Friday, February 24, 2012

Picture of the Day

It's been a windy, kinda snowy, cold day... But at least sunset looks cheery!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pictures of the Day

Watching thunderstorms build is one of my favorite pastimes. Today's forecast calls for storms before snow. I love how the skies are just beginning to look ominous.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Dark

The house from the front yard at 6:45 this evening.
I just took the trash out to the curb.

Well, we don't really have a curb. But there's a spot at the end of the gravel driveway, just past the culvert, next to the road, where we leave our trash and recycling cans to get picked up. I walked out there without a flashlight, although it was 6:30 and already dark. Stepping out into the blustery, rainy, and still rather warm evening, I was surprised by how dark it was. In the distance, to the south, I could see the lights of the towns of Casey and Greenup reflected in the clouds above. Otherwise, nothing but blackness. Perhaps my eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark, having just stepped out of the fairly bright (and full of music from the record player) kitchen, but it was dark. I stumbled a bit walking down the driveway pulling the trash can along behind me, but that may have been my own clumsiness. By now I know the slight westward curve of the driveway, and can feel it with my feet. But still, without stars, it is dark here. I've often mentioned the stars, and how amazing they are here in the country. But I don't think I've really talked about the dark. And how thorough it is here. It's something rather unnerving, really. As a guy who grew up in cities, I never really knew what dark was. When we first arrived, we were amazed -- nearly blown over -- by the stars. But it's on cloudy and windy nights like tonight that I know what night is. When I turned around, I could see the lights from the house. In real life, they appear much brighter than my camera was able to capture. The house looks warm, and festive, even though beyond the lights, no sound other than the howling wind and the mad windchimes could be heard. And over the house's shoulder, the lights of Charleston, glowing in the sky. So tonight, it's dark.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

And a week suddenly passes

Kerouac & Happy frolicking in the snow. 

Okra & Cosmos in the snow.

The fog came in waves across the empty fields.
 It's been nearly a week since I've last posted. I'm not exactly sure what I've done during this past week. I mean, I'm sure I did plenty: I read a lot, I cooked some food, I caught up on television sitting on our DVR, I worked on a puzzle, I visited with friends, I got a job. This past fall, I got a job at a local call center. I was told it would be mostly customer service, but it was mostly sales, which is something that I just can't do. And I lasted just about four months at it. Since then, I have been looking for work, and procrastinating looking for work. But the temp agency I worked for before called and said they had a job that is really customer service, and would I be interested in interviewing. So next Monday, I'll start doing work as a tech support agent for a local telecommunications company. I'm not thrilled about the hours (I'll be working until ten o'clock at night, and on weekends), but these hours will mean I'll still be able to garden and sell at the farmers' market this summer. Important things to consider. I may not see Rich for dinner daily like we've grown used to, nor will I see my friends as often as I'd like, but I need to be working, and it seems like I'll enjoy the job. So I have one more week before it starts. I've got a lot of work to do before I start working. I'm hoping to get flats built to start seeds in soon. I'm hoping to finalize my seed orders and get the seeds on their way. I've spent a lot of the past week with my head buried in seed catalogs, dreaming about summer... I have to admit that when I picture the plants growing, I tend to picture a weed-free, pest-free world of perfectly ripe fruit, abundantly growing. I know that the reality is often quite different. But when we open a jar of BBQ sauce, or canned tomatoes, or fruit preserves, all the work that went into growing that food is realized: it is worth it. The ability to eat food, real food, locally grown without pesticides, or chemicals, or genetically-modified seeds is so worth it. And I know that with my taking a full-time job, the garden may be more like a hobby garden this year, and not a full-scale farm. Yet.

