• Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 291 other followers

  • Blog Stats

    • 324,015 hits

Having a Bad Day? Try Some Muffins

Leave good size chunks of peach in your batter so you can see the deliciousness.

I woke up this morning with peach muffins on my mind.

I’ve never even heard of peach muffins; I wasn’t sure they would work, though apple, banana and blueberry certainly do. But what spices go with peaches? I searched for recipes online first thing. Allrecipes.com, which isn’t where I usually turn, had exactly one peach muffin recipe. Cinnamon, it said; oh, I said, that might be good.

Why did I wake up with muffins on my mind? I never eat breakfast; the only way I can explain this peach jag is that I recently made some fresh peach cobbler, and that was great. Does the local supermarket still have South Carolina peaches? Yes, it turns out.

I suspect there’s more to my peach jag, though. My tomatoes are coming hot and heavy now, and I’m eating them at almost every meal. So this little peach obsession is part of a larger fresh fruit tear I’m on. This time of year only comes, well, once a year, and either you take advantage of it or you miss out. (The homegrown sweet corn is now gone. I had some good ears, though.) Murphy’s still has Indiana canteloupes, and I plan to save the seeds for next year’s garden.

But I didn’t have any peaches this morning so I proceeded to my regular routine of reading the newspapers, answering my mail, checking church websites and posting the Daily Office.

Today, checking church websites proved to be a mistake. Everything I saw upset me a little. On Daily Episcopalian, Dr. Derek Olsen offered part one of an essay about the Virgin Birth, which was appropriate considering that today has been the Feast of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anne. Derek’s inclined to believe that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse; so am I, even though we all know that what’s translated as “virgin” in English is actually “girl” or “young woman” in the original Greek. If, Derek says, one considers God to be Creator, and this does not conflict with scientific knowledge of the origins of life, an immaculate conception wouldn’t seem to be a hard trick for God.

Nearly all Episcopalians believe both in science and creationism. Our current Presiding Bishop used to be an oceanographer.

But Derek’s essay then led to a dozen mostly negative comments, including several from our ordained clergy, the net result of which is to undermine the very reasonable faith that most Christians have in the virgin birth, without (to my mind) any good reason except these half-baked half-theolgians’ own doubts, aired in public. I don’t like things like that. I left my own comment, agreeing with Derek and Fr. Bill Carroll, from my perspective having to do with prayer, which they’d all left out. My experience of prayer is that it usually or often leads to a perception of God’s near presence, which is what most Christians (for that matter, most Americans) report. Subjective claims of God’s presence don’t constitute evidence individually, but they do in the aggregate, and if God can touch us in Indiana, Haiti, South Africa, New Zealand and Brazil, then touching a young girl in Palestine way back when really isn’t much of a stretch.

Later today Episcopal Café reported about an Anglican priest in Canada who gave Communion to a dog during the Sunday service. “What say ye?” asked the priest in Wyoming who thought this was worth the attention of the faithful (she’d already weighed in doubting the Virgin Birth but claiming she could say the Creed, including the Virgin Birth, without crossing her fingers). What say I to the dog with Communion? Ridiculous, appalling, trashy, and the priest ought to be fired. There are now at least five angry rejoinders to my comment on Facebook.

So I haven’t had a great day. I get very tired of liberal clergy to whom we the People have bestowed the collar of ordination undermining our church and our faith, when there are so many others outside the Episcopal Church, from anti-Gay schismatics and wingnut fundamentalists to rabid atheists and the pope himself, doing the same thing.

Yes, I believe heaven is full of dogs and cats and animals. But I don’t think you feed them Holy Communion at any service of the church, for any reason, at any time. People have died for that bread and wine, first but not last Jesus himself, and I will not have it fed to dogs.

So some muffins would be really good right now, especially with some ice cream. I bought my peaches, but I also saw some bananas marked way down for quick sale, and bananas with spots are perfect for muffins. They’re in the oven now, while the peaches are in a brown paper bag to ripen a bit.

And for the rest of the week I’m on a muffin jag. If my dog Luke wants a taste, he can have it and no one will be hurt.

But God spare us these scandalous priests. Their questions aren’t bad but their answers can be awful.++

I don't think banana muffins need brown sugar on the top, but you can try it if you want.

Cooking Ups & Downs: Always Something to Learn

Mr. Beard was right; risk a little pink in your chicken breasts.

A couple of days ago I went to the grocery store to buy some chicken breasts; it’s hot, it’s summertime, so fire up the grill, I thought. I grabbed some locally grown sweet corn while I was at it.

