Archive for March 9th, 2011

March 9, 2011

Not Enough Room

by Kate

There’s no question that browsing through seed and nursery catalogues is dangerous. The fruits and vegetables are luscious, colorful and perfect, and even though I have access to organic fresh fruits and vegetables through our local food co-op, I no longer feel comfortable buying produce that has travelled thousands of miles to get to me. Besides, nothing is ever as good as something just picked that day. The seed catalogues waken a longing for fresh. They make me think about last fall’s harvest when vegetables happily ruled our life, and we only went to the store for milk, olive oil, tea and toilet paper.

Just Picked

If I had a large piece of land on which to garden, I would not be able to resist the temptation to try many more new vegetables and fruits.  My husband declares that we will never move out of town if only for the simple reason that he does not want my ideas for a garden to take over (and I suspect he worries about Barbara’s husband in this regard!).

So today I did something radical. I called my friends Margy and Jordan, whose chickens I care for when they are out of town,  to ask if they would let me plant raspberry canes and blueberry bushes at their place.

Oh, and currants. Maybe goose berries, too.  (Secretly I also want to plant an asparagus bed, but am not ready to confess to this.) I haven’t mentioned these other berries out loud yet.

Planting cane berries is not an idle thought.  When I look at the different kinds of food that could be produced in this county, given its soils and climate, berries — cane berries in particular — will grow well here. They are easy to flash freeze. They are wonderful in jam. They are delicious. And they are really, really nutritious.

What I really want is a berry house, like the one my friend George had in Connecticut. He built a house of netting around his berries, so the birds and animals could not eat them, and under it’s roof grew varieties of cane berries, blue berries, goose berries and currants. When our son was three, I remember going into George’s berry house to pick — a giant play pen full of delicious fresh fruit.

Margy and Jordan said yes. We’ll meet soon to decide how many bushes to buy. We’ll have to meet over dinner because we all love to cook. I suspect my husband and I will maintain the bushes, and supervise the pruning. They’ll monitor the watering. We’ll plan together. We’ll harvest together. Chances are, we’ll have to cook together often, too, because part of growing fresh food is savoring it with someone else.

March 9, 2011

Maple Season

by Kate

“Mom, you’re out of your mind! What are you doing?”  In the beginning of March, the days are noticeably longer and the sun actually has some warmth in it. Early mornings feel fresh. But the wood-stove is still lit, and on top of it, in a large flat pan, I am boiling sap.

The sweet steam hits when you come in through the mudroom.

“I hope you don’t have any wall paper in the house,” a friend mentions.  “They say all that steam makes wall paper come off. Besides, your ceilings will get sticky.”

I don’t think so.  Actually I don’t care and the ceiling  needs painting anyway after all the ice damming. I am going to make syrup, if for no other reason than to see if I can.

Maples on the Lower Forty

There are five maple trees on the line between my house and my neighbor’s – the line we call the lower forty, which, in this case, means forty feet. Only four of the trees are large enough for tapping, so I have borrowed four sap buckets, lids and taps from friends who sugar in Shelburne, and I have bought a white felted filter from Paris Farmer’s Union to strain the hot liquid.

It is a far cry from the days and nights I spent sugaring thirty years ago in northwestern Connecticut in Great Mountain Forest. The sugar-house, nestled down in a hollow, was surrounded the sugar bush.  Its eaves were deep,draped with icicles; the woodpile in back a fortress wall. After collecting sap, riding on the back of an old red tanker truck, filling it by hand, bucket by bucket, we piped it into a collecting tank and headed in to watch the boil. Inside the building, all was dark wood and steam, the fire pulsing, and  metal surfaces, evaporating pans, shining; steam wafted up through vents high above.  To a young painter,this was a dream, it felt like being inside  a water-color. But food, actually a kind of nectar, was being produced. We fed the fire. We watched. We measured. We tasted. The sound of bubbling mesmerized: the steam was intoxicating.

