Naturing

Forsythia: planted last fall; blooming this spring

 

Looking up through a sun-kissed maple

 

Could these be poppies?

 

Rhubarb

 

Soapwort

 

Deutzia

 

Cranesbill

 

Lacinato kale seedlings

 

Potted herbs

 

Fern fronds unfurling

 

African violet blooming on the coffee table

Ever since I wrote my Nature as Therapy post, I’ve been trying my best to pay close attention to nature, both outdoors and in.

I drank in the show my forsythia put on this spring.

My 12-year-old son and I marvelled at the quality of light that was filtering through the sweet green of newborn leaves as we walked home from school.

I reached back to memories of my mother-in-law’s garden and hoped my analysis (hmm…I’m thinking those are poppies) would prove correct.

I’ve harvested (at her request) stalks of rhubarb so my daughter can bake fruit crisps and cobblers.

I’m breathing in the unfolding beauty currently taking place in my front garden: my favourite soapwort a mass of tiny pink flowers, a delicate Deutzia shrub, several plantings of blood-red cranesbill.

I made newspaper pots and started lacinato kale seeds, nurtured them into being and have (somehow) kept them alive long enough to plant in my veggie garden.

I bought several pots of fresh herbs, snipped the required amounts to make another batch of this vegetable broth concentrate, and am now DETERMINED to keep these plants going (despite having failed miserably each and every other time I’ve attempted to keep herbs alive-and-well).

I tossed the you’re-too-difficult-and-you’re-just-bringing-me-down houseplants and am working diligently at caring for the ones that remain. I’m watching with delight as the re-potted ferns make themselves at home and send new fronds up through the soil and into the light.

All of this naturing — all of this deliberate noticing and nurturing and caring — has caused me to reflect on something my dear friend Rita said last fall:

I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

I don’t know if it’s the nature or the noticing or the nurturing or the caring … but whatever it is, I think it’s working, dear reader. All the worries, all the questions, all the fears … they’ve not been erased — they’re all still there — but somehow, in some barely perceptible way, they’re quieter … and I’m feeling just a little bit lighter.

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Serendipitous Gardening

As it turns out, sometimes NOT weeding ends up being a good thing.

(Which is surely a metaphor for something … )

Our almost-entirely-untended vegetable garden yielded ten squash this fall.

(TEN! Nine butternut and one spaghetti.)

Question: When would squash plants be considered weeds?

Answer: When you don’t plant them.

When I planted our veggie garden threw down some seeds this spring, not a single squash seed was sown — which means all these squash are a gift from our compost bin.

So, what to do with ten all-at-once squash?

We ate two in the usual way (for supper: one was roasted, one was diced and steamed and added to a dish).

Last week, I roasted another three:

Two trays went into the oven at once. I baked them at 350F for about 40 minutes.

 

And after puréeing the squash, I baked three double batches of “pumpkin” muffins:

Did you know butternut squash can be substituted for pumpkin?

(I didn’t … thank you, internet!)

In other compost bin news, ours also produced this wonder:

We don’t know with absolute certainty, but we suspect it was an avocado plant.

Nature amazes me.

Nature as Therapy

I took a walk along the lake yesterday after getting my 11-year-old part way to school.

It was a drizzly fall morning and the sky was purple-hued and the water silent and still and while I “should have” just turned around and gone home and dusted or swept or baked, I didn’t; I walked on …

Here’s something I realised a couple of weeks ago: there are now days in which I don’t step foot out of my house.

I used to take twice daily walks in order to deliver and fetch my youngest from school, but our routine changed this September when I began providing some before- and after-school childcare for my son’s friend whose mother is a nurse. While it’s entirely debatable whether one 11-year-old boy would have needed a mother to walk him to school, it’s an absolute given that two 11-year-old boys don’t need a mother to walk them to school.

Nope. Now, most days I send the two of them on their way with a wave and a Have a good day!, and the door is shut, and it isn’t opened again until 3:30 when I greet them with Hi! How was your day?