I’ve since made two meals from my purchase, and even though the ingredients were the same, the outcomes were completely different.

Cooking is both fascinating and maddening at times. Change one variable and you change everything. Maybe the result is fantastic and you feel so proud of yourself; maybe the result is disappointing and you end up doubting yourself.

Recipes are designed to take the guesswork out of cooking. But they can only do that up to a point; a great meal takes careful observation and a certain amount of lucky guessing, which they never mention on the Food Network.

The local supermarket is small by American standards; it carries a good variety for such a tiny village (pop. 1750), but there are usually only half a dozen packages of chicken breasts to choose from. (For my current purpose I wanted bone-in, skin on; there was another row of boneless/skinless.) They were only $1.99 a pound, but all three packages were similar; they were the biggest chicken breasts I’ve ever seen. They weren’t just Playmates of the Month, they were Jayne Mansfields.

I spent six bucks and got three pieces of meat; split breasts, a pound apiece.

First variable: size. Obviously it takes longer to cook Jayne Mansfield than, say, Janis Ian. But how much longer?

Second variable: cooking method. I used a charcoal grill two nights ago with excellent results. Last night I roasted a piece of chicken in the oven; not as good.

Third variable: cooking tips from a trusted source, in this case James Beard, whose book American Cookery I consult fairly often. He wrote about chicken breasts, “Either you run the risk of putting up with a little pink, or you’ll end up with an overcooked, tasteless bird that makes you wish you’d never even bothered.” In other words it’s a fine line, so err on the safe side. If the meat ends up underdone you can always cook it a little longer, but you can’t subtract doneness once you cross the line. So recently I changed my grilling time, from 40 minutes on the bone to 30. The results are much better, even though I sometimes have to finish it off in the microwave.

I have a super-easy method of seasoning grilled breasts: marinate in lemon juice and Worcestershire. You don’t even have to measure, just dump some in a bowl or bag. The flavor’s outstanding, especially if it’s not overcooked.

However, when you grill over an open fire, you’re going to have flareups as the fat renders off. You can control this by trimming excess fat before you start, regulating the distance between the food and the firebox and by lowering the grill lid so the fire gets less oxygen. You don’t want the chicken to be black on the outside and raw on the inside.

I like grilling a lot in the summertime because it’s only a seasonal skill in this northern climate. I need frequent practice to get good consistent results. Two nights ago I turned out some nearly perfect chicken, juicy and tasty. I used a lot of charcoal, had a hot fire going and was a bit worried for awhile, because I wasn’t seeing the flareups I expected. But all turned out well.

Last night I decided to make some sage dressing, spread that on the bottom of a baking dish, throw a breast on top and stick it in the oven. For the first time ever I decided to put the stuffing together without measuring; I make a really good dressing, but with only one breast I didn’t need much of it for a side dish, so I just threw ingredients together. I figured that the fat coming off the chicken would moisten the dressing underneath and it would all turn out fine.

Wrong. Jayne Mansfield didn’t have a lot of fat. That was why I didn’t see big flames the night before, but I didn’t know enough to compensate. Where the roasted chicken covered the bread, sage, celery and onions, the dressing was great; but it didn’t cover all of it, so some of my dressing ended up being toast.

The other weird thing was that the breast didn’t brown very well; after 45 minutes it still wasn’t very dark, so I cooked it for 15 more – enough time to dry it out somewhat. The color was good but the meat was less than ideal.

It takes experience, frequent repetition, to notice all the possible variables that can make or break your dish. Whoever heard of a bone-in chicken breast without much fat? Where did Murphy’s get those silicone implants, anyway?

I’ve bought other breasts there that were much smaller, as well as with a higher fat content. At various times I’ve had big grill flareups and overcooked meat, the worst possible outcome. I’ve never had breasts like these.

Every piece of meat is different, and you really have to think about what you’re doing. If you cook each one the same, you’ll end up with a thousand different, unpredictable results.

I cooked the corn the same way I always do; boil water enough to cover the ears, add a tablespoon or so of lemon juice and sugar, toss in the corn, put a lid on it, turn off the heat and let it sit for ten minutes. You don’t have to boil it, the steam works just fine.

Two nights ago, with my excellent chicken, I ended up with barely edible corn. Last night, with disappointing chicken, I had great corn. What made the difference? The margarine.

The first time I used squeezable Parkay. The theory of it is fine; it isn’t hydrogenated, so just squeeze some out, put it just where you want it to be, then roll the ear around in its cradle so all the kernels get buttered. It’s simple to use and you can control it without wasting any.

