Garden report: Preserving summer sunshine

For me, one of summer’s real joys is being able to make ultra-fresh meals from whatever needs harvesting in our organic kitchen garden. I love a good tossed salad for lunch for instance, so in summer, I eat a bowl of whatever greens we have in abundance, topped by something juicy and something proteinaceous (usually slivered almonds or some other kind of nuts).

Gardensalad

Hence today’s lunch, in the photo above: tossed mixed greens from my lettuce and mesclun patch (summer lettuce blend and Napa mesclun blend, both from Renee’s Garden Seeds), dressed very simply with a sprinkle of salt, a small pour of orange-infused olive oil and a splash of cherry champagne vinegar (my own recipe). I’ve topped those fresh garden greens with tomatoes from the garden (the orange ones are persimmon, the others black krim, both heritage varieties grown from seed from Renee’s Garden Seeds), nasturtium flowers for a peppery bite (seed from ditto), and toasted organic almond slivers. That plus a broiled tortilla topped with organic aged cheddar cheese, and half a ripe Colorado peach, make a delicious and largely local lunch for me.

Even as I water (no rain here yet) and pick an abundance of produce from our summer garden, I’m aware that the first frost is likely only a month away. So I’m putting up the fruits (and vegetables) of our garden for winter, when we’ll want those tastes of summer’s sunshine.

I don’t have tons of time to spare, what with helping Richard live with brain cancer, writing, caring for my dad, and managing our household affairs. So when I say “putting up” or “preserving,” I mean freezing, because for me, that’s the easiest and quickest way to preserve summer’s bounty.

Chopped

The summer squash bed got away from me this week, so I put some squash in the freezer. We grow romanesco squash (from Renee’s Garden Seeds), a heritage variety related to zucchini but with the advantage of staying buttery and sweet even when they get large as porpoises… (That’s a romanesco above, with its lovely ribby length dwarfing the cutting board.) Here’s what I do to freeze them: 

Have a vegetable steamer set up and the water steaming, plus quart-sized ZipLoc bags and a freezer pen handy.

Chopping

Wash and chop each squash into bite-sized pieces. I slice off the end at an angle, and then just slice bite-sized wedges off the squash, turning it a quarter-turn after each wedge.

Steaming

Put the squash wedges into the steamer and steam 3 minutes (they’ll continue to cook for a bit in the bags, so you just really want to get them a bit more than blanched).

Label the Ziploc bags with a freezer (permanent) marker, fill generously half-full, let the contents cool, squeeze out the air, seal and put in the freezer. And there you have it–summer’s bounty preserved for winter, all in about half an hour’s time.

Bags

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On the brain cancer front: Richard’s had not the best brain week, but he’s doing okay. We’re agreed that while it may be perilous to go on our “honeymoon” road trip right now, this is the chance we have. So off we’ll go week after next, aiming to have a wonderful time. In the meantime, I’ve got to organize garden-waterers and house-minders, stop the newspaper, get the bills paid, meet several writing deadlines, and figure out how to fit our gear, including our tent and sleeping pad and bags and cooler, into the Subaru while leaving us enough space to be comfortable–in particular, the passenger-side front seat has to have enough room to recline all the way.

Richard’s task is to keep taking care of himself: meditating, doing yoga with me in the morning, getting in his 12 minutes on the Nordic Trak every day, eating, reading, and resting. Lots of the latter, so he can have energy for the former. It’s all a matter of balance–but that’s true of life under any circumstances.

I have always loved a good road trip, and I’m excited about this one, even though I recognize it could well be the last trip we take together. That makes it weightier in the emotional sense, but I’m doing my best to stay loose and flexible and take advantage of the moments that come. Until I look at the calendar that is, and realize how little time I have to prepare. Breathe, I remind myself, breathe.

And I do. And, surprisingly, it helps…

What’s cooking? Simple yogurt cheese (and good health)

Part of finding the “normal” in our lives in the midst of this journey with Richard’s brain cancer is resuming our simple, healthy diet, one of the tools we use to keep him healthy without resorting to prescription meds. After this latest surgery–his third craniotomy in 17 months–and six days in the hospital eating well… hospital food, we were both eager to get home to our own kitchen. 

If you’ve seen the new USDA food pyramid guidelines, you have a sense of our diet: high in whole grains, healthy dairy products, fruits and vegetables, low in sodium, refined or processed foods, and fat (we eat almost no meat, but do eat eggs and some fish). Because we like to know how our food is grown and treated, we eat mostly local foods, organic wherever possible. (That’s part of today’s lunch in the photo below: two quesadillas made by broiling fresh corn tortillas spread with basil pesto and yogurt cream cheese, plus micro-greens from our friend Lisa’s greenhouse, and a small handful of organic walnuts and cranberries.)

Quesadillas

The afternoon last week when our quick visit to the local VA clinic turned into a last-minute drive to the VA Hospital in Denver and a six-day stay, I was in the process of making a gallon of yogurt. Thanks to our neighbor Bev, who unearthed the crock of yogurt-in-the-making from under the mound of towels that insulates it in its water bath and put the crock in the refrigerator the next day, our week’s supply of yogurt survived our absence.

