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Archive for June, 2013

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Baby Summer Squash

One of my favorite things about gardening is that you get to watch your food as it grows. First the unrecognizable cotyledons emerge from the soil, giving way to tiny but perfectly formed first leaves. The leaves grow and from the stem emerges more and more leaves, as if by magic. Out of nowhere, flowers appear. With many vegetables and fruit plants, this is where the real enchantment begins. We all know how babies are made, and even with food the process it is essentially the same. The only difference is, you actually get to see the new life form from the very beginning. The most observant will marvel at the miniature version of their anticipated food swelling almost imperceptibly behind the spent flower after fertilization. It’s difficult not to get excited at this point, even though you know that any number of factors may cause the demise of your infantile veggies.

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Baby Bean

At this point there is not much you can do except water your plants and keep close watch, to make sure they are not getting any unwanted attention from the more unsavory garden inhabitants. If you are lucky, your tender young fruits and veggies will continue the soak up the sun and rain and divide their cells in just the right way to become the final, grown-up version of themselves. And that’s when you think back and can hardly believe that they use to be just an inch long and so darned cute.

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Baby Zucchini

But even as they grow, it’s impossible to tell just how they will turn out in the end, which is another wonderful thing about gardening. Instead of the picture perfect produce stacked in pyramids at your local grocery store, the food that emerges from your garden is uniquely shaped by the land and the air and the sun from which it was made. They have a wholesomeness and, almost, a personality gained from the way they were raised and the conditions which were provided to them. (Which makes you wonder how the grocery stores manage to get all their vegetables to look exactly the same.) Real food isn’t perfect; real food is crooked, and knobby, and sometimes not quite the color you were expecting. Real food can’t be stacked perfectly, and isn’t bred for the purpose of surviving cross-country shipments. Real food comes out of the earth, covered in dirt and munched on by bugs. And it tastes damn good.

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Weird Tasty Carrot Mutants

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photo courtesy of realtor.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement lately. Probably too much, in fact, considering that I have at least 35-38 years of work ahead of me.

But honestly, I wish I had started thinking about it sooner. When you’re young and considering whether or not to start thinking about retirement, time is big money. I’ve recently abandoned my plan to pay down my student loans as aggressively as possible to be done with it within the next five years or so. As lovely as that dream was, I’ve gotten a little smarter since then. Instead, I could moderate my student loan payments, and begin socking away 20% or so of my income into a retirement account. This will cost me at least a few thousand dollars in interest, since my student loans will take longer to get paid down. But the great thing is that the difference between saving right now for retirement, and waiting a few years to start investing…will be tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

(In theory, anyway.)

So, as I tuck away my pennies into my brand new IRA, I started thinking to myself, “This is for my condo in Florida!”

Then I though, “Wait a minute, I don’t want a condo in Florida! That sounds terrible!”

Why does everyone move to Florida when they retire? Presumably it’s for the warmth, though I don’t know that 90-degree days will be any easier to tolerate when I’m 70 than they are now. Longer days in the winter appeals to my Seasonal Affective Disorder, though according to weather.com, a January day in Miami is only an hour longer than one here in good old Indiana. I do like the idea of living near the water, but in Florida there are so many millions of people living near the water that you can’t even get close to it without having several million dollars to spare.

So I’ve decided that when I retire I might just throw allĀ  convention out the window and move north instead. If nothing else, just to be contrary in my old age.

Of course, I haven’t discussed this yet with the one person who will be sharing my retirement home with me, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t mind saving a lot of money so that we can instead have a waterfront cabin on one of the Great Lakes. Or maybe a nice little cottage on the coast of Maine. Or an Oregon bungalow. The one thing we do have is plenty of time to discuss it. Trees, books, cats, a view of some water, and a little land to grow my green things on–this is all I really anticipate needing 40 years from now. That, and access to a good doctor.

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photo courtesy of realtor.com

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The heat index rose above 90 for the first time this year. Such a hot day deserves a nice cool image to remind us of what we left behind…

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I think I can tolerate a few more months of sweating.

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Today’s mulberry creation is a skillet pie. Compared to my go-to cobbler, the skillet pie has its pros and cons.