When you use butter or margarine, you stick a pat on a hot cylinder, which melts the spread and makes it go every which way. You can spend two minutes trying to butter an ear when you should be eating it hot.

While the theory of liquid margarine is good, the actual product is totally disgusting. It doesn’t melt! It comes out of the container a thick, gooey mess and it stays that way. I don’t want to plunge my lips onto a thick coating of slime; I want to taste corn, not an oil slick.

Last night I used regular margarine, the stuff that melts and becomes much thinner. The corn came out the same both times, but the eating was as different as night and day.

New rule: never buy Liquid Parkay.

The actual rule, which isn’t new, is this: never buy a product that’s a cheap substitute for the real thing. Stick margarine is a cheap substitute for butter; Liquid Parkay is an expensive substitute for halfway decent margarine. If you’ve got any around the house, throw it out.

But never apologize for not being James Beard or Julia Child. They screwed up all the time too.++

Julia Child, poultry wrangler.

Tomatoes in abundance, dill to flavor the world!

Oh God, you are too good to me.

I’m eating lunch as I write this; pasta salad, a bacon and tomato sandwich. No lettuce; as James Beard said, “You could add lettuce; but why would you?”

The tomato on my sandwich is so fabulous it doesn’t even need salt — and all tomatoes need salt in my opinion. But this one is juicy and sweet, chock full of that great red flavor of my favorite food.

This particular tomato is a bit darker in color than others I’ve picked and eaten so far; a different breed from a different plant. Tomato varieties vary greatly from each other, and to me the best tasting ones are more juice, less meat. Tomato-lovers can easily tell the difference.

My friend Bob in New Jersey has been bragging about how good his local tomatoes are (though he has to buy them, the poor man); we have a friendly rivalry going about New Jersey vs. Indiana tomatoes. The Garden State does grow tomatoes on a commercial scale; there’s a reason Campbell’s Soup is headquartered in the state. So I hope the Jersey tomatoes are as excellent as he says, because then I’ll know he’s getting some good eating.

However, the largest tomato canning company in America is headquartered 90 minutes from my house, in Elwood, Indiana, a family-owned outfit called (appropriately and lovingly) Red Gold. Because that’s what they sell, red things good as gold.

Tomatoes are very nearly the best food you can eat; chock full of vitamin C and antioxidants, nutritionists say. People who eat a steady diet of tomatoes get a lot fewer cancers. But me, I just eat ’em ’cause they taste so good!

And this one from my garden is a gem, perfectly formed, free of all blemishes, ready for the grocery store or my stomach!

But there’s a story behind today’s bacon, too; I bought it from Jessica Smith, one of the owners of This Old Farm in Darlington, Indiana, an innovative farm-to-market operation that’s winning all kinds of grants and recognition. I bought the bacon at the farmers’ market in West Lafayette. It’s more expensive than the commercial bacon at the grocery, but I know the hogs weren’t tortured on their way to my sandwich.

Chicks getting comfy at This Old Farm

This bacon looks different, it behaves different when you cook it up in the pan; there’s less fat, so that changes your cooking technique slightly, as the bacon is done faster. Less fat makes home-grown bacon a better buy pound-for-pound because you get more meat. The lean-to-fat ratio is also far greater with beef I’ve bought from This Old Farm. The taste isn’t greatly different, but you can tell on sight that this isn’t what you’re used to.

Commercial beef and pork producers artificially speed up the growth rate of their animals; they fatten them up faster so they are ready for market quicker. CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) pen them in concentration camps so they never see the light of day, never eat their natural diet; factory farms inject their prisoners with growth hormones to cut costs and move the animals to market faster. And of course, with the animals crammed in barns where they can barely move, the owners inject them with antibiotics so that if one animal gets infected, the others don’t come down with it and the whole herd gets sick.

Are these hormones and antibiotics good for the humans who eat commercial meat? Last week the USDA told Congress there’s a big problem in our food supply. The Des Moines Register reported:

Antibiotics in Livestock Affect Humans, USDA Testifies
July 16th, 2010

Des Moines Register
By PHILIP BRASHER

There is a clear link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and drug resistance in humans, President Barack Obama’s administration says, a position sharply at odds with agribusiness interests.

In testimony to a House committee on Wednesday, even the Agriculture Department, which livestock producers have traditionally relied on to advocate for their interests, backed the idea of a link between animal use of antibiotics and human health.

