May 2008

So we don’t have any actual Rattus Norvegicus, but my garden has been ransacked by at least three varieties of the other favorites, the tree rat squirrels, the bird rat pigeons, and the rat-cockroach starlings. I’m getting increasingly violent feelings towards our furry and feathered neighbors. The first infraction was just after I’d put in the raised beds, but hadn’t yet crossed them with the grid. The starlings and robins went a-digging, presumably searching for non-existent worms. I had filled the beds with new peat and compost, so worms there weren’t.

the beginning

I added a few smaller beds for the perennials, and inter-planted them with onions and beans.

strawberries, beans, and onions

The squirrels quickly discovered and molested the strawberries, so I thought the onions would serve as a deterrent. It turns out squirrels love to dig up bulbs, so two days ago, I went out to discover the onions had been unearthed in certain patches.

This morning, I peered out the kitchen window to witness the morning doves pecking at the bean and corn shoots that just poked out today.

three sisters bed

I went out to scare them away, and found one of my pumpkin seedlings that I’d transplanted yesterday, ripped out of the earth and left for dead. I put it back, but I have little hope for its survival.

pumpkin seedlings

Do I have to go out and physically guard my garden against the predators? I haven’t seen the rabbits from next door yet, but I’m sure they’ll be joining the fray in no time. And the opossum that wintered on our block surely has a friend or two that will come terrorize us, no doubt by burrowing up into the compost pile and thieving my precious compost. We also have deer, which I have seen less than a mile away. Do I have any hope of a harvest?

first plantings


the back three

rainbow chard from an Amish farm


I just went out to plant the Jonathon apple tree that we bought last Friday. We got one that needed a good home. It has many little apples on its branches, but it’s a little bigger than it should be allowed to get, living in a pot. Some of the leaves are starting to curl and dry out. I got a bunch of manure, and some liquid root feeder. We also got a Bartlett pear tree, with visions of fall plenty, and dried gold.

I had completely forgotten that “call before you dig” thing, and Derek mentioned it while we were carting our tree home, with the help of Derek’s friend from work who owns a pick-up. So when we got home, I called. It turns out you’re supposed to call at least 2 days before you plan to dig. I called on Friday night, so the two days started on Monday. That meant we had to wait until Tuesday night, when the utilities people would have had sufficient time to come out and mark where the gas, power, and water lines are. I worried for our little apple tree. I put it in a cardboard box that was bigger than the pot, and I fed it some compost and water.

So this morning, I planned on getting my poor tree in the ground. I decided to put it in a little groove in the back yard that marks where the previous owners had their garden. It was about 10 feet from the garage, and hence, from the gas line. It was far enough from my present gardens that it wouldn’t shade them, at least not for 15 years or so. It left enough space on the other side to plant the pear tree at least ten feet away, in the same groove.

I dug. I made sure the hole was twice as big as the root ball. My back is going to break. I put some compost in the hole, watered it with root feeder, put in the tree, and alternated the original soil with more compost, until I’d used about 60 pounds. When I finally had my tree looking happy, straight, and well-fed, I paused to admire my handiwork. I took in the tiny branches protruding from the trunk, the many little apples ready to swell, the top of the tree, reaching high up towards the… phone line. I managed to plant the tree almost directly under the phone line, with about 4 feet to spare.

I’m completely deflated. I can’t dig another hole. I’m gonna go watch a movie and mope for a while.

I just made mozarella cheese for the first time, using a kit that my cousin Liz gave me for my birthday at least 4 years ago. It always seemed so daunting, but after reading in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about using more local and home-grown/made ingredients, I decided to give it a whirl. Plus, she kept emphasizing how it only takes half an hour, literally.

I timed my effort, figuring that for a beginner, it would take longer, since that’s how cookbook recipes almost always go for me. I’m a mess in the kitchen, and while I’m cooking, it always looks like there’s been an explosion. So I gave myself an hour, just in case. I was shocked to roll up my ball of fresh mozarella in exactly 30 minutes, even with the heating of the gallon of milk on the stovetop.

I was really glad to have the two special ingredients for the cheese right where I needed them. Rennet is something that you can mail-order, or you can usually find it at health-food stores. Citric acid is also found at health-food stores, but even more commonly at ethnic markets, notably Indian ones, since citric acid it used to make things sour. I actually think you can get it at the regular supermarket, in the canning and preserving section.

