Thursday, December 23, 2010

Icicle Pickles

Every family has their Christmas traditions and icicle pickles are one of ours. These pickles just taste like Christmas to me. My Great Grandmother made them every year and my mother continued the tradition and it is still is being passed down through the generations.

Once you commit to them, the house fills up with the heavy smell of boiling vinegar for days. But at the end you have crunchy tart/sweet delicious Christmas pickles. It's a marathon though... 

Here's the recipe exactly as given to me.

Icicle Pickles
12 Quarts small cucumbers
2 ½ Quarts white vinegar (10 cups) 
16 Cups white sugar 
1 Tbsp celery salt
1 Tsp cassia buds 

Day 1-4 
Make a brine by adding 2 ½ cups salt to 6 Qt water. 
The brine should be strong enough to float an egg; if not add more salt.
Clean and quarter cucumbers and put them in the brine. (or slice thinner if cucs are larger) 
Stir once a day for 4 days.

Day 5 
Drain off the brine. 
Fill with boiling water enough to cover the cucs.
Measure the alum, in your hand, about the size of an egg.
(This is old farm people measurement technique.)
Add alum to the water.

Day 6
Drain again.
Combine white vinegar, white sugar, celery salt, cassia buds 
Bring to a boiling point to make a syrup.  Pour syrup over the cucs.

Day 7–8–9
Drain syrup off and bring it back to a boiling point.
Pour syrup back over the cucs again.

Day 10
Sterilize your bottles, lids, seals.
Drain syrup off and put cucs in bottle.
Bring syrup back to a boiling point.
Add syrup to bottles and seal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Art of Giving

This has been a delightfully stress-free pre-Christmas chiefly because I got all of my shopping finished and gifts wrapped weeks ago.... and everything is already paid for. I made a vow to stick to a budget and reined myself in repeatedly. How much you spend is not an indication of the depth of your love. I explained this to my niece who called to say she'd gotten me something but it "wasn't enough" and she needed to know what else I wanted. The truth is, all I really want for Christmas is some delicious turkey with my family and some laughs. That's all I ever really want. Well, that and pie.

I grew up with a large extended family that gathered every Christmas day at my grandparents' home for two hearty meals. A massive, festive buffet for lunch and a huge feast for dinner, complete with pies, cookies, traditional Christmas pudding and Christmas crackers. The house was teaming with relatives from midday to midnight. Teaming! My mother's four brothers and sister, and all of their various and sundry offspring and dates. Everyone brought their particular skills to the party. Aunt Myrna was known for her exceptional gravy. Great Grandma for her turkey basting and stuffing. A cheesy cauliflower dish was another aunt's domain and an uncle was renown for his carving abilities. Traditions were cemented around these skills. In-between meals we played board games. The line of tables were cleared and immediately dressed with Dominos, Sorry, Checkers and more. The boys were wild, playing crokinole and air hockey. The men retreated to an upstairs bedroom for football. There was nary an argument. Never. Not one ever. Only peals of laughter throughout the house. The same held for Thanksgiving. So it has always been a curiosity to me when watching Christmas and Thanksgiving movies where discord is depicted as the prevailing atmosphere. I can't imagine why. It's totally unnecessary.

Today everyone seems stressed about money but also about what the giftee wants. Lists of gimmes are provided via email. I don't remember us putting in an order for our gift when we were children. But then, our parents dashed the Santa myth when we were mere tots. We were told that Santa was a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, not a bona-fide being. Christmas orders were just not done. I still find them tacky. 

I try my best to avoid the gimme list, and find that choosing a gift is the easiest thing in the world if you cultivate the skill of placing your feet in another person's shoes. Paying attention to the things people care about is the key. What do they talk about? What do they love? What do they lament? What do they struggle with?

I use three basic criteria to choose the perfect gift: need, passion or wounds. What do they need in a practical sense that will improve their lives? What are their passions? What are their psychic wounds? Buying gifts that enable an unfulfilled burning desire or an untapped talent always has an impact. The recipient feels "seen." It's surprising how effective that can be in bringing people closer to you.

