsfeed reaching the entire nocturne underground.  Bottom line is that the city critters have found our food and they don't seem to be leaving anytime soon.  It began with me admiring our close-to-ripe sweet Black Gold cherries on Friday night.  They'd just begun to blush (though according to this link they'd have gotten much more red) and get pecked and nibbled by various varmints.  I wasn't quite to the point of not sleeping at night, but going out and seeing the tree minus a few more cherries every day brought me slight anxiety.  All those worries were put to an end somewhere between Friday night and Saturday morning.  I was sipping coffee in the dining room Sat. AM when I caught a glimpse out the window of what appeared to be the top of the tree snapped off.  I dashed outside to find that, in fact, the top four feet or so were broken off and limbs, cherries, and leaves were everywhere in the garden and yard.  This along with my Egyptian Walking Onions lying on the ground, looking like they'd gone through a green bean frenching machine made the yard look like an opening scene from "Law & Order."  I salvaged what cherries I could from the injured tree then gave in and just picked the rest, much to the chagrin of the five different bird species and climbing rodents waiting patiently above and below for me to scram.  Despite being harvested a bit early, the cherries had decent flavor.  And I managed to collect about 3 lbs. even after the tree had been ravaged.  I pulled out my shiny new cherry pitter and made a quick fruit salad with a couple of handfuls of this homegrown fruit.  The rest I will save for a composed dessert.

Not only did we lose some fruit, but some great shade.
The "After" photo--Victim of the crime...
Using my new pitter.  Best impulse buy ever!
So back to the varmint infestation...our initial guess was that a fat, hungry raccoon shimmied up the tree to eat (though the way those critters climb, you'd think it would have been better able to judge its limit regarding weight versus branch fragility.)  I was watering some pots out front the following evening and met a possum nearly head on scittering out from between our house and our neighbors'.  Could have also been large and desperate enough to go for the tree fruits.  It continued Monday morning.  I was two inches from heading out back to hang laundry when "Napoleon" the head raccoon had his hairy snout in the glass louvers at the screen door sniffing around as if to say "hey, you got anything else to eat?"  I shooed him away, shouting a few insults at him.  But last night after returning from a concert in the park and putting V to bed, I saw not only the mama/daddy 'coon, but four little ones all sniffing around the garden and yard.  I made some noise and they scampered out of the spinach, peas, and basil towards a hole in the lattice under our neighbors' deck.  My chivalrous husband proceeded to grab an old rake handle from the garage (to protect himself, of course) and temporarily board them up under the deck.  ("Ben the mighty raccoon slayer!")  When he told me he had to poke one of them in the face to fend it off (yes, it growled at him), I instinctively softened and said "Aw, it wasn't one of the babies was it?"  As if it should matter at that point (after all, I am a nature lover.)  Hopefully the saga won't continue though I have a handful of friends cheering for the wild animals because they apparently find "The Raccoon Chronicles" quite entertaining.  It wouldn't be the first time in my life that others have gotten a laugh at my expense.  I'm trying to remain positive and find a teachable moment amid the gnawing and plundering--"See Vera, the raccoons like to eat spinach!"

I guess I will just have to settle for eating weeds and bolted,otherwise compostable garden produce if I don't get any of the good stuff this season.  I freed my bush bean bed of its prolific purslane on Sunday and made this simple Turkish Purslane Salad to serve alongside grilled fish and fresh radishes.  One of my strategies for using leftovers lately has been to throw them into lightly grilled [gluten-free] wraps.  This vegetable salad was incorporated last night into a salmon salad wrap with fresh beet greens.

Purslane and Hothouse Cucumber Salad
Baby Bok Choy from the farmers' market--seasoned and ready to grill
How to eat radishes:  Dip in butter, Dip in salt, Eat
I also harvested all the bolted brassicas--mainly radish greens and mustards--for pickling...and my preservation goal for the season was born!  Even if it means making lots of little batches of refrigerator pickles, I'm determined to preserve extra or bolted vegetables from our garden.  Stuff that would otherwise just be composted will become a condiment, side dish, etc...in an effort to squeeze every last bit of food out of our space.

Pickled Radish Greens (or other spicy greens)
Makes about 2 qts.

Pickled Brassica Greens
I intend to use these to give veggie stir-fry, salads, or burgers a little lift.  Get creative and try fermenting or even using them to make a salad dressing.  Since they are just refrigerator pickles, the acidity level isn't as important as with shelf-stable canned products so use whatever vinegar you wish.  I tried a combo of rice wine vinegar/coconut vinegar.  You could also try white balsamic or white wine vinegar.  