I've been reading a book called "Growing a Farmer" by Kurt Timmermeister. He's a man who owned and operated restaurants for many years in Seattle before becoming a farmer full time. He has a small dairy and makes and sells his cheeses. He also raises hogs and chickens for food, and keeps a garden as well. While I do imagine making my own cheeses some day, the aspect of his life that really excites me are the weekly dinners he offers on his farm. Every Sunday (I'm not sure if it's just during the growing season or not), he opens up his kitchen for a meal made entirely from food from his farm: honey, meat, dairy and vegetables. This is something I've talked about with friends, and if it's possible to do, would be something I would love taking on sometime. One of the great things I am being reminded about in this book is that the transition to farming is not done overnight. It took him ten years from the time when he bought the run-down farm on Vashon Island, working on the farm on his rare days off from his restaurant until the time he was able to make a living from his land.
If you look closely in the shade, you can see it's frosty.
Taking a job that will likely relegate the garden from being my primary source of income to a secondary, possibly, hobby status, for one year is not a big deal in the long run. It's a necessary step, really, for me to earn more money than the garden can, so I can invest in making the garden profitable. I will still be a lucky, lucky man: able to spend mornings in the cool & quiet of the garden. I will still be able to sell my produce at the market, which was something I really enjoyed doing last year. And I'll be able to can and preserve as much food as possible throughout the growing season so we can enjoy it all year long. I'm trying to stay positive, and not focus on any of the negatives, because frankly, the negatives are really shadowed by the positives.
As I said, in some ways, I don't know how the week disappeared. Weather-wise, it was a week all over the place. It snowed, it rained, it thundered, we had fog and some of the fog froze to the ground. It was warm and it was cold. The crocus are still blooming, and have been joined by even more of their yellow friends. The birds have been particularly enjoyable this week. Flocks of crows in the empty corn fields, cardinals and finches and woodpeckers at the bird feeder. The ominous shadow of a buzzard over the house...
Hopefully a week won't pass until my next post. And hopefully I'll have made progress toward getting ready for this year's garden.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Bread And Flowers

The first crocus of the season.
 Just a few minutes ago, while walking the dogs in the sunny yet cold yard, I was thinking about what I was going to write about today. There is bread rising, so I knew I wanted to talk about that. And winter has finally really arrived. So I wanted to talk about that. How over the past week, we've had several inches of snow and nearly half an inch of sleet on Friday. How the wind has been taking our breath away as we walked around the front of the house and got hit by the west wind, full-force. How it's been snot-freezing cold at night, under the clearest starry sky imaginable. Stars stretched crisply from horizon to horizon, the cold immensity of space at our fingertips. House-shaking winds the past few days and sitting in cozy rooms under blankets, with dogs, reading and drinking coffee. The deep quiet of a snowy evening. Really, all the beauty of winter. 

But then, as I was trying to figure out what Kerouac was so interested in near the barn door, I noticed something surprising: the first crocus flowers blooming in front of the barn. Three of them, actually. Tiny, precious, yellow flowers. Growing right there, among leaves and the debris of the sunflowers. Their little yellow faces poking up into the sunshine, huddled against their sharp, green leaves. I knew I'd seen crocus leaves poking up in front of the house, but they all seemed a little paused by the sudden arrival of winter's winds. Hopefully they'll resume their growth when warmth returns. But here near the barn it must be a little warmer, at least underneath the leaves, etc. Despite the cold and the snow lying nearby, these flowers are steadfastly growing, whispering "spring..."

Stepping inside, excited to show the pictures to Rich, I was hit by one of the best scents I know: bread rising. Our bread supply is getting low, and every time I've purchased bread at the grocery store I've felt a like a failure. I just think I should be making bread rather than buying it. I know that Rich does enjoy a soft white loaf, made without high fructose corn syrup. And I admit I enjoy it as well. But really, homemade bread can't be beat. The crispness of the crust. The variety of flavors achieved by changing up the few ingredients that go into bread. The simple pleasure of making something so nutritious, so delicious, so wholesome out of nearly nothing. This morning I was excited to try a new bread recipe. It called for whey, which is something one doesn't normally have around. But I made homemade ricotta (again, something I'll never buy again having made it once) on Friday, and saved the whey, which is the by-product of bringing milk and buttermilk nearly to a boil, letting it curdle, and draining it through cheesecloth. The solids get caught by the cheesecloth, allowed to drain for twenty minutes, salted and voila! ricotta. They liquid that passed through the cheesecloth is whey, and contains much of the lactose, minerals and vitamins, as well as much of the calcium. This sweet watery liquid can be used in baking as a fuller substitute for water. The recipe I used this morning called for 3 1/2 cups of whey, mixed with yeast, whole wheat and unbleached flour, and salt. Simply stirred together and scooped into greased bread pans to rise for a few hours underneath damp towels, then baked. Right now the breads are rising on the kitchen table. The book calls for two hours of rising, but I may give it bit longer as our kitchen is rather cool, at 55 degrees. Both of these recipes are from "Make the Bread, Buy The Butter", a book that has quickly become indispensable in my kitchen. The premise of Jennifer Reese's book is that she wanted to determine whether it is better to buy or make certain things around the kitchen. Her comparisons are based on quality, ease, and price. Definitely check out this book.
Bread Loaves & the book from which their recipes came.

