Chickens in the House!

Mrs. Homestead here:

I’d planned to give you all a progress report on the backyard redesign, which features such wonders as the Germinator ™, the Trough of Garlic ™, the Fan of Pharmacy ™ and the Screens of Discretion (also tm).

But the camera crapped out on me. So, until I figure it out (Which means until Erik gets home and I can shove the darn thing at him and say, “Fix your camera!”),  I’m offering up this picture of a home invasion, poultry style.

Don’t know about you other chicken keepers, but our ladies are obsessed with the house. If they’re loose, they sit on by the back door and watch us through the glass. And if we leave the door open, they try to venture inside–though they don’t seem to much like the texture of kitchen floor. We don’t let them stay, but it’s funny to watch them try to creep in.

I was cracking up when I took this picture. You probably can’t see it, but our Red there, Stewpot, is pecking at a jar of popcorn–and encountering the phenomenon of glass for the first time. She thought she’d hit the mother lode.

Cure for Prickly Pear Stickers

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Hallelujah! Last night, our friend Oscar (genius man!) told us how to deal with the dreaded, pernicious, invisible prickly pear fruit stickers (glochids) which somehow end up embedded in my hands every time Erik brings one of those fruits in the house. The answer? Pumice stone. It’s so simple. Just rub the site with a pumice stone. I think it just shaves off the top part of the stickler, and then lower part works its way out eventually, I suppose. But the important part is that the top part isn’t moving anymore, which means no more pain.

I’ve tried it–it really works.

Happy, happy, happy!

ETA: A round-up of alternate suggestions from the comments: you can also try spreading white glue (PVA/Elmer’s) over the area and pulling up the “skin.” Other people do something similar with rubber cement. Or you can try duct tape. None of these worked as well for me as pumice, but everyone is different. 

Happy Halloween!

Turnip lantern by Nathan deGargoyle. 
Follow the link to read his thoughts on the Manx version of Halloween

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve always been intrigued with Samhain, and the idea that a new year should begin in growing darkness, working its way slowly through the deep of winter into the light.

For this reason, Halloween has become my personal New Year (since by Jan. 1st, I’m always tired out disillusioned, and overstuffed with fudge).  The beginning of winter has become a time to think about the future, and consider the past, and honor those who have passed on. This honor-the-dead aspect is a combo of Samhain and Dia de Los Muertos, I think.

Anyway, for on Halloween night I try to have a good dinner in a clean house–to set a high tone for rest of the year. I also like to burn lights on this night, and toast the dead with whiskey.

Of course most people know that the Halloween practices of parading around in costume and carving turnips (or in the New World, pumpkins) are artifacts of old Celtic tradition. Some lesser known Samhain activities one might consider include:

  • Slaughtering your excess livestock for the winter
  • Lighting a massive bonfire. Or two. If you light two, run between them to purify yourself.
  • Throwing a drunken 3 day party, being sure to invite all the local chieftains
  • Practicing divination with various foodstuffs

What about Erik, you ask? He’s not as into Halloween as I am, but he has a good day planned. He’s going to a Backward Beekeepers meeting, then making tasty squash galettes for tonight. Perhaps I can convince him to toast the memory of squash baby???

However you celebrate, I hope you have a good night, and an excellent New Year.

This Is Why Mint Is Invasive

Mrs. Homegrown here:

That’s me pulling out a mint plant from our garden, as part of The Great Renovation. Check out those amazing roots! This container was filled with a 5 inch thick mat of thick, tangled roots. No wonder mint is unstoppable.

I adore mint, but we had two big mint plants, and under the new scheme, I’m trying to be more efficient about the way space is used in the yard. So this guy had to go. I thought I’d be digging roots out of the bed all day, but turns out they formed this thick, impressive mat you see above. I’m sure small bits will remain to haunt me, but all in all, I’m grateful it was that easy.

The moral:

If you’re thinking about planting mint for the first time, keep in mind that it spreads, given space and water. Its roots, properly called rhizomes, run underground and can send up shoots many feet away from the mother plant. In this way, it will cheerfully take over your entire herb bed or your borders, or wherever you thought fit to plant that innocent looking little seedling. If you try to pull it, little bits of leftover rhizome still in the ground can form another plant.

For this reason it’s better to plant it in a container, or in a bottomless container sunk into the ground. You need to corral those roots, basically.

Otherwise, it’s an easy, abundant plant to grow. It likes water and sun, but does tend to wilt or even go brown in hot, intense, summer sun. So I’d either plant it where it gets partial summer shade, or move its pot somewhere shady during the heat. And don’t be afraid clip it back when it starts to look rangy. It will pop right back up, looking much better for its haircut.

Why should you grow mint?

Here’s some of my reasons: Fresh mint tea (fresh mint tea is pretty and has a delicate flavor); dried mint tea (always on hand for overfull belly syndrome); fresh mint chopped up over fresh fava beans and goat cheese; fresh mint mixed with basil in a nut pesto; fresh mint sprinkled over yogurt drinks, mint infused honey for colds; dried mint in the bath; mint simple syrup; mojitos; and I’m sure there are more…and the tiny native bees like it a lot.

