Saturday, May 25, 2019

Recipes for Spring Bounty

Spinach! Asparagus! Then comes Rhubarb! When May rolls around, I’m always surprised, if not outright shocked, by the sheer quantities of spring crops, all rolling in at the same time. When you eat in season, you get used to deciding what’s for dinner by looking at the garden. So starting in April, when the over-wintering spinach comes back to life with a vengeance, suddenly, the bed is busting with leafed-out greens!

I like a handful of spinach in nearly every soup I make, but that’s only handfuls! So, it’s spinach salad nearly every night. My preparation is simple:

Wash the greens thoroughly, and if they’re bigger than baby spinach, tear in two.
Top with thinly sliced carrots, and thawed frozen peas if you’ve got ‘em.

Best dressing with spinach, I’ve found, is balsamic vinaigrette:
In a medium-sized jar, steep 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic in a ¼ c to ½ cup of balsamic vinegar for a couple of hours (most robust and full-bodied flavored balsamic I’ve found is the Kirkland brand from Modena, Italy, at Costco). Before serving, add an equal amount of good quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and shake vigorously. Dress the greens generously, then sprinkle with roasted sunflower seeds. Yum!

Asparagus: Before the spinach starts bolting (soon becoming inedible), the asparagus tips start poking out of the ground. By mid-May, I’m picking 10 to 20 spears every day, and even more during a heat spell. When I go to town, I always bring some to share with family, but between our trips into civilization, our asparagus inventory really builds up! 

Even after you process your asparagus by snapping off the fibrous root ends, which takes care of nearly ½ the spear, you can still find yourself with far larger quantities than you can eat. (And frozen asparagus in my opinion, is yucky.) In an earlier blog, I mentioned how you can use up a LOT of asparagus with roasting with a splash of EVOO, a dash of salt, and a generous sprinkling of organic garlic powder.

My sister Patricia, a wonderful home chef, makes a cream of asparagus soup. Here’s my method, inspired by her recipe. Saute chopped onion, garlic, and celery in EVOO until soft, then remove to a separate container. Simmer a peeled potato and prepped asparagus (amount of your choice) in a small amount of chicken broth. When it’s soft, add the onion, garlic and celery back into the pot, add more chicken broth, and simmer together a few more minutes. Season to taste, then whirl it all together with a hand blender, and finish with an addition of milk or cream. Delish!

Rhubarb, the big challenge: 

Last week, our “main” rhubarb crown yielded nearly 50 high quality stalks. (I credit my big harvest to last fall’s top dressing with composted chicken manure. Which also may have dissuaded our local vole friends from nibbling the roots!) Then last night, I picked our “secondary” rhubarb patch and got another armful. I did ask myself, “Why, oh why did we plant a second patch of rhubarb? But the immediate dilemma was, what to do with 70 stalks of rhubarb? Again, I shared lots with my family, but in the end, it’s just John and me with all that rhubarb. I can’t bake enough rhubarb pies, crisps, and cakes to use it all up.

50 stalks of rhubarb!
On the other hand, this time of year, local fresh fruit is hard to find. The apples have been in storage for months, and show it—and they don’t taste very good either. And while strawberry season is getting closer, it’s still some weeks away. So, why not rhubarb for breakfast?

Granted, rhubarb needs a LOT of sugar to be palatable. While I’m a big dessert fiend at dinnertime, I try not to load up the first meal of the day with too much sweet stuff. This week, however, we ran out of our summer supply of frozen blueberries, and the organic apples at the store weren’t really worth the $2 or $3 a pound price tag, so that left rhubarb.

Happily, I had a quart of frozen marionberries from last summer. I simmered about 6 large stalks of diced rhubarb in maybe a 1/3 cup of water until it was soft but not totally mushy. Then I added the berries, simmered both just long enough to heat the berries through, then to sweeten things up, poured in about ¼ c of maple syrup. I heated the mixture just another couple of minutes, then removed the pan from the stove and stirred in a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. 

I knew the fruit would still be way too tart, so I added 1/3 cup of sweetened dried cranberries, and let them soften in the hot fruit. Once it was cool, I poured the panful into a large jar to keep in the fridge.
For breakie (about a ¾ c serving), I allow the fruit to come to room temperature, then add about a teaspoon of local honey (I didn’t want to cook the honey and lose any of the nutrients). The result: Rhubarb and berry Nirvana!

You may ask, what about the rest of your rhubarb harvest? This is where your freezer is your friend. Washed, diced rhubarb freezes nicely, and if you process it soon after picking, you’ll have all the high-quality ‘barb you need to make Rhubarb-strawberry crisp as soon as the strawberries come in, plus all your other rhubarb delicacies.

