Monday, July 30, 2012

Ick

So there I was, sitting with Kim in a lovely park in downtown Duncan, watching a 100 mile hot dog eating contest.

(I feel a need to digress for a moment to explain that we didn't set out to watch a 100 mile hot dog eating contest - we were in the neighbourhood having lunch and were drawn in by the fun everyone seemed to be having.)

(I should also pause for a moment to explain that a 100 mile hot dog eating contest is one in which the hot dogs and buns are grown and made within a 100 mile radius. Yes, people do grow wheat on Vancouver Island, and make hot dog buns out of it.)

(I should also clarify that no claim was made as to the condiments on said hot dogs.)

Back to the story. There I was, on a lovely sunny afternoon, watching four grown men gamely chowing down on tasty hot dogs but apparently very dry buns, when all of a sudden something hit me in the chest.

(I need to explain that if I had had my camera with me at the time, I would certainly have taken a picture. But since I didn't, and because I don't want to violate anyone's copyright by using their photo in my blog, I have decided to provide you with a handy link to an excellent picture of what hit me in the chest. For the sake of dramatic impact, it is very important that you click on this link.)

(In case you didn't read the fine print accompanying that photo, I would like to inform you that the object that landed on my chest was about an inch-and-a-half long. That's the body. The antennae were at least another couple of inches. Are you understanding the title of this post yet?)

So there I was, no longer watching the contest but instead paralyzed in my chair, goggling at the enormous insect sitting on my chest. The paralysis ended with a convulsive, repulsed flinging of said insect onto the ground, whereupon it crawled back towards us and began to climb up the leg of Kim's chair.

Kim leapt to her feet, and between her dancing on the spot in a mixture of phobia and ex-Science-teacher fascination, and my incoherent sputtering and pointing, we began to attract more attention than the 100 mile hot dog eaters. First two little kids crossed right in front of the stage to come and see what was going on. Then the people behind us stood up and craned their necks to get a better look. Then the parents of the kids came over with their cameras to take photos. Then one of the kids managed to convince the bug to crawl up its arm so he could parade through the audience showing everyone.

I suspect it was a welcome diversion for both the 100 mile hot dog eaters (chewing and chewing and chewing those really dry buns) and their audience (trying gamely to keep up the level of enthusiasm despite the slow pace of eating).

Who says life in a small town can't be exciting?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Squash

I like winter squash. I like eating it, and ever since I read The Resilient Gardener, I have devoted two entire garden beds to it.

I haven't always been successful at growing it, however. It took me a couple of years to learn that I shouldn't bother starting seeds early in the greenhouse because the seedlings don't like being relocated, so by the time they recovered from their transplant shock their direct-seeded siblings had caught up and even surpassed them.

And germination has sometimes been problematic. For those of you who haven't examined the anatomy of a squash plant, flowers come in two varieties: male...


...and female.


That bulb at the base of the female flower is the potential squash. If fertilization is successful it will grow and grow and turn into dinner, and if not it just turns yellow and falls off. For my first few years of gardening I thought I had a problem with dying baby squash, but it was really a problem with fertilization. I haven't really paid much attention to this in previous years, thinking the birds and bees would take care of pollination for me, but I also haven't been entirely happy with the resulting yield. So this year I decided to help Mother Nature along and do some pollinating by hand. It's quite simple: you pick a male blossom, strip off the petals, and dab the naked stamen in the centre of the female flower.

My big problem: my plants can't seem to synchronize their male and female parts. One day I go out to the garden and all I see are male flowers. The next day: all female flowers. I've read up on this and the experts say eventually the plant should start producing both at once, but I haven't got a lot of time to dawdle. This is Canada, after all, and winter squash takes a long time to mature.

This morning? Happy male flowers, like this quartet. I had to go hunting under every big green leaf to find a single female counterpart.


There's something else a bit odd going on in the squash department. I already mentioned I allocate two 4x12 foot beds to winter squash, and this year they were side by side. Initially I thought I would plant seeds of the same type in the same bed, but at the last minute I thought it might be fun to compare the progress of the plants in each bed. So I have a hill of butternut squash in one bed...


...and another hill in the other bed.


Notice any difference?! 

These hills were planted on the same day, and since they are side-by-side, they have roughly the same exposure to sun and weather.

And it's not just the butternut variety. Here's the lush bed...


...and here's the wimpy bed.


The only variety that's doing well is the zucchini, way at the back. So what's going on? 

