Monday, March 31, 2014

Five Garden Things to Do When the Weather Won't Cooperate

See that?  That's from a week ago, when apparently we were supposed to get both spring-like weather and snow within 24- and sometimes 12-hour periods.  Welcome to Ohio.

This winter has been particularly stressful for we who garden, mostly because it won't really quit.  Every day, we look at the weather to see what garden task we can do -- nice days are usually corrupted by that pesky thing called "paying work," so the snowy days are even more frustrating.

Nonetheless, I've managed to get some gardening done, and I have a good start on lots of tasks.  So here's five things you can do while you wait out the indeterminate weather.
  1. Start some seeds.  I started pepper seeds in early February and basil and tomatoes shortly thereafter. My plants are pretty big by now, which means I'll be transferring the peppers to their final large container homes in the sunroom very shortly, awaiting the weather warming up in May or June for the move of the containers outside.
  2. Focus on cool-weather crops.  Potatoes, peas, carrots, and greens are all cold hardy, which means you can plant them with very minimal protection.  I have a makeshift cold frame that will be getting the first carrots later today, and I have two containers of potatoes in the sunroom along with the first of the peas and some greens.
  3. Work the soil.  If you've had a snowy winter, your soil is probably pretty easy to work right now.  We have easily broadforked and amended with peat moss a good deal of our garden plot, awaiting spring planting. Mr. FC&G has also cut sod to broaden the main garden, and he reports it is an easier job than it would be later in the year.  Just don't work boggy soil, or you will have a hard, clay-y mess later!
  4. Clean your tools.  Every year, I think I'm going to spend the winter washing tools and pots and sharpening hoe and trimmer blades, and every year I don't.  Take advantage of a warm-ish day to sit outside and do this task, even if your ground is too cold or wet to work.
  5. Add to compost.  If you can't do anything else for your garden during cold spells, you at least feed your compost pile.  Wood ash from fireplaces and egg shells from baking are two compost additions that you can find when undertaking activities that take the chill off the house. 
Have you started planting yet?  Or are you waiting out the cold?
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Friday, March 28, 2014

Quick Welsh Rarebit

Much like I love to learn traditional skills and wear clothes inspired by the 1950s and 60s, I love cooking vintage recipes.  One of the best ways of finding recipes that don't depend on processed food, are designed to be frugal, and use healthy ingredients is to take a trip through a vintage cookbook.

Today's recipe, Welsh Rarebit, is inspired by one found in the 1930s section of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren.  However, I've altered it a good deal.

The original recipe is a basic cheese sauce built on a roux.  I've kept that part, but I've added some homemade stock to loosen the sauce up a bit.  I've also amped up the flavor profile.  Recipes from the 1920s and 1930s, especially, have a tendency to be a bit bland to modern tastes, especially to mine.  (You should see this vintage recipe I have for "Frank Sinatra's Mom's Spaghetti."  I highly doubt Mrs. Sinatra brought a recipe from the old country that had a quarter teaspoon each of pepper and oregano as its only spice!)

Anyway, thanks to the miracle of modern shredded cheese, this recipe comes together in about 10-15 minutes, making it perfect for a quick dinner between evening commitments or a late night snack.  Reliance on cheese, of course, means that you have a meal that doesn't use up the expensive grass-fed, pastured, and/or organic meat from the freezer, helping the budget.

Quick Welsh Rarebit
1 T. butter
1 T. flour
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup stock
1/2 pound shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 t. dry mustard
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 t. salt
Paprika for dusting

Melt butter in heavy sauce pan; stir in the flour and cook on low heat for about 2 minutes.  Add the half-and-half and cook another 3-5 minutes stirring constantly.  Add stock and stir until blended.  Add cheese, mustard, salt, and Worcestershire sauce, and stir until cheese is melted and flavors are blended.

Serve over thick toasted bread with a dusting of paprika.

Serves four.

The Analysis
Fast:  This recipe is going to become a regular for us since it cooks up so quickly.  It will be ideal in the summer, when a few garden veggies on the side will make a really pleasant and basic meal.

Cheap:  As I indicated, certainly cheaper than the meat entree it replaces, which makes this nice for the budget.

Good:  This recipe is really delicious, belying its humble roots.  As with many homemade items, I also like the fact that I could use my own homemade stock and could opt for organic or hormone free ingredients, like the dairy products and the flour.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

(Re) Introducing Cucumber Key Photography

Some time ago, you may remember that Mr. FC&G and I started a small Etsy site dedicated to our photography. We envisioned the site making quality photography available for personal use.

In the meantime, we have noticed a number of my writing clients needing photography for various articles and projects, so we've expanded our efforts and moved to a professional photo-hosting site.

You may now find us at Cucumber Key Photography.

Please, feel free to take a look around, whether you are looking for photos for personal use, for editorial work, or for advertising.  The site works extremely well as a digital lightbox so you can view multiple images and see what will work best for your project, publication, or campaign.

If you are interested in purchasing an image, there is pricing available for all of these levels of use.  A hint:  just put a photo in your shopping cart; if you are using the photo professionally, it will ask you a series of questions about the publication or advertising campaign and then give you a quote.  Personal use photos have a price depending on finished size of image. Regardless, if you have questions about this or would like to discuss securing one or more images for your project, drop us a line.

I hope you will take a moment to visit the new and improved Cucumber Key, and that you will keep us in mind for future projects.

Side businesses -- they're sustainable!
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Thursday, March 20, 2014

On Being a Farmer

It's spring, and that means the internet's thoughts have turned to farming.  It seems everywhere I turn, I'm reading an article about large family farms, reading one about urban farmers with container gardens, or getting into conversations with farmers about the meaning and purpose of farming.  And one point that stands out to me is the inconsistent use of the term.

