The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year in the Garden: 2008

2008 was a bountiful year in our garden.  But not without its challenges: in the second year of a severe drought and with our house still under construction, the garden needed lots more time and attention than we could give it.  I dream of the day when we're no longer hustling to get an indoor shower built before cold weather, for instance, at the height of the fall harvest.  Despite these stumbling blocks, the rich riverbottom soil and warm mountain valley sunshine and a little well water helped the garden thrive.  The earth is so generous and bountiful, even in times of drought and distraction!

Here's what we grew this year....

Basil: We grew Genovese (some of which I am hugging in the photo below). We made lots of pesto.

Beans: We only grew one variety this year, to make seed saving easier on ourselves. I've grown this heirloom for 4 or 5 years now, and I highly recommend it: Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans (pictured above, shelled and drying). Besides the beautiful history of this ancient variety of dry bean, it tastes wonderful and grows very well in this region (from whence it came). We planted a pound of seeds from Seed Savers Exchange.  We harvested about 25 pounds of shelled beans.

Beets: Bull's Blood planted in the spring; Chioggia and Detroit Dark Red in the fall. We ate the greens, we ate the roots, we ate the thinnings, we ate shredded beets, sliced beets, pickled beets, juiced beets, cooked beets, beet green pesto, we ate lots of beets.

Bok Choy: We planted China Choy in the fall.  It was one of the heartiest greens in the cold winter months, grown under floating row cover once frosty weather set in.

Our spring broccoli crop produced through July or so, and we planted Waltham broccoli in our fall garden.  

Brussels Sprouts:
Rubine (a red Brussels Sprout!) and Catskill varieties planted in the fall garden.

We grew a few heads from our spring planting and were much more ambitious in the fall -- we planted more than 70 cabbage plants. The varieties we planted in the fall were: Early Jersey Wakefield, Filderkraut, January King, and a Chinese Cabbage called Wong Bok. I made lots of sauerkraut.

Carrots: Meridas planted in the spring; Scarlet Nantes in the Fall, both interplanted with radishes.  

Above: Merida carrots and Bull's Blood beets.

Spurred by the success of our few spring cauliflower plants, we grew Cassius and Early Snowball in our fall garden.

This is the first year I've ever grown Celery -- our spring plantings did great, producing celery that was a whole different animal from the pale storebought kind. The celery kept well in the garden -- with heavy mulching we were able to harvest fresh celery at Thanksgiving (after single digit nights).  We'll plant celery again next spring.

We grew the fabulous "5 Color Silverbeet" in the spring followed by Rhubarb, Orange Fantasia, and Golden in the fall.  We found chard to be incredibly cold hardy, particularly with a little season-extending help from floating row cover. 

Our spring-planted collards are still producing in December...we're going to see if they will overwinter as collards have in past gardens of mine.

Corn: Bud planted an heirloom variety that was almost entirely choked out and taken down by the pole beans that were growing with it. Still, it was beautiful and somewhat productive.

We planted Japanese Long and Chinese Yellow in the spring...the Chinese Yellow plants had a burst of productivity and then died from unknown causes. The Japanese Longs were extremely productive and bore cukes well into September -- many of these became brined and refrigerator-pickled cucumbers.

We grew Turkish Orange eggplant with very unimpressive results. The flea beetles were on the scene early on, and the plants never really thrived. We did harvest a few eggplant, but all in all I would say it wasn't worth the garden space.

Garlic: In July we harvested 7 varieties--a total of about 33 pounds of garlic (some of which is pictured at left)

Our best producer by a long shot for the second year running, was the gorgeous Killarney Red, weighing in at 17.25 pounds after drying. We also grew Inchileum Red, Marbled Purple Stripe, Transylvanian Artichoke, German Brown, Silverwhite Silverskin, and Polish Hardneck.

All of these originally came from Filaree Farm, though some are second generation (saved from our crop last year). I really like the flavor of German Brown. Thanks to MF for teaching us about tying up garlic, and to the folks at Filaree Farm for their extraordinary expertise in all things garlic-related.

In October we planted the garlic for next summer's harvest: Nootka Rose Silverskin, Chesnok Red Purple Stripe, Burgundy Creole, Idaho Silver, Pescadero Red Creole, Georgian Crystal Porcelain, Native Creole, Spanish Roja, Siberian Marbled Purple Stripe, Polish Hardneck, Inchelium Red, Killarney Red, and Silverwhite Silverskin.

All together in the Fall of 2008, we planted about 1500 garlic cloves for 2009 harvest.

Gourds: We grew Cucuzzi Italian Edible, which was worth growing just for the visual effect in the garden. The beautiful plants with their velvety soft leaves grew up and out, covering our 8-foot high trellises and reaching up to the sky. The flower is a delicate white bloom, and the plants flowered well into October. The fruit is a crazy, huge, long green thing which never failed to elicit startled comments from garden visitors (including my sister Mary, pictured at left). The foliage, flower, and fruit made Cucuzzi a great garden ornamental, and the young gourds were tasty eaten like summer squash.

Herbs and Flowers: We grew Amaranth (Love Lies Bleeding), anise, anise hyssop, bachelors buttons, bee balm ("Jacob Cline" and "Aquarius"), bellflower, borage, calendula, catnip, chives, day lilies, dill (Bouquet), echinacea of various sorts, evening primrose, hibiscus (hearty native-pictured above, red leaf, and red zinger), love-in-a-mist (nigella), majoram, marigolds (Durango, Mr. Magestic, Butter and Eggs, to name a few), marshmallow, climbing nasturtiums, oregano (Italian and Greek), Italian flat leaf parsley, Thai silk poppies, common sage, strawflowers, Winter Elegance sweet peas, autumn joy sedum, native sunflowers, English thyme, and zinnias.