That yogurt–made from local, organic milk–is an important part of our protein supply. Richard eats a cup every morning on his five-grain hot cereal, I cook with it, and it’s our source of cheese. I hadn’t ever made cheese before reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a couple of years ago. When I discovered the recipe for yogurt cream cheese, I knew it was for me: it doesn’t require special ingredients, tools, or cooking, and it’s almost laughably simple.

Finishedcheese

Best of all, it’s delicious: a smooth, spreadable cheese like cream cheese, but much lower in fat and with a lovely yogurt tang. It’s yummy with fresh herbs mixed in from the garden in summer, with pesto in winter (we freeze jars of summer pesto for winter consumption), with honey or jam… Or just plain.

Here’s what you need to make yogurt cream cheese:
1 quart plain yogurt (use any fat content you prefer: non-fat yields the least cheese because there’s more whey to drain off, whole-milk yogurt is creamiest)
one strainer
two pieces of triple-thick cheese cloth, about 12″ wide by 22″ long
two large rubber bands (I use the ones that come on bunches of broccoli)
a faucet to hang the cheese from
a pinch salt

Yoginstrainer  Yoghanging

Set the strainer in the sink and line it with the cheesecloth (overlapping the pieces in a cross-shape as in the first photo above). Pour the yogurt into the center. Pull the edges together to form a bag for the yogurt. Wrap one rubber band around the “neck” of the bag, folding the neck over. Thread the other rubber band through that loop in the neck so that two ends are free. Suspend the bag from a faucet using the loop formed by the second rubber band. (It’s easier than it sounds: see the second photo above.)

Cheeseincloth Kneadinsalt

Let the yogurt drain overnight (at least eight hours is best for a thick cheese). Remove the bag from the faucet, unwrap the cheesecloth, and place the soft lump of cheese in a small bowl or crock, and knead in salt with a spatula. (Kneading also evens out the texture.)

Yogurt cream cheese is wonderful by itself, and delicious with chopped fresh herbs mixed in, or savory spices like curry powder or ground chiles, sweet spices like cinnamon and ginger, or honey, jam, or marmalade. If you use local milk, you may notice the subtly changing flavors over the seasons as the cows’ diets vary. Enjoy experimenting with your own cheese!

*****

GrimyHands

On a related note, I’m joining author, illustrator and gardening-maven Sharon Lovejoy’s Grimy Hands Girls Club. If you don’t know Sharon Lovejoy’s work, check out her books and blog. Her tagline, “cultivating wonder,” says it all.

In praise of lemons–with recipes

Last year for Mother’s Day, Richard bought me a dwarf Meyer lemon tree. I generally avoid indoor plants, reserving my gardening energy for our dryland meadow yard and our extensive kitchen garden. We’re away so much between Richard’s brain-cancer-care appointments at the VA Hospital in Denver and helping with my mom’s hospice care, house plants only survive if they can fend for themselves.

Lemonflowers

But a few days before Mother’s Day when we walked into the neighborhood Safeway store, I smelled a trickle of sweet fragrance that was tantalizing familiar, but out of context. I looked around and saw a dozen scruffy dwarf citrus trees in five-gallon pots, their shiny evergreen leaves frost-nipped and torn, their branches whacked to short stubs. Whoever thought dwarf citrus were appropriate to sell at 7,030 feet elevation in Colorado? Still, one lemon tree was blooming, dotted with starry white flowers that smelled heavenly. So Richard bought it for me. (Yes, I’m a sucker for plants.)

He carried Meyer, as we promptly named the plant, home on his shoulder. (It’s a Meyer’s improved lemon, a lemon sweetened up with some orange genes.) Meyer lived in our sunny, south-facing bedroom until daytime temperatures reliably rose above fifty degrees, and then Meyer migrated outside most days to a sheltered spot next to the south-facing house wall. (Even in the hottest part of summers here, our nights don’t often stay above 50 degrees, so Meyer came back inside every night.)

Meyer thrived in our unlikely climate, blooming all summer long, and attracting a cloud of bees to those starry, sweet-scented flowers. By the time fall and shorter days cut down both flowering and bees, and meant Meyer spent more time indoors, our two-foot tall lemon tree boasted dozens of tiny green lemons. I thinned the fruit clusters to one apiece, and wondered if they’d ripen once Meyer became an indoor citrus tree for the winter.

Meyer

Silly me! (The photo above is Meyer after the first harvest, toasty-warm in its daytime sunny patch when the outside temperatures are just climbing above ten degrees.)

Two weeks ago we harvested the first three lemons, plump, juicy and sweet. Their skin is smooth and elastic, unlike the thick-skinned lemons we find in the grocery store. And the smell–they’re fragrant on the tree, in the hand, before and after peeling or squeezing. Heaven! As Richard commented, not many of us can claim an intimate relationship with our citrus.

Lemonbowl
This morning we harvested seven more, 1.5 pounds of lemons in all. Aren’t they gorgeous?

What are we doing with this homegrown lemon bounty? Turns out that lemon peels are a great source of limonene, a plant chemical being studied for its anticancer effects, including the ability to induce cell death in cancer cells, and also its anti-inflammatory effects. So one thing we’re doing is putting the peels in Richard’s morning green tea. He chops up half a squeezed lemon, peel, membrane and all (they are, after all, organic) and steeps it with his favorite green tea and mint combo.

