Return of Recipe Friday! Carrot Soup

We had a party at our house last week and lots of people brought baby carrots. And no one took their baby carrots home with them when they left. So I took the pile of baby carrots and made a pureed carrot soup with them–one of my all-time favorite soups, in fact. Working with baby carrots was kind of fantastic. No chopping! No peeling!

Doing this reminded me that I haven’t shared this recipe on the blog, so I dug up the original recipe card. This is one of the oldest recipes I have. It sort of taught me the basics of soup making. I no longer refer to the recipe when I cook, but it was good to go back and see the original instructions. This soup is just about an ideal soup. It’s fast and flexible, doesn’t require many ingredients and seems to please everyone. At heart it’s vegan, but can be made more decadent by adding dairy. I wish I could credit it properly, but it’s something I copied from a magazine onto a card fifteen years ago or so.

It’s amazing how such a simple soup can have so much flavor. The sweet-spicy flavor and bright orange color also make it an ideal dish for this time of year. Each time I eat it I feel like I’m doing something really good for my body.

Carrot Soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • About 2 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks* (Peeling is optional but the soup tends to be sweeter/less earthy if you peel. To tell the truth. I never weigh my carrots–I use as many carrots as I have. If it looks like a whole lot, I’ll add more onion to balance it out. If I don’t have a lot of carrots, I still follow the recipe as is–it works, you just have less soup.)
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves peeled
  • 3-5 whole spice cloves (not absolutely necessary but very nice)
  • A little bit of salt. It doesn’t need lots. Start with 1/2 teaspoon or less and add more later if it’s needed.
  • About 4 cups of water or vegetable broth. Broth makes it extra rich, but I usually use water.
  • Fresh lemon juice, about one tablespoon. Best just to have a lemon on hand.
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Optional: yogurt or sour cream or heavy cream for topping

Heat oil in a a large heavy bottomed pot or saucepan. It should have a lid. Add the carrots, onion, garlic and cloves and saute until the onion is translucent. Then add the water or broth and salt. It should just cover the carrots. Cover the pot and simmer until the carrots are tender–maybe 30 minutes.

Fish out the spice cloves and discard. Puree the soup until smooth, either with a stick blender or a countertop blender or a food mill. If you use a countertop blender, do it in small batches instead of filling up the blender so you don’t get the exploding volcano effect, i.e. hot carrot soup launching from your blender. Believe me, I’ve been there.

Do a final adjustment of seasoning after it’s blended (put it back in the pot if you used the blender). At this point add the lemon juice, which is the magic trick of this recipe. I don’t consider this ingredient optional. The recipe calls for one tablespoon of lemon juice but I usually add more. If it seems right, a bit of sugar. Just a pinch or two. Sugar really helps if the carrots aren’t sweet. Then polish it up with salt and pepper to taste. You can add more hot water or broth to thin it if it seems too thick.

If you wish, serve it with a swirl of yogurt or cream on top, and maybe a sprinkle of chives for fancy.

It keeps well overnight, improves, even.

Changing it up:

I often add different herbs and spices at the beginning. For instance, I think thyme and carrots like each other, so I’ll often throw some sprigs of thyme in at the beginning, to be sauteed with the onions. Same goes for sage. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of cumin. Or cinnamon. Or cayenne. Or ginger. It’s up to you if you want to push the soup toward more of an herbal/lemony flavor or more toward spicy/exotic or toward a sweet pumpkin pie profile. It’s endlessly flexible.

You can also make this same soup with sweet potatoes instead of carrots. Sometimes I mix the two.

*A reader points out that she grates her carrots when she makes carrot soup. Good point! The smaller your veggies, the faster they’ll soften up. Dinner will be on the table sooner–and she thinks it may make better tasting soup, too. But if you don’t have the energy to grate, big chunks will soften up just fine. It’s all good.

Gardening Tip: Senecent Seedlings

With seedlings, small is good.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Senescence is the “change of the biology in an organism as it ages after it reaches maturity” (see Wikipedia). I believe I’m experiencing it right now.