Dino and Green planted in the spring; Dino and Red Russian planted in the fall.  All were hearty and prolific as kale usually is.

Lambsquarters: Cultivar Magenta Spreen (above) and lots and lots of wild volunteers.

We planted Giant Musselburgh and Varna in the fall garden.

Spring plantings produced through July or so; fall starts of Winter Density, Winterwunder, Italienscher Looseleaf, and Territorial's Wild Garden Mix produced great salads from September through December.  Winter Density was the most cold-hearty, thriving under row cover.

Tigger produced a paltry and not very flavorful crop.  We will take the advice of old-time farmers around here and not waste too much time on melons in the future.

Fife Creek produced the most beautiful and tender okra; we grew several other varieties as well.  All were prolific and great for pickling and frying.

Over the summer, we did a trial of storage onion sets that I bought from Patryk Battle at the FBFC Farmers Market, and were so impressed with how they did that we planted Walla Walla, Long Red Florence, and Hi-Ball in the fall garden from seed that we started in cell packs, and also bought transplants from -- Red Torpedo, Red Crimson, Stockton Yellow, Solano White, and more Walla Walla. Of these 5 varieties, we planted a total of 250 sets in October. Our fall plantings also included French Red Shallots and White Multiplier Onions (perennial onions) from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

We grew lots of Italian Flat Leaf.

Peppers: Mixed results. We planted Corno di Toro, Black Hungarian, Pasilla Bajio, Golden Treasure, Long Purple Cayenne, Red Cheese Pimento, Hungarian Hot Wax, Jimmy Nardello, Romanian Hot, and Orchid Pepper, all from Baker Creek. My favorites were Romanian, Jimmy Nardello, Red Cheese, and Hotwax. Orchid and Long Purple Cayenne were worth growing for purely ornamental value, and produced abundantly too.

Radishes: We grew Easter Egg (at left) in the spring and French Breakfast, Black Spanish Round, and an heirloom Daikon in the fall.

Sorrel: I bought one plant from Barry and the FBFC farmer's market produced plenty for cooking and pestos this summer, and has grown to enormous proportions. It is a perennial, so let's hope that next year it expands its reach even more and we'll have sorrel to share.

Summer Squash: We grew Zephyr (pictured in at left) from Baker Creek, Crookneck from the seed swap at the Organic Growers School. Both were quite productive, though the Zephyr had an edge since we planted it much earlier (from starts set out in early June) and kept it under floating row cover as long as we could to keep off pests. The crookneck was from seeds direct sown in July in a bed vacated by the garlic harvest.

Sunflowers: We grew all sorts, from crossed seeds saved from last year and from Seed Savers Exchange. We interplanted sunflowers with almost everything. Besides being beautiful, they attract birds and bees. Even after goldfinches and other birds chowed down on the seeds all summer, there were still plenty left for us to eat and save for planting next

Tomatoes: we ended up with 40 plants, 15 heirloom varieties, and a huge harvest. My favorites were:
  • Cream Sausage-a very pale yellow roma-shaped funny looking, great tasting tomato
  • Orange Banana - a pretty orange roma-shaped tomato with amazing flavor. This was by far the heaviest producer of the tomatoes we planted, and seemed to producing longer despite blight.
  • Golden Sunray - a very yummy yellow slicer
  • Emerald Evergreen-looks like high art when sliced, and so sweet! I love this tomato. It kept producing into October and was probably the most beautiful tomato we grew for serving sliced.
  • Persimmon-a perfect delicate, small orange tomato--really looks like a persimmon
  • Belize Pink Heart-it's so pretty that I can't leave it out. An excellent gift tomato, and a very good slicer.
  • Pruden's Purple - the biggest, most buxom, bodacious, voluptuous sandwich tomato we grew
  • And of course the all-time favorite: "Goldies" - those amazing dark orange cherry tomatoes known in the seed catalog world as Sungold Cherry. KT describes the Goldies as "a dessert tomato" and that's how sweet they are. They are my mom's favorite thing about our garden, and I would grow them just for her if for no other reason
Since we had way more tomatoes than we could handle, of course we gave a bunch away, froze some, and dried a whole bunch in a borrowed electric dehydrator. All but the Goldies came from Baker Creek via our greenhouse class with Joey Allawos, the Goldies are from Patryk Battle at the FBFC farmers market.

Including the tomatoes we picked green at the end of the season to ripen on our windowsill throughout the month of October, we were eating fresh tomatoes through November 1.

Winter Squash:
We grew Waltham Butternut and a surprise pumpkin.

Also, we ate lots of wild things that grew all by themselves on our land, including:

Nettles, puffball mushrooms, meadow mushrooms (pictured above), wild lambsquarters, dandelions, black walnuts, sumac, blackberries, autumn olives, and crabapples.

So here's to an abundant year on our 5 acres of river valley land, in gratitude for the bounty of the earth and the community of friends and family that gardened with us, pulled weeds, planted seeds, wielded shovels and hoes, picked blackberries, told stories, shared wild and gleaned foods, and sat down to meals together.  May all be fed so well!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's Still Growing In the Garden

Chinese Cabbage

It's been unseasonably warm this week, so we pulled back the floating row covers to reveal the toughest of the fall-planted veggies, still soldiering on even after nights in the single digits.

