...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 Break

The countdown has begun for our official summer vacation. We'll be with my extended family (14 people total!) in Myrtle Beach, SC in no time. We decided to make the 18-hour drive over the course of two days so I've been mentally and physically preparing for this journey for some time.  When we were kids my mom often made us a new outfit or two for a special summer vacation. I finished Vera's hot air balloon top a couple of weeks ago, but really wanted to make something for myself as well. I don't know that I was truly needing to finish it specifically for the trip, but it certainly gave me a deadline and therefore motivation to sew away. And what with this hot weather, it's been great to enjoy the coolness of the basement during afternoons this week.

I found this fabric at the thrift store over the winter. It's not often that I am able to pick up this much yardage secondhand. The design is funky--slightly tribal, slightly 80s, and totally drew me. I had the idea to make it into a long summer dress right away. The pattern was one of the rare new patterns I've picked up in the last several years, but purchased during the fabric store's regular $1 pattern days. So, once again, aside from my sweat equity, the materials cost me very little.

Can't believe the yardage I found!
I thought I'd finish this dress last night so I could move forward with my trip-planning today during the little one's nap time, but after getting as far as I could before the zipper installation last night, I decided to call it quits. I know my history with zippers and didn't want the night to end that way.  Boy, am I glad I made that choice. I returned to the project today with a clear head and after one frustrating attempt at putting in the zipper--and busting it (and the needle's tip) when my needle went off track--I decided it was time to channel my master seamstress mother. Last fall she sent me a handmade zipper installation guide. She basically went step by step on how to install a real zipper and put each tangible step into a three-ring folder and sent it to me. This was a lifesaver again today and I felt like my mom was doing some sort of "sewing Reiki" across the miles. I can't wait for her to see me wear my new dress (maybe on my birthday next week). I usually avoid stripes and plaids like the plague when sewing garments because I know the limits of my patience when it comes to lining things up at the seams. But I was set on using this fabric so I went for it. I was pretty happy with the result. It's not perfect, but I still think it's better than something store-bought. My first thought was that my mom will notice right away, but even if she does she'll likely be excited as usual that I've continued to find time to sew, especially for myself.

If only I could plan to fill this top out like the "model."
It was a tricky pattern at times.  Whew, glad it's over.
This week has also been about cleaning out the fridge.  I came up with broccoli, black beans, winter squash (that had been cellared and we finally cut into it this week), vegetable stock, and preserved lemons that I thought would make a good soup last night (it turned out fair.)  I had some broccoli stalk ends that would otherwise be super tough so I boiled them in some preserved lemon juice then turned them into broccoli basil pesto.  Once again, nothing goes to waste.

Broccoli Basil Pesto
Serves 3-4

I've been using this pesto in wraps, on bagels (with cream cheese, avocado, and sprouts), and will likely dip some raw veggies in it by week's end.

1 c. chopped broccoli florets (or leftover stems), cooked in preserved lemon juice (optional) or steamed
2 T. vegetable broth
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/4 c. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1 T. toasted pine nuts or almonds
1-2 T. grated Parmesan
Pinch salt and pepper

Put all ingredients into food processor and blend until smooth.  Adjust seasoning as needed.  Refrigerate or freeze in portions.

I'm hoping that everyone's finally getting a wee bit of rain this summer.  We've had slightly more balance between heat and wetness lately.  Enough to keep the rain barrels full, but I know there are many farmers outside of our region of the state who are struggling to make this season productive.  It breaks my heart.  I try to remain positive on the homefront at least.  Lack of rain has kept mosquitoes down and the insect pressure of our garden has been slightly less...although it's just in time for the rain to bring humidity to support powdery mildew among other diseases that may eventually do in my summer squash.  Hoping this season won't be a total wash.


Too Hot to Can?

