For the love of potatoes

Torr Head, Northern Ireland

The view from Torr Head in Northern Ireland

Earlier this year I learned that I won — yes won — a week-long trip to Ireland for four people through a draw offered by Tourism Ireland at the Canada Blooms garden show. Crazy, right? People actually win these things!

My Mom had already been working on trying to organize a family trip for next year as part of her 60th birthday, but the plan wasn’t working out for a whole variety of reasons. It was a trip she intended to take with my Dad before he passed away, to go back to the ancestral homeland and try to see some of the places our fore bearers came from. So it was strangely karmic, like stars aligning, to win such a massive prize out of the blue.

Aunt Beth and Mom in Galway, Ireland

My Aunt Beth and my Mom at the Cottage Bar in Galway City, Ireland

We decided to extend it to a two week vacation, and I invited my Mom and Aunt Beth (my Dad’s sister) to join Chris and I. We just came back on Saturday, and it was a fantastic trip…although I’ll happily abstain from eating potatoes for at least a month, and I’m going on an intensive veggie kick for a while after what is a very meat based diet. It’s no surprise that the Irish love potatoes but…just WOW.

While we were there we even managed to connect with some long distant cousins, to see some family graves and even visit the farm that my great-great-great grandfather likely grew up on, a farm which still belongs to a family member today.

The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

The Dark Hedges (of Game of Thrones and other film fame) in Northern Ireland

I have filled a 32G card with photos that are likely going to take me weeks to process and edit, so this post includes just a tiny sample of a couple favourites from the good ol’ iPhone. We saw a great deal of the country but I think the north was my favourite. Stay tuned with much more to come!

It’s official…I’m finally home

Vanilla Pear Butter

Vanilla Pear Butter

So I’ve been living in my new home and cooking with my new kitchen for oh, about 10 months now, and I only just got around to canning my first batch of anything: Vanilla Pear Butter. And now I finally feel like I’ve arrived.

Fresh Bartlett Pears

Fresh Bartlett Pears

We were away most weekends throughout the summer and early fall, and in the event we spent the odd one at home, I had a to-do list as long as my arm. It’s a lot of work to settle into a new house, especially one that’s still got the odd bit of renovation work yet to be completed, not to mention the massive landscaping job that took place (that is in fact, still taking place). I hung my first pictures on the walls just a few weeks ago. Part of the problem is that every time the workers are here to do something they generate a whole new round of dust that needs attention, so I’ve held back on the decor bits until just recently. I may yet regret hanging up the things I did. I hate dusting.

To be fair to myself, it’s hard to get motivated to can anything when I don’t really have a garden for inspiration. I finally decided a few weeks ago to hit up the grocery store in my old hood to see if by chance they had any bushels of roma tomatoes still kicking around, with faint hope of canning a couple batches of tomatoes and tomato sauce. I was too late, although if I’d wanted to buy a few bushels of red shepherd peppers for roasting and canning I would have been well stocked. Gotta love neighbourhoods with lots of old ladies from “the old country.”

Cooking down the pears

Cooking down the pears

While the tomato hunt turned up short, they had a couple baskets of ripe Bartlett pears, and I happened to have a stock pile of vanilla beans waiting for some love. This pear butter is perhaps my favourite recipe in the jam/jelly/butter category. It’s deliciously comforting spread simply on toast, or fancied up with some of your favourite sharp cheese on some fresh baguette.

Space to can!

Space to can!

And while I was involved in designing my kitchen and I’ve been reaping the joys of it ever since we moved in, I don’t think I fully appreciated the gift I’d given myself until I set out to can. Imagine the freedom of having room on both sides of your stove to have your tools and supplies ready! No more carrying steaming, dripping incredibly hot glass jars precariously gripped between tongs across the kitchen! I don’t even have to take the saucepan off the stove! Amazing! I’m not missing that old awkward L-shaped kitchen with no countertops around the stove at all.

Pureed Butter

Pureed butter with vanilla bean

In the end this was a rather small batch resulting in just 5 250 ml jars. It’s hardly enough to give away, and this would be a stellar holiday gift. I’m not sure I’ll be able to carve out time enough to do more but I sure hope so. If I do, I just might have to make use of my little 125 ml jars to stretch it out. These 5 are staying in my pantry, at least until they end up in my belly!

Baby Burrito Quilt

Baby Burrito Quilt

Baby Burrito Quilt

This post is a bit late in coming. I call it Baby Burrito Quilt because it was a gift for my friend Angie Griffith, who was referred to her baby belly as a baby burrito. Baby burrito was born a little over a month ago now, but I’ve just gotten around to publishing these photos.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Featuring “My Happy Garden” by Cloud9 Fabrics

I wanted to make this quilt without buying a whole bunch of new fabric. I took some creative math but I managed to use up almost all my remaining stash of “My Happy Garden” fabric by designer Michelle Engel Bencsko of Cloud9 Fabrics.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Detail

The rest is made up of a mix of miscellaneous fabric and Kona solids. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Quilt backing

The back had to be pieced together to have enough coordinating fabric to do the job.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Quilt top

The quilt was a hit of course, and I even have a wee bit of “My Happy Garden” left. I’ll likely need to combine it with something else to make another baby-sized quilt. I’m already shopping around for more Cloud9 fabric. It took some work but I’ve found a couple Canadian online stores that carry their lines… so dangerous on the pocket book!

