Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Week of Thanks: An Old-Fashioned Carrot Pull

Rich organic soil yields plentiful sweet carrots.

One of the things I am most thankful for is our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Siena Farm. This year "our farmer" Chris was able to purchase 26 acres of land in Sudbury, Massachusetts to be conserved in perpetuity. This is not the kind of community "development" that typical banks support. Instead the money to purchase the land came from fundraising dinners, generous supporters and CSA members.

Farmer Chris walks beside the tractor that loosens the soil for easy pulling.

Our family has purchased 3 full-year shares up front to help fund the sale. We will get 48 weekly boxes per year from now until the spring of 2017. I feel like I've gotten a bargain. Instead of our money sitting in the bank hardly keeping up with inflation, we have secured 3 years of food security and wonderful health.

D takes the greens off the carrots before putting them in the bin.

This weekend CSA members were invited to help pull a huge field of carrots before today's hard frost. Between 10am and 4pm, nearly 100 members of all ages put in some time to fill storage bins throughout the field.

filled bins in alternating rows

It was wonderful getting into the field and putting our hands in the soft, rich soil. We pulled up carrots by the dozen, ripped off their green tops, wiped off the rich dirt and filled bin after bin with carrots up to 2 inches in diameter.

J drops another carrot into his almost-full bin.

R and her friend laughed the day away.

Our family filled at least 8 bins and were rewarded with a few bags for our own winter stores.

On our way home with a golden bounty.

So far we've been eating carrot sticks with every meal. And a few big carrots went into tonight's vegetarian chili. I make a great carrot and cheddar gratin. I'm sure I'll be posting more terrific carrot recipes soon.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cranberry Products

The day after my cranberry picking adventure was processing day. I wanted to preserve the incredible freshness of the harvest and not lose any berries to spoilage.

The first thing I did was wash and separate the berries. I had just enough for 2 recipes, a sauce I'm saving for Thanksgiving and bread loaves, one saved for Thanksgiving and one for a just-baked treat.

Here are the ingredients for the sauce: 12 oz cranberries, zest and juice of an orange, cinnamon stick, and (oops) sugar not pictured.

In a few minutes. They are on their way to being sauce.

Ta Da... in less than half an hour: Cranberry/Orange Sauce, the perfect accompaniment to my dining room wallpaper.

The breads take a bit more effort and time, mixing wet and dry ingredients then waiting for the long bake.

The bread is delicious especially warm out of the oven. The rest is frozen waiting for Thanksgiving. What a great start for holiday preparations, Cranberry Sauce and Cranberry Bread with local berries picked by my own hands.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gathering Cranberries

What a rush and pleasure to discover a new crop to harvest, especially one I haven't grown it myself. Tended only by nature at the edge of a reservoir, a bountiful harvest of cranberry is there for the diligent gatherer.

With temperatures in the high 40s and a steady breeze, a friend and I were nonetheless warmed by the strong sun and our efforts, a little walking, lots of bending and constantly moving, searching fingers.

We walked about 1/2 a mile through the forest that borders the reservoir. As we approached the water, there were lower shrubby plants. Then  we entered the swampy zone where low grasses and cranberries hug the water's edge.

This area is unusual for its varied microclimates. (Or maybe many areas would be as diverse if I crawled around in them keenly investigating large areas of ground.) There were spots where the cranberry plants were nestled among mosses. In other zones nearby, the cranberry stalks seemed to come right out of the sand. In those spots the cranberries that had fallen were well preserved and easy to collect. In some areas the picking was good, and you didn't notice how wet it was until your toes were wet and cold. Not far away, you could sit comfortably in a thick patch of cranberry and rake your hands along collecting.

Can you spy the cranberries? It's like finding Waldo in a red striped picture.

We spent 2 pleasant hours, chatting, picking and picnicking and collected 4 to 5 cups each. As usual, harvesting food yourself gives you a great appreciation for the effort it takes. Of course, the cranberries in our supermarkets are not hand harvested. Bogs are flooded and machines collect the cranberries that float to the top of the water. You can see a National Geographic video of cranberry harvesting here.

In prior years when I've purchased bagged berries, I would diligently go through them and remove any that were soft or too blemished. I will be much more accepting of this year's well earned harvest. The softer berries will be made into sauce for Thanksgiving. The firmer ones will go into a bread. After having picked cranberries myself, I will be much less picky.

Check back soon for the delicious results.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


As October turns to November we turn back the clocks and watch the last few leaves fall. Soon we'll settle in for the long cold season. I've been taking invigorating daytime walks before it gets too cold. And I took one unusually warm night-time walk with some spooky young ladies.

Brussels sprouts are ready for harvest at Mainstone farm.

A strong wind blew this hummingbird (?) nest out of a bush. The eggs are 1/2 inch long.

