Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Ever Expanding Library

I've had a life long love affair with books. Ever since I figured out how to read (somewhere between the age of 3 and 4, according to my mother) I have always had to have as many books as possible nearby. Fiction, nonfiction, recipe books, how-to manuals, it doesn't matter as long as it's printed. Bookshelve dominate practically every room in our apartment and stray books still spill off of every available surface. On my recent return from the UK, I had to borrow another suitcase to cart home my extra baggage and I'm almost embarassed to admit that the bulk of that was books - 14 in all. (In my defence we were traveling by train almost every day so I needed reading material. And I actually left some behind because I needed room for my Kilner Jars)

So you can imagine my excitement when I was approached by the publishing house Thomas and Allen and asked if I would like to receive books to review for this blog. Free books? And all I have to do is read them and talk about them here? Um, is this a trick question?

When I arrived home in August there was a parcel notice waiting for me and I hurried to the Post office with my ID in hand to pick up what I thought would be a catalogue of books to choose from. To my delight there were several catalogues and 3 books! And it got better-that squeal of glee eminating from my apartment was me realizing that one of the books was an advanced copy of Barnheart by Jenna Woginrich.

Now if you've found your way to my blog you've likely already heard of Jenna and Cold Antler Farm (and if you haven't, you'll find it here). Jenna has a small sheep farm in the area of New York State known as Veryork and she's one of my absolute favourite bloggers -she make words sing on a page! Last winter I made a special trip to Buffalo, NY just to purchase her first book Made From Scratch which documented her early years learning how to be self sufficient. She also has a book about raising chickens called Chick Days. Barnheart is her latest offering due to be released in November. I didn't expect to get my hands on a copy of it for quite some time. Needless to say I devoured it in record time! And I'd love to tell you all about it but the publisher has requested that I wait until closer to the release date to post my review. Which I promise I will very soon and if all goes well, I'll be reviewing other books and posting about them as well.

In the meantime I have other news of a literary bent. Last night Joel and Dana of Well Preserved and I hosted a small preserve tasting party to introduce our friends and fellow bloggers to Kate Payne, the author of The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking. Kate, Joel and I connected through the CanJam last year so we delighted to hear she was coming here to promote her book and it was a wonderful excuse to get a group of like minded people together for an evening of canning talk and preserve tasting. Many familiar faces were there: Laurel from Not Far From the Tree, Laura of Cubits Organics and Sarah B Hood of Toronto Tasting Notes and author of We Sure Can were among the guests.

There were many delicious jars to sample from, loads of interesting conversations and a chance to chat with Kate and grab a copy of her book. As the title suggests, it's a modern take on 'old fashioned' skills like canning and it's full of great ideas for for creating a beautiful home environment on a minimal budget.

As much as I wish I had time right now to be beautifying my home, or even reading about it, I'm still knee deep in preserving. Tonight it's more tomatoes, chicken stock and chili garlic paste. I also still have grapes, autumn olives (!more on those later!) and a boatload of celery to deal with. But when the freezer is finally full and the jars are all processed and lined up on the shelves, there's a pile of books with my name on them!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wordless Wednesday- This Week's Foraging

Clockwise from the top:
Black Walnuts, Toronto Island.
Yellow Plums, Not Far From The Tree pick
Green Grape Tomatoes, Sorauren Market, (bartered for some Una's Heartstock)
Mixed Unripened Tomatoes, left in a basket on the sidewalk after someone cleared their garden

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Last of the Lazy Days of Summer

The calendar and the weather agree it's still summer but the sky tells the truth. The rapidly changing angle of the sun, that particular deep shade of blue of a September afternoon, the chill in the evenings after a hot day, all spell the demise of yet another summer. Night comes faster now and the stars seem clearer- last night as I stared up at the night sky and a nearly full moon, the heavens appeared closer and more vivid than I can ever recall in this city full of light pollution. These are things that you cannot capture with a camera but it doesn't make them any less tangible.

In the heat of the day however, it's easy to forget that summer's coming to a close, and the lure of the beach, a blanket and a book is hard to ignor. Like me the tomatoes are in denial, throwing out new flowers and fruit like they've got months of growing yet to do. I long to seize their optimism and I have my fingers crossed for a long Indian summer but their days are numbered no matter what. Better to try to ripen what's there than expend energy on new growth.

