IMG_1271It’s been a gorgeous, cold, glittery Thanksgiving weekend. We’ve had Steve’s three daughters and one boyfriend, coming and going and making this the home base.

The greenhouse is officially enclosed, with just some work remaining on the bottom “curtains.” At least no fear a strong wind will send it aloft. This photo is before the cap was put on it. I’ve taken to calling it “the crystal palace.” It’s incredibly impressive.

greenhouse 11-2015

Unfortunately, I’ve had a terrible head cold, so missed the main event on Thursday, though was really glad to have the quiet house to myself to hunker down in and sleep several hours. Since the festivities were just across the way, Steve brought me a plate of delicious food and checked in on me.

This morning Steve got up at 4 a.m. to take three of the visitors to the airport, and Catherine got up at 5 to head out to see some swans on a lake in Clearwater. I warned her it was destined to be anti-climactic, and it was. A mere five miles from the attempted crane sighting a few weeks ago, they stood on the shore and saw some unhappy swans that had partially frozen into the lake overnight pecking their way out. Not the dramatic sweep of hundreds of swans illumined by the first rays of dawn she was hoping for.

manuscript layoutWhat I have been doing is zeroing in on the task of organizing a poetry manuscript. My book of poems, H is for Harry, will be published by North Star Press in March 2016. I’m very excited.

Ordering a poetry manuscript, unless you’ve written it as one consistent project over a short period of time, is tricky. My last book of poems like this (not the 100-word story collection, Habits) came out in 2003. That means potentially there are 12 years worth of poems to be managed. Plus, I don’t want to put them chronologically, or even thematically. I want them to interweave, without sections, into a solid manuscript.

A friend who read the manuscript for me gave me a challenge: Don’t start with the title poem. It’s a “childhood” poem, and leads easily to some other childhood poems about learning to read and reading books. Childhood, tweenhood, teenhood, adulthood… Yeah. She pulled a poem about 20 pages in and said: What happens when you start with this one? It’s a brilliant suggestion, actually, a poem about “the work of the poet,” but it takes place right in the middle of my life, at 26 years old, living in Brooklyn. What starting place is that?

I laid all the poems out on the floor in basically four groupings or stories. There is the story of my divorce and remarriage. There is the story of my encounter and ongoing work to bring written language and living things together– to make a world of language come alive. (In a way, maybe that is what all poems are doing, but these are sort of “meta,” drawing attention in one way or another to that task.) There are poems about monks and other religious people and ideas. And there is the story of the flora and fauna of this place: sandhill cranes, hummingbirds, yaks, gardens, fieldstone, etc.

running boyNone of these stories seem separate from each other to me. But they were tricky to weave together. I’ve also wanted to take out four or five poems, to make it a little leaner. But the only poems I think I could take out, that rub up less comfortably against the others, are ones that have been published in literary magazines! Publishing in literary magazines is so random and such a long process, that in many ways these poems don’t “fit.” There are a lot of other poems in that category that I’ve written these dozen years or so, but I can discard them easily. Having “acknowledgements,” demonstrating that some of these were previously published, is kind of important. So they, at least as of now, get to stay.

The divorce and remarriage is the most chronological set of poems, the most narrative. It becomes a backbone running through the collection. In some ways I think these are the most powerful poems, too. He is going to leave; he leaves; I date; I remarry; I am a second wife with a new husband.

Around these poems, but neither competing with them nor giving them too much importance to the overall manuscript, are my ongoing themes and discussions. What is art and inspiration? How does the world speak and what do we say back? What can we make of words? How praise the world? How lament? How reach into a moment of time and pull out a crystallized moment or image that expresses what it means to be human? What beauty there is in the world and in imagination. How lucky to be alive and out in it and with words to tell the tales. Hopefully the themes unfold as the manuscript links one to another.

I’m going to turn it over to the editorial team, if not today then certainly by Monday. Then it will just be a matter of getting it to look good on the page. I can’t wait to have it to offer to you! Thank you for the part you’ve played, encouraging and reading along, in this particular journey.

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Chicken Apartments


A few people have asked how the chicken transition is going, so I thought I’d give you all a brief update.

