Harvest Question

This morning I heard refugees from Myanmar talk about attackers burning their children, raping their women, and beheading their men.

A friend posts about fleeing Hurricane Irma before it bears down on her home, while the earth quakes under Mexican sandals.

And for some reason I am lucky enough to be sitting beside my dad in his combine.

He’s bringing in the harvest, like he’s done every season for most of his seventy-five years. My daughter sits on the plastic lunch cooler by his feet and grabs for his leg when the header lurches, hungry for bounty.

Later, we climb off the John Deere and head to the tailgate to look for more cheesecake. I lick strawberries off my spoon, feel the canola stubble pricking my jeans and reach for my camera to capture the sunset. How is it I can take a second helping of desert and snap pictures of the horizon while the same sun rises over Burma?

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cousins in the combine

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Fermented Sauce and Sundried Tomatoes

I can’t get over how cheap food is at the grocery store.

A couple weeks ago I canned tomatoes, and ladies and gentlemen, it took me ALL day to produce 8 measly quarts of sauce. By 9 pm, when the popping seals interrupted my inner mantra (never can sauce again, never can sauce again, never can sauce again) all I could think about was the incredible amount of labour and energy invested into the food we eat. I thought of raking last year’s leaves, battling with my pitchfork in the compost, digging holes in my clay soil, filling them with compost, transplanting tomato seedlings,  watering, and weeding, weeding, weeding… Well, the last bit isn’t true but it sounds good–and would be true for many of you. (I let my garden defend itself, after July 1. There are too many lakes to swim in, cousins to see, and roads to travel, to be pulling weeds.)

Food is costly. It requires energy to grow, harvest, prepare and preserve. In fact, just when I think the hardest part is over as I survey my garden at its prime, the real work of harvest begins. Unfortunately, this year it coincided with the start of school, music lessons, gymnastics, a new job for me, and birthday parties. Of course, the harvest is at the same time every year, but it always feels unexpected and requires more work than I anticipate. Like a needy house guest who stays a few nights too many. The first few bowls of tomatoes were were all fun and games when they showed up, but now I want them to go preserve themselves… which is what this post is about.

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roma tomatoes and thyme, ready to meet their new best friends, lactobacilli bacteria

So far, I’ve used three methods to preserve my tomatoes: conventional canning, fermentation, and drying. Canning results in the taste we are used to and makes nice holiday gifts for people we don’t really know, (only my favourite people get my ferments), but it takes too much work to belong to this post. I highly recommend fermenting your tomato sauce as long as you don’t do what I did:

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tomato sauce fermenting on my counter–don’t do it this way–

When I read about making sauce, I decided the part about “stirring your tomatoes everyday while they ferment” seemed cumbersome.*  Instead, I poured my sauce into jars and covered it with olive oil on Day 1. Why make unnecessary steps, I’d wondered. I’ll let it ferment in small jars, capped with olive oil, and save myself a dirty dish. Well, by Day 5 my sauce had fermented so beautifully, the extra CO2 (a normal byproduct of the process) pushed the tomatoes out of the olive oil barrier where they met with oxygen, creating the perfect conditions for mold. Fortunately, I realized my mistake and froze all the sauce before it went bad. For my next batch I will:

1. Chop or process any ingredients I want for the sauce (tomatoes, celery, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, etc). Fermentation is freedom; you don’t have to worry about acidity or ingredient ratios.

2. Add whey–2 or 3 tablespoons per quart (this is optional but it contains lactobacilli and gives the ferment a kick-start)

3. Add salt to taste–make it on the salty side (helps keep sauce good before fermentation takes over)

4. Pour sauce into a wide-mouthed, gallon jar and let sit on my counter for about 5 days, STIRRING EVERY DAY to make sure none of the sauce spends too much time at the surface.

6. Pour sauce into smaller, glass bottles, or jars, and cap with a layer of olive oil (about 3/4 inch thick) to prevent spoilage

7. Store in my basement**

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Brown rice pasta with fermented tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The taste is slightly different than canned tomato sauce–lighter, fresher and a little wine-y, but delicious.

Sun-dried tomatoes are my current craze. They top the charts in ease and taste, although they still require a commitment to get them into the sun.

The other day my principal approached me in the hallway to discuss staff parking.

I interrupted him, “Are you talking about the blue Mazda parked at a weird angle in the parking lot?”

He wasn’t. Then I had to explain why I thought he might be concerned: I had trays of tomatoes drying on my dash and I wanted optimum sunlight exposure for them.

