Ambient temperatures were in the low 60s on Sunday, creating a suitable environment for a yard walkabout. The report is in: Spring is coming.
The flowering bulbs were the first sign of it. Along with apple trees beginning to bud, garlic is up under the layer of straw, and lilac bushes show new growth. Most of the grass is brown and matted from recently melted snow, yet there is a bit of green scattered around the yard. The signs are unmistakable.
I assembled the portable greenhouse and moved four trays of seedlings outside. It was warm enough overnight to leave them there. I planted a flat of spinach, celery, parsley and cilantro, using up last year’s bag of soil mix. This flat went on the heating pad for germination. There remains indoor work, yet our focus can turn outdoors.
As snow continues to melt in the garden I considered where to plant early lettuce. The ground is not workable, yet soon will be. When it is the seeds can go down and there will be a lot to do.
The calendar shows 13 days until Spring. I’m already there.
The specificity of the garden project is comforting. There is a clear beginning and end. The work product will be useful. It is eminently do-able in a single work shift. I crave more of that over the complicated and grand-scale projects lingering on my to-do list. I yearn for resolution of the vagaries of living in the coronavirus pandemic.
When the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho shook loose buckets of sand anchoring the portable greenhouse to the bricked pad, its time had come. The wind lifted the greenhouse straight up in the air and tumbled it into the next door neighbor’s yard, destroying it.
I bought a replacement as I’ve come to rely on having my own greenhouse to start seeds and store garden seedlings.
Snow cover melted enough to shovel the rest of the pad and install the new greenhouse. The road in front of our house is dry so I can sweep road sand into buckets to hold this one down. It will be the first outdoors project other than snow removal this year.
The coronavirus pandemic created vagaries that plague us in daily life. The governor’s most recent proclamation found me in the “vulnerable Iowan” category because I’m over 65 years of age. She encourages me to continue to limit my activities outside home, and encourages others to stay away from me. Fine. I’ve done that by provisioning in town every other week. Provisioning trips were the only time I left the property since the proclamation was released Feb. 5. Everything else we need, which isn’t much, we get delivered to home. This part is easy.
We are scheduled for a booster of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 19. The pharmacy sent a confirmation email yesterday. What happens after that is unclear. Epidemiologists say we are waiting until presence of the coronavirus in the community is limited. Not sure what that means. There is no reasonable indication of what social behavior in the post-pandemic world looks like. I’m thinking of getting rid of the personal-sized pizza pans I use for entertaining. Should I?
I look forward to sweeping up the road sand and clearing the space for the portable greenhouse. It’s something to latch onto and call finished in a day. Yet I yearn for more, for resolution of the uncertainty of our current lives. It’s not existential angst. It’s simple things like how many gallons of skim milk should I buy at the warehouse club. If things were normal, the number would be one.
I need the greenhouse space soon andplan to work on the project as winter snow melts in Iowa. After that, I’ll pick another, then another, until a sense of normalcy returns.
March 2 is the day to plant Belgian lettuce, according to family tradition. It’s garden lore from my Polish grandmother, one of the few tips from her about gardening I remember. This year, Belgian lettuce seems doubtful with more than a foot of snow on the ground seven days out.
If I can work the ground, I’ll plant it. It got warm enough to begin thawing on Monday, so fingers crossed. One has to ask where all the water will go. The answer is to late winter flooding.
Indoors I transplanted brassica seedlings started Feb. 7 to larger pots. The 12 broccoli plants are intended for an early wave. I planted 30 more broccoli seeds in blocks for the main crop. I reduced the amount of collards and kale this year. If I had six each of the two varieties of kale and four collards, that would be enough. I also had six kohlrabi plants in this batch. I need to plant more Redbor kale seeds next planting session as only five seedlings survived.
20 celery seeds are planted. They take the longest time to germinate, although this year I’m trying a new variety and they are on a warming pad to aid germination. If I were still at the farm, I’d plant more and put them in the greenhouse. The table downstairs with the heating pad has only four spots for trays and only two of them heated. I’m learning self-sufficiency in this, my first year away from the farm in a long time.
I have the new, portable greenhouse still in its box. It will stay there until the snow on the brick pad melts. Once it is set up I can move some of the seedlings outdoors and use the space heater when it gets cold. There is plenty of time to get everything started.
We look forward to the thaw more this year than most.
It is a four day process to season the new carbon steel cookware.
