Some things new

wrinkled tomatoesI’ve planted new varieties this year throughout the garden. It’s fun pulling up a different colored carrot, watching the cabbages develop, and I’m enjoying the long, straight Longfellow cucumbers in addition to my usual “homemade pickles” variety. I planted ten types of tomatoes and as many kinds of peppers, including some beautiful miniature purple ones (Chinese spicy peppers) in a container. There are so many green tomatoes on the plants! It’s destined to be a great year.

But I’ve planted three completely new things this year. So far my favorite is celery. I don’t know why I never planted celery before. I guess my sense was that I’d work all summer to get one or more giant head at the end and how would I use it? At the end of the season, however, I bought celery at the Farmer’s Market and talked to the farmer about it. She said that celery freezes very well, and also that you can harvest ribs from it beginning in July or August.

celery and fennel

So this year I started three celery plants from seed. Given my lack of commitment to new plants, I stuck them too close to the Brussels sprouts, which are now shading and crowding two of the three plants. Still, they’re coming up and making narrow ribs and lots of leaves. They’ve become ready for initial harvesting at the same time I’m dumping a few potato bags and making potato salad, adding excellent crunch and flavor.

I also went ahead and planted, in the same spot, several fennel seeds. Those are growing beautifully and I plan to use and freeze those as well. The first recipe I’m going to make with the fennel is this.

eggplantFinally, I also planted two eggplants. I am not a big fan of eggplant, more a texture thing than flavor, but I figured I could do with a couple. They are such gorgeous fruits. In the past I have also been very half-hearted in planting eggplant seedlings I got at the last minute and I’ve never had any of them fruit. This year, however, both plants are growing nicely (in their own spaces with proper supports!) One has two lavender flowers and the other has one.

wheat harvestThe farmer behind us planted wheat this year instead of corn, and it has been such a welcome sight. This past week they harvested it and now the large field is dotted with rolled bales. They really take my breath away every time I come over the slight rise and back to the garden. It’s like our own little Stonehenge or something. They look like silent monuments. I guess once they’ve dried some more the farmer will line them up and cover them in white plastic, like a giant caterpillar. That is not so pretty. But for now I feel downright Tolstoyan walking out there.

onion garlic drying bed frameI have my own drying process going on, with the garlic and onion harvest. I never get as many onions as I’d like, and this year, although some are quite large, I only have about 60 on the old metal bed frame in the barn. That will barely get me through the pickling/salsa and late summer cooking.

onion garlic drying shoponion garlic drying close-upI planted more garlic this year and have 130 heads drying. In addition to the bed springs, Steve had made an additional frame when building the chicken coop. We lay it between two tables in the furniture shop and it’s working perfectly. In another two weeks I’ll cut the stems off and put them in mesh bags in storage in the basement. Last year the garlic ran out with the big Christmas Eve tomato sauce feast. We’ll see how long they last this year. Only two more weeks until the garlic festival, when I buy my bulbs for planting for 2016!

tomatoes 7-30-15

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Beets and other Pickles

pickle ingredientsAs soon as I got back from vacation I hustled to get all the cucumbers into an overnight soak of water w/alum and the jars and lids ready for a major pickling session. It makes me so happy when I have onions, garlic, cucumbers and dill all ready at the same time!

pickles finishedThis year, in addition to full-size dill pickles and dilly beans, I made a couple jars of “hamburger dills,” which I like because you can get more cukes into a jar by slicing them. (If there are no complaints, I might switch to mostly this method in the future.) I also tried a brand new pickle: pickled beets.