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sun-dried tomatoes–this batch is crispier because I sliced the tomatoes a little too thin.

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Some of my paste tomatoes are small enough to slice in half or thirds. It’s best to slice them consistently  (3/4 to an inch thick) so they dry at the same rate but I never manage to do it.

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My mom, putting tomato slices on an old window screen that will hit the roof.

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I start my tomatoes on the garage roof for 2 or 3 days (taking them down at night) then finish them up on the dashboard of the car when they’ve shrunk in size.

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I always be sure to park in the sun, and if I get hungry while running errands, I have a snack handy. (Once they’ve been on the roof, they only need a day or so in the car.)

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Last-minute sushi made with sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese, cucumber and carrots.

How are you preserving your tomatoes? Do you have any suggestions, or fermentation stories, to share with the rest of us?

Happy Wednesday,

Tricia

*There are lots of books available on the art of fermentation. One of my favourites is this one from France.

**Remember the fermented salsa sitting in my basement? It’s still good!

My less-than-show-piece garden

I used to be so hopeful when planting my garden. I’d think about all the seeds ready to burst forth and imagine my plot carpeted with showy foliage. Every May I’d wonder if I should contact the local horticultural society to register my garden for the annual tour. It’d be a pity not to show this off, I’d think to myself. Then June would come. And the weeds. And the slugs. And the blight. And who knows what else. These days, as I seed my garden, I’m more pessimistic (realistic?) about the whole thing. When something actually surfaces–and stays alive despite ragged holes crunched out of leaves–I’m blown away. Flourishing, heck, even surviving, plants are a miracle.

Perennial violets are edible and medicinal. I tell my girls they can only pick them if they promise they'll eat them.

I tell my girls they can pick these violets (edible and medicinal) only if they promise they’ll eat them.

Someone asked me recently if I’d planted my garden already, after telling me she’d planted hers on Saturday. I looked at her hard and realized she meant something totally different than what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. I clued in when she said she’d finished seeding hers in a day. I imagined her drawing the hoe through deeply tilled soil, getting crumbly black dirt in the heels of her shoes as she dropped seeds into neatly spaced rows.

Rosemary that over-wintered--a total surprise for our climate!  I surround my rosemary with rocks for heat retention. (Not that this helped during the winter.)

Rosemary that over-wintered–a total surprise for our climate! I surround my rosemary with rocks for heat retention. (Not that this helped during the winter.)

My way of planting is a back-breaking, multi-day procedure. First, I yank out all the sunflower stalks and other woody material I didn’t clean up before the snowfall. Then there’s the seed bed preparation: I hack at the clay with my pitch fork (no tiller for me, no siree, that would be too easy) and then rub the hard lumps of clay into mini lumps of clay until my hands are raw. I plant wild, row-ish looking things that wind around scattered perennials and fall-planted vegetables.

Sometimes this works. Other times it turns out like the arugula bed I seeded a few weeks ago. The seedlings managed to bust through the crusty soil, and before they even developed their first set of true leaves something devoured every green speckle, in just two nights. My friend, Bonnie, says the deer are noshing on her new raspberry canes and special-ordered fruit trees. No, this gardening thing is not for the faint of heart.

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Lovage–a celery replacement great for soup bases. I know I’ve said chamomile is the hardiest thing I grow, but I was wrong. It’s lovage. Too bad we can’t survive on it.

Perennial green onions. They produce green onions all summer long and can be harvested multiple times. They are also shade tolerant.

Perennial green onions. They are one of my first edibles and can be harvested multiple times, producing all summer long. They are also shade tolerant.

When Belén saw the title of this post she wasn’t impressed.  “Why do you write just bad things?” she asked. I told her it’s not fun to read about perfection all the time. She responded, “I think you need a little good and a little bad.”

So here’s the little good: hardy perennials and wild finds. My perennials are mostly berries, herbs, and edible flowers and every spring I wish I had more. (All the above pictures are perennials.) When I’m sweating over my lumpy soil, the rhubarb, mint, and raspberries are already unfurling leaves, all on their own. Too bad there isn’t a winter-hardy tomato perennial! As for wild finds, we ate our first harvest of wild asparagus this week. I located the greenery last fall (see picture here to scope out your own) and marked the spot: third spruce tree along railroad tracks. We found it last Wednesday and we’ll go back for our third cutting today. So, if you see me walking around town with a knife, you’ll know what I’m up to.