The one thing that I had that comes from sheer force of will is my asbestos hands. I remember once, in Holland, I was staying with a friend and his family, and I was in some way involved in the preparation of dinner, and I grabbed something hot. Robert Jan said he would never do that, because he didn’t have “Mom hands.” I thought about it, and I realized that moms are a pretty large segment of society that is used to handling hot stuff, and can do it without flinching. Us and iron smiths.

I’m making pizza on Saturday, and I wanted to have the cheese ready. I figured I’d do it on Tuesday, in case I failed miserably and had to try again. I think I might do it again anyway, so I can have some really, really fresh moz for a grown-up pizza with fresh basil leaves and sun-dried tomatoes. You all know my tomato snobbery, and I realize dried tomatoes are not on the traditional Margherita pizza, but there just aren’t any fresh ones yet that didn’t travel across the globe to get here.

Also, it may not strike you as important or ground-breaking, unless you’re related to me by blood or marriage, but I found a local producer of tortilla chips. If you’re looking for local foods to eat, it’s a really good idea to find a local source of the items that take up a large percentage of you family’s food consumption. Something that’s at least 20% of what you eat can really add up in the petroleum column if you’re outsourcing to California and you live in Ohio. OK, we don’t really eat chips every single day, but it’s close.

Who has time to write a blog post? During planting season? And when your mom is coming to visit for a few days? And when there’s fresh rhubarb to make into a pie, and bread to bake, and laundry to wash and fold, and piles to sort, and cheerios to vacuum, and books to read? Who? Who has time?

So I am here providing you with an email that I just sent to elizasmom, since it has everything I would have written about anyway. Amn’t I smart?

That asparagus recipe… I tried it, and the smells wafting around the kitchen were intoxicating. I was so excited to taste it, but it turns out that if you only use a few mushrooms, instead of the requisite pound, you can’t taste them at all, and at $50 a pound, I’m not sure I’ll ever try it again. Plus, I used some “whole grain” bread from Panera, which, as it turns out, is only partly comprised of anything whole. Also, the bread had the perfect texture for disintegrating in the milk. I recommend a sturdy, maybe french loaf, one that will hold its shape after soaking, because you don’t want to achieve the mush pudding I got. And the recipe suggests steaming the asparagus until tender, but after the 45 minutes in the oven, they are completely smooshy. So I would maybe steam them for only 2 minutes, not until they’re done, but leave them a little crunchy.

I did make an asparagus frittata the other day, since I started making the pudding again, only to realize I had no bread, and no time to make a crust for a tart. I left out the mushrooms from the inside, and fried them in butter instead, until they were crispy but not burned. We put those right on top of the frittata, or ate them plain, with lots of salt. I had picked up some more morels and some chanterelles from the farmer’s market, and they are a great combination. That way, I didn’t feel like I wasted all the mushrooms, only to not be able to discern their presence. Even Noah had some of the fried chanterelles.

My garden is so far just tons and tons of work. I put in 2 4×12 beds and filled them with compost, peat, and vermiculite, per the “Square Foot Gardening” instructions, then laid out a grid, and started planting in my tiny squares. I went out to thin the lettuces, beets, and chard the other day, and since I planted such tiny plots of them, there was not much to thin. But I did get a handful of mixed greens that I promptly took inside, rinsed off, and put in a bowl with a few drops of salad dressing. I have to say that it was the most incredible, complex salad I’ve ever had. I could taste all the different greens, even though they were about the size of my pinky fingernail. I guess that’s why micro-greens are so popular.

I also started reading about companion planting… after I had already put a bunch in the ground. It turns out that you’re supposed to keep nightshades away from brassicas, so I went out and dug up my tomatoes, since they were all next door to the cabbages and broccolis. I’m pretty much a spaz. Now the tomatoes are in a separate bed, with petunias, marigolds, parsley, onions, carrots and basil, which are all supposed to be beneficial to tomatoes for pest control and better accessibility to nutrients in the soil. I also planted a separate 3×3 garden with just corn, pole beans, and pumpkins. You know, the three sisters. OK, I’m a huge spaz. Well, it turns out that there are traditional patterns for planting them, specifically suited to region, humidity, etc. I just threw them in all jumbled. Maybe next year I’ll be a little more organized.

We bought a couple of fruit trees the other day, and on our way home, realized we’re supposed to call the utility people before digging in the yard, so our trees are still in their pots. The apple tree has about 20 marble sized apples on it.

Derek got me a gift card for an hour long massage for my birthday. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’ve felt like it would be weird. I guess I’ll find out! It’s so great to have him back. He’s pretty determined to never go away for that long again, if only so he doesn’t have to eat out for every meal for two weeks. It’s really validating when he says to me on the phone, from 2000 miles away, that he can’t wait to come home to my cooking and feel normal again.