Here's what's still growing:

Chinese Cabbage 
Alliums-Leeks, Onions, Garlic, and Multiplier Onions
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Kale - Dino and Red Russian
Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage
Brussels Sprouts (but still no sprouts!)
Lettuce - Winter Density, Italienischer, & Territorial Wild Garden Mix

Rhubarb Chard

I was saying to Christopher this morning that although it is satisfying to be able to go out to the garden in December and harvest produce for dinner, there's something about it that feels like fighting with the natural order.  Shutting the garden down as fall comes to an end is a ritual that has always seemed to me to be part of the cycle of the seasons.  

Lettuce: Territorial Wild Garden Mix (above) and Winter Density (below)

But it has been a valuable experiment growing a fall and winter garden, and next year we will probably do it again --on a larger scale--in the hoophouse.   

For now, I'm just grateful for some homegrown greens on my plate. It will be interesting to see how much longer everything lasts when normal winter weather returns.   


As the solstice approaches, this warm weather feels not quite right, but at the same time it is a welcome respite from the bitter cold. Kind of like garden-fresh veggies on your plate in December - a little unnatural, but delicious. 

All photos taken today in our garden...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Guerilla in a Bright Red Dress: Sumac

Over the summer, Christopher took this photo (left) of sumac in bloom on our land -- if you click to enlarge, you'll see how beloved the sumac flower is by bees. Providing sustenence for pollenators is just one of the wonders of sumac, a woefully under-appreciated plant.  

Sumacs are a family of native plants that grow througout most of North America, and are widely thought of as a common weed.  Here in WNC, sumac grows along the highways and in trashed-out urban lots, among other places.  It's a tough plant.

I've heard sumac's growth habit described as rangy or scrappy, but if you look at stands that have been allowed to mature, the plants cluster together and take on a graceful, curvy, elegant form that I think is quite beautiful.  

In the summer, sumac looks like a bushy green shrub or small tree, eventually bearing huge yellow flowers.  In the fall, the leaves turn deep crimson and the flowers dry on the plant, becoming a gorgeous shade of red. After the leaves are gone, bright red fruit clusters remain on the tips of the long thin branches.  

Below: two photos of Sumac that I took across the river at Warren Wilson College today - neither of these shots captures the color but you can get a sense of the shapes of sumac trees.

Coming across a stand of sumac in the winter feels to me like witnessing a ritual of some kind. A mature patch of sumac with its branches bare looks like a gathering of lanky, sinewy women, arms and legs intertwined, reaching up to the sky.  In the winter the sumac sisters, those tough leafy warriors, shed their red dresses and stand still together,  their arms snaking throuh the air, holding up offerings of bright red fruit.  Magical.

Each red sumac pod is made up of a cluster of tiny bright red berries. Birds and animals feast on the fruits as long as they last--the fruit is a rare treat for wildlife in a winter landscape.  

Food and medicine traditions of many native peoples include sumac, and for good reason.  The dried fruit makes a deliciously tart beverage, and the tiny hairs on each of the small red fruits are jam-packed with vitamin C.  In addition to the high C content, sumac fruits contain potent natural antibiotics (Foster/Duke).  According to Peterson's field guide to medicinal herbs,  sumac was used to treat and prevent a wide variety of maladies in native traditions throughout North America.  For more on sumac's medicinal qualities, see this overview.)  

So back to our sumac.  In the fall, Christopher remembered that an old friend of his, Lalynn, used to make a tea from dried sumac heads to drink during the winter, and decided he wanted to harvest some for us.   So he picked some dried heads of sumac and we broke them apart and let them air dry inside (see photo above) before jarring them up.  We left plenty behind for the birds and other wildlife, and ended up with about a half gallon of dry sumac berries.  I snacked on the tiny berries as we processed the heads, and the zingy, tart flavor was so strong it sometimes made my eyes water.  This winter we'll use the berries to make hot sumac tea or steep and then cool and strain to produce refreshing sumac-ade.  

I appreciate sumac as food and medicine, but most of all because I see it as a plant that goes where others can't, takes root, and grows like wild.  Sumac is often found growing in neglected areas, along roadsides, in old railroad beds, and in places where woods have been recently cleared or there has been a fire.  

Above: Sumac and rivercane growing on a roadside in Swannanoa, December.

I see Sumac as a guerilla gardener of the plant world, with dandelion and mullien and other tough front-line plants, dropping seeds in wastelands and bringing bare earth back to life.  
Sumac is one of the first plants to come in as living systems begin to recover and regenerate.  It is drought-tolerant and can survive conditions that would kill many other kinds of plants, and it helps make way for a succession of plant and animal life gradually to renew and heal damaged places.  (See the US Forest Service's page on Sumac for more information on sumac's role in rehabilitation of damaged and disturbed land, as well as other interesting facts about sumac).  

I'm thankful to sumac for being one of the tough ones on the front lines of the healing of damaged ecosystems.  And for its beauty and healing power, and its tenacious presence as an ancient native medicinal plant.  

Long live sumac--graceful, strong, and powerful plant warrior adorned in flaming red!