My Halloween doll with a cracked porcelain face.
My daughter and her friends trick-or-treated in a very festive neighborhood.
My husband took this fantastic spooky picture. Happy Belated Halloween.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Garden Chores Before Frost

Here in MA we're awaiting the first frost, and I've turned on our heat. I'm so glad that I finished a few important garden chores in the last few days. I harvested the tomatillos that have been growing slowly since the spring. There were a few big ripe ones and dozens of smaller ones.

Tomatillos on the plant. They are a relative of the ground cherry not the tomato.
My harvest with the husks removed.

I was very excited to can a Salsa Verde (from Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff) for green enchiladas. In the past I've purchased ingredients for the dish. Now not only will I have my own canned version, but this is one of the rare canning projects where I used my own produce rather than produce purchased from other farmers. The only other one I can think of is raspberry jelly.

Anyway, I was so excited I forgot to take photos through most of the process. But here's a description. After removing the husks, I put about 3 lbs tomatillos along with 4 jalapenos, a chunked onion, and peeled cloves of a head of garlic into a 500 degree F oven for 30 minutes. Everything came out collapsed, blackened in parts and a bit juicy. After the vegetables cooled, I put them in a pot along with 2/3 cup lime juice, one cup fresh cilantro and 1 tbsp salt. I mixed all that with my immersion blender, brought it back to a boil, put it in jars, and processed it in a hot water bath.

The result: 4 1/2 cups Salsa Verde.

The finished salsa has a very rich flavor from the roasting. It's also tangy from the lime juice and a little spicy. It should be perfect in the green enchilladas. It was great as a condiment on a spinach and broccoli frittata we had the other night too. That was a yummy way to use up the amount that didn't fit in the jars.

The other last garden chore before frost was to create a little window sill herb garden. I potted some thyme, parsley and sage from the garden in fresh soil. The pots will sit in a fish poaching pot I inherited from my grandmother's kitchen. In more than 20 years, I have NEVER used it to poach a fish. I'm glad I finally found a use for it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Processing Pears

One day of pear processing produced 6 quarts of pears in light syrup and 3 1/2 cups of tawny port pear butter. I'm finally feeling really comfortable with the canning process. You can find the recipes here.


 I used about 18 pounds of pears for the pears in syrup and about 8 for the butter. I still have nearly a full box stored in the basement and fridge for eating as they ripen.

I wouldn't have thought peeling pears would be so easy. Just a quick slice off the top and bottom, peel, cut in quarters and slice out the core. Maybe it's all the peeling practice I've had lately, and my great OXO peeler. It's an older model with replaceable blades, and sadly I can't find a place to buy the replacement blades anymore.

The pieces were deposited in a gallon of water mixed with 2 Tbsp. lemon juice to prevent discoloration. When I had enough pieces, I simmered them in a light syrup and filled the heated jars.

Above are the ingredients for the Tawny Port Pear butter. Yum!  pears, Tawny Port, lemon and honey from a local friend's hives.

I'm getting better at packing the jars tightly. There are lots of air bubbles in the butter, however. I should have let it sit longer after blending. A friend assured me that the air doesn't affect the quality, only the appearance.

At any age, it's fun learning a new skill. I started canning at age 45 never having seen it done before. About a year after I began, every effort results in new lessons learned.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Apples and Gifts

It's October, harvest season. And the harvest has been bountiful. The "tribe" of women I hang with has been purchasing and processing local foods. We buy in bulk to get better prices. We work together to make teaching and learning about canning, drying and planting more fun. We share our tools, knowledge, products, and our spirits.

Some of our "tribe" posing in our community garden plot.
Back in August we made a wonderful purchase of about 160 lbs of peaches. You can read about how we turned them into canned peaches, peach pickles, peach butter, peach jelly and peach salsa here. We set aside one of each item to return as a gift to the farmers at Nicewicz Family Farm who were so generous with us. Last Thursday two of us returned to bring farmer Tommy our gift and to purchase apples for our next round of food preparation and storage.

Tommy (one of 4 brothers who run the farm) and I with our gift.
Not only did we purchase their honey crisp apple seconds (which they otherwise don't sell) for a very good price, but they offered their beautiful bosc pear seconds too. We bought 4 boxes and they threw in an additional box of smaller pears that are more work to process. We came home with 16 20-pound boxes to be divided among 5 or 6 women. 

The work of dividing, sharing and processing began. Below is my car filled with fruit and my friend's dehydrator which I was borrowing for a couple days. The paper bags contain garlic heads that we bought in bulk. I'll deliver them before the first frost so we can plant them in our gardens. Behind that are some bales of salt hay for my fall garden prep.

Once home, the first job was to sort out the best apples to store in the basement for school lunches and out-of-hand eating around the house.  I hope they will last a month or two. My family will have devoured them by then.

Then the processing began. Washing, peeling, slicing, arranging on trays and drying. On my own, it took between 1 1/2 to 2 hours to fill the machine. Then six hours to process about 18 apples into about 12 cups of dried apples. When I set up our own family assembly line with Doug peeling, me slicing and the kids arranging the pieces on the dehydrator trays, a whole batch took about half an hour.