The juice is adding its bright flavor and Vitamin C to our winter meals. Here are two favorite recipes:

Winter Greens with Lemon Butter Sauce over Rice

2 T butter
2 T whole wheat flour (I use spelt, since the glycemic index is lower, which makes it less likely to feed cancer tumors)
3/4 cup milk
2 T cream or half ‘n half
2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
a pinch salt
1/2 pound winter greens (spinach, kale, cabbage, collards, or a mix thereof)
2 cups cooked brown rice

Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring frequently until flour begins to be fragrant, four or five minutes. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly with a whisk to work out any lumps before adding more. When the mixture is smooth, add cream, lemon juice, and salt, whisking until smooth. Turn off heat. Wash greens and chop greens, discarding (or composting) large stems. Steam until tender. Split cooked (and still warm) rice between bowls. Mound greens over rice, and top with lemon sauce. (Serves four)

Kale

Lemon Hummus with a Bite

4 cloves garlic
2 cans cooked garbanzo beans, drained
4 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 T tahini
4-5 T water
2 tsp chipotle chile (ground)

Mince the garlic in a food processor, dropping the cloves in one by one as the blades are spinning. Then add garbanzo beans and pulse. Add lemon juice, tahini, water, and chipotle chile powder, processing until smooth. Spoon into a shallow bowl, and drizzle olive oil on top of the hummus. Serve with pita bread, cucumber, carrots, and other dippables.

Enjoy!

 

Solstice Lights

Every, Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest night with a party: we fill our bellies with my luscious homemade eggnog (recipe below), and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.

Luminaria

To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of white paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our sidewalks with these luminarias. As dusk falls, guests help us place and light them one by one; the small flames burn though the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.

Lights, both decorative and symbolic, feature prominently in our culture’s winter holidays in part because of the literal darkness that overtakes the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, when the sun seemingly retreats each fall: nights grow longer and longer, and days grow colder. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat seems to havw a change of heart after winter solstice and the days gradually grow longer again.

Holiday lights like the luminarias we light are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates our intellectual and spiritual darkness, afford knowledge and understanding.

Last year at solstice time, we were mid-way through our six-week “residency” in the Denver area for Richard’s daily radiation treatments for his brain cancer. In response to my request on this blog that readers light a luminaria for us, photos of lit candles in paper bags streamed in from around the world, from one on a windowsill in Australia to the candles on a snowy deck in Alaska, luminarias lining a walkway in France and trio under a palm tree in Florida.

Friendslighting

And here at home in south-central Colorado, our friends gathered at our house to fill and place the display of luminarias we couldn’t. Those tiny candle flames lit our hearts and spirits at a truly dark time in Richard’s and my lives.

This year I looked forward to resuming our annual Light the Darkness party–until my mother’s sudden decline. As we immersed ourselves in helping my dad bring her home from the hospital and arrange for hospice care, I knew I didn’t have either the energy or the heart to organize a party. But we wouldn’t let the solstice pass without celebrating the turning of the season.

Luminariasdistant
Which is why as dusk fell tonight, our yard gradually filled with friends and family come to help us light the darkness by placing paper bags, each with their commonplace cargo of sand and votive candle. As the light faded, lighters and matches came out, and candle by candle, the luminarias glowed. People talked, hugged, wished each other happy holidays, stood back to admire the lines of flickering light, and then drifted quietly away.

Just a few minutes ago, Richard and I stepped outside into the night. We walked down the sidewalk lined with flickering candlelight under the muted silver glow of the nearly full moon. The tiny candles, sheltered in their bags, each grounded in a scoop of sand, burned steadily as they will hour by hour through the long winter night. When dawn comes, many of the luminarias will still be glowing softly, greeting the return of daylight.

Tomorrow, we’ll drive over the mountains to Denver–carefully, on roads made slick by today’s snowstorm–to spend a few more days with my parents, and my brother, who is flying in to join us. Tonight though, walking hand in hand with Richard in the darkness, watching clouds sail across the moon, my spirit glows, lit by the commonplace grace of love–and the beauty of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Luminariacandle

Sinfully Delicious Holiday Eggnog
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
one dozen eggs (free-range eggs with their orange yolks make prettier eggnog)
1 pound powdered sugar
2 to 3 cups dark rum (you can substitute brandy or bourbon if you prefer
3 cups skim milk
1 pt half ‘n half
2 pts heavy cream
Separate eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. Cover the whites and refrigerate. Beat the yolks until creamy. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly. Add two cups of rum (reserving one, if using three), beating constantly. Cover and let stand in refrigerator for at least an hour to eliminate the “eggy” taste. Add the remaining cup of rum, along with the milk, half ‘n half, and the cream while beating the mixture constantly. Cover the mix and put it back in the refrigerator overnight to mellow the liquor. When the egg mix is ready, beat the whites until they form firm but not stiff peaks (the peaks don’t droop but aren’t stiff). Fold the whites gently into the egg mix and sprinkle the whole with freshly-grated nutmeg. Serve in a punch bowl with a ladle and small glasses or cups—this is very rich nog!
(Serves about three dozen people if the servings are small…)

Lighten Up: Kitchen Literacy interview

I was standing in Ploughboy, the local-food grocery store right in my neighborhood, this afternoon, talking with the owners, Kerry and Dave Nelson, about why they went into the local-food business. “We want to teach people to have the relationship with food that our grandparents had,” Kerry said. “The knowledge of how to use and appreciate what’s fresh right now. The understanding that local food gives back to our local economy.”