An associate of mine has a mother who spends extravagantly on all of her adult children every year, but never gives anything of use or value. I heard one of her children once say in frustration, "But I don't wear things like that. I told you I really needed a warm jacket." The mother replied, "Oh, that's not any fun."

The mother's gift giving isn't about her children at all. It's all about her shopping pleasure and finding unique items that thrill her. She never fails to disappoint every Christmas.

I think seeing who people are is really at the heart of giving. The executive producer of a TV show I was working on had written a movie thirty years prior and lamented the fact that the studio had never given him a movie poster. For him, it was the crowning achievement of his career but that one omission bothered him. It took me two solid months, but I finally hunted down a poster in a vintage movie poster outlet and had it framed for him for Christmas. I've never been so tightly hugged by a boss before. The real joy was seeing the light in his eyes. Of course, then we celebrated with cookies and eggnog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Putting the pantry to work

It's such a pleasure to dig into the pantry in December and unearth the gorgeous summer fruits you put up. It's like you are right back in the garden again, picking ripe berries off the bush. Black current jam and rhubarb and black raspberries will grace our table today.

First of all, two big thumbs up for the biscuit recipe in Alice Waters book, "In The Green Kitchen." Page 33 of her book. What light, fluffy, crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside biscuits they are!

I made the sweet cream variety and we enjoyed them for breakfast with Devon cream (my absolute favorite thing in the world and likely responsible for the high cholesterol) and some super yummy black current jam from the garden, canned in July.

Today I'm also making a rhubarb and black raspberry pie from frozen fruits harvested in late fall.

The bottom of the freezer is still packed with rhubarb, shredded zucchini, black raspberries, elderberries and home made pesto cubes waiting to be put to use. It's such an embarrassment of riches. True wealth.

Meanwhile, on the stove... the white beans that soaked overnight begin their transformation. Fresh thyme, sage, rosemary and garlic from the garden (and still flourishing inside the hoop houses!) bring a deep, hearty flavor to the sauce. The aroma fills the house. Homey. Warming. The fresh sage smells like Christmas. Recipe on page 65 of Alice Waters book.

It's really a wonderful side dish that will be perfect for dinner and there was plenty enough to share a large mason jar full with a dear neighbor who is a shut-in. Sharing it is as good as eating it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Warming Winter Beans

White beans soaking on the kitchen counter before the window. Is there anything better than a bowl of warm winter beans on a cold blustery day?


I'm trying out a recipe from a cook book in my audition pile. White beans with garlic and herbs. A very nice, straightforward recipe. It's in Alice Waters new cookbook, "In The Green Kitchen" which was on the New York Times best cookbooks of the year list.

I baked the soda bread recipe from the book for last night's dinner and had a failure with it. Perhaps because I didn't have real buttermilk and made the standard substitute. (Milk with a bit of vinegar.) I also added some yoghurt. The bread came out very dense, with a salty, spongy interior. Nonetheless it was a rustic addition to the delicious carrot soup. Onward. Tomorrow, beans.

You can't really fail with beans, can you? Especially when you have a nifty cast iron bean pot, like the Lodge Bean Pot. This is my go to pot. I use it for everything. It's permanently situated on the back burner of the stove.

Perfect for two-person stews, no-knead bread, deep frying, beans and sauces, or anything else that needs a smaller pot. I love my Lodge bean pot. Love, love, love it!

Jim Lahey's no-knead bread always comes out of it perfect as a wonderfully round little boule. (Always impresses guests.) And so does everything else I cook in it.

I really encourage everyone to add this baby to your cooking arsenal. It'll never die and can be passed down through the generations. The only thing you don't want to do with cast iron is take it from a hot source and plunge it into a cold source (like stovetop to ice bath.) It could potentially crack or warp. Other than that, it'll last forever. You can get them directly from Lodge. Or through Amazon, if you are so inclined. I picked mine up at The Great Indoors.

I wash all my cast iron cookware with hot water and a stiff brush. No soap ever! If crusties are on the inside a dose of coarse salt with a stiff brush does magic. I always dry my cast iron on the stovetop under a low heat. It takes only a minute or two. And, if the shine is looking peaked, I add a little oil to maintain the non-stick quality of the pan.