Heating the pans in the oven for an hour, then letting them cool completely down before applying another coating is what takes time. I’m doing three seasoning applications in four batches during the initial go-around.
We bought a new set to replace our current non-stick-coating pans. If we take care of them, the new ones should serve for a long time.
Yesterday I discovered Radio Garden. It is software that projects a globe with green dots on our screens. Each dot is an internet radio station. There are thousands of them.
By bringing distant voices close, radio connects people and places. From its very beginning, radio signals have crossed borders. Radio makers and listeners have imagined both connecting with distant cultures, as well as re-connecting with people from ‘home’ from thousands of miles away.
Radio Garden is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Our dedicated team is hard at work tending to the garden on a daily basis. Planting seeds for the future and keeping the weeds at bay.
Radio Garden started out in 2016 as an exhibition project commissioned by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in the context of the research project Transnational Radio Encounters. It was created, designed and developed by Studio Puckey & Moniker.
I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to radio stations. Current favorites are Radio AkuAku in Hanga Roa on Easter Island and Radio FJV FM in Gdansk, Poland. A main interest is using the Android application to convert my mobile device into a music source I can carry around with me when working in the kitchen garden. There is a lot to explore.
Bit by bit, whatever life I had before the pandemic is peeling away. I embrace the future and try to remember some of the past. It’s another day during a pandemic.
Forgetting to turn off the grow light before retiring to bed is a new bad habit. Seedlings need a daily rest from light, at least for 4-5 hours. I end up turning the light off around 3:30 a.m. when I return to my writing space for the day.
Learning to garden is a never ending process if one is any good at it.
This year the garden is in for big changes. The Aug. 10, 2020 derecho blew over the Locust tree and tilted one of the three Bur Oaks enough it should be taken down. I plan to cut two of the Bur Oaks to provide space for the remaining one to grow normally.
The derecho damaged a lot of fencing I use to discourage deer from jumping into the plots. There will be new stakes and new chicken wire fencing. If we had the resources, I’d install an eight-foot fence all around the garden with a locking gate. There are other projects begging for the money, so that plan is deferred.
The garlic patch is in, but the other plots are an open book. I will rotate cruciferous vegetables and beans. I need a whole plot for tomatoes and a small one for leafy greens. I ran out of garden onions this month, so I want to grow more this year and that will require a bigger space. No final decisions to be made until I plant Belgian lettuce on March 2, two weeks from now, if the snow melts.
The goal of having a kitchen garden is to produce food aligned with our culinary habits that helps meet a basic human need. We have to eat, no matter where, no matter how. It may as well be enjoyable. We’ve all eaten our share of food that doesn’t please our palate. A kitchen garden should address that.
There are inputs to address, other than the garden part of a kitchen garden. Perhaps the most significant is intellectual. Most people don’t frame such a construct although they should.
A kitchen garden is a reaction to the culture of consumerism. An important distinction is reaction, not rejection. I will continue to buy black peppercorns, nutmeg, vanilla bean extract, refined sugar, and all-purpose flour milled elsewhere. How else will we get such necessary ingredients?
For the time being, I’m ovo-lacto-vegetarian (most of the time), which means consumption of dairy products and the good and bad that goes with them. I’m not of one mind on this. For example, I’ll buy a gallon of skim milk from the local dairy 6.2 miles from my house, yet I’ll also stock up at the wholesale club for half the price. I take local eggs from the farm when offered, yet I also buy them at the club. Maybe it’s best to become vegan and eschew dairy altogether. I’m not there yet.
While I am a local foods enthusiast, and my diet centers around being that, I am not doctrinaire. Other people have to consume the results of my kitchen work, although during the pandemic that’s only one other person who I’ve known for going on 40 years. Despite several issues with his behavior and written output — including bigotry, racism and patriarchy — I like the Joel Salatin idea of a food shed. That is, secure everything one can that is produced within a four hour drive of home. I am also not doctrinaire about “food miles.” I’ve written often on the topic and if we work at it, we can secure most of our food produced within less than an hour drive from home.
During the pandemic we haven’t eaten restaurant food even once. If we get out of this thing alive, I see a return to restaurants as a social endeavor. I like our cooking better than any restaurant fare I’ve had the past many years. I expect the habit of cooking and eating at home will persist. How would restaurant dining fit into a kitchen garden? It would be an infrequent adventure in expanding our menu and spending time with good friends.