Here's my theory: last year the wimpy bed held onions. Maybe squash don't like onions. And last year the lush bed was where I grew garbanzo beans, and like the conscientious gardener I am, I treated the seeds with an inoculant before I grew them. (This is supposed to help any legume plant fix the nitrogen in the soil, making it available to the next crop that comes along.) 

And here's a confession: I have faithfully used an inoculant every year except this one. This year I hadn't laid in the year's supply when the day came to plant the peas, and I was too darn lazy to hop in the car and go get some. Lazy and a bit skeptical, not really believing it did any good.

So Mother Nature took the opportunity to teach me a little lesson: inoculant works! 

You read it here, folks.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Surplus


We've reached the point in the season where we can't keep up with what's ready to eat in the garden. That means it's time to switch into preservation mode. And for me, with vegetables, that largely means freezing.

I've gone the pickling and dehydrating routes, and neither seems to totally fit the bill. I enjoy pickled beets and beans and cucumbers, but there's a limit to how many I want to eat. I understand the economic and health advantages of dehydrating - you don't have all those additions of salt and sugar, and you're not paying to keep things frozen until you eat them. But with the exception of dried tomatoes and fruit leather, I find the end result not very palatable, even disguised in soups and stews.

So most of the excess vegetables around here get vacuum-packed and popped in the freezer. Instructions generally call for blanching vegetables first in order to destroy the enzymes that will cause them to deteriorate. I do that with hardy greens, like kale and chard and beet greens: they get blanched, refreshed in cold water and squeezed dry before being popped in the freezer. But with other vegetables I find blanching makes the thawed product too mushy, so I just clean and chop into chunks and freeze.

The only exception: cabbage, which gets fermented into sauerkraut, of course!

Even though we're now adding a steady stream of food to the freezer, we're still enjoying everything the garden is giving us. In fact, I think that's one of the major differences between Miriam the First-Year Gardener and Miriam the Fourth-Year Gardener: I'm much more inclined to enjoy the food I am growing every day rather than waiting for a special occasion (as I am famous for doing with fennel), or for the vegetable to get bigger (meaning I never got to enjoy baby carrots or potatoes), or freezing it all before I could enjoy it fresh (I think Kim scarcely got her hands on a fresh strawberry our first year here). Now my philosophy is eat fresh first, preserve second.



This was supper last night: two kinds of kale, a rainbow assortment of chard, red and yellow beet greens, red cabbage, broccoli and snow peas, all home grown and cooked in a stir fry with some onions and leftover chicken.

That still amazes me: home grown!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gump Jr


We're not so creative with chicken names here at Mucky Boots. There's Hector, which isn't bad as a name, but after that came Hector Jr (son of Hector), Hector Jr Jr (a slightly smaller son of Hector), and this year we're back to Hector Jr again for the new generation.

We're having the same problem with Gump's offspring, now that he's beginning to have some. Gump was one of the chicks we hatched last year, and the only cockerel we kept. We were looking for a replacement for Pee Wee, who had begun to get aggressive with the hens, and even though there were some nicer looking cockerels in the bunch we chose Gump because we fell in love. He was always sweet, always a little out of things, always in his own little Gump world, and as a result his tougher male siblings picked on him and made his life miserable. How could we not chose him over the others?

Gump has grown into an excellent rooster. He's a conscientious guardian of his flock, foraging tasty treats for his hens and keeping an eye on the sky for overhead predators. But as he matured, even though we were grateful for the role he plays in the flock, we began to miss the dopey little fellow he had been.

No more. Now we have Gump Jr, offspring of Gump and the one Buff cockerel Kim decided to keep this year - partly because we knew he was going to be enormous, and partly because he's a chip off the old block. He's so much a chip he's practically a clone. Most of the time he's clued out: where's the food? Where's the door? Where are his feet? Those feet are gigantic, and at the end of equally giant sized legs - if we didn't know his parentage we might suspect an ostrich played a role in his conception. He hasn't quite figured out how to coordinate them yet, so when he runs he's the most awkward thing on two legs, but as a result he's entirely, completely endearing.

Here's scratch-eating Gump Jr style...

video

...and Part 2, when I stopped being so distracted by the bunny.

video

Yes, we're suckers for the underdog, here at Mucky Boots. And I like it that way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Best things ever

Okay, maybe not ever, but there are two things making my life a lot happier these days. 