The Agriculture Department “believes that it is likely that the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of antimicrobial resistance among humans and in animals themselves,” said John Clifford, the USDA chief veterinarian.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates antibiotics in animals and humans, has recently proposed to end the use of many drugs as growth promoters in hogs and other livestock. Only antibiotics such as ionophores that have no human use would be permitted to speed animals’ growth. The FDA has set a schedule for phasing out the drugs’ use or proposed specific restrictions.

Officials said the ban is needed to ensure that the [antibiotic] drugs remain useful in human medicine.

Now the thing about gardening, family farming and rural life in general, is this: it’s slow. Not much changes from one day to the next. Maybe that green tomato you’ve had your eye on is a little bigger, or maybe it’s not; it’ll “get here” when it’s good and ready. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down, Mother Nature’s in charge.

Of course this doesn’t sit well with agribusiness, which is always looking for efficiencies to maximize profits, but a piggy gets born or a tomato turns red when it’s good and ready.

There’s one other big advantage to this bacon I’m eating; I know where it came from. It didn’t pass through a hundred different hands like that Big Mac with makeup and lipstick that looks glamorous on TV. If God forbid that burger makes you sick, the USDA has no way to know where it came from, which is why more people will get sick until a food detective finally figures out “it was the Big Mac.” Meanwhile a dozen kids and senior citizens are dead. THAT’s the kind of self-regulation/no regulation that agribusiness lobbies for. If you really knew what you were eating you wouldn’t eat it, so they have to keep you in the dark and put lipstick on it.

We can expect more and more emergency food recalls as time goes on, because in the minimally-regulated world of agribusiness, someone’s always going to be looking to cut another corner and make another buck. Remember that peanut warehouse down in Georgia, where they knew their nuts were contaminated, but resold them anyway? The food business is cutthroat (because so much food is sold, there’s so much money to be made), so what did they care if the throat that got cut was yours?

But this bacon now disappearing from my plate? It came from a hog raised at Skillington Farms (Stan and Laura) in Lebanon, Indiana, which was processed at This Old Farm’s facility in Colfax, where the owner loaded it into her van and sold it to me in West Lafayette, where I drove it home to Kentland. Their names (all two of them) are right there on the package.

Portioning feed for the animals at Skillington Farms

As a customer they’ve treated me with respect, they’ve met me with accountability.

Well, in the time it took to compose this I’ve eaten two bacon and tomato sandwiches and eaten two bowlfuls of pasta salad; and I promised you something about dill, which I’ve got growing right outside my back door. The plants are three feet tall and flowering now — but I don’t want flowers, I want leaves, so last night I cut off all the flowers. (Believe me, the plants will make more.) I’ve also deflowered my chives and some of my oregano. I’ve got far more of these herbs than I can use.

My pasta salad is very simple; you don’t need to buy an overpriced box of mix. I use half a pound of rotini, a quarter pound of cooked ham or pepperoni, a medium cucumber peeled and sliced, and 4-5 medium tomatoes, skinned. (A bell pepper is optional; mine are growing but I decided to leave them on the vine this time.) Then dump on 6 ounces of whatever salad dressing you like, then chill overnight. I decided on dill vinegrette, as follows.

Josh’s Dill Vinegrette

3/4 C of your best oil
1/4 C white vinegar*
1 T chopped fresh dill (1 t dried)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 t salt
3/4 t dry mustard
3/4 t paprika

Whisk or shake together in a cruet.

* Flavored vinegars (red, cider, balsamic) overwhelm the dill, so don’t use them.

Kraft and Wishbone would go out of business if people knew how much better homemade vinegrettes are; cheaper, fresher, no preservatives.

And when you grow your own herbs you feel like the master of the universe. Ah, dill!++

Dill is pretty when it's in flower, but you want leaves, not blooms. Off with their heads!

Ta-da: 1st Tomato Arrives!

Everyone in Indiana knows that the arrival of the First Tomato of the season is both a cause of great rejoicing and a danger; since state law provides that anyone caught stealing the First Tomato may be shot dead with impunity, its arrival can be an anxious time.

Some gardeners, eagerly watching the First Tomato candidate slowly turn red day by day, have been known to pick it too soon. Since everyone knows you don’t pick it without eating it immediately, this tactic invariably leads to Premature Taste Disappointment. So most people pride themselves on having the self-control to wait until nature takes its course.

Other tomato gourmands pitch a tent next to the garden, haul out lawn chairs and hold a shotgun vigil; tomatoes grow and ripen overnight, so the most likely time for the tomato gang to strike is between 4 and 5 a.m. Unfortunately people who are going to be up all night turn it into a party with lots of alcohol, and sometimes innocent people get shot accidentally; guns and alcohol don’t mix.