And it didn’t occur to me until yesterday’s walk, when I felt myself breathing deeply for what felt like the first time in days, the air damp and sweet, the raindrops a gentle shiver on my umbrella, that I may have inadvertently made things harder for myself these past couple of months. Not only am I dealing with messy and depressing emotions, not the least of which is having children grow up and become old enough to go off to university (or to walk to school independently), but in the midst of all of it, I’ve allowed myself to forget something vital, something I’ve known for a long time: namely, that nature is healing.

I felt this healing power once before: a long-ago trip to the Rocky Mountains, post-miscarriage, somehow helped me to move past my grief. There’s something ineffable about perceiving your own insignificance while being surrounded by abundant life: walking along a trail and taking in the impossibility of tall spruce perching on craggy slopes; observing saplings taking root in infinitesimal nooks and crannies; feeling the surety that life will simply be — that the trees will continue on just fine without us, thankyouverymuch, that they will remain standing long after I — and any children I happen to be fortunate enough to bear — have passed from this existence. And equally important, or maybe even paramount: knowing just as surely that not all life can be, that seeds are spun that cannot take hold, that saplings wither before their time … and that this is not design or malice but simply chance, and that nature brooks no room for overwrought emotion when contemplating this. It simply is.

I’ve long felt I prefer my nature wild and untamed and — most importantly — out of the realm of personal responsibility. Nature is something that happens naturally, in wild spaces, and thus a backyard, a space which we in suburbia feel pressured to cultivate to Pinterest-worthy perfection, surely does not equal nature. Or if it does, then at the very least it must be well-behaved nature, nature that keeps to its boundaries, nature that’s always wearing its Sunday Best.

This is a notion I’ve long cultivated, and I’ve spun myself a narrative to illustrate my place in all this: I’ve told myself that I am not much of a gardener, that gardening is too much work, and that it’s work I don’t enjoy and don’t have time for. Indeed, I spent much of this past summer inside, shirking the outdoors, trying to escape the sweltering heat and humidity. What could have been medicinal doses of greenery were relegated to mere telescopic snatches through windows, and when I did step outside? It was overwhelming. Unchecked natural nature creeping over and displacing what was supposed to be well-behaved and cultivated nature: uninvited weeds; bullying perennials; a cacophony of overgrown shrubs; a blemished “lawn”; a neglected and accusatory vegetable patch.

But I’m now wondering: what if I tried to rid myself of the notion that yard work and vegetable gardening and perennial beds are only yet-more-work that isn’t-getting-done? What would happen if I led myself outside and let the wondrous living details of this abundant life embrace me? Perhaps I should be spinning the whole thing into a prescription of gardening-as-nature-cum-DIY-psychotherapy.

Thyme growing around and between paving stones; honey locust leaves: diminutive, and to my eyes, charming.
Autumn blaze serviceberry; so very aptly named.

And maybe if I did that, if I took the time to care for — and heal — my own small plot of nature, maybe that small plot of nature might in turn heal me.

Using the Freezer to Minimize Food Waste

I’ve never been much of a daytime television watcher —

(yes, this is a rather odd sentence to use to begin a discussion about food waste!)

— but this post is taking me down memory lane, making me recall some of my earliest parenting days and what was, in all likelihood, a rather obscure cooking show on CBC television.

We had moved provinces with our 8 day-old daughter in the fall of 1996. Nearly 800 km (around 500 miles) from friends and family, and with only one vehicle which my husband took to work most days, there were times when it seemed as though the walls were going to close in around me. And on some of those long afternoons, desperately needing to see and hear another adult, I would end up flicking on the television. I wasn’t much of a cook back then, but one of my favourite shows was the now-defunct The Urban Peasant. Its host, James Barber, is not only responsible for the salmon recipe that became — and remains to this day — our Christmas Eve tradition:

… but I also have him to thank for this very sage advice about parsley:

Wash it and chop it and freeze it, he said, and then you’ll always have a supply of fresh parsley on hand.