1 huge mixing bowl (or plastic grocery bag) full of bolted greens
2 c. water
4 t. granulated xylitol (or sugar)
4 t. sea salt
8 t. rice wine vinegar
4 dried hot chilies, snipped into pieces (with seeds)

Wash and trim greens very well and spin dry.  Coarsely chop any large leaves, put into small bowl with hot chilies.  In saucepan, measure remaining ingredients and heat over high until xylitol/sugar and salt are dissolved.  Pour over greens and toss to coat.  Pack into clean quart jars and press down with tamping tool or mallet.  Pour remaining liquid from bowl over greens.  Let cool slightly.  Cap, label, date, and refrigerate.  Should last for a few months in the refrigerator.

Two quarts were packed down from this HUGE bowl
In using all we've got from the garden, I'm also aiding the neighbors in working through their backlog of spring lettuce.  A gorgeous head of their Galisse went into a version of this Chilled Lettuce Soup this past steamy Monday night (topped with a little fried bacon end pieces, anything is delicious!)

Chilled Lettuce and Spring Onion Soup (w/ Bacon!)
Every girl should have one of these!
We've gone over the lowlights of the week (the critters) so I must share the highlight.  I gave my first sewing lesson on Monday.  An acquaintance who had attended one of my cooking demonstrations and shares a mutual friend contacted me about bartering for a lesson.  I'm always looking for affordable babysitting options so I took her up on this idea with that trade in mind.  She had done a bit of mending before so was versed in the basic workings of a sewing machine.  We jumped right into fabric and pattern basics.  We cut out a pattern for a smock/apron from one of my vintage patterns.  It's a pattern I've had in my personal queue for years so this may prompt me to make one for myself as well.  I had a great time sharing my love of sewing with her and was channeling my talented ma the whole time.  (Perhaps this will eventually lead to a little side business.  I should sniff out the neighborhood 4-Hers and make some contacts.)  Can't wait till the next lesson with her!  And can't wait to take her up on babysitting to give myself a break.

Minted Strawberry Mango "compote" for our
Sunday pancakes
Yesterday found V and I at our CSA Farm for the first time this season picking sun-warmed strawberries.  A friend and fellow mom had her boys in tow in the field; I will never tire of the vision of these young, healthy kiddos plucking fresh ruby-colored fruits and enjoying them right in the field, juice dripping down their chins...and wonder if any of the berries will make it home outside of their bellies.  Looking forward to shopping at our neighborhood farmers' market starting this weekend and putting together some sort of strawberry/cherry dessert to savor the fruits (whether by default or on purpose) of early summer.


Back to Baking Bread!

Food Processor Bread Cookbook
Dare I say I'm back in the habit of baking bread?  This was a goal I had planned for the fall when V's in preschool in the AMs, but after sniffing out a treasure at a recent library used book sale I was motivated to dive in sooner.  I don't expect to ever be as talented a bread baker as my fellow blogger over at rcakewalk, but I can at least get most of the way to homemade bread, though I would never call it artisan.  Those of you who know me or have taken some of my cooking classes know how much I adore my food processor.  I use it every day, sometimes 4-5 times/day.  Not because I don't enjoy slicing and dicing and shredding and blending and chopping and emulsifying, and all the other wondrous things this small appliance can do, but because most of my days with an active little one do not allow me to do every last thing by hand in the kitchen.  If I want to make food from scratch, this is my current avenue.  And by the way, there are many highly respectable cooks/chefs out there who also advocate incorporating the "Cuisi" now and then so I shouldn't act like I'm committing a culinary sin.  Never said I was a purist.

V's "Flower Bread" from last week's batch of Herb Dough
My mini herb loaf
I'm on my second batch of homemade "food processor" bread in a week.  First I tried a basic Herbed Loaf, with mild success, though I wish it had been slightly less dense.  Yesterday I made Cottage Cheese Dill Bread with some cottage cheese sitting around in our fridge quietly reminding me of its expiration date and the mother lode of fresh dill I acquired last week.  To backtrack a bit, a generous patron of the restaurant at which I work has been bringing in surplus herbs and salad mix from his garden.  We have kindly accepted all of the dill we can possibly use and preserve within a reasonable amount of time so when he showed up with another humongous shopping bag full last week I was asked--make that begged--to take some home.  As you've learned, I don't like seeing food go to waste so I was determined to salvage every last bit of this gorgeous harvest.  First I made a batch of Dill Pesto with the beautiful fronds.  Then I took the remaining leaves and all the juicy stems and put them through my juicer to come up with a couple cups of concentrated dill "juice."  (And nearly wrecked my juicer in the process...whew!)  I cleaned the fibrous portion of the dill out of my juicer, dehydrated and ground it into dry dill weed.  I froze the juice in ice cube trays to use in either a soup that lends itself to this flavor (i.e. beet borscht) or as a stand-in for part of the water required in a loaf of homemade bread.  Back to my Cottage Cheese Dill Bread.  I used a cube of dill juice topped off with warm water to bloom my yeast then added some of the home-dried dill weed in the dough as well.  The remainder of the dill scraps went into my compost so I consider that "nothing wasted."

