Sprouting Part Two

photo-16Slowly but surely, I’m building up my skills… In 2014, I began sprouting seeds to get some fresh greens in winter. They are lovely things, and I’ve since invested in a sprouting tray, a set of four trays, actually, where I can grow quite a bunch of tender sprouts in a week.

But visits to Mana Gardens and their greenhouse operation in Buffalo, Minnesota, has made me aim higher. Last year, they introduced me to sunflower sprouts,  big, thick sprouts that taste nutty and are an incredible addition to stir frys and salads. I bought a 5 lb bag of sunflower seeds from my local bird store ($7.99) and we, then the chickens, ate tray after tray of them. (Some people question the source, as they aren’t organic. I figure so much of our food is conventionally sourced. I soak the seeds overnight, and if the pesticide residue, if any, doesn’t harm the birds, should I worry? I have no plans to sell them from this source, so I figure it’s good enough for us and the chickens.)

newly planted trays at mana

planted trays at Mana Gardens

This year, I’m taking it up another notch. In the weeks before I start my seeds for the garden, and basically as long as there’s room on the growing table, I’m trying my hand at radish sprouts, kale sprouts, and microgreens, in addition to the sunflower sprouts.

All of these take 7-10 days to full growth. I start everything on heat mats, with trays over the top to keep the light out (I don’t bother with black-out for sunflower sprouts, just the more tender ones). This makes the sprouts leggy, and in the end will make them easier to harvest. After 3-4 days, (the heat definitely makes for better germination and faster growth) I take the trays off the top and turn on the grow lights during the day for the last few days so they leaf out and become green. I should have my first batch on Sunday.

leggy radish sprouts 2-16

leggy radishes (front) and sunflower sprouts (back)

And the second batch, started today, which will come in 10 days from now, will be pea shoots, from leftover pea seeds.

Pauley sprout seeds 2016

a seed gift from Scott

The most exciting part of all this is that my friend Scott, who is all about the seed saving, has offered to grow radishes and greens to seed for me and Jeff. Seed is by far the most expensive part of the operation, although you use such a tiny amount in each tray it pays back large dividends. But to find organic, local seed in bulk is really great.

All this is practice for the real move, out to our greenhouse next February. I’m hoping with small heaters and/or cold frame set-ups to keep an area warm enough to sprout on a bigger level next winter. Meanwhile, the windowsill will do!

pea shoots at Mana 2-16

pea shoots at Mana Gardens

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Hard Blessings

Phil at churchIn June, we entered quite suddenly the world of caring for elderly parents. My father-in-law had what we think was a stroke on June 6, and within a month both FIL and MIL were moved two hours north from their home in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, to a nursing home near our home. I chronicled that early story here on Cowbird.

They are both in serious decline, and the winter has brought a bout of pneumonia for both of them. While Mil bounced back pretty quickly with a round of antibiotics, Fil has struggled and also had trouble with dehydration.

They are also in a good place, and we are all grateful for Mother of Mercy Nursing Home in Albany, Minnesota. They can attend Mass every day, and when Fil was at his most resistant, he would still go to the rosary every day because, as he told me: “I don’t want them to think all I do is complain. They do some good things here; I just want to go home.” They both have dementia, but different types, and neither fits the Alzheimer’s profile. Mil has the more common and easy to recognize memory loss, while Fil can be very lucid and clear and remember even football scores, even as some conversations with him just plain don’t make any sense. His decline is more difficult to watch, because his level of confusion must make things pretty nightmarish.

Mil is in assisted living, but she spends her days in Fil’s room in the nursing ward proper. The staff love them both, and Fil has kept his sense of humor while Mil has remained incredibly sweet and helpful, rushing in to comfort other residents and push wheelchairs to Mass. The other day when we walked down the hall to get her mail and change the batteries in her hearing aids, she stopped to pet a stuffed animal cat in a resident’s lap, and the woman gave her a big smile.

