Summertime and the Livin' is Easy

This picture pretty much says it all. Cute kid in white shirt plus purple berries freshly picked. Yes, it's summer. The days are long and warm, the black-caps are going strong, the veggies in the garden are growing like crazy, and I am a happy camper, in both the literal and figurative sense.

What are black caps? Rubus occidentalis, or wild black raspberries. I grew up picking these in the woods of Indiana, and they grow wild in the hedgerows even here in the city. Though all the rain we've been having pretty much killed the strawberry crop this year, it's been great for the black caps. On a dry year they quickly become little, hard, and tasteless. This year they're big, plump, and chock full of juicy flavor. They have bigger seeds that a cultivated black raspberry, but they also have a wild flavor that nothing domesticated can touch.

This time of year I feel like I could eat berries and nothing but berries for a week, and black caps have been fulfilling my berry desires quite nicely. There are some bushes in back of the Main Street Garden, and also some in the park across the street from our house.

On to the other garden plots.......

McCormick. The melons are up, but not too exciting. I'm still confident that at least some of the varieties will take off. As uninspiring as this garden looks, it's a lot better off than some of the other plots in this community garden. The soil is very clay, and drainage is not good at all. We've been getting a ton of rain and some of the plots are almost completely underwater. Somehow we lucked out and got one of the sunniest plots, and also one of the highest in elevation. I'm glad I planted everything in hills, that's also helped the plants keep dry.

In the middle of the plot was supposed to be a few big sunflowers. I planted a bunch of seeds, but something has methodically eaten all the sprouts, leaving only little sad sunflower sprout stalks...... I hope whoever it was enjoyed themselves.

The winter squash are doing the best of anything. Looking pretty good.

The watermelon are looking decent. I'm hoping that they'll take off very soon.

Of all the melons, the Wisconsin Pride variety are doing the best - there's even a little yellow flower peeking out from under the plant on the right. Figures that a variety with the state name in it would do well in this state. I'll have to save some seeds from these if they fruit well.

Okra is up and looking vigorous, if small. Some hot weather would be nice for these little guys.

The Main Street Garden, in contrast, is about as lush and fertile as they come. Mom is done with school now, and she's had time to put into making things tidy and beautiful. The front of the circle was planted in carrots that never germinated, but other than that everything is just gorgeous.

The first little zucchini!

The beans are flowering heavily. We'll be picking next week.

Cucumbers are also flowering and starting to really climb.

Broccoli plants looking beautiful. Shouldn't be too long until they start forming heads.

Potatoes, tomatoes, and peas. You can't pick out the tomatoes in this big green mass, but let me tell you, they are absolutely HUGE! It's just incredible how much things can grow in a matter of a week. Lots of flowers, and some little tomatoes starting to form. The peas are still going strong, and the potatoes are nearing harvest time.

Hello, July.

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Housewarming Party

We had a large group of family and friends (mostly family) over on Saturday for our official housewarming shindig. I expected around 15 people, and my objective was to keep the food part of it as stress-free as possible, while still keeping it local.

Here's the crowd. We tested the limits for what our patio can hold.

I had a busy but enjoyable morning. I rarely get Saturdays off, so this was a happy exception. I went to the farmer's market on the square (the big one) to purchase supplies for dinner. Heading to market, I really wasn't sure what I'd be serving. I figured I'd see what was there and wing it. I came home with nine half chickens, 1lb of chicken wings, about 4lb of these new red potatoes (skins haven't even set yet), three kinds of nice artisan cheese, one small smoked rainbow trout, 1lb of shelled peas, a good amount of summer squash, some small spring onions, one beautiful head of radicchio (for garnish), and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers.

The Saturday market on the square is amazing in its diversity and number of vendors. I don't, however, think that I would go every week even if I didn't have to work. There are usually a ton of people there (which isn't a bad thing really), and it gets really really crowded. Just walking down the sidewalk becomes extremely difficult if you are trying to move any faster than a snail's pace. This is OK for a while, but gets pretty old, especially whey you're carrying all of the things I mentioned above. I really wish that they would just close down the square to traffic so the market could happen on the street....wishful thinking I know.

