Posts tagged ‘spring’

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 8, 2011

The Kale Question

by Barbara

frosty kale

I just planted them in unmarked flats under the far, low grow-light, way out of the way. In another few weeks I’ll transplant the hardy, cool-loving seedlings into unobtrusive garden corners, keeping them undercover for as long as possible.  It’s for their own good.

But it’s inevitable.  Sooner or later the kale will be discovered.

busy corner of the garden

kale tucked in between the carrots and collards

This goes on every year. As soon as my husband spots the long, crinkled deep-green leaves, he protests–loudly–claiming he can smell them from the house.  Super-healthy, and to my palate, delicious kale. I particularly love the lacinato variety in Italian dishes, many of which Eating Well shares through its treasure trove of recipes.   He claims that its cabbage-y sharpness offends his very sensibilities; there’s no way he’s going to eat it even if it is among the healthiest foods on earth. Indeed, I could swear that the night before I’m going to pick some, he sneaks into the garden and directs deer and rabbit traffic directly to the innocent plants.

But I’m not giving up.   Kale is incredibly easy to grow, provides visual interest and produces more super-healthy food per plant than almost anything else coming out of a northern garden.  Eating Well gives us all kinds of good reasons to eat kale.

kale patch, early morning

kale patch, early morning

So this year, I’ve got plans for him, to shift his experience of kale: first, I’m sending him the Eating Well article “Retrain Your Taste Buds.” And second, I’m making him some roasted kale chips, which my daughter swears he will love. And then I’m going to tell him that all winter I’ve been lacing his beloved green super juice with kale, and he has not complained once.

With a food this healthy for the spring and fall when few other vegetables are available, I’ll get creative.  And this year, I think I’ve finally found the formula for success, so don’t tell him, but I’ve doubled the number of seedlings growing away in the basement!

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March 8, 2011

Planting Juice & Smoothie Beds

by Barbara

Snow piles up and drifts, drifts and piles up–welcome to March in Vermont.  But the thick white blanket doesn’t reveal what’s happening beneath the skin of earth and tree, bush and branch. Sap runs in fits and bursts, buds stir in their pre-swelling-almost-out-of-dormancy state. Kate’s maple syrup pan steams happily away on her woodstove. My grow-lights shelter and warm new seedlings.  My cold storage room and freezer stock dwindles– I’m completely out of some jams and frozen pestos; the chutneys and pickles, the mostardo and mulled fruits are thinning out.  That means I can soon stop eating out of jars and find dinner in the garden.


The Kitchen Garden Before Spring

While I wait for things to come to life, I’ll check the fruit trees for branches to prune, canes in the raspberry beds that need removing. I’ll  set out for the orchard on snowshoes, shovel in tow. In the center of a ring of young fruit trees we have four 16′ X 10′ raised beds–now under a good three feet of snow. I’ll remove the snow over one bed  and put up a grow-tunnel to warm up the soil.


Garden Dinner

I’m planning a “green super-healthy juice” bed, where cucumbers, kale, spinach, broccoli, greens, cilantro and parsley will grow. I’ll be able to go out with my basket and gather the makings for our morning  green juice without moving from one spot!  And nearby is Smoothie Row — red and black currants, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries; and  apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries–the making of many an Eating Well healthy smoothie!

It’s amazing what we can grow ourselves–most of us– if we have access to even the smallest bit of land or some patio pots.  I love how Kate has transformed almost her entire small yard into a stunning garden packed with vegetables and herbs, and how urbanites are transforming yards into gardens and saving money. I have friends in the city who grow pots of herbs and salads, peppers and tomatoes on their windowsills much as Eating Well suggests.

When we grow our own food, we invest in our own health, our family’s health and the health of this planet–at least this has been my experience. We connect to the earth’s rhythms and our role caring for its well-being; we participate actively in promoting our family’s health; and we find new pleasure in kitchen creativity.  We can save money.  And hey, we can make up any kind of healthy smoothie flavor combination that stirs our fancy! I can’t wait to try new juice pairings this year–spinach and pear? Kale and apple?  Carrot and black currant? Cilantro and cucumber?

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March 8, 2011

It Might Be Snowing, But the Garden Stirs

by Barbara

Baby Mesclun in Last Spring's Garden

It has something to do with the light, the quality of it, the height of the sun at midday, the edging toward the  equinox, the headiness of spring-just-around-the-corner. Painters like Kate can finally work deep into the afternoon.  Cyclists start tuning up their bicycles.  Gardeners get itchy. They order their seeds; they prowl the local garden centers, perusing the new varieties and bringing home those lovely seed packets that will stare at them for a couple of months.

But me?  I did that ages ago.  When the seed catalogs fill my snow-covered mailbox in early January, I am so hungry for green that I spend a week planning the gardens.  I order seeds, berry bushes, fruit and nut trees–whatever I need for the coming year.  And so now?  In March?  Do I stare at all those seeds?  Not a chance.

I can’t help myself.  I turn from all that beautiful daylight and head down into the basement to the glow and hum of artificial light- to plant the first seeds of the year: all manner of greens for windowsills and eventually for under the two tunnels out over raised beds that I’ve readied for early inhabitants. Planting while the snow still flies means I can get my hands dirty, smell the sweet soil, and dream of those early salads and spring combinations filled with the bright flavors and rich nutrients of mesclun and lettuces and other early greens right from my own garden.  There’s really no better way to greet spring than with the first baby greens–the variety is amazing these days, as Eating Well points out in the Salad Greens Buyer’s Guide.

Radicchio (Treviso) seedling

The first plants are up and growing steadily; they have their first real leaves–a sign that soon it will be time to transplant them to larger vessels.  Some will live in fat pots in our big bank of south-facing windows, and some will go in small pots under the grow lights for a couple of weeks or so before moving to the garden tunnels as soon as I can be pretty certain the temperatures will not plunge below about 20º.

Early lettuces keep giving for weeks.  By harvesting just the outer leaves, or by snipping all but the bottom inch of the plants, you encourage them to send up new leaves–more salads to come.

Tomorrow, I’ll plant fennel, onions and lavender, lemongrass, parsley, and artichoke seeds sent to me all the way from Sicily.  Who cares if it snows all the way through March–I’ve got plenty of green to keep me heading into deep spring.