Blackberries Ripen

by Mimi Hedl

Cleaned blackberry patch

Blackberry season has begun. The head gardener picked the first batch a few days ago. I reminded her, as I looked through the berries, that the berries won’t ripen anymore after picking, so we need to carefully choose the berries we pick. She glared at me. A ripe blackberry is sweetness personified, an unripe blackberry makes you pucker and use far too much sugar.

To pacify her, when she complained about all the dead canes in the patch and how difficult it was to decide which berry was ripe and those that needed a few more days in the sun, I told her I’d clean up the patch. Frankly, I should have done this task weeks ago, but summer has a way of tripping us up and unless we have explicit lists, and honor them, we will forget many, many chores until they look us straight in the eye. And the blackberry patch was a mess! A real, horrible thorny mess.

Armed with long pants, long sleeved shirt, leather gloves and my trusty pruners, I spent a cloudy Saturday morning, with more rain promised, cutting, then pulling out one dead cane after another. Needless to say, the ripe blackberries rebelled and fell off the canes. I felt bad, but I knew our friendly turtles would have a feast. You say, why didn’t you pick the berries first? Because I would’ve had to pick them with heavy leather gloves, necessary to navigate in and out of the dead canes without getting mercilessly stabbed.  Can you imagine how many berries I’d manage to get in my basket?  The head gardener had an impossible task.  I should apologize, but…

Not only did many dead canes interfere with the picking process, but Virginia creeper, that beautiful 5-leaved vine neophytes mistake for poison ivy, had also moved in, crept in. Climbing in and out of the canes, I had to explore the terrain to find the source of the creeper, and then extricate it. Some vines were just too strong, they’ll require a fork to dig them out. Later, I promised, when the blackberries quiet down.

The head gardener picked all the berries with red. Bowl by sister Susan Hopkins.

By lunch time the patch looked picture perfect. I picked the ripe berries and now have a quart, enough to make a generous blackberry cobbler, using Edna Lewis’ wonderful recipe, a recipe I’ve used for almost 40 years. When Zoë and Hilary, my niece and daughter, were young, they loved blackberries, maybe not picking them so much, but yes! To the cobbler.

Mary Tindall and I used to go blackberry picking together, all over the woods. She and her husband Ray were our good friends (Ray died and Mary moved away). He was a back yard mechanic who could just tap a pliers on the engine block and make ‘Ol Red, our ‘62 International, purr.  Mary had a sweet heart, loved company and had us over for countless barbeques. Their daughter, Tara, became one of Hilary’s Belle friends. Every Saturday when the Tindalls would drive to Wal-Mart in Owenvsville to do their shopping, Hilary would ride along and be gleeful over the candy and soda and then TV she could watch at their house. We deprived her of those essential building blocks and she was beyond grateful the Tindall’s gave her what she needed.

I don’t think Mary liked the picking of the blackberries as much as the company and the chance to chatter away. We’d get into the thick of blackberry patches and before I knew it, my greedy hands had touched poison ivy. There wasn’t hardly a blackberry expedition that didn’t end in a good case of the rash. That is, until I learned to identify jewelweed.

Jewelweed has hollow stems with sticky sap inside. This sap contains, among other things, a substance called lawsone that gives the mighty blow to both poison ivy and stinging nettles. Rub this sap on your skin, and like magic, poison ivy and nettles become neutralized. And often, blackberries and jewelweed will grow in a similar habitat, shady and damp.

I remember one year we took our nephew Corey and one of his friends blackberry picking. They got into the poison ivy and I spied the jewelweed close by. I had the boys rub the stems all over themselves and they never broke out into the rash. Phew!!! I thought to myself; one disaster avoided. Still plenty more to contend with, like ticks and chiggers and wasp stings and blood suckers… Shall I go on? No one will want to come visit!

Bee on native rose

With the 4th of July a week behind us, summer seems well on the move. When I was in high school I remember marking this date as summer half over before school began again. Groan. Now as I tend the gardens, it’s more of a time to observe, make mental notes of tasks to do in the future, watch caterpillars feeding on their special plants and wondering where they’ll go to spin their chrysalis.

The male cardinal has been making eyes at a female lately. They’ll mate one more time this year and it looks like that will happen soon. It’s hilarious to watch their antics and wonderful to pause and take it all in.

Earlier this spring as I was preparing a site for the okra, I came across this rabbit nest. Look at the sweet little bunnies! As much as I don’t like them eating my plants, I do like seeing them bop around. As my friend Jessie observed when she saw a hawk sitting close to her garden, that hawk will help keep everything in check. It’s only when things get out of balance that we have problems.

So I observe the hawks stalking the area and I know a kind of balance exists. Nothing turns out just like I would program it, thank goodness, as I do get distracted by one thing or another, and couldn’t maintain order like Mother Nature when she’s unfettered by chemicals and poor conservation. I feel grateful to observe the order, the health of the plants, the life cycle of so many insects and other creatures.