Note: best ever dessert I had in Ireland, the land of super-yummy sweets, was rhubarb crumble. I could tell there was more sugar in it then I could ever use in a recipe with good conscience, but heck, I was on vacation!

At any rate, if luck is with you, you’ll be able to use all up your rhubarb before next spring hits you again!


Saturday, March 23, 2019

Grin and Bear It, aka Bears Invade the Orchard

When people ask if we have bears at our place, I’ve always said, “We know they’re around, ‘cause they leave lots of ‘presents’ in the road. But bears have never come into the yard.”

With all that bear scat dotting our woodsy lane, I assumed the bears were perfectly content to limit their explorations to the wilder parts of our neighborhood. But I recently learned I was wrong: bears did indeed get inside our yard. I also learned that if you don’t keep up with pruning your apple trees, the bears will do it for you.

This past apple season was another bumper crop, partly because the fruit set had been phenomenal. But mostly because John and I had gotten really relaxed about pruning our trees. With our 14 overly tall, long-limbed trees, we were overwhelmed with hundreds upon hundreds of apples…even our smaller trees, like the two Honeycrisps, yielded over 175 apples each. That’s a heck of a lot of fruit for two people. Adding to our problem, we’d allowed the trees to get so tall we couldn’t reach the fruit at the top, even with a ladder.

We gave bags and bags of apples away to friends and family, which hardly made a dent; I shared dozens of pounds more with my sister’s three horses. In desperation, I even contacted some pig-raising 4-H groups, to see if their porkers could use some apples! With far more fruit than we could store, we allowed the apples to ripen on the trees way too long.

Our north orchard holds 9 blackberry plants, 2 hazelnut trees, and 3 of our biggest apple trees, surrounded by a six-foot fence. This area includes our last tree to bear, the Florina, a late October apple, and like all the other trees, it was dripping with fruit. By now, 3 months into the harvest, our fridge was full to bursting. We had no place to store the Florina’s bounty—so we had to leave it on the tree.

I left Berryridge Farm for a few days to visit the grandkids in Astoria, Oregon—and when I returned, I noticed something…odd. Our Florina tree seemed to have fewer apples on it—the lower branches looked emptier. Oh, well, I shrugged, and made a mental note to ask John if he’d picked a few. We had so many apples I’d sorta not only lost track of them, but lost interest. Then, busy helping him process firewood for winter, I pretty much put the missing Florinas out of my mind.

Until two days later. When I went outside to take a bikeride, I glanced at the orchard and stopped, shocked. The Florina was completely bare—not one bloomin’ apple left on the tree! I hurried into the orchard and found something even more bizarre: bucket-sized piles of what looked to be partially digested apples. The piles of apple “mash” were so very large that the culprit could only be…yep, a bear. He’d eaten an entire tree of apples in one night!

I rushed to John’s study window and rapped on it. “Honey, you’ve got to come into the orchard!” He threw on his work duds and out he came.

“Only a bear could have done this.” I showed John the piles of apple mash. “I can’t tell which end of the bear this came out of,” I added, “but I don’t think I want to know.”

“Me neither,” said John, and went to fetch a shovel to clean up the “stuff.”  After he was done, he examined the Florina tree. “Would you look at this?” he exclaimed. “That darn bear really did a number on our tree.”

The damage was fairly extensive: the two main branches were broken, and claw marks scarred the bark. The marks wouldn’t kill the tree, but one branch had to be completely removed. John attempted to mend the other break, saying, “This probably won’t heal, but at least I gave it a try.”

“But how did the bear get inside the fence?” I wondered aloud. Although our fence was pretty stout,
Bear under the fence
the tree was even stronger—so you’d think that a bear climbing the fence would have broken that too. However, our fence was intact. Then I looked at the ground and found a four-foot section of loose fencing. Beneath it, the grass and weeds had been scraped away. John and I could draw only one conclusion: the bear had wiggled under the fence.

John resolved to fix the fencing, but I decided then and there on a different approach: the best way to have fewer predators in your garden is to make it less attractive to critters! Meaning, to cut way back on our apple production. “Next spring,” I vowed to John, “we are going to prune these trees hard.”

John and I kept that promise: we’ve spent the last three days pruning all our apple trees more thoroughly than we’ve ever done before. He did end up having to cut off the other broken branch on the Florina—more pruning than the tree really needed. As for all the other trees, after the fruit sets in May, I plan to thin the apples within an inch of their lives!

We are realistic enough to know we can’t build fences high enough or strong enough to keep out the bears. Nor can we depend upon Mr. Bear remembering the bellyache he got stuffing himself with our fruit before he went into hibernation. But we can pick our apples early and often…if only to make sure that next fall, Berryridge Farm isn’t surrounded by the aroma of ripening apples! 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Free Irish mini-ebook!

