Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leaf Mold

I was out riding my bicycle around a quiet neighborhood of one-acre lots. As I rode past one house, with lots of lawn surrounded by big trees, an elderly couple was tossing puffy-full trash bags over their fence onto a huge pile on the side of the road. That looked like something I could use. I turned around and pedaled back to them.

"Are those leaves by any chance?" I asked. "May I have them?"

"Either you or the trash pickup, whichever gets here first," they replied.

"I'll be back with the truck. Oh, did you spray your trees with anything this year?"

Assured that the bags held only leaves, and that I'd be bringing no noxious chemicals back to my garden, I rode home smiling. Returning with the truck, I managed to get the entire pile, at least 25 big black trash bags, into the truck bed, piling them up, mashing and wedging bags in against the sides so as not to lose any as I drove home. What a treasure!

leaf mold bin in foreground, Aries & compost bin beyond
We're already making compost with our garden cleanup, the leaves from our trees, and the manure from cleaning out the chicken coop. I had something else in mind for these leaves - a batch of leaf mold.

Leaf mold is just leaves - piled up and left to decompose. To help them break down faster, we ran them through the shredder first. I made a round bin, about 3' tall and 3' across (it's best to have a pile at least 3' x 3'), with a length of wire fencing, lining it with some of the trash bags to keep the bits of leaves from falling through. First raking, then closing up the circle and shoveling, we filled the bin to the top. Using a small step ladder, I got into the bin, stomping round and round, packing the leaves down as Aries kept shoveling. With a bit of work, we got an entire piled-high truckload of leaves packed into the bin.
I got the hose, and soaked it all down, until water just started to run out the bottom. I live in the high desert, so to keep the leaves from drying out I covered them with more of the trash bags weighed down with bit of carpet and a slab of wood (winter storms can come through here with 60 mph winds). Last item was then to use a pitchfork to poke small holes in the plastic lining the bin. Some oxygen is necessary for the decomposition process.

Unlike the pathogen and weed seed killing heat of a properly made compost pile, making leaf mold is a cold process. Even so, a week later, the contents of my bin, six inches below the surface, pegged out a 125F thermometer. Left alone, leaf mold bins can take up to three years to break down to a dark, crumbly texture - a much slower process than composting. But by shredding the leaves and wetting them down well this bin might be ready by next summer.. And leaf mold, being made of only leaves, doesn't have the multitude of minerals and plant nutrients of compost either. But dug into a garden bed or used as mulch, it's great at retaining water. That's a necessity for my sandy soil and hot, dry growing season, but it can also soak up and hold the water in too-wet soils as well. It's also a great additive to a container potting mix. If you have or can get the leaves, have the room for a bin or two, and the time to let it break down, leaf mold can be a valuable addition to any garden.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pink Banana Squash Pie

Pink banana squash is the best large winter storage squash I've found for growing in my high desert climate. I have the room to let the vining variety ramble, but both the bush and the vining varieties set 10 - 20 pound fruit that has time to mature in my 110-ish day frost free season. And the pink banana will keep in storage, in a crate in a corner of my bedroom, for at least 6 - 8 months - long after all the delicatas and butternuts have been used.

Of course, once cooked, a big squash can provide more than a week's worth of meals - muffins, soups, and just mashed with a bit of butter on top. But one of my favorite ways, and especially for Thanksgiving, to eat pink banana squash is as pie. Pies made with pumpkin can have a bit of a greenish cast to them. But a pink banana pie turns out even tastier, with a beautiful brown color through and through.

 This year, for the first time in at least 15 years, I get to be a guest at a Thanksgiving dinner instead of the cook. I'd only need to prepare an appetizer (jalapeno pepper jelly poured over a block of cream cheese, served with whole wheat crackers) and a dessert. Of course, my dessert offering had to be pink banana squash pie. I wanted to make two pies, but I won't be in my own kitchen the next few days, to be able to deal with the extra squash pulp. So I picked one my smaller pink banana squash, small enough to fit in the dish drainer, to prepare.

First step in making pink banana pie is to cook the squash (don't have a pink banana? this recipe also works well with a butternut or pie pumpkin). Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Place, cut side up, in a large roasting pan and add an inch of water. Bake at 375F for 1 -2 hours, until squash is soft and browned (this banana squash took two hours). Scrape the flesh out of the peel for use, as is, in any recipe calling for pumpkin puree.