Mixed berries and drupes for our first "Homestead Jam"
It's 104F out there and I've decided to make preserves. I said I wasn't going to make any jam this year because we still have such a backlog from last year's epic canning season. But since fruit is the only thing looking extremely promising this year (save for the zucchini), I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to have our very own homestead jam. Who knew that blackberries needed next to no water to thrive? We've been picking 2-3 cups per day for the last week. I could have easily made an exclusively blackberry jam, but decided to incorporate the few red currants, gooseberries, and cherries I still have floating around from those harvests. I'm trying my hand at an old-fashioned mixed berry preserve today, one which does not require added pectin to gel. I've substituted granulated xylitol for 3/4 of the sugar and will let it cook until it passes the gel test. I'm also making this batch to replenish my supply of gift preserves, which I usually process in 1/4-pint jars with single-use metal lids versus the reusable canning lids that I've switched to in the last couple of seasons. I'll make a few "giftable" jars and the rest for our own larder.

No shortage of these heavenly blackberries this year.
Skimming the foam off the jam, hoping to incorporate it into a beverage
a la M.F.K Fisher in Gastronomical Me
Assistant Blackberry Picker
This morning I made a return visit to Kohl's Corporate on the northwest side of the metro Milwaukee area to do a "Food Preservation 101" presentation. This hometown company continues to make some serious efforts towards sustainability, as far as corporations go.  Not only to they provide fresh, locally-sourced, healthy choices in their impressive food service venues, but they encourage employees to focus on health, eat locally, help with the company garden (from which the produce is donated to local food banks), and attend presentations in their Green Lecture Series. Seems like it would be a great company for which to work and I was honored to be asked back to make the same presentation I did a couple of years ago, but to a totally new audience.

After my presentation today we swung by the West Allis Farmers' Market; I believe this was our first visit there this season. I ran into a Master Gardener friend who regularly attends my cooking classes and of course we started discussing the weather.  She informed me that one of the farmers in attendance had just experienced his well running dry. One whole aisle of farmers, who are usually ramping up for peak produce season by this time, was absent. I wasn't even upset when, after I chose to buy a mixed bunch of lettuces from another grower, I got home to realize that they were all bolted.  These farmers are trying to sell whatever bits and pieces of vegetables they have managed to salvage from this drought.  It's heartbreaking.

As you can imagine with this ongoing lack of rain and intense heat, my garden is also dire need of care--though I can't begin to compare it to what our state's large producers are experiencing. Certain perennials in our front yard landscape have literally burned up, various successions of seeds have been unable to germinate and/or poke through the soil because of its crust, and I've now counted six different species of insects--some remaining unidentified--beating up on my zucchini and other squash plants. My only serious concern on the homestead (though I have countless concerns for the farmers in our region) is that in late August I'm hosting a preserves and pastries event for our church and am hoping the homestead looks presentable for garden dining. (Yeah, seems like a luxury to want that when so many folks' entire livelihoods depend on every bit of rain.) I'm already getting close to writing this garden season off, starting to think about next year (and incorporating more permaculture to work with climate challenges), and having visions of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Time to refocus and be in the moment.



Said I wasn't going to grow zukes this year...
It's the time of year when you should lock your doors, mailboxes, and cars if you don't already otherwise, as Barbara Kingsolver planted the idea in my head in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, you might find some prolific cucurbitae anonymously abandoned.  I started pulling baby zucchini last week and giving them away to friends and neighbors.  Just last weekend I harvested another 3 1/2 lbs. more.  I promised some friends that I'd post some zucchini recipes so they could all keep up with their own harvest.  Although these summer favorites can be bountiful, I don't see any reason they should ever go to waste.  One of the simplest ways to use/preserve them is to shred and freeze.  I have a favorite zucchini bread recipe that I love to bake in the winter so at this time of summer, our kitchen is often like the last scene from Fargo--as my husband likes to joke--when it's implied that Steve Buscemi's character has been sent through the wood chipper.  I'm jamming green, yellow, and two-tone summer squashes through the shoot of my food processor at a steady clip and coming up with a nice by-product. I freeze the amount of shredded zukes that the bread recipe calls for, remove the air bubbles from the freezer bag, label and store as much as I can.  We've also been making a favorite from last season, stuffed zucchini/summer squash (gluten-free crackers, bread, or even ground nuts can be subbed for the breadcrumbs.)  Another recipe was created last night as I was trying all afternoon to get a ton of work and prep. done for some classes this and next week.  The dinner hour hit me suddenly and I didn't feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen, especially not in front of a hot stove.