Do you love Irish words and expressions?

When I discovered the novels of Marian Keyes and Maeve Binchy, I was entranced by the Irish idioms and expressions they used, and quickly fell in love with books by Irish authors. As I began writing my own novels and stories set in Ireland, I started a list of the Irish expressions I particularly enjoyed, so I could include a few in my books. To help out my readers, I’d add a brief glossary of Irish words at the front of my books, with an emphasis on “brief.”

As the years went by, and I read even more Irish literature, I amassed more and more loose pages of my handwritten glossary. Then I had an epiphany…instead of including only a short list of Irish words in my books, why not type up all the expressions I’d collected and share them with other fans of Irish books!

You might have seen lots of these expressions in books by English or Scottish authors as well—the people of the British Isles share lots of the same language traditions. Keep in mind that with some words, I’ve had to guess a bit with the translation, but I’ve given all my interpretations my best shot. In any event, I extend a big thanks to all the Irish authors I’ve read for their inspiration, and helping me “flavor” my stories with Irish speech!

Here's a start:
A head on someone: hangover
Arse: impolite terms for backside
Article: sometimes a thing and other times a person
As the humor takes a person: as the mood takes them
Away off: don’t be stupid
Banjaxed: damaged, injured
Barney: fight
Be a number: dating someone
Bin it: throw something away
Blagger: faker, blusterer, braggart
Blarney: silly or useless talk
Blether: useless talk or annoying speech... for the full glossary, click here

You'll find more fun Irish stuff, including a list of Irish books and movies and other resources, at  www.susancolleenbrowne.com !

Friday, March 8, 2019

St. Patrick's Day Celebration...Fun Facts about Corned beef...and Vampires?

With St. Patrick's Day just around the corner, I'm inspired to share some fun Irish stuff!
John and me at St. Patrick's Mt. in Ireland

For instance, lots of people in the U.S., whether of Irish ancestry or not, recognize this big day of all things Irish by going for corned beef and cabbage. I recently discovered corned beef is not a traditional Irish dish!

After the English colonized Ireland, they started raising beef...only to export it out of the country to England and beyond. For exporting, the beef was salted and pickled with peppercorns and other spices, i.e., "corned." As a result, back in the olden days, beef became too expensive for most native Irish to eat.

With the Irish potato famine, and the hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrating to America, many of them settled in U.S. cities, in immigrant neighborhoods. Irish folks found themselves living near Jewish delis and butcher shops. With many Irish getting higher wages and standard of living, they could now afford the corned beef they found in the local deli. Naturally, they prepared the beef with familiar foods from the old sod, spuds and cabbage,  and a new
Irish Flag Food
Irish-American delicacy was born!

John's daughter Sasha likes to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in a big way...last night, she created a festive corned beef dinner with green, white and (sort of) orange to represent the flag of what country?!

Now, about those vampires...while vampires definitely have nothing to do with the patron saint of Ireland, did you know lots of vampire lore originated from Irish authors? Bram Stoker, the creator of "Dracula"  was born in Dublin. While "Dracula" is pretty much the definitive vampire of literature, decades before, an Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu, penned "Carmilla." Featuring a female vampire, "Carmilla" is the first vampire story I ever read (I go for romantic women's fiction over horror!). But the novella's sense of dread, building suspense, and just good 'ol spookiness was utterly riveting! You can find the story in the QPB Book of Irish Literature.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Hen Attack Update

An update to my last post, "Chicken Molting Madness," is some good news! Buffy has finally rejoined our flock of laying hens.
Buffy (blond hen) feeding with the other "girls"!

The four laying hens that ganged up on poor Buffy, our 5th hen, during her molting process, have apparently decided that Buffy is indeed one of the flock. After more than two months of attacking Buffy on sight, meaning our persecuted chicken had to take refuge in the coop all day long, the Gang of Four are now allowing her to freely partake of the feeder. And hang out with them! This change seems to coincide with Buffy laying again...her eggs are much smaller and lighter in color than the eggs the other four lay, so when these little eggs showed back up in the next boxes last week, we knew Buffy was doing her hen thing.

Interestingly, now that Buffy is part of the flock, she's returned to being skittish with John and me. Not as frightened of us as she was before the attacks began, but now, when we offer her a nosh from the feed container, she won't eat from it like she did before.

I miss that. But in any event, it's a huge relief, knowing that Buffy is once again safe, eating, drinking and regaining her chicken mojo!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Chicken Molting Madness

I thought they were going to kill her.

