Anticipation of Fall

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In the midst of summer, under July heat and between berry-picking and trips to the lake, my mind always begins to move to fall. On chilly mornings, or when a breeze picks up and thrashes the plants out front, I feel it coming, though its arrival is still months off yet.

It’s always been at this time of year that I start knitting. Crafting for cold weather lets me channel the euphoria and creativity that the first chill and yellowing trees light in me. As I work I imagine the smell of rain and fallen leaves and pumpkin and roast chicken, and my soul leaps with excitement.

Now that we’re back in the Pacific Northwest I am overjoyed for the promise of cooler weather and rain.  The season will be rung in by my daughter’s second birthday. We’ll return to cooking inside and lighting the wood stove.

I’m not knitting my way through this summer– partly for lack of time; partly because my daughter would object– but instead I’ll be thinking ahead as I dig and plant our fall garden. I’ll be stacking firewood, storing potatoes, picking hazelnuts, and nailing siding up on the hay barn.

As always, there is more to do than there are hours in the day or energy in my body. But we’re moving forward, chipping away, and I’m feeling blissfully inspired.

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Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

At the height of summer, on long days of working and playing outside, nothing is better than a refreshing garden-fresh salad. The lemon cucumbers that have been ripening back-to-back on our vines are deserving of better than a humble supporting role. We’ve enjoyed plenty sliced with a pinch of salt.

As a basis of a more substantial dish, perfect for al fresco lunch, I mix the beautiful slices with corn, fresh herbs, feta, and succulent wild greens. Dressed only lightly with extra virgin olive oil, the flavors balance and compliment one another wonderfully– salt from the feta, sweetness from the corn, and light citrus from the purslane.

I’ve used mint and basil together since enjoying the best-ever caprese salad in a restaurant, and now my tomatoes are paired more often with mint than the latter. We also use the abundant herb in myriad savory dishes that I would have once thought strange, since mint always meant “sweet” to me– an association I suspect an unfortunately large population of Americans share. I only urge you to branch out! Zucchini and mint are a match made in heaven. And there’s always mint wine.

Here I use grapefruit mint, my favorite variety. It has the power and aroma to turn a cold glass of water into a refreshing summer mocktail with a simple muddled leaf.

As for the purslane and oxeye daisies: both are exceptionally common, easily identified wild plants, though of course I encourage research before foraging for food. Both are used medicinally and are delicious greens.

While the beautiful seas of daisies have dried on Northwest hillsides, lush basal leaves continue to sprout everywhere. (Check your garden!) Their flavor is pleasantly herbal and mild. Baby arugula would make a stronger-flavored domesticated stand-in, and wild amaranth leaves would be nice as well.

Purslane especially likes inhospitable cracks in the sidewalk and gravel driveways, so just look down. It’s an unassuming succulent with a cucumber-citrus flavor. More on this lovely wild snack from Grow a Good LifeAttainable Sustainable, and Little Big Harvest. Sliced lemon verbena or lemon mint might stand in adequately, though without the cool crispness than purslane offers.

Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

Quantities are notably omitted. Use a handful of each ingredient as you prefer.

Cucumbers, preferably lemon variety, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Steamed corn, cut from the cob

Feta cheese, crumbled

Purslane, tips and leaves

Oxeye daisy, basal leaves

Basil leaves, thinly sliced

Mint leaves, such varieties as grapefruit, apple, or spearmint, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil (very little)

Salt (very little)

Black pepper (very little)

For garnish: basil or mint sprigs, oxeye daisy flowers, borage flowers, or nasturtium.

Toss all ingredients together, then arrange in shallow salad bowls and add garnishes, all of which above are edible and delicious.

17 Tips for Easy Homemade Broth

Chicken, vegetable, and other broths are some of the most versatile and easy-to-make staples in the kitchen. They turn a spent carcass or papery onion skins into one more meal– almost for free! Most importantly, homemade broth is dramatically superior to what you can buy in a can or box at the market, and without the additives and preservatives.

There are myriad ways to make great broth, and here are some tips from our kitchen.

