Friday, October 28, 2011

Nasturtium Buds and Blossoms - Yum!

Nasturtium blossoms and buds, like violets, add a delicate and piquant flavor to salads. I grow them for their beauty and forget to use them for food – so when it started to snow yesterday afternoon I rushed out into the front patio to harvest the autumn array of nasturtium blossoms and buds. The red and orange flowers with their chic flat leaves were being crushed by the heavy wet snowflakes. The resulting harvest, captured in a bowl indoors, was small but very beautiful. I ate one or two blossoms right away – their crunchy peppery flavor is similar to true watercress (be careful where you harvest watercress – the water it thrives in may be polluted. It’s best to go for market-grown cress, unless you really know the water source).
I read years ago that nasturtium buds can be prepared and used like capers. I am a caper fanatic, pardon me while I switch to my favorite spelling, capar – but their high price and excess saltiness can put off even this extreme saltaholic. As you can see in the photo, I put the buds in a wee bowl with a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Go ahead and add salt – I did not.
I placed a covering over the blossoms and marinating buds and refrigerated overnight. This morning the blossoms were still crisp, ready to glamorize the salad that I will have tonight – and the buds are succulent, subtle microcosms of a good salad – they burst and melt in the mouth.

(Those are post-blossom seed pods in the lower left of the photo.)

Autumn is icumen in

Food appetites and preferences shift gears with the approach of colder weather. What causes this shift – the drop in day-length? Why does it happen – to fatten us up for the winter?
While I am sure that “studies have been done,” a conclusive understanding no doubt remains elusive. This is a good reason to get out of the academic grove and head into the kitchen to cook a hearty autumnal meal.
My first clue that autumn was upon us, was an unexpected wild craving for roasted root vegetables – Brian Jaques’ “Redwall Cookbook” suddenly stood out on the cookbook shelf as if spotlighted. While my first autumn feast was not out of those pages, it was certainly inspired by Jaques’ twee but tasty recipes, such as “Mole’s Favourite Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie” ! We’ll call my meal a cabbage and potato roast-up – no apostrophes were harmed in the making of this dish.
At Ludgates Farm Market I purchased a small head of purple cabbage and a pound-plus of Finger Lakes fingerling potatoes. I cut the cabbage into quarters, put it in an ovenproof pan with a bit of olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and a small amount of water, covered the pan and roasted this glorious item for at least an hour at around 400 degrees F.
Meanwhile I washed, dried and cut in half the small potats and put them in a glass oven pan with fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, and a few Tbs of olive oil – mixed it all up and roasted it uncovered for 20-25 minutes at 425F. An Epicurious recipe suggested scattering a few Tbs of balsamic vinegar on the finished dish and re-roasting for a couple more minutes – intense favor enhancement!
These handsome, deeply-flavored, aromatic and comforting items lasted me three days – first as a one-person feast; then as side dishes for other happy, home-cooked meals.
The second autumn-craving dish has a name with capital letters: Two-Bean Turkey Leg Chili. It needs improvements – it is a tad heavy on the digestive system – but sure tastes good. I soaked black and pinto beans together with olive oil and garlic. I added about ten more cups of water and simmered, adding a (defrosted) turkey leg left over from our Canadian Thanksgiving, a half cup of uncooked brown rice, and a 15 ounce can of Mexican tomato sauce (hot). Whew!
After 1-2 hours I had me a warming, (spicy), satisfying, but heavy dish – best savored in small bowls with a green vegetable side-dish. Following these two mad forays into midwinter, I ate salads for two days in a row.
The photos show the finished cabbage and potato roast-up and the Two-Bean Turkey Leg Chili, which I ate out of an original Bledsoe Batware mug.

