Sunday, July 27, 2008

Somebody's Been Busy

Aries' work commute to Tahoe is 25 miles, one-way - up 2,000 feet over a 7,000' pass then dropping back down 1,000' to lake level and around to the south shore casino zone. Some of the days, he carpools with a couple of co-workers. In the summer, on days when they're off, he likes to ride his motorcycle.

We also have a pick-up truck. Aries often needs its four-wheel drive for his winter commute. But this time of year, he doesn't use the truck very often. A couple of days ago though, he was offered some big trees, killed by the Tahoe fire last year, for firewood. We heat our house with wood, and really like it when we get the chance to get some big logs, already cut, free for the hauling. So Aries drove the truck to work for a couple of days, fetching home a load of wood afterwards.

He was a bit concerned, however, when the electrical system blipped on the way home the second day. So today, on his day off, he popped the hood to check the wiring. If you look past the bundle of colored wires, you can see lots of little, tan, round things. We have a couple of Russian Olive shade trees between the house and driveway - those are some of the little olives. Between the fender and the engine compartment, on both sides, someone has been building a winter stash. Just imagine how many trips it took some little mouse, up and over the tire into those nice steel storerooms, an olive in each cheek. Sorry, little fella, all gone now.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Baked Zucchini Sticks

I just picked my first three zucchini, so it's time to make my favorite snack. If you like the deep-fried zucchini sticks appetizer in restaurants, you'll love this quick and healthier version. This is best made with small, young zucchini - a good excuse to make this frequently all summer long. I use my toaster oven to avoid heating up the kitchen.

Baked Zucchini Sticks
3 - 4 small zucchini, 1 - 1½" diameter, 6 - 8" long
1 egg, beaten (or a liquid egg substitute)
fine dry breadcrumbs (add seasonings to suit your mood, my favorite is salt, pepper, and dried oregano; when Aries is cooking, he likes pepper and parmesan cheese)
your favorite dipping sauce(s)

Trim ends of zucchini and cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half lengthwise into three wedge-shaped strips. Put egg in one plate, crumbs in another. Dip the cut sides of each strip in egg and then the bread crumbs, then place side-by-side, peel-side down, on a cookie sheet or the tray for your toaster oven. Bake 400ยบ 10-15 minutes. The zucchini should be soft and the crumb coating golden brown. Serve with your favorite dipping sauce (I like ranch dressing or salsa, Aries prefers barbeque sauce). **an added note: this summer, Aries has been cooking the crumb-covered strips on the barbecue grill - turning to brown each side. Yum! and no heating up the kitchen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Happy Place

I love my garden, and especially this time of year. I wander out there all the time, just looking - pulling a weed here, checking for bugs there, snacking on the first, perfectly ripe, blackberry (or two), guiding a bean tendril over to a support pole. The smoke has cleared out, and our sky is blue again. But, things to do, people to see.

Soroptimists luncheon today - I got the books closed out for the fiscal year, and have just about finished up with the annual dues paperwork. After that I'm volunteer-ushering a Shakespeare For Kids show at our local Community Center. The same company puts on full-fledged plays at a summer outdoor theater on a beach of Lake Tahoe, and I'll be working a few of those nights too (and even got Aries to join me a couple of nights - a free, fun outing for the both of us, working the crowd, in a wonderful setting under the stars).

And politiking too. The Primary Election is August 12th, and I have to place first or second to go on to the General Election in November. Both local papers are running election special editions this weekend, just in time for the start of early voting. So I've been researching and crafting my answers to their questionnaires to meet their deadlines.

We gave away eight guinea babies, via Craigslist, but still have seven left. We've had lots of initial responses, but then they don't follow through. I think the price of feed might be affecting people's decisions on acquiring any more mouths to feed. And I'm expecting Missus to bring in her clutch any day now, too. Three adult guineas are enough for us around here. They're really good on weed and bug patrol, but we really don't want to keep any of the little ones. The chicken coop would get too crowded. Oops, time to move - later!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Housewarming Tradition

We went to a housewarming in our neighborhood tonight. Two generations have owned the house above us in the twenty-some years we've been here. The "grandparents" lived and raised a family in a little cottage on the original 5-acre homestead. The "parents" later inherited the place, eventually adding on to the house, but splitting off some of the acreage. A couple of years ago, their son moved back home after a divorce, bringing with him his children, "the grandchildren", the fourth generation in that house.