I took paper and watercolor paints to try and capture the wet warmth of that room, snug against the chill of the night outside. How to paint the flickering, steamy light? Capture the sweet, faint dirt smell?  How would you describe the taste, a sweet like no other, with its earthiness, the roots of trees and water of leaves within?

As a young child, we collected sap and boiled it in a cauldron slung from a tri-pod over a fire in southern Vermont.  Soft spring snow gave way underfoot. Below the fire circle was the sledding hill.  Our fathers made the syrup; we rode our toboggans.

My attempt to make syrup on a woodstove from the sap of four very local trees on the lower forty, smack in the middle of town, is laden with memories, but in fact represents nothing more than an attempt to understand the boiling better.  As my friend Margy, who has ten taps on six huge maples out front of her Cornwall house every year, says, “It’s a miracle. I mean, who would have thought that from something that watery dripping out of a tree comes something so good and free – it’s just a miracle.”

It is clear that the real syrup makers know things I can only dream of. I visit them every summer at Field Days, check the colors of the syrup, taste the different grades, ask questions, savor the smoothness of the maple cream (my favorite) on my tongue, nibble into the molded maple sugar candies. I visit sap houses every winter. I help friends collect the sap in buckets.  I sample the fresh hot liquid as it reaches perfection, sometimes eat it on snow, and occasionally crunch pickles to cut the sweetness so I can have more. But I have never observed a boil from start to finish.

Frankly, it doesn’t go that well.  It is hard to figure out the right temperature. At first I boil it too hard, and the syrup is too thick for the filter. I start again. Outside, the weather warms, the sap flow alters. Other days, the sap runs so rapidly, I can’t keep up with it. But eventually, I find a rhythm and the right boil, and finally there is a clear golden quart of syrup.

“Don’t touch it!” I tell my sons, “at least, not yet.” My brother calls from New York City, “I’ll take two gallons, please.”

One Quart of Grade B Syrup

In the end, I have four glorious quarts of light brown maple syrup, that my family nicknames “South Street Gold.” We savor it teaspoonful by teaspoonful.  The house smells of wood-smoke and a vague unidentifiable sweetness. The ceiling is not sticky. We’ve lost no wallpaper and we look at our maples with more respect; they’ve sweetened our life.

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March 9, 2011

The Onions Are Growing Fast

by Barbara
early morning onion

Early Season Onion

You can never grow too many onions. No matter how many I grow–and I grow a lot–I always start running out of them by now.  Indeed, I can mark the growing calendar by the number of onions hanging from my rafters, and now it’s telling me to plant some, a lot, many more than last year’s couple hundred!

After all, I use onions in just about every meal I make, from soup to stew to roasted vegetables and meats to the condiments (chutneys, relishes, pickles and jams)–I probably use two-three onions a day on average just for family meals, so 200 hundred onions do not last from final fall harvest to first spring picking.   Eating Well’s Onions -Healthy Food Guide explains why we should be eating onions, and lots of them! I like how they play both the background, foundational note in a sauce or braise, but also how they can play a starring role.  I want to try Eating Well‘s   spicy onion jam recipe and the caramelized onion lasagna and the sweet onion-rhubarb sauce this year–oops, I better plant a few more seeds!

Already they are everywhere in the garden, and through the season in all stages of growth; I stagger the plantings to make sure I have fresh green onions all summer as well as storage varieties to hold us through to spring. They grow in long rows along the edges of raised beds, and tucked by the threes and fours into empty slots of the garden beds.  I grow the little Italian cipollini– both yellow and red varieties–sweet Walla Wallas, white onions, red slicers, Egyptian onions and Welsh.

So far I’ve planted about 100 onions. The four flats of sweet onions seeded on February 22 for early transplanting–onions do fine in cold soil–are growing so fast down under the grow lights that in another couple of weeks they’ll outgrow their space.

That means out through the deep snow I go to shovel off another garden bed and put up another tunnel.  I don’t mind–it’s great exercise and besides, I’ll be chopping tender spring onions into my salads and soups when most people are just planting their gardens!