To watch the pipevine swallowtails feed on the pipevine and become partners in these gardens,

to see the honey bees pollinating,

and the milkweed tussock moth caterpillars devouring the milkweed, (what an amazing single file),

to watch black snakes in flagrante delicto,

and to see this bushel basket gourd flower at sunrise.

How does one count her blessings but in all these small scenes of beauty? Especially with a blackberry cobbler in the oven.

The yucca are blooming

We have had a whirlwind of changeable weather. After the rains that draped our hills in green cloaks, the heat bore down making record temperatures. The last week has been rainy and cool. An abundance of wildflowers are blooming including our many yuccas. The hillside is dotted with their tall spires of creamy-white blossom. The deer and rabbits feast on these delectable petals and so do we.

We eat a lot of salad, my favorite food. My concoctions take many forms and when once a year the yucca bloom I include the petals. I was inspired to add them to a NYTimes recipe for an arugula and roasted asparagus salad. The once-a-year flowers are crisp and slightly bitter.

I roast asparagus in my toaster oven, a quick, simple way to achieve great flavor. Snap off the tough bottom part of the asparagus stalks and arrange on the oven pan on a piece of parchment. Sprinkle with olive oil and roll the stalks in the oil. Add salt and pepper. Put into cold toaster oven and roast at 400° for 3-5 minutes until just tender. Cool and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Toss with arugula, cut into bite-sized bits, the petals of 6-8 yucca flowers, and a vinaigrette made with a crushed and minced clove of garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve with a crispy fried egg.

During our heat wave, salads were my go-to dish for supper. This watermelon and feta combo tastes great in the heat and is a complement to any grilled meat or fish. With the arugula going wild in my garden, I include it in all my salads. It’s particularly good with the melon and feta – a lovely, bitter counterpoint to the sweet, salty tastes.

Cut watermelon into bite-sized cubes. Add to salad greens and dress with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Top with crumbled feta and a handful of toasted pepitas.

Then our weather changed to cool and rainy. The hills retain their green glow and we wear socks and long pants. I thought of cold weather ingredients and made a farro and celery salad.

Have ready a bowl with three stalks of celery sliced thin, a crushed and minced clove of garlic, the juice of half a lemon and some grated zest, several tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Add hot chile flakes to taste. Cook a cup of farro until tender. Pour the drained, hot farro over the celery and dressing and leave to cool.

To make the dish more summer-like I added the first snow peas from the garden, lightly cooked, a few slivered mint leaves and fresh dill. We had leftover grilled salmon flaked on top. Toasted sourdough to accompany.

Who knows what the weather will be but I am thankful for the rain that helps my usually dry, struggling garden thrive.

Late Spring on Blue Mountain Road

Our hillsides look like they could be in Ireland, a green carpet, at least to a Coloradan accustomed to our brown, sere landscape. Spring is busting out all over with an abundance of wildflowers, lilacs and apple blossom.  I’m cooking with early produce from my garden, arugula, lettuces, baby bok choy, parsley and chives.  Soon the snow peas and snap peas will flower.  I look forward to zucchini, tomatoes and Colorado cherries and peaches.  But not quite yet.

In the meantime I made a simple lemon buttermilk pound cake to go with store-bought strawberries and homemade yogurt.

This cake recipe is from Marion Cunningham in The Fanny Farmer Baking Book, a book I return to again and again for a range of dependable recipes for baked goods.  I make it in my Cuisinart but a mixer or a wooden spoon would do just fine.

Buttermilk Lemon Pound Cake

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8-9 inch loaf pan.

Cream together ½ cup butter, softened, and 1 cup sugar. Stir in 2 large eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Have ready 1 ½ cups unbleached flour mixed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda, ¼ teaspoon baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. Add this to the butter mixture alternately with ½ cup buttermilk, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, ½ teaspoon vanilla. Stir until smooth and well blended.

Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350° for 40 – 45 minutes.  Check with a toothpick or skewer for doneness.  Cool on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold and cool completely. Serve slices with fresh berries, peaches or other fruit and a dollop of homemade, maple syrup-sweetened, yogurt.

Homemade Yogurt 

I’ve made yogurt for years.  We eat it with our granola each morning and I use yogurt in other preparations from tuna salad to cucumber raita to a sweetened garnish for cake, pie, or fruit. Since we moved to Blue Mountain Road (24 years ago) I make fewer trips to the grocery store. I have a well-stocked pantry and freezer and make bread, crackers, salsas and cookies to insure that I can put together a meal without relying on a far-off store. Plus, I couldn’t stand the pile of plastic tubs I accumulated when buying commercial yogurt.  So I make my own, two quarts at a time.  The two quarts last us about eight days.

I like Siggi’s whole milk yogurt for my starter and 2% milk as the main ingredient but use what you prefer – whole milk, 2% or 1%.  Choose any live yogurt you enjoy eating for your starter.  Whole milk yogurt provides the best culture.

First, heat a quart of milk to about 130°, until it begins to form a skin.  Watch so that it doesn’t boil over. I have spent many minutes cleaning up my stovetop after a milk volcano erupted.  Pour into a large ceramic bowl or Mason quart jar and let cool to 115-118°. I use an instant read thermometer here. (At this temperature you can hold your finger in the milk for the count of five.  It will feel hot but tolerable.)