MOM-Mother-MaryI am amazed to find that visiting them is something I’m actually good at. I enjoy it. For one thing, I’m not attached to them being any certain way, or to any version of the past the way their own children can be. Whereas it’s hard for my husband to listen to his mother talk about how they had goats when the kids were small (she had goats when she was a child on the dairy farm), I am happy to go with it. I heard a very helpful This American Life episode about a man who was a comedian and very able to “go with” his mother-in-law’s dementia even as his wife, her daughter, struggled. They tell you in all the literature just to go with the story the person is telling, but it’s actually not that easy in real life.

For me, it is almost a creative exercise. An exercise in surrealism. The goal is to get through it and onto another topic without frustrating him. For a few months, actually, there were none of these really surreal conversations, but after the pneumonia they seem to be back. Fil and I had this exchange my last visit:

“You’re going to the fair, right?”
“I’ll probably go. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Do they auction them off singly? You know, or in bundles, those metal rods, you know the ones, with the prongs on the end?”
“Did you want us to bid on something for you?”
He pauses and thinks. “No, I don’t think so. Not this time around.”

I look at MIL, who is sitting in her chair with her head on her hands. Then we move on. I show them some photos of our recent trip to the desert.

Betty playing QwirkleWe’ve been trying to think of ways to keep their brains stimulated. They are not puzzle makers or game players. My youngest sister-in-law brought in a Qwirkle game shortly before Christmas. It has been a lifesaver for my visits with Mil. She and I can sit at the small table while Fil naps and make a beautiful design with the domino-like blocks, just matching colors and shapes. It’s a challenge for her, and I’m going to take some of the tiles out to shorten the game, but we can fully interact as I ask her: “Do you have any red? Do you have any squares?” and tell her where to place them. So what if she puts down a diamond, a square on its side, instead of a square. But I draw the line at a starburst pretending to be a circle. She hogs the bag of tiles, and we have fun going back and forth.

I had a profound conversation with a friend at lunch yesterday. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and was telling him what’s been going on. He said, “How great that you have this chance to have a relationship with them.” I totally agree. He said he’d been thinking about people who marry late and don’t have the long relationship with in-laws that he has had in his marriage. I married into a family of eight children and much of my interaction with my in-laws has been in giant family settings. But these days I have them for a couple hours each week all to myself.

My friend said, “I have had a complicated relationship with my in-laws, who have mostly gotten on my nerves. But just recently I realized that the more I get to know them, the more I love my wife.”

That was a really moving sentence.

In some ways, this situation definitely makes one aware of what might be in store in the future. My husband’s grandparents also had dementia before they died. But also, it has relieved me of a lot of fears about dying and death. Encountering the lovely, caring staff and the salt-of-the-earth residents makes me hopeful about the care I might receive at the end of my life. Oh, it will be unpleasant, of course. We all hope for a brief illness, or better yet living until a spry 94 years old and then dying in one’s sleep. But if it doesn’t go that way, it will be OK.

This is the Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. I think of this every week as I travel to MoM, Mother of Mercy. I think of it every week I experience the deep mercy of these visits, which goes out to them and flows back to me.

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Mashed Potato Pancakes

Fat Choy


I “yelped” my way through my recent trip to Las Vegas/Death Valley with very good results. At the top of the list, it directed me to the El Pollo Mobile taco truck where the $1 tacos were absolutely amazing. Simple and flavorful and every element from the tortilla to the cilantro perfectly balanced. Salsa bar topped things off perfectly.


yummy sushiIt also sent me to Yummy sushi, about 4 blocks from where I was staying. I sat at the bar and took advantage of the Happy Hour specials. I had the sweetest sushi chef in the world, who was shy and attentive at the same time.

Near my hotel in Old Vegas, I was directed to Fat Choy at the Eureka Casino. They definitely put the “fat” in the choy. I ordered the special: pork belly BLT on sourdough with fries. (Or salad. The waitress was like, “yeah, right, you could have salad”) When she saw me taking a photo (for my yelp review) she said, “Where are you from that you take photos of your food? You must not be from the Midwest.” I told her I was from Minnesota, and turned out she was from Wisconsin, the other waitress was from South Dakota, and two other guests nearby were also from Wisconsin. Is it like the grease calls us?

pork belly bltThe pork belly was delicious, and my criticism was an unusual one– why add bacon? I ended up taking the bacon off the sandwich to enjoy the pork belly. In the end, I wish I’d gotten the pork belly bun, which Yelpers recommended.