Garden Gratitude – 2011

I am not a very good gardener but am getting better. Last fall I realized, following another growing season of minimal results, that standing in front of lackluster plants shaking my head in puzzlement was not enough – that I had to do hard physical work continuously, and quit griping.
While this year’s harvest was not what anyone else around here would term abundant, it sure was better for me: The additional compost, weeding, mulching and watering (even when the well went dry and I had to lug buckets from the neighbors’ pond) paid off in a modest but continual yield for my fresh produce needs and earthly delights.
I especially want to give a call out to the TOMATOES who gave me daily joy – the small blasts of flavor from the cherries, straight off the scented vines, in the warm mornings, and the earthy aromas of tomatoes in sauce and bright salads in the kitchen; the incredible luxury of having all the SNOW PEAS I could consume daily for over a month; the repeated astonishment of being able to harvest TOMATILLOS in my own backyard for sauces. (Beets and potatoes, let’s try again next spring. And this fall I got the garlic planted in October!)
Most of all -- thanks go to the Plantsman Nursery in Lansing for getting me started in earliest April, when the local outdoors was still a mud-bath, with a container of small lettuce and kale plants. I harvested the lettuces within a couple of weeks – what a confidence-booster and SO GOOD; I also planted another kale type and collard green seedlings, from Earlybird Farms just south of Ithaca. The result - ALL SUMMER long I had PLENTIFUL, incredibly flavorful greens for every type of dish – sautéed, boiled, cut up and added to other dishes. When cut, these plants regrew. OMG.
The photos show a midsummer yield and assorted greens bed; the final lingering cherry and plum tomatoes in September, and the goodbye-til-spring harvest of assorted greens – harvested on October 26. Oh yeah!

Mystery Mint Becomes Hanshaw Road Backyard Mint Tea!

We stopped mowing the backyard for a variety of reasons. One reason was to see what would come up! What native or interesting plants had been suppressed by decades of mowing wetlands and old pasture into a “grassy lawn”?
The re-grown backyard now boasts native sedges and grasses, wetland shrubs and seedling trees that are gone from surrounding cultivated or paved areas. Also, to my surprise, there is a plentiful and spreading bed of mint, which revealed itself via its beautiful scent when stepped on. Mowed into the lawn for many years, the plants had managed to spread across a sizable area of the backyard, and grew up into sizeable plants over the spring and summer months.
The photos show the mints emerging from the surrounding grass; and the rolls of mint-leaf filled paper towels that I use to dry the harvested leaves for tea.
Twice this past summer, I cut the plants off about a third of the way down each one, to harvest the leaves and to allow the small plants to become sturdier and bushier for future growth (I dunno if I am doing this right!).
I rolled single layers of leaves into paper towel bundles, fastened with rubber bands, and left for a month to dry fully. I have found this method works better than air drying, which in this moist climate can lead to mold and bug infestation, not to mention spider webs!
The dried mint leaves yield a pure, honest mint tea when a few are crumbled into a tea-ball and steeped in hot water. The aroma alone will carry you to a better inner place for long enough to truly refresh.

Apples and Pears from Roadside Trees

My mid-20th century house is on an old road, co-existing with the remnants of older landscapes. Apple trees dot the roadside woodline. Although today they are ignored and overgrown, they indicate that earlier residents planted and used these excellent fruits. A hearty old apple tree peeks out of the woods along the road just east of my house, and this year it was loaded with small pretty green apples, ripening with a tinge of red. There is also a small pear tree growing at the end of my driveway. It was “always there” while I grew up; today it is in bad shape, half-dead: but every summer it produces a healthy crop of small hard pears.
This August I finally “got” or “took” or “seized” the time to pick a small bucket each of the pears and apples, and prepared a combination sauce. The photos show the apple tree; the half-prepared pears; and the resulting thick creamy apple-pear sauce.
These wild or feral fruits take a little longer than their fully tame cousins to prepare. They are small and hard. They require cutting with a small sharp knife, and cleaning out of seeds and bug-holes. I did not peel them.
I put the resulting mixed fruit (three-four cups total) in a pan on the stove with a small amount of water, and let it come to a rolling simmer. I stirred the pan and left it – for only about four minutes – and when I looked again the apples had sort of exploded into a creamy mass. The pears were firmer and retained their shape and intense pear flavor. I stirred, tasted, and added 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, as the sauce was too tart for me (and I like tart).
This wild apple-pear sauce was creamy, dense, mousse-like. Wonderful, powerful. I’ll do it again. Gets easier once you have done it the first time!

My own personal cookout

August 2011:

What a heavenly backyard meal. Although this summertime feast is usually consumed in the company of others, it tasted just as good when savored alone. I don't eat meat very often; the local sweet corn this summer was superb. Local red potatoes & butter from down the road!