You’ll remember from the last post that the introduction of my chickens to the winter quarters in the pig barn did not go very well. There was some pecking, and within five minutes, all of my brother-in-law’s chickens were out in the cold, roosting in a pine tree. Steve got on the case immediately, finding a way to spit the current pen, which used to be a large bay in the pig barn back when this was a monastery pig farm owned by the monastery.

But by evening, actually, the chickens had settled down. My five girls are definitely early to bed, a habit formed by their summer lodgings, which are small and encourage chickens to get inside and on the perch at the first sign of dusk. The barn is even darker, so by 4:30 p.m. Thursday they were up on the perch. When I visited the barn Friday, everybody was settled in. Steve had built a little platform over one of the troughs and put in a door to access the pen. The bay next to the chickens is where he stores lumber for furniture-making, so the entrance is down a cozy tunnel of wood.

But the urgency drained from the project as the chickens calmed down.

Also, with the winds done, despite a high of 27 degrees, Steve and Jeff got back on the more urgent project, the greenhouse, which just needed a few more panels (and still needs the cap on top and the drapes on the bottom). The gale winds of the blizzard made him worry the whole thing could be picked up by wind and sent aloft over the prairie.

And now the holiday season has begun, with almost daily airport pick-ups and busyness. However, my brother-in-law would still feel better with the space partitioned, so he’s going to put in the middle wall today and finish off the space. There’s ample room for all the chickens, and no doubt they’ll be happier in their own condo!

IMG_1258The front door to the pen is right by the main entrance to the barn.

IMG_1260The red chickens, their door, their window (by which they access an outdoor pen), and the prized roosting boxes.

IMG_1261My chickens with their window and the prized corner perch. They’ll be back to the cat roosting box.


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Winter Home

blizzardThe chickens have had a rough week. It rained pretty much solidly for three days, and then last night gale force winds came blowing in. It was the kind of night when it is good to stay in and have some Japanese vegetable soup!

soupI mixed a couple of recipes, and improvised, for this delicious soup. Made dashi (broth) with the kelp and bonito flakes. Roasted chicken and carrots and leeks, the first step for ramen. Cut up a bunch of other ingredients: mushrooms, Japanese yam, more carrots, green onions, and threw them in a pot with the dashi, soy sauce, more ginger, miso (why not), and sake (why not indeed!) I added the shredded chicken breast and roasted vegetables and in the last few minutes, some chopped kale. So good. Steve drank the broth from the bowl when the veggies and chicken were gone, always the BEST test of a soup.


eggplant dishAnd I made a side dish I’ve been thinking about for a few days, as I’ve stared down the eggplant I bought at the market on Sunday. Eggplant massaged with salt, left to sit 15 minutes, then rinsed and the water squeezed out. It doesn’t sound like something you do to eggplant. But it worked! The eggplant slices basically turned into mushrooms! Then it’s served with slivers of ginger and shiso, which I didn’t have, but I did have parsley. It would be great on crackers, but was also good as a side dish.


Oh, yeah, the chickens. I really wanted to move them yesterday, looking at the forecast. But that didn’t work (I chased them for ten minutes, the door blew open and two got out, and that was the end of it.)

frozen chicken waterToday, though, it was easy as pie. There was a blizzard going outside and snow blowing sideways. Their water was completely frozen solid, as was their food. In fact, the coop door was frozen shut until I broke the ice. They took a peek outside, then cuddled up– or huddled up– on their perch. All we had to do was open the front door and grab them (Steve did that– he is not as gentle with the chickens as I am, or as freaked out by their squawking) and throw them in the cage. We drove them to the barn, where he grabbed them from the cage and tossed them in the chicken area.

Where they started pecking the other chickens immediately. Two of the other chickens were outside sitting in a big pine tree, and in a matter of minutes, outnumbered and outsized, the other two went out to the tree. My chickens had full ownership of the large coop.

Steve’s going to get wood and fencing now. We’ll be either dividing the current coop in two, or cordoning off another area of the old pig barn for my chickens to use. Next year I’d like to get three more chickens, bringing the number to eight. I’m thinking if they start in the barn with the five, they might do OK. I’ll get the same breed to encourage cohabitation. We’ll see how it goes.

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Japanese Cooking 101

ingredientsI remember now why my forays into Japanese food haven’t gotten very far. It is actually hard to find really good ingredients.