Kitchenliteracy

Her comments echoed something historian Ann Vileisis said when I interviewed her by email after reviewing her latest book, Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. (Read the review on Story Circle Book Reviews.) “Many readers have told me they grew up on farms, or that they hunted with a grandfather, had backyard chickens, or made jam with a grandmother. In the course of their lives, many of those traditions,–and the food knowledge that was tied to them–were lost…” Losing those traditions, trading them for “convenient,” always-available, and cheap food, has cost us more than we imagine in terms of energy use, pesticide exposure, health effects, and something less easy to measure–connection. Connection to the rhythms of life and the seasons, to the particulars of the land- and seascapes where we live. Regaining that connection may be one of the best ways to not only lighten up our carbon footprint, but also to regain our sense of belonging on this beautiful blue and green planet.

Here’s a piece of the interview in which Vileisis talks about how she came to realize her own ignorance about what was in her food and where it came from, and what she learned about our changing culture of food knowledge in researching the book. (The full interview will appear on Story Circle Book Reviews soon.)

SJT: In the Introduction to Kitchen Literacy, you write that you began to be aware of your food in new ways about ten years ago: “When picking tomatoes, for example, I’d rather unconsciously considered their appearance, firmness, price, and gratifyingly low caloric content along with the culinary possibilities of salads or sauces. I’d never considered where the tomatoes had come from, how they were grown, and who did the work of raising them. Now I started to wonder: Why did I consider some things but not others? Why did I think the way I did about my food?” What prompted that “aha!” moment?

AV: While I was writing my first book about the history of wetlands, a huge percentage of which were drained to become farmland, I discovered that many current environmental problems are deeply rooted in agriculture. That started me wondering more about the stories of my foods. I remember buying some apple juice and noticing it was from Chile. I strained to imagine how on earth the frozen juice in the little canister had made it all the way from a Chilean orchard to my supermarket shelf for about $2. That was just one farm-to-market journey; ALL the foods on supermarket shelves had stories, and I knew absolutely none of them.

At that point, I realized that the environmental problems I was concerned about–such as pesticides and water pollution–weren’t just the result of our impersonal, industrialized, oil-based agriculture but also of cultural acceptance of ignorance about food as a norm. ALL of us shoppers and eaters were complicit in not paying attention to what was in foods and how they were produced. I started to read food history and was fascinated to find clues about how and when we stopped paying attention and realized it would be interesting to make that thread the center of a book. Along the way, I’ve found, too, that many of us have personal family food histories fit into the larger story that I tell in Kitchen Literacy. Many readers have told me they grew up on farms, or that they hunted with a grandfather, had backyard chickens, or made jam with a grandmother. In the course of their lives, many of those traditions,–and the food knowledge that was tied to them–were lost, and there’s a sadness about that, even as people enjoy the convenience of modern foods…

SJT: As a historian, it was natural for you to respond to your new awareness of what you didn’t know about food by researching our history with food. Did you have a sense then you were on the cusp of a revolution in our thinking about/eating/growing our food? Or did that revolution become clear as you were doing your research?

AV: The revolution seemed to happen around me as I was working, which was very exciting–to be writing history–right as it is shifting and changing. But as a result, I actually had to re-frame the whole book. I’d started out by researching the story of how Americans lost track of where their foods came from–and then, all of a sudden, it seemed everyone started to care about just that. My book was no longer a story of loss but one of tremendous hope. One of the things that history shows us is that how we know and think–something that seems so bedrock in our day-to-day lives–is actually very malleable. And the fact that culture can change is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.

Books like Ann Vileisis’ Kitchen Literacy, along with Alice Waters’ In the Green Kitchen (which I reviewed in last week’s Lighten Up blog post) give me hope that we are moving toward regaining a healthy relationship with our food, and with this Earth. We certainly need to.

****

On a personal note, something that gives me hope is the kindness showered on Richard and me as we walk this journey we never expected with his brain cancer. In the past few weeks, anonymous folks have paid our food tab at Ploughboy, given us fresh eggs from their hens (thank you, Maggie and Tony!), sent gorgeously hand-spun, hand-dyed and hand-crafted hats, socks, and sweaters to keep us warm (that’s me modeling the cardigan, Cathy and Mike!),

Cardigan Jam

mailed food including yummy and beautiful homemade jams (the raspberry jam is from my sister-in-law Lucy and the blackberry from Lyanda Haupt–thank you both!), given us the orchids that brightened Richard’s hospital room and still brighten our living room (thank you, Nancy and Dave!), dropped by a lucious berry galette still warm from the oven (that’s you, Louise and Ernie!),

Galette Orchid

cleaned our guest cottage between vacation renters (thanks, Kerry and Louella!) and done countless other things to cheer us on.

We are honored, touched, and yes, very cheered. Thank you all. Onward we go on this journey called life.

Lighten Up: Preserving Summer’s Bounty

Food that’s ready to eat is awfully convenient, but conventionally processed food is often astonishingly unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for the environment in terms of the energy and other resources used to produce, process and package it. It’s also often unhealthy for those of us who eat it, in part because of unnecessary and often highly processed ingredients, from high-fructose corn syrup to excess sodium.