And then there’s the little old lady next door, who’s been eying your tomato patch greedily for the past month; everyone knows little old ladies are up at the crack of dawn, so she tiptoes over, snatches your First Tomato, hides it in her apron pocket and tries to walk away nonchalantly. If you sleep in when she strikes, you miss the chance to bump her off scot-free and get some better neighbors next door. At any other time except First Tomato Day, shooting her is a felony.

In the ’90s some people tried installing elaborate security systems, with motion detectors, floodlights and screechy sirens to chase away thieves. Unfortunately this expensive method didn’t work; it caught a lot of rabbits who don’t eat tomatoes, and it kept the neighbors up all night. Several cities passed noise ordinances against this practice.

I was lucky this year; my First Tomato came earlier than most other people’s, so I slept well and picked it as soon as I woke up.

So far there have been no reports of violence, but the season is still young.

How did I eat it? I made a tomato sandwich. No bacon, no lettuce, just substantial white bread sliced thin, and good tomato sliced thick, with mayo. I served it on my mother’s fine china, as all your better families do.

I did not, however, put on her old CD of Mantovani’s Greatest Hits. Some traditions ought to be retired. Nor did I put on formalwear, a tradition the nouveau riche tried to start back when Reagan (“Greed is good”) was president. It never caught on anyway; tomato juice has a tendency to drip onto your pants.

How was my sandwich? Quite satisfactory, but not the best I’ve ever had. I blame the variety; modern hybrids are bred for more meat and less juice, to be less messy. But this is senseless, because the flavor a tomato is in the juice and pectin, not the meat. You wouldn’t want a dry watermelon; why would you want a dry tomato? Modern varieties are seemingly bred for people who don’t even like tomatoes.

I try to buy several different varieties; I can tell them apart when I slice into them, but I can never remember the names of the ones I like. I prefer the older varieties, now called “heirlooms.” In the good old daze you knew you ran the risk of having tomato juice drip off your chin, so you wore an old pair of jeans and kept your napkin ready.

The meat and skin of a tomato are only there to house the juice. Every recipe that calls for removing the juice and seeds should be tossed out. Tomatoes do not exist so you can hollow them out and use them as containers for chicken salad. That may look cute but it’s pointless; serve your chicken salad on the side and slice a good tomato for eating with a fork. Don’t ruin your best ingredient so it will look cute.

The First Tomato arrived three days ago; an earlier candidate was deformed and tossed out. Yesterday I picked another, which is now half-gone, and today I picked four more, two little ones, a medium-sized and a giant. My friend Scott came by and I gave him three of them, including the big one. He said, “You’ve got tomatoes already?” I was so pleased. Later he informed me he gave the two little ones to a co-worker who loves tomatoes, so I was pleased they found happy homes. This also means Scott kept the giant one for himself; human nature has not been repealed.

I got to show him my first-ever real garden; we looked at the peppers, which are still babies but twice as big as they were a few days ago. And he noticed my strawberries. Maybe I was showing off a little; human nature hasn’t been repealed.

Tonight I’m going to make my Famous Peach Cobbler; these came from South Carolina and are well-ripened. I also notice that my pal Peter has a goodlooking recipe for Peach Bread on his site; he’s even got it in PDF so you can print it out.

Now, having bragged about my Famous Cobbler (human nature still goes strong), here’s the recipe.

Josh’s Famous Peach Cobbler

3-4 ripe peaches (2 C)
2 T butter
3/4 C white flour
3/4 C sugar, depending
1/2 C milk
1 t baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400º.

Melt butter in 9×9-inch baking dish in the oven. Peel, pit and slice peaches. Remove baking dish and dump in peaches. In medium mixing bowl, mix dry ingredients well, add milk and stir to a smooth batter. Dump on top of peaches and bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown.

Two things make this great; it’s so simple and so good, and how it looks going into the oven is not how it looks when it comes out. You think it’s going to be a conglomerated mess, but no, the batter rises around and over the peaches, forms a soft crust and looks fantastic.

The same formula works for other kinds of fresh fruit, even canned peaches and pie fillings. Even a novice cook will get compliments on this one, while the fancy cooks who like to slave over their desserts may even realize that sometimes simpler is better.++

Uh-Oh, Josh & Machinery, Not a Good Sign

Machines and I seldom get along together.

With great trepidation, I bought a new lawnmower last night, my third one since I’ve lived here.