Monday, December 8, 2008

Winter Seed Catalog Lesson #1: Tepary Beans

My annual winter seed catalog immersion has officially begun, and as usual it is promising to be a rich educational experience.   Every winter as I read and re-read the dozens of seed catalogues that come in the mail, I learn a ton about about seed histories, vegetable diversity, and food traditions.  

If you are a beginning gardener, I recommend getting on the mailing lists of good seed companies, particularly those selling open-pollenated and heirloom varieties.  Good seed catalogues are fabulous sources of gardening information, food lore, and growing tips. 

So yesterday I was cozied up on the couch reading the Seeds of Change catalog (no better way to spend a very cold Sunday, in my opinion). When I got to the bean section, I came across a whole species I had never heard of, which rates as a discovery significant enough to blog about.  

At left: A few heirloom bean varieties from the Saving Our Seeds collection.

I love heirloom beans, and have grown several beautiful and delicious dry bean varieties over the years and fantasized about growing a whole lot more.  

I have about 35 particular bean varieties on my lifetime bean-growing wishlist.  And the list keeps growing. 

Jacob's Cattle. Hutterite Soup. Black Valentine. Indian Woman Yellow.  Amish Gnuttle. Even the names are magical to me.  I've spent hours poring over bean listings in the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue and reading about the histories of the hundreds (thousands?) of bean varieties that exist.  What I am saying is that I am a major heirloom bean dork (See previous posts on Local Protein and Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans for more evidence of this...)  

So imagine my surprise when I discovered Tepary Beans (the aformentioned whole new species) a type of bean more ancient and storied than any of the heirlooms I've ever known.  Three varieties of Tepary Beans were listed in a sidebar in the Seeds of Change catalog, along with the botanical name of the species: Phaeseolus acutifolius.  This was enough to send me down the google rabbit hole in search of more information about the mysterious Tepary. 

Here's what I found: Tepary Beans are pre-Colombian heirlooms with flavors and growing habits distinct from other beans.  They were cultivated throughout dry areas of what is now the Southwestern US, Mexico, and Central America, selected from native beans and grown for thousands of years by ancient peoples.  

I found much more in a Seeds of Change newsletter article by Jay Bost:

"While most beans that we eat belong to the species Phaeseolus vulgaris and are native to South America, tepary beans belong to an entirely different species, Phaeseolus acutifolius, which grows wild in the Sonoran Desert, with local populations currently documented on Isla Tiburon in the Sea of Cortez and in the Santa Maria mountains of Arizona (Nabhan 1985). As long ago as 8,000 years ago, the native peoples of the Sonoran Desert began to domesticate wild tepary beans, which, until quite recently, were eaten by some in Mexico, along with Phaeseolus filiformis, another wild desert bean." 

Bost details the history of Tepary Beans, and the reasons that they are apparently experiencing something of a revival.. He says that Teparies "are considered by many to be the most drought-tolerant annual legume in the world" and "are capable of producing a harvest of beans with a single rain."  We've been in a severe drought for the last two years here in Western North Carolina, so a bean that can grow without irrigation is an exciting discovery indeed.

Bost's article also details the nutritional appeal of Teparies:

"Part of the tepary bean's appeal, in addition to its drought tolerance, is its superior nutritional content. It has a higher protein content (23–30%) than common beans such as pinto, kidney, and navy, as well as higher levels of oil, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium."

Bost's overview is great - you can read the whole article here.


So I've added Sonoran Gold Tepary Beans (pictured above, courtesy of Seeds of Change) to my bean wishlist.  It's a dry soup bean developed by the Papago people, and contains more than 30% crude protein.  

We'll plant some in the spring and see how they taste.    Stay tuned for further adventures in seed catalogue reading.  

Monday, December 1, 2008

Stackcake and Bear Scat: Giving Thanks

Wednesday morning we harvested collards, mustard greens, celery, parsley, and lettuces from the garden (above), packed up some of our winter squash and pumpkins, and headed for my parents' home about an hour away for Thanksgiving.

My mom and dad live on 50 acres of mostly wooded land in a rural community* near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They bought their land 30 years ago, when land in the remote areas of western North Carolina was cheap and mostly wild.

My parents built their house --the house I grew up in--in 1979 and they live there still. They have been dedicated to preserving and caring for the land for the past 30 years. Over the course of my lifetime, I've seen the hardwood forest around my parents' home slowly regenerating as time passes and the earth heals itself from the injuries of logging and clearing sustained before our time. It has been a huge part of my education to see the plants and trees, animals and birds in the woods around my parents' house thrive and reproduce, creating and strengthening living systems.

The land around my parents' house is just as much home to my sister and me as the house itself -- we spent much of our childhoods outside in the woods, creek, and pasture land, and we know the land as intimately as if were another member of our family. We grew up learning the names of the trees and plants, animals, birds, and insects that shared our home. All of those living things still feel like they are part of my extended family -- all our relations as some native peoples would say.

Calling in the Ancestors

The day before Thanksgiving was my mom's birthday, and I had resolved to try my first recipe from my favorite new cookbook/history book (see my earlier post for details).

I wanted to bake a traditional Southern Appalachian stackcake with apples, but because my mom loves cranberries and because I already had some for Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, I wanted to incorporate cranberries, too.

So here(above) is my modified, nontraditional stackcake. I started with a recipe for Apple Stack Cake from the book I mentioned above, Joseph Dabney's Smokehouse Ham, Spoonbread, and Scuppernong Wine.

