Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Early summer steak salad

With a tip of the hat to a base recipe in this month's Sunset magazine - enjoy this satisfying meal when spring asparagus and late-winter greens crossover in your garden or neighborhood farmers market:

Marinate 1 large grass-fed top sirloin steak in a combination of worcester sauce, red wine, and olive oil that suits your taste for 8 - 24 hours.

Line a platter with freshly washed spinach leaves.  Wash and trim a large handful each of kale and swiss chard leaves, preferably young.  Put them in a pot and drizzle a 1/2 C of water over them.  Turn the heat on medium high for about 3 minutes, then turn it off and let the greens steam.

Meanwhile, wash and trim 1 bunch asparagus into 2-inch pieces, discarding the woody end.  Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil while you prepare a large bowl of ice water.  Boil the asparagus for 3-5 minutes, then drain in a colander and plunge into the ice water until cool.  Drain and set aside.

Broil or grill the steak until rare or medium rare. 

While the steak is broiling, toast 1/2 C of pine nuts over medium heat in a dry pan, about 5 minutes total.  Remove the pan from heat and set aside.

Chop 1/2 of a red onion.

Now, to assemble (the fun part):

Arrange the steamed greens over the spinach, sprinkle the red onion over that, pile the cooled asparagus in the middle.  Slice the steak across the grain and into bite-sized lengths and scatter around the asparagus.  Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over everything, then encircle the whole thing with crumbled feta cheese.

Whisk together 2 TBS each lemon juice and dijon mustard and slowly add 3 TBS olive oil.  Drizzle over your salad and enjoy immediately.

This salad pairs well with a spicy Syrah.

SSF Garden - No Stopping Us Now

Well, I thought we were done planting out the garden for this year, but now that we've got a little momentum, it seems we just can't stop.  With the gate and the fence, a grassy area that is shady and cool in the heat of the day, and produce that is bursting out all over, it's such a wonderful place to hang out that new ideas insist on presenting themselves.

Last week, I heard myself say yes to a flat of squash starts my neighbor generously offered, only to muse "where on earth will I put them - I know what happens with squash!"  So, clearly we needed a new bed for squash.

Then we had an impromptu picnic on the shady grass and I thought, why aren't there fruit trees here?  Is it too late to put them in this year?  And yesterday afternoon I stood back, very satisfied, to admire the 4 new dwarf and semi-dwarf beauties I'd just lovingly submerged into rich, wormy soil.

So, from virtually nothing to a real, live garden.  Between eating from the freezer the beef and lamb we've stored there and munching young tender greens, our grocery bill is already feeling significantly lighter.

Here's an inventory of what - barring any natural or self-made tragedy - our garden grows:

We're already eating:
2 kinds of lettuce
swiss chard

Coming soon:
sugar snap peas

And, for summer:
Tomatoes for salads and sauces
orange peppers
3 kinds of potatoes
3 kinds of summer squash

To plant this week:
pumpkins for pie and carving

To bear next year:
2 kinds of apples
eating cherries
bartlett pears
blueberries from tiny twigs we planted last fall


Friday, May 22, 2009

Feather the Amazing House Chicken

This is a story about a chicken fantasy.  

Yes, Feather is one of our two remaining beloved Original Chickens.  And somehow she knows it, b/c she has decided that, while she might be a simple member of the flock by day, in truth she deserves to lounge on the wool rugs and sup from the dog dish.

Lately, this has become something of an obsession.  Previously, she might wander on occasion - quite by accident of course - into the cool quiet confines of the house.  But now?  Watch out.  This girl is On Alert.  No more leaving the front door open.  No more leaving the side door ajar while you run in to grab a knife or some water.  And those lovely dutch doors, with the tops wide open to let in the summer air?  

Very inviting.

