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A peek inside my new bible.

Such whole food, farm fresh, folksy and elegant inspiration inside the pages of Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, The Time-Honored Ways Are The Best—Over 700 Recipes Show You Why. I’m moved to share a glimpse of this magical book, and I urge you to buy your own copy, now. You’ll soon remember why you love to cook.

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Clams can’t hide (when you know where to look)

6a010534a389ba970b01901bb2b6fc970bSimple pleasure No.1. Clamming is new to me. I’ve pulled mussels (fun!), and handled plenty of found clams and crabs. But the boys, led by dads with clamming forks and town licenses, usually sink through sticky mud while I’m off doing other things. A quick visit to the beach this week to collect eelgrass for the garlic bed filled this foraging void—and opened my eyes to the joys of the simple seaside hunt.

If you squat down and soften your gaze, you’ll see clams squirt—or spurt. (There was some discussion about what to call the little fountains that erupt from the sand.) I couldn’t help but giggle everytime I saw one. The telltale squirt holes that dot the firm sand show where they’re digging below the surface. Caleb’s theory: “The bigger the hole, the bigger the clam.” 

Once you see them spurt, you gently dig. And dig.

6a010534a389ba970b017eeab02c9c970dAnd the clam you pull up feels like a treasure.

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Until you have a handful.

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Then, because we don’t yet have license to keep them, we tuck them back into the sand.

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And cover them with more sand, drip castles, and more sand—until you can’t see that we’d ever disturbed them.

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After the hunt, even the youngest clammer walks tall. Knowing he can fetch dinner, with his own small hands, is a powerful joy.

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Homemade almond milk 101

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The New Year brought a flurry of energy to clear out and declutter and purge whatever we don’t use—everywhere. It’s at once unsettling and exhilerating. And we always feel lighter and clearer afterwards. It’s like a cleanse, for our house. When I tore through the pantry, I finally had to face the giant bag of almonds I bought before we realized our little one was allergic to tree nuts. It takes up precious shelf space, but I found I never used them.

In my post-illness quest to feel healthy again, I’ve been reading a lot about holistic nutrition. I’d always been a fan of whole foods, but mostly in the way they helped me embrace my body’s need for bacon. Ever since I got sick, though, I don’t have a big appetite. And what I do crave is generally healthy, nourishing food: less bacon, more lentils.

 

So it was that I stumbled upon this “recipe” for nut milk, care of Sarah Britton and her inspiring natural foods blog, My New Roots. It’s not a recipe as much as it’s a few steps; it’s so simple and satisfying you won’t believe you’re making milk—frothy, fresh and sweet nut milk.

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  • Start by soaking one cup of nuts. Soaking, apparently, unlocks the nutritional power of nuts and seeds. (Who knew?) Overnight is best.
  • Next, drain the soaked nuts and pour them into your blender, along with 4 cups of filtered water.
  • Blend. My trusty BlendTek blender has a Whole Juice setting. But just whir it until you don’t see almonds anymore (about a minute).
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  • Pour the water and nut mixture through a straining bag. You can buy nut milk bags, or you can use cheesecloth. I used the extra paint-straining bag I’d bought to strain honey last year, and it worked perfectly. (I think it cost about $2.)
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I fed the nut “meal” that’s left behind to the chickens this time around. But you can spread the leftover crushed, soaked nut mash out on a baking sheet and toast it on low heat for a couple of hours to dry it out. Then, use it as almond nut meal in recipes.
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Voila! Fresh almond milk is a lot less cloying than the raw whole cow’s milk we usually drink, but it’s refreshingly clean and sweet. And, as you drink it, you’ll feel like an alchemist—a healthy, pantry-clearing alchemist.
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A little red hat

I have been working on knitting a little red hat, with help from the boys, for months now. I’m a slow knitter, for sure. But I’m steady. And every project I’ve taken on since picking up knitting needles a few years ago has taught me something new. For one thing, this little hat—destined for a little neice this Christmas—was simple. I know my limits (in attention). Maybe that’s why following a complicated pattern seems more like work than relaxation, which is how I think of knitting something like this.

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This time, I learned the kitchener stich. Imperfect as this first go was, this weaving of two ends together is typically done at the toes of socks to make a seamless toe. I watched a great Knit Witch tutorial, and dove right in. I apparently didn’t pay attention to the urging to PAY ATTENTION and eliminate distractions while you’re doing it. The process isn’t complicated; you just have to keep track of the pattern. I got sidetracked (go figure). But the seam will still be soft and secure.