Garlic obsessed

Garlic in the garden

Garlic in the garden

I’m a little obsessed. I love growing garlic. I love eating it too of course.

Freshly dug

Freshly dug

I love the smell of it. I love the earthy goodness of it. I love roasting it and using it in salad dressings, or marinating with it.

Back at the end of July I harvested my garlic crop, which I had planted at the farm the previous autumn. I planted around 300 cloves, and yielded around 280 give or take a few with rot. The precise yields were:

  • Music: 85 heads
  • Leningrad: 55 heads
  • Hungarian: 64 heads
  • Purple Glazer: 35 heads
  • Siberian: 34 heads
  • Korean: 8 heads
Ready to be trimmed

After drying for a couple weeks

All the garlic did very well except the Korean and the Hungarian. The Korean did poorly likely because I used cloves from my immaturely harvested crop from 2013. The Hungarian seemed more susceptible to fungus than the other varieties. I’ve been researching this and thankfully it doesn’t appear to be white rot, a soil-based fungus that renders land unsuitable for allium crops for literally decades, and is almost impossible to control. Based on my research, I think the problem instead was fusarium basal plate rot, another soil-borne pathogen that affects the root system. This form of rot however is not quite so dramatic as white rot, and can be controlled by rotating crops regularly. And since the other varieties didn’t have it, I have to assume Hungarian is particularly sensitive to it.

I moved my harvest into the storage barn at the farm to dry, where there is plenty of room, but not the best air circulation. I did set up a fan, and the crop looked great when I trimmed off the stems and roots. Unfortunately, the heads were not as dry as they should have been when I packed them up to come home. I should have pulled them out of the paper bags immediately after I got them home but I didn’t, I left them in their bags for a few days. When I looked in on them again, I realized they were starting to mould!

Purple Glazer

Purple Glazer after being trimmed

Once I realized my mistake I pulled them all out and put them on trays and let them sit out in the sun for a couple days on my deck. This stopped the mould process but the skins were already marked up and blackened; they looked really bad. Thankfully, I’ve realized that the mould was really only on the outer skins. I leave as much skin on the heads as possible as it helps the heads keep longer. Peel back a few layers of skin and the heads look just fine.

Garlic Trimming Day

Trimmed Leningrad garlic

While my gardens at the new house are slowly starting to come together, I have yet to get all the soil I need into my raised beds, and even after I do, the farm is still a better fit for this space-intensive crop. Most of the veggies I grow at home are short term crops that don’t need to be in the garden for more than a few months. Garlic gets planted in the fall and harvested in late July or early August, so it’s a bit of a space hog.

My 2015 garlic crop went into the ground a couple weeks ago during that gorgeous stretch of summer-like weather we had. Again I planted just over 300 cloves, but this time I’ve got 9 varieties: Music, Leningrad, Purple Glazer, Siberian, Hungarian, Korean, Russian Red, Ukrainian and Persian. Next year I hope to pickle some of the scapes, something I haven’t tried yet.

Toronto’s Garlic Festival

Toronto Garlic Festival

Table at the Toronto Garlic Festival

A couple weeks ago we hit up the incredibly popular Toronto Garlic Festival, held at the Brickworks, which is right around the corner from my house. We went last year as well — and it was just as busy.

Last year I was looking to beef up my garlic seed. I have been growing garlic for years, but in July 2013 I had to rush my harvest because we had to be out of the old house by July 8. Most of the crop was fine but my Korean garlic, the first year I’d grown it, was a later variety and it just wasn’t mature enough. I did try planting it last fall but this year’s harvest was poor at best, likely because the cloves I planted last fall were sad, immature things.

Toronto Garlic Festival

Lots and lots of garlic

Since I didn’t have a garden (or even a livable house yet) last fall, I planted my garlic crop at the farm (thanks Mom!). I planted around 300 cloves of garlic last year in 6 varieties: Music, Leningrad, Siberian, Hungarian, Purple Glazer and Korean. Besides the Korean’s poor performance, most of the others did very well. In a future post I’ll discuss my harvest in more detail.

Toronto Garlic Festival

Garlic braiding workshops

So this year I didn’t really need to buy any new garlic… although of course I did. I picked up some Persian and Ukrainian (which are both on the very spicy end of the scale), as well as some Russian Red and a fresh bunch of Korean (or so I thought). More to come.

Roasted Acorn Squash

Roasted Acorn Squash

Roasted Acorn Squash

My last post was about roasting a whole chicken. This here is a quick and easy recipe for making a comforting side dish that can roast right alongside that chicken so that all you have to do to complete the ensemble is toss together a quick salad. This is a “throw it in the oven and forget it” meal that will free up those valuable weekend hours for other things, but still let you sit down to a fantastic family dinner at the end of the day.

