Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Greening

I started this post two weeks ago when the daffodils and crocuses had only been up for a week or so. Since then, the green grass has overtaken the brown, the hyacinth came up last week and survived the freeze, the forsythia is at peak color, the redbud is showing tiny versions of what the tree is named for, and even the apple trees are budding like crazy.

Normally, I'd be thrilled with the 70+ degree weather that we're having at the moment. OK, I am thrilled. Maybe the sun and warmth will dry up some of the remaining puddles from the deluges of the past few weeks. Still, I have to be a bit concerned. It seems that we are going to have a repeat of last year's go-directly-to-summer-from-winter weather. Spring is good. Spring is necessary. One of the things we love about the climate here is that we typically get four, distinct, and fairly evenly-spaced seasons.

The heat and sun are great for my morale but they cause the plants to get ahead of schedule. The apple trees are especially vulnerable because when they bud early, a late freeze in April (or what would be an entirely normal March freeze) will zap any emergent buds and no fruit will be forthcoming from those that froze. Peach trees are even more susceptible to this problem around here, so we also fear for our neighbors' tree which provides us with such luscious summer fruit.

Another tragedy would be a repeat of last year's morel-hunting season. After a similarly soggy start to the year, we were hopeful that the favored fungi would be plentiful. We dutifully waited until the nights were staying up in the upper 40s before going in search of morels but by the time it was warm enough at night, the days had become scorchers. Nary a morel did we find and I suspect it is because the days got too hot too fast. Maybe it was just that the deer beat us to them, but I have spoken with other fungi foragers who also found it to be a less-than-stellar year for morels here.

And when the heat arrives, the rain tends to go away. At least it did last year and that led to a miserable summer. Not only did we and the buffalo suffer through unusually high temps--August in June--but the drought and heat combo meant the grass stopped growing. That's not good if you're a ruminant. Or the new owner of three large ruminants. We ended up feeding hay in July which just shouldn't happen. We have opened quite a bit more pasture since then, so we hope that won't be a problem this year and yet I worry.

Still, it felt good to get in the garden today and stick my hands in the soil while the sun warmed me from above. I planted all of my cool-weather greens and got the sugar snaps in at last (late again given the warm weather but it's hard to think about planting in February). I was especially thrilled to see a single spear of asparagus poking up from last year's planting. One of the rhubarb plants is also sending up its first leaves. I even found a volunteer kale plant in the bed where my kale was two years ago. Great signs after a tough winter. Now I just need another good rain to fill the rain barrels and I'll keep my fingers crossed that we don't have any more freezes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Grand Re-Opening

The new and improved Fish Pond is open. No, it's not really a pond. It's an area that runs from our house up to the lower barn.  From the look of the berm around much of the "pond," we suspect it was once used as a retention pond for the dairy cattle that once lived here. Or it may have simply been an overflow area for the feeder creek that runs along one side. When we first looked at the farm, our real estate agent suggested that we use the space for raising fish--tilapia, to be precise--and ever since then, we've referred to the area as the Fish Pond. It does collect water when we get massive rains as has been the case this week. Maybe some day the buffalo will re-locate their wallow here.

When we moved in, very little of the pond was visible. There was a tiny mowed area, but the berms were covered with honeysuckle vines, multiflora rose, numerous scrubby trees (mostly box elder whose brittle limbs come crashing down with every strong wind), and on the side closest to the house, bamboo). The middle was filled with blackberry brambles and hawthorne saplings as well as massive clumps of the thorny evil that is multiflora rose. We got the half nearest the barn largely cleared last year, though we still had a lot of debris to cart off. The buffs got to explore this area a bit in the fall but mostly used it as a passageway to get to the lower pasture.

Much of our late winter activity here has consisted of clearing and fencing the rest of the Fish Pond for the water buffalo. Thanks to the miracle of electric fencing, it didn't take long to put up the semi-permanent fence after the clearing was done. Clearing just took forever. Lots of trees to cut down and haul off, vines to pull, trash to pick up, bamboo to cut, and even a couple of metal bedframes to dig out of the dirt (more on that in a later post). Because of its propensity for sogginess, we couldn't get the truck in there to help with hauling whenever we had wet weather, so progress was slow.

The grass is greening up here but the buffalo have been eating every little bit that pops up before it can grow big and strong, so I was anxious to get them into an area that hadn't been overgrazed to take pressure off of the main pasture and the Booth. There still was some clearing to do but I'd already cut off access to the Booth after the flooded feeder creek knocked the footbridge off its moorings, so the buffs were getting antsy. I thought surely they would rush through the gate as soon as I opened the way to the Fish Pond but no. Maybe because it was in the middle of the afternoon and they had hay on their minds, they simply headed up to the barn as usual. If you build it, they don't always come. At least not right away. About an hour later, I found them here:

As is there way whenever they get into a new space, the three of them immediately went to the furthest edge of the space and quickly made the rounds, checking out the dimensions and looking for good nibbles and potential problems. Typically, at this stage, they stick close together and make several turns around the perimeter. I call this the fingertip search. The buffs move shoulder-to-shoulder in unison, checking the ground thoroughly.

With each successive turn, they go at a slightly more leisurely pace and spread out a bit. I know they're comfy in the space once they are willing to go off exploring on their own. They're still quick to regroup if they think anything's amiss. For example, Effie was having great fun getting into the honeysuckle vines that cover one little dirt mound in the pond. She kneels down, gets her head under the vines, and jerks up tearing out the vines (good girl!). I'm not sure why she enjoys this so much but it helps us a lot, so I don't question it.

