Thursday, July 29, 2010

Here's What I Brought Home From the Garden Today

... or at least a sampling.

Items of note: The Butternut Squash - that's something that usually doesn't get picked until almost fall. In the garden, the color looked so rich, I imagined that they were ripe enough to take home with me. Now, on my back stoop... I dunno. They look kinda pale to me.

Purple Sweet Peppers - Dontcha love 'em?

Eggplant - I wasn't expecting them to be that shape, but all the eggplants have been long and skinny. Hunh.

Zucchini - My supply is dwindling. The plants have a blight and are collapsing onto the ground. I'm still picking a few.

One skinny cucumber.

Tomatoes Of Unusual Size - On the bottom, an ordinary slicing tomato. Yum. In the middle, slightly larger than average cherry tomatoes. On top, Tiny Bites. Can you see them? They're there, right above the cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes are a bit larger than peas and they are thick on my Tiny Bite plant. I've never grown them before and my friend who grew them last year isn't choosing to try them again this summer, so I'm interested in how I'll like them. I really like the IDEA, which is that they are excellent for salads. Instead of dicing tomatoes to add to your salad, you just toss in a handful of Tiny Bites.

Yukon Gold Potatoes - The plants are beginning to die back, which is an indicator that the potatoes are gaining their "winter coats" which will allow them to last throughout the seasons so that we can enjoy potatoes year-round. We dug some today because Brooks requested mashed potatoes for his birthday meal and my supply from last year's garden is gone.

A Sad Little Red Pepper.

A couple of jalapenos - I'm wondering what to do with them until there's enough tomatoes to do salsa. Any ideas?

Two Sweet Potatoes - Again, these are usually dug up later, but at the fair, the old codgers doing a whittling demonstration told Ava that she could start carving using a sweet potato and a vegetable peeler. Once the carving is how she likes it, she can stick it on a nail to dry in the air, where it will shink and shrivel until it is the consistency of plastic. It will keep that way, they said.

Carrots - The carrots in our garden seem to always turn out oddly shaped. See all the little tails at the end of the one? Oh well, it will still taste great in Garden Risotto.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Church Picnic/Fair Parade

One popular event which our county fair offers each year is the Sunday afternoon parade, a 2.6 mile route that runs from a downtown shopping center to the fairgrounds in the country. Our church is a block off of the parade route, so we traditionally have a church picnic after services on that Sunday so people don't have to go home to eat before viewing the parade, which starts at 1:20.

Even on my way to church at 8:00 AM, the sidewalks in the area were dotted with lawn chairs, blankets and canopies where people had staked out their preferred parade-viewing real estate. I didn't have time to nab my own spot. I had to get to the church kitchen to begin work since I was in charge of the picnic.

Fortunately, the church had done a hog roast last month for a kick-off meal for Vacation Bible School, and had frozen enough leftovers to feed the church today. This meant I didn't need to arrange for one of the men of the church to grill during the service, as is often the case for our summertime carry-ins.

After church my committee and I got to work, loading up the table of savories. Along with the pulled pork sandwiches, the people of the church brought green bean casserole, cheesy potatoes, macaroni and cheese, relish trays, deviled eggs, (I had sent out a reminder email about the church meal and gave a winking mention that there never seem to be enough deviled eggs. Today we had five trays of them. But STILL there were only about six eggs halves left.) and all manner of salads: macaroni, taco, fruit, cucumber, jello, lettuce.

We had a nice variety of desserts, too. Fruit cobblers, pies, cakes, cookies and more jello.
People wasted no time in filling their plates. Some of our parishoners were participating in the parade in some way, so a few ate and dashed and a few others skipped the meal altogether.

I love church potlucks.

The kind of tableware we choose to use is sort of controversial. Some people like to use the paper and plastic (which would have been sensible for a picnic) but there are others who scold that we are a church in financial crisis (like many small churches in pre-war, expensive-to-maintain church buildings) and need to not use disposable plates and silverware when we have cabinets full of china, stainless steel and glass. To stay out of the controversy, I'm always willing to wash dishes alongside the other worker bees. It's more environmentally responsible, too.

After the dishes were washed and put away, we walked the block to join church friends for viewing the parade. Ten minutes before the parade steps off, somewhere around 400 runners, joggers and plodders begin racing the route which ends at the fairground grandstand, with a final lap around the track which makes it an even 5K. We waved and screamed at our buddy, Dean, who waved and screamed right back.