On the way home I stopped at The Batch Bakehouse and picked up a few baguettes. After dropping everything off at home, I headed to Sun Prairie to pick up the ice cream cake I had ordered from Sassy Cow Creamery.

The day proved to be a little too hectic to take many pictures. Below are some shots of the finished feast. First, the hour devours.....

Eight year cheddar, farmer's cheese, and a round of soft sheep's cheese.

A gorgeous (and delicious) smoked trout. I wasn't sure if I should serve it with the head, but it seemed like the thing to do. It was a hit!

We ate the fish and the trout with the baguette from The Batch.

For the chicken I whipped up a large batch of my favorite apple-butter BBQ sauce. Apple butter, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and salt. That's it. I have no idea what proportions. I just mix it until it tastes right.

Chicken on the grill. Dave brought over his new grill (or new to him at least, Meg his girlfriend found it on Craigslist) I didn't want to burn the BBQ sauce, so I dry-rubbed the chicken ahead of time, and he cooked it over low heat sans sauce. He added the BBQ sauce and more heat at the end. It turned out absolutely perfect.

Fresh summer squash on the grill is simply divine.

Mom brought this lovely garden salad.

My potato salad. I tossed in some local broccoli and carrots that I had on hand along with the peas from market, fresh garden dill, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Simple.

Grandpa brought this beefy potato salad, an old family recipe. Yum.

Grilled to perfection. No joke.

It was success! I was done with all the major cooking before anyone arrived, which was exactly what I was going for. It was local, it was relatively easy, and it was delicious.

It was dark by the time we had the ice cream cake, so I didn't get pictures. Black raspberry and chocolate ice cream with a bit of chocolaty cake in between. Wow.

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New Coop Part Two and My Hectic Life

This post promises to be as discombobulated and full as my life has been lately. The chicken coop is perhaps the most exciting piece of news, but I also can't not post about the incredible progress the gardens have been making and the spring feast that I shared with Dave, Meg, and Stanley last night. Perhaps someday I'll get back to those short one-topic posts, but not now. There's just too much going on.

First, the coop.

As I shared in my last post, my brother Ben built the coop inside the garage two weekends ago. He didn't have time to do the run until last weekend, so in the meantime we let the girls out into the yard (supervised of course) to stretch their legs. They had fun, but it became very apparent that they would ruin the lawn in a matter of a few days, so they spent most of their time cooped up in the coop.

It was fun to watch them become accustomed to their new chicken door. Here's Blondie thinking "I got out of this thing, I wonder if I can get back in?"

Might as well give it a try. Red Hen is a bit taken aback by all the unnecessary flailing.

It worked! Red Hen, by the way, has completely gotten over her broodiness. Whew! I was hoping the move would do it, and it looks like it did.

We were gone on a three day camping trip this weekend, and when we got back on Sunday, Ben had this much of the run finished. The wood is all cedar - very nice! He and my other brother Dave worked on it for most of the day on Saturday. It pays to have brothers! Stanley and I dug a 6 inch trench around the inside of the walls and buried chicken wire to keep any digging predators out. Raccoons are my biggest worry. I feel pretty certain that they will not be able to get in here.

We let the girls out for one last graze in the big yard, and they happily dust bathed and scratched and did everything they could to destroy the lawn before they got stuck in the run.

Putting the last of the screws in the galvanized roof. What a beautiful run!

Here it is today, with the girls all moved in. As expected, they've just about destroyed all the grass. I'll probably put straw down so it doesn't get too muddy.

The side toward the street.....

....and the back side with the door. I plan on getting a padlock just in case someone decides to mess with them when I'm not around.