Lodge cast iron comes already pre-seasoneded and ready to use (wash with hot water first) but inevitably someone in the household, who takes on the dish washing chores, will subject it to soap and water. That will reduce the seasoning and nonstick properties and possibly even cause it to rust. If you ever get rust, it can be remedied. A little light scouring with fine steel wool will remove it, then you must season the pot again. Dose it with a fine mist of oil and leave in a 350 degree oven for about 90 minutes and you're good to go.

Sauerkraut... finally

Bottled up two quart jars of sauerkraut yesterday and now I can finally get the fermenting/eating system going. This amount came from a single cabbage.

I decided to experiment with a smaller batch after an unfortunate mishap with the first batch. Something I neglected to report on.

Yes, within only two weeks I managed to smash the lid on my !!! brand new !!! Harsch crock while taking a typically impatient peak at the progress. I should've just left it alone. Air can be an enemy to fermentation.

Although I tried to cover it all up with a plate, the air found its mark and a bloom of mold took over.

I've read on other blogs that you can scoop off the mold and dig out the perfect sauerkraut beneath, but since this was my first homegrown batch I didn't want to chance it. Instead I disposed of the whole operation, sent away for a new lid, and began anew. Miracle Exclusives sells authentic Gartopf lid replacements, if anyone else out there needs one.

I'm really looking forward to mashed potatoes mixed with homemade kraut tonight. Comfort food. Yum.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Auditioning Books

These are the current gardening and cooking books in the audition pile right now. It's an ever revolving selection. I spend two weeks with a book before deciding whether it will be added to my permanent collection or not. Enter the library. My partner in this endeavor. (I had to seriously take myself in hand around book purchasing after recently disposing of over three hundred books, many unread.) Hence the new winnowing process, which, I might add, works brilliantly. If I don't find myself drawn to the book repeatedly, it's not a keeper. The quality of mercy is not strained. I do find I'm wanting more manuals now. More building and planting instructions, more recipes and more how tos. Less fluff, more meat.

The new online system of ordering loaners from any library in town and having them automatically delivered to your local library free or charge is absolution perfection. The library even emails me when my selections are ready for pickup. I feel so pampered. It's often quicker then Amazon, definitely cheaper and a benefit I already pay taxes for. I'm getting my money's worth from the library these days. Music, DVDs, periodicals and books. It's like a spa for the mind.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Corkscrew Hazel

Hazel has lost her leaves for the winter, revealing her resplendent inner beauty beneath.

I absolutely love this twisted sister. The droopy leaves in the summer have people constantly asking if the bush is dying, but no, no, no, no, Hazel is very much alive. She's just more complex in her countenance than the commonly perfect bushes that surround her. I think people are like this too. The more they divert from the norm, the more interesting they are.

Artists recognize Corkscrew Hazel's true beauty. Her distorted branches are a favorite of florists. But it turns out veggies love her too.

I used some of Hazel's crooked branches as stakes for my peas this year. The peas instantly gravitated to her, ignoring the straight and narrow bamboo stakes that came first.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

S510 Food Safety Modernization Act

The Senate has passed the S510 bill. If you don't know how this will impact your CSA, local farmer's market or organic and raw food producer then start googling S510 my friends. Never was it more important to plant a victory garden.

A great book to get your victory garden going is Carleen Madigan's "Back Garden Self-Sufficiency." I highly recommend this manual (again). It's in my personal library and I refer to it often. I was reading Madigan's chapter on chicken keeping last night (a goal of mine impeded only by current city ordinances outlawing it) and was struck by something that I had never considered before. Allergies. Madigan raises the issue and I choked on my enthusiasm for the first time. Yes, unfortunately I'm allergic to chicken feathers, so chicken keeping may not be the total joy I am imagining, but I'm not ruling out the option. I still dream of strolling into my own yard to pluck fresh eggs from a coop every morning.

Meanwhile I must content myself with my meager indoor winter garden that is plodding along under the grow lights. Below, the lettuce continues to sprout.

Beets are doing well.

The strawberries are content.

And to my surprise the grape vines have begun to bud and leaf.

My hope is to at least get enough Mesclun lettuce to keep us in fresh homegrown salads for the cold months.

