The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Refrigerator pickles

We planted Edmonson and Japanese Long cucumbers and are now experiencing massive cucumber overload.

I'm brine pickling some cucumbers whole, but in an effort to keep up with the pace of production, I made a giant batch of "refrigerator pickles" too (ingredients shown above).

My refrigerator pickles are loosely based on Mollie Katzen's Wilted Cucumber Salad recipe, which has been a summer favorite of mine for years. Here's her recipe, from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest:

Wilted Cucumber Salad

Make this a day ahead so the cucumbers can fully absorb their marinade. This keeps beautifully in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or more.

2/3 cup vinegar (wine or cider)

1/3 cup water

4 Tbs. honey or sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

4 medium-sized cukes, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced

fresh black pepper to taste

2 Tbs. minced fresh dill

Combine the vinegar, water, honey or sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Heat just to the boiling point, then remove from heat. Place the onion and cucumber slices in a medium-large bowl, and add the hot liquid. Cool to room temp, add pepper and dill. Transfer to a jar with a tightly fitting lid. Chill until cold.

I like to add a fair amount of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley to this mix, and I use considerably less honey (about half of what Mollie calls for) and NO sugar! I'm not categorically opposed to sugar, but honey tastes a lot better in this recipe to me.

For this batch I increased the volume of everything but the sweetener in this by about 6 times, and threw in a bunch of fresh dill flowers and leaves.

Here's the finished product -- just shy of 5 quarts of refrigerator pickles. We'll eat some tonight with friends along with a bunch of other summer salads.

Making these is a warm reminder of my gratitude to Mollie Katzen, who was a huge part of my food education. I cooked from her classic vegetarian cookbooks all through high school and college and into my "grown up" years.... She introduced me to Swiss Chard, helped me survive as a teenage vegetarian in the sticks, and made me feel like I was part of a community that cared about food for years before I actually experienced that community in person.

I hardly ever use recipes any more, and if I do, I can't help but modify them (add parsley, decrease honey) but I still keep the old Moosewoods around as reference books, right beside "The Joy" in every kitchen I've ever established over the past dozen years. Thanks Mollie!


This is the first year we've grown cabbage, and we had a pretty good crop despite our naive lack of cabbage moth control at the beginning.

Some of the cabbage from our garden (top) is going into the current batch of sauerkraut. Making kraut is my favorite old-time way of preserving vegetables without heat or electricity. All that you need is a crock and some salt, and you are on your way to sour, salty, sauerkraut delights.

The batch that's fermenting now includes the aforementioned cabbage, a bunch of gorgeous beets I pulled a few days ago, onions, dill flowers, and carrots. Past experience tells me that the beets will make it turn out a very pretty hot pink color.

I could include a recipe here, but there's really no need for formal directions. Just chop everything up (I like to make beets and radishes super-thin, cut the carrots on a diagonal, and slice the cabbage in long, crinkly strips); smash it down in the crock as you go (I use a potato masher for this part); keep adding layers; and sprinkle a teaspoon or so of salt after every few inches of chopped veggies. Here's a picture (bottom) of the layers getting layered. Then put a plate on top and something heavy (I use an old Bombay Sapphire bottle full of water) and press, press, press every time you're in the kitchen.

Wait a few weeks or if you are a hardcore European-style krauter, a few months, and then, viola!

Did I mention it's very good for you?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Saturday Nite in the Swannanoa Valley

Last eve included an outdoor bath with banjo, bass, and bagpipe music wafting from the neighbor's place, and harvesting this basket of produce, which I carried over to the famous Healing Savvy Gardens for dinner, a walk, and an obscure French movie with SF, Seb, and LJ. We ate some excellent baba ganoush, too, and discussed tomato irrigation.

I received a very large zucchini as a gift, and learned a few things about the Spanish fascist dictator Franco.

Hot times in the ruburbs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Christopher's Sunflowers

At the end of last summer, Christopher harvested hundreds of seeds from sunflowers -- wild sunflowers, Mexican sunflowers, and various of the ten or so cultivars that we grew last year -- and saved them all in a big mason jar over the winter to replant this spring. He planted a giant patch at the northeast corner of our main veggie garden.

Now there are sunflowers blooming to beat the band!

Here (photos above and below) are some of the blooms in the big patch that C. planted. Besides being beautiful, they're highly functional. Their roots are breaking up the soil in a spot where we'll plant vegetables next year, and once they're done blooming, they'll make great biomass for the compost pile.

AND, they attract a swarm of garden helpers. I've watched all kinds of birds and insects get very excited about the mondo patch of sunflowers. There's a bright yellow gold finch who especially seems to love them, and the bees are all over them.

We want our garden to be swarming with beneficial insects, pollinators, and birds, so setting a table of big, gold, heaping dinner plates for those of the bird and insect persuasion is a wonderful way to bring them in.

It's hard to take any of the bloom banquet away from the birds and bees, but it's just such a pleasure to bring a few inside (see below)....