The son is a contractor - they divided the lot once again, and he started building a house above his parents house. Long story short - he met someone and they got married only a couple of months ago. And he finished building his new home. Tonight, they invited friends and neighbors to an open house to celebrate/meet his new bride/housewarming.

As a housewarming gift, I baked a loaf of my One-Hour French Bread, added the recipe card, plus a jar of sea salt and a bottle of honey. Since this is practically a forgotten tradition, I then wrote a card explaining the significance of such a gift:

"The bread and salt tradition come from an old Russian folk custom. Back in the day, when the emperor and empress would pay a village a visit, merchants and gentry would present their esteemed guests with a loaf of bread piled with salt - a sign of hospitality. Peasants were honored using a similar ceremony upon introducing a new spouse to the village, with the gift of bread and salt signifying that the new couple would always have the necessities of life. When given at housewarmings, therefore, bread and salt represent the wish that the recipients' pantry will always be full. Honey (or sugar), on the other hand, symbolizes the hope that their life together be sweet." (~quoted repeatedly all over the internet)

I wasn't sure if they drank alcohol, so didn't include a bottle of wine, but the German version of this tradition replaces the honey with wine: "Bread so you'll never go hungry, wine so you'll never be thirsty, salt to ensure your good luck."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Propagating Alliums

Around one edge of my garden, I have a perennial allium bed to provide plants each year for the garden. Alliums are the onion-family vegetables - onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, and some raised just for their flowers. I just wrote about saving the best of my garlic bulbs to plant each fall for the next year's crop. I'll also do that with the shallots now ready to harvest. Big bulb onions are about the only plants I don't propagate myself. My local nursery sells onion plants by the bunch in early spring. I buy a bunch or two to set out so I'll have lots of onions when I'm ready to can batches of salsa and tomato sauce in late summer.

These are walking onions, also called top-set or Egyptian onions. The plant makes a little bunch of onion bulblets at the top of a stalk, sometimes reaching two or three tiers high. If left alone, the stalk falls over and the bulblets grow where they land - the plants thus "walk" around the garden over time. The plants are extremely hardy and the first onions to come up in the very early spring. I use them then as green onions, but later in the summer they can get tough. I plant a couple of the top-sets each fall to replace the plants I've used.

I also grow bunching onions - multiplying clumps of green onions that never form a bulb shape - that come up later in another part of the bed. These are the scallions I use throughout the summer, making sure to replant one or two, for next year's supply, when I pull up a clump. Leeks are the last of the onion season. I harvest them fresh all through the winter, digging them out of the frozen ground. The last section of my perennial allium bed is for my leek supply. Once you grow one leek, you'll never have to start seeds or buy plants ever again.

Years ago, I transplanted 6-8 leeks into the supply bed. The following year, they sent up a big flower stalk, but also a clump of little leeks came up from the root. Early each spring, I'll pull up a clump, break it apart, and set the little plants out in my regular garden bed for harvest later in the year. I'll put one of the last holdouts from the year before in the propagation bed to replace that clump, leaving the rest to continue growing into even bigger clumps. This method even works with the cut-off root end of a supermarket leek. Don't throw it out - bury it out in some place where it can grow undisturbed. It will come back as a clump of little leek plants, ready to plant, the following year.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Universal Language

I dare you to not smile watching this:

Even better, go to YouTube and click the "Watch in High Quality" option

I first saw this on Molly's blog, and loved it so much I wanted to share it too. Enjoy!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Harvesting Garlic

I plant garlic and shallots (and sow spinach seeds) in late October, just before our winter cold and snow starts. The following July, when the tips dry out and and the plants lose their shiny green look, it's time to harvest the garlic I'll use throughout the rest of the year.

Garlic needs to cure in order to last in storage. I dig and pull the plants, then lay them out on a table under the shade of the trees for a day or two to dry (if you're in a rainy climate, try to harvest after a couple of dry days, protect the bulbs by spreading them out under cover, like a shed or patio, but don't cover with moisture-trapping plastic). The drying kills the root system at the base of the bulb (rub or cut them off up to ¼" from the bulb), and any dirt can then be rubbed away too. Oldtimers used to braid their garlic - it's both an attractive and effective way to cure and store garlic.