Should you plant spearmint or peppermint?

Both are good. Peppermint is stronger, but I consider them interchangeable. (If you’re trying to figure out which you’ve got in your yard, spearmint has matte, bumpy leaves that are bright green where the growth is new, whereas peppermint’s leaves are smoother and somewhat shiny and darker green, sometimes with purple tints.) For tea, I like the flavor of fresh spearmint best. Purely a subjective opinion. So the plant I’m pulling out in the picture was our peppermint plant. Spearminticus Victor!

Roasted Corn on the Cob – Indoors!

This is the actual corn, looking somewhat wan under the kitchen lights. It was actually very pretty. And tasty.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Oh. Em. Gee.

Why have I never done this before? I suspect everyone else has, but if there are a few ignorant souls like myself out there, let me tell you a secret: cook your corn on the cob in the oven.

I knew about corn on the grill, of course. But when it came to indoor corn cooking, I only knew to boil or steam, like my mama and her mama before her.  But roasting is so much easier. There’s no prep, and after it’s cooked, the silk just slides right off. This is a blessed miracle, because picking bits of silk off of boiled corn was never my idea of fun. And the corn comes out sweet and moist, perfectly cooked in its own wrappings, with no effort at all.

Too bad corn season is almost over here, and probably completely over most everywhere else. Next summer is going to be the summer of roasted corn.

Roasted Corn on the Cob:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350ºF
  2. Chuck your un-shucked cobs in the oven, just as nature gives ‘em to you
  3. Roast 30 minutes

(30 minutes worked perfectly for me. You could peel back the husk and take a nibble taste test. I suspect there’s a wide latitude of done-ness, ranging from lightly steamed in the husk to heavily roasted/slightly caramelized, and all of it is good.)

    I forgot about Bean Fest!

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    Apologies all, it’s been a heck of a week.  I realize I never set an end date on Bean Fest, a day where I could sign off gracefully with a last recipe, and now I think maybe that’s for the best. Because really, does Bean Fest ever end? No, it does not. Not in our hearts.

    And besides, I have a backlog of bean recipes. So while I will not be posting a recipe this Friday, I will declare Fridays henceforward as frugal recipe day. I may not come up with something every week, but Friday will be the designated day to highlight not only bean dishes, but soups, stews and the like. Admittedly, “Frugal Recipe Day” is not the most appealing tag. I’ll set our marketing department to work on coming up with a better name.

    There are these moments

    You sorta had to be there

    There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

    At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

    Growing Home: Agriculture in the City

    We’re pleased as punch to have been invited to participate in this fantastic symposium hosted by the Huntington Library & Gardens in Pasadena.  It’s a full day of presentations, tours and practical breakout sessions. We’re generally slow to open the wallet for events, but we’d gladly pay the $25 admission for this one. 

    Check out the line up below! Homegrown Neighbor will be there (Full Circle), as well as Tara of Silver Lake Farms–she who knows everything about soil and helped us redesign our garden. Our buddies from Backwards Beekeepers will be there, too.  Food Not Lawns, Fallen Fruit…all these people are so amazing , its hard to even choose highlights.  Seriously. If you live in So. Cal, you have to come. Come and say hi.


    Growing Home
    Saturday, November 13, 8:30am-5:30pm
    In celebration of all that’s home grown, is a day of talks, tours and demonstrations by local experts on topics from nurturing soil to keeping chickens to growing organic flowers and produce.  Rosalind Creasy, edible landscaping pioneer, is the keynote speaker.  Other presenters from: Silverlake Farms, Homegrown Evolution, Food Not Lawns, Darren Butler, Full Circle Gardens, Metabolic Studio, Backwards Beekeepers, Fallen Fruit, Sustainable Habitats, Master Gardeners, and Little Flower Candy Company.
    And the day before, Friday, there’s an academic symposium which also sounds fascinating. Gary Nabham wrote Where Our Food Comes From, and about a hundred other books: 

    Bringing Home the Ranch
    Friday, November 12, 8:30am-8:00pm
    Combining talks presenting a range of perspectives with a student poster session and Ranch tour, this one-day symposium brings together academics, students, and professionals interested in the future of urban agriculture. Gary Nabhan, world-renowned ethnobotanist, ecologist, writer, and grower of heritage food crops, will be the keynote speaker.  

    Tickets and details available through www.brownpapertickets.com

    One of our favorite activities: Depaving

    Taking out concrete with a sledgehammer may not be everyone’s idea of a great time, but believe me, Erik is having a great time in this picture. Any opportunity to get rid of a few feet of ugly concrete or asphalt,  and replace it with soil and plants, is not an opportunity to be missed. Depaving increases growing room for green things and it also gives more points of access for rain to enter the ground and renew the water tables–rather than being lost down into the sewers. Think about your home–do you have sidewalks that can be replaced with mulched paths? Can you reduce the size of your driveway? How much of your backyard is paved?

