Oatmeal: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

(we’ve really gotta get us a live-in food photographer)

Mrs. Homegrown Here:

Okay, this is one is a little weird.  I’ll tell you right off that Erik won’t eat this stuff (it just seems wrong to him), but I love it.

I’m exploring the world of savory oatmeal. I’m sure there are savory oatmeal recipes on the web, but I haven’t looked because I’m enjoying working without a map.

What I’m doing right now is making oatmeal with seaweed in it, inspired by both my love of Japanese style breakfasts, and half remembered things about the Irish eating dulse in their porridge. I don’t like sweet cereal, so this suits me fine in the morning–but I also like it for lunch or dinner.

What I do is start the oatmeal water boiling and toss in shreds of dried seaweed. I’ve been using roasted nori, the sushi sheets, and also the flavored nori strips, because that’s all I have on hand. But there’s a whole world of more interesting seaweeds to try–including dulse. Anyway, after I shred a lot nori in the water, I add a dash of tamari and a dash of soy sauce, then the oatmeal. And finally I stir in a big pat of butter. This doesn’t jive with the Japanese thing so well, but I find butter just takes the whole thing up a notch in terms of savory, unctuous goodness.

I think this would be spectacular with a little salmon on top. And I’m going to move forward and try adding things like mushrooms, or cooking the oatmeal with stock.

Do any of you make savory oatmeal?

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.

Advances in Gardening: The Trough of Garlic

Remember a while back I posted a picture of Erik in a manly pose, whomping our patio with his sledgehammer? He took out a strip of concrete and built this over the hole: a new planting bed.  That’s the Germinator on the right, butting up to it and my Fan behind it.  When we’re done with all this redoing, we’ll clean everything up and take some wider shots so it all begins to make sense. For now–believe me–it’s better to keep to limited views!

Right now,  as its name suggests, this new bed is planted with garlic–and a few shallots. Rather as I had with medicinal herbs, for years I’ve been tucking garlic in here and there all over the garden. And while that’s a fine strategy, especially if you believe in its use as a companion plant, it’s a real treat to be able to plant a ton of garlic all at once.

But this isn’t a dedicated garlic bed. Remember, in gardening, you have to keep your crops circulating. Repeated plantings of the same veggie in the same place is just begging for trouble. After the garlic harvest, we’ll add the bed to the rotational schedule. Perhaps next it will hold Swiss chard, or carrots. When you’re trying to rotate crops in a small yard, every new bed helps. Even small ones. This is one reason we squeezed this one out of our patio.

Note that like The Fan, The Trough is also covered with hoops and netting to keep skunks and squirrels (and chickens) out until the plants get established.

Grow Your Own!

If you haven’t grown garlic, it’s super easy. Just break up a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves pointy end up under an inch or so of soil, about six inches apart. You’ll want to use only big fat cloves, not those skinny ones that sit in toward the core.

You can use regular old organic garlic that you’d buy at the store or the farmers’ market. Some warn against this, saying the heads might be treated with anti-sprouting agents, but I’ve never had a problem. Diseases of different sorts may also be a problem, now that I think about it. And I don’t like to think about it, because I love shoving random garlic from my kitchen into the ground. It’s just plain fun. But if you plan ahead, you can order safe, untreated garlic from seed companies, and even better, you can choose from a wide variety of heirloom and gourmet varieties suited to you individual climate.

Too late for us this year, a friend gave us an enthusiastic recommendation: a variety called Music. Check it out. Perhaps we’ll plant this one next year.

Here in LA, we plant garlic in the fall, between Halloween and Thanksgiving for a spring harvest. You’ll have to check local wisdom to find out when you should plant yours, but we’ve heard that in cold winter climates you also plant garlic around this time–the only difference being that the bulbs overwinter under the snow and sprout in the spring. Ours are already sprouting, sped up, I think, by our insane hot/cold weather cycles this fall.

One last tip: garlic likes mulch. In the bed above, you’ll see the straw mulch covering most of it. The shallots are on the far, bare end. We’ve never grown them before, but apparently they don’t like mulch.  Everybody has to be a diva.

Should you really want to become a garlic expert, there’s a book on the subject: Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.

