Ten Years in Minnesota

110505 05As the students have been returning to the colleges here, I’ve been very aware that it was exactly ten years ago that I arrived in this place. I had come for an academic year at the Collegeville Institute, following the footsteps of Kathleen Norris. I had a draft of a memoir and an agent who wanted to represent it.

But what I really wanted was to get back to the Midwest. I’d been living in Southern California for three years, during which time my first marriage fell apart. I had truly the best job I’ve ever had, teaching at Fullerton College, with wonderful colleagues who appreciated me as a poet, and I had a great group of friends in Long Beach, where I lived.

At the end of my first year, one of my creative writing students, who knew what had transpired in my personal life that spring, gave me a gift: the DVD of Under the Tuscan Sun. It was so sweet, and I had to laugh. I was so done with that fantasy. Divorced woman moves to Tuscany and finds love(?) and happiness. For my generation, the movie was Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. High-powered woman gets a baby, moves to a farm, and falls in love with Sam Shepard. Ahhh.

cold spring 006And still, like those women, I made the ridiculous decision at the end of the academic year to buy a house in a small town and commit to rural life. I could tell my friend Doug from Long Beach thought I was insane. He came with me on Route 66 across country after I put my belongings on a moving truck. Once in Minnesota, he made a desperate plea that I consider moving to Minneapolis instead. He clearly feared for my prospects. With good reason.

It was some kind of miracle that I met Steve, at a potluck, two years into life in Minnesota. And that he was open to love and remarriage. And so seven years ago I came to the farm. And started growing vegetables.

IMG_2897Before moving to Minnesota, I had changed homes at least every two years and not stayed in one location for longer than three. I lived in Atlanta; New Rochelle, NY; Brooklyn; Menlo Park, CA; Chicago, IL; Joliet, IL; Reno, NV; and Long Beach, CA. I had good reason for each location, but when I met Steve I was already looking ahead to moving back, reluctantly, to Chicago. I didn’t want to live in a city. But I wasn’t getting a lot of traction in Minnesota, and I didn’t like my job at all. Lucky for me, Steve and the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict came along. I became the monastery communications director, a job I loved, the same month I got married. (Even in that job where I was miserable for two years, I ended up writing  Art of The Saint John’s Bible, which has been a huge blessing.)

produce 8-13-15And now I am in a place I could not have imagined. I grow food. I have written two published books and two full-length manuscripts (not counting the memoir, which made the rounds but didn’t get published). I have a job with the right balance of responsibility and flexibility. I have community.

Life is good. Life is beautiful.

Who needs Tuscany?

prairieflowers7-26-09040

 

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Five Chickens Laying

Dozen Chicken EggsThe chickens are now all laying pretty regularly. Only one (I’m sure it’s Biggie) is laying full size eggs. The others will catch up.

Fred EggYou may notice in this carton the first egg from Fred. It’s that dingy, scratched egg. I found it not in the nest in the coop but out in the run. I’d put a brooder box out there with some synthetic straw on a backing in it, but it didn’t catch on. Only one chicken was interested in it, and she spent most of her time in there with her butt in the air and beak pecking away at the synthetic straw and the very interesting sticky piece of paper beneath. I knew immediately it was Fred. Finally the box was emptied out. And there on the ground somewhat near the box I found this little egg.

eggs for scramblingSunday I made an all-farm omelet. Zucchini, shallot, garlic, sweet red pepper, a little tomato, thyme and sage. Steve commented on how yellow the omelet was, thinking these eggs have extra good yolks. Actually, it’s just that they are small and almost all yolk right now. Still, there’s no denying these eggs made for an excellent, fluffy, delicious omelet. Everything’s better when it comes from your own back yard.

 

 

omelette

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Tomato Guide 2015

bowl of tomatoesTomato season has begun. In this, the best year in the garden ever, the tomatoes are also shaping up to be the best. I’m happy about the varieties I planted. Right now it’s all fresh eating and quick sauces. There’s insane quantity, but not enough ripe at the same time (what with all the fresh eating and quick sauces) to start up the canning machine in earnest. But I do think when all is said and done there will be sauce and canned tomatoes and salsa and probably also a lot of tomatoes just thrown into freezer bags. Because here come a lot of photos of green tomatoes on plants in the garden.

