Weird Weather

Weird Weather

Grandpa Charlie May used to say:  “Don’t like the weather in Missouri? Stick around a day or two; it’ll change.” For all that it is now early November, the lawn’s still green, my trees still have a lot of leaves, and we’ve felt temperatures up around 80 this week. Usually we’ve had a good hard frost by now, if not a dusting of snow. Don’t misunderstand me on this, as I am not complaining . . . it’s just weird!

A few days ago I read a post on social media that mentioned a lilac bush putting on buds. As you can see in the photo above, some branches on the south side of my Forsythia bush have blossoms.  A little anemic-looking, but blossoms, nonetheless. And last weekend while visiting Daddy, I saw a really nice surprise:  a violet, peeking out from between the autumn leaves by the steps of the deck out back. Later that morning I found two more while Sis and I were helping him rake leaves (and huge acorns!) from under the big Burr Oak tree.  Violets.  Pretty, deep purple violets!

To say that violets are one of my favorite flowers is, perhaps, an understatement. More than a thing of beauty, violets hold a sentimental significance dating back to my early years. They grew scattered around my grandparents’ lawn, like tiny treasures sprinkled randomly by the Easter bunny each spring. I found them sprouting around the ivy and the ferns and the Lily of the Valley in the yard at home, and would occasionally pick one and take it to my mama. It turned into a sort of ritual, as each year after I went away to school, and even in the years beyond, when the weather began to warm, she’d pick the first violet she saw, press it between a tissue or paper towel, and send it to me.  I would do the same, either with a violet, or a dogwood blossom, or both, just a “Thinking of you” tradition we had.

After Mother’s funeral last April, my sister came in the back door of our parents’ house, and advised me to go sit on the swing under the arbor when I had a moment. Curious, but too numbed by grief to ask why, I did as she’d instructed. Sprouting up around and between the bricks and stones of the walkway were dozens and dozens of violets. . . a deluge of emotional symbols, right there at my feet. Sobbing, I sat on the swing for a long time. “I haven’t left you,” it seemed my mother’s voice was saying to me through those flowers. “I’m right here.”

So. Say what you will about global warming or weird weather or whatever. I’ll take violets in November. Any year.

21 April 1990

21 April 1990

 

Pumpkin Time

Pumpkin Time

If you bought a pumpkin before Halloween, but ran out of time to carve it for a Jack-o-lantern, be not dismayed.  A better use for it–in my opinion–is to cut it up and cook it, and then to use it in your favorite recipes for the season, such as pumpkin pie, bread, or cake.  Yes, you read that correctly.  You do not have to buy pumpkin in a can.  In fact, I can honestly state that I have never done so.

The scariest part of cooking a pumpkin is the dissection process; especially making that first equatorial cut to split the thing in half.  A sharp, heavy knife works best for this job, along with a large cutting board.  This is probably the part where Mother would want me to add a disclaimer of some sort about being particularly careful with knives of all types, so here it is.  Know your tools, and proceed with caution.  If you’ve ever tried this project with an electric knife, I’d like to hear from you about how well that works, because that is one of the few handy-dandy little cooking gadgets that is not yet in my kitchen!

After the pumpkin is split open and the seeds and stringy stuff scooped out, the halves can be placed on a cookie sheet and baked, or the pumpkin can be cut into chunks, placed in a stockpot with about an inch of water in the bottom, and simmered on the stove until tender.  Today I used the latter method, bringing the water to a boil to get things started, then turning the heat down to low and covering the pot with a lid.  After about 40-45 minutes, when the flesh of the pumpkin was easily pierced by a paring knife blade, I turned the heat off, but put the lid back on and left the pan on the stove for another 15 minutes.  After that you might want to remove the pieces to a bowl or platter to let them cool a bit, before removing the thin layer of rind from the outside.  Peeling the outer layer off is extremely easy after the pumpkin has been cooked, and the photo above shows the cooked chunks, the peelings in my compost bucket, and the “meat” of the pumpkin.  A few simple squishes with a potato masher makes it looks like this:

IMG_2381

This particular pumpkin weighed about 11 pounds before it was cut, and was slightly larger than a basketball in diameter.  It yielded 12 cups of the good stuff, which is enough for 6 pies.  I put 2 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin into each of 5 freezer bags for later, and used the rest for some yummy pumpkin bread.  Here’s the recipe:

PUMPKIN BREAD

3 1/2 cups flour

3 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

a dash each of ground ginger and allspice

Sift the dry ingredients together into a medium large bowl.