Tiger Stripe Zucchini

Green Gazpacho
Serves 4

Adapted from a recipe originally printed in the Outpost Exchange magazine.  I used our pickled green peppers, but fresh green peppers--when available--would also work.  It felt great to use a lot of ingredients from our garden right now.

Chilled Soup for a warm summer evening
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and quartered lengthwise
1 large zucchini, ends trimmed and quartered lengthwise (not necessary to peel)
1/2 c. pickled green peppers (or 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped)
6 leaves romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped
2 scallions, coarsely chopped
1/3 c. fresh cilantro leaves
Small piece dried hot pepper, or to taste
2 T. fresh lime juice
1 t. ground cumin
3 c. buttermilk or plain kefir, plus some water or vegetable broth as needed
1 t. coarse salt

Combine all ingredients and puree in batches in a blender.  Season to taste.  I garnished it with plain whole milk yogurt, a couple avocado slices, and a dab of basil pesto.

Other suggestions for using zucchini:

  • Thinly shave/slice raw onto a salad
  • Thinly slice and toss with mint leaves, a basic vinaigrette, and either feta or goat cheese for a simple salad
  • Use in a smoothie or juice with other green veggies
  • Turn them into a pickle relish
  • Stir-fry
  • Pizza topping
  • Use a spiral cutter to make zucchini "pasta" and toss with homemade tomato sauce or pesto
  • Serve raw zucchini sticks on a crudite platter.
  • GET CREATIVE and let me know what you invent!
I mentioned juicing the zucchini.  I think I've talked about my green juicing habits lately.  They continue 4-5 times per week and I'm in green juicing heaven right now with so much available from the garden.  It's been an excellent way to use lots of bits and pieces (parsley and cilantro stems) and slightly bolted veggies (spinach, lettuce) so they don't go to waste.  Feeling great and loving what all of these raw green foods have done for my complexion.  I scored a brand new, still in the shrink wrap copy of Cherie Calbom's Juicing for Health book for 50-cents at a recent rummage sale.  It has gobs of great recipes and info about the properties of every juiced vegetable--even some wild juicables.  I've really been geeking out on it and am also happy that my summer rummaging has paid off in these kinds of ways.  

At another recent rummage I found a wall shelf for Vera's room.  It was an item for which I'd been searching awhile.  I wanted her to have a place to hang her pajamas and a sweatshirt or two instead of just tossing them on the floor (we're trying to teach a bit more independence and responsibility right now.)  The over-the-door hanger currently in place is much too high for her to reach by herself.  She loves this new kid-friendly space and so do I.  We've not allowed toys or kid stuff to take over our house, but we have very purposefully created lots of little space just for her--the reading nook, her toy cabinet in the living room, a small table with chairs and the kitchen in her bedroom, and a special art corner in the basement.  It feels very natural and we all seem happy to co-habitate this way.

V's new shelf with hooks
This week is the third annual Power Down Week in Milwaukee.  We've participated in the past and this year isn't too much different though I must say I haven't taken the time to officially set any personal or household goals for observing this important event.  This summer is actually sort of one whole "power down" period, especially since we instituted our austerity plan post-kitchen remodel.  We've been staying a lot closer to home, not eating out as much while relishing all the locally grown foods in our yard and neighborhood, continuing to use as little energy as possible, biking whenever possible, and other conservative measures. I'm not trying to say that I there aren't ways that I can't improve on powering down around the homestead because we DO still have many big strides to make, but I'd like to think that we've chosen to power down for life.  I AM however trying to cook at least a couple of meals in the sun oven this week.  That remains to be seen, but the intention is strong.  