The soft evening and a good read made for a wonderful, private celebration of living well. Cats for company.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My well is back but frackers want my water - and my air, my land, and my quiet enjoyment of my property

My well ran dry for about a month this just-past summer. That uncomfortable period was followed by a second month of begging the plumber to come and figure out what was wrong with the PUMP.

After Tropical Storm Lee deluged my area and caused historic downstream flooding and suffering, the plumber finally got here, with an escort of two guys who were gonna pull the pump and replace it at astronomical cost.

Turned out that there was just grit in the pump from the dry weeks. That was flushed out, and I now have hot showers and all the joys of plentiful (but carefully conserved) water from a shallow well drilled into a jumble of glacial debris, where the water fills the crevices between the boulders and pebbles not too far beneath the house.

That was last week. This week, angry Anschutz Inc. of Denver Colorado has announced that they are suing the Town of Dryden NY, that's where my house is, to try and overturn the recently-passed zoning ordinance amendment that says that gas drilling and related activities are not in accord with the town's zoning ordinance or its general plan.

I would speculate (because that's the wording one uses when desirous of avoiding a lawsuit for libel, slander and generally having one's mouth shut by the power of the almighty dollar) that this lawsuit is closely tied to the Dryden NY GOP's plan to get a pro-fracking town supervisor elected in November in order to liberate Dryden from the shackles of environmental protection and burdensome regulation.

Why would these (alleged) doofuses aid and abet a company and industry that want to take away MY precious and very limited clean water supply, clean air, and the quiet enjoyment of my property? How do these (possibly) naive fools think they have the right to hold the door open to let in the gasaholics to destroy my land's value and uses?

One of these (apparent) idiots has written that we in Dryden will be constrained to a life of "genteel poverty" if we do not jump for the golden ring of gas development. And yet he said to me, with witnesses, that he himself does not have a lease on his land in Ellis Hollow and does not plan to obtain one. This publicly-revealed hypocrite is working on behalf of a candidate and a lawless industry, while hoping to keep the shit off his own shoes?

I am already living in genteel poverty. If this man's reckless, irresponsible actions lead to the destruction of my water, air, land and the quiet enjoyment of my property, what will I have left? Genteel poverty is all I've got, and he wants to let Aschutz take even that away from me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wild grapes & their leaves

This summer has been ferociously busy, but I have managed to find time for some wild foods harvesting and preparation. Last week I crossed the road and fields to the woodline, in search of tender wild grape leaves and the small tart purple wild grapes.

With them I planned to make dolmas and grape juice. Euell Gibbons and other wild food writers say you should collect grape leaves in June while they are new and tender, but even in August I found several dozen that were not too bug-eaten or leathery; and I also gathered numerous ripe, miniature grape clusters, found hiding beneath the blankets of vines and leaves.

Back at the house, I cooked the leaves in a few inches of boiling water (with olive oil, garlic, red wine vinegar) for about five minutes to soften and partially cook them. While they drained and cooled I prepared rice with olives, garlic, nuts, raisins and other tasty ingredients. I dabbed a bit of the rice mix into each leaf; folded top and bottom and sides of each leaf around the mix, and placed each dolma bundle seam-side down in a glass casserole pan.

When the pan was full (one layer, tightly packed), I poured over it a flavorful mix of oil, vinegars, salt and pepper (also some liquid from a jar of olives) - enough to come up the sides of the dolmas but not to cover.

A tin foil cover was applied to the casserole, and I let it simmer in the oven for about 45 minutes at 350F. Then it went into the fridge to cool. These dolmas were wildly flavorful and tender - success!!!

As for preparing the grapes for juice, I sorted the ripe purple grapes into a pan with a little bit of water, brought it to a boil and let it simmer for about 10-12 minutes. I placed a metal mesh kitchen strainer over a bowl and poured grapes and juice into the strainer.

With a wooden spoon, I rubbed the grapes gently so that their pulp went through the strainer into the bowl with the juice, leaving the grape pips behind in the strainer (I discarded the pips, yes of course into the compost bin).

Tasting the resulting juice, I found it exceedingly tart, so I cut it with about a cup and a half of water and 2-3 T of sugar, stirred, and let it cool in the fridge. Even a week later it was AMAZINGLY pure and refreshing in its purple grapey flavor - I mixed it with seltzer - POW!