Happy Thing #1: Gluten-free Breadsticks
I do much better when I stick to a gluten-free diet, but man, do I miss bread. Not regular bread, but  the kind of rustic loaf that's crusty and crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. If I wasn't intolerant of gluten I would probably be living on bread (which, come to think of it, I did for a couple of years in my early adulthood, which is probably when I developed said intolerance...).

When we quit our jobs and began our new lives Mucky Boots, one of the things I planned to learn how to do was bake bread - gluten-free bread. I knew it was theoretically possible to make good gluten-free bread (even though I had never tasted any myself) and I was determined to find a recipe good enough to satisfy my hankerings. And I tried. I really, really tried. I bought books. I trolled through blogs and websites. I bought every kind of gluten-free flour (there are sixteen different kinds in my pantry at this very moment) and every necessary additive like guar gum and xanthan gum and gelatin. And every single loaf turned out more like cake than bread, unpleasant to eat unless toasted.

Until this. Just look at this!



It tastes as good as it looks. Crunchy outside: check! Chewy inside: check! Gluten-free: check, check, check! Plus it's easy to make, versatile (I have used the dough to make flatbreads for pizza, and it would make wonderful crackers), and it keeps in the fridge for a week so you can bake fresh as you need.

The recipe comes from the Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, and the secret ingredient that makes this dough so unlike the usual sloppy, sticky, pourable gluten-free dough is psyllium husks.

Strange but true. You can eat this bread and be regular at the same time.

I am a happy, happy woman.

Happy Thing #2: Aprons
I have a small issue with stain management. I accumulate stains like nobody I know, and I am more useless than anyone I know at getting them out. I think I'm doing all the right things, but somehow my pile of fit-to-be-seen-in-public t-shirts keeps getting smaller while my shockingly-stained pile grows and grows.

The stains come from all sorts of activities. Working in the garden, of course, but I have learned my lesson there and don't venture into the garden unless I'm wearing my Dirty Clothes. But also things like eating.The likelihood that I will spill on my white shirt is in direct proportion to the stain-making potential of the food I am eating. I can drink water without spilling, but as soon as I have a glass of berry juice in my hand an accident is practically inevitable. And there's cooking. Grease splatters, beet juice droplets, chocolate sauce - they all find their way to the front of my shirts.

But there's this thing called an apron. It's a garment that is easily donned, that doesn't restrict your movement or feel too hot or too heavy, and when you need to quickly look presentable because the neighbour has appeared unexpectedly on your doorstep, it is quickly doffed and hidden in a drawer. It comes in a variety of styles, and is easily made by even the most novice of sewers.

But the best thing about it: it protects your clothes from stains. Why didn't I know this? How could I have four aprons in my pantry and somehow not realize I could wear them and keep my shirts from being wrecked one by one?

Now I am a convert. And to celebrate, to mark this turning point in my life, to show my confidence that this simple garment will change my life forever, I have bought two new t-shirts.

White, of course.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stampede

No, not the Calgary version, the Mucky Boots version. It happens every day about 6 pm, when Kim calls the chickens for their daily treat of scratch.

video

You better not get in the way, that's all I can say.

Wondering about Kim's t-shirt? Here's a closer view.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Kale without a hangover



(Please know that I am not a food photographer. If I was, I would have special light deflectors for eliminating those funny glints off the egg, and I would have a hand thrown pottery plate with the perfect colour for setting off the cooked greens without making them look anaemic. You're just going to have to trust me when I say this meal was delicious, even though the photo may make it look just a touch unappealing...)


You may know that this is my summer for overcoming my aversion to kale. I planted two different varieties this year (Red Russian and Lacinto), determined to find a way to make culinary friends with it - it's just too nutritious and too hardy in the garden to keep avoiding it any longer.

I've been eating it for a few weeks now, always chopped into oblivion and mixed in stir fries with other greens I like better, like chard and baby bok choy.

But yesterday...yesterday I made it the star of the show for the first time, using a recipe from Julie called "Joe Beef's Kale for a Hangover". (Joe Beef is a chef and restaurateur in Montreal, and the recipe comes from his book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.)

I didn't have a hangover, but I was tired after a long and busy day, so this was my supper. And maybe it was that I was so tickled there's a chef named Beef, or maybe it was that this meal was amazingly quick. Or it could have been the beautifully oozing fried egg. Maybe it was the bacon. (Yes, I think it was the bacon.) In any case, I shovelled back this kale-centric meal like nobody's business, and not only survived, but am looking forward to making it again.

When I have enough kale, that is. In fact (she says with shy pride) I am eating the kale in my garden faster than I can grow it. I'm going to have to plant more...
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