IMG_2873

To my I-barely-know-my-way-around-a-kitchen mind, that was a bit of culinary brilliance. It’s also a fantastic way to reduce food waste, because it seems to me that unless you’re using parsley every. single. day, there’s little chance of getting through a bunch before it turns to slime in your fridge.

Freezing that first batch of parsley all those years ago opened up a world of possibilities: what else could I freeze? I wondered, my pre-internet mind churning. Here’s what I came up with:

In addition to parsley, I also freeze that other item that frequently goes to waste: green onions. I wash them and chop them and then toss them into a plastic container, stirring them to ensure a good distribution of whites and greens, and then simply chop out a frozen section with a fork or a knife.

These ARE looking a bit frosty, but they’re still fine!

Also in my freezer? Jalapeño peppers. A while ago my grocery store decided they were no longer going to sell jalapeño peppers singly, but were going to make their customers buy five or six at a time, packaged on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic:

I complained to the produce manager, who sympathised, but said he didn’t make the decisions, and if I felt that strongly about it I should write a letter. Hmph! For a while, I refused to buy them, and made a second stop at another grocery store in order to purchase my single jalapeño, but then, one day, pressed for time, I succumbed and bought the damn package. Not wanting to waste the remaining five, and knowing that sweet peppers can simply be chopped and frozen, I figured there’d be no reason freezing wouldn’t work with jalapeños as well.

I de-seeded and minced them, and wanting to freeze them in one pepper-worth quantities, decided to use the silicone baking cups I use for making butter tarts at Christmastime. I squished the bits together, hoping it would freeze solid in a unit, and … it worked! Once they were frozen solid, I popped them out and transferred them to a plastic container.

My only concern is that now the baking cups seem to smell like jalapeño; I hope our butter tarts don’t take on a peppery flavour this Christmas! (There will be hell to pay if I wreck the butter tarts! 😉 ).

An ice cube tray might have worked just as well with the jalapeños. It’s my go-to tool for freezing tablespoon quantities of tomato paste:

So many recipes call for only one or two tablespoons of tomato paste. Why waste a nearly-full can?

I’ve also used the ice cube tray to freeze tablespoon amounts of the avocado-cilantro cream sauce from the Oh She Glows enchilada recipe. The sauce recipe makes far too much for one meal (IMO), and although we would occasionally use the leftovers to round out a snack of chips and salsa, more often than not a fair amount would still get tossed. Because this was really bothering me (avocados = California + drought = don’t waste them, Marian!) I figured freezing was worth a try. It worked like a charm and one tablespoonful was the perfect amount for one enchilada. Not only did this stretch one avocado to 15 enchiladas (three meals), it also made the two subsequent enchilada-cooking-sessions much less time-consuming.

One can also forgo the ice cube tray and simply drop tablespoon or teaspoon amounts directly onto a cookie sheet, and freeze things that way. This was what I did when I made this vegetable broth concentrate*:

Tomatoes are another great item to keep in the freezer, either fresh from the garden (washed and cored, but left whole, or diced to save time while cooking), or the leftovers from a can of whole or crushed tomatoes when you’ve only used a part can in a recipe. Also from the garden: kale, which I wrote about here.

Because we’re mostly-vegetarian, we eat a lot of legumes, and although I do use some canned legumes, I also like to cook my own from dried. Whenever I do this, I make a big batch and ladle them into lidded glass bowls and then store them in the freezer.

Another group of items I store in our freezer is grains, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains go rancid much more quickly than their processed counterparts because they contain the oily germ layer. Although not everything in the following list actually has a germ layer, I tend to follow the very unscientific, When in doubt, might as well stick it in the freezer! So in my freezer, you’ll find: brown rice, whole wheat flour, quinoa, oat bran, wheat germ, flax seed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and almonds. I also keep dried blueberries and both dried and fresh cranberries in the freezer.