We waved and screamed at our buddy Ron, who is leading this pack and means business about the race and isn't going to trifle with a bunch of lunatics on the sidewalk.

The girls and I stayed for about an hour of the parade, which included, reasonably:


Marching Bands,

and Chubby Shriners.

It was a good day, even though I got sunburned on my decolletage.

Friday, July 23, 2010

4-H Projects

Put on a kettle of tea and prepare for the War and Peace of blog posts. Sorry about that. I hope you'll think it's worth the effort.

4-H is very big in my neck of the woods. I did some research on 4-H in order to sum the program up to you. I found the story pretty interesting, and, as everybody around here knows "what 4-H is," I bet very few know what it was, what it was intended to be, or take advantage of all it offers. The youth organization started about 100 years ago as a "hands-on learning" way to introduce new farming methods to rural youth, who might take their findings and attitudes to their skeptical parents. "So, brainwashing?" Michael asks.

Later on, it became more about the personal growth of the young person. The most traditional projects are still agricultural or in the home arts, but I'm always learning still more diverse categories that 4-H offers: recycling, scrapbooking, geneology.... (eh-hem) clowning?

Sophia is my only 4-Her at this point. (The four H's are Head, Heart, Hands and Health - the four parts of us which we can offer to learning and service) My girl LOVES the home arts. This year she entered three projects. They nearly killed us. I would like to think that we are not solidifying a habit of waiting until the last minute and not paying attention to details until we are surprised and frantic that the deadline is approaching, but that was our experience this year. She did a sewing project and two kinds of foods - baked and preserved.

Let's start with the sewing. My child has not so much as sewed a seam in her life, but her grade level required that she do a skirt with a fitted waist, which involved interfacing and a zipper, and a hook and eye. Parents are allowed to offer guidance, but the work is to belong to the kids only. I consider myself a somewhat knowlegeable seamstress, but not a terribly confident one. I haven't sewed a respectable garment in many years and my most successful zippers were installed while a more experienced seamstress stood over me.

We sewed. We ripped out. We sewed again. We cried. We perservered. We were anxious when we learned of the early deadline just a few days away. We perservered again. Blue ribbon. We were proud.

Sophia's is the white gored skirt up top.

On to the muffins. She was NOT allowed to use muffin papers to line the tins. We experimented. We greased with butter, with Crisco, with oil. We did not discern a difference. What we DID learn was that the lighter the application of lubricant, the better the results. Lots of oil in the pan made a crust on the sides and bottom of the muffin. Little oil allowed the muffin to still be cakey on every surface. We used my mother's very old Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe for a basic sweet muffin, which Mom used for her blueberry muffins. We made a batch with blueberries and a batch with fresh strawberries, and loved the color, the flavor and the originality of the strawberry. The foods were judged in an "open judging" situation, which meant that Soph waited her turn to hand it to the judge, watched it be judged, and answered any questions the judge might throw at her. The judge was pleased that the batter had not been over mixed... she could tell because the texture inside the muffin was consistent - no unsightly holes here and there. It was rated as "Honors." Honors means they were of extra high quality and would be judged again alongside ALL the honor-winning muffins and from that group they would choose a champion and reserve champion.

The 4-Hers turned in six of their most perfect and uniform muffins. The judges chose one to put in a baggie and display for the fair. They're all hanging here and Sophia's is among them.

For kids this young, the preserved foods assignment was to prepare a bag or freezer box of frozen berries. It seemed a fairly simple project, and if we had just been freezing berries for "home" it probably would have consisted of rinsing them in a sinkful of water and giving them just the slightest once over before flinging them into any old Ziploc baggie. Since a "judge" and "judgment" was going to be involved, I advised Sophia to look closely at them for colors other than deep blue, remove any errant stems or blossoms, and, if possible, eliminate the largest and the smallest so that the berries would be fairly uniform in size. Again there was open judging and we learned a lot from the judge. She recommended that we flash freeze them first, on a cookie sheet, before pouring them into the bag. It would allow each berry to freeze seperately so that they can be removed from the freezer bag as individual berries, rather than one big blueberry-flavored icicle. She also suggested that, if using a bag rather than a box, the berries should be spread out evenly throughout the bag, so that the it's fairly flat and can be stacked with other like-prepared bags. After learning all that we could have done better, we listened as she still awarded Sophia "Honors" for the frozen berries.