Which brings me to Christmas shopping. I've started to think about gifting indoor garden sets like the Aerogarden hydroponic unit for my soil phobic peeps. The crusade continues...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rocket City

I am overrun with arugala. This happens to me every year. 

Usually it's because I put in too many starts, but this year I planted a second batch of lettuce from a seed packet (Spicy Mix) and it turned out to be 90% arugula. I guess it's just my fate to have an abundance of rocket.

I enjoy rocket as a bed for carpaccio, in salads, soups and pasta, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Picked early it's light and refreshing. Left in the soil too long, it becomes tough and very spicy! Arugala pesto may be the answer.

Alas, the garden is waning. Leaves are falling and the mercury reports stew weather.

Outside, thai shallots, carrots and peas remain in the ground, but none are quite ready for the table.

Still, there was a mini harvest to be had. Turnips and beets for dinner.

And today, the last tomato.

Of course it was a Honey Bunch cherry tomato. That little over-achiever. With a heavy heart I added the wilted tomato bush to the compost bin. I will now have to rely on the tomatoes I canned for the winter if I want to stay true to my efforts to eat locally. I'm not strident about this pledge (I can never resist mangoes at the market) but I am making daily efforts to shop greener.

So I turn my attention to the indoor garden and the seed catalogues.

I've been hunting for all the heirloom and certified organic seeds I can get my hands on. Two Green Thumbs up to Burpees and Johnny Seeds who carry sections on both. They get my business this year.

The cost of seeds is really alarming. Halfway through my enthusiastic shopping spree I realized I had already managed to add $148 to my cart.

When you're paying $3.99 for 25 heirloom seeds you want to do everything in your power to ensure that the seeds take. Better planning of the 2011 vegetable garden is definitely on the agenda. I'm finding great tips from so many sources. Blogs, books, garden shows and the best of all, the gardeners in my community.

Maria Finn's cute little book, A Little Piece of Earth, offers handy suggestions on beneficial combinations of plants for container gardens.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Instant Cold Frame

Inspired by other bloggers, I began a rather casual roadside search for discarded windows to use for a cold frame. Only two weeks has transpired and already I've scored this baby. A thick, double paned window that is so substantial I may be able to grow food outside in the winter.  The home owner was replacing it purely for cosmetic reasons, changing the tone of the vinyl to a gray. I felt good about recycling it for eco-friendly food production.

The window fit perfectly over an existing raised bed. Instant cold frame. 

Admiring my handiwork in my well-worn end-of-the-season slippers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Under the growlights

The beginnings of the indoor winter garden. Mesclun lettuce is starting to sprout under 40 watt grow lights in the otherwise dark basement. 

Red potatoes await their indoor potting. I expect they will be a challenge, but I'm going for it. My Yukon Golds were so exceptional this year I crave more homegrown tubers.

Two 40 watt fluorescent plant lights are the only illumination these plants are getting. Chives and parsley thrive and a potted strawberry plant (a runner pulled from the garden) appears happy. Small pots of peppers germinate behind the lettuce.

I long for a heated conservatory and orangerie where citrus trees could grow year round. One day. 

My hope is that green builders will answer this call for year-round growing by building sunrooms and conservatories as standard issue for new developments. The current trend has cold cellars making a comeback. Bright minds will seize the moment. I have faith.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Apple Sam

Get the recipe here: APPLE PANCAKE SAM. I leave out the cloves and dust it with powdered sugar. Also good with warmed maple syrup. Good on a brisk morning.

(Please note the scattershot apple placement. Your dish can look more elegant than this. I began placing the apples uniformly in a lovely semi-circle, as I've aways done in the past, then suddenly cast that impulse aside and flung the apples hither and yon, in an act of wild abandonment. There is both beauty and freedom in imperfection. One must embrace the imperfect from time to time.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Cozy Factor

I love old wood barns.

I love their smell, their look and the raw, wild earthiness of them. Barns and greenhouses are by far my favorite structures. They make me feel all cozy inside.

It's really a shame they are falling out of fashion as the characterless industrial steel structures take over. Steel doesn't provide the same coziness factor, for beast or human.