Here's some background on stackcake from Dabney:

"This is probably the most 'mountain' of cakes. . . .One story goes that since fancy 'in fare' wedding cakes were beyond the reach of many...mountain families, neighbor wives would bring in cake layers to donate to the bride's family. Author Elizabeth Dunn confirmed the tradition, declaring a bride's popularity was often measured by the number of layers in her cake! As the layers arrived, the bride's family would spread the apple filling between each."

Since Dabney notes that "while plain applesauce can be used in such cakes, dried apples offer a much stronger flavor and therefore were the choice of most mountain cooks," I decided to use some of the apples that Alan gleaned and dried earlier this summer. I made a slow-cooked apple sauce from the dried apples with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and then followed this recipe for the cake:

Haywood County Stack Cake
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. soda
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 cup shortning (I used butter)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup sorghum molasses (I used regular molasses)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups applesauce
Sift flour, salt, soda, and baking powder. Cream the shortning [butter] and add sugar, a little at a time, blending well. Add sorghum [or other molasses] and mix thoroughly. Add milk and eggs, one at a time, beating well until smooth. Pour 1/3 inch deep in greased 9-inch pans and bake until golden brown. when cool, stack the layers (around six) and use the applesauce between them.

According to Dabney, "This 1800s recipe was used for many years by Mrs. Dolphus Kerley of Waynesville, North Carolina, who died in January 1948, just shy of age ninety. The recipe actually came from her mother, Mrs. Drury Bigham, of the Allens Creek section of Haywood County, North Carolina."

I modified the recipe in a couple of ways. First, I used butter instead of shortening, which worked just fine. I substituted sugarcane molasses for the sorghum just because I didn't have any sorghum, but I fully intend to try it again with sorghum for a more traditional taste. Also, I decided to make fewer thicker layers -- a major departure from tradition -- and used a bundt pan for the top layer. I lined the bottom of the bundt pan (which became the top of the cake) with fresh apples, about 1/2 cup of my ginger cranberry sauce, and a little (less than a tablespooon of) raw sugar.

Also, the recipe doesn't give an oven temperature or time - I baked it at 350 degrees and it took about 50 minutes before a knife came out clean. If you made thinner layers as the original recipe suggests, I can't imagine you would want to bake it for more than 30 minutes.

Here's how the cake turned out (above). It was unbelievably, ridiculously delicious. It had a very old-fashioned molasses-ey spice cake flavor, and was moist and luscious with the apple and cranberry sauces seeping into the cake adding deep, tart fruity flavor to the sweetness of the cake. Holy smoke, it was good.

I really loved the taste, and of course I loved the feeling of holding a thread spinning back through the generations of food tradition: baking a cake in the same tradition nurtured and passed along by other women in these very mountains years ago. And I loved altering the tradition to suit the particular moment -- modifying ingredients, personalizing the recipe - stirring individual creativity into the rich blend of food heritage as have so many people who came before.

Cooking from an old recipe like this makes me feel connected to my ancestors - not my genetic ancestors necessarily, but all of the people who came before me.

Visiting the Wild Relations

Eventually, after a couple of days centered around the kitchen, featuring much enjoyment of the stackcake as well as baked winter squash from our garden, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, and a huge pot of slow-cooked collards from the photo at the top of this post, we needed to get out of the house and move our bodies.

We all went for a long walk in the woods the day after Thanksgiving, and came across two exciting things. First, we found a gorgeous hornets' nest. It seems to have been made by bald-faced hornets. It was incredibly light, with paper-thin walls made up of beautiful, overlapping swirls of grey and white. The nest was vacant and in pieces, which we picked up and carried home. Also we came across some fairly fresh bear scat full of persimmon seeds. Knowing that at some point in the recent past a black bear has passed through the very spot where I'm standing still sends a thrill through me. Thinking about the bear picking up persimmons off the ground, or climbing high up a persimmon tree to get to the sweet and sticky fruit feels to me like a little spell of connection with all of the wild animals in the woods. The forest was full of all kinds of activity -- but the hornets nest and the bear scat were the highlights -- little reminders of the presence of some of our wilder relations.

Large Enthusiastic Thank-yous

So I'm giving thanks for a few days spent with family and friends including a ritual of connection with the ancestors (baking stackcake) and moments of connection with all of our plant and animal relations (hornets, bears, trees, birds, woodland plants). I spent some time the day after Thanksgiving reading Ted Williams' The Thanksgiving Address, an interpretation of traditional Iroquois prayers of thanks-giving. The Thanksgiving Address is something that my dear friend Tyson shared with me from Williams' wonderful book, Big Medicine from Six Nations (pictured at left).

In the spirit of The Thanksgiving Address, I'll borrow the refrain from Ted Williams' version to offer my appreciation to the universe for the last few days:

Three times three times three large enthusiastic thank yous!

In gratitude...


*By "community" I mean a place too small to be called a town...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ellie's Ginger Cranberry Sauce - A Thanksgiving Indulgence

Fresh cranberries on the kitchen scale

Our Thanksgiving feast this year will include lots of local food -- sweet potatoes, potatoes, eggs, milk -- and quite a few ingredients straight from our garden -- butternut squash, pumpkin, celery, garlic, collards, dried sage and thyme, along with some soup stock we put away over the summer which we'll use for making gravy and dressing. But at least one thing on the table will be made from ingredients that come from far, far away: the cranberry sauce.