I shouldn’t have had to buy it at all, but my next-door neighbor, who’d agreed to mow my lawn for $20 per, suddenly decided not to do it, and be passive-aggressive about not doing it.

Instead of picking up his 20 bucks each time he was done, he let things ride until one day his wife asked for 60 when I thought I owed him 40. I paid her the 60 but told her I thought he’d only mowed twice.

Didn’t hear a word back and my grass got long. So I bought a new mower, a better one than before, self-propelled and all, in case my problem with the previous mowers was that I wasn’t spending enough for a quality machine. This one promised to start “first time, every time.”

It came in a huge box. A young man at the store helped me load it into my back seat, but wasn’t around to help me unload it at home. Still, I got it out of the car and looked inside. It was all put together, so that was a relief.

I followed the directions. I can usually make something workable if I’ve got very specific directions; shelving, mini-blinds, anything that comes in pieces to assemble. But the directions had better assume I don’t know a thing.

I am no mechanic, and I’m retarded when it comes to building or fixing things. I’ve learned over the years not to even try unless I’ve got step by step instructions. Most of the time I don’t feel bad about this, unless I’m supposed to fix something. But I am programmed to believe that “men can do anything mechanical” (my next door neighbor can), so I really dread these kinds of tasks. I feel ashamed at my lack of ability and knowledge. My father didn’t teach us kids and I had a terrible time in 7th grade shop class. It took me all semester to make a ping-pong paddle while my male classmates were building room additions.

Fortunately I met the course requirement because we only had to build one thing. I think my paddle lasted about a week and a half before its rubber surface started peeling off, but by then I didn’t care. I passed.

These same classmates thought I was the smartest kid in the county until they saw me in shop class.

So: I got my lawnmower ready for the big test: Handle chest high. Oil in the reservoir, fuel in the tank, cord threaded through the slot; depress the bar next to the handle, push the “engine engage” lever till it clicks, then pull.

The bitch started right up! So I mowed my yard. And despite my panic over spending $260 on a lawnmower, it will only take 13 mows to pay for itself. Plus I’ve now got my neighbor out of my hair.

I’d forgotten how much better my yard looks when I mow it instead of paying someone else to do it. Or maybe my perception is altered because I did the work myself. I know this, it helps to have the mower push itself. I wasn’t nearly as tired afterward as I used to get with my cheap mowers.

I also have a better idea of what’s going on with my yard when I’m paying close attention to it. I need to trim more low-hanging branches off my trees; the cherry trees in front make life especially miserable when you’re mowing. Maybe that’s why Tony didn’t want the job, though I suspect he feels insulted that I questioned him. Still, he ought to have been a man about it and simply said, “No, it really was three times, Josh.” Okay.

He bult a privacy fence this year, and boy, am I glad about that; I don’t have to look at his ugly back yard anymore, or have any contact with him now.

But the biggest thing is, I solved my own problem. I got the job done. I am not a total wimp after all.

Meanwhile, my dillweed planted next to the house is looking gorgeous. Last year when I planted it I didn’t harvest any, and then it was gone; I didn’t realize it would come back again this year. So I think I’ll bake a couple of chicken breasts tomorrow so I can make chicken salad for sandwiches.

Josh’s Chicken Dill Salad

cubed cooked chicken or turkey
mayo
chopped sweet pickle
chopped onion
poultry seasoning
salt
*dillweed*

You can use it as a sandwich or a salad; spoon it into a custard cup and invert it on a lettuce leaf.

Will fresh dillweed make a taste difference? We shall see.

This year I will also try making a cold cherry soup.

James Beard’s Cherry Soup

2 pounds tart red cherries, pitted
2 C water
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1/4 t salt
2 C red wine, port or sherry
sugar to taste
2 egg yolks, well beaten

Cook cherries in water with cinnamon, salt and cloves until cherries are very soft. Remove cinnamon and cloves; put cherries in a blender with some of the liquid and puree. Return to saucepan, add wine and sugar. Mix a little soup with the egg yolks, then stir back into the cherries. Reheat, stirring, until slightly thickened. Chill well in refrigerator. Serve cold with fresh cherry garnish.

(You could also add sour cream or whipped cream as garnish, dusted with a little ground cinnamon. If you like your soup sweet, add the sour, and vice versa.)

Serve on the veranda and pronounce yourself the master of all you survey.++

My cherries are ripening already.

My Own Little Strawberry Festival

I planted 18 strawberry plants today, and I’m so happy with myself I could spit.

