Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review: Plenty

Review of Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon (Harmony Books, 2007)

This is where the whole 100 mile diet movement got off the ground. Aghast at the distances that supermarket food has to travel, and the waste of oil that goes into such insanities as shipping tomatoes from Ecuador to the U.S. at the same time that the U.S. is exporting tomatoes, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon made a rash vow: that for an entire year, they would eat only food that was grown or caught within a 100 mile radius of their home in Vancouver, B.C.

For a young couple living in a tiny efficiency apartment in the middle of a city, with only a 10 foot by 3 foot garden allotment a short drive away, unplugging from the industrial food system meant long drives in the country in search of food -- at times, any food at all. Their odyssey began in March, the time of year when most fresh foods are out of season and even the cold-storage root crops are beginning to show signs of their age. Potatoes and onions are fine for one meal, but as the authors soon discovered, a steady diet of little else can drive one mad. Fortunately the farmer's markets opened in May, bringing a steady stream of fresh produce for immediate eating and for preservation.

Throughout their culinary journey, the authors reexamine their relationship with food, and even with each other. They expose their mistakes as well as their successes, and draw colorful portraits of the farmers, fishermen, and other characters they met as they discovered just what eating locally means, and how removed we of Western culture have become from our own food.

The one hazard of this book is that it may leave readers with the feeling that this is all too hard. A rash of articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post have all insinuated that eating entirely locally just isn't practical, or is even impossible in today's global market, regardless of how wasteful and unsustainable the industrial food system has become. True, going cold turkey may be an excessive burden for most of us working stiffs who don't have time for tooling around the countryside week after week in search of direct-market farms.

But how hard does it really have to be?

Article writers approach the issue as though it's an either-or proposition: either we eat only locally or we just keep eating the way we are. Hmm, let me see, work very hard to eat locally, or just keep on doing what I'm already doing. Which would I choose? But those aren't our only options. The 100 Mile Diet website suggests starting small. The leap-in-with-both-feet approach is overwhelming, so why not stick a toe in first? Start with one meal, made entirely from local produce. Or one meal a week. Or some chosen percentage of the contents of your grocery cart.

Or start a garden and grow some of the food yourself, your rebel you. You can't get much more local than that.

There are no rules. If each of us does what we can, it will make a difference.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas loot!

I had a lot of good gardening stuff on my Christmas list, and Santa came through with some good goodies. Now if the sky would just stop raining and spitting bits of snow long enough for me to get outside, I could go play with my new toys. I'll borrow a few images from the source websites until I can get some good pictures of my own.

The biggest item that I'd hoped for was this Rubbermaid Storage Bench, ordered via our local Ace Hardware:

I assembled the bench this afternoon, and all but the last side panel went together easily. It took two people, though, and several tries to get the last side panel on. The seat is a lid for the storage box underneath. It now has a spot in the new garden, where it will store some tools so I don't have to run down behind the house every time I want a tool.

Territorial Seed Company was the source for this very nice cold frame kit made by Sunshine Garden House:

That, too, I assembled this afternoon. It wasn't too difficult, but I found it was much easier if I pre-drilled the holes for the screws. Otherwise I was afraid of splitting the wood. I also gave the wood a coat of tung oil. The frame is redwood, so it should be fairly impervious to rot for a very long time, but some extra care will help it last even longer. Right now the cats think it's a nice thing to climb on and to get inside, so the cover already has little paw prints all over it.

This automatic cold frame opener, however, may prove to be a bust:

The scanty instructions in multiple languages were accompanied by tiny, blurry sketches, and were only somewhat comprehensible in any language. Without an illustrated parts list I could only guess at which part was being asked for in each step and exactly where each part was supposed to go. The spring-loaded jaws snapped shut like a mousetrap several times, twice catching my fingers and leaving a bruise on one finger. Even after I got it assembled, I couldn't figure out if it was assembled correctly, nor could I figure out how to make it work with the cold frame. With the temperature-sensitive cylinder in place, the device stays open, as seen in the photo. How is the cold frame lid supposed to shut? I've never liked post-Christmas returns, especially for things that I asked for in the first place, but this evil little finger-eating device may be transformed into seeds and plants instead.

But returning to the fun toys, this Wheeleasy collapsible wheel barrow was simple to put together and should be extremely useful:

It's big enough that it will be a real help when raking fall leaves, and will be good for small hauling jobs. You have to pull out two little pins in front to make it fold up, and there are clips on the front to put the pins in when they're not in use. I was hoping to store this in the garden bench, but the bench is shorter and the Wheeleasy longer than I'd pictured either of them. It'll fit in the storage shed I have, though.

