Categories
Cooking Garden

Weeds in the House

Wildflowers, July 11, 2020

I like my lawn. It is a great source of mulch for the garden, although it seems like there is never enough.

What is there transitions throughout the growing season. We are currently in clover and around the edges native plants come up like the ones in the photograph.

These are weeds, but they look nice on the counter.

When basil comes in I make pasta sauce of last year’s canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil. I’m trying to use up the old tomatoes to make room for new. Pasta sauce varies from preparation to preparation. Near as I remember, this is what I did yesterday.

Summer Pasta Sauce

Drain six pints of canned, diced tomatoes in a funnel. Once thoroughly drained, put them in a slow-cooker, reserving the liquid for another dish. Whizz them with a stick blender until somewhat smooth yet with a few chunks of tomato.

Ribbon all the basil you have (about a cup and a half of chiffonade). Put the basil in the slow cooker and incorporate with the tomatoes.

Dice two cups of onions and mince three or four large cloves of garlic.

Heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Once shimmering add the onions and stir gently until they begin to turn translucent. Salt to taste. Next add the garlic and cook until the aroma of garlic rises from the pan. After a couple more minutes transfer the mixture into the slow cooker and incorporate.

Turn the cooker on high heat and let it go throughout the morning. Around lunch time stir and turn the heat down to medium. Once it’s dinner time, cook pasta noodles, put the drained noodles in a mixing bowl and ladle a couple of generous servings of pasta sauce on top and mix gently with tongs. It’s ready to serve topped with Parmesan cheese, pepper and maybe thinly sliced green onions.

We served the pasta with steamed green beans picked that morning and simple cucumber salad. We’re in the cucumber season so we eat them constantly. There’s no room for more pickles in the ice box or pantry.

New potatoes are in so I tried a new recipe for potato salad. I cut it back to make less for two people, so it could be doubled or tripled for a dish for potluck. In the time of the coronavirus, there won’t be any potlucks soon.

Summer Potato Salad

Boil a pound of peeled, cubed new potatoes. Don’t boil them to mush. Hard cook an egg and put both in the ice box overnight.

Dice the potatoes into a bowl. Grate the egg into the same bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, a quarter cup prepared mayonnaise, a tablespoon Dijon mustard, and a generous tablespoon of chopped sweet pickles. Stir gently with a spatula until incorporated. Put the mixture in a refrigerator dish, level it out, and sprinkle paprika on top for decoration. Leave it refrigerated a couple of hours before serving if you can resist eating it at once.

Potato salad has many variations and this is most like what Mother made for us when we were graders.

Categories
Garden

Weeding the Onion Patch

Kohlrabi greens with spring onions and garlic, steaming in vegetable broth.

I’m determined to grow shallots and onions this year. I took the solar powered radio to the onion patch, took down the fence, and weeded until it was done.

The onion starts purchased from the home, farm and auto supply store are growing but not yet forming bulbs. The shallots growing from seed look like they will be something, and soon three varieties of storage onions started from plants will need thinning so there is room for them to grow.

If the garden produces storage onions it would be for the first time. I’m following the guidance of my mentor so there’s hope of success in the form of a bin full of onions stored near the furnace over winter.

A few dozen onions from 2019 remain in the bin. I am so confident of onion success I’m planning to caramelize a big batch of them and transition to reliance on what I grow. More than anything, onions are a mainstay of our kitchen and growing them a key part of making our kitchen garden more relevant.

Among the weeds I found was lamb’s quarters, which grows in abundance without doing anything but planting other things. Lamb’s quarters grows everywhere in Iowa on its own. While culinarians forage these leaves to include in gourmet preparations, in a kitchen garden a cook needs only so many greens. I ate a few of the tender top leaves and composted the rest. They are a tasty green, less bitter than some I grow intentionally.

Around the country protests continue in the wake of videos of the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported large turnout for demonstrations in nearby Cedar Rapids and Iowa City last night. No one knows how long demonstrations will continue or how long it will take government to act on them. The expectation is government will act.

In 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and ensuing riots in American cities, it took six days for President Johnson to respond by signing the Civil Rights Act. I don’t see any such action coming out of the Trump administration whose reaction has been to build a fence around the White House and seek to retain power by winning the Nov. 3 election.