Another part of a kitchen garden is providing proper nutrition. That means research to understand nutrition enough to combat common diseases — diabetes and cardiovascular disease particularly. Portion control is also part of nutrition, related to maintaining a healthy weight. My research into nutrition was mostly a reaction to medical clinic visits. I sought to change the results of my blood tests regarding cholesterol and glucose through dietary adjustment. The approach has been to discover techniques and processes, then adopt them by habit to weekly meal preparation. Every so often I will consider nutrition in my diet. Mostly, once a new pattern is set, I follow it.
The influence of television and so-called celebrity chefs is part of the intellectual development I bring to the kitchen garden. Before I left my home town for university I spent almost no time in the kitchen learning how to cook. The first meals I prepared for guests were tuna and noodle casseroles made with condensed cream of mushroom soup from a can, once for Mother before leaving for military service, and once for friends at my apartment in Mainz, Germany. My early cooking years — in the 1970s — were trial and error and a lot of marginal, home-prepared meals. I recall at least one loaf of “bread” I used as a doorstop. It was baked while I was an undergraduate, interested in macrobiotic cooking, and didn’t understand how yeast worked.
I learned cooking mostly from television. In 2014 I wrote this about my experience on a work assignment in Georgia during the 1990s:
TV Food Network, as it was known, occupied my non-working time, and I developed an insatiable curiosity about food and its preparation. Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Julia Child and others prepared food on screen, and I was captivated, watching episode after episode on Georgia weekends. Food is a common denominator for humanity, and I couldn’t get enough. My involvement in the local food movement today has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my food escape.
There is a broader point to be made than one person’s transient addiction to a television network while away from home. It is that American food pursuits, and the economy around them, continue to be based partly upon curiosity.
Curiosity About Food, Blog Post, April 17, 2014.
Over time, Food Network became more formulaic and less interesting. It also moved to a form of cookery competition that diverged from recipe preparation. I don’t tune in today. It opened my mind to the possibilities of food preparation and for that I am grateful.
The last part of intellectual development affecting the kitchen garden has to do with studying recipes. In my ongoing document mining I expect to purge my collection of hundreds of cookbooks. Partly because there are too many for reasonable use, and partly because I have learned the lessons from many of them. Which cookbooks have mattered most?
Like it is for many people, The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker is a go-to book when I’m learning to cook a specific dish or vegetable. I continue to use it a lot. I frequently use Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. I keep copies of other reference books, but those are my main two.
For variety, I have cookbooks by Mario Batali, Giada De Lautentiis, Rick Bayless, Jeff Smith, and Anthony Bourdain, all of whom appeared on television during the period I watched cooking shows. These recipes produce food we like. I also use a few baking cook books, Bo Friberg’s The Professional Pastry Chef, and The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. I’m currently working my way through some cook books used by local chef, the late Kurt Michael Friese.
I studied church and organizational cook books extensively. I adopted very few recipes from them so most are going to go. I’ll keep those that have some sentimental value, ones in which recipes by friends appear, and a set of a dozen or so from my old neighborhood in Northwest Davenport. The purpose of acquiring these cookbooks has been to understand the development of kitchen cookery beginning in the 1950s and ’60s. People used a lot of gelatin and lard back in the day, that’s for sure.
Whatever I learned from studying cookery reduces itself into repeatable main dishes made using understandable preparation techniques. A family only needs so many recipes. As I progress, the kitchen garden becomes more related to cuisine, one recognizable and uniquely our own. It is a cuisine tied to soil I made, the flavors that emerge from it, and the methods used to make it into dishes. The garden has already changed to better match what is going on in the nearby kitchen. That relationship will continue to evolve.
The journey home begins with an understanding of where we’ve been and ends, if we are lucky, with a pleasant reunion with family and friends. A kitchen garden works toward that end.
A version of tofu stir fry is basic to a vegetarian cuisine. I checked my archives and haven’t previously posted about this classic dish.
First, put on a pot of organic brown rice, or your favorite variety. I use home made, canned vegetable broth for this recipe. The ratio is two liquid to one rice. Always rinse the rice under cold water before cooking. Cook it low and slow.
I’ve taken to short-form videos and there is a teenager who posts about vegan cooking. I noticed how she cooks tofu. After cubing firm tofu, she coats it with corn starch, then seasons and bakes it. We avoid corn starch, so used arrowroot powder instead. It’s not the same, but it worked. When we made the dish in our early married life, we seasoned the tofu with Vegesal, which is no longer readily available. Today, I use onion powder, garlic powder and celery salt. The technique is to place the cubed tofu in a stainless steel bowl and gently toss it, first with the arrowroot powder and then with the seasonings. Do so until it is well coated. Spread it on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven until the outside is browned.