Fresh, whole cranberries are a delicious indulgence--a special treat that I cook up once a year in late November.

I remember exactly when I first made fresh cranberry sauce. It was November of 1999 and I was preparing food for my family's Thanksgiving meal. I was lucky enough to come across fresh cranberries and great advice about what to do with them all in one place.

When I first moved back to Western North Carolina almost ten years ago, I went to work at the French Broad Food Co-op, a long-standing institution and a hub of food community, food traditions, food activism, and social change networks in Western NC. I love the FBFC, and am so grateful for the role it has played for more than thirty years in building community, creating a market for healthy, local, and organic foods, and connecting people who care about food, health, and community. I met many of my first friends in Asheville through the Co-op, ended up serving on the Board for a few years, have shopped at farmers markets in the Co-op's parking lot hundreds of times by now, and have benefited from connection with the Co-op in far too many ways to count. One tangible benefit is this cranberry sauce.

That first fall that I lived in Asheville, just before Thanksgiving, the Co-op had a big bin of fresh cranberries in bulk in the produce section. They were so beautiful, but what to do with them? Next to bountiful pile of ruby-colored berries was a basket holding slips of paper -- copies of Ellie's Cranberry Sauce recipe.

Ellie is one of the original founding members of the Co-op and still cooks for and coordinates the FBFC kitchen and deli. She is definitely a food elder in the community, someone who has been preparing, sharing, and promoting healthy food for many years, sharing and cultivating food traditions across generations here in the Asheville area.

I have long-since lost that slip of paper-- it's probably somewhere in a bag or box with other miscellaneous slips of paper somewhere. But I learned two things from the recipe. One: how easy it is to make really delicious whole cranberry sauce--what a revelation! And two: the extra deliciousness that is possible with one signature ingredient -- crystallized ginger.

Ever since that first foray into cranberries inspired by Ellie's recipe, I've made the brilliant scarlet sauce at Thanksgiving time every year. Now I make a sauce loosely based on the classic and simple Joy of Cooking recipe, but substituting Ellie's signature crystallized ginger for half of the sugar.

Here's the recipe:

Ginger Cranberry Sauce a la Ellie

1 pound fresh cranberries
2 cups water or 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup raw sugar
1 cup minced crystallized ginger
1 cup walnuts (optional)
Orange slices and orange zest (optional)

  • Wash and pick through the cranberries, removing any stems and rotted or bruised berries.
  • Finely mince the crystallized ginger.
  • Mix water and sugar in a saucepan big enough to hold all of the cranberries. Bring the water and sugar mix to a boil; boil the syrup for 5 minutes.
  • Add the cranberries and the chopped ginger. Stir very lightly, just to incorporate everything into the syrup.
  • Cook uncovered very gently without stirring until the berries are soft and you have a thick sauce. DON'T overcook the cranberries. If they start to pop and burst, it's just past time to stop cooking.
  • Chill in a mold, or just serve in a bowl. Garnish with orange slices and orange zest.
  • Eat at your leisure throughout late November and December. Keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator.

The finished sauce, ready to chill

All in all, this is a sauce of ingredients that I consider exotic, and therefore a rare and decadent indulgence. None of the ingredients --sugar, cranberries, and ginger--can be grown around here, though I am still holding out hope that we might have some success with highbush cranberries, and maybe grow some ginger in the greenhouse. If you add oranges, you up the exotic (non-local) ante even more.

This is all just to say it's a special treat, a treat that takes me out of ordinary time. Its glassy, ruby gorgeousness, the texture of silky, sticky, and plump cranberries that burst in your mouth, and the spicy-sweet tartness are an incredible culinary experience. It looks like stained glass on the Thanksgiving table, and it is a perfect complement to the savory flavors of traditional Thanksgiving fare.

I remember how amazed I was to discover that this luscious and beautiful treat was so simple (just 3 essential ingredients), so quick, and so easy. I usually make a big batch the day before Thanksgiving. I use a pound or two of cranberries and keep whatever is left after Thanksgiving to pile on Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches, to snack on throughout December, and to serve the last of for Solstice and Christmas feasts.

Today I'm giving thanks for all of those who have stewarded and shared food traditions down through the ages. And especially I am thankful for my "food elders" who have taught me about growing, preserving, and preparing food to nurture and sustain our bodies and souls. I am grateful for all of those who have shared food, who worked to ensure that all are fed, and who have cultivated community with food traditions old and new. And for all of those who work growing food to nourish our bodies and care for the earth, I'm giving thanks.

With profound gratitude: Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Winter Reading: From Scuppernongs to Switchel

When it gets cold outside, there's nothing I like more than curling up somewhere with a hot beverage, a cat, and a book. I come from a long line of bookworms, librarians, word-lovers, readers, writers, and other nerd-types. Book-loving is in my blood.

If the book contains recipes, food history, and stories about food, all the better as far as I am concerned. One of my all-time favorites is 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, by a hero of mine, seed saver and historian William Woys Weaver.

So I can't tell you how excited I was to be introduced last night to this book: Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine by Joseph E. Dabney. We were having dinner with our good friends Bud and MF. After a highly satisfying meal of stuffed butternut squash, cream of broccoli soup made from broccoli from their garden, and a creamy custard for dessert, we retired to the living room to talk about James Bond movies (!), Noam Chomsky, and traditional mountain "stack cakes." This last topic lead to MF whipping out the aforementioned book.