But first: today’s harvest which included 20 lbs of tomatoes.

harvest 8-20-15brave general largeThe 20 lbs doesn’t include the bowl full (above), but did include this 1 lb 5 ounce Brave General tomato. Two others I picked from the plant today also weighed in at 1 lb. Brave General is a pink variety I got from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. I wasn’t sure about pink, but it really is pink and ripens into a deep raspberry color.

One reason I cut down on paste tomatoes this year is that they are not great producers. Who cares if paste tomatoes are meaty. In my experience they’ve been prone to early blight and I discard a lot of fruit while canning.

supersweet 1000I always plant Supersweet 100s or 1000s, high producing cherry tomatoes. They are usually the most blight resistant, but not so with all the rain this year. However, they are still producing like crazy. And in their defense, I stressed them by transplanting them outside early. They make the best salsa.

principe borgheseAnd at a friend’s recommendation, I planted a saladette tomato, Principe Borghese. They’re recommended for making sun-dried tomatoes and I’ll put many in the dehydrator. I plan on using them for salsa, too. They seem to be the latest ripening of the group.

 

 

lemon boy

 

The only tomato I didn’t plant from seed is the Lemon Boy. They’re such good producers, so consistent, and add color variety like the pink. Lemon Boy is also usually an early producer, and though this plant is nearly dead, I’ve already had eight good-sized tomatoes from it with more to come.

 

 

volkovWhile we’re in the dependable category, I also planted Cosmonaut Volkov, a delicious red slicer that, like Mortgage Lifter, always produces tomato looking tomatoes of good size and flavor. No cracking, blemishes, or blossom end rot. Tomato tomatoes.

paste tomatoThere are two paste tomato plants out there, Opalka and Hog Heart pastes. Loaded with fruit and headed for quart jars in a few weeks. I bought these seeds from Fedco Co-op and Seed Company.

To introduce shape variety, I planted two “pleated” heirlooms. One I love and one has all the paste problems. The one I love is Rosso Sicilian. The fruits are small, beautiful sliced, and rich in color and flavor. They’re round, on the flat side, with well-pronounced lobes. They are great platter tomatoes. Well, the ones below will be in about a week…

rosso

gezahlte

 

The other pleated type is the Gezahnte (“toothed” in German). They also work well on a platter and are recommended for stuffing. I’ll probably end up using them in sauces instead, because they’re dry and meaty like other pastes.

But of all these tomatoes, my favorite is definitely the Bloody Butcher. The same friend who recommended Principe Borghese also gave me these seeds. But I also really loved a small tomato I grew last year whose name I don’t remember, and the description for Bloody Butcher came closest. These tomatoes are really cool. They are unblemished even when there’s blight on the plant. The unripe fruit has a great color; as it is turning red it retains some dark green striping at the top, which might keep the fruit from splitting. The plant is also great, with geranium  leaves that required a fair amount of pruning but seem slow to blight. They will definitely stay in the rotation.

bloody butcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shishito Peppers

shishito peppersLast year people started talking about shishito peppers on social media. They were showing up in CSA boxes and people didn’t know what to do with them. They were getting rave reviews as appetizers, too. So this year I planted one– I thought I planted a few, but the plants always get confused and then I have too many for the raised bed so, no, I planted one.

Next year I will plant more. Several.

shishito plantThey’re wonderful plants. My pepper plants were not as large this year as in past years, so I’m not sure this is typical, but the plant is compact and absolutely loaded with little crumpled emerald green peppers. The photo here just has the stragglers, as I’ve already harvested it twice.

I’m not a big fan of green peppers in general, so I was not sure I’d like these, especially when people recommended just blistering them and sprinkling them with sea salt and eating them plain. There are also all sorts of recipes for dipping sauces, so I went that route. I was making zucchini fritters as the main dish, so didn’t want to go “too Asian” with the dipping sauce.