Jamjar.
My solution to wanting convenience but also wanting to lighten the carbon footprint of what I eat–and  to take advantage of the flavors and health benefits of fresh, local, seasonally available food is to preserve some of this bounty for later consumption. (That’s a jar of my strawberry freezer jam above.)

If you’ve never preserved summer fruits and vegetables in quantity, it may seem intimidating. I go for simple techniques. I choose freezing instead of canning, for instance, because heating my house in the summer by using the stove to cook and can seems like a waste of energy (in terms of the energy used by the stove and the energy we devote to cool the house down after cooking). Here are two simple, healthy and delicious recipes to get you started on making your own convenience food, and preserving summer’s bounty for later enjoyment. (Both recipes are easy to do with kids if you have some around who are ready to
learn how to cook!)

Here’s a very simple recipe for putting up summer fruit.


Apricots
Apricots for the freezer

At least two pounds of ripe apricots, preferably organic (the more the better, because in freezing, there are economies of scale–I processed almost 20 pounds last weekend, and that’s it for the summer)
Fruit Fresh or a similar type of powdered Vitamin C or ascorbic acid preservative (get the kind without added sugar)
Sugar (one half-cup per 4 quarts of sliced apricots)
a quart (4 cup) measuring cup
a large mixing bowl
quart-size freezer bags or containers

Wash the apricots, sorting out any that are soft or overripe. (Those can be stewed or cooked into preserves later, but they won’t freeze well.) Slice the ‘cots in half, take out the pit, cut out any brown or moldy spots, and then slice each half into four pieces. Put the pieces in the quart measuring cup, and when it’s full, into the bowl.

Apricotslices
When you’ve got four quarts (16 cups) of apricot pieces in the mixing bowl, add half a cup of sugar and four T of Fruit Fresh. (The photo above shows the slices with sugar and Fruit Fresh added. You can see that they’re releasing their natural juice.) Stir, and then scoop into the quart containers. Label the containers (as in the photo below) and put them in the freezer. Repeat until you’ve processed all the ‘cots.

Apricotbags

You can use the same basic recipe with any summer fruit, including berries, plums, and peaches. (I blanche the peaches first, dipping them in boiling water for a minute and a half, so that I can slip the skins off. But if you don’t mind peach fuzz, it’s not necessary.) Now that you’ve got that down, let’s try a simple jam that uses the microwave rather than the stove, and goes right into the freezer.


Strawberries
Simple Strawberry Jam

(adapted from Cooking Light)
4 cups ripe, organic strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
4 T fruit brandy (I use plum) or sweet, mild-flavored juice
1 tsp vanilla extract

Wash and hull the strawberries, cutting out any soft or brown parts. Quarter and then halve the quarters lengthwise if the berries are big. (The jam will spread better of the fruit pieces are small.) 

Cuttingboard
Put the strawberries, sugar, and 3 T of the brandy or juice into a two-quart or larger microwaveable dish with a lid. Cook on high power for five minutes or long enough to bring it to a bowl. Then take the lid off and simmer it until it is reduced to a cup and a half of thick, chunky jam. (I use half-power on my microwave and it takes about 45 minutes. Check to make sure it’s not boiling over or burning. The photo below is the partly cooked jam.)

Jamcooking
Scoop the jam into clean half-pint canning jars. Don’t fill the jars up to the brim–leave space for the jam to expand a bit as it freezes. Screw lid on tightly, label, and put into the freezer. (Makes a cup and a half.)

This jam smells intoxicating as it cooks, so you may be tempted to eat it right away. If you must, eat just half a cup, and put other cup in the freezer for winter, when its ruby-red color and summer flavor will be such a treat! (If you choose not to freeze it, the jam will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.)

Next week: preserving herbs and greens as pesto–not just basil–for the freezer…

When The Going Gets Tough

… the tough cook. At least that’s what I do to comfort myself when stress overwhelms me. More specifically, I put up produce from my garden and other local sources, stocking the freezer with the products of summer’s sunshine. This weekend I processed about 16 pounds of apricots, made lavender vinegar (photo below), and started a marathon of pesto-preparation, beginning with freshly picked chervil. (Recipes to come in the next “Lighten Up” post later this week.)

Lavendervinegar
What stress sent me into a binge of stocking the freezer? The usual: The rigors of Richard’s treatment for brain cancer. Next week, he’ll begin his sixth monthly cycle of chemo drugs–if his blood platelet levels have risen above the danger zone, that is. After that cycle, he’s “only” got twelve more–another whole year of chemo. Right now, that looks like a very long journey. The following week, he’ll have a brain MRI to find out if the chemo is warding off tumor re-growth. Other contributing factors: next week’s deadline for a last-minute article assignment for National Parks magazine. A string of out-of-town guests with more on the way. Elder-care concerns. The hellishly hot and dry weather, which means my beloved high-desert landscape is stressed too.

I usually keep my balance pretty well, but there are moments in this journey with Richard’s brain cancer when I am surprised, like the other night. I was sitting on a curb outside Cultureclash Gallery with a friend, watching people go by and enjoying the sunset light and cool evening air, while Richard was inside the gallery at a reception for the Colorado Metalsmith’s Association.

“How hard is this?” my friend suddenly asked, and I knew she meant the brain cancer, not the standing-room-only crowd in the gallery.