What we’re here to warn you about today is buying plants which are old before their time. Seedlings which are senescent.

What are senescent seedlings? Basically, these are seedlings whose roots have met the bottom of their container.  See, plants have their own intelligence and follow their own internal clocks.

If, for instance, a little tomato seedling spends enough time in a tiny pot or shallow flat, its roots will reach the bottom of the container. When it meets this resistance, it will start to feel confined, and it will say to itself, “Well, this is it. This is all the space I’ll ever get, so I better get going on the reproduction.” At that point its biology will change and it will flower and start to do it’s best to set fruit or seed as soon as possible. In short, it intends to reproduce before it runs out of resources.

The result of this biological shift is that this plant will never really thrive in your garden. It will stay smallish and bear just a little before closing up shop. It’s not that the plant is unhealthy, it’s just that it’s done. You won’t get much performance out of it. It’s the tomato that never gets tall. It’s the pepper plant that makes one single pepper.

Beware: Most nursery seedlings are senescent.


So keep these things in mind:

  • When you buy seedlings, look at the bottom of the container. If roots are poking out, it’s a no-go. This pertains particularly to annual vegetables. Perennials don’t like being root bound either, but the outcomes are not as extreme.
  • In addition to long roots, also look for tell-tale signs of maturity in a vegetable, like flowers or fruits. Tomato plants already bearing tiny tomatoes are not a good thing. Cukes that are flowering are not a good thing.
  • Look for the smallest, youngest seedlings you can find. Teeny tiny is good. The more leafed out they are, the longer their roots will be.
  • If you’re raising plants from seeds, don’t let the seedlings sit around too long. Get them into the ground when they open their first true leaves. If you can’t plant for some reason, transplant them to deeper containers.

Cat Update

Last week was fairly traumatic around here. We learned two scary things–the first was that we might be living on a Superfund clean-up site, and the second was that something was seriously wrong with our kitten, Phoebe.

As Erik just posted, the lead issue remains up in the air, and will be for quite some time. But we did find answers regarding Phoebe, and while it is bad news, it is not as bad as our worst imaginings, and it’s good just to have answers and a course of action. We’re finding our feet again and will get back to a regular blogging schedule this week.

Turns out little Phoebe, found on the street when she was only 4 weeks old and bottle raised by us, was born with a heart defect. The kitty cardiologist (the excellent Dr. Zimmerman at AVCC for you Angelenos) identifies it as a complete AV canal defect. This is a rare and serious heart deformity.  Dr. Zimmerman drew us a picture of a normal cat heart and then one of Phoebe’s heart, and all we could think was that it was a miracle this kitten lived a minute outside the womb.

As I understand it (and please forgive the very loose terminology) there are four chambers to the heart, the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles, and each pair is divided by a septum, a wall. In Phoebe’s heart, the septa are breached in both pairs, so her blood is flowing around her heart all willy-nilly. (In precise terms she has atrial septal defect and a ventricular septal defect).

We really don’t know how she’s functioning at all. It’s also a miracle that she survived her spaying. We will no longer be using the services of the vet who somehow overlooked her loud heart murmur when prepping her for anesthesia.

There is little we can do for her. There is medication which will ease her heart action some. Dr. Zimmerman would not give us a prognosis because, as she says, “kitties always surprise us.” So Phoebe might have weeks, she might last years. She’s not in pain–she is just not as active as she used to be before the symptoms of this defect became more pronounced. Basically she’s acting like an elderly cat, happy to nap a lot and watch our other kitten, Trout, play. If she does start to roughhouse with Trout she’ll run out of air and have to stop. But it seems like she’s figured that out already, and even simple Trout seems to understand that he has to leave her alone.

So yes, we’re sad, but we’re also relieved we don’t have to make any big decisions regarding surgery (there is none) or her quality of life. We’ll just enjoy her each day and be thankful we have that day together–which is, after all, how we should enjoy all the people and critters that we love.