Every time I turn around, there's a confident and shiny black hen strolling about my living/dining/kitchen area, awaiting the next tidbit that might befall the floor.  Once discovered, this girl performs no scramble for the nearest door, no.  She is no more chagrined at finding her way in than would Violet be upon stumbling into Mr. Wonka's chocolate fondue room.  In fact, she is very, very annoyed at even the suggestion she depart the premises.  Which way to the dog food, Madam?  And I don't CARE if it's Chicken Nuggets!

Anyone care to invent the Hen Diaper?

Barter, My Buddy

Just for the record, that's what greek oregano looks like before it's dried and put into jars.

There is something so primal about barter.  The invention of currency was a truly transformative event, absolutely, but...when you take the middleman of money out of your transaction, well, something sort of magical happens.

First, it's my experience that the "bottom line" disappears and both sides trend toward generosity.  Months ago, I found my big blue chair a new home and off it trundled down the driveway in the back of a VW van, the two kids who would snuggle at storytime already anxious to see it in its newly-cleared space.  Rather than taking cash, I'd settled on plant starts and homegrown and harvested pork as my payment, to be determined at a later date.

Today was that date.  Young and enthusiastic farmers, parents, and solar electric business-owners,  J & J offer a study in modern pioneering.  Their 2 acres is intensively farmed, with greenhouses, garden beds, chicken coop, and hog-raising area, and still room left over for a shady grove complete with swing and playhouse.  Not even the end of May, and J has easily over 100 plant starts ready for market.  Lettuce grows as edible borders around their patio while more bolts from overwintering in the warmth of the greenhouse.  

I spent about a half-hour there, choosing with J the tomatoes and peppers I would take home and the squashes I would return for next week.  Still feeling satisfied at the cozy home my beloved chair has found, I want to pay her X for the starts; no, that's too much she says, let's agree on Y instead.

We talk about raising and slaughtering pigs, the pros and the cons - a question I put to any and everyone I learn has some experience with this.  She reassures me, encourages me to try it when others have warned me of the pitfalls.  J alerts me to their meat birds, almost ready for harvest, and together we add that to the barter list.  

I came home with tomatoes and peppers, yes, but in truth that is just the beginning.  No cash transaction ever felt this bountiful.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Schools in Crisis = America in Crisis

This is a photo of a table in the cafeteria of my son's elementary school.  There's nothing remarkable here, but beyond the frame of my camera are the backs of about 200 kids grooving to the drumbeats of 28 percussion instruments being played by 28 beaming 5th graders, their smiling teacher and music teacher, and conducted by a very hip percussionist, courtesy of our Artists in the Schools program.

I can't show the absolute joy on the faces of the 5th graders or the wonder and amusement on the faces of the kids at the tables, because that would violate their privacy as minors.  But, I can tell you that I am grateful I took photos of those kids and the music teacher and the groovy musician, because next year they'll all be gone.

The 5th graders, sure, up to the middle school.  But also the music teacher and probably the artist.  You know why.  Because our little district had to shave $1 million from its budget, that's why.

Well, who cares, it's just music, right?  Oh, and art.  And librarians.  And special needs.  And preschool.  And kindergarten.  And a 4th grade class.  Let's see, what else?  What does it matter, we'll make it work.  We always make it work.  We late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers, we've gotten very, very good at making it work.  We adjust down, and down, and down.  

When we moved here, the average 4th grade class size was 21.  Today?  28...before that last cut.  Those of us who got a good education - those of us who got to attend school when everyone felt that an educated populace was the key to a healthy middle class - let's do some math:

You are a 5th grade teacher with, now, 30 kids.  The school day is 6 hours long, minus about 1 hour for 2 recesses and a lunch.  Minus one special class each day (thank goodness we won't have THOSE to worry about much longer!).  That leaves 4 hours.  Multiply that by 60 minutes (still with me Gen Xers?) and you get 240 minutes.  Divide 240 minutes by 30 kids.  If you got 8 minutes per kid, congratulations.  Although you may not feel much like celebrating.

I don't.