I’ve just returned form the first of undoubtedly many early Saturday runs to the Dayton farmer’s market. In a long, narrow warehouse, the quaint market can be forgiven for not being outdoors. It’s still spring, so my expectations were not high for fruits and veggies. At the very least, I hoped to come away with some fresh and fragrant strawberries, some tender asparagus, and maybe some local eggs.

I had to drive, toting my 3 wildebeests along, but in the future, I hope to be able to ride a bike, if I can figure out a suitable method of transporting the bounty home in the mid-morning sun.

As markets go these days, you can find much more than produce and local meat, and our market is no exception. Many permanent vendors featured hand made soaps, jewelry, handbags, honey, even some Ohio maple syrup.

The syrup vendor had a griddle set up, and made free plate-sized pancakes for market goers, requesting a voluntary donation to offset the rising price of grain. My boys took advantage. We parked the stroller in the aisle, and the boys sat right down on the floor, while I was forced to watch a steady stream of people buying artisan breads that looked irresistible.

There were also pastry chefs, a breakfast booth with diner-style offerings, a pet-treat baker, a middle-eastern booth, many fantastic flowers, and a new-age musician with his keyboard and karaoke machine set to extra loud.

I was dismayed to find, among the local seasonal fruits and vegetables, grapes from Chile, pineapples from Hawaii, and avocados from Mexico. They seemed so incongruous. There were also a few hard, pink tomatoes, and they just reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay on how the attitude in America of having everything now, regardless of season or regional availability, is hypocrisy in a culture that’s trying to teach teenagers to abstain from sex, to wait until the time is right. Buying tomatoes in winter, she says, is promiscuous. Which is funny to me. For several years, if I eat at a restaurant or home where tomatoes are served in the winter, I always feel a little dirty. Like I’ve sacrificed my morals for instant gratification, regardless of the fact that the object of my desire is inferior, and will never measure up to a real, ripe, height-of-summer tomato.

Having just read the late-winter and early spring chapters of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” I was just itching to get something seasonal, and regional. That’s really not that hard in Ohio, but little did I suspect that I would find freshly dug morel mushrooms for $50 a pound (cough, cough, choke). Needless to say, I didn’t get a pound. I got about 7 small mushrooms for as many dollars. Alongside the mollys were the asparagus, and having just drooled over the recipe for Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding, guess what we’re having for dinner? I’m pretty sure I won’t be needing the whole recipe, which does, indeed, call for a full pound of morels. I’m reluctant to even offer it to the kids, because $50 a pound for mushrooms they will pick out and not eat is pearls before swine, for sure. They’ll undoubtedly object to the asparagus as well, but that’s what’s for dinner.

I also came away with two pints of red strawberries with no hint of a hard, white core, a pound of firm new potatoes the size of marble shooters, a pound of asparagus, a pound of rhubarb (for that pie I’m making for dessert), a dozen brown and almost green local eggs, a whole chicken, a loaf of crusty sourdough bread, and two bagels. Are you jealous? I know Derek is. He doesn’t get back until Tuesday.

All’s quiet on the western front. Derek is in California for 12 days, we went to the movie store yesterday and loaded up on Max and Ruby, Bugs Bunny, and Super Mario Brothers, the boys’ bedroom is free of anything marring the fluffy pile carpet floor, as is the living room, the lawn is mowed (mown?), there’s no water in the basement (thanks to my daily vigilance with the shop-vac), nobody has been abused, there is relative sanity, and even, dare I say, peace in our Derek-less home. We had lemon-ricotta pancakes for dinner. The kids ate what I made. Well, I made lemon-ricotta pancakes, so if they hadn’t eaten them, I would have had to give them back and exchange them for humans.

I was cleaning the kitchen (!) and came upon a list. I am a list-maker. I list the items I require from the supermarket, or Target, or the library. I list the things I would like to do today, next week, next year. I list the things our house needs, the things I wish for, the things to pack for Derek when he goes to California for 12 days.

So this list had one item, among many, that was curious. Now it’s up to you, dear reader, to determine what the list was listing. The word is PLOX. What is plox, you ask? Well, if you were in 6th grade, it would look like this:

27. Plox
a) a communicable disease whose symptoms include rosy patches on the skin
b) events in a story, or, in this case, a series of stories
c) multiple distinct points on a graph
d) a groundcover with spring blossoming flowers
e) please and/or thank you
f) your head asplode

So what’s my list? I’ll give you a hint. There were other items on the list that also came from the Latin root for “flame.”