4 Vermicomposting Tips

Ecological landscape designer Darren Butler has been teaching a series of classes at the Root Simple compound this month (I think there may be a few open slots in his Intermediate Organic Gardening class if you’re interested. Click here for details). Darren dropped a few vermicomposting tips during the beginning class that we thought we’d share:

1) Worms don’t like empty space in their bin. They dislike voids. They appreciate it very much if you bury their entire working area under a very thick layer of light dry carbon material, like shredded newspaper or chopped straw. Yes, it’s standard practice to put a layer of cover material over the scraps–but the difference here is that Darren recommends that the cover layer should fill all the empty space in the bin, from the worm level to the lid.

To be clear, you never want the bin’s working material (worms, scraps, etc.) to get super deep. That’s just asking for problems, because the deeper that material, the more likely the bottom is going to turn nasty and anaerobic. What we’re talking about here is filling the empty air space with dry matter–sort of like an insulation layer.

2) Harvesting worm castings (separating the worms from the castings) is always a bit of a challenge. Well, not challenging as in hard, but challenging as in requiring patience. Our method has been to mound the castings into a pyramid outside on a sunny day. The worms instinctively work their way down to the base of the pyramid to avoid the light. Once they do, we take off the top and sides of the pyramid and transfer that to a bucket. That material will be mostly worm free. Then we reform the pyramid and do it all over again.

This method is fine, but Darren’s method is a little faster. It works on the same principle–the photosensitivity of worms–but instead of making pyramids he lays out softball sized mounds of castings. The worms will cluster at the bottom of the balls, allowing you to harvest off the tops and sides. This works faster than our pyramid method because the worms don’t have as far to move. You can harvest faster, and get it done all at once instead of forming and reforming the pyramid.

Of course when you’re doing either method you should remember the worms are very vulnerable when they’re out of their bin like this, vulnerable to heat and sun–you don’t want to forget about them!–and also to predators like chickens, birds and even dogs.

3) Some of you have worm bins with spigots for collecting “worm tea” aka leachate. Did you know it goes bad within 24 hours of production? If you use it, use it right away. Never use undiluted leachate on plants–it can harm them. To use it on plants, dilute it with 4 parts water, put it in a spray bottle, and spray on foliage. They’ll uptake the nutrients through their leaves. Alternatively, you can use it as a soil drench (for watering) when diluted with 16 parts water. In its straight form it can be used as an insecticide.

4) Darren’s favorite way of using worm castings is new to us and quite interesting. Castings are fertilizer, but more than that. They can help bring life to your soil. He takes golf ball sized plugs of fresh castings and buries them here and there in his garden beds (or pots). Used this way, they are little beneficial microbe arks that will help invigorate the life of your soil. A little bit goes a long way. You are, in effect, inoculating your soil with microbial life.

New to worm composting, or just vermi-curious? The classic book on the subject is Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof.
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Rearranging the yard, yet again!

Backyard redesign, in progress.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is all my fault. Last fall we re-did the back yard, but I decided it still needed a few refinements. I feel a little like a sitcom wife who can’t make her mind up about the draperies (cue Erik, the long-suffering husband, moaning in the background)–but we can’t be afraid to fix our mistakes.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say mistake. There was nothing wrong with the last design. It’s just that after a year of living with it I saw how it could be improved. These are the three things that the redesign addresses:

1) Flow. Movement within the garden. The old layout looked great but lacked flow. I think gardens should have paths. They should invite you to move through them, lead you on a small journey of discovery, rather than challenging you to make left-right decisions, as if you were playing Pac-Man. The primary change in our layout is that I’ve established a new curving path that will carry you through the garden. It connects with the pre-existing path to form a loop.

One advantage of establishing a path is that once the “people space” is established, all the rest of the garden becomes useable plant space. We actually have more growing space now.

2) Perennials: The last redesign put a lot of emphasis on growing space for annual plants. In turned out to be a little more space than we needed. Annuals are a lot of work, especially here, where we garden year round and a bed can cycle through 4 crops a year. We’ll still have dedicated annual beds, but I’m going to reassign some of the beds formerly given over to annuals to useful/edible perennials.