We found several very fine stack cake recipes within, but that was just the beginning. This book is a treasure trove of Southern Appalachian food lore, food histories, food traditions, and recipes. It's one part oral history, one part cookbook, and one part hymn to the people and traditions of the Southern Appalachians. It is meticulously researched and written with the reverence and relish of a person who has cultivated a long-lasting and deep love of food and food traditions.

I quickly became completely absorbed -- a whole chapter on sweet potatoes, another on persimmons, and a veritable profusion of information about old-time food-preserving techniques. Very old Cherokee recipes, wild foods traditions, and chapters on moonshine, wine, and beer. Recipes calling for everything from "several squirrels" to "Tennessee truffles," otherwise known as ramps. A section on "The Art of Growing" in the southern mountains. And lots of amazing old photographs of places all around where I grew up and where I live now. This is so far up my alley it's out the other side.

In the 12 or so hours since MF kindly lent me her copy (seeing the pain it would cause me if she didn't), I have spent most of my waking hours falling in love with this book. I stayed up late reading Christopher snippets about the history of wild grapes in North Carolina, and opened it up first thing this morning to read about possum hunting.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As I try out recipes, I will post some of them, and I'll write more about Dabney's exhaustive survey of mountain food culture as I read and re-read it, I am sure.

On a related note (food traditions, books I love, recommended reading for cold days and nights), I was re-united last night with my copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I had apparently lent it out to MF long ago and forgotten. Christopher has had to hear me lament its absence many times in recent months, only to discover that it was safe and sound in West Asheville all along. I was very excited when MF whipped out my copy last night.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is only 187 pages from cover to cover, but it is highly concentrated. Like a thick mole or miso paste, it provides more flavor, substance, and hours of enjoyment than you might imagine. Wild Fermentation is chock full of recipes, food histories, stories from the modern food underground, philosophy, politics, and food lore from many traditions.

Wild Fermentation is the book that I used as a guide when I first began making krauts and brine pickles, ginger brews, kombucha, and other fermented foods. It is the single indispensable resource for people embarking on fermentation adventures, in my opinion, and an invaluable cache of fabulous food facts and folk traditions.

So there are two recommendations for winter reading. Though I am a big fan of libraries, these are books that I think it is worth owning. My copy of Wild Fermentation is well-worn already -- it has the creases and stains to prove that it's a book I pull off the shelf and use in the kitchen all the time. I am going to purchase Smokehouse post haste, and have a feeling it will assume a similarly revered and beloved status in my kitchen.

Happy winter, happy eating, and happy reading!


A note on the title of this post: Scuppernongs and Muscadines are wild grapes that grew rampantly in North Carolina before and at the time of European settlement. According to Joseph Dabney, they were still to be found in abundance growing wild in these parts as recently as the 1940s, and were used for wine-making, desserts, and an amazing-sounding ferment made from wild grapes and molasses, apparently based on a Cherokee tradition. Switchel is a delicious home-made soft drink with molasses and ginger, a fine recipe for which can be found in Wild Fermentation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Frostbitten greens and a single digit night

It got down to 8 (eight) -- yes, that's 8 degrees here in the valley night before last.

It had snowed all day Friday, and so we already felt pretty wintry. But there's nothing like a night in the single digits to let you know it's winter for real.

What with the extreme cold and the wetness, some of our greens got zapped, even under the floating row covers.

Above: greens before the frostbite. Afterwards, they looked much less perky.

We are still working on the post mortem -- was it just too cold for them, or did the wet snow cause the reemay to cave in enough to cause a "wet blanket effect" of cold wet row cover on top of the plants? Perhaps we'll never know.

Nonetheless, we ate well from the garden tonight with Dana-Dee -- dried black beans from the fall harvest, along with some of our garlic and the last of the peppers, and some nettles fritters made with nettles that Alan froze. And for dessert, some OUTSTANDING pumpkin bread baked by D. from a "Tennessee Vining Pumpkin" that she bought at the farmers market.

Dana noted that I think about food a lot (it's true) and we discussed such nerdy topics as the history of the French Broad River and water catchment. A delightful evening.

And there are still plenty of greens coming on in the garden -- lettuces, kales, chards, and lots and lots of mustards, bless their hearty little souls.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Al Gore on Energy Options and "Clean Coal"

KT sent me this great snip of the recent Digg interview with Al Gore - in this segment, he's speaking about energy options, including the myth of "clean coal."

Gore says here that "the phrase clean coal is an oxymoron" and is in truth "a very, very cynical, massive advertising campaign by the coal companies to promote the meme 'clean coal, clean coal' and it really is deceptive." He also offers clear options for energy independence and a sustainable energy policy:

Worth a watch:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Locro de Papas

Christopher and I were lucky enough to travel to Ecuador at the end of 2006 to visit my sister Mary, who was traveling and WWOOFing in various parts of South America at the time.

Of course two of the things I was most excited about in Ecuador were eating and talking with people about food. I loved the traditional foods of the high Andean areas of Ecuador. In general, the food was hearty, hot, creamy, and delicious. I did not sample the cuy, whole roasted guinea pig with teeth and all, so some would say my Ecuadorian culinary experience was incomplete, but I did eat Locro de Papas as often as possible.

Left, above: I ate my first bowl of Locro in this plaza in Quito, the capital of Equador. It was our first evening in the capital, and I savored my Locro with a hot mug of coca leaf tea. Mmmm!