In a large bowl, mix the following:

2 cups cooked, mashed pumpkin (OK, use the canned stuff if you must)

1 cup cooking oil

4 eggs

1/3 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in the dry ingredients just until moistened, then pour the batter into greased loaf pans.  My stoneware pans are fairly large, so I used two, but you could use three smaller ones, or a combination of regular size and mini-loaf pans; just shoot for filling them about half full with the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees, about an hour for the larger loaves.  Cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pans to finish cooling on a rack. . . unless you can’t wait, and choose to eat it warm, like this:

IMG_2383

 

 

 

Enjoy!

A Bountiful Harvest

A Bountiful Harvest

If you read the post on this site last Spring regarding all the blossoms on my apple trees, you might appreciate this update on the results.  (If you missed that one, check the Archives, or follow this link:  http://jcrainbooks.com/?p=444.)  I am happy to report that the heavenly scent of those blooms might just be trumped by the odors that wafted from the big stock pots that were on top of my kitchen stove yesterday.  The idea of cooking apples with cinnamon, cloves, a pinch of ginger and another of allspice was a moment of genius for someone, once upon a time.

Thanks to the priceless assistance of my friend Michelle Furnell, a great number of those apples have now fulfilled their destiny in the making of vast quantities of apple butter.  By vast quantities, I mean almost five gallons worth!  In addition to that, there’s a gallon of applesauce that needs to be divided into smaller containers, but I need to get more rings and lids for the jars, or succumb once again to the convenience of the deep freezer.  Plus, the smaller tree with the red apples still holds plenty of fruit for eating fresh, or making cakes and pies and caramel apples.

As a bonus, (again, with full credit to Michelle for washing, cutting, and soaking), I managed to put up one last batch of pickles this morning, so that four and a half quart jars of dill spears are now ready to take their place on the shelf next to the dill slices and the triple-recipe of bread and butter pickles.  Those cucumbers really produced well this year!

Autumn can be difficult sometimes.  The dwindling hours of sunlight per day, the many trees now starting to shed their leaves, and the cooler temperatures that signal the end of Summer can lead to the doldrums.  And if you were rooting for the same football team that I was during the afternoon game today–well, let’s just say they weren’t at their best.  I think I’ll go out to the pantry and rearrange the items on a shelf or two.  Then, I’m going to line up all those pretty glass jars and bask in the pleasure of a Bountiful Harvest.  Oh, yes, and then eat an apple.

Happy Fall, y’all!

IMG_2332

Possum on the Half-Shell

Possum on the Half-Shell

Half-shell may not be quite accurate to describe the bony plates protecting the armadillo; they look more like a two-thirds or even three-fourths shell now that I study the photo. The title of today’s post is my half-joking nickname for them, but it is possibly more derogatory than it ought to be.  Maybe . . . but maybe not.

Possums are (to me) like big ugly rats.  Snarly, hissing, narsty barsteds when they climb up onto the front porch of my farmhouse to eat the food intended for my cats, or raid my chicken coop and wreak havoc on my laying hens. Can you feel me trembling with righteous indignation from just typing that?!?  Despite the fact that some people have actually kept a possum as a pet, the very idea of such a thing just gives me “the all-overs” as writer Barbara Kingsolver calls it.  Now there’s an author who has a way with words!  But I digress.

Armadillos are indeed omnivores, but if they are predatory enough to try for a chicken, I haven’t heard about it.  They do tunnel around in the ground, rooting out beetles and termites (hey, there’s a bonus!) and other insects.  In the process, though, they might also dig up all those tulip and daffodil bulbs you worked so hard to plant, or disturb the root system of your favorite rose bush.  If the burrow they’ve dug for themselves–where they tend to sleep about 16 hours a day–happens to be in your lawn, it creates an even bigger hazard than a mole tunnel for turned ankles and bruised bums.  Take another look at the claws on those feet.  These guys are digging machines!  Their long shovel-nosed faces are custom-designed for pushing through the soil to find their favorite treats, which helps just one of these critters to make a mess of a carefully tended yard in short order.