Even with my guide, I’m having trouble. My first big shopping trip was to United Noodles in Minneapolis this past weekend. Asian markets– and we have a fantastic one in St. Cloud where I’ll be going next (I just happened to be in the Twin Cities)– can be confusing. It is a bit like walking into an Auto Supply parts store.

United Noodles is a gigantic warehouse. It is organized both by cuisine and by ingredients. I didn’t know that when I walked in, but right away I was in an aisle that had seaweed. It had some nori but no konbu. Because it was the Korean seaweed section. The Korean section was great. I picked up a bag of soybeans there.

soybeansThe ingredients in the bag of soybeans was: soybeans. I have regularly bought dals, lentils, and dry beans in shops like this. But since I want to make soymilk, should I worry about the quality, the organic nature, of the soybeans? (Remember the rice with the bugs? Better bugs than chemicals!) At the same time, I don’t want to be all health food store about this project. In the past two days I have spent some time in the “comment-sphere” of online marketplaces and learned not much, except that I’m going to go ahead and just use the soybeans I bought. (Next time, if there is one, I’ll buy Laura soybeans. I mean, Laura soybeans? What I lose in Japanese authenticity I’ll gain in them being almost local, grown in Iowa.)

For more on the GMO issue with soybeans, here is an excellent blog entry. The beans I bought do meet her recommendations for size, shape, color, etc. I love this blog, by the way, Viet World Kitchen. I returned to it for questions on what coagulant to buy for homemade tofu.

Finally, on my shopping trip, I found the Japanese section. And there was no suitable mirin. I was looking for “hon mirin.” I was avoiding “aji mirin.” Aji means flavored, and it tends to have MSG in it. Or other flavorings that make it ready for dashi.

The good news is that I did find the bag of “kelps” I need for dashi. Konbu. That was very important. And by the time I got to the Japanese section, I was reading packages well.

misoI didn’t have my cookbook with me, or any notes really, so I was just seeing what I could do on my own. The konbu was my chief aim, and also good miso. Again with the miso, there were a lot of choices, a lot of price points, and not a lot to suggest which way to go. I read ingredients. I settled on a beautiful pale package (ingredients: water, soybeans, rice, salt) and as soon as I cut it open at home I knew I’d made the absolute right choice. Boy does it smell good.

The comment-sphere surfaced that it is actually difficult to get good, “pure” mirin in the US. I’m ordering a possible solution online. Also, I went with a ponzu marinade instead of yuzu because I couldn’t bear the price. It’s a citrus, and I’ll also used some orange/lemon/lime substitutions, depending on the recipe.

The big ingredient I couldn’t get was a large chunk of katsuobushi. That’s smoked slipjack tuna (bonito). There are a lot of smoked salmon options. And there are a lot of options for bonito flakes, which is what I’ve ordered. Working through the comments on that one was tough, though, because the number one use for bonito flakes, it seems, is as a cat treat. Yes. People spend $10 or more for tiny packages of “kitty crack” tuna flakes. When I had a cat, it used to slobber itself silly over a small bowl of drained tuna water, a by-product of buying a can of tuna. So why do you need to buy the cat specialty tuna flakes?? Eventually I found a brand where some people were commenting on its use in Japanese cooking.

But I really wanted a big piece of the stuff I could grate myself. Really.

November greensIf anyone out there has recommendations, let me know. I’ve looked in NYC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles online stores for both mirin and good bonito flakes. I’m also taking miso recommendations.

Last night I was rushed, so used an Indian red pepper simmer sauce I had frozen to cook the chicken and rice dish we were having. But for the salad, I couldn’t resist a miso dressing. Miso, rice vinegar, sunflower oil, and a little water to thin it. Wowza.





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Cuisine of the Season

In winter, when I’m not just harvesting and sauteeing the seasonal vegetables, I like to play around with a cuisine. One year it was Indian food, after a January trip to Los Angeles. Another year it was Middle Eastern cuisine with Yotam Ottolenghi’s books leading the charge. And, of course, after I received the Frankies Spuntino cookbook one Christmas, there was a frenzy of pasta and sauce making, pork braciole, and even a few of the most decadent chocolate tortes in the world.