In addition to the toys I got several books, which I'll highlight in upcoming reviews.

One good "gift" that wasn't on my list was the pathology report from a biopsy of a pigmented patch on my face. The thing went from flat to rounded a few months ago. My doctor looked at it and referred me to a plastic surgeon to have it looked at, and by the time I saw the plastic surgeon, it had gone flat again. The plastic surgeon took a biopsy last week, and pulled the stitches this week. While there were a few slightly abnormal cells in the report, there wasn't anything to be worried about, and if the thing does anything weird now, the biopsy itself took out so much of it that the remainder can be frozen off. We gardeners spend a lot of time in the sun, so be sure to use sunscreen, wear a hat, and check your moles!

Everyone else get their Christmas wishes this year?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas goodies: Springerle (anise cookies)

Anise is easy to grow and is lovely in the garden, with its feathery and frilly leaves. It's a great herb for attracting beneficial insects, as the blossoms supply pollen and nectar for beneficial insects to eat. The licorice-scented seeds can be harvested to save for next year or for cooking.

But what do you make with anise seeds?

Springerle, of course!

Springerle are one of the traditional cookies that my grandmother made every year. These are floury, no-fat cookies flavored with anise seeds and adorned with decorative pictures from a special carved roller or wooden mold. Grandma always kept the cookies in a gallon-sized glass jar. Hers were generally hard enough that they required dunking in coffee to make them edible, though I always liked gnawing on them without dunking them. I guess I'm just weird that way. My springerle are a considerably softer, which I suppose has to do with how long they dry before baking. This year's batch is slightly tan because (oopsie) as I was mixing them I discovered I was one cup shy of the amount of unbleached flour that I needed, so I added a cup of whole wheat flour.

It takes two days to make the cookies. The dough is mixed and the cookies are shaped in the first evening, then baked the next day after they dry overnight. For best flavor, make the springerle a week or two before Christmas to allow the flavor of the anise seeds to permeate the cookies. Store them in a tightly-closed container while they season so they don't turn rock-hard.

This recipe will make 5-6 dozen small cookies.

4 eggs
2 cups of sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups of flour
Anise seeds

Beat the eggs until they are thick. Slowly add the sugar and salt and continue beating 5 minutes with an electric mixer or 15 minutes by hand. Stir in the flour about 1/2 cup at a time. The dough will be stiff.

Divide the dough in half. Shape in to a slab slightly more than 1/4 inch thick and the width of your springerle roller or wooden mold. Roll the dough with the springerle roller to press the pictures into the cookies. Cut the cookies apart. If you don't have a springerle roller, roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick and cut into bars 1 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long.

Lightly grease two cookie sheets and sprinkle thickly with anise seeds. Place the cookies on top of the seeds. They can be fairly close together because they will not spread during baking. Cover the cookies with a cloth and let them dry overnight.

The next morning, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the cookies in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. The initial heat sets the design. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the sheet and allow to cool, then store in a tightly closed container. Seeds that were left on the sheet after the cookies were removed can go in the bottom of the jar to add to the anise aroma.

Essential tools: Grandma's springerle roller and her favorite cookie cookbook, dated 1941.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas goodies: Knock-their-socks-off Pumpkin (or squash) Pie

The frustration for a gardener who has grown some lovely pumpkins or squash for eating is this: you go to the recipe book to find a good recipe for your pumpkins, and what does the recipe call for? "1 can of pumpkin." True, that's the usual form of pumpkin that most Americans are familiar with, but there's nary a suggestion of how much pumpkin comes in one can. One wonders how it came about that pumpkin for eating comes only in a can, while the real things, the orange globes that appear in the stores in the fall, are only for carving. Squash, when it's thought of at all, is more likely to come frozen in a plastic bag that as a whole squash.

So for gardeners or farmer's market buyers, here's my secret recipe for pumpkin pie, which can also be made with squash (which, after all, is really what's in those cans labeled "pumpkin").

When the in-laws are coming over, or you have special guests, or you're trying to butter up the entire office at the annual Christmas party, try serving up this pie. The special spice mix and the vanilla make it yummy enough, but the secret sock-knocking-off ingredient is the rum extract. If you can find real, genuine cinnamon, you're in for an even nicer treat. The stuff sold in the U.S. as "cinnamon" is actually cassia bark, which is cheaper but coarser and has more of a bite. You have to find a specialty spice shop such as Penzeys to find real cinnamon. I haven't yet experimented with using fresh ginger instead of ground, but I may have to try that sometime. To be really genuine, you can use cream instead of canned evaporated milk, but I don't think my arteries would forgive me for that even if my mouth would be in heaven.