While we need to eat, the progress of my onion patch may be the least of our worries. What happened to George Floyd shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is systemic racism in the United States, and we must each do something to address it. What will be the enduring legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement? With our current federal government that remains an open question.

Categories
Garden Local Food

Onion Experiments

Onions planted in soil blocks.

Growing large storage onions has been challenging. I yearn to grow large onions and use them throughout the year.

Spring onions? No problem. Larger red, yellow or white, the kind we most use in the kitchen, have eluded me.

I’m determined this year will be different. Toward that end I’ve launched some experiments to see how I can do better.

Friday, Feb. 7, I planted Talon Yellow and Red Burgundy onions at home from seed. After six weeks the yellow germinated, the red did not. After chatting on line with another grower, they pointed out fresh onion seed is important. The Talon Yellow seeds were this year’s crop from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Red Burgundy were end of season discards at the home, farm and auto supply store. Lesson learned: get fresh onion seeds.

That same day I split my Matador shallot seeds with the farm. They are growing their half in the same environment as the rest of their onions, I started mine in a tray at home. Mine don’t look that healthy although they germinated. If the targeted planting time is mid-April, there is time for them to grow and hopefully survive transplant. I’m looking forward to comparing results.

I bought red, yellow and white onions starts from the home, farm and auto supply store. These are the same variety I bought every year since working there. I divided them roughly in half and planted some in soil blocks to give them a head start, and reserved the rest to plant in the ground as soon as it is tillable.

This year I ordered some onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They are to be shipped in a couple of weeks and then direct planted in the soil. The varieties are Ailsa Craig, Patterson and Redwing. While more expensive than seed at about 30 cents for each plant, I’m hoping to find something that works in trying it. I would much rather grow everything from seed yet I want other options as back up.

Finally, this morning, I planted six 3 x 3 containers with White Lisbon Bunching Onions from Ferry-Morse (60-110 days). I mixed both pelleted and non-pelleted seeds and broadcast them in the pots. If they germinate and grow, I’ll transplant the entire pots as groups of spring onions. It is a month behind where they should have been started, so we’ll see what happens.

The last part of my experiment is twofold. I am researching types of soil nutrients which support onion growth. My normal process is to hand till composted chicken manure into the soil before planting. If the several garden books in my library suggest another approach, I may try it as long as it is not a commercial, chemical fertilizer. This year I bought a small tiller which will break up the soil more thoroughly than handwork.

I am also planning a disciplined approach to watering and weeding the crop once it is in the ground. Because of our climate, I plan to mulch the crop to retain moisture in the soil. Weeding and regular watering has proven to be challenging, partly because weeding gets away from me and partly because my approach to watering is sparing. With a framework of “experimentation” perhaps I can do better.

I know growing storage onions is possible as I get them from the farms each year. With effort, maybe I can grow my own.

Categories
Garden

Refilling the Seed Gaps

Onions Drying

One batch of onion seeds germinated poorly so I seeded the failed blocks with Cilantro, Parsley and Dill.

Cilantro, Ferry-Morse, 28 days.
Parsley, Ferry-Morse, 70-90 days.
Dill, Ferry-Morse, 70 days.

This is my first attempt to grow onions at home and there’s a lot to learn. Once the seeds germinated, I moved them upstairs into sunlight. They grew long and spindly, laying down over each other in the tray. Carefully, I trimmed the tops to about two inches and they sprung up. The expectation is they will start to right themselves and grow more vertically.  The backup plan is to buy and beg some onion starts in case these don’t mature. For the time being I’m not giving up on them.

Categories
Writing

Winter Lament

Onions and shallots

January and February are usually months to read books. I’m working on my fourth but it seems like I’m running behind.

Political work has taken a bite out of my time.

Ambient temperatures have been warm. Absent a cold spell of temperatures below zero, I’m planning to prune our fruit trees this coming cycle of days off. As I lean into retirement I work two days at the home, farm and auto supply store with five days in a row to do what I please. The days are filled with activity.

Sunday I’m scheduled to soil block at the farm, the first time this winter. I bought a small soil blocking tool for home use and planted onions and shallots. It’s the first time doing it at home and what the future holds as I wean myself from greenhouse use over the next few seasons.

Our ice box is getting down to carrots, turnips, bread, dairy and pickles. There are mostly jars of things. Light permeates the glass shelving, revealing what’s in the bottom drawer. Growing season is a couple of months away.