Because their eyesight is poor, this nocturnal mammal can easily become road kill, and has sometimes been called a Hillbilly Speed Bump.  The first time I saw one like that alongside the road was on a trip to Texas, maybe 30 years ago.  Normally a warm-weather animal, armadillos have migrated over the decades from our most southern states, up through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and have now been spotted regularly in Missouri for several years.  But you won’t catch me inviting one to stick around my place; besides the risk to flower beds, did you know that armadillos can carry the bacteria for Hansen’s disease, more commonly called leprosy?  My research for today’s post told me that only about 5% of the human population is susceptible to catching that, with the rest of us having a natural immunity, and that it’s actually treatable now, but I’m not taking any chances.  The short legs, triangular faces, and long skinny tails remind me way too much of a possum.  And you already know what I think about those.

Who’s your outdoor nemesis?  Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Unlikely Success

Unlikely Success

If you live, or work, or have travelled in West Central Missouri much, you’ve probably seen the subject of today’s photo.  Stationed like a sentinel along the south side of Highway 50 between Sedalia and Warrensburg, a tenacious tree spreads the canopy of its branches atop an old farm silo, catching the eye with its audacity.  It seems to defy the odds by its very existence.

Since moving to this area back in October of 1992, I’ve driven across that stretch of road countless times, and marveled at this tree each one of them.  How did it get started there?  How long had the roof been off the silo when it sprouted, or was there just a little glimmer of sunlight getting through somewhere that allowed it to grow? How many seasons did it take the trunk to stretch up high enough so that we could all see the valiant efforts made by what started as one tiny seed?

Apparently, my inquiring mind is not the only one to ponder these questions.  Type the words “silo trees” into the internet search engine of your choice, and you’ll find articles galore, from all across the country.  The Missouri Department of Conservation website’s archive has an article that mentions this specimen–and several others in the state–that was published in 1995.  If you’re interested, the link is here:  http://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/1995/10/silo-tree

I like to think of it as a lesson in perseverance; sort of a “Little Engine that Could” kind of story.  Seemingly insurmountable odds may not be as bad as we think.  That snarl of a problem that has you all knotted up inside probably has a workable solution, one way or another.  Remember that old joke about how to eat an elephant?  (one bite at a time!)  If you’re struggling with something today, look again at the picture of this tree. Deep breath.  Say a prayer. And just take the Next Step.

A Garden Experiment

A Garden Experiment

Are you a hunter or a gatherer, or both? How about a gardener or a farmer, either by nature or nurture, or maybe a combination thereof?  Whatever the reason(s), I think at least a smidgen of all of those names would apply to me, in addition to several others, some of which are even printable.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of planting and tending gardens with my mother and other relatives.  Uncle D. wanted his potatoes in the ground by St Patrick’s day, weather permitting.  Aunt C. told me the sweet corn should be tasseling by the 4th of July.  A distant cousin whose name I don’t even recall taught me that one of the sweetest vegetables in the world is the garden-fresh pea, popped out of the pod and straight into a 10-year-old’s mouth, right off the vine . . . and I didn’t even like peas!

After several years of hiatus from the hobby, I’m thankful to have a garden growing out back of my house again.  The weather’s been so wet that it’s not as far along as I would have liked, but I’m experimenting with a new system this season. With rare foresight, I’ve been saving the triple-layered paper sacks that formerly surrounded 50 pounds of feed for my chickens.  With a stout pair of scissors, I nipped the folded-in bottom corners and made long cuts up the sides, then placed the opened flat bags end-to-end between the rows of squash, cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, etc. The paper was then covered with thick flakes of last-year’s hay.  Straw would probably be better for this, but hay is what I have available.  Additional tufts of hay were tamped down between the plants within the rows of the larger items.  I’ll still have to weed the lettuce row, for instance, but in a large part of the garden this method should (hopefully) block the weeds, hold in the moisture, give me clean material on which to walk, and add the bonus of being biodegradable.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes.  Feel free to leave a comment with your garden solutions if you like, and if you have any ideas on what is eating holes in the leaves of my eggplant, and what I can (organically) do about it, let me know.  Happy Gardening!

