Kitchen Garden

Rainy Morning

Work Bench
Work Bench

LAKE MACBRIDE— The forecast was rain and raining it is. The debate was whether to don my wax jacket and rubberized boots and venture out to clear last year’s tomato plot in the garden. It was not really a debate, but an internal dialogue balancing the need to get the garden ready for planting and the common sense notion that we should be in out of the rain. Not sure which side will dominate, but I’m leaning toward going outside. Actually I did go outside and explored the garden. It was showering small pellets of ice, not big enough to be hail, but not snow either. After checking yesterday’s work and the tomato patch, I headed back to the house.

Watering Station
Watering Station

I’m hauling the trays of seedlings to the garage, one at a time to water them. We use our bedroom window for exposure to sunlight, and am watering the trays from the bottom.  The soil has been continually moist, and the seedlings are growing. The idea seems to be working.

There is always work to support the garden, rain or no, although the continued cold and rainy weather feels like another setback. One feels this year’s garden is either going to be the greatest one ever, or a complete disaster, as long as the weather continues the way it has been.

Kitchen Garden

Garden Work

Three Rows Planted Today
Three Rows Planted Today

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today was the first real work session in the garden and I cleaned up two of the plots, built my burn pile, evened out the ground near where the backhoe dug to fix the waterline leak last fall, and planted Cherry Belle Radishes, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach and Purple Top White Globe turnips. The arugula and lettuce seeds have sprouted and survived the gully washer of a rain a few days ago. There are chives ready to cut, and the garlic patch is growing well. Three types of bulb flowers are growing, and after they flower, will be transplanted somewhere else. That is, except for the daylilies, which will be dug and transplanted as soon as I get around to it: nothing can kill those things.

A neighbor messaged me on Facebook, and a group of us is planning to go in on a rototiller rental. I usually dig by hand, but am okay with community projects like this. Partly, it means three plots have to be turned by spade to get ready for the rototiller in two weeks.

Last week, an experienced gardener said we had missed the opportunity for spring turnips, but I don’t know. I planted a row today, and will likely do another in a week or so. She said if one misses spring turnips, the date is July 25 for turnip planting. I’ll reserve some seeds for then and attempt a double crop.

It feels good to work in the sun and soil in the morning.


Earth Day 2013

1970 Earth Day Button
1970 Earth Day Button

LAKE MACBRIDE— There is little new to say this Earth Day. It’s not that I’m down about it, but most everything has been said before.

What started in high school as a way to participate in a national environmental movement by selling green and black buttons leading up to April 22 has become institutionalized in a way that takes the punch out of things.

Government and corporations have Earth Day activities, and not as many of them this year compared to last. It is a sign that corporate reputation management is at play more so than the grassroots efforts of men and women who want to see our government act on the Keystone XL pipeline, reduce the use of hydrocarbon and nuclear fuels, and preserve our air, land, water and biodiversity.

Earthrise 1968
Earthrise 1968

There are a lot of things individuals can do to reduce, reuse and recycle, and many people do them year around. What is lacking today is the political will to reduce CO2, methane, mercury, and other emissions. Our culture is driven by corporations more than government, and the business models upon which they operate continue to consider the atmosphere the same way we do an open sewer. That has to change if human society is to survive. It’s not just me saying that.

It has been a long struggle to get environmental issues to have parity with war and peace, economic progress, social justice, and man’s inhumanity to man. Environmental issues are not at parity yet, but should be.

What we know today is that the time for individual efforts is past. Only by joining together with like-minded colleagues will change be possible, and there is no agreement on what change is desirable, nor a path to determining how to proceed.

For a while, we must stop talking, stop thinking… and consider where our lives on the planet place us. Earth Day or no, many will reduce, reuse and recycle as these behaviors have become part of our daily habits. It is not enough.

On Earth Day 2013, I plan to dig in our garden, and let the work produce a sweat as I plant spinach, radishes and turnips. A brief retreat from talking and thinking, appreciating the irony that it was agriculture that started the release of greenhouse gases that led us to today.

What is the greater good when it comes to the environment? I don’t know, but more than seven billion others on the blue green planet have a stake in an answer. It’s time to renew our efforts to find one.