SWADMy favorite condiments definitely bear the name Swad. I get them at the Asian grocery in St. Cloud. I’ve written before about their coriander chutney, which is a bright and flavorful cilantro sauce. I use it in place of cilantro in salsa and many other dishes. Unlike fresh herbs, it freezes and cans well in recipes.

I also really love the Swad tamarind chutney, and use it to flavor yogurt sauces and in stews. It seemed just the right thing with a yogurt/mayo sauce for the peppers. As an alternative, I put out a hot pepper mayo, too. We ended up putting that on the fritters, which I made with an extra egg so they were more like zucchini omelets.

shishito and fritter spreadBut the shishito. They blistered quickly on a hot grill while I made the fritters in a skillet. They were really done in 2 minutes, sort of popping or splitting open when they’re done.

The peppers were gone in a flash, and the idea there will be no more until next season was so sad! The tamarind mayo was perfect with it.

Ah, well, there are other things to eat…

produce 8-13-15

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First Egg

first eggFirst egg! Mark this date: August 12, 2015 (born March 22).

Turns out when the chickens chase you around squawking at the top of their crowy little throats it means they’re “broody.”

I was hoping that was what it meant, though I suspected it might be that they were really angry that I’ve confined them to their run, even though they’ve had plenty of food (and I’m still throwing in some of the tomatoes they’ve “sampled” when they were out free ranging. When I went out to find them standing on the carrots feasting– feasting I tell you– on tomatoes, that was enough. I knew it would cost me more in poultry feed, because they’ve eaten almost no feed the last two weeks out foraging, but so be it. They could not have a tomato buffet.

yard grassesSo I embarked on a project yesterday to get them a little more “green” space. It was really more daunting than it should have been. I did not grow up or even in adulthood spend any time building things. So I’m inordinately proud of my final achievement. Behold: the new chicken yard.

Whereas we have been leaving the main coop door shut all the time, it now opens onto this yard during the day. I had this big piece of netting, and I made the space as large as possible, extending into the prairie just a tad. I staked it and used zip ties to attach the netting to the stakes. Landscaping fabric staples secure the netting to the ground. It ends between the coop door and the run door, so I can still get in and out to feed and water them.

new yard with prairieAnd the ingenious part was to make one of the side panels loop over the stake with a zip tie instead of attach securely to the top. I can just lift the loop and reduce the netting height by half, an easy step over to get into the yard. (I know you’re impressed.) Ta da!

chickens in new yardIt took until this morning for the chickens to figure out how to get into the yard. I imagine when Steve went out early this morning and opened the coop door they all poured out! When I went out later, four of them were happily foraging in the grass.

fred outside yardNot Fred, though. He was inside the run looking out. It takes Fred a little longer to catch on with everything. It’s like something traumatic happened to her when she was a chick. (In the early days I pulled a bit of poop from Fred’s butt, causing her to lose all the down on her backside, which I think was very embarrassing for her.)

I’m hopeful that in addition to greens, there will be lots of grasshoppers and other bugs in there. And because I don’t fully trust my handiwork, I check several times a day to see if they’ve made a break for it yet! (I also have to obsessively check for more eggs, too, of course.)

chicken whole area

 

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Whatever Happened to Buerre Blanc?

photo-144Back around the year 2000, I was really into buerre blanc. I had just started my subscription to Gourmet and I had a husband who only ate up the food chain as far as fish. We ate a lot of scallops and I made a lot of scallops with buerre blanc. 

Today at the upscale grocery where I was picking up some fancy dijon and lime juice (Key West lime juice, not to be confused with western key lime juice), scallops were on sale. They were $17.99/lb for good sized sea scallops. I would never have bought such a thing at such a price, but they were $19/lb off!! That means these modest scallops usually cost $37/lb!! My current husband, who loves a good burger and fries, also loves scallops. The last time he had them was at a $75/person multi-course dinner at an upscale restaurant in Minneapolis, where he was shocked to receive two scallops on his plate. Two giant and perfectly prepared scallops. I pointed out then and I pointed out again tonight that those scallops were probably quite a bargain.