Save bones and trimmings in the freezer. Keep separate bags for cooked and raw; different meats; and smoked or non-smoked, which impart flavors best for different dishes. Be sure to date your bags or containers, so you use the oldest first and within a few months of freezing.

Save veggies, too! Stick to aromatic leftovers, like onion skins and root, carrot ends and skin, celery trimmings, mushroom stems, pea pods, and corn cobs. Skins are the most nutritious parts of most vegetables, so broth salvages nutrients otherwise lost in peeling.

Season as you go. This can be contentious, but I’m a firm believer in producing a broth that’s immediately drinkable. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’ve got until the soup or dish is done. You can always omit salt from the final recipe. So salt the meat before cooking, salt the liquid, and adjust seasoning on the finished product. You don’t want “salty,” but you do want full flavor.

Sweat your meat and vegetables. The key is drawing out the flavorful juices from the meat, bones, and veggies. So if you’re using raw chicken, brown it in a little oil (or better yet, rendered fat) in the stew pot. Add the onions and brown those, too, then cover and sweat for 10 minutes over low heat. Don’t open the lid. At the end, the ingredients will be swimming in rich juices. Sweating is especially useful for a quick broth. If you’re using cooked meat or bones, or are making vegetable broth, sweat the onions– and mushrooms if you’re using fresh ones.

For a nice rich stock, break up the bones, keep it slow, and skim often. At the end of several hours over low heat, the resulting stock should turn to firm jelly when cooled. Skimming improves clarity.

For vegetarian broth, keep dehydrated mushrooms on-hand. Leftover stems are great, too. Fungi offer great umami and depth of flavor.

Don’t add garlic (until the end.) Garlic can turn bitter if cooked too long. Too much celery can do the same, as will brassicas, potatoes, and a number of other vegetables.

Plan ahead and vary flavors for different uses. For an Asian noodle soup I love to make, I add lemongrass and basil to the broth. For many others I add dried chilis or coriander. It’s a great way to inject flavor from something you don’t want winding up in your soup spoon, like a bay leaf.

On the other hand, for standard uses, stick to the basic recipe. I don’t add herbs or other special seasonings unless I know how I want my dish flavored. For basic chicken broth, I use chicken, onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns, and salt. That’s it.

Don’t peel your onions. Do wash them. When using whole onions, there’s no need to peel them since the skins have good flavor, too. Just chop them up like a potato before tossing in the pot. However, be sure to wash them since the outside can have germs and pesticides. On that note, for this use in particular, I highly recommend buying organic.

Grill the odd bits. If you remove the back or breastbone of the chicken when you’re piecing it, or if no one likes to eat the neck or giblets, cook them up anyway along with the parts for dinner. That way they’re ready to go for broth. Giblets and feet make great, flavorful broth. If your family isn’t into eating the offal, save them up in the freezer for this.

After skimming your broth, give the spent meat to the dog. Our dogs are always happy when I’m picking through the leftovers. They like the carrots, too.

Best of all, if you keep delicious homemade broth on-hand, whenever you’re sick (or hung over) it’s a piece of cake to make a lifesaving mug of spicy garlic broth. Nothing like it!

Summertime

Summer is not my favorite season by any stretch, yet in spite of unprecedented weeks of heat here in the Pacific Northwest, this summer has been filled with charm and simple luxuries.

The creek is at what neighbors say is a record low for this time of year, and I believe it. But it still offers burbling pools for swimming, and a multitude of wonders such as impromptu crawdad boils and a reprieve from the scorching afternoons.

The wild berries are bountiful, and my daughter and I spend much of each day picking– and she eating. The variety is astounding here. The common blackberries are just beginning to reach ripeness in greater quantity than could ever be picked, and the cooking and canning finally shall begin.

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We’ve dug the first row of potatoes– 17 pounds– and the garlic and shallots, which were small due to late planting and infrequent watering. Fortunately they yielded a good handful of delicious scapes, or as I always knew them, whistles.

Our great friend made an impulse purchase of two Muscovy ducks and brought two for us in exchange for keeping them here. My husband was quick to day “I told you so” when I conceded that they’re great– adorable, easy-for-now to care for, and will eventually be a good meal that led a happy life in the grass and water. Long-term, we intend to dig a pond in the pasture area, partially for run-off management, and then raise more ducks.