 In a small bowl combine 1/3 cup of the starter yogurt and a dipper-full of the warm milk and whisk until smooth.  Pour back into the large bowl or jar of milk and stir well. 

Cover with a plate or lid and place in a warm spot.  I use a picnic cooler into which I put a jar of boiling water to maintain the warmth. An oven with a pilot would be a nice warm spot too.  Leave for 6-8 hours until cultured and thickened.  Gently place the bowl or jar in the fridge and leave until firm – usually overnight.

From the Irish-green foothills of the Rockies, I send you my best wishes for a delicious and bountiful late spring.

Exuberant May

by Mimi Hedl

Glorious ninebark

Spring has simply exploded. The scenes change more quickly than my eyes can absorb. I feel like a mother with quintuplets trying to keep up with the essentials of feeding and changing, though in my case, it’s weeding and more weeding. The compost bins hungrily gobble up all the greenery we haul in wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow. After a winter’s diet of dried stalks and meager contributions from the compost bucket, all this green stuff makes the changing of straw into gold a reality. The compost pile feels eager for the task at hand.

 A day finally arrived when the forecast didn’t include any below 50° temps for a solid ten nights.  OK tomatoes, let’s rock and roll!  And that’s just what we did, from 8 am to 5 pm, with civilized breaks and naps for this less than youthful gardener. By the end of a lovely Friday, 22 tomato plants found their new home in the earth, planted up to their necks, with bamboo tops to disguise their presence.

Protected tomato

You’ll remember the head gardener and I fight critters of every sort, including each other. The cutest, tiniest bunnies run around now. I mean, they are as adorable as any baby ever could be. When I see their sweet noses twitch, I melt. Of course the head gardener scowls at me. She knows what these little monsters, (her words, not mine), can do to the plants we set out. In order to avoid a serious quarrel, I came up with strategies, similar to my teepeenies that worked well for the cabbages and early lettuces. I showed her my plans and she grunted but didn’t quite approve.

 I always feel nervous when I think I’ve come up with a solution for someone who lives in the same world I do, but with different values. I recognize these creatures have 24 hours of every day to do as they please. I accept that raccoons harvest each ear of corn as it reaches its sweetest. We don’t plant corn any more. This year we’re using potato boxes to grow both Irish and sweet potatoes because we can’t control the voles underground. How can you control something you can’t see? There’s no vaccine for vole control. No doubt more data, and maybe tears, will become available when potato harvest arrives…

Cabbages with bamboo barriers

 However, we can protect above ground plants. It may seem tedious. We went from the teepeenies to these bamboo barriers for the cabbages. Deer can’t get in and rabbits haven’t squeezed under. Granted, it may not look like a photo shoot for a fancy gardening magazine, but then neither does leaving lots of weeds to disguise the presence of choice plants. ‘Confuse them with abundance’ has become our new mantra. Who cares what the garden looks like if it produces delicious food – for you!

 And that’s partially what the bamboo tips do, confuse. With all these fluttering dried bamboo leaves bending down over the tomato plant, surely nothing could be hidden there? The shovel you see with the bamboo is called a sharp shooter. Because the tomatoes had grown 16” tall, it would take a regular shovel to dig the initial hole, and then the sharp shooter to go the extra few inches so the tomato would have its entire stem in the earth where roots will grow in all directions, securing the tomato from winds and enabling the plant to find trace minerals down under.

Sharpshooter and bamboo leaves

 This tomato planting day was possible because my friend Agnes had come the day before. She teaches physics at the university and gave her last final early that morning and needed garden time to relax and unwind. I encouraged her to dig plants to take home to her new gardens as we’d have rain over the week-end and into the next week and the plants could settle in nicely.

Coral Bells

 She went about her pleasant task and I weeded cheat grass out of the Medicinal Garden. It makes the compost pile smile. So many seed heads, abundant protein and easy to digest. It’s an annual grass and makes tremendous growth in the spring. Really, it’s impossible to get rid of. Kinda like chickweed. I see it all as fodder for the compost. I slide an old butcher knife under the roots of this grass to release its hold and into the wheelbarrow goes the clump, after clump, after clump.

 We broke for lunch and while I cooked, Agnes mowed. Then after our lunch, she mowed. In fact, I had a tough time keeping up with her. She would empty the mower bag so often it seemed like she dumped more grass into the waiting wheelbarrow than she mowed. I’d push it out to the Park where I’d weeded and spread those luscious clippings over the bare earth. When I’d return, the second wheelbarrow would be filled up. And I’d race back out to the Park with that. This went on for well over an hour. I felt tired from hustling to get the next wheelbarrow back to her, but she barely broke sweat. Youth. Blessed youth.

Honeysuckle flava

 When she left, she thanked me profusely for the car load of plants. I looked at her with surprise, “Shouldn’t I be thanking you?!” But she doesn’t see it that way. She sees the opportunity to move about the gardens as a gift even though I tell her repeatedly that she’s the gift. No doubt a win-win relationship.

