March Snowstorm

It's hard to believe we were out in the garden with bare feet last weekend. The last few days have been pretty chilly and we got a good 3 or 4 inches of wet clumpy snow last night....everyone seemed to be in disbelief - isn't winter supposed to be over? That's March for you: full of surprises!

Despite the snow, there's no doubt that spring is on the way. It's been sunny all day today and most of the snow is already melted. The bulbs that are coming up in the front yard don't seem to mind it a bit. I love crocus. The one in the pic above was blooming in the snow today - so pretty, small, and seemingly fragile, yet tough enough to withstand almost any March snow.....

The robins have recently returned from their winter hiatus to parts south. There were a pair of them hopping around in the snow yesterday, looking frustrated and angry at the white stuff falling out of the sky.

The cold frame weathered the snow pretty well. The section at the far end gave in a little, but popped right back once the snow melted. Nothing in the cold frame has germinated yet, but I haven't given up hope - it was only a week ago that I planted. A little bit of warm weather sure would help....

The lettuce seeds I planted last weekend have germinated really well! They seem a big leggy already - the window they're in front of gets sun, but maybe not enough....hopefully it will get warm enough to move them out to the cold frame soon. Either that or I may have to look into buying a light and putting them in the basement.

The peas I planted last weekend have also started to peek up out of the soil. I took this picture this morning, and already they're bigger than they were! The basil, parsley, dill, winter squash, and melons still haven't germinated. Hopefully sometime in the coming week......

This is one of the herbs I planted a few weeks back. I didn't label them, so I'm not sure what it is, but I'm thinking maybe it's catnip? Once again, they seem pretty leggy, like they haven't gotten enough light, but they're in our sunniest window, so I'll just leave them there for now and see what happens. The other herbs have all germinated - thyme, rosemary, oregano, catnip, and sage. I should have started them in better dirt, but they seem to be doing OK.

Gulliver isn't too happy to share his sunny window with the herb seedlings, but he still has most of the prime real estate. I considered kicking him off entirely so that I could put the veggie starts there, but I didn't have the heart to - I'm pretty soft on him I guess!
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The $7 Cold Frame & Other Gardening Adventures

It really pays to have a brother who's an engineering grad student! Dave constructed this functional, exceptionally affordable cold frame in our backyard garden plot this weekend. The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm, and it was literally impossible for me to avoid the temptation to get outside, dig in the dirt and plant some seeds. Hopefully I didn't jump the gun too much - it may feel like spring, but it's only March - it could still get really cold....

I turned the soil on Saturday afternoon. A few years back, our landlord put down a cloth weed barrier covered by about 8 inches of compost. The cloth has started to disintegrate, and digging it out was no small task. I managed to get most of it.

There are few good sized silver maples in our back yard which are really good for summer shade, but not so nice for growing veggies under - it's way too shady. I'm attempting lettuce and a few other greens - hopefully things that will be OK with some shade. It's nice and sunny now since the leaves haven't come out yet.

On Sunday Dave and I both went out and got to work.

This organic chicken manure based fertilizer was recommended by the guy at Paradigm Gardens, a local garden supply store. With a name like "Chickety Doo Doo" it's hard to see how you could go wrong! Plus it's local, manufactured in Racine, WI. We mixed a little into the soil before Dave got going on the cold frame.

These posts also came from Paradigm Gardens - they were the only thing we had to pay for. Total cost? $7.00. They were straight when we got them - 6ft long, made out of hollow steel. Dave successfully bent them all to about the same shape. A few kinked and almost broke, but were easily repaired with a little bit of duck tape.

He moved a little dirt off to the side (to bury the plastic later), and stuck the poles into the ground. They went far enough in that they weren't wobbly at all.

We had this plastic in our basement, I think the landlord left it here.....He cut it to size and attached it to the ends with zip ties. The genius of this is that they slide really easily, so one whole side of the cold frame can come up for ventilation....you'll see how that works in a minute....