To braid garlic, you'll need to do it soon after harvest while the tops are still flexible, starting with three bulbs and then adding more into the center as there is room (you can braid some string in with the tops for reinforcement, but I don't). Since I use the garlic from the bottom up to keep the braid looking nice as long as possible, and bigger bulbs store better than small ones, I lay out my braiding garlic according to size and start with the smallest, working my way up to the biggest. Once at the top, I continue braiding for a bit, then bind the top with knotted, wrapped, and knotted string (tie it tight - the tops will shrink as they dry) and then make a hanging loop at the back. Hung to cure in my open, airy pantry, I've had top bulbs still good more than a year later.

I planted a couple of different kinds of softneck garlic last fall (hardneck garlic, with one ring of cloves around a stiff stalk, is tasty but doesn't last very well in storage, so I rarely plant it). One variety matured earlier than the rest. On those bulbs, the tops were too dry to braid, so they're stored in the basket below, and will be used first (so I can keep the decorative aspect of the braid as long as possible - I really like the way it looks hanging there). I also kept a couple of nice, big, pretty bulbs in reserve (I have to hide them from Aries, or he'll go after those first if he's doing the cooking) to plant this fall.

So, the basics of curing again: sun-dry for just a short time, then rub off dirt and the wiry, dried roots; separate out any with thick necks or with cloves that have started to separate, and use those first; cure in a warm, well-ventilated, shaded area; when the skins are dry enough to rattle, they're ready to store (in a braid, a basket, a net bag, the leg of a pair of pantyhose - some way so that air can still circulate) in a cool, dark, airy place.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Red Sun in the West

California is still on fire, and we're still in the smoke. When I got back from donating blood this evening, a couple of hours before sunset, a blood-red sun was just barely visible to the west, and it was already dark enough that the chickens were going in to roost. July is usually our hottest month, and today was the first, of forecasted many, over 100 degrees . Summer has arrived, with a vengeance (thank goodness our nights still cool down to the low-50's).

I was late getting a lot of my vegetable garden planted this year, and then some of my corn had a poor germination rate. So, a few days ago I tried sprouting some corn seeds. Just like growing salad sprouts, I soaked the seed for an afternoon in a little bowl. I then drained the water out, covered the seeds with a damp towel, and kept re-wetting it morning and evening for two days. Then, I took the just-sprouted seeds and poked them into the blank spots in the corn patch, with the little root pointing down. This evening, most of them already have little green shoots above the soil. I'm nowhere near my grandpa's old saying about sweet corn, "knee-high by the Fourth of July", but I'm still hoping for lots of fresh sweet corn later this summer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Poultry Update

The chicks purchased from the feed store this spring have grown into a lovely bunch. They're right at home in the chicken coop now. Also part of their "bunch" is a little Buff Cochin bantam rooster. He was in the "free to good home" pen in front of the feed store, and looked so cute (and lonely) I couldn't resist. We put him in with the babies and he now looks after "his girls" in the big pen. Since we lost our big rooster and our male guinea is busy these days, outside the pen with his harem, there's no one to pick on the little rooster, so everybody is happy.

BlackFluff and Baldy are still broody, sitting in there on golf balls and whatever other eggs they can get. I take them out and make them walk about and get some food and water, but they insist on getting right back onto the nests. Anyone have any tips on getting brooding hens back into production? The rest of the flock have all settled in, staying in the pen (I'm keeping an eye on them - the clipped wing feathers are starting to grow back) and laying regularly in the nest boxes now. It's so much easier than hunting for eggs all over the lot. We're getting from two to five eggs a day now.

Tweedit brought her family in, and they're at home in the dog run. She has six striped babies, that will end up black speckled like her, and nine lighter grey ones, that will look more like Grey, their dad (I can't differentiate sex until they get big enough to start calling - males make a one-syllable call "buck", females two "buckwheat"). Grey is a good dad, but he tries to keep an eye on his mate, Mrs. Guinea, too (Tweedit is their offspring, but obviously Grey is now mating with her too). Tweedit stays in the dog run with her keets at night. I moved the eggs left in her nest in with her, and she sets on them at night but I don't think any more will hatch so should get them out of there. Grey sleeps in the chicken coop, but EARLY each morning Tweedit starts calling for him. So I get up, go out and open up the coop, Grey flys over the fence and runs up to the dog run. I let him in and he stays the day inside with his family. The keets follow him around, same as they do Tweedit, and come running if he clucks to say he's found something good to eat or there's fresh water here.