I didn’t really know how to answer. In one sense, it’s not that hard. I’ve lived with chronic illness my whole adult life, teaching myself how to thrive decades beyond my original prognosis. So, as I said to her, I have a lot of practice in living in the moment and understanding that life comes with no guarantees. But… this isn’t me. It’s Richard. So I do what I can to help him stay healthy–and that’s a lot–but when it comes down to it, I’m on the outside, watching my love learn to live with a brain altered by surgery and radiation, and a body weathering a grueling course of chemo. All in the hopes of warding off recurrence of his brain tumor for as long as possible.

Richardriver
It’s not that he’s not doing well. He is. There he is (in the photo above) last Friday, taking his 60th birthday swim in the Arkansas River, which runs through Salida cold as the mountain snowmelt that feeds it, a few blocks from our house. It’s a big river, and although the water’s at its post-runoff low right now, the current is still formidable. I wouldn’t swim it, but I don’t have Richard’s muscles or affinity for water. So yes, he’s doing well–considering. Considering that he’s taking a monthly dose of poison, as his oncologist reminds us frequently. He takes his slug of bone-marrow-killing cytotoxins, then has about three weeks to recover from the poison so he can take the next dose. (How bizarre is that? Very.)

How hard is this? Very. I turn to writing to keep my balance and my sanity. Writing is a crucial part of the spiritual practice I call my daily life, along with yoga, walks, cultivating my garden and friendships, and tending the community of lives that animate our yard and the adjacent thread of creek, the wildflowers, hummingbirds, butterflies; the swallows, bats, and dragonflies, and even the deer (despite their appetite for evening-primrose buds and bean shoots, drat them!). I organize my days to be as quiet and retreatful as possible, eschewing frenetic stimulation of any kind. I spend a lot of time with my honey, sitting close by as we go about our separate pursuits.

Apricots

And when I’m feeling especially wobbly, I cook. To me, food prepared with the energy of my own hands and creativity is love. The abundance of summer, preserved for some winter day when the snow is flying and the wind is roaring, is the best kind of nurturing I can imagine. Filling the freezer is comforting. Hence this weekend’s marathon of preserving garden bounty. I began with apricots, a whole box of gorgeous, big, and delicious organic apricots. When I started, the washed and golden ‘cots with their blush of pink took up one whole section of kitchen counter. By the time I thought to shoot the photo above, only a small portion of the original pile was left.

Why bother filling the freezer with summer’s bounty? It’s my way of dealing with the uncertainty at the heart of life. Taking the time to preserve apricots, make fruity and fragrant vinegar with the lavender we share with the bees, and to process our fresh herbs into pesto is an optimistic thing to do. It’s my way of looking forward with hope, of anticipating happy and healthy and delicious meals ahead. As I slice apricots, I am preserving this moment of sun-made sugars, this day of fleshy fruit tinted yellow with a pink blush, this time of fecundity, this life. I seal the freezer bags, write a label, and preserve summer to be enjoyed later. It is my promise to myself that later will come, and I will be able to cook for the one I love when it does.

Lighten Up: eating locally and organically

Table
After a weekend spent cooking for a house full of visiting family, I have food on my mind; in particular, ways to lighten the carbon footprint of what we eat. According to Stephen Hopp in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, agriculture in the United States consumes about 17 percent of the nation’s total energy use, second only to our driving habit.

Producing our food is energy-intensive for three main reasons: the distance it travels from farm to table–an average of 1,500 miles, the huge amount of processed food many of us eat, and energy-intensive farming methods, especially nitrogen-based fertilizers.

In terms of of processing, it takes energy to turn whole food into something “conveniently” packaged, whether a box of crackers that includes additives like high-fructose corn syrup (which itself might as well be bottled petroleum, as Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma) or the fast-food burgers we eat with abandon. According to one researcher’s estimate, producing, transporting, processing and delivering a cheeseburger (plus its packaging) emits about 11 pounds of greenhouse gases. Americans eat an average of between 50 and 150 burgers a year (and accounting for those who, like Richard and I, don’t eat them at all, there are folks eating more than that!), which means the greenhouse gas “cost” is equivalent to the emissions from 6.5 to 19.6 million SUVs. Ouch.

Then there’s our dependence on synthetic fertilizers. Researchers Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian calculate that as much as 40 percent of the energy used in producing our food goes to making synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Producing and transporting a pound of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer releases almost 8 pounds of greenhouse gases (plus the other deleterious environmental effects, including pollution of groundwater, including drinking-water wells, and lakes, streams and rivers).

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Hopp calculates that if each of us ate just one meal of locally, produced, organic food a week, we would save an astonishing 1.1 BILLION barrels of oil, many times the total released so far in the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lettuce
 

Which is part of why I grow an organic kitchen garden that allows me to step out the kitchen door and pick whatever is ripe–this week it’s mixed lettuces in green and red, ruffled and lobed, sugar snap peas, baby beets, strawberries, and the last of the asparagus. What I grow with my own hands is the most local of food. What if you don’t grow a garden? Here in Salida, we’re fortunate to have a weekly Farmer’s Market, as well as community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms that sell shares, which yield weekly boxes of produce through the growing season (June through September).

ArborPloughboy

And just in time for our weekend deluge of guests, Ploughboy, Salida’s farm fresh market, opened in sight of our house last Thursday. (That’s the Ploughboy building, seen through Richard’s sculptural arbor at the foot of our yard in the photo above.)