Left, below: the view from the cafe.

Locro de Papas, often just referred to as Locro, is a creamy potato soup that varies from region to region, town to town, and probably household to household in Ecuador. And it is delicious. The Andean region is the ancestral potato homeland, and potatoes and quinoa are still the staple crops in the high mountains of Ecuador. Ecuadorians have had thousands of years of practice in preparing potatoes, and have perfected potato cookery as far as I am concerned. Every menu I saw in Ecuador included potatoes in one form or another, and Locro was almost always offered.

Lorco, a traditional dish tracing back to ancient times, is a great example of a food tradition that evolved to suit precise regional conditions. When you are high up in the Andes, there is no more perfect food than a hot, creamy, stick-to-your-ribs potato soup. In every spoonful, I felt like I could taste the flavors of generations of Locro spooned out of big ceramic kettles by thousands of grandmothers. What all of the Locro variations had in common were potatoes and salt. From that base, there were lots of variations.

My favorite Locro, eaten at around 11,000 feet in elevation, included homestead cheese from the town we were in, local potatoes, and Andean quinoa. It was served with fresh greens from a kitchen garden out back.

We took these photos of the mountains around the town where I ate my favorite bowl of Locro. There were thermal springs bubbling out of the ground, snow- capped volcanoes towering above us, and Andean Condors soaring overhead. I savored a perfect bowl of soup while Christopher feasted on local trout caught about 1/4 mile from our table. Definitely a peak food experience.

I've been working on a Locro recipe, and finally have one to share. This is definitely the time of year for Locro here, with local potatoes widely available and cold, wet weather driving us inside in search of hot soup. Here goes:

Locro de Papas with Quinoa

  • 1-2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 8 cups of water
  • 4 pounds potatoes, peeled and “cracked” – see below
  • ¼ cup butter
  • Salt to taste – at least 1 tsp
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 finely chopped yellow chili peppers or yellow sweet peppers
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 pound Muenster or other very melty and mild cheese, grated

  1. Cook the quinoa ahead of time. I like to cook up a big batch and use some of it for this and the rest for other meals throughout the week. I have been using heirloom red quinoa lately, but you can use any variety.
  2. Prepare the potatoes: rather than cutting them up, “crack” them like so: push the tip of a knife into the raw potato and then twisting it so that the potato breaks. This preparation supposedly releases more starch from the potatoes for a creamier texture.
  3. In a large, heavy pot, heat the butter and stir in the salt, paprika, and cumin.
  4. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until the onions are soft. Add the chili peppers or sweet peppers and cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Add the water and the cracked potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes.
  6. Mash up the potatoes with the back of your spoon or a potato masher as you stir. Once the potatoes have released their starch and the soup has taken on a creamy texture, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes disintegrate completely.
  7. While you are cooking the soup, roast the whole head of garlic, peel, and then mash the soft, roasted cloves into the soup pot.
  8. Continue cooking on low as long as you like. About 10 minutes before serving add grated cheese and cooked quinoa, and turn off the heat. The residual heat of the pot and soup should be enough to melt the cheese without overcooking it. You can also add a bit of milk, half-and-half, or cream at this stage if you like.
  9. Stir a few last times and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  10. Serve topped with generous slabs of fresh avocado.

~ I recommend cooking Locro in a cast iron Dutch oven. Any big, heavy pot will do, but a seasoned cast iron Dutch oven is the best.

~ The peppers are optional. I have been using the last of the “Golden Treasure” peppers left over from our late summer garden.

~ I used Muenster cheese because it’s the right texture since I can’t get Ecuadorian cheeses here. You could also use mozzarella or queso fresco.

~ The roasted garlic is a departure from traditional recipes - you can leave it out if you like.

Left: Me looking into the kitchen garden of the purveyor of my favorite Locro, at 11,000 feet in the Andes.

So Alan and Christopher and I shared big bowls of Locro de Papas here in our own mountains last eve--we had ours with chunky bread, a salad from the garden topped with radish relish, pumpkin seeds, and dried pears from Hans.

It was in the low twenties outside as we sat snug around the kitchen table with our soup bowls. It had flurried all day and low clouds were settling in the valley around us. The creamy sensation of spoonfuls of Locro de Papas in our mouths and the warm satisfied feeling of bellies full of hearty soup created a perfect comfort-food experience on a cold, wet night in the mountains.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Keep Farmers Farming

I serve on the Board of Directors of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), the organization that produces the Local Food Guide, helped get the Asheville City Market off the ground, and does lots more to promote local food in western NC. If you don't know what ASAP does, you're not alone. Best known as "the people behind that green thousands of miles fresher bumpersticker" or "the people who put out the Local Food Guide," ASAP has been quietly creating and expanding markets for local food all throughout this region. If you live in western North Carolina and you've enjoyed local produce in recent years, you may have ASAP to thank, in addition to your farmers, whether you know it or not! ASAP also does a lot to increase access to local food, including coordinating a farm to school program, Growing Minds.

Danny McConnell, a local farmer who inspires me bigtime, is also an ASAP Board Member. He wrote the letter posted below, an appeal to "keep farmers farming."

I am posting this with deep gratitude for all of those growing food in these parts, and in hope that all of us who care about local food, healthy local economies, and preserving farming as a way of life will support the organizations working hard to create systems to support local food.

Click here to make a donation to ASAP.

Click on the image below to enlarge Danny's letter and read it.