Pink Banana Squash Pie (one 9" pie)
Line a 9" pin tin with 1 prepared pie crust (your favorite recipe, or you can use a half-recipe of mine - flute the edge of the crust up above the edge of the pie tin. This recipe overfills a 9" pan by a bit, and it will puff up while cooking, then sink down as it cools)

2 cups cooked mashed squash
1 12 oz. can evaporated skim milk (or can use heavy cream, for a more decadent version)
2 eggs 
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon molasses or real maple syrup
⅛ teaspoon allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
(or can just substitute 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice for all the spices)

Blend all ingredients in a blender (in batches if necessary) or with a hand-held mixer. Pour into prepared raw crust and very carefully (it will be very full) transfer to 425F preheated oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and continue baking for another 45 minutes, or until a knife stuck in the middle comes out clean.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Baked Cinnamon French Toast, Cinnamon Apples

I recently spent a Soroptimist "girls weekend getaway" in a vacation rental house up at South Lake Tahoe. Arranged by our District Director as a planning retreat for Club Presidents and Presidents-Elect, each club was responsible for one meal or snack. We were assigned Sunday breakfast, for eight.

the weekend was BYOB, and wine was pretty much the drink of choice

I figured our Saturday breakfast would probably be some kind of egg dish (and I was right). So I wanted to do something a bit different for Sunday. Looking through my recipes, I found one in an old Taste of Home magazine Collector's Edition that sounded good: Baked Cinnamon French Toast.

We got the coffee going, and set to work. My co-cook fried up some bacon, set the table, and opened the juice. I pretty much followed the recipe as written, my only change to use non-fat milk. It was easily enough for eight. It is a bit decadent for my usual cooking style, though. To make it a bit healthier, in the future, I'm thinking of tweaking the recipe a bit - trying non-fat creamer instead of the whipping cream, maybe eggbeaters or part egg whites for the eggs, and maybe Splenda instead of the sugar. If it still turns out ok, I'll repost with my adaptations.

Instead of the optional blackberry preserves and whipped cream however, I made cinnamon apples: Cut cored and peeled apples into bite-sized chunks - quarters or eighths depending on size. Pile them in a saucepan, add some brown sugar and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. Cover and cook on very low for about an hour, stirring maybe a time or two, until apples are tender but not mushy. Notice that there is no liquid added at all.

I'm happy to say that our breakfast was a hit with everyone - and planned just right: no leftovers.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Splint Mitten

Aries' injured finger is doing much better. He got the cast removed, and the stitches out. He now has a molded rigid plastic splint wrapping around his palm, held on with Velcro straps. He can remove the splint periodically to exercise the fingers, and is slowly regaining the ability to bend the joints. He can even tie his own shoes once again.

He's still off work, for at least another 3-4 weeks, maybe more. He finally got a short-term disability check (it's a really good idea when they suggest having at least 3 months liquid emergency savings - despite having medical insurance, we've had no income since the accident 6 weeks ago). He's now able to get out and do more around the house - bringing in firewood, running more garden gleanings through the chipper/shredder (get right back on that horse, so to speak), washing the vehicles, repairing the tire on the garden cart, etc. etc.

But it's cold outside, his damaged circulation and nerves just starting to repair themselves. And that plastic splint gets cold and then stays cold. He'd have to come back in, saying that hand was painfully cold. I could feel and see the difference between the damaged hand and the other - it didn't look good. Aries asked if I could make some kind of cover for the splint, to wear when he was outside. Ideally, it would be a bit stretchy, but still somewhat loose, so he could get it over the hurt finger without incurring more pain. He wanted something thick enough to be really warm, and tightly woven enough to stop the wind. It needed to stay on without him having to tug at it or keep readjusting it, but he wanted his index finger and thumb uncovered. And then his last request was that he didn't want anything "flashy."

I don't knit very well, but I do crochet. I looked through my yarn stash, and found some light gray and dark gray - crocheting the two strands together would give me a heathered gray look, almost like a sweatshirt - nothing flashy about that. A mitten shape would be warmest. I drew around the splint plus two smaller fingers for a rough pattern. Using a single crochet would make it tight enough to block the wind. I suppose I could have just crocheted around and around, increasing the rounds as needed until it was long enough (not sure why I didn't just do that). But instead I turned at the end of each row, making a flat shaped piece to size, and then folded it and crocheted a seam up one side and decreased around the top to fit over the splint. I added a few more rows on half, to cover his knuckles, and then chained a length from palm around his wrist to the top to hold it on. He secures the loop under the splint's Velcro strap on top of his hand, and pronounced it an unqualified success.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Interesting Discovery

We very rarely buy furniture new. Other than the electronics, just about all of our furnishings are second-hand or thrift shop finds, worn classics/antiques that Aries cleans up and refinishes, or pieces I sketch out and he makes for me.