We’ve been cutting the amount of added fat in our diet, and have taken to frying vegetables in some liquid, either water, broth, or tomato juice. Using extra virgin olive oil works too.
I’ve learned to limit the number of varieties of vegetables used in stir fry. Which ones is a new choice each time the dish is made. In the classic preparation I used the combination of onion, carrot and celery, along with bell peppers, snow peas, garlic, and a quarter cup of pine nuts. This is basic and what I was going for last night. For seasoning, I used salt and pepper to taste and a scant tablespoon of marjoram.
Almost any fresh or frozen vegetable would work in this preparation. I especially like broccoli and a leafy green vegetable. If fresh garden tomatoes are available, they are an excellent addition. If I were making it for myself, I’d begin with red pepper flakes in the cooking liquid. The main thing is to resist the temptation to put the whole ice box in the dish. Let the individual vegetables stand on their own. Let them be recognized. Do what makes sense. Be simple and elegant.
When the vegetables are done, toss in the baked tofu and mix gently. Serve on the brown rice and store the rest in the refrigerator for leftovers. We make extra brown rice to use in other dishes during the week.
Another variation would be to make some type of sauce to mix with the tofu and vegetables. The possibilities are endless, yet we usually keep it plain.
In Big Grove Township we have access to a local tofu maker and theirs is among the firmest I’ve found. For this dish one wants firm tofu. We tried the type sold by Trader Joe’s, which also works in this preparation.
So there you have it. A classic American vegetarian stir fry.
Kale, broccoli and collards germinated within three days. This is the first year using a heating pad and grow light indoors. My reaction is positive.
Already onions, shallots, leeks, basil and the cruciferous vegetables are in process. Despite more than a foot of snow on the ground the garden starts bring promise.
March 2 is the traditional day to sow lettuce seeds in the garden. If the ground can be worked, I will. Grandmother called this planting “Belgian lettuce,” regardless of the variety of seeds planted. With my new indoor setup I’ll be starting lettuce indoors as well, as soon as snow melts and the greenhouse can be assembled. Annual cycles of gardening have begun.
What’s different this year is the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa has had a slow start up in vaccine distribution with not much relief in sight for the near term. I know some of the places where vaccines will be available and as of yesterday, no appointments were available. The main impact is my decision to avoid working on the farm this year until being vaccinated. That means I’ll have to be more self-sufficient in my gardening. I believe I’ll be fine.
The outdoors temperature is forecast to remain cold for a while. Yet indoors, there is hope of a great garden.
The coronavirus pandemic has us cooking meals each night and nothing goes better with a bowl of soup made with pantry ingredients than warm from the oven flatbread.
The two people in our household consumed more all purpose flour during the last year than we have in a long time. I made a pizza each week, and am using up some gifted specialty flours — rice, almond, coconut, garbanzo bean — by blending them with all purpose to make flatbread.
There is no dough recipe, just technique. To get started for a two-person loaf, a cup of warm water from the tap goes into a stainless steel bowl. Mix in a teaspoon of yeast, a scant teaspoon of sugar to feed the yeast, a dash of salt, and two tablespoons of flour. Let that rest for a few minutes, then apply cooking spray to a mixing bowl for the first rise in the oven. Turn the oven on to the lowest setting. I get out my two Dr. Oetker spatulas, bought in West Germany in the 1970s, and get to work, but they are more habit than need.
If I’m making a pizza dough, I start with a cup of all purpose flour. For flatbread I put a half cup of specialty flour in the bowl with the yeast mix and a half cup of all purpose flour. Using the spatulas, I mix and add flour until the stickiness of the dough subsides enough for it to come together. I flour the counter and knead, sprinkling more flour to relieve stickiness. I form a ball and put it in the rising bowl. Put a plate on the bowl and let it rise in the oven for an hour.
Take the dough out of the oven, set the rack in the middle, and preheat to 425 degrees. Punch the dough down and knead a second time on the counter. It will take more flour. Form the flatbread on a baking sheet and dock it. I use parchment paper to make clean up easier but an oiled pan will work, too. Cover the formed flatbread and let rise for 30-45 minutes until the change in shape is noticeable. Place it in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the top begins to brown.