I’ve been skeptical of pickled beets because, well, truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of pickled things. However, my mom likes them and it seemed like it would be worthwhile to try for Christmas gifts. Also, I’m all about allspice these days, and it seemed a good place to try them out. It takes more prep than other pickles, because you have to boil or roast the beets, but that’s not a big deal.

pickled beet ingredients

I checked out a variety of recipes, some with allspice, cinnamon and cloves, and some with salt, all with varying amounts of sugar. Alton Brown roasts the beets with rosemary and uses tarragon red wine vinegar. He also used the minimum of sugar I saw in a recipe. I took his recipe down to its most basic, so this is sort of a hybrid.

pickled beetsPickled Beets

2 cups vinegar
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tsp allspice
shallots or red onion, sliced thinly
roasted beets (I made 3 pints with 10 smallish beets)

I roasted the beets for 50 minutes wrapped in foil packets until I could easily puncture them with a fork. Once cooled, I slipped the skins from them, sliced them and layered them with the shallots in pint jars.

Meanwhile, I prepared the jars, lids and seals for canning. I heated the vinegar, water, sugar and allspice (you could also use berries and just put a few in each jar, but this seemed a way to “control” the strength of the allspice in the recipe) in a saucepan until the sugar was dissolved.

Once the jars were filled, I poured the hot liquid over them, put the lids on, and steamed in a steam canner for 15 minutes.

Next up, sweet pickles and more baby dills… And of course, every day we have this in the fridge:

cucumber salad

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Western North Dakota, part 2: Williston

Watford Hotel opened 3 weeks agoI’m not sure what my friend Doug thought of the whole thing, but I really was much more excited as we approached Watford City than I was in the Badlands. For the past year I’ve been thinking about, reading about, and consuming media about the oil boom and the Bakken Shale Oil Fields of northwestern North Dakota.

I don’t know why, but I was surprised to find t-shirts with oil pump jacks on them in Medora, a tourist town whose sole purpose is providing tourist opportunities and food and a big ole Branson-style thing called the Medora Musical (an epic tale in song and dance of the story of Theodore Roosevelt who brought the National Parks to ND and of businessman Harold Schafer, inventor of Mr. Bubble, who brought the musical to Medora).

pumpjacks and flares watson city

In some places, like signal fires from “The Iliad,” you could see natural gas flares and pump jacks out to the horizon. But most places you’d hardly know a boom was going on.

I am not a fan of fracking for oil. It seems quite clear that the amount of ecological damage being caused by this process is severe. The process involves pumping massive amounts of sand and chemicals and water horizontally into the ground to release the oil. In addition to oil, natural gas is also released. Because there are no pipelines to transport the natural gas, it is all burned off, or “flared,” in North Dakota.

There is extensive evidence that fracking ruins groundwater and has contaminated the water supplies of people living on or near land that has been drilled. If you want to see the most nightmarish vision of this industry, watch the documentary Gasland

Hôtel barbecue and new apartments across the street. Studio apartments typically started at $2,000/month.

Hôtel barbecue and new apartments across the street. Studio apartments typically started at $2,000/month.

In North Dakota, the atmosphere around the boom, which has been going on for six years now, is buoyant. In the brand new hotel (one month old) in Watford City, everything was fancy and clean and new and the people staying there were quiet and happy. The woman behind the counter had been in town a few months, and found her job and a place to live in four days. She came from North Carolina. We met other women (waitresses, gas attendants, hotel clerks) who had arrived from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Arkansas, one as early as 2013 but most in the past year.

Some of them had plans: one was working for the park district, too, and could transfer to another national park after a year’s service. Another and her husband had just put down money on some land back home. A third was paying down debts and getting valuable experience she hoped would help her get a job back home. We asked everyone three questions: “Where are you from? When did you get here? Are you going to stay?” No one was going to stay.

man camp trailers

One of several rows of trailers in a Watford City “man camp.”

The oil boom is actually slowing due to low oil prices, with fewer wells being drilled. However, the construction industry is just catching up, so there’s still plenty of work. And plenty of “man camps,” trailer parks with rows of trailers, some with windows and some without, and propane tanks out back.

A grim looking man camp

A grim looking man camp

In Williston itself, you see layers of booms. This is the third one, though by far the largest. We talked to a woman, Joanne, who lived in old housing stock across from a cemetery that had recently been expanded. She moved there in 1956 and her grandfather had homesteaded nearby. The family still owned the 160 acre homestead, where her husband was that morning hanging out on his “hobby farm.” They also still held (I asked), the mineral rights.