We have an old floor lamp that I honestly can't even remember when or where I got it. I think it made the move from Colorado with me, 25 years ago, but I really don't remember. It's nothing special - probably from the 50's/early 60's, heavy round pedestal base, round wood-look pressboard table midway up the post - actually quite ugly, to tell the truth, but functional and a useful size.

Anyway, lately, the switch has been a bit temperamental, needing a bit of wiggling sometimes to get it to come on. Today, Aries took it out to the garage to see if it could be repaired. The connections inside the socket had worn out - easily fixed with a $4 replacement piece from the local home hardware supply store.

After we got the piece, he brought the lamp back in, and asked me where I'd gotten the lamp. I had to admit, "I honestly can't remember," I told him, "probably a freebie from helping somebody move - I really don't think I paid money for it," and asked why. "Look what I found," he said, and held out a capped, but obviously used, hypodermic needle with a piece of masking tape across it. Ewww!

He had been checking over the rest of the lamp's wiring for wear and tear. There was a piece of felt backing glued to the bottom of the base, but he noticed it had come loose near where the wire went into the brass base. Looking through the opening to check the wiring, he saw a bit of masking tape hanging down. When he pulled on the tape, out came the needle! He'd discovered someone's forgotten drug paraphernalia hiding spot. It's a bit creepy to think I've been moving that lamp around with me for years!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Figs in Northern Nevada

I got out today, and gathered up the rest of my hoses. It was windy, but not too cold, so the hoses were still somewhat pliable. I don't have room to store them inside anywhere, so I coil them up into piles on a couple of pallets on the north side of the shed, and then cover them with a tarp for the winter.

The storm moving in tonight was expected to bring rain, turning to snow before morning. I took a gamble, that it won't get too cold, and left the fig trees out. Please note: figs are not a normal plant for this area. I inherited my two potted trees about 10 years ago, and have been babying them ever since.

They can take temps down to about 25F before it kills the top growth. I know that because I lost the trunks once, but the roots survived. This time of year, I put the pots in the wagon and move them into the garage on the really cold nights. But all the nights are getting too cold now, and I need them to finally go dormant. I don't want to just pull the leaves off. I want to make sure the tree gets the signals that it's time to drop its leaves and shut down for the winter. Then I can move them down into the cellar until spring.

I'm also chancing losing my chard and kale, as I left them uncovered tonight too. They can take it down to about 25F as well, so I'll be checking the min/max thermometer first thing tomorrow morning. I'm hoping the cloud cover from the storm moderates the cold tonight.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Garden Update

We've shut down and drained the yard water system. I got some clean-up work done out in the garden this afternoon - rolling up hoses, stacking wire cages, and storing the metal stakes. I still have to figure out where to put the chicken wire I use to protect newly seeded areas, and still have hoses out around the fruit trees that need to be stored. Low temperature last night was 15F so I now have a few more dead plants to pull, but it's looking pretty good.

Aries has been filling up the compost bins - raking and shredding leaves as they fall, mixing them in with chicken manure. He has some finished compost for me too. I got half of next year's Early Bed composted and raked smooth last week. Today, I planted next year's garlic and shallots, and broadcast some arugula and spinach seeds to winter over.

In the Late Bed, I'm trying to stretch my fresh eating out of the garden a little bit longer. I leaned a couple of pieces of wire together above the Swiss chard, put tomato cages over the Tuscan kale, and a wire frame over the radicchio, and have been covering them when the temps drop into the teens. Rain, turning to snow, is forecast tomorrow evening into Friday. I think I'll pull the covers tomorrow, so everything can get watered and the draperies stay dry, and then put them back on Friday when it's supposed to get really cold for a couple more days. I thought about digging a few plants and putting them down in the cellar, but I don't want to take the chance of introducing an aphid infestation, so I'm not going to bother. I might get a few straw bales and rig up a cold frame out of some old windows though.

I harvested the last of the cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower, but left the plants. The cabbage stumps froze, but the others still look ok. I've made a note for next year that the leeks should be in the Late Bed instead of with the other alliums. They looked pathetic late this summer, after I broke off the seed stalks, but now they're gorgeous and just keep getting bigger. And they'll still be fresh eating, no problem, in February.