So for this lazy Sunday of summer, a compromise: this morning I cut back most of the new growth on on all tomatoes but I left a branch or two of new growth and flowers- for the bees, if not for any fruit I'll ever see. And this evening when a chill sneaks into the air, I'll fire up the canner and bottle up some grape juice for the winter ahead. But for the rest of the afternoon, you'll find me lying on a blanket in the sun reading a book. While I still can.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Making The Best Of It

It's hard to admit this but my gardens were a total disaster this year. You know it's bad when even the morning glories failed to bloom! I can point fingers at the weather, my month long absence or the marauding wildlife (note the squirrel in the former potato bucket) but it all amounts to the same- not much produce. When I arrived home from the UK, there was a lone butternut squash growing on the roof and I admired it for several days. Then one morning it vanished without a trace- the Russian swore he spotted a squirrel running down the alley with it in it's mouth. The pepper squash didn't even make it that far- if it ever produced any offspring, they didn't last long enough for me to witness them. My roof tomatoes were stripped of the few little green fruit they managed to produce. All my peppers got eaten, even the hot ones. The garden in the ground fared only slightly better. We've eaten a few tomatoes and beans but have yet to see a cuke or summer squash. There's lots more tomatoes finally but they are small and green and I doubt they'll make it in time. I emptied the potato bucket today to find -you guessed it- 3 tiny potatoes. I swear they are even smaller than last year. I think I'm just not meant to grow potatoes. My last hope is the brussel sprouts- they look okay but I'm pretty sure they should be taller by now- so far they resemble skinny cabbage.

So what do you do when the season tells you it's time to put up food for winter and there's none to work with? When even Not Far From the Tree picks are few and far between?

You raid your neighbour's, friend's and family's gardens for excess/unwanted produce!

The Russian and I took a few days last week to go visit my family in Sarnia. My parents still reside in the house I grew up in and many years ago when we were a huge group to feed, they planted a number of fruit trees. Since only three of them live there now (my parents are raising one of my nephews), they don't have much use for all of the fruit and most of it rots on the ground. (actually it's the nephew's job to pick it up and dump it in the compost but like most 11 year olds, he has a million things he'd rather be doing). The pears were lovely but got eaten by the Russian before they made it back here unfortunately- that man loves his pears! Most of the apples were still good- a bit scabby and prone to worms but tasty just the same. We spent a good hour picking them all up, discarded the rotten ones and still ended up with over a bushel. The nephew found picking up apples was more fun with company and was enthusiastic at the idea of some apple sauce so we cut them up and cooked them down. Eight large containers went into the freezer and one jar plus a bag of fresh apples came home with me!

My brother and his family live only a few blocks away from our parents- his garden was rather generous this year and they couldn't eat everything they planted so he told us to come by and help ourselves. My dad made away with a large basket of cucumbers for pickling and I took the beans! They had a bumper crop of both yellow and green bush beans and the plants were loaded with beans that were past the good eating stage- large and bit tough. Last year I discovered that these make excellent pickled beans so I picked a bagful to take home, along with some onions and dill. A stop at my sister's later that day contributed a nice red pepper from her garden to complete the ingredients needed for some sweet and some dilly pickled beans.

Sweet Pickled Beans (Makes 6 x 500ml or 12 x 250 ml jars)

11 cups of fresh snap beans, green or yellow ( if you use older beans they are delicious but a bit more dense, which I like)

2 tbsp minced garlic

3 cups white vinegar,

2 cups cider vinegar

1 1/3 cups brown sugar

1 2/3 cups water

4 tsp pickling salt

½ cup mixed chopped peppers ( sweet or hot to taste- optional)

Wash beans and trim ends. In a large pot combine all ingredients except beans and peppers. Bring to a boil and time for 5 minutes. Fill jars with beans. Pack tightly but make sure to leave ½ inch head space- trim beans if necessary. Add 1 tsp of pepper mix to each jar. Add hot brine to jars to cover beans, leaving ½ inch head space. Gently bang jars to remove any air bubbles or use a chop stick to dislodge. Wipe rim to remove any stickiness. Centre snap lid on jar and apply screw band. Tighten to just finger tight.