I'm no Chicken Little, but folks, we can't run a democracy when our kids get 8 minutes a day (and yes, I realize it doesn't really fall out like that, but the measure is nonetheless useful).  Across the water, in Seattle, there are high schools with 42% and even 37% graduation rates.  The graduation rate in Detroit is less than that - they have a 75% drop-out rate.  And, I happen to know that most schools are able to inflate their grad rates by counting GEDs and even people who graduate later - so the real, 4-year numbers are even lower.  Even lower than 37% and 25%.

We can point fingers - bad parenting, too much media, an entitlement culture - there's plenty of blame to go around.  But Rome is burning and we're arguing about the brand of hot dogs to bring.  

We no longer live in a pioneer society.  Our kids - your kids, THE kids - need more than Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rythmatic to thrive and succeed and raise our country up with them.  And that takes a lot of things.  Creativity, commitment, hard work.

But, first, it takes money.

Victory in the Garden - First home-grown meal 09

Anyone who's followed this blog even casually has probably picked up on our gardening failures - specifically our astonishing ineptitude in growing food.  But, knock on the proverbial fence post, I think we've finally turned a corner.  

Last week I giddily snipped tender leaves from spinach, kale, and chard plants I actually grew from seeds, sown under the warmth of a cloche back in March.  Nothing ever tasted so good.  Except maybe the salad of those same, plus baby lettuces, I tossed with some olive oil, balsamic, and shaved parmesan for lunch yesterday.  Equally delicious and oh so very, very satisfying.

Got a porch or some front steps?  A window that could use a little greenery to dress it up?  You can grow your own stir-fries and salads too.  It's not too late (for those in the northern hemisphere, of course) - grab some healthy starts at your local farmers market, a bag of compost at the hardware store, and you'll be drizzling dressing over homegrown greens in a couple weeks.  What could be better?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Taking it to the next next level

Today was Day 1 of the Great Chicken Coop Tour and Mark and I agree we can’t remember when we’ve had more fun.  A dump truck load worth of work?  ( up til 1AM, back up at 6AM)  You bet.  But, talking to folks all day long about why we raise pastured hens, how we built this place out of salvaged materials, and what’s good about local food – heaven.

We had a steady stream, too.  People who have or had chickens, people who are thinking about having chickens, people who just thought tooling around and checking out what other people are doing sounded like a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.   Most people, actually, were in the “seriously considering this” club.  They’d come from more upscale operations and were encouraged to see recycled stop sign posts and Vashonfreecycle chicken housing.  I think it gave them hope that their chicken dreams were possible.

We sold out of bread by 1PM, sold most of our hummus and tabouli not long after.  The eggs are long gone.  Water, sugar, fresh-squeezed lemons, and our own rosemary made our Rosemary Lemonade a big hit.  Not too sweet and just a little hint of rosemary.  Yum.

It was so fun talking with people.  Yes!  Do this!  You’ll love it!  Chickens are the best entertainment and the eggs become just a much-appreciated bonus.

Right now, I sit beneath a 4-post canopy, gazing at the tulips Mark brought home from Pike Place Market to honor me for Mother’s Day.    The sun filters through the far-away trees to grace our farm with dappled, late light.  The sheep are back in the permanent pasture for the night.  Owl crows when the spirit moves him.  Our farmstand table is mostly empty but for books and bouquets and other “stuff.”  People have nibbled samples of our wares and bought some to take home.

A very good day.





Friday, May 8, 2009

All Hands On Deck

Nana pitches in to get SSF ready for the Great Chicken Coop Tour!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Welcome to our garden

Nearly 7 years ago, just weeks after moving to our island, we discovered that 43-year-old Mark had cancer.  We looked at the options and surgery seemed the most prudent overall.  It was prostate cancer and it was fairly aggressive.  He was young for this diagnosis, for this decision.  I was even younger.  Catching it early meant his chances were excellent.  It also meant the family we had was the family we would have.