I'm feeling so grateful to C. for saving sunflower seeds and planting them - especially since he's out of town for a week, at what appears to be the height of the sunflower sunburst. It warms my heart to have these sunny reminders of him around the garden and house this week!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

Indigenous Permaculture

My dear friend Tyson introduced me to this organization, run by a friend of his who is a certified indigenous permaculture designer (wow, who knew there was such a thing!):

The Red Earth Action Project

And here's an organization that runs a certification program in Indigenous Permaculture.

It's interesting terminology, since one of the critiques I've heard of permaculture is along the lines of: "Some white dude from Australia didn't invent these concepts, he just named the things that inherently sustainable indigenous cultures have been doing forever!" I've long thought that many of the principles of permaculture are old, old ways practiced for thousands of years before the advent of modern farming. For instance, "food forests," or polyculture, which just means that rather than planting a uniform bed of one type of crop you plant a whole bunch of diverse plants together. Diversity, it turns out, is more robust and sustainable than homogenized sameness. True in human society as in the natural world.

Above: polyculture in our garden-- common sage, zinnias, and purple jalepeno peppers.

Below: our Three Sisters bed - an ancient tradition of biointensive companion planting/polyculture.

As much as our work here has been influenced by permaculturists, I've been resistant to using that label because of a sense that the ancient practices of growing food that we are rediscovering are far deeper than "permaculture" or any other modern school of thought. All of this reminds me of Farmers of 40 Centuries, which, although focused on China, Japan, and Korea, is all about ancient traditional methods of growing food.

I took a great class at the Organic Growers School a couple of years ago, taught by Jeff Ashton, where I learned that most ancient traditions of growing food are based on biointensive (lots of green stuff in a small space) raised beds with soild heavily amended with manures. Ashton referenced Farmers of 40 Centuries as a great summary of some of those traditional methods.

So call it permaculture, call it indigenous agriculture, call it biointensive polyculture, whatever! Regardless of the technical-sounding terminology, it's all about building the soil, paying attention, celebrating diversity rather than sterile monoculture, and working with the dirt and the sun and the rain to create something beautiful and nourishing.

: keyhole bed planted with amaranth, peppers, dill, okra, marigolds, beans, lettuce, cucumbers, eggplant, strawflowers, nasturtiums, and sunflowers.

Below: raised beds in our garden....bellflower, majoram, parsley, bee balm, chamomile, calendula, and basil in the foreground; black beans, crookneck squash, beets, onions, basil, broccoli, and tomatoes are in the background.

Coming Home to Abundance

After a week of air and car travel and some wonderful time in Colorado, I returned to an avalanche of vegetables.

I felt like kissing the ground when my plane landed in Asheville after 12 hours of travel -- so grateful to come back to these lush, soft mountains after the rocky and dramatic landscape of the west.

In the garden, everything is exploding in flower and fruit. Zinnias, nasturtiums, bee balm, fennel, calendula, poppies, strawflowers, and sunflowers are in full bloom. Japanese Long Cucumbers are coming in hot and heavy, bi-color zephyr squash is everywhere you look, greens are still kicking, broccoli is producing a second crop, peppers are starting to come in, and tomatoes are just a few days away from ripe.

Above: Japanese Long Cucumber plants jumping the fence....

At left: Some of the food we brought in from the garden this morning...

This morning's harvest included cucumbers, cauliflower, beets, onions, purple jalepenos, cherry tomatoes, squash, edible gourds, okra, dill, and basil. Last night we feasted on food from the garden - a perfect welcome home.

Christopher reminded me of when I used to brine vegetables, making a mixed crock of pickled veggies, when we lived in town. Since we had so many cukes and squash today, along with plenty of other brine-able veggies, I started a crock this afternoon.

Pickling in salt water, or brine, is an ancient and easy way to preserve vegetables for later use. No electricity or heat is required, and you end up with delicious sour and salty pickled veggies that last for months.

For more information on brine pickling, see Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation or Marilyn Kluger's Preserving Summer's Bounty.

Here's a summary of how brining works from Kluger: "Produce that has been properly cured in a 10 percent brine will keep almost indefinitely. The brine solution is strong enough to kill most of the bacteriathat are present when the vegetables are put into the salt water. Those that survive salt are destroyed in due time by the lactic acid that is produced by the bacteria themselves when they decompose the sugar drawn out of the cucumbers by the salt, through the process of fermentation. The lactic acid formed is responsible for much of the desirable flavor of fermented pickles."

A few years ago, when I was first getting way into brining vegetables in the summer for winter sour pickles, an old family friend told me that at her grandmother's house when she was a little girl, it was a special treat to get to go out behind the house to the underground root cellar and pull out pickled baby corn from a big crock to eat as a snack. She remembered the salty, sour taste of pickled corn as an old mountain tradition, one that had been lost in her family when root cellars and crocks were replaced by refrigeration and tupperware.

