Squirrelling Away …

Pantry 2008 Now the Farmer’s Almanac is saying it’s going to be a very cold winter, and I have to say, if my mania for getting organized and stocking up is any indication, they’re right. It wasn’t a great year for jams and preserves — I didn’t get any cucumbers so I’ll have to make do with what’s left of last year’s pickles, but I did put up some gingered plum jam, some apricots in vanilla-cardamom syrup, peach chutney and tomato salsa. I’m hoping for another batch of tomatoes because I like that salsa — it’s clean and bright and it canned really well.

I also did a “big” grocery shopping this weekend, stocked up on pasta and canned goods and got my supply of beans all organized. I also ordered a few varieties that I’ve run out of, flageolet, cannelini, marrow and some Santa Marias from Steve at Rancho Gordo. While it might seem odd to order a staple like beans online, and while I considered the 69 cent bag of beans in the grocery store, I like Steve, and his beans are so much better — really — fresh, delicious, gorgeous, that I went online and placed a little order. They’ll last me all winter. I managed to resist going crazy in the pasta aisle this time — whenever I get nervous about the state of the world, impending financial meltdown, scary election, the Farmer’s Almanac saying it’s going to be really really cold, I find myself in the 2-for-1 Barilla aisle buying pasta. My brother used to tease me when he’d come home and find the pantry full of blue boxes, “feeling anxious, are we?” he’d ask. I have so much pasta in there that even in my current state of existential wobbliness, I resisted the siren song of dried pasta. It’s cheap. It keeps forever. If you really get stuck, say like in graduate school when sometimes it was a week or so at the end of the month when you were living off your change jar, well, you can always survive on pasta: pasta with garlic and oil, pasta with a can of tomatoes and an onion, pasta with butter and cheese.

And because we all live with our windows open all summer, the big cleaning of the year is not in the spring, but in the fall. It’s windy here, and dusty, so when the time comes to close the windows there is often a thin layer of dirt on everything — baseboards, windowsills, the corners where the vaccuum doesn’t quite reach. It was one of those weekends. I cleaned. I re-organized my closet. I slow-cooked. I organized the pantry. If by some strange chance all roads into Livingston are shut down this winter, I can survive out of my pantry. I’m ready.

Clothesline in my Basement

basement clothesline The weather turned on us last weekend when I still had a load of clothes in the washer and I’ve become so accustomed to using my clothesline that I was kind of upset by the thought of running the dryer.

When I ordered the Clothesline of My Dreams last summer I also ordered this little retractable one, but it had languished in the tool/junk cabinet all summer. It was a cinch to put up — and it seems reasonably sturdy. The clothes take a lot longer to dry in the basement, and since out of sight is out of mind those clothes have been hanging down there for weeks (to do list: must fold laundry), but they’re dry.

When I first moved in there were a lot of clotheslines in the basement — and the eye bolts are still there, but they were strung in such a way that they were always in the way, and yet somehow still a pain to use. We’ll see whether I keep up the line drying over the winter. It helps that I can’t stand the dryer noise.

Stinky Dog

stinky dog If you look closely you’ll see a bad bad stinky dog’s nose poking out from inside the bathtub. For the second time this week, Raymond found a dead thing in the dog park and rolled in it. Tuesday I took him to the new groomer who is two blocks away, but as great a job as she did, I didn’t feel like paying for grooming twice in one week.

One of the older guys who hang out at the dog park in the mornings suggested this miracle dog de-stinking mix: baking soda, shampoo and hydrogen peroxide in a bucket (actually, he suggested dish soap but I thought I’d at least give Mr. Stinky some shampoo). So I put a towel on the bottom of the bathtub to keep Mr. Stinky from slipping, tied his leash to the washcloth-rod (which I had installed with these situations in mind) and sponged him down with the contents of the de-stinkifying bucket.

It worked! He no longer smells like what I hear is a dead cat.