Kitchen Garden

Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice
Red Beans and Rice

LAKE MACBRIDE— Welcome new readers of On Our Own: Sustainability in a Turbulent World. Since I opened the site up to search engines, people from all around the U.S. have been taking a look and liking and following my posts. I sincerely appreciate the interest, as it inspires me to do a better job when I post here. Believe it or not, I spend time crafting the prose to develop my own voice from a perspective grounded in rural Iowa. One would think there would be fewer typos with all of that so-called writing.

By far, the most immediately positive post was my recipe for Buttermilk Biscuits. Recipes are a solution to problems in life, in this case, how to make a buttermilk biscuit that was light, crunchy and split into layers, and didn’t require the purchase of a quart of buttermilk at a time. If I knew recipes would be so popular, I would have posted more of them. Knowing how to do something, cooking included, is a step along a path of sustainability, so going forward, I’ll post recipes that solve problems in the kitchen from time to time.

Sometimes recipes are a conundrum. Red beans and rice is one of those. The dish is different things to different people, and mine is partly a remembrance of many Saturdays in a motel in Thomasville, Georgia, where I discovered the food network, and Emeril Lagasse’s version of Louisiana cooking. He taught me about the trinity— onion, bell pepper and celery— and my version showcases this basic ingredient. My red beans and rice is also about Midwest semi-vegetarian cooking, and it has become a way of weekend cooking to make extra portions for weekday luncheons. It goes like this:

Heat a dutch oven over medium high heat for a couple of minutes.
Add two to three tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, enough to generously coat the bottom of the pan.
Add crushed red pepper flakes to taste, about a teaspoon for starters, and cook them a minute or so.
Add one yellow onion, one bell pepper and two stalks of celery, medium dice, and sauté for a minute or so.
Season with salt, garlic powder, a prepared dry seasoning with hot peppers in it, and add three bay leaves. Add a few splashes of Louisiana-style hot sauce if available.
Continue cooking until the vegetables are soft.
Squeeze in the juice of a lime and stir.
Add one pint canned, diced tomatoes (fresh if you have them), one cup brown rice, one 15 ounce can prepared red beans (drained and washed), and a pint of home made soup stock. Add several sprigs of fresh thyme.
Stir, bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to just above a simmer. Cook until the moisture is absorbed and the rice is done.
In a separate frying pan, brown eight ounces of seitan in a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil and cook with thinly sliced spring onions. Set aside.
When the Dutch oven mixture is finished, and all the moisture is gone, re-season as appropriate. Add the seitan mixture and stir gently.
Serves five or six as a main course, more as a side dish.

Thanks again for reading my posts. I hope you will check back often.

Work Life

Plasma Sales and Politics

LAKE MACBRIDE— The Cumulus radio station in Cedar Rapids was advertising how a person could earn up to $340 per month selling their plasma. It’s enough money that it was worth a look to see if plasma sales could fit into our bottom line. It sounds kind of grim, but people do it all the time.

Plasma is the pale, yellow liquid portion of blood that helps our bodies control bleeding and infection. When one donates plasma, our blood is removed and the plasma separated before blood is returned to our body. We generate more plasma within a couple of days so twice a week donations are usually possible.

Donating takes about an hour and plasma collection centers make it easy with a straight forward, step-by-step process. Importantly, they explain how payment is loaded on a debit card. It is literally using one’s body as an ATM.

Several self-employed and low-wage earners in my circle use plasma sales to supplement monthly income. Got a toothache? Better schedule some sessions at the plasma center to get dollars to pay the dentist. One suspects residents of our nearby college town use the cash for cigarettes, sugary drinks and beer, but in any case, plasma sales can be a reliable and steady source of income if one meets the requirements for donating.

The money could be put to good use. For example, it could be used for political donations. That way, when a political telemarketer called, I would know my approximate annual budget, and be able to say, “Yes. I’ll donate that $100, which will take me four plasma sessions.” Politics would literally be based on blood money then.