Filling the dehydrator with thinly sliced apples.
After 5-6 hours, the apples and dried and shrunken.

Now don't think that during the downtime I was just relaxing. Certainly not! The apples were waiting. While hanging out in the warm, fragrant kitchen, I got another batch of apple butter into the crock pot. You can read about that process here. And I baked a couple of French Apple Cakes from a great recipe on David Lebovitz's blog.

Both the dehydrator and crock fit on this out-of-the-way table.
Beautiful dried apples and their source.

Two French Apple Cakes. One went with me to a pot luck, the other stayed home.
 It's been a busy couple days, but all the apples are processed or stored. On to the pears....

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wendell Berry: Gratitude, Disappointment and Action

I am a member of the Trustees of Reservations, an organization that preserves and cares for conservation areas. The slogan on their signs reads, "Together, we can preserve the Massachusetts landscape. For everyone. Forever." They currently administer about 100 properties across the state. When I joined a few years ago, I decided that eventually I'd like to visit every one of them.

Yesterday I checked number 10 off my list at their Norris Reservation property. No less than a quarter mile into the area, I was transported out of the everyday suburban world. There were no cars and very few people. The sounds and scents were now those of the forest: the rush of wind through the trees, the pum of acorns falling on a soft trail, the caw of the crow.  The air was full of moisture and pine.

The trail I initially took followed a river's edge. The high water table must make for shallow roots and unstable trees. I saw at least five tree falls where thin rounded shelves of roots were lifted skyward holding their soil exposing the stones and ground below.

A "boat house" (it contained no boats) sat along the trail as a perfect picnic or viewing spot. From it, I watched the swirling river water and waving fall-tinted grasses. Across the river private homes sat high on the hills. Small speed and party boats bobbed at the ends of docks jutting into the river. One of the homes at the edge of an inlet could have been my dream home with its charming decks, greenhouse and canoe by the water. It may have been the boat house of the larger house behind it. The view of these homes turned me a bit "green with envy" here in the woods.

But as I turned back to the trail my gratitude returned for this public space, its beauty available for all people and creatures. Not far ahead I saw a sign, figuratively and literally. About 9 to 10 feet up , an old sign was being consumed by the tree it had been posted on so long ago. On closer inspection I could discern the word "private" below the paint and rust. It was nearly obliterated.

Farther along, a side trail led to a pond with boardwalk paths that traversed its swampy edges. These environments with their thick low bushes and trees on tiny hills with their roots arching out of mud and pooled water are some of my favorites. They are thick with moss and ferns, shady, cool and damp.
Somehow in these places I can sit for long periods of time looking for birds and frogs. I can study the fractal patterns of lichen and consider the number of lobes of leaves or needles of pine clusters. The list of daily chores, calendar of important deadlines, and frustration with worldly events fade away.

Then I came upon the scattering of Bud Lite cans and Gatorade bottles. Frustration returned. Not only have kids come here to drink and likely drive off endangering others, but they left the ugly evidence of their crime. Why is it so hard for them to just carry the cans away? They could even use the 5 cent return deposit to buy more beer. I began to walk away dejected.

Then I turned back. It drives me crazy that the people who are willing to clean natural areas are never the ones who despoil them. But then again, if conscientious people don't do it, who will? I found a long stick, lay down perpendicular to the boardwalk hooking my feet on the far end for safety, and reached out with the stick as far as I could to bring within reach as many cans as possible. After a few minutes, I pulled about half the collection out of the tangled swamp plants. I hope someone with wading boots or long tools will come soon to retrieve the rest.  I felt empowered if still disappointed continued on.

Along the trail on the way to my car, I see what looks like a natural temple. Large granite erratic stones left by the glaciers embedded so deep that the farmers who once tilled this land could not remove them. They sit near a clearing beckoning me to sit and be grateful for the beauty of our world and the gift of being healthy and able to take time to walk among the trees.

When I get home I watched an online interview with the poet and prophet, Wendell Berry. He spoke with Bill Moyers in front of a crowd of environmentalists and activists who clearly would never toss a can out their car window. They'd be the ones picking up the trash. But more than that, they'd be donating land or making laws to protect our remaining natural treasures. They'd be warning of the hazards of factory farming, going back to the land and creating small, sustainable farms. They'd be fighting against the Keystone Pipeline and using alternative energy. They'd say the true things that our compromised "leaders" in Washington would never say: that ""No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it can, for long, disguise its failure to conserve the wealth and health of nature."

"It may be that the danger we've now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty."  My duty today was to remove those cans from the swamp. It was... oh so small, but it was something. And by writing and speaking and blogging, perhaps we can convince more people to start caring and doing.

Please take a look at the Wendell Berry show from Moyers & Company.