Mrs. Guinea has a nest hidden in the neighbors' front yard. I followed her the other day, and then snuck back when she was eating a day later; she's setting on 21 eggs. About June 25th, Missus wasn't coming back to the coop at night, so I'm expecting her clutch to hatch in a couple more weeks (July 25th?). She comes up daily for a bite to eat and a drink of water. That's when it gets a bit noisy in the guinea pen. Missus wants food, and wants her mate to join her. Grey wants out to be with Missus. Tweedit doesn't like being left alone. If I'm home and hear the squawking, I'll let Grey out (he can fly over the fence if he wants, too). He'll run over to Missus as she eats, and then escort her back to her nest. Once she's settled back in, he'll come back over to the family, and stay with them until dusk. Then, Tweedit gathers the babies underneath her for the night, and Grey wants out. He'll wander about for a bit, looking for weed seeds or bugs, then flys up to the coop gateframe and goes in for the night.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Pie Cherries

Due to intermittent Spring freezes, I'm not getting much of a tree-fruit crop this year (again). The black (sweet) cherry tree had only a few cherries, and the birds got most of those. No plums, no peaches, no nectarines, no pears - and only a few apples.

I did get some Montmorency pie cherries. Sometimes, that little tree will bear so heavy that I can just sit in a lawn chair underneath and pick the cherries into a bowl in my lap. Picking pie cherries is a two-handed job - pulling the branch to you with one hand and then pinching the cherries off their stems with the other. This year, there were only a few cherries here and there, so I had to move about to be able to get to them. So here's what I came up with, and it worked great! I put a big plastic bowl into the "lap" of my granny apron, and then held it in place by clothes-pinning the skirt to the bib. I was able to duck under and around the branches and found enough cherries to fill the bowl.

Since I didn't have very many cherries to play with this year, I'm only doing my most favorite pie cherry storage option. I'm drying all of them. Dried pie cherries are wonderful - tart and sweet and chewy, just like the sweetened dried cranberries (sometimes marketed as "craisins") but with no sugar, nothing, added. Plus, no heating up the kitchen canning them, no freezer dependent on continuous electric power, and only a fraction of the storage space needed to keep them indefinitely. My various dried fruits are kept in gallon bags in tins in my pantry - easy to get to for a snack, to use in cooking (dried cherries in my Christmas fudge - yum!), or a handful in a baggie when I'm off on a hike.

After washing the bowlful and picking through to remove any bird-pecked ones, I sat down to pit them in front of a TV movie. I use a plastic soda straw, bent into a "Z" shape so that it fits into my hand (and also so the cherry goo can't push all the way out the other end). I don't even need to watch what I'm doing - I can just pick up a cherry, feel where the stem was, and then push the pit out the other end with the straw. I have a dehydrator, but this time of year sun-drying works just fine. I put the fruit on the screened trays from the dehydrator, and then to keep bugs and birds away, put the trays between two old window screens on the table out on the deck. I'm experimenting with a few strawberries too, but think I'd rather freeze them (slices on a cookie sheet until frozen, then put into a freezer bag so I can easily take out only as much as I want), or make them into jam.

Too humid where you live, or no dehydrator? You might try dehydrating fruit on cookie sheets in the back window of your car, parked in the sun with the windows cracked just a bit to let out the moisture.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Just a Quick Peek

I was out in front just now, changing the water hoses around, when I heard some scuffling noises where Tweedit, one of our guinea hens, has her nest. I didn't want to bother her, so I took just a quick peek under the bushes where she's hidden. I could see some broken eggshells and a couple of little fluffy balls on legs scampering around her. Looks like we've got some chipmunk-striped dark ones and some greys. The keets (baby guineas) can live off the remnants of their yolks for a couple of days while others hatch out so I let her be for now. When she's ready, in another day or two, she should bring out her family (I'm hoping Sneaky Snake leaves them alone - he winters under that same shed, but not sure if he's under there now). I have the dog run/brood pen ready for her, with a low dish I'm keeping full of water - it's hot out, so they'll all need a drink as soon as she brings them out. It would be nice if she'd just walk them all in there, but usually it's more like a guinea rodeo when someone brings in a family.