First, of course, you have to have some cooked pumpkin or squash. I used butternut squash grown on a local farm for this pie. I grew up hating squash because all I'd ever tried was acorn squash from the grocery store that my mother used to cook with brown sugar, which never did hide the bitterness. Then I tasted butternut. What a revelation. Mellow, sweet, almost as nice as a sweet potato. To cook a butternut squash, I cut it in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, brush with olive oil, and roast cut-side-up at 325 degrees for about an hour. I scoop out the flesh, mash it, and whatever I don't need for the recipe I'm using I freeze in 1 cup portions in plastic bags. If you press the bags flat, they freeze and thaw quickly.

Knock-their-socks-off Pumpkin or Squash Pie

Mix together:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice

Set the sugar and spice mixture aside.

In a blender, put:
2 cups cooked pumpkin or squash
1 can of evaporated milk (regular or nonfat)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon rum extract

Blend until smooth.
Slowly add the sugar and spice mix and blend together.

Pour into a prepared pie shell (regular pie crust, graham cracker crust, or whatever your heart desires). I use a deep-dish 12-inch pie pan to hold all this filling. It will also fill two 8-inch pie pans. Sprinkle the top with nutmeg if you like. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 40 minutes. The middle will puff up and will still be wobbly when done, but a knife or toothpick inserted in the pie should come out clean. Let cool about 2 hours before cutting. Refrigerate once it has cooled.

Serve with whipped cream. My husband insists on naked pumpkin pie, but I learned better when I was growing up.

Pumpkin pie. Fully dressed. On Grandma's vintage china. Mmm-mmm!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

100th post: a holiday gift to my readers

So cool that I can do something special with my 100th post. In honor of all my readers at Reading Dirt, some lucky family in need will be receiving tree seedlings from Heifer International. Now, if we're lucky, the picture of the cute little girl with the seedlings will show up on this card:

Season's Greetings to All!

Christmas goodies: Lavender Shortbread

Mmm, it's the time of year when the baking begins. My grandmother used to begin her Christmas baking sometime around Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Eve, here came Grandma with a mountain of tins, jars, and boxes of cookies, fudge, divinity, candied nuts, kolace (Czech sweet buns with fruit topping -- Grandma's parents immigrated from Bohemia), pumpkin pie, mince pie, hard sauce, Christmas bread, and all the glories of holiday goodness. My brothers and I ate our way through Christmas vacation with Tom and Jerrys (sweet batter, hot water, rum and brandy -- only a dab of the booze for flavor for us kids) to wash it down. Sometimes leftovers went in the freezer -- if there were any leftovers with three kids in the house and relatives coming to visit.

I can't say I've kept up with Grandma's output, but I do make at least three or four different cookies, some Christmas bread, and pumpkin pie. Some of the cookies are traditional, some I've added over the years, and while I don't strive to do all the traditional cookies ever years, I do make sure I do one or two.

The pie plate in the picture above holds traditional Scottish shortbread -- my father's father's family came from Scotland -- with my own touch from the garden: a hint of lavender. It's easy, delicious, and really truly, the calories don't count when it's a holiday. Or so I tell myself. Be sure to use real butter, or at least one of those butter-margarine blends, because it really does make a difference in flavor. So does the real vanilla.

Lavender shortbread
1/2 cup butter (room temperature)
1 cup unbleached flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon dried lavender blossoms

Grind the lavender blossoms in a mini food processor or in a mortar and pestle. Mix with the flour. Add the sugar and mix well. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it forms fine crumbs. Sprinkle on the vanilla and blend in with the pastry cutter. Press into the bottom of a 9 inch pie plate or cake pan (or a shortbread mold if you have one). Bake at 325 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Cut into 16 equal wedges while still warm. Leave in the pan to cool, and remove when it is completely cool.

Now doesn't that look delicious?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'Tis the Season -- for seed catalogs!

Call them eye candy, call them garden porn, call them what you like, there's nothing like a good seed catalog to while away a rainy or icy winter evening by the fire with a hot cup of tea, planting beautiful gardens in one's mind. Bugs never invade, diseases never strike, the flowers all bloom on time and the vegetables are perfect in the garden of the mind, nurtured by the effusive prose of the seed catalog.