Our cooking is from the pantry and freezer. We have storage onions and potatoes and lots of garlic. Apples from our trees and the orchard have been gone a few weeks. There are plenty of canned goods. We have enough to last us until spring arrives, supplemented by weekly trips to the warehouse club and grocery store.

Winter in Iowa has changed. It’s weird. It’s not consistent from year to year. I try to adapt and still find the new experience a bit sucky. Are you winter or not? No response.

As I finish this post, a prelude to getting ready for work, I feel ready: ready for what’s next, ready for something different, ready to move on. In this winter morning I’m ready to emerge from my book-lined writing space and ascend to the kitchen, and all that happens there, midst a winter lament.

Categories
Garden Local Food

Garden 2020

Friday I planted the first seeds in trays at home. They were,

Onions

Talon, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 104 days.
Red Burgundy, Ferry-Morse, 100 days.

Shallots

Matador, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 105 days.

I’m experimenting with shallots this year. My friend Simone grew them so I know they can be grown in Iowa. I’m also planting them both at the farm and at home using different techniques.

It is now gardening season.

Categories
Home Life Local Food

September Slides into Plain Life

September Tomatoes

What happened in September?

We are in peak apple season at the orchard where I’ve been working more hours compared to August. Time at the home farm and auto supply store continues to be predictable work and a regular paycheck. I’m working more volunteer hours in politics as the general election is just six weeks away. The garden is finishing with some plots ready to be cleared.

September was a month of plain living.

People don’t often use the phrase “plain living.” Most don’t want to be plain. I embrace it. I don’t know why I’m walking this blue-green sphere, but I am, and want to get along as I get by. Maybe that’s enough of a goal. It makes a life.

On Wednesday I read Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites: A Cookbook” from cover to cover. I needed to get away. Many of his anecdotes have been out there, although there is always something new to learn. While meat is not on my bucket list of culinary adventures, there are a dozen Bourdain recipes I’ll try and hopefully adapt to our kitchen.

I’m usually on my own for Thursday dinner and had Bourdain in mind as I prepared a burger. It began after work at the home, farm and auto supply store with a trip to the warehouse club. I selected S. Rosen’s Plain Mary Ann hamburger buns. This bun is not a wonder of nutritional value. Like me, it’s plain. The warehouse club sells them in bags of 16 for a couple of bucks, which means I froze most of them to use later. Bourdain said bun selection is very important. This made in Chicago and trucked to Coralville bun fit the bill.

Our burgers are commercial veggie patties and like the bun, plain and utilitarian. They fill in for “burger” in the iconography of consumer life. I cooked the patty, and prepared the bun with Dijon mustard on the bottom, ketchup on the top, thinly sliced onion from the CSA and a thinly sliced tomato from the garden. As the burger warmed, I put a piece of Swiss cheese on top to melt. The goal in ingredient selection is to make the burger so it can be eaten without a bib. Served with a side of corn chips and salsa and apple cider it made a meal. It reminded me of childhood.

September was also the month I harvested my best crop of tomatoes, ever. There were enough to free me from any single preparation so I have several variations of tomato sauce in the ice box and freezer. Enough to last most of the next year. A few remain on the kitchen counter but they won’t last long. I have salsa with the abundant crop of Jalapeno peppers in mind.

One could do a lot worse than to live a plain life with plain folk. That of itself can be extraordinary. Especially with a burger for dinner.

Categories
Cooking Local Food

Red Bell Pepper Soup

Red Bell Pepper Soup
Red Bell Pepper Soup

The abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions is leading to a pot of soup featuring those ingredients.

There is no recipe — I used ingredients already in the ice box. I cut up a bag of onion seconds and sauteed them in extra virgin olive oil until translucent; poured in a quart and a half of diced tomatoes (drained); and added a scant pint of the pulp of red peppers cooked and separated with a food mill, also drained. I seasoned with salt and that’s it.

The mixture is simmering in my Dutch oven on medium heat. Once it is thoroughly cooked, I’ll take the stick blender to it and taste. After that, who knows?

The adventure is in the doing and learning. Because of the uniqueness of this season, the dish is hardly replicable.

