Ramp Pesto

This is not a recipe for the faint of heart. This is a recipe for those of us who have an intense craving for the first fresh green things of spring, and who want to taste those flavors in an extreme way. When I described it to a coworker, she said "things like that make me feel more alive." I concur.

Before I get to the pesto, let me tell you about the pork that went along with it. Despite the cooler than usual spring, my perennial herbs are sprouting up. I don't have tons to pick yet, but I felt OK picking a few sprigs of oregano and chives for the pork loin I was planning to cook. How pretty.

The herbs got chopped up finely with a few of the white bottoms of some ramps, and mixed with olive oil and salt.

I slathered this delightfully green paste onto the Willow Creek Farm pork roast.

I have to stop here to give some props to the meat guys at Willy Street West. Unlike the East side store, at West they take whole animals and cut them down, and they do a fantastic job. This roast was the perfect size for two of us, and it had a nice layer of fat on top that kept the meat nice and moist as it cooked.

The roast went into a 325 degree oven, and I got to work on the ramps. My objective was to taste the pure flavor of the raw ramps without any other strong flavors getting in the way, so I simply put the whole bunch of ramps into a blender (greens and all) with olive oil and salt and blended it up pesto style.

The resulting bright green sauce was intensely flavorful, like the most potent, freshest, spicy oniony garlic imaginable.

I tossed the pesto with rigatoni and we ate it alongside the moist herbed pork. My only complaint was that despite brushing my teeth numerous times afterward, I could taste the ramps for a good 24 hours after I ate .... but there are worst tastes to have in your mouth.

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The First Greens of April

The ramps are here, the ramps are here! These cuties are now for sale at the Co-op, along with wild-crafted local watercress. These first spring greens are so precious. Life is returning after another long Wisconsin winter.

This is the same bunch of ramps sauteed in butter. Now before anyone goes and scolds me for using these rare wild onions, I should explain that here in Wisconsin these are harvested sustainably year after year. I know that other parts of the country are not so lucky, but that's not going to stop me from eating these beautiful spring leeks during their short season.

What is a ramp? It's a wild baby leek that grows in abundance in wooded areas. These came from Keewaydin Organics in the Driftless region of Western Wisconsin. They have wonderful spicy oniony garlicy flavor, and are only available in the early spring.

This is the watercress - a beautiful thick bunch of it, also from Keewaydin. This is a spicy peppery green that grows in clear springs.... another sure sign of spring. Like many other wild plants it's very high in nutrients.

I start getting inspired when this first produce of the year comes in, and I wanted to combine the watercress and ramps into some sort of spring dinner. Sandwiches sounded like just the thing, so I got this beautiful round steak from The Rustic Table out of the freezer, seasoned it with salt and black pepper, and put it in the broiler for just a few minutes....

My sandwich consisted of the steak cut nice and thin, fresh watercress, sauteed ramps, and Dreamfarm chevre on a demi-baguette from The Batch Bakehouse. I'll show you a picture in a bit, but first I want to tell you about the potatoes I made for the side.

As we move farther into spring local potatoes of decent quality are becoming harder to find. These are from Minnesota, which isn't exactly local, but closer than California. Most potatoes from last fall are starting to really show their age, but these are still looking pretty good.

I sliced them nice and thin....

.... and fried them in local sunflower oil until they were golden.

Homemade potato chips! Why haven't I thought of this before? They were exceptionally sweet and delicious. Definitely something I'll make again.

The finished plate. A wonderful hearty meal for a cold and rainy April day.

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Just when we thought warm weather was finally here to stay, it had to go and snow. April snow can be some of the most demoralizing weather - winter just doesn't want to let go of it's grip on our great state, but it has to, eventually.... Right?

I planted my bare-root strawberries two weeks ago, and they just had time to sprout new little leaves before they were hit with the cold slushy snowstorm that came on Tuesday. They're hearty little things though, and they didn't seem to mind it one bit.

As I write this it's warmed up into the forties, and it's raining outside. A cold rain for sure, but a springy April sort of rain that does promise to bring May flowers.

Here's the strawberry bed from afar. You still can't see the little sprouting plants, but they are there, and despite the cold they're still very much alive.

I took advantage of some warm sunny weather last Sunday to finish the majority of the digging of the new beds in the side yard. Two are approx. 4x8 and the other three are 4x10. I edged the bed with logs from the big Box Elder that we had taken down last fall, and the paths between the beds are covered with wood chips from that same tree. I still have some work to do on the beds themselves, and I want to make the edging a little better, but the majority of the digging is done. It will be time to plant peas and cilantro as soon as the weather decides to cooperate.