Every gardener has his or her favorite company or catalog. There are catalogs one prefers for buying certain types of seeds or plants, catalogs with the most amusing prose, catalogs with the best and most tempting photos, and they aren't always one and the same.

My preferences have long been Territorial Seed Company and Nichols Garden Nursery. Both are Oregon companies (still on the locally-grown theme, yes?), and both feature varieties best suited for the Pacific Northwest.

Territorial's catalog is richly informative, with complete growing instructions in front of each vegetable section. They have a good selection of garden tools and books, without a lot of decorative flim-flam. Their seeds and plants are almost always good, though one year none of the lettuce that I bought from them germinated. I don't know if it was due to their processing, or if it was exposed to extreme temperatures in shipping. Had I complained, they would have shipped new seed, but I'd already re-seeded with packets from the prior year.

Nichols is located just a half-hour away by freeway, close enough to drive to, in a red barn-like building redolent with herbal aromas. A lovely display garden sits in back. Some years I make the trip, and some years it's more convenient to order from their catalog. The catalog copy itself is sometimes a little dry and may have more typos that one might prefer, but their selection of herbs and native wildflowers for the region is wonderful. They have some downright unusual vegetables (yacon or oca, anyone?), saffron crocus, a selection of brewing supplies for those so inclined, and my very favorite of all herbal teas, Red Dragon. Their Eco Lawn mixes are a nice compromise for people who are concerned about the ecological impact of lawn care, but don't want to give up their lawns entirely. Rose Marie Nichols McGee is the co-author of Bountiful Container, the definitive guide to edible container gardening.

This year I'll be installing some new fruit trees, so I've perused the One Green World online catalog. The nursery is just an hour's drive to the north from where I live, and the catalog features an amazing collection of fruits from around the world. Many are unusual and hard to find elsewhere. If you want to grow a medieval Medlar or a Chinese Goumi, One Green World is where you'll find them. I'll be looking for dwarf pears, cherries, and an apricot, so if I can't find the varieties I want at One Green World, I'll look into Stark's catalog, as well as checking with local nurseries.

I'll also be improving several spots with native plants, so I'll be hitting Wallace Hansen Nursery during its spring sale. There's a nice PDF plant list on their website for drooling over in the meantime.

Now if I really want a big dose of eye candy, there's nothing like Thompson & Morgan's all-color catalog. Not local, but so much fun to look at. For the really discerning who want their perennials just so, try Digging Dog Nursery. For the xeric garden and western natives, High Country Gardens is hard to beat. Their plants always arrive in excellent shape.

Ah, now if only the gardens of reality looked as grand as the gardens of my dreams!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Let the Christmas decorating begin - gardener style

Whew! NaNoWriMo is over (and I won! Yeah!), dead week and finals week are over, grades have been turned in, and I'm back from several days in Santa Monica where I went to a workshop on using some new video-based teacher training materials. Now I can finally attend to my neglected garden and my neglected garden blog.

How about this pretty pansy, all in Christmas colors? It's part of my outdoor Christmas decorating scheme. No blow-up manger scenes with a robotic baby Jesus waving at the crowds, not for this garden. I began the holiday decorating instead with a trip to the garden center for one flat each of white and red pansies, which went in the center circle of the new garden:

Okay, so it's not as exciting and obviously Christmas-like as the robotic baby Jesus. These flowers went in a couple of weeks ago, but the weather has been all blowy and rainy, so they haven't put on much growth. I'm not sure if the neighbors can see enough blooms to recognize the color scheme, but at least I know it's for Christmas! After the holidays are over, I'll find some early primroses in pink to add to the pansies for a Valentine's day display. By the time Easter comes around, the pansies will be fading and the primroses can take over in springtime pastels.

I tucked several red and white pansies into the herb pots on the front porch, which yesterday got wrapped in light-up green garland:

Some years I've started the porch pots with black and orange pansies for Halloween, replaced the black pansies with yellow for Thanksgiving, then moved the fall colors to a flower bed and replaced them with the Christmas colors.

I also moved a few dozen strawberry plants from their old bed to the new bed in the new garden and started mulching them with raked pine needles:

The old bed borders a back-access to the neighbor's yard, and every time they have yard work done, the strawberry bed gets trampled. You'd think that a bunch of guys who are hired to do yard work would be able to see plants instead of trampling them. But no, I have to remember that 1) these are guys, not gardening guys, but just plain guys hired to do some work, and 2) the work they're hired to do is in the neighbor's yard, not mine. So whatever is in the neighbors' yard is important, but my yard is just the place they drive through to get there, and a convenient place to dump their trash. Grrr.