Serve plain or with butter, apple butter or another topping. To serve more people, adjust the water amounts by half a cup for each person. It is a quick, reliable accompaniment for any meal.
We have been experimenting with vegan dishes during the coronavirus pandemic. A basic recipe is “Vegan Cheese Sauce.” It’s a horrible name since it mentions the dreaded dairy product even though there are none in the dish. It’s a work in progress.
Our household began to move away from animal products when it was established in 1982. We became ovo-lacto vegetarians at home. That means we ate dairy products, including those made from cow and goat milk, along with chicken eggs. We have an interest in reducing reliance on those as well.
I am not doctrinaire about diet and maintain a semi-omnivore status. I hardly choose to eat meat, though. The pandemic has us avoiding restaurant dining completely and that was the source of what little meat I ate. For the past year the amount of dietary meat has been zero. I like my omnivore status and remain flexible when socializing outside home when food is involved. Usually, but not always, buffets and snack trays have plenty of vegetarian options. I don’t understand the American idea of eating constantly though, even if it is socially acceptable to serve food at a two-hour reception.
I know how to prepare a chicken and have done so. It was part of my survival training in French Commando School. Other cooking with meat is not complicated. In the unlikely event inadequate plant-based nutrition is available, I can return to survival mode. For the time being, the squirrels, rabbits, deer and raccoons traveling through our yard needn’t worry.
Why do vegan chefs compare their dishes to what omnivores eat? For example, this recipe for vegan cream sauce is intended for a version of vegan “macaroni and cheese.” There is a proselytizing aspect to such nomenclature and the resulting dishes. The vegan chef is recruiting us to join the culture. This dish tastes nothing like macaroni and cheese made with sharp cheddar and that should be okay without the cultural context. There is a whole business of imitation or fake meats and cheeses. As we navigate these waters I’m not sure why chefs don’t just go for dishes that taste good on their own merit.
Raw cashews don’t immediately come to mind as the base for a sauce. They are abundantly available, and easy to work with in the kitchen. The prepared sauce serves in pasta dishes, and more experimentation is needed. Ideas to be considered are using it on a pizza crust instead of tomato sauce and dairy cheese, on tacos, and in dips. The cuisine developed in our household has little emphasis on sauces, so the most likely use is with macaroni noodles. It is a once every four to six weeks dish.
I made vegan cream sauce three times and settled on a recipe. I enjoy spicy food and others does not, so most spicy seasoning is added after serving rather than cooking it into the sauce. If we had them, the dish could be topped with diced raw vegetables like Serrano or Jalapeno peppers, onions, shallots or scallions. Here is what I came up with.
Vegan Cream Sauce
Soak three quarters of a cup of raw cashews overnight in water. The amount easily fits in a quart-sized canning jar. Rinse in the morning, refresh the water, and soak until ready to use.
To a blender bowl, add one cup plant milk, one quarter cup nutritional yeast, one clove garlic, one teaspoon onion powder, one teaspoon Dijon mustard, and salt to taste. (Optional spices to consider include turmeric, paprika, black pepper, red chili flakes, to taste). Blend the mixture until smooth, then add the drained cashews. Blend until it is a smooth consistency. Thin the sauce as needed using additional plant milk. It’s ready to go.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this recipe is to remember it is not cheese sauce. While it may be used the same way, the sooner we embrace the culture, the better we’ll adapt to new dishes in our cuisine.
This Sunday is a good day to take stock and prepare work space for the garden. It’s time to plant seeds indoors.
I placed the fifth order from my garden suppliers and despite the snow covered ground feel ready. The investment in seeds and equipment was $600 so far. Because of the derecho I will be investing in some new fence posts and fencing. It would be very American to post copies of my order forms, although I’ll save readers the trouble. Details left unsaid are often more interesting.
It’s been a month since I had exercised outdoors. I miss the daily gardening, walks, jogging, and bicycle trips. Today’s garden planning session should provide hope for spring. If we have a cold spell I’ll prune fruit trees, although that’s not enough to call it exercise.
I’m undecided whether to return to the farm this year. Mainly because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because each year our household needs less of the vegetables for which I bartered my labor. Need to re-read the discussion thread and make a decision soon.
For breakfast I made oatmeal: a cup of water, tablespoon of dried cranberries, teaspoon of sugar, dash of salt, and a third cup of steel cut oats. Portion-wise this sates my early morning appetite. The combination of flavors is just right. If I got fancy I would add a dash of cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Not feeling that fancy today.