    What Erik is doing here is pretty simple. He’s taking out a chunk of our back patio, ripping it down to soil. The next step is to build a big planter box above the hole. This way, our planter box becomes a raised bed rather than a simple container. While it’s possible to garden in containers, it’s always better, if at all possible, to open the bottom to soil.

    We’re pretty fearless about messing with our back patio because it’s ugly, cracked and worn out.  Any yuppie worth their salt would have replaced it out years ago, but we’ve had more pressing repairs to do. You can see we built a sort of deck/arbor thing there behind Erik, but the larger area of the patio has long been a sort of unattractive work-zone/no-man’s land. A non-space.  Reclaiming it is part of our backyard renovation, and building a raised bed at the edge of the patio is part of that plan. This new bed will give us 200 square feet of new growing space, pulled from an area that did nothing before but collect junk.

    The cement work on the patio is so poor that it’s easy for us to take out with simple tools. In this case Erik first defined the area of removal by slot cutting the concrete with a hand-held circular saw fitted with a blade called a “Masonry Cut-Off Wheel.”  (If our patio were made of better concrete, we’d have to rent a gas powered, water cooled saw with a diamond studded blade . These are available at equipment rental joints.)  The cool thing is that once you make that neat cut, you can bash around inside the lines with a sledgehammer and (hopefully) the cement will not crack outside the lines.

    Here you can see the slot cut lines at the bottom and right. Erik has pounded this area with the sledge hammer, and is prying up thin layers of cement with a crowbar. Our patio was covered with archaeological layers of skim coats–so in our case, the work is a matter of taking out thin layer after thin layer. A more solid patio would be taken out in big chunks. At any rate, Erik kept hammering away–while I helpfully “documented”–until he hit the sad and sorry soil that’s been trapped beneath the concrete for perhaps 90 years. That soil will revive. That’s the amazing things. Soon enough moisture and worms will move in and it will live once more.

    We would have liked to have recycled the broken chunks of concrete to use elsewhere, but its poor quality meant that it fractured into tiny chunks too small to use as “urbanite.”

    Stay tuned to see the new raised bed.

    Bean Fest, Episode 8: Really Good Lentil and Whole Grain Soup

    photo by wollongonger

    Welcome to Bean Fridays, our ongoing series highlighting the beautiful bean.

    We had a brief hint of winter here this week, three days of chilly grey skies and lingering drizzle. I was in heaven–but it didn’t last, and we’re heading into another heat wave. But anyway, that taste of winter put me in the mood for soup.

    So today I’m going to share my favorite soup recipe. I’m stretching the rules a bit to put it here, because it’s not a bean dish, but it does involve lentils. One of its great merits is that its what I call a pantry soup. If your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have what it takes to make it or improvise something similar and equally good. And needless to say, it’s easy to make, or I wouldn’t make it.

    This recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, where it’s called Oliviers & Co’s Provencal Three-Grain Soup. With a provenance like that you know that even if it is packed with wholesome ingredients, this isn’t going to be one of those bland “healthy” soups.

    You’ll need:

    1/3 cup spelt
    1/3 cup pearl barley
    1/3 dark green lentils
    3 leeks, white portion only — or an onion or two–finely chopped or sliced into thin rounds.
    2 carrots, chopped
    2 bay leaves
    1/2 t. of fresh or dry thyme
    1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled
    1 28 oz. can of tomatoes/or your own canned tomatoes
    Sea salt
    Olive oil

    • Notes on the grains: Use whatever whole grains you have on hand, from wheat berries to quinoa, one type or a blend, as long as it measures 2/3 cup. I’ve used all spelt, all barley, even rice, I think– it all tastes the same once it’s in the soup. The variable is texture and eye appeal. The little dark (greenish black brown) lentils called lentilles de Puy are really the best for this, because they hold shape so well. You may find other small lentils, like those little black lentils, work too. But whatever you have will be fine–it’s just that some other types of lentils, like the pink ones, tend to dissolve in soup rather than staying firm. If you don’t have lentils, the soup could be all grain, or you could substitute with pre-cooked beans, adding them in toward the end.

    Rinse your grains and lentils off in a fine colander, set aside.

    Put about a tablespoon of olive oil, about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the herbs, leeks or onions, and carrots in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Turn the heat on fairly low and cook them covered for about five minutes, so they soften but don’t brown. This is called sweating.

    Add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all, then add about 5 cups of water.  Bring this to a simmer.

    Add the grains, lentils and all those garlic cloves (The garlic cloves are the secret weapon! If you or your family is garlic shy, don’t worry, the soup doesn’t taste very garlicky when it’s done.)

    Simmer covered until the grains are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the grains.  Add more water if necessary, to keep it at the thickness you prefer.

    Test for seasoning. Add some fresh ground pepper, and serve in bowls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t skip the olive oil swirl. It really makes it, somehow.

    It’s that easy, and that good. I usually double this recipe for leftovers.

    Note re: leftovers: The grains soak up all the liquid when the soup is sitting in the fridge, leaving the soup a semi-solid mass–so you’ll have to add a good deal of water when you go to reheat. This doesn’t effect flavor at all. It’s an excellent leftover type soup.