Our rabbits were successfully bred, and delivered ten of the most adorable babies: tortoiseshell, black-and-white, and all-white rex-New Zealand crosses. I’m pleased and relieved that all have survived and thrived, whereas in the past these mothers have struggled.

We took in our male rabbit, who I believe is a black-and-brown rex, several months ago after losing our buck. I hoped to have colorful pelts for a variety of uses. However, my plan backfired: these bunnies are way too cute for food, my husband insists. Some will therefore be sold, some will be eaten, and we will be purchasing an additional New Zealand buck.

The garden is filling out, which feels slow but good. I’ll be prepping fall beds this coming week and planting brassicas, as well as more beans on the pea trellis after we harvest the stunted shoots for salad tonight. This incredibly hot summer has had no sympathy for our late plantings.

This is the first year in many that I’ve been filled with visceral euphoria in anticipation of fall. I suppose it’s because I’m back home. And here, I think we will enjoy the most sumptuous fall of any, and I can enjoy these sweltering summer days for their promise of eventual cool and falling leaves and rain.

Dying Fabric with Berries

My husband and I married in a fun, lighthearted celebration on a grassy hill. I hand-stitched my own lacy gown, along with the bunting and other decor. Late in that perfect evening, while guests drank, danced, and played lawn games, I changed into a casual white sundress that I’d picked out a few days before.

During the night’s festivities, the dress was stained with who-knows-what (barbecue sauce? wine?), and, admittedly lazy launderer that I am, I never successfully removed the splotches. Yet over the years I have told myself I’d do something to salvage the garment and enjoy it again.

This week, as it so happened, I accidentally let a large bowl of wild berries and cherries go bad– I got to a couple batches of berry pancakes but never made the cobbler. Cringing at the thought of tossing them, I finally decided pull out my rumpled wedding dress and dye it pink.

Dying with Berries and Coffee Grounds

I filled a large pot with the 2 cups of blackberries, a handful each of raspberries and wild cherries, along with about 5 quarts of water. To achieve an earthier “dusty rose” hue, I tossed in a quarter-cup of coffee grounds.

Here’s the color I had in mind, from my daughter’s shirt:

I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, strained it, and returned the liquid to just boiling. Then I removed it from the heat and dunked in the white dress, saturating and turning it for even distribution, then covered and let it steep for about 10 minutes.

Using utensils, I placed the now-pink dress in a clean sink to gently squeeze the dye out. Then I dropped it into a bowl of cold water with a half-cup of dissolved salt and soaked it for another 10 minutes.

Finally, I again squeezed the dress out and hung it to dry. It held the color wonderfully, and I was very pleased with the hue, which lightened as it dried.

  

So if you’re inundated with blackberries or your strawberries grow mold, consider recoloring a blouse or dress rather than tossing them out! I’d rather wear pink than white, anyway. Many more dying experiments soon to come.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Chinese Chicken Salad with Bitter Greens

In the summer heat, we opt for cold meals and barbecue as much as possible. This salad has been one of our go-to’s in rotation, ready to be grabbed out of the fridge and tossed with a bit of the delectable dressing. It’s a simple use for a small amount of leftover chicken, which in our house usually means white meat, since the dark gets eaten first.

It’s an old classic, but with a few twists to the dressing, it gains the umami and punch to stand up perfectly to bitter greens. Of course, for me, that means heading to the hillside for dandelion, plantain, and other wild greens. I still like to include napa cabbage for the refreshing crunch, although that could be sourced from other cabbages or thinly sliced kale. I mix it up.

This dressing is extremely versatile, and the salad can easily be assembled ahead for a nice picnic at the lake, or just to keep the kitchen cool on one of these blistering days.

Oh and one last thing: I don’t miss the chicken when I go without. I usually just throw in a few extra veggies.

Chinese Chicken Salad with Bitter Greens

Note: If preparing chicken for this salad, rather than simply using leftovers, I marinate the raw breasts or thighs in soy sauce and the ginger peel for one hour before grilling.