Kerry

Thanks to Kerry and Dave Nelson’s vision and determination (there’s Kerry in the photo above), we can now walk over and buy a whole range of locally produced food, from tilapia (produced in the prison aquaculture program in Canon City) and eggs to tomatoes, greens, and potatoes. They’re open seven days a week, and they carry whatever’s in season from our foodshed, which they define as a hundred mile radius around our small town.

This weekend, cooking for nine people ranging in age from 10 to 81 years, Richard and I made sure that every meal was mostly local, from the fish tacos to the sourdough pancakes (made with organic whole-wheat flour grown and milled in the San Luis Valley just south of us), and the basil-pesto sandwiches with ripe tomatoes from the same San Luis Valley. Of course, we also ate wild salmon and cherries, brought by my brother from Washington state–a contribution of food local to his home territory and transported in the same small, fuel-efficient car that carried his family contingent to the gathering.

Here in high-desert rural Colorado, eating locally and organically might seem difficult or unreasonable. But as it turns out, it’s not. It’s rewarding–and delicious. Thanks to all those who produce food in the region, whether from our own gardens or aquaculture at the state prison. We’re linked by this web of local food and the community of the land that produces it.

Love Abides

It’s my tradition on Valentine’s Day to write about love. Tonight though, I’m distracted by worrying about tomorrow afternoon, when we’ll drive over the mountains to Denver on the heels of a snowstorm that’s blasted the high country for the past two days. It’s not the roads I’m worried about though. It’s what comes after.

Snowcap

Tuesday morning is Richard’s next brain MRI, which we hope will be completely normal after the combined course of radiation and chemo he “graduated” from in mid-January. We’ll learn the results two days later, on Thursday morning, when we see his oncologist, Dr. Klein. She’ll also explain the “maintenance” regime of chemotherapy he’s about to start. We know it’ll involve five days of taking oral doses of the chemo drug Temozolinide, a cytotoxin specifically used for brain tumors, and 23 days off, followed by five days of the chemo drugs and so on, for many months. What we don’t know is the dose, or how well he’ll tolerate the drugs. We’re not making any long-term plans until we see how this chemo routine goes, but that’s not really new. We’ve been living day to day since last August 28th, when the birds appeared. It’s good practice, but not easy.

I wish I could say Richard’s completely back to normal, but I can’t. He seems like it, and he’s amazingly coordinated. This afternoon when a friend was visiting,
he picked up the juggling balls from our kitchen counter (thank you, Laura and Sarah!), stood on
one leg and juggled. There he is, intent on the balls in the photo below. (Okay, maybe that’s not exactly “normal,”
but it’s evidence of complex brain functioning.) The change is subtle, but it seems like his ability to process certain kinds of information has suffered. Things take him longer, and he gets frustrated more easily. He likes to say, “I’m not as smart as I used to be.” 

Rjuggling

Which brings me around to love. Because no matter what happens, whether his brain is slightly impaired or not, whether the tumor returns or the swelling goes down or doesn’t, I love this crazy, inspired juggler. 

So yesterday I revived a tradition I haven’t practiced for a long time: I baked a cheesecake. Every Valentine’s Day for years, I invented a new kind of cheesecake for Richard and Molly. I can’t remember why I quit. I got too busy, or Richard’s consulting had him on the road too much, or we were trying to get back into shape, or something. These days, most of what we eat is healthy, local, organic, and all around good for us and the planet, as well as being delicious. Now and then though, I cook something just for love. Hence the chocolate-raspberry cheesecake in the photo below. Just looking at the photo can probably clog your arteries. But damn, is it good! It’s love made edible.

Chococheesecake

Here’s the recipe, in case you want to start your own tradition.

Susan’s Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake

1 – 1/4 c graham cracker crumbs
3 T almond slices (toasted)
6 T butter
6 oz lowfat ricotta
6 oz neuchatel cheese
1 – 1/4 c sugar
2 eggs
1/3 lb best-quality semi-sweet baking chocolate or chocolate chips
2 T Dutch dark cocoa powder
4 T whipping cream
1 c sour cream/yogurt
1/6 c framboise dessert wine (or 2 T raspberry liquor)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 T yogurt cheese (mixed with remaining 2 T whipping cream) or 1/2 c sour cream
1/2 pt raspberries
powdered sugar

Whirl graham crackers and toasted almond slices and butter (softened is best) in food processor until a crumby consistency like coarse cornmeal. Press into the bottom and lower sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt the chocolate along with the cocoa and 2 T of the whipping cream on low heat in the microwave and let cool. Beat the ricotta and neuchatel cheese in food processor or electric mixer until creamy and a bit fluffy, and then beat in sugar and eggs until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to the food processor or mixer, along with the sour cream, and beat until smooth. Then add the wine or liquor, cinnamon and vanilla extract and beat. Pour the batter into the springform pan and bake on the middle rack for an hour to an hour and a half, until the top is dark brown and the edges rise and crack. (The middle will still be jiggly.) A cookie sheet or shallow pan on the rack below will catch any drips.

Remove from the oven, cool and carefully remove the sides of the pan. (Loosen first by running a butter knife around the edge.) When cool, spread with yogurt cheese/whipping cream mix or sour cream, and then dot top with raspberries. Finish by sifting powdered sugar over the top. Chilling the cheesecake for a few hours will make it easier to slice–if you can wait that long.