I was talking about coziness with my sister-in-law the other day and she said,"What is it with your brother and you and cozy? You're both always talking about things being cozy." I laughed. Because it's true! The pursuit of coziness is a family obsession.

We were raised in a home that worked. Every room was cozy and the neighborhood kids gravitated to it. The house was always abuzz with social activity. Sofas were slouched on, rugs were tread on, kitchens were cooked in. We played games, music, baked cakes together regularly (from scratch) and just plain hung out. Our parents never had to worry about what we were up to because everyone was perpetually at our home.

Children and pets were permitted in every room, except for adult bedrooms that were designated as private. There was a lot of laughter. (Although, I admit, it was a bad day when the rabbit we brought home from school ate a hole in my mother's new designer sofa.) You couldn't blame the poor thing. It was just trying to get into the fluffy down inside.

Fact is, all creatures seek coziness and love a good warm spot. Dogs, cats, squirrels, mice. My kitty purrs contentedly while cuddling into her bed. Squirrels nuzzle into fluffy lined nests to sleep. Animals don't create showplaces to live, they create cozy dens and nests that provide warmth and shelter. Everyone likes to feel held.

Working with design clients in the past, I discovered repeatedly that people who insisted on minimalism in design, didn't really hang out in those stark rooms at all. They retreated to messy bedrooms or to a casual den when visitors weren't present. The primary purpose of their show rooms was to provide a presentation for others to admire. There's nothing authentic about that.

My personal crusade, as is evident in my book, The Emotional House, is to try to get people to decorate rooms that are both beautiful and functionally livable, so that every space in your home draws you in. This keeps your life in balance, because every room in your home serves an emotional function.

In the garden, I believe a chaise helps with the coziness factor, because it provides a place to stretch out and read, catnap, chat on the phone, or just kick back and enjoy the outdoors.

A chaise screams "relax," and that is a big function of the garden. Serenity. Every garden needs a chaise in my opinion. Preferably one with a nice thick cushion. Next to that, a side table for a drink and snack. One of my chaises (pictured on the right side of this photo) has an embedded table that slides out from under the bottom and retracts when not in use. A similar one is available at Plow and Hearth and at Pottery Barn.

Outdoor dining tables are functional, but the chaise is what creates the cozy factor. They come in all price ranges, or you can build one yourself.  When the material on the cushions on my chaises started to deteriorate I tore it off and kept the stuffing inside. I recovered that with Sunbrella material I bought in bulk from a remains store online. But first I plumped up the stuffing with additional polyester fill from old pillows. That is one cushy chaise, let me tell you. And so very... cozy!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Solar Challenge

Well I finally took the leap and sprung for my first set of solar panels yesterday. I'm starting small as I learn more about the equipment. (They're quite heavy!) My plan right now is to harness enough solar energy this winter to power the grow lights for my indoor vegetable garden. The initial outlay of money was a bit daunting, but when offset by the cost of fresh organic produce, the purchase was well worth it. In the long run I'll come out ahead and remain in control of the quality of my food source.

I challenge my readers (which according to stats hail from around the globe) to buy at least one solar light in the coming year, even if only a tiny garden light for a pathway. You can pick those up for under $10. As market demand increases, prices will continue to drop and technologies will improve.

Solar lights for the yard are not only a terrific way to bring beauty to your home and make walkways safer at night, they are also a great resource in a blackout. During the last blackout in my neighborhood my whole house remained ablaze with light as night fell. I merely ventured outside and dragged in a few solar charged garden lights.

Check out this development on photovoltaic solar leaves. Very exciting stuff!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Salsa Verde

This is a fresh mild salsa which is a nice addition to burritos, tacos or simply as a side dip for tortilla chips. My ingredients all came from my garden, but most can be purchased from a grocer. Like just about anything made from scratch, the taste of fresh salsa verde is nothing like the bottled variety. It has that special toothy crunch that makes it worth the effort.

Remove husks from tomatillos and wash. (The tomatillos are slightly sticky when you remove their papery husks.)

Chop finely. Then seed a jalapeno pepper. 

Mince together with:
1/2 a jalapeno (or more if you like your salsa with a kick)
clove of fresh garlic finely chopped
1/4 onion finely chopped
cilantro (a handful) chopped
add juice of half a lime
pinch of salt

The taste is fresh and well, green. Hence the name - salsa verde.