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The boys knitted several rows and each made a pom pom, which we got the hang of making after several goes with our new Clover small pom pom maker (hours of entertainment!). As I was preparing to wrap the hat up, I got a bit nostalgic—and suddenly remembered having read somewhere that every item you knit reminds you of the time you’ve spent knitting it, and what was happening in your life while you were at it. In my case, given how long my proects take, I end up covering a lot of ground. That means thinking a lot about the little person who will wear it, too.

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I finished the hat off last month, in the throes of what has been a long spell of hospital-grade illness (complications from strep followed by mono, but I’m getting stronger every day). As I sat by the fire, conserving as much energy as possible, what’s most important just bubbled up. The love I felt from those around me, who supported, surprised, and fed us for weeks, made me feel so warm inside. And I figured, even with this simple little hat, a litle extra love never hurts.

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Wishing you all a beautiful, restful, and healthy New Year.

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Naturally addictive “tossed” garlic kale

“Have you tried this kale?” amazed friends asked me at our school’s fall fair a week ago. Once I did, I realized what all the commotion was about. It was Delicious, with a capital D. We hunted down the parents in charge of the soup/bread/kale stand, and we promptly begged for the secret to this savory, not-raw-but-not-wilted, garlicky, gingery magic. I knew I could have eaten a whole bowl this size once I found it. I envisioned regular meals made from the Red Russian kale I am still growing in the garden…

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A targeted phone call, two messengers, and a couple of bunches of kale later, here it was. Loosely:

  • Pour a “good bit” of sesame oil and a little olive oil into a pan. I put about 2-3 Tbs. of sesame and 1 Tbs. olive oil to work in my wok. I minced a piece of fresh ginger the size of my thumbnail, and thinly sliced 2 huge garlic cloves (equivalent to about 4 regular cloves). Keep the ratio about two garlic to one ginger.
  • Over a medium flame, heat the oil to hot but not smoking (trust me); then sautee the garlic and ginger for about 30 seconds. Mine bronwed a bit too quickly, which I could have avoided if my pan and oil weren’t so hot. Take the pan off the heat to let the aromatics keep infusing the hot oil without fear of over-cooking them. Then, add a teaspoon of salt to the oil and stir around.
  • Finally, toss the trimmed, torn kale into the oil mixture and stir it around to coat. You’re not sauteeing or frying it. The alchemy comes simply from combining these leafy greens with the warm garlicky, gingery oil; it just softens every so slightly.
  • That’s it. Try to share it with your family. They’ll soon crave it—and you can be their dealer.

 

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How to grow BIG garlic.

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Garlic could be my favorite crop to grow. A bit of preparation, some early planning and effort, and its spring reward is a feeling of effortless accomplishment. Last year, I got serious and sourced a few pounds of my favorite variety, Music. Fedco had sold out, and I found it at Runaway Ranch in Michigan. I pledged that I’d plant enough to keep us eating garlic all year (we need white pizza) and still have enough to plant this fall. Store-bought garlic can’t compare.

I prepped a big bed at the bottom of the hillside by mixing in chicken manure and old hay by hand. The site, clayey soil just where the water drains downhill, meant I would rarely have to water it. I planted the bulbs, pointy side up, in the straightest rows I could manage—trenches, really. I blanketed them with eelgrass and seaweed and planned to top those with mulch hay. The hay never got there.

The shoots came up in spring, and despite the heavy soil, they seemed healthy and uniform. I don’t think I ever fertilized them and only watered a few times that I can remember. We cut the scapes off of the upper section, and used them in a spring garlic scape carbonara we all love. I froze the ones we didn’t use to start soups and stews now.

Here’s where things went wrong: I left the scapes to flower on the lower half of the bed and admired the lovely, seedy globes. I could have sworn that gardeners were split on scapes—the fussy ones cut them in hopes of increasing bulb size, but other, experienced gardeners believed it didn’t make much difference in the end. My experience proved otherwise. When it came time to harvest them, the bulbs from which we trimmed the scapes (on the left) were half again or even twice as plump as the bulbs we didn’t trim (they're on the right). Lesson learned. Will not forget garlic 101: Harvest scapes + spring garlic carbonara = bigger bulbs.

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All wasn’t lost, though. I took some puny bulbs and those I’d knicked with my pitchfork—it wasn’t easy to dig in the hill—and preserved them in olive oil. Gorgeous.

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Peaches.

I am almost speechless. And proud. And have been doling out these  h o m e g r o w n  peach beauties to those willing to eat them over the sink or out of doors, where their juice can drip freely down our chins.

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These lovely fruits taught me a fine lesson. 

I planted our two peach trees—one Red Haven, one Reliance—back in May of 2009 right after the Fedco Tree Sale. They were beauties, and I sited them down near the pond, where they could bask in the sunshine and welcome visits from the honeybees. They flank the raspberry patch, which made sense to me at the time, given how much I love peach raspberry pie.

