Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Planning a Kitchen Garden

Garden sign

In these last few days, I have been thoroughly immersed in planning next year's garden. Last year, I expanded the area of our yard planted to vegetables by moving azaleas and creating a garden bed alongside our front walk. This was quite successful, since I was able to take advantage of the sunniness of the front yard, and there was already an existing bed with defined boundaries. The one caveat was that, when the tomatoes finally really got going, it got a little difficult to walk up to the front door. Maybe slightly less leggy varieties are in order for the front yard.

Ahh, but it still wasn't enough! It was perfect for experimentation, for learning what kind of yield to expect from each type of plant, but in the end, I only got one eggplant. And it was beautiful and delicious... and I want more.

Pumpkin patch

So the plan for this coming growing season is to take a whole section of backyard, build four raised beds, and have a true kitchen garden. I want to see, if we plan well, how much of our own food we can produce. Of course, we still have those pesky HOA restrictions against chickens (grumble, grumble), so this experiment will be limited to fruits and vegetables.

I've chosen the site of my kitchen garden with several things in mind. For one, proximity to the kitchen! I can step out the back door of the kitchen, cross the deck, and pick some green beans. Also, in our largely shady yard, this spot is one that gets a bit more sun, as there is a small gap in the canopy of oaks. I can also keep an eye on it from the kitchen. And last but not least, it doesn't interfere with the more decorative landscaping in other areas of the yard.

One of the biggest investments we will make in our new garden is to fill the raised beds with good soil. To enrich the soil and keep it well-fed throughout the growing season, we hope to make use of our own compost for the first time this year. First, we have a traditional compost bin that has been happily working away at our leaves and kitchen scraps for several months now. We made it out of a big plastic bin, and have been very happy with how unobtrusive it's been. Easy!

But the compost I am most excited about will come from my very first livestock! They may prevent me from keeping chickens, or goats, or a pig, but they cannot take away... my WORMS! That's right, folks, I am the proud owner of a Worm Factory, currently home to 500 red wriggler worms, who are already hard at work processing our kitchen scraps and old newspapers into nutrient-rich castings. By summer, we should have a good regular supply of compost, including worm tea to use as liquid fertilizer!

The dead of winter is the perfect time for browsing seed catalogs. (If you have a favorite, please do share in the comments, I am always looking for new sources.) Once again this year, I will be using 100% organic seeds. In the past, my seeds have come from Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Change, both of which I have been very happy with. Choosing exactly which variety, narrowing down the range of what we will grow (from "everything!" to just "what will fit in our garden"), dreaming of what it will all look like and taste like... ah, this is what winter is for. And since we start as much as possible from seed, there's no time to waste -- some things actually need to be started in February! Before we know it, the dining room table will once again be covered in trays of seedlings!

A few new books have been well-springs of inspiration as I plan this year. The Backyard Homestead is full of practical gardening advice, as well as tips on preserving and extending the harvest (and lots of fun daydreamy projects like building a chicken coop... someday!). Also, I am loving The Family Kitchen Garden, a book I picked up a few days ago and have hardly put down since. So much wisdom about gardening with children, including great practical advice on companion planting. This is very useful, since this year I fully intend to be a bit less whimsical in my garden planning. For instance, I will not plant a melon right next to my eggplant -- I spent the whole summer pulling melon tendrils off the poor innocent eggplant plant, muttering things like "keep your hands to yourself, sheesh!"

In June, when I'm outside trying to keep the weeds and bugs away from my precious veggies, I may question my sanity for ever having such grandiose dreams of backyard food production. But for now, snug in my warm house with the seed catalogs and the gardening books, it feels right to plan and to dream.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Winter stirrings

The whole issue of Santa Claus raises some interesting questions about how to handle topics of ... that which is not strictly literal, with one's kids. I struggle with the terminology because ... well, is Santa make-believe? Magic? Religion? How do you categorize a tradition like this?

I know a lot of religious folks who are anti-Santa, because they see him as a symbol of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. I can certainly see that point of view. But, though I do celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday and not just an excuse for presents, I embrace Santa. Not every aspect -- my kids did not write letters to Santa with a list of gimmes, and we did not visit the "Santa" at the mall -- but we do hang our stockings, and the jolly old elf does visit our house in the wee hours of the night, bringing goodies for the stockings and one special gift for each child.

I know parents on the other side of the spectrum who insist on "not lying" to their children. They seem to equate believing in Santa with perpetrating a fraud upon their innocent children. This puzzles me greatly, since I wonder... do these same parents not play imagination games with their children? When their child exclaims, "Look, Mommy, I'm a kitty-cat... meow!" do these parents quickly correct them that they are not really kitty-cats?

Magic. Do you believe in magic? Do you believe in powers in the world that go beyond the literal? Do you believe that people sometimes act, not in their own self-interest, but in selfless servitude towards others? Do you ever close your eyes and feel something touching you besides the wind?

I do. I believe my life is richer due to the magic around me every day. Call it what you will. In this house, we will lay out cookies tonight for an ancient saint, who will bring us a little magic on Christmas morning.

Snowy wreath

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, in whatever way feels right to you, and a joyous winter season to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas panettone


What's a holiday without some outlandish baking project?

I got the recipe for this panettone from my trusty Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It seemed appropriately over-the-top. And while not quite as easy as my daily bread, it was a cinch as far as outlandish holiday baking goes. (You can find the recipe over at their blog.)

The dough smelled amazing, but was threatening to overflow my 19-cup-capacity bucket. Oops.

Chilled panettone dough

This morning, with the dough appropriately chilled, I scooped out a handful and tried desperately to form a gluten cloak. The recipe called for the usual shaping, pulling the dough around to the sides until a gluten cloak forms. This stuff was so sticky, the whole idea of shaping was a joke. It ended up just getting dumped in the molds, helter-skelter.

Dough in panettone mold

Then they're supposed to "rest" for an hour and forty minutes. When I do this stuff with regular bread dough, it rises during this "rest" period, especially dough that's in a loaf pan.

Before rising

But this dough hardly rose at all. So I was getting a little worried....

After "rising"

But the oven seemed to do the trick.

Panettones in the oven

And now... ta-da!

Full-height view of panettone

Full disclosure: I have not tasted this yet. But seriously, how could it be bad? They're gorgeous.

I can definitely see this becoming a holiday tradition. Lovely, lovely, lovely.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Feasting Season


I've been busy feasting. In more ways than one. It seems that sometimes, one is too busy actually living life to be able to take a step back and reflect on it all. Which is as it should be, truly. What else are January and February for?

Meanwhile, a glimpse of all of the various kinds of merriment that have been going on in these parts.

We journeyed to Maine, where we visited a farm, knitted, walked on the beach, and cooked yummy things:

The sheep at Wolfe's Neck Farm:

The headband I knitted on a cozy afternoon by the fire (bliss):

Popham Beach on Thanksgiving day:
November beach

Upon our return, we seemed to be thrust directly into the maelstrom of Christmas preparations. We have decorated, and shopped, and baked, and wrapped, and created... and of course there is much more to go! A busy time, but one filled with such delight.

And a brief pause to celebrate my birthday, amidst the holiday craziness. Speaking of craziness, my friends and family thought I was a nut for wanting to cook my own birthday feast. Thankfully, it was my birthday, thus I was able to do what I pleased. Spinach salad, with parmesan-encrusted broccoli and cauliflower croutons, sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage sauce, and a birthday couronne (just a wreath-shaped baguette, but it looked festive!).

Birthday couronne