Ben and I did have a lovely powered down Saturday night.  Nearly everything in the house was off and we sat outside listening to some music on Public Radio, and caught up on stories from the week, totally unplugged other than the radio and some twinkle lights.  It was a pleasant, peaceful, bug-free evening and great to reconnect.  We had a chance to reflect on all the changes we've made around our place since we moved in a little over six years ago.  Although we sometimes feel like we've hired out a lot of the projects we wished we'd had time for--the bathroom(s) and kitchen mostly--it was especially nice for Ben to realize that he's done a lot more creative building projects than he gives himself credit for.  He's always wishing he had time for something in the vein of woodworking, but the truth is that he's been extremely handy and willing to take on plumbing, roofing, caulking, woodwork touching up, furniture refinishing, shelf building, raised bed building, and lots of other important projects even though some have seemed small.  I've never had to hire a handyman, and when we look at it that way, we have saved a lot by doing it ourselves.  One day life may allow us time to try bigger projects, maybe even together, but for now we must be content with what we've managed to design and build ourselves.

A fairly powered-down evening with my husband


Beating the Heat

Robin's nest atop our front awning
It's darn hot out there.  Curious things are happening with this drought.  My daughter seems to be coming down with a cold (what!?! in summer?!?) maybe because of all the time we've spent cooped up inside in the forced air.  And the insect pressure on my garden is more intense than ever.  Knock on wood, I've had very few pest issues in the six seasons we've grown vegetables.  I thought maybe it was that they just needed a few years to find the place, but have since learned that with this lack of normal rainfall the plants are severely stressed and therefore more susceptible to pests.  My cole crops (broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi) are being defoliated by flea beetles and I just realized this morning that even though my zucchini and pattypan squash are going gangbusters right now, the honeybees are sharing the flowers with a ton of cucumber beetles.  (It makes me itch just to think about them while I type.)  So far I have only tried the organic method called "squishing."

On a more positive note, the protective tulle I've put around my gooseberry plant has mostly helped keep the critters out though I discovered a small hole in this netting the other day when I saw a chipmunk fleeing with full cheeks.  I picked as many gooseberries as I could and found that they were very close to being ripe.  I'll be sure I prepare them to somehow balance the sourness via a natural sweetener.  Today I picked the first blackberry from our front yard bushes, which are loaded with fruit and backed by my complete confidence that the critters won't have any interest in them.  The golden raspberries are also coming along nicely.  As I predicted in late spring, it will be a good fruit year (minus the cherry thievery) at the homestead.

Pixwell Gooseberries!
We've been keeping ourselves cool lately by hanging out at a couple county parks wading pools, splashing in our own tiny inflatable backyard pool, eating lots of fruits with high water contents (most not locally grown yet, but worth seeking out), and spending time in the cool basement working on crafts and sewing projects.  On our nation's birthday yesterday, a day typically spent lounging or playing outdoors, we took cover from the extreme heat immediately after the neighborhood parade.  Between naps and family movie night (I recommend the movie "Toast" about food writer/chef Nigel Slater's interesting childhood relationship with food) V and I managed to squeeze a simple craft into the day.  I've been trying to engage her in at least one craft per week; this idea came from the Cool Crafts for Creative Kids.

Glitter Galaxy

In my opinion, this is one of the few good uses for corn syrup besides making homemade bubbles.  I found the jar/lid for 45-cents at American Science and Surplus where they have them in all shapes and sizes.  The glitter and metallic confetti I picked up nearly for free at a rummage.  This project cost close to nothing, but provides "hours" of fun--even my husband was enthralled by the final product. 

