Friday, December 31, 2010

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the Bleak MidWinter

We have had over 5 feet of snow in December. At first it highlighted the raised beds nicely, and then erased them completely.

The garden shed remains snug and tidy, like a little gingerbread cottage.

And the snow continues to fall...

On Christmas Eve, the U.S. Mail brought a huge bundle of colorful seed catalogs. Usually we don't see them until after New Years Day. A fellow gardener, whose wife is a Postmaster, tells of her holding out on him as his seed catalogs sit in the back of her post office with their date stamp taunting him. Few things bring more joy and light to a gardener's winter home than those vibrant wish books.

As usual, I get a notepad and start jotting down ideas. Then I compare my wish list to my more practical shopping list written in August. Of course you have to allow yourself one or two impractical experiments each year. This year mine will be Blue Podded Peas.

Actually, this is sort of a practical experiment since you already know my views of being able to distinguish pickable parts from non-pickable parts. And the peas will fit nicely into my spring planting. Since the garden was under construction last spring, we missed out on all those early vegetables: Onions, Carrots, Peas, Lettuce, Chard etc. So that will be my focus this year.
I can not tell you how much I look forward to the start of gardening season. There will be no rototilling. No waiting for the mud to subside. No fence to put up. No rows to measure and mark. All I will have to do is stroll down the sidewalk, kneel beside my tidy little beds, already high and dry and prepared for planting, and poke the seeds in. Then I'll probably add a layer of fresh compost and voila'... instant garden!
I have already broken my list down by seed company. First I go for the specific varieties and harder to find items. Then I compare prices on similar items. Finally I fill up the gaps with the common things rounding out each order to make the most of shipping rates. You also have to watch for coupons. I am always suckered into Gurney's $25 offer. .... finally, you have to take into account the seed swap.
On my last post, Julie asked where she would find just a few seeds of sweet corn instead of half a pound. Well, some seeds keep quite well for a couple of years. Others are great for swapping and sharing with friends. For instance, in our neighborhood, Bob and Trish do the onion order. Shelly and I let Bob know what we want, and relinquish some control to his wisdom as Bob and Trish are far more experienced with Onions at this point. I've had great luck with the onion plants they have gotten me. I generally have extra of several kinds of seeds, and am happy to distribute my excess to anyone interested. If you still don't want a larger quantity of seeds, your best bet is to buy them off the seed displays at Garden stores and Big Box stores as those are packaged in much smaller quantities. I often pick some up when they are discounted to try varieties I would not have thought to order.
And some seed swapping is much more far reaching than the neighbors. Several people have expressed interest in planting my PaPaw's Barlow Jap tomatoes. I am still quite tickled to send out a dozen for free whenever anyone asks. And, as good seed trading etiquette dictates, they always reciprocate with a list of varieties they have to trade should I be interested. That's where my Blue Podded Peas are coming from!
I've been keeping an eye out on the gardening forums to see where the Barlow Jap has migrated through swapping and reswapping. So far, they have been grown in OH, PA, AL, NC and KY. Last week I sent some to TX and TN. And they have also jumped the pond and have been grown in Germany and South Africa. Now PaPaw would really get a kick out of that!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Gardener's Christmas

What do gardening and Christmas have in common? Well, in Western NY, not much. But with a little creativity, I've found I can combine two of my favorite things although, they are unlikely bedfellows. As I was flipping through decorating inspirations, I found this great Christmas tree on, and I realised I haven't done a blog on Christmas decorating.

Looks like she stole the idea from my seed packet fence markers! Maybe I'll have to make some myself and do a complete garden themed tree. Of course, the seed packet thing has been done before. These are two blown glass ornaments I bought back in 2008 from Smith and Hawken. The best parts about these is that they feature the Card Seed Co packets from a town near here.

Last year I found this little box of tomato ornaments at the local antiques mall. I wasted no time snatching them up for $2.50. Red tomatoes are a perfect subject for Christmas ornaments, and they also came from Smith and Hawken.

My favorite is a set of three big Heirloom Tomato ornaments (Red, Green and Gold). They are suprisingly difficult to photograph, but here are two of them in a set. I just got the Pea Pod off of Ebay and it is just as wonderful.

I miss the Smith and Hawken catalog, and I'm looking forward to it's return this spring, but in the meantime Sur La Table is a great resource for gardening themed ornaments. These are the ones I purchased this year. I love the green Wellie boot. I mean, who wouldn't!

And bring back memories of those hot summer days slaving over a batch of pickles...

And now and then I find some fun ones around town. These fun farm animals on veggies were found a few years ago and lend a bit of farmhouse whimsy to my decorating.

With a little imagination, you could even incorporate some of your harvest into a holiday wreath

I love searching the internet for ways to cultivate my gardening interests in the deep mid-winter.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Grandma's Molasses Cookies

I wrote this a year ago, so this is somewhat of a reprise. But it goes in here great, just as these cookies go well with Glogg.

So my mission at Christmas, like so many women before to keep the traditions alive. I've been longing for some of Grandma's Molasses cookies, and I thought for Christmas, it would be nice to make some and share with the family. Actually, I did not consider sharing until I read the recipe. Now I realize it will not simply be an act of family tradition, but a necessity.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my Mom to find the recipe. She promised she would. She also said she had a tub of Lard I could have. Lard? I don't really plan on using Lard. "Well, they won't be the same without the Lard".  I give it a couple of days, contemplating the thought of baking cookies with Lard in the year 2008. After much thought, I relent. "OK fine, give me the Lard." Mom smiles knowingly "You're going to need the BIG Kitchenaid."