The skillet pie involves the use of an electric mixer, which is a decided con in my book. On the other hand, the use of the mixer gives the skillet pie a spongy, cakey consistency that is quite tasty.

The skillet pie involves some tricky maneuvers in which a piping hot and heavy skillet has to be inverted without ruining the contents by dropping them on the floor or counter. With a little forethought and teamwork we were able to manage this. A cobbler involves no such acrobatics.

Admittedly, the skillet pie has a pretty unique look to it, which totally trumps the cobbler’s humble appearance. Plus, making dessert in a skillet gets points for being interesting and a good conversation starter. And if you do accidentally drop a few skillet pies in the course of trying to successfully make one, at least you will have some stories to tell.

Overall, I would say that the skillet pie isn’t my favorite dessert; but it was definitely worth the try.

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I’m too tired to create an elaborate post today, so enjoy this picture of a sleeping kitty in the meantime…

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Mulberries

One of my favorite things about summer is the appearance of more free fresh fruit than I could ever possibly eat: mulberries!

If you’ve never foraged for mulberries, I highly encourage you to do so. And if “foraging” sounds a little too hippie for you, just imagine that you are homeless, or a bear, and that should make it seem a little less weird.

So you’re ready to give it a try? Here are a few things to remember:

The great thing about mulberries is: nobody wants them! They grow as weed trees in the most of the United States. Nobody is going to care if you stop to munch on mulberries that are hanging out over the road or pathway. If anything you are doing them a favor.

Which brings me to my next point:

Mulberry trees are very easy to identify and locate. Simply look for the purple mess on the ground or road beneath them. Mulberries typically grow along roadsides or in alleyways, at the edge of wooded areas or forgotten patches of brush. The mulberry tree will be laden with clusters of red and purple berries. And just to be absolutely certain, look for leaves that are lobed, like this:

Mulberry leaves

Mulberries are great for a refreshing impromptu summer snack, but if you want to get really serious about foraging and using this completely free and nutritious summer food, you’ll need a little forethought and preparation.

Once you know how to recognize a mulberry tree and decide they are worth the minimal effort to gather, your next mission is to scope out your area to find the best mulberry trees. There are dozens growing in my neighborhood, and I’ve narrowed it down to three that are the most flavorful and easiest to get to.

Every mulberry tree tastes different from the others. Often there will be two growing side by side, with the berries of one tree tasting amazing, and the berries of the neighboring tree tasting absolutely flavorless. It takes a little bit of research to find the worthwhile mulberry patches.

Mulberry foraging containers

When gathering large amounts of berries, bring some plastic containers with lids to store them safely. Mulberries are extremely delicate, and simply tossing them all in to a bag together will surely damage them before you make it home. That being said, it’s best to bring along a buddy to pull down branches and hold them while you ever so gently loosen them from the tree and drop them in your container. Just make sure he/she doesn’t get distracted with stuffing mulberries into his/her gob before you can get them safely tucked away.

Mulberries are juicy and richly colored, so wear appropriate clothing that won’t get ruined. And if you are squeamish about having stained hands, you may want to wear gloves, though I wouldn’t recommend it because a)this will look really weird and you might already be a little self-conscious while picking berries, and b)it could seriously impede your ability to pluck them and keep them from dropping to the ground.

Mulberries are best eaten or used as soon as possible. They will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but they won’t taste nearly as good as they are when they are fresh. Avoid washing them, though I will submerge them in cold water to remove debris and creepy crawlies, and as an added bonus the unripe berries usually float to the top where they can be easily removed. I like to put just a little lemon juice on the berries before they go into the fridge. The juice adds a little tartness and brings out the flavor, and in addition will act as a natural preservative to extend the life of your mulberries.

Mulberries can be used in any recipe that calls for fresh fruit. Cobblers, shortcakes, crisps, skillet pies: just do a google search for mulberry recipes, or try substituting them in your favorite dish. Since the flavor is more subtle than many other fruits, I’ve enjoyed mulberries on my salad. Mulberries are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, and make a great addition to any diet! I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

Mulberry Cobbler

 

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