Monday, August 22, 2011

When it fails to rain

Beautiful fresh rainwater can fill a bucket quickly - but none fell this weekend.

The rainclouds swept heavily and darkly across my backyard all day Sunday, but released only a few sprinkles in all that time, not enough to even wet the bottom of my buckets set at the bottoms of downspouts on the house. Not enough to flush one toilet one time!

I went to the Slottjes' house for a tasty (home made! Go Helen!) supper on Saturday, had a long hot shower, and filled twelve jugs of water from their kitchen and bathroom taps. As he lugged the jugs out to my car David said, "It would do some people a lot of good to have to live like this for a while."

Of course, most of the world's people do live like this -- in fact much worse -- drinking, washing and cooking with polluted water -- when they can get it.

David was referring to New Yorkers and other pro-gasaholics who are convinced that using our precious clean fresh water for gas fracking is a great energy bargain for the country and planet. If they had to live on water in jugs and showers at friends' houses, they might begin to understand the true (overwhelming) value of water in the gas-water equation.

I got back to the house with my twelve jugs of water wealth, and ran around setting up the downspout buckets for all the rain that was supposed to show up on Sunday. I went to bed Saturday night thinking that I was going to be rich - water to drink, wash dishes with, water for the tomatoes in the garden, and flush the toilet twice a day!

I used up almost three gallons of the jug water wealth on Sunday to wash two sinkfulls of dishes that had built up -- and there was an almighty stink of putrefaction in the drain due to no soapy water having rinsed its gullet for five days.

And then, no rain all day Sunday. A month into having no running water, I kept thinking about what the Atlanta sewer and water authority guy said at that conference: "Try to do without it for an afternoon!"

Sadly, the new advice is to call in a well driller expert to help diagnose the problem. Uh oh.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The sound of flowing water

Some days I am cast down by the complications of having a dry well, but this afternoon as it rained gently and quietly, I began to hear the most lovely sound: it was water trickling through the downspouts off the roof and into the buckets I have set around the house. Such a sweet pure small calming set of notes.

I washed chard from the garden today by setting the leaves out on the picnic table, turning them over when they were brimming with rainwater, and then shaking them. I know there's bad stuff in the rainwater, but surely the romance of rain-washed produce is stronger than acid rain?

Sitting out in the back yard yesterday, I gazed at the tops of the trees around my house as they swayed far above me in the restless breeze of the approaching rainstorms. White pines, maples, willow -- and the big oak in the front yard, about 60 years old (I remember when my mom planted it, young and skinny.) I thought about the shallow roots of the white pines, and the deep taproot of the oak -- and stopped to think again. Maybe the oak tree's root has grown deep enough to tap into my well water? If that is true, the oak is more than welcome to it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Will Dryden Go Dry?"

Photo: Put a brick in it - a brick in your toilet tank reduces water needed for flush. That is a good thing when you have to pour water into the tank for each flush, when your well goes dry.

“Will Dryden Go Dry?" That's a good question. It is being asked by a Dryden-based pro-fracking group, in terms of the Dryden Town Board voting for a zoning ordinance that would ban gas drilling in the Town of Dryden (August 2 is the likely date for the vote).

I am wondering the same thing, but in terms of Dryden's WATER WELLS going dry, due to this devastatingly dry summer.

How about it, Dryden residents - do we have water to spare from our creeks to use for fracking, at 5 million gallons of freshwater per frac?

When cows drink 50 gallons of water a day and more when being milked, aren't we already down to the dry creek bed in many places, and aren't many of you having to truck in water for cisterns and dry wells? This is the story I heard from friends in Lansing and Caroline last night, and I doubt it is different in Dryden.

Pro-frackers state that we have "spare, extra" water falling down out of the sky that we can use for fracking, and no one will notice its loss. Who are they kidding?

Farmers are smart, surely they won't fall for this nonsense. Right now, the creeks and our famous waterfalls are down to a trickle. Climate predictions state that the "new normal" has arrived in the form of extreme weather patterns such as last winter's deep cold and the spring mega-rains, followed by an extended, deep dry season. We do not have any water to spare, not one drop, for fracking!