 Agnes drove back to Rolla, 35 miles away, set out plants until she had to meet with a student, then went home and set out the rest of the plants, put paving stones in the new garden, mowed all her grass and put the grass clippings on THAT garden!! She finished at 8:15 that evening.

Iris virginica

While Agnes was doing her evening gardening, I was sitting quietly, watching the hummingbirds do their incessant feeding and dancing, getting up now and then to look at one beautiful scene after another. Grateful to watch spring unfold, to devote time to spring viewing. To know that because of Agnes, I could dedicate tomorrow to tomato planting and during breaks, walk around and admire what springs forth after a long winter’s nap.

Gladys’ peony

There’s Gladys’ peony, really her mother’s, well over 100 years old. I can see Gladys downing a cold beer after we picked cherries so many years ago, she was 85 at that time. And Elmer, our incorrigible neighbor who telephoned for fish as a young man. Even though blind and crippled, he still told the best stories and gave me this iris, the Wabash. I hear his stories every spring. Like so many who have gone to their reward, they come back to me when spring reminds me of their moment. Glorious spring.

Wabash iris from Elmer

Peanut Butter Cookies

Gelato 2003 Charcoal on paper, 40 x 30 inches

As the chief cook around here, I get (have) to decide what we eat.  Bud rarely asks for a particular dish but might say, “How about pizza?  Or pasta?” Not a lot of help with my planning, but I’m lucky to have such an accommodating audience for my cooking.

I can’t imagine not deciding what we will eat for each meal.  I’m able to indulge my sudden desire for scrambled eggs or a smoked turkey sandwich.  Or cauliflower salad with olives or a shrimp risotto.   And Bud is happy with whatever I make.

I plan our meals like I’m orchestrating a symphony. I think about taste and texture notes ─ is there something savory, spicy, cold, hot, smooth, chunky, crisp or soft ─ on the menu.  I might toss toasted pepitas or almonds into a butter lettuce salad for a little contrasting crunch.  Or add a handful of dried currants to a quinoa salad for a burst of sweetness against a savory, citrus dressing. 

When it comes to dessert I use the same strategy.  What was the main meal and do we need a little extra protein, something cool and creamy after a spicy dish, or a buttery slice of pie after a simple, light supper? 

Our lunches are usually comprised of a salad with a variety of veggies, nuts, beans and perhaps salmon, tuna or chicken.  If I feel I’ve skimped on the protein I’ll include these cookies for dessert.  What a good excuse for a favorite treat! 

Peanut Butter Butter Cookies

Slightly adapted from Marion Cunningham in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. This recipe varies from the traditional one I have used and I’ve come to prefer it. These are crisp and flavorful. 

Cream together ½ cup unsalted butter and 1 packed cup of brown sugar.  Add a large egg, ½ cup peanut butter, (smooth or chunky), and ½ teaspoon vanilla.  Stir in 1 ½ cups unbleached flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda and ½ teaspoon salt.

Form dough into walnut sized balls, (¾ – 1 inch), and place on a greased or parchment lined baking sheet a couple inches apart as they do spread.  With a fork, flatten each ball twice, at right angles, to make the traditional markings of a peanut butter cookie.  The pressed dough ball will be about 1 ½ inches wide. Sprinkle each with a good pinch of flaky Maldon sea salt or other coarse salt.

Bake at 350° for 10 -12 minutes until set and a little brown. Cool on a rack. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

I make another peanut butter cookie, one similar to the fabulous large peanut butter domes at the City Bakery in New York (now closed).  On our trips to the Print Fair, we would try to squeeze in time for coffee or lunch at the Bakery.  And we would always choose a peanut butter cookie for dessert.  The baker didn’t like to share his recipes so I was pleased to find that Julia Moskin, (in the New York Times), had devised one to replicate the wonderful cookies. I make them smaller than the originals.

I mix these in my Cuisinart.  You may use a stand mixer or combine by hand.  The ingredients are similar to the ones in the previous recipe.  Interesting how just a few changes make for a different texture and taste.  These are very more-ish so watch out.

Sweet-Salty Peanut Butter Sandies

Cream together ½ cup unsalted butter, 3/8 cup (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) brown sugar, 3/8 cup white sugar.  Stir in 1 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky), 1 large egg and ½ teaspoon vanilla.  Add 1 cup unbleached flour and ½ teaspoon salt.

Scoop rough balls of dough, about 2 teaspoonfuls, onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Don’t smooth them as you want the crags.  Use a cookie scoop if you have one. They don’t spread much so you can place them an inch apart. Sprinkle each with a pinch of turbinado sugar and one of flaky or coarse sea salt.

Bake at 350° for 12-15 minutes, until set and slightly browned.  They are fragile after baking so carefully slide the parchment on to a rack.  They firm up after cooling and are tender and succulent.

Makes about 3 dozen.