Today, I am happily off work and snowed in. 5 days 'til Christmas. A perfect day for baking. I had already read the recipe and bought supplies accordingly. In addition to the Lard, I bought a second bottle of Dark Molasses, in case one wasn't enough, 5 pounds of unbleached flour, and an extra jar of Cinnamon.

I wrestle the Kitchenaid out of it's cupboard. WHY do I keep this monster over the refrigerator? Oh, I remember, it's the only cupboard large enough. I jockey it over my head narrowly missing the blades of the ceiling fan thinking... "why don't I remember to turn that thing off? Remember what happened to the toaster?"

I start with the lard. 2 cups. My kitchen now smells faintly of bacon. I scrutinize the ingredients on the pail of lard, but it does not reveal what I already know to be true. Lard is pig fat. Granted, it has less saturated fat (the bad fat) than butter, while it also has more than twice as much monosaturated fat (the good fat) than butter. Still, this does not look (or smell) like the beginnings of a cookie recipe.

I glance over my shoulder to make sure my husband is still out plowing. 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2 eggs, cream together... now the lard looks better even if it doesn't smell better. 2 cups of dark molasses. I was right, 1 bottle only has 1 2/3 cup in it. Open the second bottle. The smell of Lard is soon overcome by the molasses. My kitchen no longer smells like bacon, it smells more like the feed mill. 1 1/2 cups of unbleached flour mixed with 2 tbsp soda, 2 tbs cinnamon (am I reading that right? Tablespoons?) I open the second jar of cinnamon. 1 1/2 tbsp ginger, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1 1/2 tsp salt.

I mix that in and eye the mixing bowl. It is now dangerously full of batter. Yes, Batter. And the next step is 2/3 cup boiling water. This ought to be good. Although I pour slowly, the Kitchenaid, in a typical display of bad temper, splashes boiling brown batter on the wall and floor. THAT looks yucky. I leap for the paper towels before my husband comes in to see what looks like...well you know... all over the floor.

Now comes the rest of the flour. I am supposed to add 7 to 9 cups to texture. I dump most of the 5 pound bag of flour into a large bowl, and I can't see how 9 cups of anything are going to go into the already full mixing bowl. I get a scrap of paper and a pencil and start making hash marks to keep track of how much I've put in. Amazingly, through some phenomenon of science, the flour does not increase the volume of the batter but instead changes it’s viscosity. It disappears willingly into the batter thickening it to a dough.

The Kitchenaid groans. It's been through this drill before. It knows what's coming. I keep my hand on the top, testing the temperature of it’s motor as I add flour. At 7 cups (8 1/2 total, because we already put some in earlier) the dough reaches a familiar consistency. It has been over 20 years since I stood on a stool in the farm kitchen and watched this dough being made, but I remember it well.

Finally satisfied, I scrape the sides and the beater and set the bowl outside on the porch to chill. I turn my attention to my exhausted mixer and the counter. Not bad. Besides the batter-splatter incident, all went well. There isn't even much flour to clean up. I feel the mixer again, and consider bathing it with Absorbine and throwing a woolen horse cooler over it for an hour. A thorough sponging with plain hot water does the trick. It will survive and be ready for the peanut butter balls later.

I pause to collect my thoughts. The dough will need to chill at least an hour, then I will roll it into balls and press it with the sugared bottom of a glass to press each cookie down, and place a raisin in the center of each. The recipe doesn't reveal how many dozen it makes. We'll find that out soon enough. I'm sure it will be enough to share with the rest of the family. Those old farm wives didn't mess around. They made enough for a whole farm crew all at once. 

 After a break to create a Christmas centerpiece I began to bake. 350 degrees 8-10 minutes and DON'T burn them. "Burnt ginger cookies are no good". (The recipe actually says this). A little trial and error and I settle on 9 minutes. My hands soon have that familiar sheen of lard. I roll and press, remembering to double strike them to get extra sugar on them. 

They are soft cookies, and not burning the bottom means they will still be soft when you take them off the sheet. After 4 dozen I perfect the technique of getting them off without smooshing the sides and only have to eat four rejects. After 5 dozen I am considering putting the rest of the dough back outside and saving it for cookie day at Mom's. 

 After 6 dozen I lose count and begin to run out of room on the dining room table. After 7 dozen I decide I 've been on my feet all day and the peanut butter balls can wait until Sunday. The Kitchenaid, now cool to the touch, goes back in the cupboard. After 8 dozen I am looking at the rest of the dough and figuring maybe I should just throw it out. I scrape the last from the bowl and do a final count. Including the ones I broke and had to eat, 106 cookies. That's 8.8 dozen. Whewww!

They are sort of pretty all laid out on the table. Their sugary tops glimmer in a Christmasey sort of way. I think back over my childhood. Grandma almost always had these cookies in the jar. I would guess she made a batch like that once or twice a month. If she didn't make these, it was peanut butter cookies. What a lot of work. But completely worth it.