Categories
Cooking Local Food

Poblanos, Onions and Pickles

Fermenting Dill Pickles
Fermenting Dill Pickles

JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa — In the margins of time between social engagements lives a local food movement available to all who seek it.

There is inadequate time in life’s span to become an enthusiast, however pursuit of local food culture is not only okay, it can be rewarded with meals that comfort more ways than imaginable.

While Jacque was in town with her sister, I made last night’s supper of seconds of poblano peppers and yellow onions from the farm, a couple of links of vegetarian sausage, and a variety of home made pickles.

After removing bad spots from the onions and peppers, I cut them into thin strips and piled them on the cutting board. I cut the sausages on the bias and browned them in a pan. Once finished, I removed them to a paper napkin sitting on a plate and began sauteing the onions and peppers in olive oil, seasoning with a bit of cilantro, granulated garlic, salt and pepper.

While the vegetables were cooking I arranged three kinds of pickles, sweet, dill and daikon radish in a bowl. Once the vegetable mix was finished I spooned it into the bowl beside the pickles and topped it with the cooked sausage. With a glass of iced water, it made a meal.

After dinner I went downstairs and checked the crock full of cucumbers. Fermentation bubbles had begun to appear after two days, indicating a successful pickling process. Patience is a key ingredient when making pickles. I hope I have enough of it on hand to make it 11 additional days when the dill pickles will be ready to eat.

Simple stir fries and pickles become a way of life when vegetables are available from the farm and garden in abundance. Cooking in the local food culture is an act of rebellion from a consumer culture that engendered us in the Western hemisphere. It represents taking control of our lives.

Do I always cook locally produced food at home? No. I pay attention to the seasonality of food and align with it as much as possible. I’ve found it makes for better ingredients and depending on the cook, for better eating.

There is more to the seasons of food than common affection for sweet corn and tomatoes. Learning more is a step toward living a better life and who doesn’t want to do that?

Categories
Farming Local Food Work Life

An Iowa Onion Trimmer

Curing Onions
Curing Onions

Between picture perfect onions and the compost heap lies an opportunity.

A friend grows onions using organic practices as part of a Community Supported Agriculture project. Onions are harvested from the field then dried in the greenhouse for storage. Sorting, trimming the tops and roots, and removing excess skin comes next.

As an experienced onion trimmer I work for farmers I know and trust. My compensation is an hourly rate above the current minimum wage plus all the seconds I can use. It’s a good deal, so I take it when offered. For an hour or two after a full time job at the home, farm and auto supply company, and on weekends after a shift at the orchard, I work in the onion shed.

Onion Trimming Work Station
Onion Trimming Work Station

The work is seasonal and temporary. Cognizant of potential competition from other itinerant workers, I work as quickly and as well as I can. The daily chore serves as respite from an intense schedule of lowly paid work that provides income destined mostly to corporations in exchange for stuff needed to operate the household: utilities, insurance, taxes, fuel and the like. I will have worked 100 days in a row by the November election — I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

At the end of each shift in the onion shed, I take home ten or more pounds of seconds. I remove the bad parts in our kitchen and am left with half the original amount in fresh onions. There’ no long term storage for these so they go into the ice box until used. If left on the counter, bad spots would quickly re-emerge.

Onion Shed
Onion Shed

I made and canned the first batch of vegetable soup with three pounds of fresh onions and a bit of everything on hand from the farm and garden. By the time the onions at the farm are in storage, there will be enough canned vegetable soup put up to last until the next growing season. Soup that can make a meal.

With the concurrent harvest of tomatoes and basil from our garden, I plan to make and can pints of marinara sauce using a simple, four-part recipe of tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic. Onion trimming blocks out time from vegetable processing, and some good ones will head to the compost bin before I can get to them. I am hopeful about getting a dozen pints of marinara sauce canned.

The life of an itinerant low wage worker lies on the margin between harvest and the compost bin, That’s true for a lot of professions, not just onion trimmers. If you think about it, that’s where we all live our lives in the 99 percent of the population that isn’t wealthy.

I’m okay with working a job with friends doing work that directly impacts our family’s sustainability. It may be easier to take a big job with responsibilities and varied compensation, but I’d rather deal with the questions like whether something can be made of each onion I encounter.

The pile of second represents hope in a tangible and meaningful way. What’s life for unless that?

~ Written for Blog for Iowa