Steve joined me for the last leg of the grip and he wanted Mexican food, cheap Mexican food, so I looked for that everywhere, including in Boulder City near the Hoover Dam. We were led to Roberto’s, where the burrito was fantastic, but the combination plate was just meh. My basic rule on Mexican is to stick with pork unless you know it’s a good enough place to do asada (steak) well. If you can get carnitas, slow-cooked pork, go for it, in tacos or a burrito.

robertos boulder city

By far, though, the best find did not come to us through Yelp. After church on Sunday in Boulder City, Nevada, we stumbled on Southwest Diner. This place was fabulous. It was hard to decide what to get. I went with the specialty: 2 spicy Santa Fe potato pancakes, homemade apple sauce (I suspect it’s just the filling for their apple pie), 2 eggs, and banana bread!

mashed potato pancakesThe potato pancakes were a cilantro-lover’s dream. They were not pancakes. They were mashed potatoes, seasoned with cilantro (the Swad coriander chutney I suspect), corn, possibly onion, and then lightly fried on a skillet on both sides. I never would have thought of this, but it was delicious. Steve asked that we please add this to the repertoire.

I happen to have some homemade mashed potatoes frozen, so I made them for brunch today. A perfect accompaniment to fried eggs (from our chickens) and my own homemade applesauce.

Note: Turns out the frozen mashed potatoes, when they thawed, had extra liquid. So I did end up doing more of a “pancake” treatment to them. I added about 2 TBS of flour and one egg to the “batter” with the corn, fried onion, and mashed potatoes. Mine were not as thick as these, but they tasted every bit as good and the texture was perfect! A little sour cream on top and delish!

I really enjoyed all my culinary experiences on the trip, including the tuna and crackers we ate in Death Valley and the nachos we made in the RV in Tecopa Hot Springs. But it is also great to be home. That sandwich on bread Steve baked with egg salad (from the chickens) with homemade relish was amazing– I’d choose that over pork belly and carnitas any day of the week.

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Journey of Hope– Pre-2015 immigration

journey of hopeWant to watch a sweet film about a Kurdish family from Turkey making their way to Western Europe? I recommend Journey of Hope, the 1990 Academy Award Winner for best foreign film. It’s a Swiss/Turkish collaboration and seen from the historical vantage point of 2016 it’s, well, it’s so pre-9/11. Remember when we’d never heard of Kurds? Can you believe there was a time when Swiss border guards would be shocked to find someone, or a group of someones, trying to sneak over the mountain into their country?

I’ve watched a number of “illegal immigrant” films. A great comparison to this one would be Welcome (2009), about an Iraqi Kurd living illegally in Calais, France, and trying to get across the English Channel to reunite with his girlfriend in London.

welcome filmIn both films, it is ultimately nature that undoes the journey, not the humans. Although you watch Journey of Hope constantly fearing the worst from the people our family encounters, realizing all along the way how vulnerable and dependent they are on the various smugglers that make the route possible, everyone more or less does what they promise (for a fee of course). Only the countryman, the final link in the chain, behaves dishonorably, putting an entire group of immigrants at risk.

Know who behaves wonderfully? The Swiss! The Europeans are shown to be caring, welcoming caregivers throughout the entire film. There’s an Italian seaman who literally holds their lives in his hands, a Swiss truck driver, and the guests at a Swiss hotel, as well as the officials there. They respond with compassion and integrity. (The police have some questions, of course, but ultimately they’re gentle and likable and concerned first and foremost with the lives of the immigrants.)

In Welcome, too, the purpose of the film was to raise questions about laws punishing those who helped refugees in Calais. The film contributed to a national debate and legislation was actually drafted and debated but not ultimately passed.