The remains are ready for the juicer
Dill Pesto 
Mmmm, cube of frozen dill juice
Eating down the fridge/freezer/pantry continues and remains a fun challenge for me.  You've heard how much I love cleaning the fridge, but shining up the inside and enjoying all the space is extra thrilling.  (Though I'm beginning to wonder if I'll soon need to refrigerate some jugs of water for thermal mass.) I'm seeing this as a final push to get winter-storage veggies into our bellies before our neighborhood farmers' market starts next weekend.  One recent meal that's has arisen from our pare-down project is Curly Endive Mash, which utilized a huge head of Curly Endive remaining from a recent Entree Salad class I taught.  Leftovers from this combo made a surprisingly delicious quesadilla filling.  (Quesadillas have been my go-to way of using odd and ends lately.)

Curly Endive Mash
Cottage Cheese Dill Bread, not bad!
Also decided--via my new idol Tamar Adler--that it would be a brilliant idea to keep a jar of oil-preserved bacon in my fridge at all times.  In her book, she discusses extending the life and accessibility of fresh fish and meats by oil packing them.  I always want to use bacon as a "flavoring" in recipes, but usually only keep mine in the freezer and don't often plan ahead to pull out a partial package.  I found an affordable pack of preservative-free, uncured bacon end pieces at the store recently and packed it into a pint jar with lots of yummy extra-virgin olive oil.  So not only can I grab small pieces of bacon to chop into a dish, but I have bacon-infused oil to use for sautéing veggies, cooking eggs, or whatever needs bacon essence (and what doesn't!)

Sweet Corn, Kohlrabi, and Bacon
Serves 4-6

I adapted this recipe from one in Sunday Suppers at Lucques by the talented Suzanne Goin who I was lucky enough to meet one year at a James Beard Dinner in town.  I used the kohlrabi "pesto" I prepared pre-camping in place of green cabbage.  The corn was quick frozen from last year's farmers' market and held up beautiful in the freezer, I just drained it a bit before adding.  This was great the second day as well, pumped up with some basic cooked white beans.

Bacon Makes Everything Better!
5 oz. smoked bacon, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 T. unsalted butter
1 c. thinly sliced spring onions, plus more sliced diagonally for garnish
3-4 stalks asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
2 t. fresh thyme leaves, chopped (or 1 t. dried thyme)
2 c. fresh/frozen corn kernels
1 c. kohlrabi pesto (or 1/2 small green cabbage, about 1 lb., sliced thinly lengthwise)
2 T. chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat large sauté pan over medium heat for 1 min.  Add bacon and cook about 5 min., stirring often, until tender, and lightly crisped.  Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper-towel-lined plate, leaving fat in pan.  Swirl in butter; when it foams, add spring onions, asparagus (if using), thyme, 1/2 t. salt, pinch of pepper.  Saute over medium heat, about 3 min., then add corn, and continue cooking another 3 min., stirring occasionally.  Season with 1/2 t. salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Add kohlrabi pesto/cabbage, and cook 2 min., stirring occasionally, until cabbage just wilts.  Taste for seasoning; toss in chopped parsley and crisp bacon.

I popped over to the Bay View Garden and Yard Society's annual plant sale on Saturday to pick up a couple more herb plants for the garden.  Ran into a friend and former CSA worker share who is also an avid gardener.  After a long-overdue chat I realized that just because my front yard is all perennial flowers doesn't mean it's zero-maintenance.  In fact, after this epiphany and gazing adoringly at another former CSA worker share's perennial bed Saturday evening, I looked at my garden with new eyes.  I had every intention of splitting and sharing lots of these perennials that were choking others out.  After transplanting a handful to pass along I went straight for the throat and just ruthlessly ripped stuff out of the ground.  After an hour or so, the garden and I let out a collective sigh of relief.  I did the same in the backyard around my edibles to re-establish pathways and generally give each plant it's personal space.  I look forward to seeing how this effort plays out later in the season, but I can only imagine there will be benefits both physically and aesthetically.

So the garden's been maintained, all my fruits and veggies are in (including the lovely tomato starts from a neighborhood friend who saved me after my poorly germinated tomatoes were then terminated tomatoes by one day of neglect), and other outdoor maintenance is done.  Time to sit in my lounge chair and dig into some summer reading, right.  That's the plan.

Beating the midday heat in our teepee with a basket of books