Closing the Windows

Sigh. It’s that time of year again. My house has been wide open since the middle of June and in the last week it’s become clear that it’s time to close the windows and, double sigh, turn the heat on again. It’s time to come inside. It’s cold out there — in the low 40s at night, and we’ve had rain so it’s damp. No more sitting in the backyard under the Coleman lantern reading novels into the night. Even with the firepit going, it’s just too cold, and too damp, and unpleasant.

Part of me loves this back-to-school feeling. I was in Target the other day and it was all I could do to tear myself away from the school supplies aisle — there’s a reason I went all the way to a PhD — I loved school. The chill in the air has come far too soon — I mean, it only stopped snowing on June 17 — but that turn of the planet always feels to me like a hopeful new start. And I have work to do — I need to get back to this blog after a slacker summer, and there’s a novel manuscript that is three chapters long that has been languishing since spring.

And there is still work to do in the garden — the tomatoes are tucked away under a tent of six-mil plastic with jugs of water tucked in there to store heat overnight. The Galician kale is three feet high and will need to be harvested. There are three more cabbages and the mystery broccoli that is also three feet tall with nary a head in sight. We lopped off the apical buds hoping to spur the growth of side shoots — and there are a few shooty-looking things going on, but we’ll just have to see. If nothing else, we’re looking at a lot of fodder for the compost heap. The brussels sprouts are starting to get tall, the chard is finally firm and green and lovely, and the onion tops have flopped over. The carrots are also looking good and I’m trying not to let the cool weather fool me into pulling them too soon.

But I’m sad to see the summer go. We got snow up high this weekend, and it’s just over. Morning dog walks require long pants, socks, and a jacket now. And my windows are closed. My house has an inside and outside again, and this weekend I found myself at Lowes looking at storm doors. Winter’s on it’s way, and it’s supposed to be a cold one, with high energy prices. I’m battening down the hatches and filling my larder.

Hoarding the Bounty …

Over at the gorgeous A Way To Garden, Margaret asks what your tendency is, to savor or store the produce bounty that anyone with a garden confronts this time of year. I’ve written before about what an inspiration Joan Dye Grussow is to my garden project, and so I think there’s nothing more to say than, yeah, I’m a hoarder.

tomatoes 2008 So here’s this weekend’s tomato harvest. The weather has gotten cold, and I’ve had to cover the row of plants with plastic, so now we’re in that dodgy part of the year when I have no idea whether there will be more, or whether this is it (I do so hope those Marglobes get enough heat out there to ripen, because they’re lovely, and big).

tomatoes sorted 2008 Here they are sorted out — clockwise from the top right: Milano plum, Jaunne Flamme, Galina, Sasha’s Altai/Prairie Fire and a couple of early Marglobes, tomatillos. and Principe Borghese plums. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with them — I considered making sauce, but I have some left from last year. So I made salsa — I started with a recipe from Rick Bayless and fired up the grill outside. I grilled the tomatoes until the skins blistered up, then blackened some serrano chiles and the tomatillos as well. I made one salsa with the tomatillos, a serrano, a big handful of cilantro, and a clove of garlic. It’s delicious — very hot, but delicious. It only made one half pint so I just stuck it in the fridge.

I skinned and cored the tomatoes, which were kind of watery. I had to pour off excess water a couple of times before putting them in the food processor. I whizzed them up with a clove of garlic but it became clear that the tomatoes were going to turn into juice before the garlic got chopped fine so I fished out the big chunks and moved to the mini-chop. I love my mini-chop, for stuff like this it’s much better than the big processor. I threw a couple of cloves of garlic, some salt, a lot of cilantro and the juice of 2 limes in the mini-chop, whizzed them up to a rough puree and then stirred them into the salsa. I also minced 2 small white onions from the garden and stirred that in, then added about half a teaspoon of citric acid just to up the acid level in case the tomatoes and lime juice weren’t quite enough. Then I cold packed them in sterilized half-pint jars. After I made the peach chutney (another post) I put all 12 jars in a hot water bath and processed them for 45 minutes. Here’s the fruit of those labors — a dozen little jars of stuff for winter. Sauces that I know exactly what’s in there and where it came from — the salsa came out delicous — I haven’t tried the processed salsa, but the cup or so that was left over and went in the fridge is lovely. I’ve been eating it on everything — eggs especially. All hoarded away on the top shelf in my pantry. I love looking up there and seeing what I’ve stored away, knowing that in a blizzard I’ll be fine. And I’m not entirely selfish with it all — all my loved ones get Christmas baskets with whatever I’ve been making this year. But there’s that funny part of me that wants to put up all my food for the winter from my backyard — the same part of me that greets any financial anxiety, no matter how minor, by stocking up on dried pasta. A barometer of my anxiety level — how many boxes of Barilla are there in my pantry? Chutney and Salsa