From the perspective of 2015, with more than one million refugees flooding over the borders from Syria through Greece and Turkey and on to Western Europe, and far more harrowing journeys than the ones depicted in both these films, the depiction of the immigrant’s trip in Journey of Hope seems impossibly simple. We are left to ponder the new vocabulary we have developed in a decade: of immigrants in shipping containers, ruthless smugglers, and the relentless challenges of mountains and bodies of water to be crossed. Not to mention more than a million people– forced to take the grandparents and children and not worry about papers– fleeing not just poverty but also bombs. If nothing, it should alert us to the overwhelm and scope of tragedy of our current world situation.

** For a Turkish perspective on the complexity of the German/Turkish immigrant situation, watch The Edge of Heaven by Fatih Akin.

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Viva Las Vegas

In the neighborhood

In the neighborhood

In the tradition of gardener/farmer/landscaper winter vacations, I decided to try to REALLY get away for an extended time this January. Back in Christmas, kind of desperate for both a long break and some days to reestablish a writing routine on the second novel, I made my list of criteria. 1) warm enough to walk outside after writing; 2) access to good, cheap food and lodging; 3) access to a place to write with wifi; and 4) access to more serious cultural or wilderness opportunities for when Steve would join me.

I zeroed in on Vegas pretty quickly. Actually, my first choice was Costa Rica, but I didn’t really have the time to put that one together properly, and the flights were awful– both expensive and with long layovers and seriously circuitous routes.

IMG_0144My first plan was to get one of the 10,000+ hotel rooms going for cheap on a discount site. And though they exist, the resort fees pretty much double the price of those rooms. Also, I wanted to be away from the strip, closer to Red Rock Canyon for hiking. I found a place on air bnb that would let me cook some meals for myself, had a private (and it turns out very quiet) room and bath, where I could do a load of laundry halfway through, and only 20 minutes from the canyon. In fact, the neighborhood in Summerlin couldn’t be better– cheap taco trucks, a great sushi place (for my one splurge meal), coffee houses.

IMG_0095IMG_0099The only real challenge was that the woman who lives at the air bnb does smoke. And though the room itself wasn’t smoky, it is a smoker’s house, and I am still struggling with my cold, so… The other challenge was finding a good place to write. I checked out some local libraries, but none of them had comfortable chairs or even, really, windows. But I know how to find a great place to write– find a university. So, although it was a trek across town, I’ve been setting up shop at UNLV’s library, which is, like everything at UNLV, incredibly shiny and new and lovely. School is out of session, parking has been free, and it’s been fantastic.

sheriff/mercantile in Blue Diamond near Red Rock

sheriff/mercantile in Blue Diamond near Red Rock

Given the smoking issues and also just needing some better rest to really try to recover, and moving into more writing and less hiking mode after today, I went ahead and booked a super-deal at a hotel for the next two nights (damn cheap even with the resort fee). Then Steve arrives and we go first to Lake Mead and Valley of Fire, and then to Death Valley for a few days, where we’ll be in a deluxe RV on a property with hot springs.

Despite the challenges, this has been a fantastic thing for me. I hope to be able to do it every year from now on. Not only am I missing a week of below-zero temperatures in Minnesota (while I hike in 40-degree weather, not ideal but certainly doable), I’m getting writing done and really enjoying being checked out of my usual duties. In the future I’ll save money for a better place to stay, and do my research well in advance. I’d love to get to San Miguel d’Allende, for example, or Costa Rica. Or New Orleans, or Texas, particularly West Texas. I hear Marfa is quite the hippie haven!


Children around the font at Holy Wisdom Byzantine Church in Las Vegas

You see and hear all sorts of things in Las Vegas. I went to a Byzantine church on Sunday for the great Theophany of the Baptism of the Lord. I walked around the neighborhood and saw a pomegranate tree. I got to hear some harrowing stories from my host including the tale of her five marriages. I took some gorgeous desert hikes and saw mule deer and a large rabbit and a creek that barely deserves the name. I saw a movie that is unlikely to ever come to my town. And I’m only halfway done!

rock climber

rock climber at Calico Canyon

climber culture-- the climbers' cars were easy to spot!

climber culture– the climbers’ cars were easy to spot!