Place all jars in canning pot. Start timing when water returns to a boil. Process for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and remove jars from water. Allow to cool and check seals.

Store in a cool dark place for minimum of 3 weeks before opening.

Garlic Dilly Beans

Follow recipe as above but use only ½ cup white sugar

Add one clove of garlic, peeled and 1 tsp of dill seed to each jar before adding brine.

Process as above.

Back in Toronto, I continued my quest for stuff to preserve and I been blessed with a generous neighbour who gave me a pailful of cherry tomatoes. Those were dehydrated on cookie sheets in the oven, making me doubly thankful for the cooler weather we've had this week. Today I finally got to go on another Not Far From The Tree pick. It's been bad year for local fruit too so this was only only my third pick this season. We were picking grapes, both green and purple and I had to admire the lovely vegetable garden which took up the entire backyard! The homeowner and I compared notes on tomatoes and commiserated on the not so stellar year and then she handed me a spaghetti squash and told me to help myself to some tomatoes and celery! I sense some sauce in the making.

Of course for the major canning projects I usually have to resort to buying in bulk anyhow. In all honesty I can't grow enough peppers, tomatoes or cukes in my small space to even come close to the amounts I like to put up. Thankfully the greengrocers are loaded with bushel baskets of everything I need and it's all Ontario grown. I've been getting sweet peppers for $1/lb, I've picked up a couple quart baskets of plum tomatoes for $1 each, and corn is still cheap and plentiful. So all is not lost and the preserve shelf and the freezer will be full of goodness again this year. It may not all be backyard grown but it's local and seasonal and that's going have to do.

Now I just have to figure out what to do with 20 pounds of grapes!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Casey 1991- 2011

There's a big hole in my heart right now. On Friday Sept 2 my beloved Casey took her last nap and peacefully faded away in her sleep. Right to the end she was still going strong and although I knew this time was coming I hadn't expected it to be quite so sudden. Certainly her body was showing signs of wear; her paws were less than snow white these days, and her ginger fur was fading to tawny beige. She had a limp that appeared last year and never left, and she was having difficulty retracting her claws so her paws made a clicking noise on the hardwood floors like a dog's when she walked. Her hearing had been mostly gone for a while now which made her usual talkative demeanour that much louder, but she was still totally mobile and seemed bright and happy. She was napping a lot more so I bought her a nice comfy catbed but she preferred to sleep in the bottom shelf of the bookcase or under the bench on the deck. This summer couldn't make the trek to sleep in the tomatoes like she used to. But her appetite never failed her and if she preferred soft food to dry (and let me know it) one could hardly blame her. She still enjoyed her favourite treat- sour cream and onion chips- the day before she died. Still she was drinking a lot more water these days and missed the litter box more frequently; although I can't be sure, I'm pretty certain some of those were deliberate expressions of annoyance. I knew her days were numbered but I didn't know how few she had left.

Casey had 20 good years with me and I feel like I've lost my closest friend. She was born in my closet during a Stanely Cup playoff game in June of 1991 and we were never apart for long since then. When there was only her and I, she slept on my bed, either at my head or feet, every night. She was with me through seven apartments and too many roommates to count. She was always there to greet me when I came home late from work or play in my single years, and she missed me frantically when I was away for long periods in my touring years. I think she truly appreciated the arrival of the Russian and the more settled life that came with him, although she remain my girl to the end.

She was less certain about the additon of the other cats. She was already a senior when Shelby arrived and was less than thrilled about being a play thing for a young kitten but in the long run I think she was glad for the company and Shelby adored her. My grief is being echoed by Shelby's as she keeps searching the house for Casey, crying in corners and closets. Both of the farm cats are noticeably distraught- they won't let me out of their sight and both have been sleeping on our bed at night which they never do when being outside is still an option. Last night Shelby lay on my chest and batted my hands to keep petting her- it's a thing that Casey always did but Shelby is usually too aloof to beg for attention. We both miss her horribly.

If there's a blessing to be found in this it's that Casey went out on her own terms, in her favourite place - asleep on the deck on a warm summer day. She saved me from seeing her decline even further and I am grateful I never had watch her suffer or make the decision when to end her life, because I don't know that I could have done it.

Farewell Casey-Lou, I hope there's lots of cheese and tuna wherever you are.