April Squalls

by Mimi Hedl

I’d been eyeing Our Lady’s winter garb on warm April days and kept saying, “I need to change her clothes, give her the lightness and airiness spring suggests”. Every time I walked by her, she had her head down and seemed absorbed in some kind of reverie. So I let her be even though the 60° nights suggested spring indeed was in full flower. In fact, the cavalcade of redbuds, wild plums, golden currant, Dolgo crabapple, daffodils of every category, blue bells, celandine poppies and so many more early flowering plants made me dizzy visiting them, showing my appreciation for old friends returning, smelling, touching, all that we need to do after a long, dark winter.

Most days I’d sneak away for a brief period, hiding from the head gardener so I could sit on the earth, in protected spots, those private cubby-hole kinds of spots I sought out as a child. Cocoons, wombs, nests, however you think of those secret places you too treasured and would go for comfort when someone had hurt your feelings or you just didn’t feel like playing with anyone.

Maybe I should count these treasured spots but that would cheapen them as they feel as sacred to the child in me as a church does to the faithful. I can simply disappear from the scene and indulge in quiet thoughts and now, with my acquaintance of so many of the wayside herbs that grow in these grassy coves, I’ll touch and smell each addition to the grasses, say their name, and try to remember some use of the plant, what the root looks like, or maybe one of the many names local people, the world over, will call this plant.

Honeysuckle ready for the hummingbirds

As a child, I remember a large field near Lou Ann’s house, my best friend from kindergarten through 5th grade, in Superior, Wisconsin, and the huge trees that lined the far side of the field where I’d play. I had a tree stump with a deep indentation that became my mortar. I used a rock to pound berries, probably from a honeysuckle shrub, and sing a song that Sacajawea sang in a play put on at our elementary school, “I am brave. I am not afraid.”

Back then I was afraid of everything so singing this song, quietly, so no one could hear me, made me feel brave and like the girl I wanted to be. There were grasses and weeds and briars and leaves and sticks of every kind. It felt like paradise. Why didn’t I recognize my passion? Who knows what paths we have to take to find our way in this world. It can seem like a lonely journey when no one acknowledges the possibilities of our dream.

So there I sit on the grassy patch behind the Medicinal garden, concealed, investigating the dandelions, chickweeds, scarlet pimpernel, sheep sorrel living happily together. I nibble on them, like a rabbit sampling the garden. In spring I wear a carpenter’s apron with a large pocket. I pop the new dandelion flowers in, so I can make a tisane, a light tea, later. The leaves I’ll collect at another time for a stronger tea, a decoction, in which I’ll boil the leaves for a potent brew. My daughter gags at the thought. “That looks like the cocklebur syrup you used to give me for a cough!” she said when I sent her a photo of my cocktail. I laughed. How wonderful that she still remembers.

Cemetery Ladies or Twin Sisters

Of course I lie on the grass and look up. It’s amazing how different the world looks from a prone position, under a tree, watching the clouds drift by, the sun flitting in and out. It reminds me of when I look through binoculars and enter another world. This seems good to remember when we need to rest our troubled minds. The solution’s so simple, so accessible, maybe even the head gardener indulges when she doesn’t see me. Wouldn’t it be funny if when we both got up from our quiet time, we saw each other! I would love that. Maybe then she’d get off my case…

Wayside herbs

In my fantasies, when I’m teaching young gardeners, I bring them to spots like this, where the wayside herbs have filtered into the grasses, creating a rich network of plant life. Each gardener, in their own spot, would list all the plants they find. This would be part one of the final test. The second place for identification would be the compost pile, part two of the final test. After working for months and seeing the multitude of life, to be able to say what genus, what family and maybe the use of the plant, would demonstrate a familiarity with the life in that micro-environment.

I remember seeing lamb’s quarters, epazote and nettles in New York City. Simple wayside herbs that populate so much of North America, and all worthy of knowing, all old friends I cultivate and honor. I make sure to keep dock close by so when I accidentally touch nettles I can rub a dock leaf on my skin. “Nettles in, dock out. Dock takes the nettles out.” Amen and hallelujah. It truly works!

Lamb’s quarters or quelites

Now I’m getting carried away, thinking of all the wonderful plants I use, like our ancestors, for food and medicine. Roots shoots and leaves. (I had to include a play on that wonderful book title that makes me giggle every time I think of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves.) Spring does this to me, makes me get carried away, unmindful of so much as I indulge in utter joy at being alive in a world filled with wonder.

And then, boom! the frost came. It was predicted. We had forewarning, but still. The lilacs had bloomed as well as the dogwoods. I picked all the asparagus, no matter how small. It would freeze. I called Tϋlin. She’d put out her lemon tree and bougainvillea, a fig tree too. She could cover the fig tree, but the lemon and bougainvillea would suffer. She had other house plants she and Clayton had hauled out. Oh dear!

On the 20th of April and for the next two days, we had below freezing temps. I kept a fire in the heating stove day and night. Ice and snow came. It was five days past our average date of the last frost. It was miserable for man and beast. Our Lady was grateful for her warm hat, her winter clothes. And what a relief I had respected her silence, her quietness when I thought of letting spring into her. That will come soon enough. Maybe I’ll pick her a May Day bouquet and give her lightness, her airiness, that provides the grace with which she embraces all of spring.