One of our neighbors gave us these two grape vines, which I also planted in the side yard. It's kind of hard to believe that these two inert looking sticks will grow to be big healthy vines, but stranger things have happened.

I didn't get a picture, but the side-yard is also now home to a little semi-dwarf Liberty apple tree. We really wanted an apple in the patio, and in order for it to pollinate we needed two, so we got two.

We have now made two trips to the garden center for topsoil to fill the big hole in the patio, and we still don't have nearly enough. This is where the box elder was, and we've decided to put a little garden bed there since the ground is sure to settle in the next few years meaning that repaving it now would be silly. So far we've planted a dwarf honeycrisp apple tree and two Virginia bluebell plants.... I have plans for ferns, an elephant ear, and perhaps a few hostas or other shade loving plants. Ornamental perennials are not always number one of my list of things to grow, but this seems like a good spot for them.

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April Overexertion

Goodness, it is easy to bite off more than you can chew in April! This Sunday reached 80 degrees for the first time, and all of a sudden we remembered why we love summer so much.

My first task Sunday morning was the yearly chicken coop deep-clean.

We purchased a much needed wheelbarrow, which made the job possible. I have a "poop board" under where the girls sleep that catches most of the manure.... that gets scraped off and put in the composter once a week. The bedding in the coop was relatively clean of manure, but there was plenty of it, and plenty of feed that the girls insist on kicking out of their feeder. I like a nice thick layer of bedding in the winter to help insulate the concrete floor.... but it's warm enough now that they don't really need it.

I schlept about 8 wheelbarrows full of old bedding from the indoor coop and deposited it in the run. I don't know if this was the best idea, but I didn't want to put it directly on the garden beds since there is some "hot" chicken manure in it, and there was definitely no room for it in the composter. The floor of the run tends to get muddy, and I figured the extra wood chips would help alleviate that, and also help raise the level of the run up a little and make it harder for any sort of digging predator to get in. The hens loved it - suddenly the old bedding they had been living with all winter was new and exciting.

Meanwhile, Stanley was hard at work on the ongoing project of digging up our side yard. We marked off the shape with logs... it's going to be really nice! The plan is to divide it up into beds. Our ultimate goal is to make raised beds with cedar boards, but we have other financial priorities this year, and cedar isn't cheap, so this year they will be beds that aren't significantly raised. The soil that we're turning up is quite nice, so I'm not too bummed to have non-raised beds.

Needless to say, digging out all the sod by hand is quite a chore. I'm so glad I have such a wonderful man to share the work with!

We also worked on finishing up the strawberry bed yesterday. I edged it with extra patio bricks to give it at least a little "curb appeal." I swept and tidied up the patio, and dumped in all of the half decayed leaves that I collected. Stanley dumped what was left of last years ashes from the grill on top. This should make for some very nice soil in this brand new bed.

From there I headed over to the Main Street Garden to drop off some seeds for Mom to plant.

I was greeted by the stench of Dave's composting brewer's grains. He's an avid home brewer of beer, and also an avid composter, and those two hobbies resulted in this huge pile of stinky half rotten grain... he was turning it and putting it in a black Earth Machine composter to finish up doing its thing. I'm sure it will make beautiful compost, but right now it's pretty darn gross.

I put this picture in for all of the Madison beer lovers out there. This is Moon Man, the huge cat who lives across the street from our Main Street garden and who lends his name to a popular brew from New Glarus Brewing Co. He is a great hunter, and does his part to keep rodents away from the garden. Sometimes I think he knows that he's famous....

It's hard to believe that this barren garden will soon be a veritable jungle of vegetables.....

The garlic I planted last fall is up! It seems to have survived really well over the winter.

Mom happily planting peas. She put in some salad mix seed too.... so good to finally get our hards in the dirt again!

The day ended with a lovely dinner with Stanley, Mom, and Bruce in the patio. How nice to eat outdoors again!

Stanley slathered this chicken from our meat CSA with his signature "New Bay" (like Old Bay, but different) spice rub and grilled it nice and slow. Yum.

I made the first potato salad of the season - old crop local potatoes, fresh hard boiled eggs from my girls, asparagus and snap peas (no, these aren't local, but they fit the spring theme).

For desert I combined last years frozen cherries and some frozen peaches from the Main Street garden into a simple fruit crisp.

Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up to horrible pain coming from my left shoulder blade. I don't know if it was the chicken coop cleaning, or any of the other garden work I did, but man do I hurt today.

Nevertheless, I had strawberry planting plans for the day that I didn't want to wimp out, so I doped myself up with ibuprofin and did the best I could. Hopefully I don't regret it tomorrow!

Stanley and I headed to the garden center to buy the strawberry plants.....

I couldn't decide between varieties, so I ended up getting two: Wendy (an early season variety) and Jewel (a late season variety). It's hard to see the tiny little plants in this photo, but they are there - 26 in all. We won't get berries until next year, but at least they're started now.

Of course we couldn't go to that garden center and only get what we had planned on getting... while looking for the strawberries, we ran into the bare root apple trees, and decided that we had to get one.

We had a huge box elder taken down from our patio last fall, and we are planning to put landscaping in it's place this year. When we saw the dwarf apple trees on display we both new we had to have one for this space. We chose a dwarf honeycrisp that will only get 6-10' tall.

When we talked with the saleswoman at the nursery, she reminded us that you need two apple trees in order to adequately pollinate and get fruit. So, we got two. Since there isn't room for two trees in the patio we settled on a semi-dwarf Liberty that we plan to put in the side yard.

With a little bare root tree waiting to be planted, suddenly prepping the soil int he patio became more important. Stanley did all the shoveling, and that was a good thing because my back wouldn't have let me do it. It was harder than we thought... he removed 6 or 7 wheelbarrows full of wood chips from the tree stump that was removed last year, and about the same amount of fill gravel that was used in the construction of the patio. Whew! We were left with a large crater that now needs to be filled before we can plant anything.

I told you it's easy to bite off more than you can chew.

This is where the Liberty apple tree will go - at the end of the garden across from the chicken coop. It will be lovely!

Whew! What a weekend.

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Early Early Spring

Oh my goodness, do we have eggs. Here are the two dozen currently in my fridge, and this was after giving a dozen to the neighbor. We've been eating all that we can, and it barely seems to make a dent in the supply. It seems so luxurious after a long winter of barely any eggs at all - it's a good sign that despite the colder than normal weather, it is indeed spring.

Why is it that whenever I try to take a picture of my chickens, they immediately show me their backsides? At least they have cute butts.....

Yes, the ladies made it through the winter quite well. There were cold mornings when I expected to find five little icicles instead of warm living hens, but they huddled together and toughed it out with no added heat at all.

They started molting back in November and didn't finish up until late January. It took a while, but they are now all fluffy, fat and laying beautifully.

Red Hen the red Sussex is without a doubt the leader of the pack, and my favorite of the flock. She's the most curious and most outgoing of all the girls. She lays very consistently - a good chicken all around.

Future garden space. I plan to dig up the front half of the side yard, probably next weekend. I'll probably add a little landscaping around the chickens' run as well - they'll like it. According to my master garden spreadsheet, I will be growing flour corn, snap peas, and tomatoes in this space.... I may change my mind depending on how the light is, but one way or another, vegetables will be grown here.

The ground has been just barely not-frozen enough for me to dig this little plot in the front yard. This is where the strawberries will go, and maybe a few flowers.

Most of the garden action right now is in the basement where I have four flats under lights. I had a heck of a time at first keeping the cats out of them (they interpret any loose dirt as a litter box - yuck!). I finally bought these plastic covers that do the trick. I had to replant the broccoli and cauliflower, so they are a week and a half behind where I wanted them to be, but they'll be fine.

One flat is full of yellow onions. I've had some trouble with them rotting and dying - perhaps because the plastic domes made it too humid? There is ventilation now, so hopefully they'll pull through. If not, I can always buy onion sets.

Two of these flats are full of flowers: the strawflowers, statice, and bells of Ireland all germinated nicely and are growing well. There are also a few aster plants that germinated that I'm hoping will make it. These are all destined for my October wedding....

I re-potted the brasicas today into these little containers. They're little, but they seem strong. 9 broccoli plants in total, and 6 cauliflower. I also planted melon seeds today - if all goes well I'll have 3 haogen seedlings very soon.

My tomato and parsley seedlings are currently living in my Mom's 4th and 5th grade classroom. She is a master gardener, so I am confident that they're in good hands, and I like the idea that her kids are watching their progress.

If the weather cooperates, next weekend will be the first of real garden work. I can't wait!

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