Farming is a bit like writing, in that there is no specific college degree, apprenticeship program, or state license that is required to practice your craft.  Unlike doctors and lawyers, farmers and writers can pretty much metaphorically hang up their shingle, and no one can argue with them about about their job.  On the other hand, that means everyone and their cousin thinks they can do it well.

I've seen and heard commentary from large-scale farmers that one has to really operate at a significant size to be considered a farmer.  You know, the whole deal:  acreage, livestock, tractor, and the like.  And these folks have a point:  it is hard to look at a Manhattan stock broker with a few containers on the terrace and consider that person a farmer in the same way as someone whose income depends on working the land.

On the other hand, I am encouraged by these terrace, backyard, and rooftop farmers, because they have embraced food production as a passion no less intense than that felt by the farmer with many acres and pieces of equipment.  To make the effort to label something "farming" -- backyard farming, mini-farming, urban farming -- is to intellectually throw your lot in with those who produce the majority of the food for this country and to take responsibility for its quality.

You will note that in this blog I try to use the term "micro-farmer."  With tongue firmly in cheek, I'm trying to acknowledge that I know our acreage isn't large and I know the majority of our income comes from elsewhere, but that our efforts are an important part of the provision of food in this country.  At my college at which I am an adjunct, there are a great number of micro-farmers, and I love the intensity with which they all worry about how soon they can work the dirt and how big a crop of squash or tomatoes they are getting.  For a while, there was even a rogue crop of tomatoes growing out near the bike racks that produced enough tomatoes for a regular batch of salsa.

So, let me propose a new definition of "farmer" that I hope will please those with everything from square acres to square inches:  A farmer is someone who takes responsibility for food production.  Whether you feel called to produce food for many or just for your own family, you are contributing your time and industry to growing or raising the food this country depends on.  You are helping decide the quality of the food that you and others put in their bodies.  You are creating something tangible the world needs.

This passion shouldn't be limited by size or by income stream.  It is everyone's responsibility to contribute to food production if our society is to be sustainable in the long term.

Are you a farmer?
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Monday, March 17, 2014

Clove-Ginger Ale

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.  This time, I found just the right recipe to try in the pages of OR Today, a great magazine about surgical concerns that I've written for in the past.

The original recipe was intended as a decoction to help the body detox during a detox diet.  It makes some sense.  Many of the spices included have known antifungal, antibacterial, or other health benefits.

However, to me, it sounded like a great beverage.  I reduced the water in the original cooking process, then added sugar (a definite detox no-no, but oh, well) at the end.  The final syrup is diluted 50/50 with carbonated water.

Clove-Ginger Ale
About 40 whole cloves
About 20 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 ginger root, about 4-5 inches long, sliced
2 quarts water
1 cup sugar (organic is nice)

Add all ingredients to a slow cooker and cook until the mixture is a deep amber color, about four hours on high in my Crock Pot.  Strain the spices out, and add sugar, more or less to taste.  It is nice to leave this a little "dry," or slightly less sweet than you would expect commercial soda pop to be.

Chill.  When ready to drink, mix half and half with carbonated water. (I use my Soda Stream.)

The Analysis
Fast:  This takes no real prep time; it's all passive cooking time, during which your house will smell like Christmas!

Cheap:  This does take a fair amount of spice, so I have the sense that we aren't winning the race on cost here.  But the final product is worth it.

Good:  This has a much deeper and more complex flavor than traditional ginger ale, plus a bouquet that you can smell around the room when you are drinking it.  You control the amount of sugar and quality of ingredients.  And hey, if it has some remaining detox benefits, so much the better!

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sustainable Tool: Spaetzle Maker

I make a lot of spaetzle in this house, which I have mentioned many times before.  It is a great way to get some free-range, farm-fresh eggs into our diet, I'm sure that I'm using organic flour, and I occasionally even sneak some homegrown butternut squash puree in there for extra veggies.

The problem is, the traditional way of making spaetzle includes forcing it through a grater or colander to make the little pieces. Sure, I once knew a woman who could just slice the batter off her spoon in tiny pieces faster than your German grandmother, but that's not me.  And my box grater winds up catching the batter too much, while my colander is too hard to hold above the boiling water.

This device is a pot strainer.  Designed to let you drain your pasta without taking it out of the pot, I have found it is also idea for making spaetzle. Just lay it on the edge of the pot (it has little feet to hold it in place), and force the batter through.  Rotate the pot occasioonally so your spaetzle doesn't all fall in the same spot.  Voila!  Spaetzle without the hassel!

The Analysis
Fast:  Forcing the spaetzle through the strainer is the only hard part of the job, so anything that makes this quicker means I'm more likely to make spaetzle on a weeknight instead of saving it for the weekend.

Cheap:  I think this was in the $5 range at my local grocery.

Good:  This strainer seems to be the answer to my needs. It would be ideal if I could find one that covered half of the pot or so, but right now, this is working just fine.
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: February 2014

February is not a big harvest month, of course.  This month, we had only a couple of ounces of lettuces from our sunroom, and that one precious lemon I wrote about.  We anticipate more lettuce and some key limes this month.  So our total retail value for the year stands at $6.13.

However, February is the month for planting.  Right now, I have four varieties of peppers, some basil from home-saved seed, and some red pear tomatoes, all sprouted and living happily under grow lights. Ironically, these will be some of the last things to be harvested from our garden, but they all get their starts in chilly February.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 10
Pounds: .625

Total Value of Harvest: $6.13
Expenditures: -195.31
Total: $189.18

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