2 miles up to reach the creek

2 miles up to reach the creek

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Stickwork Burn

2016-01-06 Stickwork Burn (web) 014To call Patrick Dougherty’s Stickwork at Saint John’s University Arboretum “ephemeral” just doesn’t seem right. The large structure at the entrance to campus has stood for more than three years, sagging, yes, aging until the title “Lean on Me” fit it more than when it was freshly constructed. The windows, around Halloween, looked like they were moaning.


My last look at Stickwork

For those of us who drive back and forth each day, it has been a welcome sight in all seasons and all weather. For me, it had a little extra significance– I spent a few hours on each stage: cutting willow to use in the walls, stripping leaves from stacks of willow and ironwood, then weaving willow into one of the walls. That was a truly blessed day of community, when I sat weaving willow walls with the art professor who brought the project to campus, Rachel Mellis. It turned out that not only did she also go to Grinnell College, but her grandparents had lived on our farm at one point.

Stickwork was a wonderful piece of art– in its construction, engaging students and community members, in its beauty engaging people throughout the state, and yesterday it had one final performance as it burned.

Here is a time lapse video of the burn produced by Saint John’s media services.


stickwork ceiling windowThe work was always meant to be impermanent– in fact, it stayed up an extra six months. The burn was announced last minute, like a prairie burn, when conditions were right (no wind, a 20-degree day, the students not on campus). And now what we have is the prairie again.

Farewell, friend. Thank you for visiting our landscape.


stickwork complete 9-21-12

Stickwork at its completion in September 2012

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Tofu Attempt 1 (Fail)

IMG_0049Didn’t it feel like this holiday weekend was extra-long? There was something about January 1st being on a Friday, and feeling like a Saturday, that made Saturday the 2nd feel like an extra gift of time.

I figured– no time like now to make tofu!

This is part of the Japan emphasis for winter cooking (and maybe into summer). I bought the book Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, and have been so far enjoying making things with miso and sake (which is a primary treatment for vegetables, but also found in dressings/sauces, soup broth, etc).

IMG_0051Making tofu begins with soaking soybeans. The winter soak time is 20 hours (shorter in warmer weather), which meant if I put them in water at 3 p.m. on the 1st, they’d be ready by noon on the 2nd.

After that you blend them and cook them to “almost a boil.” That’s when this happened.

IMG_0052One moment all was well, the next moment the foam was everywhere. It was much like the great toffee disaster earlier in December.

It was still a nice creamy white color, no scalding (I was stirring dutifully), so I just cleaned up and went on with what I had, letting the foam subside while I wiped up the mess.

I might mention that this was the first time “breast milk” crossed my mind. I have not had a baby, so have little experience with breast milk, but lots of experience with various babies and their vomit, and probably “baby vomit” was the correct phrase. Or formula, which I’m sure I’ve over-warmed on stoves in those days before microwaves.

Then I missed what might have been a very important step. Tucked into a long paragraph of instructions is that you’re supposed to then– after the foam subsides– cook the milk another 8-10 minutes. I, uh, missed that.

I already had my colander lined with cheesecloth and pot ready to hang the mixture for draining, so that is where I went next. Once it was nicely draining and making the soy milk, I reread (for like the 20th time) the recipe and discovered my error. I decided to press on (pun intended). (It had been 22 hours at this point, right? If nothing else it would be good practice.)

IMG_0053After you squeeze out all the soy milk you’ve made, you heat the milk very, very slowly again, up to 175 degrees. This takes an hour of mostly unattended time. The simmer burner on my stove did a great job of slow heating. After 50 minutes, though, as it continued to hover around 160 degrees, I got a little impatient and hurried it under a bit more heat.

IMG_0050When it hit 175 I put it in a bowl and added the nigari (culture). I stirred exactly twice very slowly with the wooden spoon and lifted it out. It did form curds, sort of. I waited a little longer than recommended to see if more curds would form, then put it in my form wrapped with muslin (there was extra so I put that in cheese cloth in a colander), topped them with 1 lb weights, and left it to press for a half hour.

It never got beyond yogurt stage, I’m afraid. But that’s OK. I do think I’ll try again. Once more. And, I will say that the soy milk I made was really good, so I might end up just making that.


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