This year, as soon as the weather got cool, I started craving soy sauce. Quite specifically, I was craving chicken drumsticks with a soy glaze. Joined by some kale dressed with the extra sauce.

chicken kale

So, as they do on Iron Chef, I’m declaring this the year of Battle Japan! I might even try making my own tofu.

jff coverMy guide will be Nancy Singleton Hachisu and her book Japanese Farm FoodI love the book and have already been making my way through it, reading the story of Nancy’s life married to a Japanese man and living on the farm with their two sons. She has been connected to Japanese and Western food for decades, traveling for long periods to France and Italy and also Northern California, where she has developed a friendship with Alice Watters of Chez Panisse.



For a guidebook, you really want something that starts here. rice recipe fragAs you can see even from this excerpt, she begins by telling you how to wash out the bugs. My rice all has bugs right now, because it is real rice, and that’s what happens. “Better bugs than chemicals,” she writes. I look forward to spending time washing my rice this winter, and really slowing down to make tasty food.

Making tofu is a lot like making cheese. You start with soybeans and make the milk, then develop the curds, then press it out. And it means I get to buy stuff, like forms and cultures.

In addition to an excellent “resources” section in the book that tells you how to get what you need to make the recipes in the US, there is a link to Kitazawa Seed Company, a company that sells seeds for plants used in Japanese cooking. This is definitely a draw for me. Japanese greens, like mizuna, have been steadily been making their way intoimages American gardens and kitchens. I’ve been growing daikon for a few years as well, and want to grow more eggplant and know what to do with it. I like the idea of adding adzuki beans to my garden, and having a wider set of recipes for the greens, turnips, and other things I grow.

What ultimately got me away from the Middle Eastern cooking was that Minnesota is nothing like Israel in terms of climate and plant life! It was not an easy winter project. I don’t want to spend money on olives, lemons, and fresh mint! There are plenty of specialty items in Japanese cooking, but I already make stir fries and keep a full stock of Asian condiments: mirin, rice vinegar, hoisin, wasabe powder, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, etc. My miso paste sits lonely at the back of the fridge, though, and I want to bring it to the forefront!

ramen displayLast Christmas we had Catherine and Homer’s friend Yasu with us for Christmas, which resulted in a grand sushi dinner and a grand ramen night. Before arriving, Yasu stopped in an Asian store in Minneapolis and bought some ingredients, and he had his mother ship him his Christmas presents, which included a Japanese omelette pan. I’m a sucker for tools! And Nancy Singleton Hachisu has a full explanation for making a rolled omelette, too.

So I’m looking forward to this winter, and will post some of my adventures. I’ve done my prep by learning to pickle and ferment and make cheese. I do make a killer stir fry. It seems less daunting, somehow. I’m ready to jump into the world of dashi.

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Epic (Fail) Crane Adventure

sherburne trees grasses nov 15I know better. I really do. I have been led astray on many an epic nature adventure.

There was the “whale watching spot” in Northern California at the height of the season where we saw exactly zero whales.

Then there was that time in 1995 I drove with friends to a bog to see 100,000 bats fly out of a barn at dusk. Turns out, we were mosquito bait. After a very hot, stuffy lecture (“bats weigh 1/4 ounce so you can mail three on a first class postage stamp”) we sat on lawn chairs being swarmed by mosquitoes and yes, I do believe there were also bats flying around.

So yesterday, when I saw some amazing nature porn on Facebook, photos of sandhill cranes that were just so stunning you would do almost anything to see such a sight, and an article in the local paper saying that 1,500-4,000 sandhill cranes rise out of the wetlands in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge every morning at dawn, I couldn’t help myself.

(Looking more closely at the photos now, which include super close ups and large groups of birds, I see the photographer is a complete professional, Jeff Moravec, and he was there not in the morning but as the cranes gathered in late afternoon, and not in the wetlands but in what looks like nearby farm fields where they glean during the day.)

I left the house this morning at 4:45 a.m. The last time I left the house that early was– never. Not to catch a plane, pick someone up from a flight, take someone to the hospital, see an eclipse, never. I was well aware of the factors against this trip. 1) I didn’t know where I was going exactly; 2) it was dark; 3) these birds like to hide.