A platform with active drilling.

A platform with active drilling.

One of the issues in that part of North Dakota is that the people who work and even own the land might not own the mineral rights. You find older families who have long since moved to Florida or the Twin Cities drilling on land they don’t farm. And because of this, there is not the same commitment or awareness of the degradation of the land. There is also the jubilation that comes with one’s long hoped-for claim coming in. This is what those early settlers hoped for when they moved out to the dry grasslands and found that you couldn’t make enough money farming.

Joann's house williston

Joanne’s house in Williston.

Joanne wasn’t happy about the way the boom has affected Williston. People have had to move because they couldn’t afford rent. And she said it’s ruined little towns like Epping, where one of her sons lives, because of the oil trains coming in and out on the railroad all the time and the rapid development It is nearly impossible to see the remnant of Watford City. All I could find was the grain elevator. In Williston the elevator is just down the tracks from a new large oil storage facility.

I’m glad we saw it– including the torn up streets of downtown that the coffee shop owner said they’ve been working on for four months, just pouring the concrete. It’s a mess. And it will be interesting to see what’s there once the man camps are dissembled and the pump jacks are going mostly unattended.

construction downtown williston oil storage williston

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Western North Dakota, part 1

ND badlands insideHi! Back from vacation! Every summer when I come back from vacation I promise myself I won’t go away in the summer again. Truth is, I really needed to get away, and it was only four days. Still, I spent the last two days utterly overwhelmed with work and with rescuing the garden from weeds. I ‘m gonna spend the whole day today pickling to take care of all the beans and cucumbers I came home to. Not a bad thing, I know.

My friend Doug from California met me in Bismarck, North Dakota, for a trip to the western part of the state. My goal was to get to Williston, the heart of the tracking boom, but also to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the North Dakota Badlands.

ascension outsideOn the way, I visited three Benedictine Monasteries. I stayed the first night in Jamestown, ND, and got to Bismarck and Annunciation Monastery in time for Sunday Mass. This monastery has a lovely chapel that looks a lot like my home church in St. Joseph, Minnesota, with field stone walls and very similar light wood pews. Their original church, now part of the Benedictine Center for Servant Leadership, was designed by Marcel Breuer, who also designed Saint John’s Abbey church in Collegeville. It has a distinctive concrete bell banner and “Breuer black” pews. It has the same floor as the abbey church and even the clay tiles that line the cloister walk in Collegeville. The Sisters told me that Breuer had the interior field stones painted white, something they changed when they built their smaller chapel.

Breuer church

Breuer church

Sisters' chapel

Sisters’ chapel

It was great to visit with them and share some cheeseburger soup after Mass. An added bonus was that they’ve been passing around Habits, and the woman at the desk recognized me from my name.

After I picked up Doug, we were on to Richardton and the two monasteries there, Assumption Abbey for the men, and on the outskirts of what is barely a town, Sacred Heart Monastery, where we stayed overnight. The women’s monastery is distinguished by their two wind generator windmills and, when you get there, the flock of llamas they keep.

horses nuzzlingThe next day we hit the park, which was incredibly beautiful. Although you’re in the West, where grassland and high desert has replaced the prairie, it was less like a desert than the South Dakota Badlands. We saw prairie dog towns and buffalo, but the highlight, and one of the best wildlife experiences of my life, was to come upon a large herd of feral horses. They stood on a hill right next to a parking area, and were so quiet. They nuzzled and stood close together. They had shiny coats and looked very healthy. Their colors were rich and varied and unusual. I could have stayed there for hours.

grey horse and butte


That night we stayed in Watson City, just 15 miles north of the park. And that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Oh, and bonus– “World’s Largest Sand Hill Crane” between Jamestown (birthplace of Louis L’Amour) and Bismarck.

largest sand hill crane

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blueberriesEvery crop is doing well this year… except berries. Even the corn is a foot higher than it should be in mid-July and the rains have been so good that there isn’t that usual spikiness to the leaves from a hot, dry summer.