Dogwood

Greens

The view from my desk today is of a winter landscape with little green in sight. We have had a few inches of spring snow, perfect for encouraging the peas, lettuce, bok choy, kale and beets I planted last week. The apple tree growing outside the kitchen window is plump with snow-capped buds. Full of promise.

I’m dragging along in the kitchen, ready for new seasonal ingredients and the appearance of self-seeded arugula, parsley, and dill in my garden. Our meals include dishes I’ve made for months, as I depend on old favorites to get me through ’til spring and all its possibilities. My impulse is to stay home, to cook, however uninspired I may be. We did venture out for our first dinner in a restaurant with friends to celebrate Sherry’s exhibition and beautiful book. What a treat to see dear ones and choose our meal from a menu. Slowly, we reenter the world.

One old favorite is a chard tart, jokingly called a ‘charred’ tart by Bud. The crust dough I use is simple, delicious and healthy. I’ve written about it in other posts but here is the recipe from Patricia Wells.

Combine 1 cup unbleached flour, a big pinch of salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup water. Press into tart/pie pan. Prebake at 375° for 15 minutes. This is a very amenable dough and does not shrink in the pan – no need to use weights.

For the tart, strip the bunch of chard leaves from stems. Slice crosswise about an inch wide. Chop stalks into 1-inch pieces. Sauté stalks in olive oil until tender, 5 minutes or so. Add the leaves and 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced, and cook until wilted and tender.

When cool, add a beaten large egg, 1/2 cup half-and-half, and a cup or so of grated cheddar, parmesan, gruyere or a combination. Spread in prebaked pastry shell and bake at 375° for 25 minutes.

I served the tart with a dish of lightly steamed asparagus, sliced almonds and capers, sautéed in butter.

For a first taste of spring, Evan brought a bunch of nettle tops from his garden, carefully clipped and trimmed for me. The leaves are very prickly and he prepared them with a glove and scissors. He promised to bring me nettle plants when the snow melts. I browsed in a few cookbooks for inspiration and read that nettles turn a vivid green when cooked. I settled on a basic soup recipe.

First, I sautéed a small onion, a carrot, and five very small red potatoes, all diced, in a tablespoon of olive oil and one of butter. When they softened, I added the nettles and about four cups of water. A chicken or veggie stock would have been good but I had neither. Cooked this about 25 minutes, cooled a bit, and blended to a smooth puree. Added salt and 2 tablespoons cream. At serving time, seasoned with lemon juice to taste.

We ate this spring tonic topped with a drizzle of yogurt.

The daffodils will bloom when the snow melts. I hope I do too.

Late Winter Rituals

By Mimi Hedl

Daffodils in the pawpaw grove

On this gray, dreary, rainy St. Patrick’s Day, the abundant daffodils remind me that spring sits waiting. Our Lady in Waiting. March always dumps a good bit of ugliness, mixed with mud and treacherous winds, bringing down branches and creating a mess for the head gardener. She is no jovial spirit at these times. Why doesn’t she see the daffodils smiling at her, I say. And she says I’m just an old fool. Hmm, I say. She claims my frequent naps give me my edge. I tell her, follow nature’s cues, when it’s gray and gloomy, rain pounding the tin roof, your eyes closing, Mother N. says to nap. It’s that simple. She goes off in a huff.

Honey bee on Ice Follies Daffodil

At the beginning of March, I took out my collection of tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds, about 20 varieties of each, all members of the Solanaceae family (for you plant geeks). We’ve been saving seed since 1983 when we became members of the Seed Savers Exchange.  In their 2021 catalog, I see we’re among the original 24 people in the organization. Only 24 of us left. That tells its own story.

These tomatoes and peppers come from all parts of the country, often with a history. When I come to the “O’s” in my tomato bag, I see Oxheart and remember I requested seed of that tomato for Mom, as she said that as a girl it had been her favorite tomato. When she was in her 80’s, I was able to travel back to Boulder with these Oxheart’s and surprise Mom with an heirloom. What a delight for her ─ she was transported.

As I looked through the seed collection, I took note of the year I saved seed of each variety. Every seed has an average viability time. These heirlooms have to be grown every few years to insure they’ll sprout. So I consider the age of the seeds and also what I MUST grow, my favorites. I riffle through and pull out the packets that I’ll use, then organize my labels and wet cloth scraps to pre-sprout the seed.

I fold the cloth for each variety with the slow care of an origami artist, after all, I’m looking into the making of life. Each variety of tomato, pepper and eggplant has its own piece of cloth, a label, the lot folded up into a silent, secure, damp chamber, waiting for magic to arrive and bring the seed out of dormancy, into life.

After a few days, I sit down with my bundles of seed and look for signs of sprouting. It feels a bit like Christmas as every sprouted seed brings a smile and a shout of joy, something much needed on these dreary late winter days. The Serrano pepper seed from 2003 sprouted after 5 days. Amazing to see that seed burst into life. I credit the cool, dry storage of these seeds, but still, that’s a long time to keep a seed waiting.