3) Experimentation. Of late we’re very intrigued with the idea of transitioning to a natural form of gardening that is hands-off—rather like our Backwards Beekeeping methodology. We’re greatly influenced by The Ranch edible garden at the Huntington Gardens, created by Scott Kleinrock, and Erik is currently taking a class with Scott and Darren Butler that expands on some of these ideas. It would take a whole post, perhaps two or three to explain this in detail. And we’ll write those! But suffice it to say for now that it will be useful for us to have more space to experiment with.

So above you see a preview of the garden. We’ve not done much but lay down the path, move the bird bath and pull up the summer crops. Most of the greenery left consists of tomatoes which haven’t yet given up the ghost and a sturdy stand of okra. 

Stay tuned for planting! We’ll talk about our perennial choices, our layout and this whole hands-off gardening experiment as we go along.

Emergency Supplies: It’s all about the lids

Above you see one five gallon bucket transformed into a toilet, and another into a food storage container, by virtue of specialty lids.

The toilet seat lid I have here is called Luggable Loo Seat Cover and, miraculously, it is made in Canada. I bought it at REI.

The other lid is called a Gamma Seal, and it is USA made. Do I see a trend, here? Anyway, this I found at an Army surplus store. The Gamma Seal is a two part lid that fits most 3-7 gallon buckets. One part of the lid is an adapter ring that snaps on the rim bucket. (“Snaps” is a euphemism for “Fits on after straining, swearing, hammering and finally calling for the husband.” In the end, Erik held it down while I beat it–er–I mean, snapped it into place.)  The lid itself spins and seals with a gasket. This gives it a nice, bug and moisture proof seal for all sorts of storage needs, transforming your ordinary buckets into superbuckets.

The set up above is actually a birthday gift for a friend who’s expressed interest in being better prepared for emergencies. Especially as regards what we like to call “Toilet Freedom.” Okay, so a toilet doesn’t scream birthday–but you know, she’s used to us and our ways.

We’re giving her the black bucket and matching loo seat with a plastic bag full of wood shavings inside and a tp roll, so it’s ready to rock as a composting toilet. (For more on composting toilets, see this post of ours  or go straight to the source, The Humanure Handbook.)

The green bucket holds enough preservative-filled, ready-to-eat food to hold her for a day or two without access to cooking water or a stove. I deliberately chose foods that she wouldn’t be tempted to eat prior to the natural disaster/zombie attack. Not gross things–you don’t want to be challenging your stomach in an emergency–but kind of boring things, such as plain crunchy granola bars, as opposed to the tempting, chewy, chocolate-dipped variety. There’s also some raisins in there, pop-top tuna cans, applesauce cups and peanut butter crackers.

There’s plenty of room for her to add more, depending on what she wants to be prepared for. And there are so many types of emergencies to choose from! I mean really, where do we start? She might want to add some dehydrated stuff and drink mixes for situations in which she has plenty of water and a fire source. It’s nice to have hot food, even if it is packed with sodium. Or for longer emergencies, she might want to consider storing fast cooking dry goods, like white rice and lentils, and high calorie foods, like oil, peanut butter and honey.

Sealed buckets like this are also a good place to store other things you’ll need in an emergency, including medications, first aid kits, extra glasses and copies of important documents.

A few snacks in a five gallon bucket won’t feed a person forever, but it’s a start. It can make the difference between misery and comfort for the first day or two after a disaster. In disaster preparedness, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Do what you can. Everything helps.

With these two buckets we’ve got food and sanitation covered. The third big category–and perhaps the most vital of all– is stored water, which our friend already has under control. For tips on water storage, see our recent post on water storage.

So-So Tomatoes Become Excellent When Dried

As we reported earlier, we weren’t thrilled with our cherry tomato choice this summer. They were just plain dull. They were also rather large for a cherry, more like mini-plum tomatoes, which made them awkward for salads. But they were healthy plants, and very, very prolific. In situations like this it is good to remember that tomatoes which don’t taste good off the bush often cook or dry well. The ratio of skin and seeds to pulp in these tomatoes made them a bad candidate for sauce, so we’ve been drying them.