Five years ago, when I first started to make bread regularly, I was terrified of messing up bread. I thought it magical how four basic ingredients could turn into such delicious bread. When I lived in Europe, bakeries were wonderful places that I visited nearly every day. In Greece, it wasn't nearly impossible to buy what most Americans think of as bread: pre-packaged, enriched, and long-lasting. In fact, bread, by law, had to be sold the day it was baked, or the day after (at half price), and not after that. So most Greeks, as most humans do throughout the world, eat only fresh bread. And it's so delicious. Returning to the United States, I returned to a land without real bread. It was possible to buy it, and I did, on occasion. Baguettes or a French loaf, spending $1.50 for a baguette, or up to six bucks for a fancier loaf. Making bread is not only cheaper, it's so much more satisfying. I find it relaxing. Stirring the yeast into the warm water, watching it come alive, as it starts to foam. Stirring flour into the yeast mixture, adding salt, then kneading until smooth. I'm always surprised by the warmth of bread as I knead it. It's transformation from separate ingredients into a smooth, warm whole. Watching it rise, as its aroma begins to fill the room. And then the incomparable scent of baking bread. And the taste, oh the taste! I am already thinking about cutting off a heal of this warm bread this afternoon and tasting its warm & nutty goodness. 

Dark now, and nearly time for a cocktail to welcome the end of another great day in the country. Rich & I did some work around the house. I did so laundry, spent time outside with the dogs, enjoying the silence of the afternoon. And every time we stepped back into the house, we were awash in the scent of that baking bread. And it is delicious. The larger loaf had to go back into the oven for a few more minutes, because the center of the loaf was a little too doughy. But the bread is delicious, with a crisp but not-too-firm crust, and a soft and perfectly-dense interior. This was a bread that required no kneading, so it was really simple to make. I knew I'd have trouble with the rise because the house is so cool, but I let the loaves rise in the oven. I would turn it up to 200 degrees for about ten minutes, and then turn the oven off and put the loaves inside to rise. It took two extra hours, and still the one loaf could have used more... but they'll be equally delicious. I like the look of these loaves, with their little mountainous peaks. I'm looking forward to eating them this week. I imagine a spicy tuna salad or chicken salad... 

Alright, good night. Thank you for reading! 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

Briefly, on fog and potatoes.

The house, from the road to the west.

Our road.
Yesterday we woke to very dense fog. I have never tired of fog. As I write, many of my friends and family in Denver are getting a nice, big snowstorm. I must say I'm a little jealous. It took many hours for the fog to burn off yesterday, and it hit 60 later in the afternoon. Like it did today. It's clouding up, and we're due for rain, they say. But I'd really like some snow. A good break between growing seasons. With bees, flies and moths buzzing around, and plants coming out of the ground, it's got me worried...

Today I did place my first order for the 2012 garden... yellow potatoes. Had a special deal, so I'll be getting them free, so it was a hard price to beat. In the coming weeks, I'll be placing more orders, with the hope of getting seeds started by the start of March. Today, while buying vodka at the drug store, I talked to a woman who's daughter (or daughter-in-law) runs one of the CSA's here in town. She was saying they've been harvesting spinach and lettuce from the hoop houses... and it made me think that next year I'd really like to be telling ya'll about the fresh spinach and lettuce this time of year... I know that every season I'm going to learn more, and every season there will be more challenges. How exciting is that?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Picture of the Day

Our road, 8:30 a.m.
It rained overnight. Not too much, just enough to make the morning fresh & clear. Hopeful and quiet. And today was quiet... At one point this morning, outside with the dogs I thought I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. No wind. No birds. But there were bees. (Bees! This early!) And there were flies. And even some moths flying around. And flocks of geese flying high up and flying low too. I even saw a flock of swans, flying very low over the field to the west of our house, in a perfect V... Their long, white necks stretched out, squawking in unison. And just now, 9:30 p.m., outside with the dogs before bed, as we stepped outside to hear a nearby owl hooting in our foggy yard. And more geese. And the traffic on Westfield Road. But all-in-all, it was a quiet, peaceful and once again, unseasonably warm day here in Illinois. I keep thinking winter's just around the corner, but with the bugs waking up and the plants crawling out of the ground, either we're all in for a surprise, or spring's just about here...