Jar with lid (we used a plastic jar since V's just 3, but you could use a glass jar for older kids)
Light corn syrup
Glitter, metallic confetti, aluminum foil
Optional: plastic space alien or other far out objects (we used a button that looked similar to a UFO)
Markers and stickers to decorate the outside of the jar, is you wish
Super glue (especially for little ones who may be handling the jar and curious to open it)

Using warm water and soap, clean and remove any labels from your jar then dry it.  Fill jar 2/3 with corn syrup.  Add a few tablespoons of glitter and metallic confetti.  If you do not have glitter and confetti, cut the aluminum foil into tiny bits.  Roll the bits into balls to create planets.  If you have a plastic alien or any other spacey objects, add it to the jar.  Fill the jar to the top with water.  Put some super glue around the lid then screw it on tight!  Shake up the jar for a magical meteor shower!

Yesterday also allowed me some time to work on a sewing project or two.  I'm trying to make both Vera and myself a couple of summer outfits before our family vacation to SC at the end of this month.  I had this thrifted scarf in my fabric stash for the longest time and finally decided to turn it into a very cool (for HOT weather) top for her.  I worked with the fabric's striped border to make the straps and the "band" around the shirt's top.

I fell in love with the bold colors of this thrifted scarf
How fun are these hot air balloons!
Sun top, formally a scarf
I've also been entertaining myself by taking a couple of classes through the Milwaukee Rec. Department (versus teaching others all the time.)  I hadn't tried my hand at basket weaving since the annual spring Pioneer Days festival at my grade school 25+ years ago.  We used packing strips to weave a small basket, which I may use as a garden harvesting basket.  At first I was all thumbs then found my rhythm and realized I quite enjoyed the project.  I have a friend who's taken a similar class in the area and we've planned a craft day soon where we hope to use some recycled materials to make more baskets.  Look out now, I'm going to weave every long rigid piece of scrap I find into a useful vessel!  Just what I need is another hobby.

My first basket.  Very therapeutic!
Wild berry season is early this year as are most seasonal foods around these parts.  I more or less missed mulberry season--especially because I found that the usual tree from which I harvest in the park was whacked down recently.  But I've been out a couple of times to pick wild black raspberries and was able to gather enough to supplement my salvaged cherry crop to make a dessert for our Independence Day celebration.  You could probably use any kind of berry in this dish, but cherries and raspberries seem to go especially well with chocolate.

Cherry and Wild Black Raspberry Revel Bars--Gluten-Free
Makes at least 1 dozen

These could certainly be eaten by themselves, but I went a bit overboard in providing the dessert at a potluck on July 3rd.  Served them with home-canned Brandied Peaches and Sassy Cow Creamery's Pear Ginger and Salted Caramel ice cream flavors available at our local natural foods co-op.

1 c. butter, softened, divided (I used half butter, half coconut oil)
2 1/2 c. packed brown sugar, divided
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. xanthan gum
1/4 t. salt
4 eggs, divided
1 1/2 t. vanilla, divided
2 1/2 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour, divided
1 1/2 c. rolled oats
6 oz. semi-sweet mini gluten-free chocolate chips (I prefer Enjoy Life brand)
2 c. combination of fresh sweet cherries, pitted and raspberries
Adding chocolate almost isn't necessary, but certainly welcome!
1/2 c. slivered toasted almonds or pumpkin seeds, optional

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line 13x9x2-inch baking pan with foil or parchment; set aside.  In mixing bowl, beat 1/2 c. butter on medium to high 30 seconds.  Add 1 c. brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, xanthan gum, salt.  Beat until combined, occasionally scraping bowl.  Beat in 1 egg and 1/2 t. vanilla.  Beat or stir in 1 1/4 c. flour.  Stir in oats; set aside.

For filling, in saucepan stir remaining 1 1/2 c. brown sugar and 1/2 c. butter over medium heat until combined; cool slightly.  Stir in remaining 3 eggs and 1 t. vanilla; lightly beat with wooden spoon.  Stir in remaining 1 1/4 c. flour and the chocolate chips.

Set aside 3/4 c. oat mixture; press remaining into pan.  Spread filling, top with cherries and raspberries, dot with reserved oat mixture, and sprinkle nuts.  Bake 25 min., until top is light brown and filling is moist.  Cool on rack 1 hour.  Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.  Lift from pan; cut with serrated knife.  Store, covered at room temp.