Share with those you love, and enjoy!

Using All But the Oink

Our recent road trip to Colorado’s fertile West Slope farming areas yielded more than the initial research for three of my current writing projects, a great hike, and time with friends: we came home with a thirty-pound box of Olathe sweet corn and an equal-weight box of organic peaches. That meant in midst of the rush to get ready for the next adventure, about which more later, we carved out an evening to feed the freezer.

Breadbowl

Fresh sweet corn is ridiculously easy to preserve by freezing, and it still tastes sweet and fresh months later (unlike the waxy, flavorless frozen corn from the supermarket). Here’s my method: After shucking the corn without breaking off the stalks, I get out Richard’s largest stainless steel bread bowl and a sharp paring knife, and start shaving off the kernels. (That’s the bowl with knife for scale above–I didn’t think to shoot a photo of the actual shaving, perhaps because my hands were occupied with corn and knife.) I hold the corn by the stalk, pointed end firmly against the bottom of the bowl, place the paring knife parallel to the cob, and slice downward, separating swaths of kernels from the cob. After each swath, I rotate the corn cob and shave off another swath. It’s pretty easy to develop a feel for how deep to cut: slice too deeply and you feel the knife biting into the fibrous cob; too shallowly and there’s no resistance and you get shallow part-kernels. (But you can always shave that part again and get the rest of the kernels.)

Once I’ve accumulated a bowl full of milky kernels, I spoon them into ziploc freezer bags (label the bags first–it’s easier to write on a bag that’s not full of bumpy kernels) and store them flat in the freezer–they stack best that way. Here’s the scene in the freezer after the 8 quarts of corn went in (those are slender and tender pole beans above them, in ziploc bags re-used from last summer’s chile harvest). It took me about an hour to shave the corn while Richard shucked.

Freezer 

Not wanting to waste anything–I was born into the tradition of using all but the oink–the husks and silk will go into the compost pile, adding their mite to its nutrients for next year’s garden. I had gathered up the cobs and was about to throw them away somewhat regretfully (we gave up our trash service months ago in our continuing effort to abide by the reuse, recycle, reduce principles of lightening our footprint on the planet’s resources) when Richard stopped me. He remembered what we did with last summer’s cobs:

Woodpile 

Yup, that’s shaved corn cobs, drying on our woodpile along with the split stove-lengths of pinon pine and juniper for this winter’s heat. Richard will burn the cobs in the woodstove that heats his shop-cum-sculpture studio. So that’s our box of corn, not a bit of it wasted. And I can’t wait to pull that corn out of the freezer this winter, a savory reminder of summer’s heat!

And the peaches? Well, I had plans to try a new recipe for simmered peach jam. But the peaches are so sweet and juicy and perfectly ripe that we’ve eaten almost all of them, and shared some with friends. So that’ll have to wait for another box of peaches. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for an easy but surprisingly elegant and sophisticated peach dessert.

Peaches

Sweet and Goaty Broiled Peaches
2 whole, ripe peaches
4 T feta cheese
2 T brown sugar
2 T brandy (optional)

Carefully slice the peaches in half along their meridian line (from point to stem end). Gently twist the halves apart and remove the pits. Place in an oven-proof pan cut site up. Mound 1 T of feta cheese in the pit hollow of each peach, and sprinkle with 1/2 T brown sugar and 1/2 T brandy (optional). Broil for just a few minutes, until feta is soft and brown sugar has begun to caramelize. If you want to really gild the lily, serve with a dollop of creme fraiche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side….

The next adventure? This weekend, Richard and I head out for a two-week artist/writer residency courtesy of the San Juan Public Lands Center (U.S. Forest Service & BLM) at Aspen Guard Station in the foothills of the Plata Mountains in southwestern Colorado. The cabin we’ll stay in sits at about 9,200 feet elevation in an aspen grove about 8 miles off the paved highway (there’s a gravel road in). It’s got all we need to focus on our work for two weeks: peace and quiet, the sound of aspen leaves rustling in the breeze, sunshine, and a sky-full of stars at night. It doesn’t have phone service, internet access–or electricity for that matter. (It’s got a propane cookstove and propane lights though.) So if I get to town during our two-week stay, I’ll put up a post from our creative adventure. If I don’t make it to town and it’s quiet on this blog front until mid-September, not to worry. Know that I’m happily writing away by hand on a legal pad, surrounded by milk-white aspen trunks, watching their leaves turn gold. No need to feel sorry for me.

Coming up after the residency: I have quite a pile of books to take with me for the lovely quiet evenings of reading I imagine with my only distractions coyote-song and dazzling stars. Almost all are new memoirs by authors who will appear on this blog in the coming months, including Diana Allen Kouris for her Brown’s Park ranching memoir, Riding the Edge of an Era; biologist Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s fascinating look at our relationship to wildness in urban places, Crow Planet; Julie Whitesel Weston’s The Good Times Are All Gone Now, a clear-eyed look  at the wrenching changes in her childhood home of Kellogg, Idaho, a poisoned mining town figuring out how to re-invent itself; and popular myst
ery writer Susan Wittig Albert’s beautiful Together, Alone, A Memoir of Marriage and Place.