Packing cucumbers, squash, and okra into a crock today, I felt deeply connected to the long chain of food tradition that mostly women have stewarded for so many generations, handing down recipes, swapping techniques, and working together in families and communities to process and preserve food.

Here's a basic recipe for the mixed vegetable brine pickle I made today. I used the veggies that we happened to have in the garden today; you can use whatever is fresh and available.

Ingredients and Equipment:
  • Fresh vegetables and herbs: okra, squash, cucumbers, peppers, peeled garlic, small onions, cauliflower, basil, and dill
  • Sea salt and black peppercorns
  • Water
  • A large ceramic crock or (if you don't have a crock) a large wide-mouthed glass jar such as a cookie or apothecary jar (not a mason jar). You need a jar or crock with a mouth wide enough for a plate to fit inside. I used a 5 gallon ceramic crock, one of the best kitchen investments I've ever made, bought a few years ago from Lehman's.
  • A plate that fits inside the crock and something to weigh it down. An old-time method is to use a rock; I use a mason jar filled with water (with the lid on to prevent spills).
  1. Wash all of your vegetables and herbs thoroughly, and make sure the blossom-ends are scrubbed or cut off. You can cut up anything that's too large and unwieldy for the crock, and leave everything else whole. Put all of the veggies in the crock, and add pepper, dill, basil, and anything else you want to throw in for flavor.
  2. Dissolve salt in water at the ratio of 1 cup per 2 quarts of water.
  3. Pour the salt water over the vegetables until they're covered. You might have to keep making more brine until you have enough to completely cover the veggies. I used about 5 quarts of brine.
  4. Sit the plate inside the crock so that no air is trapped underneath it, and weigh it down with something heavy and press down.
  5. All of the veggies should be well underwater. If they are not, keep adding brine mixed at the same proportion until they are completely submerged.
  6. Throw on a little extra salt on top for good measure.
  7. Cover with a clean, lightweight cloth (I use a floursack dishtowel).
  8. Let the crock sit for 3-6 weeks, skimming off any scum that forms.
Brined vegetables can keep for a long time in the crock -- remember my friend's grandmother's pickled corn was stored, already pickled, in the crock in a cool place. Or, when the pickles reach your desired point of flavor, you can jar them up and refrigerate them, and they'll keep for a long time there, too. You can de-salt them before serving if you want by rinsing.

Some people desalt and process brined vegetables--Preserving Summer's Bounty has lots of recipes for pickle preparations using brined vegetables as an ingredient. I avoid heat-processing brined vegetables so that the beneficial bacteria that is created in the fermentation process is preserved.

At left: the beginning of today's mixed vegetable crock...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Making Blackberry Mead

A bunch of people came over yesterday to pick blackberries, and to make some blackberry mead.

Sebastian, Janell, and Sandi have all been making honey wines for a while, so they schooled the rest of us.

We picked a ton of blackberries--some of which are pictured above with some edible flowers we threw in for good measure (borage, nasturtiums, anise hyssop, and calendula.

There was lots of gossip, laughter and singing as we picked, including some impressive renditions of Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers hits.

We mashed the blackberries up by hand, and then mixed the mash with local honey and water and poured the whole mix into a 6-gallon carboy. If all the fermentation goes as plan, we'll drink this mead at winter solstice.

For more information on making mead and other "wild" ferments, see Sandor Ellix Katz's website:

For mead recipes galore, see this link...

As you can see, things got increasingly sticky...

Mead on Foodista

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Shooting stars, feasting local, and other miscellaneous updates

Sunday eve we hosted a shindig for 3 friends who are all former WNC residents who now live in the Bay was a delightful gathering, including a hearty feast of mostly local food.

We had potato salad with celery and chives from the garden, green bean salad with fresh dill, a big giant green salad from the garden (some of the elements of which are pictured above) with edible flowers, beets and radishes, and fresh herbs, 4 different kinds of local cheeses including Spinning Spider's brie-like Camille (baked with local honey on top--haysuess!), bread from Loafchild Bakery and from Annie's, roasted garlic from the garden, and a big omelet with broccoli and basil and oregano from the garden. All of the produce that we didn't grow came from the farmer's market. Woohoo! Summer is here.

After lots of indoor and outdoor merriment, people started to trickle off to their homes, including none other than Dana-Dee of blogosphere fame. While hugging her good-bye, I looked up to the night sky and saw a shooting star right streak downward right at that instant! As you will read on D's blog, it was quite special and blogworthy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"Off The Grid" 30 days

I came across this on hulu:

... the series is by Morgan Spurlock of "Supersize Me" and this episode features humanure and sheetmulching among other things...

July gardening....

Planting the last of the black beans tonight....after much very butch digging by Solon and Topher last eve (looking quite enthusiastic at right).

And the garden is busting out...see pictures below including very beautiful orange poppies...last night we had the first of the zephyr squash, with sauteed squash blossoms. Yum.