After several rounds of head tossing, she leapt up suddenly and let out the longest, loudest grunt, I've ever heard from her and emerged with vines hanging from her horns. The other two came racing over to see what was the matter.

Quickly determining that nothing was seriously wrong, Audrey proceeded to take advantage of the convenient snack delivery system by devouring the vines on Effie's horns. Eschol decided shortly thereafter that thrashing around in the honeysuckle was a good time and he also did a nice whirling finish.

Judging from the tips of his horns and Effie's legs, this little hillock is poor, red clay soil--very unlike the rich, dark soil in most of the pond. It looks like it was moved here when something else was being constructed (maybe the berms were rebuilt at some stage).

I love having the buffalo right by the house:

I see them from my office and when I let the dog in and out. The buffs really like this corner where they can see the house and the main creek, plus the grass is dense from years of mowing.

They do seem to be curious about the land beyond the fence--I catch them looking longingly towards the main creek--but in the interest of protecting the beehives and the garden,  I hope to keep them sufficiently well fed that they don't try to get out.

I'm also enjoying being able to stand by the garden and look all the way up to the top of the orchard. This view won't last long but seeing as it's the first time I've been able to look from one end of our property to the other, I'm going to try to keep this image in my mind. I love seeing how it all hangs together. If only the neighbors' house wasn't in the middle.....

Now, this is what I call domestic bliss:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Old Favorites

Sometimes we get so caught up in our new food and drink finds that we forget about our old favorites. And some of those new recipes quickly become old favorites like this one: Fried Chickpeas with Chorizo and Spinach. Can it be that we only started making this last year? Keeping with our red food and drink theme this week, we made this quick and easy dish featuring chorizo.

Naturally, we do two versions--one with real Spanish-style chorizo for Alison and one with  Mexican-style soy chorizo for Jim (we haven't found a vegetarian hard chorizo but we love Trader Joe's soy chorizo).

Normally, I don't like doing separate dishes, but this one is so easy and only requires one pan per person, so it's nearly as easy to make both as to make one.

To pump up the protein, we double the amount of soy chorizo in Jim's version:

His ends up being spicier with the Mexican-style chorizo, whereas Alison's is richer with the meaty but milder Spanish-style chorizo:

Usually, I'm rushing to make this dish (as with all of my quick and easy dishes, I remember it being even quicker than it is and don't leave enough time) so I rush the frying of the chickpeas. While still tasty, they typically don't crisp up but some combination of more time, less attention, and the power burners on the stove made for much crispier chickpeas this time. They were a little drier as a result, but since I never let all the liquid cook off from the spinach/sherry mixture as directed, it all balances out. Yet another lovely one-dish meal courtesy of the NY Times. I think they're using food to get me so hooked that I'll actually pay the next time they try to charge for online content. I didn't bite when it just meant giving up the opinion page columnists but if they take away the recipes.....

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Red Letter Day

The letter "P" is the letter of the day. It's been a red letter for us for much of this week because we've been eating beets.

I was reading a post about beets on White on Rice Couple's blog Hate 'Em or Love 'Em? and, after I got done reminding myself that some people really don't like beets, I started to reflect on the many dishes we love which incorporate beets: Crispy Grits with Sweet and Sour Mushrooms and Beets; Roasted Beets and Potatoes with Rosemary; False Mahshi (a layered dish of beef, chard, beets, and rice); and the latest addition--Spiced Quinoa with Beets and Yogurt. The latter recipe comes to us courtesy of the NY Times does the recipe for the False Mahshi.

This beautiful dish is wonderfully easy to make and remarkably filling despite looking like not much more than a side dish.

We used red quinoa, which cooks up quickly and, to my mind, more easily than rice. The unusually high protein content for a grain is a big plus for Jim and the spices in this recipe (cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamon, cloves, and coriander) add even more interest to its naturally nutty flavor. After frying the ground spices, stir in the cooked quinoa, then spread the mixture in a baking pan. Layer sliced beets on top and stick in the oven for 20 minutes. 

The topping is one of those things that sounds bad but is surprisingly good--garlic yogurt. Big dollops of greek yogurt with garlic paste mixed in really makes this dish and I can't explain why. A few walnuts on top for crunch finish it off and the meal is ready to serve.

If you are serving this dish to people who don't normally eat beets, tell them not to call the enterologist or the urologist for an urgent appointment. Beets have a funny way of reminding you that you ate them recently but it can be a bit disconcerting in the bathroom the next day, especially if it's early and you're a little groggy.  We don't mind at all. We're happy to eat beets any time. If only we had more luck growing our own, we'd probably keep a root cellar full of them, so we'd never be without. Red--the color of love.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Food Processors--Please Help!

I think I'm finally ready to give in and invest in a food processor. Typically, I try to avoid kitchen appliances, especially if I can do the job by hand (e.g., mixing, kneading, chopping). Still, there are some things that just can't be done well by hand. I'm thinking mostly of pesto. I can never get the ingredients chopped finely enough to meld together properly. And the blender can't do the job--trust me, I've tried.

So, I'm asking for your help. What kind of food processor do you use and what do you like about it (or not)? I would prefer something with a fairly small footprint and not too high a price, but if that high-end behemoth of a processor is really is all that and a bag of chips, I might be convinced to splurge. Just tell me why. Oh, and how bad is the cleanup of the parts? I wash everything by hand, so that's a consideration, too.

Please leave your suggestions here (or for those who know me well and don't like to publish comments here, e-mail me or post on FB). Thanks for your help.