IMG_1908

Strawberry Pie Recipe

Strawberry Pie Recipe

This week I heard something that caught me by surprise:  a strawberry isn’t truly a berry.  What?! This sounded like one of those urban myths you read about, so I did a tiny bit of research. True enough, the botanical definition of a berry is “a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary.” Conversely, our friend the strawberry is termed an “aggregate accessory fruit”, as is the dewberry, the raspberry and the blackberry. Weird, huh?

But berry or not, the unmistakably lush flavor of a sun-ripened, locally grown, freshly picked strawberry ranks fairly high on my list of Favorite Things in Springtime. And years ago, while living in Springfield, Missouri, the following recipe for Strawberry Pie was given to me by my neighbor, a dear, kind lady from Galesburg, Illinois named Jeanne Wallace.  If you’ve ever had a better strawberry pie than this one, I’d sure like to know about it, because Jeanne’s version (like all of her recipes that I ever tasted) is really top notch!

Here’s the recipe, in my own words:

1 prebaked pie shell (I prefer homemade, but suit yourself)

4 cups strawberries, washed & decapitated (you know, cut off the green stuff at the top)

3/4 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups cold water

1 small box strawberry gelatin

Stir sugar and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan. Slowly add cold water, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Begin cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, and when it gets hot, add the gelatin. Cook and stir until thick and clear. Cool syrup, then pour over the strawberries you’ve placed in the baked pie shell. Chill a few hours to set. Serve with whipped cream if you like.

As you can see in the photos below, I placed some of the berries upside down in the pie shell first.  This looks nifty, but it didn’t seem full enough, so I quartered more strawberries and sprinkled them over the top of the arrangement before adding the glaze. Another option is to halve or quarter all the berries, and just pile them in, which tastes just as good. And don’t worry if the glaze seems thinner than you expect when cooked or even cooled; a few hours in the refrigerator will set the gelatin nicely.

Enjoy!

Decapitating the berries strawberry pie 1 strawberry pie 3strawberry pie 4

May I Live In Your Garden, Sir?

May I Live In Your Garden, Sir?

That may sound like a rather impertinent question, but it was indeed how I felt on Friday.  Except the “sir” in question was not a person, but rather a company, and the idea of actually living there would not be practical or allowable.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Shelter Gardens, located in Columbia, Missouri, is just one of the ways Shelter Insurance® gives back to the community, and this month’s view is just the tip of the iceberg.  To help while away some time in between appointments, my recently retired friend J’Teena met me there, and we strolled the carefully tended grounds of the Gardens, a place I hadn’t visited in several years.  She waited patiently as I stopped repeated to take photos with my trusty iPhone, while I kept wishing I’d remembered to bring a better camera.  The redbud and dogwood trees were blooming, a few tulips and daffodils were still putting on a show, the rose bushes were leafing out with great promise, and the violet patch near the back was next to heavenly.  There were flowers blooming that I don’t know the names of (yet), but the pictures I snapped are preserving the images for later research.  It was an inspiration!

Many of the trees and plants are labeled, and we both felt amazed by the beauty of a very large bush with snowy-colored clumps of small white flowers.  “Korean Spice Viburnum” the tag read.  I immediately took a photo of that, just so I wouldn’t forget the name.  Among all the landscaping efforts I’ve made over the years, the category of bushes seems somehow to have been overlooked, but darned if I know why, and this specimen has me rethinking that approach.  The spicy-sweet scent was strong enough to attract us (and the bees, like last week’s apple blossoms!), but not overwhelming.  And whatever fertilizer they’re using over there, it’s working really well, because this bush could easily be mistaken for a small tree!

So today I’m thankful once again (or still) for all the spring things blooming around us.  Lilacs, violets, azaleas . . . I love them all.   I am thankful for a good friend who drove into town just to help me enjoy the day and catch up on what’s been going on in our lives.  I am thankful for companies who look for ways to “return the favor”, so to speak, to the customers, neighbors, and tourists who might have (or maybe will) support them.  And I’m thankful that I live in a place where all these wonders surround me.