I extended my garden another 8 feet to the east to make room for the berries. That wasn’t where I originally planned to put them but that space will work out nicely. My garden is now three times bigger than it was a month ago!

Strawberries are my all-time favorite fruit since I was a kid. The first house I remember living in, from age 4-7 in Ohio, had a strawberry patch, and my mother used to bake a shortcake every year, right off the back of a Bisquick box. (That recipe’s rather leaden, but kids don’t know any better.) I was in heaven. My brother Steve used to get sick, he’d eat so many berries. We decided he was allergic, which left more for me!

We moved back to Indiana once I finished first grade, never lived in the country again and never had a strawberry patch either.

The berries you buy in a carton at the store are these gigantic things from California; they look fantastic but they’re not sweet, flavorful or juicy. The smaller berries we grow around here are the opposite; guess which I prefer.

They look good, they travel well, but the taste is inferior.

As I grew up I remember driving to a nearby town with my Grandma; in berry sesaon we’d see roadside stands out in the country, which is how you got the freshest, best produce then, some lady selling a few quarts out of a shed. Grandma would stop and look at the berries, but often she wouldn’t buy because of the price. The berries sure looked good to me, and the money didn’t seem like much, but Grandma was not going to pay an extra dime a quart. “We’ll find some others,” she’d say as we got back in the car and drove away. Of course there weren’t any others anywhere, to the great consternation of a little boy.

Grandma was 31 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929, and for the rest of her life she darned socks and saved string, “tinfoil” and Christmas wrap in a drawer. My brothers thought she was a cheapskate and didn’t like her, for that and other reasons, while I understood why she did what she did. Strawberry pie is a whole lot better than gooseberry pie; she had two gooseberry bushes in the backyard, so those were free. (And tasted like it, unless she had ice cream. Gooseberries are sour, fit only for geese.)

My brothers always had somewhere else to go when the gooseberry pie came out.

Episcopalians in the Midwest are very fond of holding strawberry festivals as fundraisers. Christ Church Cathedral has a big one every year (six tons of berries, 18,000 shortcakes) on Monument Circle as the ladies raise money for mission work; my home parish in Lafayette sells berries at the Round the Fountain Art Fair on the courthouse lawn, with lots of volunteers dipping furiously. Michael Martin, a parishioner and pencil artist, shows his new work there, along with a lot of other state and regional artists; I just bought one of his prints. In my book-in-progress, a strawberry fest is the big spring fundraiser for Jamie’s House, a fictional domestic violence shelter in Bexley.

Someday maybe I can have my own strawberry soirée!

The seedling directions said to plant in rows three feet apart, with 1 1/2 feet between plants in a row. This is because strawberry plants spread by sending out runners on top of the ground. I only had room for three rows of four plants that way, which left me with half a dozen plants left over, so I split the difference and got all 18 in the ground. I figure the runners are going to go wherever they want and it’s not going to hurt them to be a little closer together for awhile. Eventually the “mother” plants will die off while the runners take root and start producing instead. As long as my plants get established I’ll be happy.

In her later years my mother started another strawberry patch at her last house. Her health started to deteriorate, so I moved in with her, and one of my jobs every morning starting in late May was to go out and gather her berries, hundreds of them every day. I learned something; do not plant strawberries right next to the house, because you won’t be able to reach them all when you’re sitting at the edge. You have to be able to move all around your patch. I will be able to do that with my garden.

She had an easy method of making strawberry freezer jam that worked nicely; clean the berries, crush half of ’em (Indiana berries are juicy, Lucy), add sugar, bring to a boil, add a packet of Sure-Jell, boil another minute, then ladle into leftover pickle jars, screw on lids and stick ’em in the freezer. Nothing to it and your strawberry fest lasts all year!

But what about the shortcake? The Bisquick version is heavy and fairly tasteless (everything made of Bisquick tastes like a biscuit); you could hurt somebody if you threw it at their head.

If we dropped Bisquick shortcakes on Pakistan, Al Qaeda would surely give up.

The little Twinkie-like “shortcake shells” you find at the grocery won’t hurt anybody but they’re for people who can’t cook and don’t care what they taste like. Some versions on Recipezaar call for baking a yellow or white cake from a mix; they may be lovely but they’re not shortcakes. Maybe I need to get over the “shortcake” idea altogether, even though it was imprinted on my brain from childhood. (Did my mother throw one at me?)

Strawberries on a slice of pound cake would be good; but, aha, I know what I’ll do, combine berries with my favorite kind of cake: angel food, ’cause I’m mommy’s little yadda-yadda.