I did a serious pruning of the tomato plants today. Though I’d decided not to prune this year and just see what I got, the rains have made the plants really leafy and I could tell there were tomatoes in there if only I could see them. In fact, there are a lot of tomatoes setting, and nearly all the plants seem to be “indeterminate” and continue to grow upward and outward. There is not nearly as much blight as I expected given the rains and the thick foliage. I may start getting red tomatoes next week, before it becomes a race for tomato vs. blight.

I even dug up all the red potatoes, hoping to get them before the gigantism of last year set in. They are lovely, although I do think the late frost reduced the yield, and the rain compressed the soil which also affects the yield. But I didn’t see a single potato bug, a first. There were lots of “hoppers,” miniature grasshoppers that prey on potato plants, but they don’t seem to do much damage even to the leaves. They’re nowhere as destructive as potato beetles.

blueberry jam cooking

blueberry jam cooking

And yet, berry farms are really struggling. The place where I picked blueberries last year didn’t even have a season this year. I did find a place that has berries, and it seems like they’re new and not many people knew about them. They are “Blueberry Summer,” another of these places with gorgeously groomed rows of well mulched blueberry bushes. The proprietor was just fantastic– as I approached the garage for a basket, she came from the house chomping away on handfuls of blueberries. She told me to pick wherever I wanted, and advised me that they had seven kinds of blueberries so I should be sure to get a mix. The small blue ones, perfectly the same size, were the best for blueberry muffins, she said. I’m sad to say I cannot quite tell one blueberry bush from another. However, with permission to go to a bush here and a bush there, all of them loaded with giant berries, I had six pounds of blueberries in no time and was on my way.

She did say that half of their bushes didn’t produce this year. And over at the strawberry farm, they actually lost 50% of their strawberry plants. It was devastating, and I was lucky to get over there in the five-seven days they had berries to be picked. The berries were small but very sweet, and I made my batch of strawberry jam (straight up this time, no rhubarb).

The problem was no snow cover. Last winter we got a deep, early snow in November and then not much more. Most of the winter the ground was bare, so even though it wasn’t as cold as the winter before, there were still frozen pipes, and it was bad for the berry plants.

Raspberries are the only things that haven’t seemed to suffer. In my backyard I have a little stand that has produced enough for sauce for ice cream, toppings for birthday angel-food cake, and a “bottomless” pint for yogurt and cereal for a week. I have a larger set of bushes that have lots of fresh new canes but no blossoms. I’m not sure if they were subject to the late frost (they’re a later bearing variety) or if the deer ate the second-year canes down (those produce berries) or what happened. It’s fine, as blueberry and strawberry jam is enough for me this year. And once again I’m not tempted at all to put in my fruit patch!

blueberry jam

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My New Favorite Sauce

napa cabbage half

This post is not about the napa cabbage. But seriously. Look at that napa cabbage! Two days ago it looked like this (bottom cabbage) in the flower garden.

napa cabbage

But this post is not about cabbage. It’s about beets, yogurt, and a special secret ingredient…

I was looking for something different to do with beets the other day, and stumbled on a wonderful sauce. It’s actually a combination of two recipes, one from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavorsand the other in Liana Krissoff’s Whole Grains for a New Generation

Madison’s recipe was for beets with a dressing made of anise hyssop and champagne vinegar. Krissoff’s was for a wheat berry and beet salad with anise-flavored yogurt cheese. See the common denominator? Anise.

dry hyssopI had a jar of dried hyssop from last fall’s prairie. It was still fragrant and had beautiful lavender bits from the flowers. In fact, it looks a lot like dried lavender, but it smells strongly of anise.

I made a bed of wheat berries and freekeh (you can use any grains, but I liked the mix of a hearty grain and lighter one). I roasted the beets, red and golden, and sliced them onto the bed. Then I topped it with the dressing: yogurt, lemon juice, champagne vinegar (don’t really need both) and a good helping of the hyssop. Salt and pepper to taste. I think I even put a spoonful of sour cream in the sauce because I tend to do that kind of thing…

beets hyssop sauceThe salad I made for dinner was very flavorful and a nice break from the butter and feta I’ve been using on beets. Plus, there was extra sauce.