What are you thankful for today?  Leave a comment and tell us about it!

IMG_1779

It’s All the Buzz

It’s All the Buzz

Amid the Springtime rituals of planning and planting a garden, oohing and ahhing over the procession of crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, jonquil and tulip blooms making their brief but spectacular showings, and possibly cussing over the mower and the tiller and the trimmer that aren’t sure they’re ready to emerge from their winter hibernation, arrive those perfectly pleasurable days when the fruit trees are blooming.  A good year means that no late ice storm or deep freeze or wind so strong that the blossoms get literally “nipped in the bud” occurs.  Thankfully, this appears to be one of those years.

Yesterday my friend Michelle was here.  We set metal t-posts in a 20 x 30 perimeter, stretched and secured 4′ high woven wire around it to keep the varmints out, and hung an old gate for the entryway to my new garden.  It has been several years since I’ve had a garden, and the truth is, I’m so excited about it I can barely contain myself!  Maybe it’s the strong farmer influence in my genetic history manifesting itself, but I’ve always felt somehow incomplete during those years without a vegetable patch.  Witnessing the growth cycle of the plants and enjoying the bounty of the produce is such an elemental pleasure, but a strong one that pulls me in, year after year, just as the orchard does.

After the garden perimeter preparations, we worked on refreshing the mulched areas underneath the two apple trees near the garden.  Both of these trees were here when I moved to the farm, and I’ve never figured out the specific types.  I just know that one gets yellow apples that stay fairly crisp and somewhat tart when ripened, while the other produces red apples with a softer texture and a juicy, sweet flavor.  It was interesting to note that the blooms of the “yellow” apple tree had more pink tint to them than the ones for the “red” variety.  What made the task of mulching so much less like work, however, was the amazing aroma of those apple blossoms.  The air around their branches was perfumed with a lilac-like sweetness, one of those smells it seems I can almost taste.  The honeybees were tasting it, or at least giving the impression that they were.  Michelle and I were careful not to disturb them, knowing that they were doing a more important job than we were.  After all, the mulch just makes it easier to mow around the trees, and helps to hold in some moisture underneath.  The bees, though, help in the pollination process that allow those blossoms to become the fruit for next Fall’s harvest, which is what it’s all about anyway.

So, here’s to the Buzz!  Do you have an orchard?  And what’s in your garden?

DSCN3529

Do You See What I See?

Do You See What I See?

Here’s a guest post from my friend Melissa Yost.  It was meant to fill in while I was gone to Scotland, but I failed to follow through on pre-loading.  Thank you, Melissa, for contributing!

“Do You See What I See?”

Please do not be alarmed. This is not a big box retail store premature ejaculation of Christmas before the end of October, let alone Thanksgiving. I am a believer that Christmas begins with    Advent. This post could have easily been titled ‘You Say To-may-to, I say To-ma-to’. I am shamelessly taking advantage of the title to make two points. Bad me. But I digress.

I direct your attention to the photos above and below:

cascadethistle

Now, I ask you. What do you see? Fields of wild flowers or weeds. Nature in all its splendor and diversity or a blight on the face of a respectable suburban neighborhood worthy of numerous citations from local government agencies. I did not catch any photos of the Gold Finches taking advantage of the seeds nor the Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies sipping nectar. However, I think you can see where I’m going with this. I am proud to say, this is my yard.

By happy accident, I was unable to keep up with the demands of my large garden. I had no choice but to let some beds go wild. As a result, I have never had so many colors or drifts of blooms, the likes of which gardeners spend years cultivating. I did not water. I did not spray insecticides, fungicides or herbicides. I did not fertilize. The result is a pantheon of color and variety of huge proportions. My yard has never seen so many feathered or winged visitors.

As to those pesky village inspectors who have repeatedly cited and tried to fine me?  I finally put them in their place with two simple words:  Wildflowers and Nature-scaping. And as a daily reminder of nature’s bounty, and my own self-admitted contrary nature, I am rewarded with the sight of sunflowers gone wild on the sides of highways and roads, along with the thistles, chickweed and choke vine in my yard. And truth be told, even the rag weed is beautiful.