 Once I’ve collected fresh seed of this pepper, I could compost the old Serrano seed. But I’ve learned from failures that sometimes the new seed isn’t viable. A sad moment. Now I hold on to the old seed until I’ve successfully germinated the new seed. I wish I could pass on the older seed, but like so many parts of life in this digital age, the logistics become staggering. Old seed doesn’t have value, when, like my friend Clayton says, “Seed’s so cheap.”  I say that’s not the point, he brushes me off, laughs and moves on. I feel a bit like a fuddy duddy. Ok, I am one and like so many fuddy duddies, I play the role with pride.

I did have to cruelly chuckle last spring when he called and wanted to know where he could order seed ─ he couldn’t find seed, anywhere. I gave him what I could of my collection, names of seed companies, but he was too impatient and drove miles to find what he wanted. He also pooh-poohs saving seed as a hassle and doesn’t listen to me waxing poetic about my late winter ritual.

The sprouted seed goes in a flat, carefully labeled, and upstairs to a covered tray, where I wait for the seed to pop through the soil. As soon as the cotyledon bursts through, the flat goes under the LED fixture and the seedlings begin to grow luxuriantly with 16 hours of light a day. Once they have their first true leaves, I transplant each into its own container with compost instead of potting soil. I’m priming them for the big wide world. There’s no longer a danger of damping off, a fungal disease that affects newly sprouted seeds and seedlings, so real soil comes into play.

Once each plant has settled in, looks firmly rooted, and all danger of frost has passed, they’ll go out to the cold frame where they’ll feel sun and wind and begin to have an idea of what awaits them. They’ll be with the asparagus seedlings, the onions, the celery and cabbages; though these older transplants will soon find their way into the earth and learn many a lesson about survival. The real world and the cold frame run on different rules; the training wheels come off when the plants go into the garden.

 For someone who works the earth, these are great adventures, equal to exploring the Amazon and deep sea diving. I’ve entrusted a once tiny seed into a mosaic of life, hoping, with my help, it figures out how to grow and prosper. I count on many helpers. Sadly, the polar vortex took 28 of our most beautiful workers, bluebirds. When I went to clean out their houses, after the cold weather passed, I found 19 crammed in one nest box. I nearly fainted with shock and disbelief.

Bittersweet seeds and bluebirds

After I recovered my equilibrium at such a sight, I called a friend at our Conservation Department. I’d sent her a photograph. She too was shocked but had heard from other Missourians about finding dead bluebirds in their yards. The cold was extreme. The bluebirds eat worms or berries and they couldn’t find either. The rest of the bird population ate suet and sunflower seed as never before and I kept them in fresh water as well as I could. The sub-zero temps stayed with us too long. The bluebirds faced a disaster of huge proportions.

I mourned for several days and when I found 9 more bluebirds packed in another bird house, I quietly buried them and moved on, shaking my head as I dug the holes. What more can we do? It will be a quiet spring without these lovely workers. I only hope they can reproduce in other parts of the state and slowly move back to this area.

This all shows the precariousness of life. March has a bad reputation in gardening books and lore. It’s looked upon as fickle and uncertain when really it’s we who haven’t learned that March is a time of transition. We need to move slowly and carefully and not expect spring to appear because we feel so ready. Hence the naps.

I like to think of March as the last hurrah before the intensity of the growing season. I still may have to cover the cold frame if frost arrives. The peach blossoms may get coaxed out too early and suffer an untimely loss and a few times the lilacs have also complained about the cold.  Transitions invite stress, an inevitable part of life. We learn how to move with the changes and celebrate small victories, like this blooming spice bush and the electric blue squill.  (I saw the head gardener bending down to admire them.)

Breakfast for a Snowy March Day

March weather in Colorado may include almost anything. Rain, snow, sunshine, springlike breezes or wintry cold. This year, March came in like a lamb, sunny and warm, but has taken on the lion’s roar.

Yesterday, we arose to find that a heavy snow had fallen and to the start of daylight savings time. March weather in Colorado may include almost anything. Rain, snow, sunshine, springlike breezes or wintry cold. This year, March had arrived like a lamb but was now a roaring lion. 

Most mornings we eat granola, fruit and yogurt for breakfast. I wrote about my granola recipe in an earlier post – “Every Morning” – https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/161

But yesterday I made a special breakfast. Back in the day we ate pancakes or waffles each Sunday morning but now I prepare them only as a treat when Zoë spends the night or like yesterday, when a warm breakfast seems the perfect meal to start a snowy day.

This recipe is based very loosely on a Marion Cunningham recipe in The Breakfast Book. I use it to make waffles and pancakes. You may vary the flours ─ substitute 1/2 cups of oat flour, rye or quinoa, but I would keep at least 1/2 cup of unbleached in the mix. We like granola in the batter to provide a little crunch.

Waffles

Combine 1/2 cup each of unbleached flour, wholewheat flour, cornmeal and rolled oats or granola. Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt.

Stir in 2 large eggs, 1 1/2 cups milk, and 1/2 cup safflower or other vegetable oil.