As you can see, the girls are very visible from the street, which is awesome. There are a lot of pedestrians that pass by and it's really fun to see them notice the coop. There's just something about chickens that makes people smile. I also really like how it's changed the look of our house - it's no longer just a house with a garage on a corner. It's a house with a garage on a corner with a chicken coop!

OK, I know that was enough for one post, but June doesn't stop just because I've got a new chicken coop......

Friday was my birthday. I was by myself in the morning, and I decided that the thing to do was to pick strawberries. Most of the u-picks were closed, but I did find Berry Hill Farm, a 2 1/2 acre farm on the edge of town that was open for picking.

I soon learned why all of the other u-picks were closed. It has been raining a lot this month, and the strawberries are hurting because of it. About half of them at this farm were either rotting or moldy, or both. The hot weather we had early in the season brought the crop on earlier than normal, so I had missed the peak. That, on top of the rain made for disappointing picking.

I got 3 quarts. These two I froze right away, and I brought one camping with us. Hopefully next year will be better.

Not to be discouraged, I headed to our Main Street garden to see what could be harvested.

Holy potatoes! I've never seen such big healthy plants! There was one that had fallen over, so I dug underneath to see what was there. Potatoes! Still small, but they're there. We'll be harvesting them all in a month of so. I wonder how many pounds we'll get......

I was afraid these tomato plants were too small when I planted them just a few weeks ago. How wrong I was. They're growing like crazy, and a few flowers are starting to form.

My row of peas is doing really well. Between Dave and Meg and Stanley and I we've been picking them about every other day, and there have been plenty to go around.

The cherry tree is ripe too!

Is there anything as beautiful as a ripe red cherry?

More tomatoes. We're going to have a canning bonanza this summer.

The peppers are slowly plugging along. They'll get there.

The summer squash are looking good.

Baby concord grapes. The vines are just loaded.

The pole beans thinking about starting to climb.

Here's what I brought home. a quart and a half of cherries, a few black caps (wild black raspberries that grow in back of the garden), peas, and a few token potatoes.

I went back on Monday and came home with this haul. More peas and black caps, more potatoes (for a special solstice feast), lots of lettuce, baby dill to dry, and cilantro and dill flowers for a centerpiece. I love June!

OK, almost done, I just have to show you a few pictures of the meal we had last night. It's worth it, I promise.

I am really bad at pie crusts. It's mostly lack of practice, and I know I'm only going to get better if I do it often, so I decided to go for it and make a crust for the berry pie I had planned. I made it with lard and butter, from this recipe on Epicurious. It actually worked!

Stanley went to the nearby park and heroically picked 5 cups of black caps for the pie. The mosquitoes are getting bad, so I believed him when he said that he lost about a pint of blood. It was worth it. I never use measurements for a pie like this. I added something like 3 Tablespoons of corn starch, 1 cup sucanat, the juice of 1/2 lemon, a little honey, a little salt, and I think that's it.

Even the latice worked!! I put a dab of butter in all the holes, brushed it with milk, shook on some cinnamon, and put it in the oven. 15 minutes at 425, then about 45 at 350. It's hard to turn your oven on to 425 degrees on a hot muggy day, but it proved to be worth it.

This was dinner. Burgers from The Rustic Table, salad from the garden, potatoes from the garden (coated with oil, put in a loaf pan, and cooked on the grill - YUM!), and cream of tomato soup.

I didn't get any pictures of the soup. The milk curdled and I was too embarassed to let it be seen. It tasted good though. Onions and garlic browned in butter, add a bit of flour and cook a while longer, add a bunch of milk, a few bay leaves, a tiny bit of sucanat, and salt. Cook till it's thickened, then add tomatoes. I still have some frozen puree from last year, which is why I made the soup in the first place. It really did taste good, but it sure did look bad.

I'll leave you with this picture of one of the nicer pies I have ever made. The crust was flakey, the berries weren't too juicy..... I'll have to make a point of making more pies this summer until I get it right every time.

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