The plastic on one side got buried using the dirt that had been scraped to the side. We weighted the other side and the ends down with some rocks.

Then it was planting time! You can see here how the whole side comes up. This will be very handy on warm sunny days when the plants inside get too hot. If less drastic ventilation is needed, just the ends can come up. On cold days, the whole thing can be sealed, snug and tight.

I direct seeded spinach, arugula, chard, and red Russian kale in the cold frame. This may have been stupid. I'm not at all sure that the ground will be warm enough for germination, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. I didn't even use half of any of the seeds, so I'll have more to do another planting if necessary. These are all from one of my favorite seed companies, Seed Savers Exchange.

While Dave worked on the cold frame construction I started some other seeds. These will live indoors for a month or so, and we'll move them out to the cold frame in mid to late April. Most of them will go in our community garden plot, which is about a half mile away. It gets lot of sun, and I plan to take full advantage of it!

I used these 16 compartment flats with non-compartmented flats underneath to minimize the mess inside.

I had quite a hodge podge of things I wanted to plant: Winter Luxury pumpkin seeds I saved from what Jacque and Amy Nuekom grew last year, Black Futsu squash seeds I'd saved, Marina di Chioggia squash, Charentais melons, a few free basil seeds I got at Jung's garden supply in Madison, snap pea seeds leftover from last year, plus dill, parsley, and a lettuce mix from Seed Savers. The basil will go in our front window box, the parsley and lettuce should be OK in the back garden, and the dill, squashes, and melons are for the community garden plot. I kinda feel like I'm getting overly ambitious, but it's really hard not to on such a beautifully springy March day! I have lots of seeds leftover, so if I need to replant, I can.

I set the finished flats inside in front of a south facing window in our living room. I'm always amazed at the many uses for apple boxes! I can't wait to watch the seeds come up!
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Really Good Lasagna

Lasagna is one of my all time favorite dishes to make (and eat.) Perhaps that's because it's so easy but still impressive and tasty - just layer together almost any delicious ingredients with lots of sauce and cheese and you really can't go wrong!

I made a really good batch last night. I was having a friend over for dinner, and hoping to have the whole thing in the oven by the time he arrived. At the last minuted I realized I didn't have lasagna noodles (oops!). I called my friend and asked him to pick some up on his way over. In the meantime, I prepared the layers....

Sauce. I used tomato paste (two small cans in all) mixed about 50/50 with water, and seasoned with salt, garlic powder, and white wine vinegar. I've really begun to enjoy using this concentrated tomato paste - it's a very versatile ingredient. I'll have to try making my own from local tomatoes this summer.....

I had a bunch of mushrooms in the fridge that were just about to go bad, so despite the fact that my guest doesn't like mushrooms, I sliced them up and sauteed them in olive oil. (how can someone not like mushrooms? I don't understand it, but one must respect the tastes of one's guests.) I figured I could make half with mushrooms, half without.

Here's the beef! Local and organic, cooked with an onion, and liberally seasoned with dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, garlic powder, and salt. These pictures are a little backward. I used the same pan for the mushrooms and the beef. Out of respect for my guest I cooked the mushrooms after the beef (so he wouldn't get any mushroom residue in his meat.)

I didn't have any ricotta, but I did have some sour cream that needed to be used, so I mixed it with a little cream cheese, Romano, water, oregano, garlic powder, and salt. It made a wonderful white sauce.

And of course it wouldn't be lasagna without lots of mozzarella cheese!

I was lucky to find some of this local spinach from Snug Haven Farm at the Regent Street Co-op. It's really good, thick, and hearty. I was glad to have something green to add to the lasagna - I've been craving green vegetables, and they're all too rare this time of year. I rinsed it in hot water to wilt it a little bit.

As soon as my guest arrived with the noodles, I cooked them up and I was finally ready for the fun part!

Step one was to grease the bottom of the pan with a little olive oil, layering on some noodles, and a little more than half of the ground beef.