Advances in Gardening: The Screens of Discretion

When our friend Tara helped us reconceptualize our back yard, one of the first things she did was wave toward our compost pile and chicken supply zone, and say, “You’ve got to screen off all that crap.”

Of course! We had to take control of the view. Ahhhhh…..

So Erik built this screen. He started using a pre-made trellis material, but tricked it up.  Behind it you can see the massive compost pile. The structure on the left is the end of the hen house. We’d been stacking straw bales and wood chips there. Now we can hide all that behind the screen–and maybe there will even be room for that ugly steel can back.

It’s a shady spot, but Tara thinks it gets enough light to grow raspberries. If you look close you can see two tiny raspberries planted at the foot of each screen.

Aesthetic improvement + new growing space for food = pretty cool

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


Return of Bean Friday: Bean Broth or “Tuscan Crazy Water”

Yep, Bean Friday rears its head again–or is it Frugal Friday?

Whatever it is, I’ve got this thrifty idea for you. I read about in The Italian Country Table, by Lynn Rossetto Casper. We’ve had this book for years and years, and it has some really good recipes in it that have become standards in our house, along just with a couple of duds. I’d not paid attention to her entry on “Crazy Water” before, but by her introduction, I realized it was just the sort of thrifty cooking we’ve been focusing on here during Bean Fest. The only question for me was whether this recipe was a keeper or a dud, because it sounded pretty strange. The truth is it’s sort of in between.

According to Caspar, Tuscans like to cook beans with plenty of aromatics in lots of water, and then reserve that water as a broth. The bean broth is called Acqua Pazza, crazy water.

“This soup is a revelation” is how she opens the recipe. And later she claims it could be mistaken for chicken broth. That might be the problem–I was expecting twinkling lights and perhaps a chorus from a boys’ choir when I tasted it. What I got was a swallow of thin broth which tastes mostly like warm water when it first hits the tongue, but really does have a very nice, savory aftertaste. It’s delicate.

Caspar suggests serving it in bowls with croutons. I don’t have that much faith in it. But it is a decent vegetarian stock. It goes very well over rice, and I suspect it would be an excellent broth for cooking rice and other grains. I am fond of the waste-not, want-not philosophy behind it, and also the time saving angle. You can make a pot of beans for dinner, and end up with a supply of broth as a side benefit.

So now that all of those qualifications are done, this is how you make the broth:

First, you can’t use just any dried bean. Use light beans, like cannellini, pinto or borlotti. She particularly recommends chickpeas. I used pintos. Don’t use any dark or earthy bean, like black beans or black eyed peas. For fresh beans, she recommends cranberry beans or scarlet runners.

Basically you’re making a pot of beans with extra water. Simple stuff. I doubled her recipe, which only called for 1 cup of dried beans. I soaked 2 cups of dried pintos overnight. The next day I drained them and put them in a heavy pot and poured 2 inches of fresh water over them. To that water I added:

  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 6 good sized cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1 medium onion sliced in half and studded with 4 whole cloves

(Just fyi, her recipe calls for 8 sage leaves per 1 cup of dried beans. I chose not to double the sage.)

Throw these seasonings in with the beans. Bring the pot to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Don’t stir. This is supposed to make the broth clear. (It didn’t really help in my case). Foam might appear on top of the water–it did for me, but it vanished by the end of the cooking time.

Simmer the beans on low, covered, until tender but not falling apart. My pintos cooked in only 30 minutes. A speed record! The plenitude of water means you don’t have to worry about sticking or burning.

At the very end, add salt and pepper.

Strain the broth from the beans. She notes that the Tuscans dress these beans at the table using salt, pepper, olive oil and maybe vinegar.  I tried it, and it’s fine. Solid. Not super exciting, but healthy and hearty. I served the beans over rice with some of the broth. Another possibility, maybe a better possibility, would be to reserve the beans for a higher purpose, like frijoles refritos, or hummus-like applications.

The broth doesn’t keep. You know how stinky beans can get when forgotten in the fridge. I don’t even want to know what might happen to this broth. So use it the next day, or freeze it for the next time you need stock.

I got about 6 cups of bean broth from this recipe.

Anyone done anything similar? Any advice?

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.