We could go a step further and say that all financial contributions to politicians had to originate in plasma sales. There would be a natural limit to how much a person could donate, and a restriction could be placed on corporations that said something like, corporations can make political contributions, but such contributions must be paid via the plasma of shareholders, imposing a natural limit to money spent by corporations during political campaigns. I bet corporations would exercise their free speech differently under such a rule.

If my modest proposal about political contributions through plasma sales seems a bit edgy, I am pretty sure it would work. Importantly, it would set a human limit on political contributions. Having skin in the game would take on a whole new meaning. Most Americans are asleep at the wheel of politics, and would not contribute, so there is little danger of a glut of plasma on the market.

If times get tough, I’ll re-visit adding a plasma sales income line to our household operating budget. For now, I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.

Environment Social Commentary

Pelicans and Cranes

Crane at Mehaffey Bridge
Crane at Mehaffey Bridge

LAKE MACBRIDE— The pelican migration is underway, and flocks of the white and black birds fly lazily— above our lakes and river— back and forth in a pattern I recognize, but can’t adequately describe. Pelicans appear here twice a year. I stopped during a trip to North Liberty to watch them fly near the construction site for Mehaffey Bridge.

I am leading a new life with my beater of a car. The radio has six preset buttons, of which four are set. I haven’t tested the cassette and CD players and listen mostly to a country station in Cedar Rapids owned by Cumulus Media. The music fits my new lifestyle, or seems to.

Country music on Cumulus gets me thinking. It is imbued with a certain familiar life, and while on a trip to work or to market, it is easy to suspend disbelief and listen. The songs are places where I don’t have to be me until Monday, people cope with loss as they drive your truck, and where “I found Jesus” rhymes with “I wrecked my first car. I tore it all to pieces.” Whether one likes the new country music or not, the snippets of reality are tangible, visceral the way manual labor is— stripping away the intellectual aspect of our lives. That may be the point of my predilection to hit number four on the presets most often— sometimes it is good to just stop thinking.

Consider the cranes. Man-made with engineering specifications that enable a reach four stories above the roadway to build the new bridge. They are built to fit the task, work from floating barges, and reach heights limited by design. Our lives today tend to be more like cranes than pelicans. Near these man-made lakes, we lean toward believing Bill McKibben, that we are at the end of nature. Except no one told the pelicans.

Beyond the fixed world of my used Subaru, with its country music tuner and enough life to keep me going for a while, are the flocks of pelicans, doing what pelicans do— part of which is inspiring us to believe there is more to life than what we find on main traveled roads needing an overhaul.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Buscuits
Buttermilk Biscuits

Here is a new recipe for buttermilk biscuits. It produces a light biscuit with a crunchy exterior, and uses one-half pint of buttermilk, which is the smallest size sold in grocery stores.


2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
Scant teaspoon salt
4 tbs cold butter, grated
1 cup cold buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, grating the butter directly into the dry ingredients using a box grater or equivalent. Using your fingertips, mix the butter into the flour. Don’t over-do it. Add buttermilk and make a dough, which will be sticky.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and fold in half 8-10 times. This action causes the biscuits to be flaky and separate along the ghost of the fold after baking. Press the dough into a one inch thick slab. Cut with a 2-1/2 inch biscuit cutter and place on a baking sheet.

Bake until the biscuits rise and are lightly browned on top, about 14-15 minutes.

Kitchen Garden

My Vegetable Life

Dandelion Greens
Dandelion Greens

LAKE MACBRIDE— For the first time in a few days, the concrete driveway was dry when the sun came up this morning. Temperatures are in the mid-30s presently, with a forecast of snow and/or rain, and a high of 43 degrees today. No planting in the garden for now.

I failed to notice the dandelion greens while shooting the photo of the culvert at the end of our driveway. They are at a stage ready for salads and cooking. The wreck that was the contractor ditch work last fall yielded something positive, at least in a culinary way. When the rain abates, I’ll repair the ditch damage, but today will be harvesting the greens. There is a yellow squash from the grocery store in the kitchen, so maybe a side dish of squash sauteed in olive oil, with onions and dandelion greens. Mmm.