Last night I needed something for chicken breast and made a chicken salad. Chunks of grilled chicken, lightly sautéed green beans, snow peas, carrots and zucchini, all tossed with the leftover grains and the yogurt sauce. This was a real star. I am going to make a larger batch of it today. I was so uncertain about it, I didn’t take a photo, but it looks like a chunky chicken and vegetable salad. You could switch out the vegetables with anything you like: broccoli shoots, red onion or shallots, celery, kohlrabi, etc.

hyssop in bowl

Hyssop Yogurt Sauce and Two Salads

1 cup Greek yogurt or combination of yogurt and sour cream
juice from one lemon
2 Tbs champagne or white wine vinegar
2 Tbs dried hyssop or 1 Tbs crushed anise seed
salt and pepper to taste

For the beet salad: Roast beets at 350 degrees for 50 minutes until tender. Cook 2 cups of wheat berries, freekeh or another grain until chewy tender. A nice presentation would be to mix the grains with the yogurt sauce and then put the sliced beets on top with a lemon slice or sprinkling of hyssop for a garnish.

For the chicken salad: grill or sautee diced chicken breasts in a little olive oil until cooked through and set aside. Sautee or steam seasonal vegetables: green beans, snow peas, shell peas, carrots, shallots, onion, garlic scapes, broccoli shoots, kohlrabi, etc. The chicken should be cooked through and the vegetables crisp tender. Add the chicken to the pan to warm through. Mix with the sauce and serve! (This salad is good cold, too!)



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Alpha Chicken

chicken leaving bedI had such a nice day Thursday with the chickens. Me and Biggie are good buddies and this morning while the other four were busy with the fresh water and feed she followed me out of the pen and stood as I walked to the house with her neck stretched as if to say, “Where are you going?”

I’m not sure what they think I am, but it occurred to me yesterday they probably think I’m just the alpha chicken. I have access to better food, and throw lots of goodies over the fence into the pen. I also spend most of my day scratching around in the garden, weeding/cultivating the beds, going after new grass and tender weeds. Up and down the rows, bent over and doing damage.

I think we have come to an agreement on the garden. They have spent a few days in the pen, but I can’t really face the idea of keeping them confined in there unless it is for their safety. As someone who is participating in the confinement of an 84-year-old right now (for his safety), it just breaks my heart. The lettuce and greens are all out of one side of the cold frame bed. The other beds have drip lines so empty spaces (in between the volunteer dill) is soft and dry. That means there is ample space which is also nicely shaded for much of the morning. They can all get in there in a row and give themselves spa-level dirt baths. It makes me laugh.

Biggie is also very interested in the leaves on the broccoli plants. She’s trimmed them to the fence line (I put up fencing to stop the rabbits). Since I’ve already harvested them and am just getting occasional side shoots, I don’t mind.

chickens in gardenThe chickens have their routines, and luckily they don’t seem to be interested in going into the garden any farther. They much prefer the area around the trees, down by the pond, and in the soft pine needles behind their coop. They also like it over by the compost bin. They range out into the prairie and over by the raspberries (but haven’t yet bothered the raspberries!) They go in the pen about 4 p.m. and I shut the door. Once they’re in the coop roosting about 9 p.m., I slide that door shut.

I ate my cereal out there Thursday, and Biggie was quite interested in that. She also was curious about my laundry. The life of an alpha chicken is very complicated. We’ll see how it goes. For now, I’m really enjoying their quiet activity, and just looking forward to the eggs.

I also thought of a good T-shirt slogan today. “If my husband would get me a cat, my chickens wouldn’t be so spoiled.” My mother-in-law, who grew up on a dairy farm, clearly thought I was insane when she saw the sunflower sprouts I’m growing for them. They are so big and beautiful, they are clearly spoiled rotten. And my sister-in-law had dumped a big batch of watermelon rinds in the pen for them.

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