We got to the fair on opening day and found that there, among all the pictures of the frozen foods projects, was a fancy ribbon next to Sophia's name. The lavender ribbon on the right, above Sophie's head, is hers. Reserve Champion.

With all the mentioning I just did about "we" did this and "we" decided that, I can see that I was invested in these projects, too. At the fair, you see projects that run that gamut from sloppily assembled items clearly put together in an afternoon, to tidy adequacy, to exquisite, attention-getting showpieces. I feel so philisophical about the competition aspect of 4-H. I wonder if the sloppy projects were done by kids whose parents didn't care about the end results? Or by kids whose parents are hardcore about it being the kids' work and who don't offer any guidance at all? Or if those kids accomplished exactly what they intended: free passes into the fair, which is a perk of turning in any project.

On the other end of the spectrum, these Show-Stopper Projects... I wouldn't say there are NO kids out there who can turn out those projects on their own, but I KNOW that many parents can't help but live and die by the successes or failures of their kids. I wonder how many of them give in and get too involved? I was talking to another mom about feeling frenzied to think of recipes for muffins at the last minute, and I mentioned that we should look through the baked goods of the older kids to see what was coming up next year so that we'd know what...

"... what wins! Yeah!" she said.

No. I was just thinking of what the project would be. If it's cakes, Sophia can try several different cakes all year instead of not thinking about it until June. The other mom's focus on winning (and her daughter won several of the MANY projects she turned in) kind of made me sad.

Sophia's proud of her fancy ribbon for her berries. And I'm always proud of my kids. Not because of achievement, but because they're good citizens, my only real goal for them. I'm extra happy for Sophia this week, though. The fancy ribbon is nice, but I'll mostly think of the experiences with the skirt when I remember this year of 4-H. It was a hard project for her and she didn't let it beat her. She put her head down and got through it. Not only got through it, but did it well enough that some woman in Indiana with the title of 4-H judge gave it a blue ribbon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

DIning on a Dime (Or Maybe a Dollar)

I'm really enjoying the creativity that comes with planning meals around a garden that's producing like crazy. Last week I prepared a meal that not only used produce in every dish, but which I estimated as costing about one dollar to prepare. Maybe a buck fifty.

For the main dish, I went to the freezer where I pulled out some sausage that my dad had given us. Every year the local Lion's Club that he belongs to does a sausage sale as a fundraiser right before the holidays. He always gives some to my sister, my brother and me and calls it our Christmas gift. I browned it up, drained it of excess grease and put in some diced onions and new potatoes, both just hours away from the garden. I added some chopped green pepper about five minutes before removing the skillet from the heat. This dish was completely free, or fractions of pennies if you go all the way back to the couple of bucks I paid for seeds and bedding plants.

While all that was going on, I roasted zucchini and eggplant (also Fresh From the Garden) in a hot oven in a variation of the method in my last post. I'm growing eggplant for the first time and learning to prepare it this summer. It has a bitter juice, which is diminished by putting the chunks in a colandar in the sink and
salting the whole affair really well. It causes the eggplant to weep and the bitter juices will drain away. Takes about 30 minutes. The cost of this dish only comes from the tablespoon of olive oil I used to coat the veggies and the dashes of salt and pepper used to season them.

At the last minute, I peeled and sliced fresh cucumbers (Say it with me, "Fresh From the Garden") and dressed them with the homemade dressing learned from Michael's prayer covering-wearing grandma. I'll guess the recipe as this: 1/2 c. sour cream, 2 T vinegar, 3 T sugar, salt to taste. This was the most expensive dish.

The meal was very flavorful and, boy, it hit the spot. Here's what I don't enjoy: Eating these flavorful, creative meals in a kitchen overrun by canning supplies. It is green bean season, after all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Tale of Three Zucchinis

This is hard for me to believe, but my mother, whose garden covered fully one third of our one-acre lot, didn't do that much with zucchini. I only remember having it fried. It's still my favorite way to have it and the first zucchini of the season is always ceremoniously rushed into the kitchen, thinly sliced, coated in flour and fried in hot butter until JUST crisp.