So I’m not wondering what happened to scallops. We ate them all when they were cheap and we were just out of college or in our twenties and gorging ourselves on seafood with no thought of tomorrow. But surely we could have kept going with the buerre blanc.

I bought the scallops, and as I am wont to do, I thought about buerre blanc. I hauled out my old recipe book with the recipe for tomato buerre blanc. That involved soaking sun-dried tomatoes, processing them with butter and chilling the tomato/butter log for an hour, making a reduction of shallot, white wine, water, and lemon juice, adding the butter a tablespoon at a time until incorporated and not too hot or it would separate, then keeping it covered in the pan over a larger bowl of warm water while I sautéed the scallops.

That wasn’t going to happen tonight. And anyway, I wanted something more ginger/lime. A few pages later, after Besugo a la parilla and Grilled catfish with noodles I found it: Sea Scallops with cilantro gremolata and ginger lime buerre blanc.

gezhalte tomatoFor this sauce, all you had to do was simmer minced shallot and ginger in white wine and lime juice until reduced, then incorporate the butter by the tablespoon. Then you were supposed to strain out the solids through a fine sieve, but I just moved it to the back burner and let it sit. I didn’t bother that it could have been more blanc and the butter was a little browned. It had incorporated so all was good. (I was starting to think maybe this sauce went out of fashion because it’s just a lot of work.) Sorry, no pictures of the sauce, cause I got super busy with meal-making at that point and forgot about being a blogger. Look at the tomato instead…

dragon tongue beans rawMeanwhile, I’d found this recipe for a zucchini and white bean salad that could be served with grilled scallops. So I’d gone out and harvested more of the shell stage dragon’s tongue beans and boiled them for about 20 minutes while I made the sauce.

I also had the very first ripe Gezahnte tomato. This large accordion type tomato is hanging in heavy groups on the vine, and I’m so excited about them.

I didn’t get too crazy in assembling everything, just added lemon juice, shallot, and salt to grilled zucchini and the beans, cut up the tomato, and put it on the platter. I seared the scallops on the cast iron skillet for the grill and then poured the gingery limey buttery sauce over them. Topped everything with cilantro from the garden. So good. (Gluten free, too, as far as I can tell.)

Bon apetit!

scallops dinner

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Seasons

11811509_10206394640938627_3932443118291091762_nFew things are harder to visualize than that a cold, snow-bound landscape, so marrow chillingly quiet and lifeless, will, within three months, be green and lush and warm, quivering with all manner of life, from birds warbling and flying through the trees to swarms of insects hanging in scattered clusters in the air. Nothing in the wintwinter (2)er landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue water of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now and then by rocks, rapids, and bathing bodies. It is not there, it does not exist, everything is white and still, and if the silence is broken it is by a cold wind or a lone crow caw-cawing. But it is coming…it is coming…
from My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, page 169.
In the winter I sometimes look back at blog entries from summer and they seem unreal to me. Even opening a jar of tomatoes and releasing their scent doesn’t quite quell my doubts. The winter here is so complete an experience that it is impossible to imagine its opposite. What is most difficult to imagine is that anything will grow again, let alone the vast quantities of food in the garden or the brilliance of the prairie.

11863216_10153531748719661_7964358576449403894_nIt doesn’t work the other way. From summer it is still easy to imagine and believe in winter. The moon, the stars, the cold, hard, uninhabitable vast universe– that is easy to believe. It is always life that is astonishing.

Yesterday I counted a record ten monarchs on a single blazing star plant  (photo from here). The orange flowers on the runner bean plants hold current beauty and future promise.

Prairie LoveAbout 8 p.m. these days the gray-headed coneflowers on the prairie absolutely glow. The sun glows around the edges of cumulous clouds heaped in the Western sky and hits the yellow flowers and purple grasses at a slant, setting them on fire.

 

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