Pour 1/2 cup of the batter into hot waffle iron and bake until brown and crisp. This makes about 6 waffles.

The recipe is easily cut in half to make enough for just the two of us.

Serve with maple syrup, a dollop of yogurt, and fruit such as the mango and banana pictured here.

When we have only apples, I sauté them, peeled and sliced, in a bit of butter for a delicious accompaniment.

The sun is shining this morning and the temperature is near 60°. Ah, Colorado, ah, March.

Blue Mountain in sunlight on Monday morning.

After the Polar Vortex

by Mimi Hedl

My daughter called while she drove Brady, my grandson, to school and I had a moment to say hello. I told him one week ago, it was 80° colder than today. He couldn’t believe it and said, “Wow!”  On a 70° day, with sun pouring in, I try to remember what -10° felt like and the mindset I lived with those 3 weeks when the polar vortex made an appearance and decided to stay. Lots of the country was courted by a similar assault. We’ve learned new words to describe the uninvited guest.

In order to keep my sanity more or less intact, and to spend some time thinking about the coming spring, I decided to sit close to the fire and create woven plant protectors for some of my spring seedlings, the ones planted close to where the baby rabbits bed down. Last year they chose these young plants to play with, devastating the seedlings and the head gardener. It was not a pretty scene when she discovered the tyranny of the bunnies.

Over the years I’ve collected all kinds of vines and branches, roots and fibers, experimenting with their qualities. Some require drying and then re-soaking, as they shrink too much if not dried first, others, like honeysuckle, provide long weavers you can use fresh, or dry and then reconstitute. It’s a wonderful process to become acquainted with these materials and my fascination never ends. I find myself bending and weaving almost anything my hands touch.

For these teepeenies, or little teepees, I had fresh willow, dried willow, dried wisteria, and fresh native bamboo, plus some hazelnut branches Agnes and I had cut in warmer weather. I soaked what needed soaking and made a jig, then tried it out, making my first teepeenie. Hmmm, not so great.  I made another and another.

As I learned, I realized I needed stouter uprights and a bigger diameter for an adequate teepeenie. I drilled larger holes in the jig to hold the stout uprights that I’d weave together to form the structure of the teepenie. I saw more clearly what I needed to do as I worked with the materials. I made accommodations by the hour as some things didn’t work, with some materials too flimsy or not flexible enough. Only when I began to feel chilly did I realize I had another job to do and should haul in more wood before continuing.

This concentrated effort kept my fingers engaged, my mind on spring and my admiration for weaving materials, and of weaving, alive. I would regroup each morning after my chores, a good breakfast and coffee, and see what I could come up with. From this photograph you can see the different materials and the different results.

The teepeenie who won first prize has fresh, green, native bamboo uprights and split green bamboo weavers at the base. The strength of the uprights and the weavers made this teepeenie a winner. It held together tightly so I could weave the rest using a randing weave* that will keep rabbit paws from reaching inside the frame. The way the bamboo uprights stick straight up, will keep the deer from nosing in to see if there’s anything good to eat. I’ll push the 8 uprights into the soil, adding a couple more bamboo pieces to stake the teepeenie firmly in place so no one can tip it over. Then I’ll watch the critters disprove my theories ─ a common event for any gardener who thinks she’s outfoxed the fox.

These supports will come out once the plants grow large enough to fend for themselves and rabbits have other delicacies to nibble on. Most of the teepeenies will survive for another season or two and in the meantime, more data will be collected for future frames.

When the weather warmed up to a high of 15°, I ventured away from the fire and onto the kitchen table, my winter transplanting site. The onion and asparagus seedlings had outgrown their flats and needed more room, the onions a haircut to stimulate bulb growth. Roots on seedlings mimic tree roots, the only difference being size. The roots have to anchor this onion and have succeeded, with loose soil to guide them. Once the seedlings go into the garden they will plow through the earth and find their home in deeper ground. The worms have created tunnels for them to glide through and for the rootlets to pick up nutrients, a process I marvel at when I see brand-spanking-new roots.

This asparagus seedling has another baby asparagus popping up. I know the focus is poor on this photograph, but I wanted you to see the lilliputian spear. And the roots too! This seedling, one month old, is 8” tall and has roots to match. We’ve grown all our asparagus from seed and a patch will produce reliably for 20 years, plus. After that, the crowns tend to crowd each other and the production declines, though you’ll always find some asparagus, just not prime spears.

One of the other jobs Agnes and I did before the “visitor” arrived was to cover the snowdrops that had begun to bloom. We raked leaves over them, as well as the rosemary plant in the culinary garden. After the vortex left, going wherever it goes after it’s done it’s work, I went out to see the snowdrops, undaunted, and the first of the winter aconites in bloom. The rosemary survived, if a little worse for wear. After such an ordeal, I feel more like the rosemary than the snowdrops.

Mimi wove the willow basket that protected the rosemary.

*When you rand, you have one rod for each upright, and you weave one after the other. For these frames, I used two rods instead of one, so I could build the walls faster, as they didn’t need to be strong, simply a barrier.