Rebecca told me about roasting zucchini last year at this time and that is a dish we really like and make often. I start by chunking up a few potatoes in generously-sized pieces. I toss them in olive oil and sea salt and pepper. Slam them into a roasting pan and pop them in a hot oven for a head start of about ten minutes. Meanwhile, chunk up the zucchini in like-sized pieces, toss in the olive oil, salt and pepper. When the potatoes' head start is over, add the zucchini to the pan and stir them in a bit with the potatoes and allow to roast for another ten minutes or so. Serve immediately. Rebecca now tells me that she has added red onion to this dish. How brilliant! I love onion and can't believe I didn't think of this myself.

But the crown jewel of zucchini season is chocolate zucchini bread. Moist and cakey, it really just tastes like chocolate cake to everyone (especially children) but you're actually getting squash into them. I just made a double batch, which produced three good-sized loaves and four mini-loaves. I took a loaf to the beach with Brooks and his friends yesterday. We're going swimming at another friend's tomorrow and I'll take a loaf then. I also took a loaf to some new neighbors this past weekend. It's nice to have on hand for these occasions and it's always well recieved.

Last year, I made about a dozen loaves of bread that I wrapped up and put in the freezer. Mainly I pulled them out for quick breakfasts for the kids on school days. It was a fine option, and I might do some of that this year, but I'm planning to mostly shred the zucchini and freeze that, so that I can make fresh bread throughout the year. The frozen stuff is good, but it's no substitute for fresh.

Here is the recipe:

DB's Chocolate Zucchini Bread

3 eggs
1 c. vegetable oil
2 c. sugar
1 T vaniila
2 c. shredded, peeled zucchini
2 - 2 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. cocoa
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350. In medium bowl, mix eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla. Stir in zucchini. Combine dry ingredients; add to zucchini mixture and mix well. Pour into 2 greased loaf pans. Bake for one hour.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Zucchini: A Cautionary Tale

I seldom plant my zucchini, squash, melon or cucumbers from seed, preferring to buy the bedding plants and see the green leaves looking friendly from the beginning. These plants usually come in 4-packs. I knew I wanted more than four zucchini plants, so that meant a second 4-pack for a grand total of eight zucchini plants.

When I planted those eight plants in mid-May, I looked at the row of plants (Who has an entire ROW of zucchini??!) and wondered if I'd be sorry. Then we had a late frost in Northern Indiana and my dad watched the edges of my zucchini leaves turn black.

"We're going to lose 'em," he grumped. So he planted more. The sun shone, the chill faded, my black zucchini leaves grew green, broad and fuzzy.

Friends, I have ten healthy zucchini plants in my garden. Tonight a friend and I went to the garden to pick green beans. As she finished her row, I trotted over to the "zucchini row" to see what there was to pick. Dad had just picked them clean two days ago. I took a market bag with me, expecting to fill it. From the very first of the ten plants, I picked six medium- to large-sized squash. By the third plant, I was sending Sophia to the van for another bag.

I filled three bags to overflowing. Expect zucchini recipes. I'm like the Bubba Gump scene from Forrest Gump here...."zucchini bread, zucchini brownies, zucchini relish, grilled, stuffed, kabobs, fried zucchini sauteed zucchini..."

Lord help.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lunch at the Beach

Last summer was the moment in time when I realized that our family was done with diapers, naps, strollers and all that babyhood debris. Armed with that bit of freedom, I added outings to our summertime schedule and mainly took the kids to the beaches all along the southeastern Lake Michigan shore. Sometimes we'd take friends, sometimes Michael would take the day off of work to join us... always we enjoyed the sunshine, the water, the sand.

What do you take for lunch at the beach? I've fallen into a routine of frying up chicken pieces the morning of, and popping them, hot, into the cooler with our cold drinks. By the time we get to the beach, they are cool and still juicy. Usually, there is a seasonal fruit along, too. Right now, it's cherry season.

Lest you think too highly of me, believing all of our beach fare to fall into one of the following categories: healthful, homespun or natural - let me reassure you that plenty of junk is allowed at the beach. There's always a couple of bags of chips along for the ride, and my ever-present illicit lover, which I adoringly call Pepsi.

We've been to the shore of Lake Michigan twice so far this summer. We're planning a third trip next week. Brooks' 14th birthday is this month and I offered to arrange an all-boy trip to The Dunes on some nice day soon to come. Well, all boys save one middle-aged, slightly overweight mother.