And last, but not least, I keep almost all of our baked goods in the freezer. The sandwich bread I buy at the grocery store gets stored in the freezer and taken out slice by slice. I also freeze nearly all of my baking; the muffins and cookies I bake for the kids to take to school go directly into the freezer as soon as they’re cooled. This means I never have to figure out what to do with stale bread, and we never have to regretfully toss days-old baking.

How about you? What do you store in your freezer?


*There are many broth concentrate recipes online, and although I did use the recipe I linked to, I omitted the salt. The salt would have made the frozen concentrate “scoop-able” (because: science 😉 ) but because I like to have control of the salt in my cooking I needed to freeze it in quantifiable units.

Growing All The Kale

So I know I said my next post would focus on ways I try to minimize food waste, but unfortunately, that topic is still percolating. I’ve been spending a lot of hours at the school library, covering for my fellow parent volunteer who went on holiday, plus, as per the title of this post, I’ve got a whole lotta black dino kale to blame.

I’m shamelessly borrowing a phrase from Sarah, who quipped this spring that she was going to grow all the tomatoes.

My immediate reaction upon reading her words?

YES! Me too! Let’s grow ALL the tomatoes!

While I did find out later that Sarah had thrown the words out there in a bit of a joking manner, I was still *totally* on board with the goal. Three years ago, despite being a newbie gardener, I very nearly did manage to grow all the tomatoes; I had enough, frozen in the freezer, to keep us flush with “cooking” tomatoes from the fall through to the following May. But although I’ve not yet been able to repeat that tomato success (and this year is turning out to be another tomatoey disappointment) the kale is another story.

I like using kale in soups, stir-fries, and lasagnas, and it’s a nice alternative to spinach. Although I can buy kale year-round at the grocery store it’s only the curly type which is available, not the milder black dino (lacinato) variety we prefer. It’s also, no doubt, shipped all the way from California, and well, we’re not anywhere near California. So last year I decided to try growing it myself. I somehow managed a bumper crop and ended up freezing 17 batches, which got us through the winter. It was really nice to be able to simply walk downstairs to the freezer and grab a batch of the most local kale ever. So, wanting a repeat of last year’s success, I put eight plants in the ground this spring, the same number I planted last year.

Although I’m convinced black dino kale is one of the easier leafy greens to grow, I did worry, early on this summer, that — due to my own neglect — we wouldn’t be getting any at all this year.

I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener, and I have to admit that immediately after planting the garden this spring, I pretty much forgot all about it.

Watering? Nah, I’m sure it’ll rain soon.

Weeding? Um, no thanks … it’s too hot out there; later maybe …

Thinning the seedlings? Yeah, things have been over-crowded before, and it’s been fine; besides, don’t we want a bajillion cucumbers?

And then came the day I finally did go out there, and what did I see? Tiny green caterpillars making lacework out of the kale leaves.

Kale seems to be one resilient plant though, because after steeling myself (yes, I’m also not a particularly brave gardener) and shooing those wee beasties off with a popsicle stick, the plants recovered nicely.

So most mornings over the past couple of weeks I’ve been out in the garden, picking a bouquet of kale from each of the eight plants while leaving the bulk of the plant to continue growing. I (hopefully) shake off all the spiders (see paragraph above, with regards to bravery), and then I bring them in to process them.

I start by washing the leaves:

Then I remove the thick stems and chop the leaves:

The chopped leaves are put into a large pot outfitted with a steamer basket:

After three minutes of steaming, the kale looks like this:

It then gets plunged into cold water and spun dry:

And finally, the kale gets packed into lidded glass bowls or mason jars, and stored in the freezer:

So far I have 18 batches, which should take us through the winter, but there’s still quite a bit left in the garden to process:

Does anyone else have a garden that looks like ours?

(Is it wrong for me to be wishing for an early and heavy snowfall so I don’t have to deal with this overgrown mess? Or at the very least, a good hard frost so all the insects can just go away, please? Yesterday I went out to the garden to gather a bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wasp came into the house with me. I managed to get it out using the container and cardboard trick, but half an hour later, I was STILL shaking*).


* I’m such a wimp 😦 .