And man, are they good dried. Like tomato candy. It’s very hard not to snack on them, but I’m trying to save them for the depths of winter, when I really miss tomatoes.

We have maybe a couple of quarts of them now. Several years ago we had an absolute disaster involving a pantry moth, its many offspring, and one big jar of dried tomatoes. For this reason I’m storing the dried tomatoes in a series of small jars, to offset the risk. Another good tip for fending off moths is to freeze any food stuff which you suspect might be at risk for 4 days to kill moths and their larvae.

How did we dry our tomatoes, you ask? Usually we use our homemade solar dehydrator, but this year we’ve got a friend’s electric dehydrator on loan. It seemed wicked to run the thing day and night, but it dries a lot faster, and with less work overall, than our solar set-up. (Oh, the wonders of Modern Living!) The one thing I did not like, though, was the constant noise. The dehydrator sounds a little like a running microwave, not loud, but persistent. I was always half-consciously expecting to hear the microwave “ding!” at any moment.

So, while the electric dehydrator let us process this crop of tomatoes in record time, I don’t think we’re going to ever buy one ourselves. Old Betsy, the wonky wooden dehydrator, suits us well enough.

Clean your hands with olive oil

I was just outside staining a piece of wood and got oil stain all over my hands. A bit of olive oil took it right off. These days, olive oil (or any cooking oil, really) is my first resort whenever I’ve got something staining, greasy, sticky or icky on my hands. I’m pretty sure we’ve written about this before–but it bears repeating: There’s no need to expose your skin to harsh chemicals like turpentine or paint thinner.

Usually oil alone will do the trick. For tough jobs you can grit up the oil with a few shakes of salt or baking soda. Sometimes a mix of oil and soap works better.

A sad but true story: As an art student, I was taught to thin my oil paint and clean my hands and brushes with turp. I often painted holding a turpentine dampened rag in one hand for hours on end. I wiped my turp soaked brushes on my jeans (’cause, you know, it looked cool). I cannot imagine how much turpentine I absorbed into my skin over the years. It was only much later that I discovered I could clean my brushes and hands just as effectively with oil.

Oil dissolves oil. Oil dissolves a lot of things. Keep it mind.

Vermicomposting Class

If you live in or around LA, we encourage you to take this unique class that we’re hosting in the Silver Lake area. While it’s pretty easy to get basic information on starting a worm bin, it’s rare to be able to dig deeper, especially with a teacher as knowledgeable as Nancy Klehm.

GET YOUR LOOP ON!
A workshop on extreme vermicomposting for the city dweller.

October 23, 2011
9am – 1pm

This class is suitable for both beginning vermicomposters and experienced ones with interest in integrating their worm bin with their larger household systems.


As cities struggle with basic recycling programs, and citizens learn how to grow tomatoes for the first time on their decks in soil from stripped from farmland and purchased at a store, there are some who are curious about having a more intimate connection to their waste and unveiling its worth.

In this workshop we will go “beyond the bin” and build a large, outdoor vermicomposting system designed to handle both kitchen and yard waste. The basics of worm farming will be covered, but emphasis will be placed on integrating the worm bin into the wider ecosystem of yard and house, such as:

* How to combine vermicomposting and thermacomposting in stepped systems
* How to integrate vermicomposting with a dry toilet or pet waste composting system
* How to best use your castings in the garden
* Tips for the apartment dweller
* What to do with all those extra worms…

And more!

Nancy Klehm is a long-time urban forager and grower, ecological system designer, artist and intrepid soil builder. She spent over five years designing and running a closed-loop vermicomposting project in Chicago that used 100’s of thousands of worms to digest 10’s of thousands of pounds of food and paper waste to create healthy soil. She started The Ground Rules, a community soil building center in North Philadelphia and developed and ran a two year collective human waste recovery project Humble Pile Chicago. She is the on-going bio-instigator of soil systems at C.L.U.I.’s South Base in Wendover, UT.

www.spontaneousvegetation.net
www.socialecologies.net