I did manage to get to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and find a map at the headquarters and then find a service road on 175th Avenue. I would not describe it, as they did in the article, as “the lot off 175th Avenue” Nor would I describe the service road as “a gravel road.”  It was more dirt and sand. But it was completely dark, so I figured it might be gravel. And it was the only thing close to a lot I could find on the refuge side of the road. The big thing that worried me was the lack of other cars. The complete lack of other vehicles, ranger or otherwise.

There were no signs, either. Not at headquarters, or anywhere. Nothing about cranes. It was a nice walk– temps in the 50s and the light just coming up. It was completely silent. (No chortling of sandhill cranes.) I went about three miles, and did think when I got to this spot where there was a great tree and a gate, that these were the kind of wetlands that sand hill cranes love. But I kept going because, well, I didn’t see or hear any sand hill cranes. And I was looking for the 800-acre St. Francis Pool. (Here is a picture of the gate and tree, in case you go there to see the cranes and want to stop before you’re way past them.)

Sherburne Refuge gate pathI was about a mile past the spot– but very near a large expanse of water–  when I heard some chortling. I saw several groups of three, family groups I imagine, and then, about a mile behind me, I saw a few strings of sandhill cranes flying up and out, maybe 40 in all.

Sherburne Refuge cranes 11-4-15Nice photo, huh?

I did not see or hear 11,500. Nope. Not 1,500 either. Not even 100. And– let me be clear– the groups I did see were quite far away. Too far to photograph with my telephoto lens.

Sherburne Refuge 11-4-15 sunrise

I did get photos of leaves, some cool hollow logs, and the not very impressive sunrise.

sherburne hollow tree stumps

I heard an owl.

I saw a deer running really fast in the dark.

Starting out, I actually thought: “I wonder if this will be better than my experience this summer being close to wild horses. I mean, people make 10,000 cranes out of paper. It’s a lot of cranes. This will be maybe 11,500 cranes! It will be so cool!”

Wild horses win. (To be fair, being right up next to wild horses probably always win.)

After I got back to “the parking lot,” this very good thing happened. I got in my car and for some reason glanced back at the “gravel road.” And there was my wallet lying on the ground. It was wet and gravelly, as if it had been there since before dawn.

I did not lose my wallet. I am so glad about that I can’t tell you. It made my day, really.

fallen oak leaves Sherburne

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El Nino

Steve’s business is so busy now that he could work right up until the ground freezes.

So for several months the talisman word has been “El Nino.”

“It’s going to be an El Nino year.”

“It’s going to be a really big El Nino year.”

greenhouse Oct 1It’s the word that has allowed him to wait so long before getting back to the greenhouse construction. Now, finally, end of October– with days in between to do the last of the seed jobs and make the prairie flower mixes and go get sawdust of just the right fluffy quality to mix with the native seed– it’s time to get back to that greenhouse.

wellThe first good news is that the sand point well only had to go down 10 feet before it hit water. The pump is to come. Just imagine. A real drip system. I’m not sure I’ll get raised beds, at least at first, but the idea of water right at the door of the greenhouse will make planting in pots so manageable.

It’s slow going. Good thing it’s an El Nino year. Finally both ends are fully up and yesterday was spent getting the first side panel in place. Steve, always positive, says, “The rest will go more quickly, now that we know what we’re doing,” and “Once we get a system in place it will go more quickly.”

Next week shows more days up in the high 50s, but by Saturday the temperatures look more uncertain.

Then again, it’s an El Nino year.

One mark of the end of the season is that Steve starts making bread again. So in the evening we sit down to fresh bread and soup. Potato leek with a touch of curry. Sauerkraut. Sprouted Lentil and Garlic. Roasted chicken and pork roast.

greenhouse octAnd we talk about the greenhouse. How early will we be able to start? What will we grow in there? What if we put a cold frame inside the greenhouse and heated that? How late will we be picking tomatoes? Eggplants? How early will we be picking peas? Dreams of spinach and other greens in the middle of winter, sweet carrots pulled from the bed. Dreams of tray upon tray of sunflower sprouts! I’ve told him he’ll need to consult Eliot Coleman about all these details.

He’s already spreading the word that we should have our desserts and maybe even play horse shoes in the greenhouse on Thanksgiving. He thinks it’s going to be the finest place in the world to be this winter.

And here it is, an El Nino year.


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