My work at the CSA earns me a share of the vegetable harvest, so we should have enough vegetables to use fresh once the shares start coming in. Likewise, my relationships with other growers, combined with our home garden should yield enough to put up some items for winter. I have been avoiding this planning of the garden for too long.

Garden Seedlings
Garden Seedlings

Immersion in the local food producing culture means my focus in the home garden can be on a smaller number of vegetables. Items like kohlrabi, cabbage, potatoes, sweet corn and fresh tomatoes can be outsourced to others who will provide them in abundance as part of the normal process. My space can be used for items that more closely integrate into our garden kitchen, which serves two purposes, cooking fresh and local ingredients, and putting up vegetables as specialty items for off-season.

In practical terms, this means an expanded herb garden, more leafy greens, different kinds of tomatoes (the CSA will provide heirloom and Roma), and more onions, turnips, broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers and squash. I will also plant some different kinds of hot peppers. The intention is to use all of this fresh, with some of the spinach leaves frozen whole, and any excess either given away or sold at a farmers market.

On my canning repertory is: vegetarian soup stock (using turnip greens, and the green parts of leeks if I have them), various tomato products (diced, juice, sauce), an annual garden ends salsa (sweet and savory types), sauerkraut, pickled hot peppers, apples (sauce, butter, juice), and some other items. Notably absent is pickles, and I have not found a recipe we like. Whatever I grow in my garden plots will also support the canning effort.

Under overcast skies, there are greens to harvest, and much more planning to get done before spring bursts on the scene— which should be soon (we hope).

Kitchen Garden

Buds Everywhere

Fallen Maple Tree Buds
Fallen Maple Tree Buds

LAKE MACBRIDE— After the gully-washer yesterday, one noticed the buds of trees and bushes coming out. Lilacs, maple, oak, apple, pear— all of them. Spring has been here by the calendar, but these buds are a better sign of the season’s actuality.

At the same time, gardeners and vegetable farmers are itching to get into the ground, but debating whether it is warm enough to transfer from the greenhouse to the hoop house. It’s still too cold and wet to put much in  the ground.

A few earlies are in, spinach, and broadcast lettuce and arugula, and there are considerations. Should we skip spring turnips and peas, and get into the soil with transplants from the greenhouse trays instead. That is, when the danger of frost is past.

Someone received a shipment of chicks and is working to keep them warm in the garage. Hundreds of pounds of seed potatoes await planting, something that is traditionally done much earlier in the spring. It’s warm in the greenhouse, but seeds planted six weeks ago are past time for planting in the ground. There is a backlog of field work that will burst upon us, just as the buds on the trees and bushes are doing now.

There is a pent up energy soon to be unleashed in gardens and fields everywhere. If only we could get going. The time is not yet right.

Kitchen Garden Writing

Thunderstorm at the Farm

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— It was raining on me while I was unloading large bags of soil mix near the greenhouse when the phone in my back pocket rang. They were calling from the house to tell me that with all of the thunder and lightning, it wasn’t safe for me to be working outside. I should come to the house.

The severe weather warning on the country music radio station reported hail and rain to be worst in Kalona, Frytown, Washington and the southwest corner of Johnson County. It was heading our way. I figured we would be safe in the greenhouse, but unloaded the rest of the bags, parked my car and headed inside with to wait out the storm with the rest of the crew.

In the country, a thunderstorm can be perceived as a massive formation of clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, covering us like a large bowl. It is a perspective one can’t get within in a large cluster of homes, or in town. A sense that the storm has its own integrity, producing rain, lightning and thunder— a dominant force of nature— a commanding presence that covers us. One shouldn’t argue with that, however much confidence we have in our own endurance. There was fresh coffee and apple pie inside— and conversation. We re-scheduled the crew for tomorrow.

It was a gully washer. When we built our home, the construction project leader, who was a retired farmer, cut a number of swales in the slope around our house with a 1949 Ford tractor. When it really rains, we can see Lyle’s handiwork all around us, as the swales fill with water and our basement stays dry. The rain flows around us to the ditch and lake below us.

The rain continued into the early afternoon. The ground needs the moisture, and we need protection from the lightning. It would be better if the planting was done, but that is not how this growing season is unfolding.