1/2 cup neutral oil, such as vegetable or avocado

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 T ginger, peeled and minced (see note above)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1-1/2 T cilantro minced, plus 1/2 cup loosely chopped

2 T sesame seeds, toasted and divided

2 T brown sugar

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded into bite-sized pieces (see note above)

1 small napa cabbage, sliced cross-wise 1/3-inch-wide strips

2 big handfuls of dandelion greens, tough ends removed, sliced into 1-inch-wide strips

3 radishes, slivered

1/2 cup snow peas, sliced into bite-sized pieces

1/3 cup scallions, sliced

1/3 cup chow mein

1/4 cup sliced almonds

At least an hour before the meal, combine the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, minced cilantro, 1 teaspoon of the sesame seeds, and the sugar in a small bowl and whisk briskly for 15 seconds. Set aside, stirring occasionally as you prepare the rest of the meal.

Grill the chicken according to the note above, if desired.

Layer the remaining ingredients in a large serving bowl, sprinkling the sesame seeds over the top. To allow for crisp, enjoyable leftovers, allow each person to dress their own salad. Otherwise, toss well and serve.

The Incredible Benefits of Mulch

When we began our incremental move back in December, we had a few days each visit to accomplish what we could. My number-one priority was gathering leaves from beneath the maple trees to mulch an area for the garden. My husband and I raked 10 heaping trailer loads and spread an 8-inch layer over 1,800 square-feet of ungrazed pasture.

The soil beneath was red clay– intimidating to tame for a first-year garden. Plus it had long been growing grass with no manure return. I worried about being able to add enough organic material to sustain our vegetables.

Several weeks later I spread several barrels of compost and re-covered the earth with leaf mulch. Then in March, we dug our first potato trench, and I was amazed at the improvement, already. The soil had darkened and become more granular. The smell was lovely and the shovel sliced in easily. The grass and weeds beneath the mulch had died off and broken down into the earth.

In April, we mowed the field and spent a day raking grass clippings to add another layer of mulch, as the leaves had broken down perfectly.

Now, in only six months of mulching and doing little else, we’ve converted inert clay to rich garden soil. The areas that lack mulch are rather like concrete, since exposed clay essentially bakes into bricks.

We’ve seen mulch in action. Here’s why it works so well:

Mulch protects the worms and microorganisms and allows them to do their work of breaking down organic material. Soon the bottom layer is converted to rich humus.

It prevents evaporation, allowing water to nourish the plants rather than vanish into the air. This makes mulch an essential element of water conservation in this time of drought on the West Coast.

Mulch also retains heat in the winter months, protecting roots from frost, and cools the soil in summer. Especially important for plants like tomatoes, which are susceptible to fungal problems, mulch prevents splash-back when watering (don’t water the leaves!).

Finally, mulch is the best possible way to suppress weeds. With no chemical sprays– even organic sprays can do damage to the soil and surrounding plants– nutrient-hungry weeds are simply smothered and turned into compost.

While we used leaves and grass clippings, there are a multitude of options for how to mulch.

Wood chips are a huge reservoir of nitrogen, an asset to the soil as it breaks down. The process takes longer than other mulches, which can be a positive or a negative.

Bark dust and straw are great options, but keep in mind that hay– as opposed to straw– can contain grass and weed seeds that may add to your troubles.

Pine needles, as well as some leaves, have a high acid content, so check your pH before applying, or use them only on acid-happy plants like blueberries. Lime can be applied to raise the pH if necessary.

Plain brown cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper– the ink is soy-based– topped with bark or other mulch is especially effective against weeds. Simply cut holes where vegetables or flowers will be planted.

At the end of the season, mulch can simply be tilled in to decompose and return its nutrients to the soil, or new layers of compost and mulch can be added on top for “lasagna gardening,” a popular no-till method.

For more information on lasagna gardening, read:

Building Soil with Lasagna Gardening at Homestead Honey

Lasagna Gardening at Learning and Yearning

3 Great No-Till Gardening Methods at Northern Homestead

Lasagna Gardening at New England Permaculture Homestead