Cleaning the main hen run, I heard a terrible squawking. Our four chickens had Buffy, our Buff Orpington, pinned against the fence, pecking at her mercilessly. Running at the scrum of birds, I shouted, “Get off! Get off her!” For one horrified instant I watched Buffy go limp, her head drooping onto the ground.

My husband John came racing over from the woodpile. He got to the birds first. “Stop that!” he yelled, pushing the four girls off Buffy.

“Is she dead?” I asked, panicked.

“No,” he said, just as Buffy moved a tiny bit. She slowly got to her feet, apparently uninjured, except for losing some feathers. As John and I chased the other birds away, Buffy made a beeline for the ramp into the coop and disappeared inside. And there she stayed.

The other four chickens had been picking on Buffy for weeks, ever since she started molting. That’s the naturally-occurring process when laying hens gradually lose their feathers, and grow in a new set; it’s also a time that gives a hen’s reproductive system a break…a reboot, as it were.

Buffy had always been a bit of an outsider. She kept her distance from the other birds, and had always been very skittish around John and me. She pretty much wouldn’t come near either of us. She’d also been the first to start losing her feathers, and the other hens had pecked at her thinning spots. I guess a molting hen is sort of a “weak link.” But Buffy has paid a heavy price for playing it cool with her four flockmates. For a few days leading up to this last attack, they’d been seriously ganging up on her. Buffy had proved to be a masterful escape artist, extricating herself and running away, but the other girls’ aggression had stepped up.

After this most brutal assault, Buffy wouldn’t leave the coop. Too terrified to come outside, she wasn’t eating, nor was she even drinking any water. After locking the four attackers in the main hen run, separating them completely from Buffy, I’d open the man door to the coop, and coax, “It’s okay, you can come out.” But she still wouldn’t leave, and would just mill around on the floor.

After several days without eating or drinking, without sunlight or being able to scratch, Buffy was not only losing her hen vitality. She began to look sick. Half of her feathers were pretty well gone; her comb was pale and flopped over, with strange blue spots on it. On Day Four of Buffy not taking any nourishment, I said worriedly to John, “I wonder if she’s going to make it.
John looked bleak. “There’s not much we can do,” he said, “since we can’t guard the coop and run 24/7.”

We talked a little about building a separate run and tiny coop for her. But our budget had been recently stretched when one of our generators died and we had to replace it. Besides the expense, it seemed like a lot of trouble for a situation that might only be temporary. In the short term, we hoped that Buffy could hold on until the molting process had wound down.

I decided to try something new. I locked the other four hens in the third “hen yard” John and I had created last spring. Then I went to the main chicken pen, opened the man door and left it open, which blocked the view of the other hens. I sprinkled some feed in the doorway then backed away. Buffy just looked at the food for a while. Then, low and behold, she slowly came over to the doorway. With the other hens, and me, at a safe distance, Buffy began pecking at the feed.

She didn’t eat for long, and returned to the coop. But I kept trying. Each afternoon I’d open the door, sprinkle some feed on the ground. Each time, she ate a little bit more. But she still didn’t go near the waterer. I’m guessing the feed had enough water in it to keep her from dying from dehydration.
A few days of this, I started to sprinkle more feed further away from the doorway, like a little Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs, to get her closer to the waterer and the feeder. It worked! She would creep out a bit more into the run. The one day, what do you know! She went to the waterer and drank, then to the feeder.

I could see she was still weak. But with each day that passed, she ate and drank more, and definitely looked a little stronger. Eventually, she slowly ventured into the main hen yard, into the daylight. She really was going to make it!
Buffy "treed" up on the stump


For a long while, she would stay in the coop until the other four hens were locked away from her. This past week, however, she’s been coming outside, into the main run with the others. They’re still attacking her—not quite as savagely—but they still won’t let her alone. John and I can only conclude that the other hens see her as not part of the flock. But she’s figured out a workaround. She’ll somehow get away, and take refuge up on the old big leaf maple stump in the run. She’ll spend hours up there, again, without eating, but at least she’s safe until we can get outside.

Interestingly, Buffy has lost her fear of John and me. We can now come quite close to her, to give her scratch or to clean the coop, and she doesn’t skitter away. I guess she’s figured out we’re not the threat any more.

It’s been a couple of months, and Buffy is once again fully-feathered, and alone in the hen yard, she'll happily scratch in the dirt. So far, the strategy of locking the other hens into a separate yard is preventing more attacks, but it’s not a long-term fix. John and I have been keeping hens for four years now, but we’re still stumped about what to do to keep her safe.

If you have any insights about how to re-integrate a flock, I hope you’ll post them here...

And you can find free ebooks and more about my homesteading memoirs at www.susancolleenbrowne.com!