These berries I planted say they are “everbearing,” while my mother always had one big crop in May and June. Here’s what about.com says about the plants I bought:

Everbearing strawberries produce two to three harvests of fruit intermittently during the spring, summer and fall. Everbearing plants do not send out many runners.

Later it says there aren’t many runners because the plants put all their energy into producing three crops a year. I’ll believe it when I see it. I love the idea of fresh strawberries in August and October, but the key will be how these babies taste. Maybe I should have bought plants like my mother had…

Oh well, I am not my mother! And this is all an experiment anyway; it’s called gardening. The only thing more fun than the growing is the eating.++

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Strawberryman!

Cabbages, Broccoli & Eek, Leeks!

I got most of my gardening done today; the last of the lilies-of-the-valley transplanted under the maple tree, broccoli and cabbages, the last two peppers. They took up most of the space in my newly-expanded vegetable garden, now twice the size it was last year and marked off by new landscape lumber like a proper garden.

Then there were the leeks; of them I’m clueless.

Most of the vegetables I buy at Murphy’s are little starter plants, which come in plastic containers, three or four to a box. It’s very easy to know what one cabbage looks like. But when I pulled the leek starters out of their box, there were no little segments, just 40 or 60 seedlings all thrown together with their roots intertwined. I didn’t know how to handle them.

They’re cousins of onions, and when you plant onions from seed, you drop 2-3 seeds into a little hole, then thin them later. I suppose it will be the same with these things, because a single leek is an inch in diameter at harvesting. But I planted them in clumps of 10-12. I hope that’s right.

But the leeks are a reminder that I’m mostly looking this year just to learn how to grow these things, not for some fantastic yield. I’ve never even cooked with a leek, much less grown one, so this is all an experiment.

In previous years I’ve learned I can grow tomatoes, peppers, radishes and herbs, as well as flowers. Those experiments brought me where I am today, just seeing what happens with cabbage, broccoli and leeks. I’ve already found out this spring that the onion sets I bought at Murphy’s do very nicely; I’ve eaten one already as a scallion, and it was sweet, but they say that if I leave the others in the ground they’ll turn into big onions for cooking. I hope so, because I use onions all the time in the kitchen, to me they’re a miracle food in soups, stews, stir-frys and when they get to star on their own, as in my mother’s patented Onion Dip with cream cheese. (I don’t know why people buy “French onion dip” in the stores, with all the preservatives. Besides, there’s nothing French about it, that’s just marketing based on French Onion Soup, which Americans love.)

Tonight I’m eating the last of the lamb chops I bought at the farmers’ market last Wednesday. I agree with the farmer, the Brook Locker Plant didn’t trim them at all. Last night I broiled a couple of chops and they were good, but tonight, even though it’s getting dark, I will grill them outside. With my great marinade they deserve a charcoal fire.

Now suppose I actually get cabbages, broccoli and leeks out of this year’s garden; whatever will I do with them? One average cabbage would last me a week; I’ll have to check out Recipezaar and Search by Ingredient.

My mother cooked cabbage once and stunk up the house for a week; not a good idea. What do people do besides make cole slaw? Cabbage rolls, I suppose.

From purdue.edu (Go Boilers!)

Next year at this time, because I’ve got that new landscape lumber and the right mindset, I will plan a proper garden, with all the vegetables I really want to grow: radishes, onions, carrots, tomatoes and peppers of course; maybe some corn. This is Indiana, after all, it’s like a patriotic duty to grow corn here. And maybe I’ll even do cabbage, broccoli and leeks if I figure out how.

Hoosiers trying not to fall off the muskmelon truck.

IN THE MEANTIME, I want to start a strawberry patch, and I’ve got a whole flat of 18 ever-bearing plants; some even have green berries on them already. But there isn’t room. However, if I bought two more landscape boards, I could extend the garden another eight feet east… And I’ve got muskmelon seeds I saved last year from a big juicy fruit grown in Knox County (Vincennes). Melons don’t go in until after all danger of frost is past, which is another couple of weeks. I can’t see myself doing well at all with a viney plant like a melon, but hey, you don’t know what you’ve got till you try. Maybe someday I’ll be going door to door trying to give away zucchini in August, you never know.

Gardening is like theology; endlessly fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing, always more to learn, then one thing leads to another and before you know it you’re frying up a mess of Swiss chard in bacon grease and thanking God for your little patch of ground.

I bought this house six years ago this week and I’m still full of gratitude.++