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Wild asparagus–I leave the thin stalks to support root growth and only harvest ones thicker than a pencil.

Belén collected dandelions on the way and termed the whole excursion a "real success". I think this was mostly due to the dandelions.

Belén collected dandelions on the way to the asparagus and termed the whole excursion a “real success”. I think this was mostly due to the dandelions.

Belén and me

Belén and me.

So, all I can say is best of luck with your gardening endeavors! If you can nudge a piece of land towards production you’ve got my admiration. (Dirty) Hands down.

Tricia

Thank God I’m a Country Girl (who lives in the city)

Wheat harvest: My dad and 2 brothers farm together.

It happens every time my daughters go visit their cousins.  The whole car ride home is one long sigh and explanation of why we don’t live in the country.

This time, after we helped bring supper out to the field with my mom, Belén gave me the ultimatum:

“By my ninth birthday we have to be living in the country, or else…”

The 6 man crew stops for a hot supper.

“That would be great,” I reply, and I really mean it.  Instead of listing off reasons like jobs and land prices I think back to what I loved about being a country kid.  In fact, I always assumed my children would do the same things I did: raft down ditches in springtime, build forts a 1/4 mile away from home, clear snow off the pond to make a rink (or was that you, Todd?), bike for miles without encountering another soul…

My older brother (the snow shoveler) in his wheat field.

But the reality is we live in a 60’x100′ lot, four blocks away from a McDonald’s.  Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we imagined it would.

At some point during these lament-why-we-don’t-live-in-the-country car rides I usually like to ask my girls, and myself, “What is it that you like about where we live right now?”  Living biking distance from the library and friends’ houses are always at the top of our list.  I also think there is value in trying to live sustainably in an urban setting, since most people in the world will never be able to own huge swaths of land.

This is not to say we don’t brainstorm about ideas on how might get our own piece of rural property and join our generation of back-to-the-landers.   But to be honest, those conversations always end up with me questioning how we are going to shod our children’s feet, envisioning buck-skin wardrobes and a lot of stress in general.

Riding with Grandpa

This week was a double whammy. A friend of Stan’s invited us to his acreage to ride horses. If you have a girl you can imagine the consequences!

Belén started cantering with her horse (unintentionally) and she now considers herself a “real cowgirl”.

So here we are, with a street address and neighbours we can wave to while sitting at our dining room table.  Perhaps we will fulfill Belén’s wishes and be somewhere else by this time next year.  I’m kind of doubtful though.  In the mean time I hope to keep adding to our list of what we like about here; the place we’re at right now.

PS:  How many of you will be two stepping in your kitchen after you read this post, humming the song in the title?

PPS:  Did you know that Latin name for Goldenrod is Solidago and it means “to make whole”.  More on that later.

Solidago canadensis

Nothing cheers the heart like garlic

It was just before supper when my family looked up at me, all of them wide-eyed.  At first Belén thought I was teasing the girls, mimicking how they fight (we do that sometimes, now that we read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle).  Then she saw my eyes and knew that it was serious.  Daddy and I were not on good terms and I was letting him know it.

After we finished our sombre evening meal I decided to step outside for a little bit of fresh air before starting the bed time routine.

Before I knew it a little bit of fresh air turned into a harvesting frenzy!  With the sun sinking lower behind the trees I started easing  garlic out of the soil.  Anna, my favourite garlic grower, said this was a terrible year for growing garlic, so I was trying not to get my hopes up.  I pulled one out of the earth.

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You can see the slugs in the soil. Even though they were all over the leaves they don’t seem to bother the bulbs.

Then some others.

I grow a hard neck variety called “Music”. Even if I didn’t like the flavour,  I still might grow it just for the name.

And finally, all 84 bulbs.

The gold in the leaves means they are starting to die back and the bulbs are ready to harvest.

Not the same mama as the one in a hot kitchen an hour earlier

Soon I began singing, “My Antonia” along with Stan.  He had brought out his guitar and the girls were pretending they were at folkfest with their dollies.  I even started snapping pictures of the lettuce I had let go to seed.  Sometimes it bugs me to see it stretching high and leggy, knowing I didn’t keep on top of the harvest, but tonight they were the promise of seeds and another season.

With the pungent smell of garlic still on my fingertips and bundles of it curing in our garage I am thankful garlic is one thing that produces terrifically in our patch of clay.  And, I am thankful for days that end so much better than their middles.