Our climate will, it is projected (by the Union of Concerned Scientists), shift toward that of Georgia's today, by the year 2100. I don't want to think about Georgia's 2100 climate, but the Southeastern states seem to think that climate change is a commie plot and won't listen, anyway.
Meanwhile, I am dealing with my own domestic well going dry, and learning that many folks on (unfiltered) wells around here have to deal with water shortages every summer. They pay to have water trucked in to cisterns planted in their yards, and they go to the lakes and creeks for their baths and the laundromats for their laundry. That is the summer pattern here -- always has been; and is going to worsen as the "new normal" climate takes hold.

"Will Dryden Go Dry?" It already is dry -- and it will be parched and barren if fracking is allowed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

My well ran dry

Photo: rainwater harvesting.

My house gets water via a well; family lore says it is 70 feet deep. The house was built in 1950 and the well has never gone dry. In the hot dry days of 2010, the water supply got a bit shaky -- the faucet spat and coughed and the water was sulfur-smelly, but it kept on coming. I hose-watered a vegetable garden, new berry bush patches, new flowers around the front patio, a new bed of day lilies and perennials out near the road.

By mid-autumn 2010 I had forgotten all about my fears of the well going dry, further calmed by the copious water pouring out of the wetland woods behind my house all winter and spring 2011 -- enough to often form a small stream running across my backyard, the water pouring into my neighbors' front and back yard, their house surrounded by water, linked via a driveway isthmus to the road. Water shortage? Not here!

Last Sunday, in mid-July 2011, the water stopped flowing. I had done two loads of laundry and watered the small gardens and small trees and berry patches that I have planted over the past two years. I had bought a small cheap oscillating sprinkler to save myself some time (hubris enters the picture), had ratcheted down the settings so that it sprinkled very specific areas.

I was setting up the sprinkler in the patio to water the delicate flowers that get so super-heated, and suddenly the water flow began to cough and choke, and a blast of water blew out the plug on the end of the sprinkler - and then no more water. The well pump was on -- and did not go off. It was working madly to suck water up out of the ground and into my pipes and faucets and toilets - but the well was dry.

The plumber has been here twice and is fairly sure this is a dry well, not a leaky pipe under the house or a broken well casing (know all about that from gas fracking). He said that on the day I called their emergency line, FIVE other people called with dry wells. I have heard since that "many people" are reporting dry wells in this supposedly water-rich area, and farmers are in fear of losing their water supply.

My political voice keeps trying to break in here, about how is it that gas companies want our water to frack gas wells, when we don't have enough for our own uses -- but I'll stay calm and for the time being continue looking at this personal disaster with manifold household and day-to-day ramifications.

I'll eventually get around to water and gas fracking and Governor Cuomo saying that NY City's unfiltered water is more important than all our unfiltered wells upstate .... and right-wingers right here in Dryden NY saying that because we have all this "free" precipitation that "falls out of the sky every year," that means we have lots of "extra" water that can be used (permanently removed from the water cycle) for gas fracking, and no one will notice the loss!

But I will tamp down the rage and return to my situation of a household in midsummer suddenly without running water for the forseeable future. Like the guy who runs the Atlanta Sewer and Water District said in a talk at River Rally in May, "Try doing without it for an afternoon!"

Seems to me that climate change and my own personal necessity for adaptation have arrived on my doorstep: suddenly last Sunday. I am no consumer hog. I am getting an energy audit for my house so that I can further reduce my natural gas usage; I keep the house at 55-62F in the winter and don't have a/c or a dishwasher, and I put my laundry on the line whenever feasible. Trying to grow my own vegetables. Replacing lawn with native plants. Composting every last little scrap and recycling the rest. Trying to be good! But the "new normal" has caught up with me, and left me high and dry.

Wait a minute, did you catch me saying the words climate change? Those dirty wicked leftie words that mean I am part of some inchoate, foggy plot to destroy the American Way of Life? Oh darn it, "politics" -- though I call 'em FACTS -- have crept back in.

It's hot, it's late, the neighbors are shooting off big boomer firecrackers that could set the tinder-dry woods on fire, the police soothe me over the phone that they will come check it out but they don't, and my cats are miserable in their heavy fur coats. I am going to take the one-gallon shower that I have perfected.

Check back in for happy hints on water conservation and things I have learned in one short week about what happens when a house goes water-free in mid-summer. And there will be sudden dangerous outbursts of fact-based science commentary.

I hear it might rain Sunday night, or maybe Monday.