Mark would later go on to have another, completely unrelated cancer, not treatable by surgery but rather the familiar combination of chemotherapy and radiation.  I cannot speak for him, but from my perspective, it's tough to call which treatment and recovery - which cancer - was harder.  They were both hard.  Both scary.  The 2nd experience, coming just 3 years after the first had a surreal quality - Mark was still, then, only 45.

But, debatable though the ranking might be, there's no questioning that the recovery from prostrate surgery is no picnic.  And did I mention they boot you out of the hospital in about 36 hours?  So, the vast majority of that recovery takes place in your own home, with only the phone for nursing support.

We lived in a beautiful house with a beautiful view and the approach to the front door took you through a gated courtyard.  On a girl's weekend with my homies weeks before, I had fallen in love with a hand-made gate at a little gallery on Camano Island and contacted the artist.  He agreed to make me one and when it was finished we each drove an hour on the freeway to meet in a McDonald's parking lot and complete our transaction.

The day I brought Mark home from the hospital, my dear friend Robert ferried out to the island, located the gate and the tools and put the gate up for me so that Mark could walk through it to the rest of his life.

And a lot of life happened between then and now.  I quit my job, we bought some land, we built 2 houses and moved my mom up from New Mexico.  We bought a flock of chickens, then a flock of sheep, we got pretty good at landscaping, we failed at gardening several times.  We raised our little boy into the beginnings of a fine young man.  

Months went by, then years, and Mark's garden gate quietly gathered dust in the attic.  Early on, we had thrown up a "temporary" fence around what would become the biggest point of contention in our relationship and a swath of floppy deer netting was all the gate it would support.  We barely had a garden, much less a gate.

But, after weeks of labor, hours of constructing a structural, concreted, solid, beautiful fence around what has finally morphed into a productive food garden, we were ready.  Mark carried the gate down from the attic, we dusted it off, and smiled at each other.  He drilled the holes while I held the gate steady.  And then it was done.

I'm not sure why it was so so hard and took so long, but this spring our garden grows, our fence is here to stay, and Mark's copper sunburst provides the gateway.  Welcome to our garden of life.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Turning for Home

About 100 years ago, for a little while, I used to be a semi-serious equestrian.  I owned a giant Irish Hunter and sailed over three-foot jumps with a couple feet to spare.  I wasn't inherently brave, he just made it easy.  And fun.  I'd wanted a horse since I was 6 years old and when I was 12, I got my wish.

Horses can teach you a lot.  They are big and quirky and can really hurt you on purpose or by accident.  They can decide they've had enough and try to scrape you off on a tree branch at full speed (that was fun) or rear up and fall back over on you (even better).  They can also be affectionate - like coming over to you while you're lying on the ground to see if you're OK after all.

They're individuals, with plenty of unique personality, but as a species they also share many traits.  One that any horse person will recognize is the uncanny ability - no matter how long or far a ride might take them - to know which way is home.  If you're trotting around an arena during a lesson, the gait slows away from the barn and quickens when you turn the corner and face it again.  And if you're out for a long trail ride and figure the sun's getting low enough it might be time to turn back, look out.  Once you swing that big head around, more often than not, all bets are off.  You and your steed will be fighting through the reins all the way home.  You're still enjoying the scenery, he's got alfalfa and oats on the brain.

I lived 36 years across 4 countries and 11 cities or towns before I landed on my island and knew I was home.  Mark can tell a parallel story.  We cherish the beauty of our rock, certainly, but there's much more that makes it a special place.  It's not for everybody - even seven years later our Seattle friends shake their heads - but it's really, truly home.

We live about 8 miles from town.  There are several routes that lead to our farm, and just about all of them include a right turn from the hiway at a 4-way stop.  And no matter how interesting or joyful my interactions with my island neighbors have been, I make that right off the hiway, face west, and turn for home.  I finally get it.  I roll the windows down and go a little faster than maybe I should.  Turning for home.

I try not to get preachy on this little electronic slice of life, but here is one piece of advice:

Figure out what you love, what fills you with joy.  Then find a place with those things and move there.

Turn for home.  The rest will turn out.