A nice layer of spinach came next....

....some red sauce.....


....more noodles.....

....then the rest of the beef on one side, and my mushrooms on the other. I was secretly glad to have them all to myself - I love mushrooms!

Next came the white sauce....It was a trick, but I managed to spread it pretty evenly.

Now the final layer of noodles.....

....the rest of the red sauce....

....and finally the rest of the mozzarella and some Romano cheese. It went in the oven for about 30 or 45 minutes.

It could have browned on the top a little better, but other than that it was perfect. Bubbling hot and smelling amazing!

It's hard to get a good picture of a piece of lasagna - it tends to fall apart. No matter, it was completely delicious! I made a lot of it too - I'll have leftovers all week!! How I love leftovers!

Really Good Lasagna

This recipe has the beef and mushrooms mixed throughout the whole thing. If you have a mushroom-phobe in your midst, you can always divide it like I did.

2 small cans tomato paste
A little white wine vinegar
1 cup sour cream
3-4 tablespoons cream cheese
1 small yellow onion
1 pound ground beef
1/2 lb button mushrooms
3-4 oz spinach leaves, washed
1/2 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
3/4 cup Romano cheese, grated
1 package lasagna noodles
Garlic powder
Dried oregano
Dried thyme
Dried rosemary

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

First, prep all the ingredients: Cook noodles. In a bowl, mix tomato paste about 50/50 with water and season with white wine vinegar, salt, and garlic powder. In a small saucepan, mix sour cream, cream cheese, and 1/4 cups Romano cheese with about a half cup of water and season with oregano, garlic powder, and salt. Heat the white sauce gnetly and stir until cream cheese is melted and it has a nice thick saucy texture. Slice the onion and saute in olive oil. When onion has begun to cook, add ground beef and cook until browned. Season with herbs and salt. Set beef aside. Slice mushrooms. In the same pan with the beef juices, saute mushrooms until nicely cooked.

Now, layer the ingredients. Grease the bottom of a large baking dish with olive oil and place a layer of noodles on top. Layer on about half the ground beef, followed by half the mushrooms, half the spinach, half the tomato sauce, and a little more than half the mozzarella. Follow this with another layer of noodles, the rest of the beef, mushrooms, spinach, and then all the white sauce, and another layer of noodles. Top it all off with the rest of the tomato sauce, mozzarella, and the remaining 1/2 cup of Romano. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the lasagna is bubbling hot. Turn the oven to 425 for the last 10 minutes to brown the top. (I obviously didn't do a good job of this.)

Let the lasagna stand for at least 5 minutes before you cut it.

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Tortillas from Scratch

This post has been a long time in the making. Before I left California in December, Paul from Warren Creek Farm gave me a whole bunch of decorative (aka "Indian") corn to experiment with. He sells it on the cob for decoration around Halloween/Thanksgiving time. I was curious to know if it was good to eat, and he had a bunch left over after the holidays, so he took some off the husk and gave it to me. I got about 10 or 15 pounds, and I've only used a fraction of it so far. It's got to be ground before it's edible, and I hadn't had the time or inclination to process it. I'm so happy with these tortillas I made yesterday, I'm sure I'll be eating a lot more of it in the next few months!

This "Indian" corn is a mixture of heirloom (old) corn varieties that were originally grown by Native Americans. I'm not sure exactly where these particular varieties come from (there were hundreds of varieties grown by different peoples all over the Americas.) Tortillas come from the Mexican culinary tradition, and since this corn grew well in cool Humboldt County California, I'm guessing it is not of Mexican origin. I was curious to try making corn tortillas from it anyway just to see how they turned out. I knew it was the same type of corn as Mexicans use to make tortillas (dry "dent" or "field corn" as opposed to sweet corn or pop corn), and all corn came from Mexico in the very beginning, before people in other areas picked it up and developed their own varieties, so I figured it couldn't go too badly.

Calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime or cal, is the only necessary ingredient to turn whole corn into tortillas. It's an alkaline mineral solution that's mixed with water and soaked with the corn. It's pretty amazing that ancient Mexicans figured this out - Not only does it soften the corn and make it easier to grind, but the process also enhances the nutrition. It convents the niacin in the corn from a bound form that's not absorbable by human bodies to a free form that we can use; it ensures a better amino acid balance in the protein in the germ of the kernel; it increases the amount of calcium, zinc, iron, and copper in the corn; and it reduces mycotoxins that occur in corn. Pretty cool!

The recipe I found online called for 5 tablespoons of lime, 4 quarts of water, and 2 quarts corn. I couldn't find any lime in town, so I ordered some online. Unfortunately, it wasn't a full 5 tablespoons - it was more like 3 1/2, so I had to do some fancy math (fancy for me, at least.) I started heating the water with the lime in it. When the lime had dissolved, I added the corn and continued heating it.

These misshapen kernels floated to the top, and I took them out.

I boiled the mixture for a few minutes, then turned the heat off. For tortillas, the corn is supposed to soak overnight. It soaks for less time if you're planning to make pozole or tamales.

Here's what it looked like the next morning. Not too appetizing!

I rinsed the corn in cold water and began the long process of taking the husks off. The directions said to rub the kernels between your fingers and the "softened husks" should come right off. Wrong! I worked at it for about an hour an a half, stooped over the sink, and finally decided it was good enough. I'm not sure why it seemed so difficult, perhaps it's the variety of corn.....

Here's the soaked corn, hulls removed (mostly) and ready for grinding. This is called nixtamal.

I got this wet grain mill online from melissaguerra.com. It's great, except they didn't send me the hopper (the part that holds the grain). I sent an email when I got it in the mail about a week ago, but I haven't heard anything. Luckily, we had this old coffee can that could be rigged to work.

The grinding took a long time (about 45 minutes of continuous grinding.) but it was a great workout, and produced some really nice looking masa harina - the corn flour used to make tortillas.

It was really exciting to finally have it ground up! The masa was pretty damp, but still powdery. I've made tortillas often using store bought masa harina, and it was really cool to see that I could make it myself, even if it was a lot of work. We used a little bit of what I ground for tortillas for last night's dinner, and I started drying the rest in a warm oven for later use.

I added a little water (about a cup or a little less) to about 5 cups of the damp masa harina to make a stiff dough. Getting the right consistency is a little difficult - if it's too wet, it sticks; too dry and it cracks. Luckily, unlike flour dough, it's OK to handle masa dough as much as you want - it won't make the tortillas tough.

For each tortilla, I started with a small ball of masa....

The ball gets placed in the middle of the tortilla press. (I sandwich the masa between two pieces of wax paper so it doesn't stick to the press.)

Press down hard.....I really like my heavy steel tortillas press. It makes it much easier to get a nice flat tortilla. I had a wooden one for a while and found it difficult to put enough pressure on it to make a thin tortilla.

It's relatively easy to peel the tortilla off the wax paper....

...and toss it on the pan. I use my cast iron skillet. Unless it's really dried out, I don't add any oil. If the masa is the right consistency, over medium heat, the tortillas don't stick. They cook for about 30 seconds on each side, until the corn is barely toasted. I've found that it's really important to have the pan heated up before you put the first tortilla in. Otherwise it sticks a little, and the little bit of burnt residue messes up the rest of the tortillas.

Here is the finished product! I hold the finished tortillas in a warm oven, wrapped in a clean dish towel. These turned out really good - not to brittle, with a wonderful fresh flavor and a pretty blue color. They filled the house with a delicious toasty corn aroma!

We ate them with shredded Wisconsin cheese, Warren Creek Farm beans, local ground buffalo, black olives, fresh guacamole, and organic salsa. Delicious! I could eat like this every day of the week! It felt especially good to eat tortillas that I had made entirely myself.....I have a whole new appreciation for the process!
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