Making Stuff

big cabbage Here’s my first cabbage — isn’t it beautiful? There are three more out there starting to head up, and this is one of those items I wish I had a more traditional plot for — I can see the glory that would be a couple of long rows of pretty cabbages. I think next year I can grow a few more, but the hoarder in me wishes I could grow a whole winter’s worth of lovely cabbages and then store them in the root cellar I don’t have. As I told a girlfriend the other day, I think deep down inside I’m an 80 year old immigrant granny trying to feed everyone out of the backyard.

So I was looking at this cabbage and after I pulled off those big outer leaves, I just couldn’t bear to throw them away. I’ve been slightly obsessed with stuffed leaves this summer. It was Mark Bittman who started it all with this lovely recipe for stuffed chard that he ran on his site. I still haven’t made that exact recipe yet, but I’ve become slightly obsessed with wrapping various saffron rice mixes with leaves from my garden: chard, Galician kale, and now, savoy cabbage.

I also never really understood the point of stuffed cabbage before. It’s one of those recipes like braised lettuce and peas, which I first read about in a couple of French cookbooks, that didn’t make sense until the garden — just as the peas come in the lettuce is also glorious. In that context, of course you’d cook the two together, and what a lovely surprise. So here I was with eight gorgeous cabbage leaves, and some leftover pork braised in milk in the fridge that I was getting bored with reheating. So I cooked up a batch of saffron rice — not risotto but basmati with saffron. I reheated the pork and shredded it up in a big bowl, when the rice was done I mixed in what seemed like a good mix, about half and half I suppose. It needed a little more color so I chopped up some Principe Borghese tomatoes from the pile I was using for salsa and threw those in as well. It was pretty. It smelled good. Next I blanched the cabbage leaves, then started rolling.

plastic tray molds  I have these funny little plastic trays from that winter after Patrick died when I ate so much frozen lasagne and mac-and-cheese. I kept them because they’re the same size as these ceramic bakers I bought when I first moved up here (bakers Patrick called “tragic single-chick dishes” which makes me giggle every time I pull them out). It took me a while to learn that it’s easier to vacuum seal things after they’re frozen than before, but I often use these to freeze dinner-sized portions, so that’s what I did with the stuffed cabbages. I did four of these, froze them, then this morning I pulled them out of the freezer and vacuum packed them.vacuum sealed stuffed cabbage

So now I’ve got four meals all set to go, tucked away in the freezer. I suppose if you don’t enjoy puttering around in the kitchen, this would seem like a total waste of time — but for me it was all part of the larger creative project that is my garden. I was joking with my Milk Lady the other day that I could probably have written two more novels with the creative energy I’ve spent on that back garden, but it’s been a really compelling project these past five years. And there’s such pleasure in figuring how not to waste anything, how to make something interesting out of what I’ve got rather than starting with some recipe, then shopping for the things to make it. And essentially, I just like making things. Learning to roll stuff in leaves has been fun. Learning to grow a cabbage was fun. Watching something I’d imagined come to fruition is the whole point, whether it’s in my garden or downstairs at my writing desk.

And besides, summer is over now, the kids have gone back to LA, it’s raining a beautiful slow soft soaking rain today which reminds me that winter is bearing down upon us, and all of us writers here in my little town will be digging in, taking advantage of the cold and the dark to get back to work. It’s my other project for today — pulling out the manuscript that’s gone feral over the past four months and getting back on track.