My tomatillo crop has been a steady source of deliciousness for the last two weeks but this was the first day I finally had the chance to make a salsa. The plant has been loving its new home inside the comfy hoop house, which is warmed by candles inside at night. It's quite a sight to see. A single candle in each bed has transformed each hoop house into a giant luminary. An unexpected and magical delight. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Afflicted by Barnheart

I laughed when I read this article, Barnheart: Yearning to be a Farmer, by Jenna Woginrich because it described me so accurately. According to Woginrich, I fall into a category of dreamers who are afflicted by the "disease" she calls Barnheart - sudden onset yearning to farm.

I am most definitely in the research phase she describes because I spend hours daily perusing data about septic systems, tractors, animal husbandry and cultivation techniques. I even have Scott Nearing's seminal book The Good Life on hold at the library. The television is rarely on these days. Gardening and farming blogs are far superior entertainment, filled with new frontier stories. What a rich world the blogosphere has become.

Homesteading while maintaining a creative career isn't out of the question. Woginrich herself (a former design student) holds down a 9-5 corporate job while homesteading, according to her YouTube video.

My homestead dream is more along the lines of that of writer Susan Orleans'. A few low maintenance chickens and an expansive garden. Although I wouldn't balk at a couple head of miniature Dexter cattle and a nubian goat or two for milk and cheese.

I do have a bit of farming experience. My uncle ran a dairy farm that I spent time at as a child. The smell of fresh cut hay, the moist warmth of the cattle in the barn, scrappy barn cats lined up at milking time for a squirt direct from a teat. These are rich memories.

We'd come in from the fields sweaty and exhausted from a day of baling and be greeted by bowls of steaming potatoes and hearty pot roast that my aunt set out for us on a harvest table. Nothing ever tasted as good. My aunt was a true farm wife (now she drives a Lexus) but back then she was right in the thick of it.

Mucking stalls, lugging milk and grain cans and braving a finicky pressure canner as she put up the harvest for winter. It was hard work that started early and ended late in the day. For me it was a wonderful departure from my suburban existence. I recently asked my aunt, who now lives in a condo, if she missed the farm. Her answer, "Every day."

Only one member of my large extended family has followed in their footsteps. A cousin who now operates a buffalo farm of all things. But like my uncle, he too has to hold down a second job to make ends meet. A foot in both worlds is the only way, it seems. As Kermit the frog says, "It's not easy being green."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Candle in the Wind

Here's a nice tip I picked up from

Placing a candle inside your greenhouse (or hoop house) on cold days will raise the temperature inside a couple of degrees. Sometimes that's all you need.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pollution Scorecard

Ever wonder how your city stacks up for pollutants? Type in your zipcode and get the skinny at:

This website offers statistics on water, smog, lead, chemical releases (yikes) and animal waste in your environment. It also names names when it comes to who is polluting your community. I don't know how accurate the data is, but some of the info I read certainly gave me pause.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I used to just be a writer who liked to garden. Now apparently I'm also a locavore, foodie, urban farmer into green sustainable living using permaculture principles. It's all getting so complicated, the simpler it gets.

After an easygoing Sunday meandering through apple orchards and the countryside with my family I find myself searching the MLS again for properties with land, streams and barns. I may be entering my Thoreau stage.

This summer I saved the clippings from the garlic harvest to put to use in the cob oven project I've been planning. Unfortunately I haven't been able to tackle the project given my ever increasing decrepitude. Looks like it will have to wait till next season.

Cob ovens seem to be suddenly cropping up everywhere. They are on everyone's hip list. There was even a multimedia slide show of a 36 hour dinner party cooked in a cob oven in the New York Times this weekend. That was one dinner party I wish I'd been a guest at. The earthy breads, root vegetables and the pudding. Yum. The rustic pizza with a raw egg on top reminded me of the wood fired pizzas I ate on the streets of Dusseldorf's Altstadt back in the 70s when I lived there for a year. It was the first time I'd ever seen an egg on a pizza. So delicious!

See link below for the inviting NY Times slide show. (Warning: some photos may be offensive to vegetarians.)