They've done beautifully. I was shocked by their second summer, when they produced 24 downright floral fruits. But my south-facing siting, where they warm up early, beside by the pond, where late frosts settle first, caught me off guard in their third season: The cold killed their early buds, and we got no fruit at all. This year was their fourth, and they were LOADED with fruit. The new beehive is a short flight away, and our mild spring meant that I didn't even have to cover them when a late frost threatened. It never did.

And yet, I did not thin them. I'd never had to before, and I really didn't think about it until the smaller but more beautiful of the two trees, the one I smile at every time I drive up the drive, the one with the loveliest shape, snapped to the ground under the weight of its fruit. The main stem cracked (perhaps with help from something climbing it, given that all of the fruit was gone). I was devastated. I'd waited patiently and checked regularly for the time when I could harvest just early enough to outwit the squirrels and finish the final ripening indoors. I waited too long, and it is now half the tree it once was.

So, I quickly thinned the other tree (turns out, it takes no time at all!) and left the best fruit, which wasn't yet ripe. Choosing the cream of the crop suddenly didn't seem as hard as thinning seedlings always is for me, given the alternative. Then, we left town on a trip. About a week later, the fruit that remained looked 50% larger. It oozed peachy promise. And this much bigger tree held off the casual nibbling passersby long enough for me to harvest a couple trays of my favorite fruit of all.

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Some people meditate, and maybe I will, too, one day. For now, I wander through the garden. And when I look at my broken peach tree, I'm reminded: Fewer are better. Fewer are better. Fewer are better.  

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Seeds and a sickle

Spring is well under way—who am I kidding? It's almost summer! And so I'm just getting around to document a few of the scenes from our garden. Our season started out so warm and dry, and then a spate of very cool, wet days have slowed us (and plants) in May. Early spring is one of the most exciting times of year. The weeds are small, the air is clean, and all the preparation holds promise. 

Case in point: seed starting. I borrowed my friend's Soil Blocker, which I used to eye with suspicion (how can it cost $30?) until I used it for the first time last year. Johnny's makes it, and it's as bomber as any tool I've ever used. Its simplicity is what I love most. I already had plenty of plastic trays, so all that little hands and I had to do was work potting mix and water into a mush until it felt spongey wet. Then, we pushed the blocker down and wiggled. It takes a little practice, but you learn to lift up carefully to make fantastically solid pure soil blocks—ready for seeding.

The idea is that you needn't buy any kind of peat or newspaper or plastic seedling pots ever again. And the air that surrounds each block "air prunes" the roots of the growing plants, so the seedlings' roots stop and patiently wait until you plant them. Then, they experience less transplant shock than other seedlings. I love the idea, but I love making them even more. 

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I was also itching to mow down the plump, green winter rye I planted last fall in several beds where I'll plant bigger plants, including tomatoes and cukes. I wrote about my plan a while back. The idea is to leave the stubble in place to hold the ground, which is handy on my terraced beds. Then, the green stalks left behind become the straw mulch for the plants to come. It's genius!

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So is this old sickle. I found two in our stash, and I've never, ever had a use for them—until now. This was the best looking of the two, and I didn't even bother to sharpen it. But I must say that using a sickle to quickly level sturdy stems is about as fun a task as I can imagine.

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I've decided that a little garden prep—and a confident stroke now and then—really pays off.

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The bees are back!

We're starting over, again. We lost our last colony of honeybees this winter. Unlike the year before, we fed them sugar water, and we protected their top bar hive from wind by surrounding it with hay bales. But we had a hunch that half swarmed and left while we were out of town last summer, leaving behind a weakened hive that didn't make enough honey to sustain them. 

So we have a new plan. And a beautiful new hive: a Warre.

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We were racing daylight and raindrops. But everyone helped—from preparing the site and planting thyme around the base to assembling the boxes and waxing the bars. Just like with our top bar hive, we had to level this hive so the honeycomb they build will hang straight down from the bars inside.

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The package of bees seemed fiesty—and that's good. They buzzed and bunched up all around their queen, who was suspended in the center. Despite their long journey from the South, the thin layer of dead bees in the bottom of the box were the only casualties. 


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Michael removed the candy cork that keeps the queen segregated from the rest of the colony and replaced it with a bit of marshmallow. (Genius!) Now, the worker bees will eat through it as they get settled in their new cedar digs, which I treated with Tung Oil. By then, they'll all know eachother. And the queen will be free to give orders.

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The rain finally stopped, and the apple tree is blooming just over their heads. Their new, more sheltered, spot is lovely and makes keeping an eye on them that much easier. Now I can't wait to see them fly.