Prepping Squash for Roasting

Prepping squash for roasting

You can use different varieties of squash in a similar way, but do keep in mind winter squashes can vary widely in density and texture, meaning they can also dramatically range in cooking times. I prefer acorn squash for this recipe (exterior colour of the squash doesn’t matter) but delicata squash, for example, can also work as well, you just have to keep in mind it has a thinner flesh and will likely cook much more quickly. One acorn squash will easily feed two people, so if you’ve got company or a larger family, you might want to do one or two more.

Prepping Squash for Roasting

Prepping the squash for roasting

Roasted Acorn Squash
Serves 2

  • 1 acorn squash, halved
  • 2 teaspoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
  • salt and pepper

The first step is to halve the squash and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Then put about a teaspoon or so of butter in the hollow. Add a generous tablespoon of brown sugar, and season with salt and pepper. I’ve used maple syrup in place of the brown sugar as well, although it tends to make the overall dish a little runnier.

Wrap each section of squash with foil, taking care to ensure all seams are near the upper edge, to avoid leakage, which will then burn and smoke, inside the oven.

Roasted Acorn Squash

Roasted acorn squash

If you’re roasting these with the chicken you can place them in the oven directly on the racks around the roasting pan when you’ve got about an hour left of time on your chicken.

If you’re doing these on their own, set the oven to 350ºF and put the squash sections in the oven directly on the racks. They’ll need about an hour to roast, more or less. You can usually feel them (through an oven mitt) and if they feel soft or spongy through the foil, they’re done. If you aren’t sure you can use a cake tester through the top of the foil to see if they feel soft or still hard, although keep in mind testing them this way can cause your melted filling to leak out and make a mess in the oven.

Once they’re cooked, carefully remove them from the oven and place them on a work surface to open up the foil, taking care to avoid burning yourself on any escaping steam. Using a large metal spoon scoop out the roasted flesh and juices into a bowl. Mix up the flesh and juice until well combined, season with salt and pepper if necessary and serve!

I butchered this chicken

OK I didn’t actually do “the deed” myself, my Mom did. My Mom gets all the credit for the husbandry too, given that I live in Toronto and keeping chickens is [ridiculously] illegal. But I did pluck, eviscerate and prep this bird for the freezer, along with about 40 others.

Roasted Home Grown Chicken

Roasted Home Grown Chicken

I grew up on a hog farm, where we raised pigs from farrow (birth) to finish (market weight). In addition to the business end of the farm we kept our horses and a plethora of other hobby animals, usually Muscovy ducks, turkeys, goats and of course always chickens, both for eggs and meat. We even had a Jersey calf one year.

Not every spring but definitely often, my Mom would order chicks to be raised for meat, and at some point in the summer we would pull together family members to help with the butchering process. Everyone got to take home some birds for contributing to the group effort. I always got the plucking job, which I kind of hated as a kid (I think you hate all chores when you’re a kid).

While we haven’t raised meat chickens in a very long time, Chris and I were keen to take advantage of the farm access and have some really good quality meat this year. We started with big aspirations to build a roving chicken tractor, as we’ve got a bit of a problem with an ambitious fox at the farm, but that plan kind of flopped (we are after all working professionals and the farm is a good two hours drive from home). Instead, my Mom set up the chicks in the horse barn, and when they got big enough she started letting them venture on out into the horse pasture. Chickens are brilliant in that the come inside to roost at night, so it’s easy to ensure the fox can’t pillage under cover of darkness, when the birds are easy pickings. We just had to hope that they didn’t get grabbed up by hawks while they ventured out to eat bugs and grass.

Home Grown Chicken

Ready for dressing

In late July my Mom butchered a half dozen or so birds on her own, and most of them were dressing out at about 4 lbs, a nearly ideal weight for a meal or two for a couple people. So we set a date for butchering, Mom coordinated a few local friends and family and we got down to work.

It had been quite a few years since I had butchered chickens, and I had only been allowed to help with evisceration once as I recall, with my Grama, so I found a few videos that were helpful in reminding me how to go about it, which I’ve included at the end of this post.

I fully accept that some readers may find this post and/or the videos entirely offensive. However, if you’re a meat eater, you might as well know a.) where your food comes from and b.) what goes into preparing it. I make no apologies for sharing this material; watch it or don’t — it’s your choice. I for one feel privileged that I have the knowledge to be self sufficient in preparing my own food, fresh from the field, and I know that the animals we raised and killed lived a happy life eating bugs and doing their own thing in the open air and sunshine. I also know that I treat this food with great respect because I know exactly how much work and care went into getting it onto my plate. I don’t waste it; I use every bit.

Chicken Rub Prep

Chicken rub preparation

Most of the birds we butchered as a group dressed out at 5 to 6 lbs, and I have about 15 or so birds to keep us going over for many months. The meat and fat quality is out of this world; there hasn’t been any brine injected, and they haven’t been chlorine washed or water logged to make them artificially heavier for sale at the grocery store.

Prepping Home Grown Chicken for Roasting

Rubbed and ready to roast

Roasting this bird is very simple. I stuffed some fresh herbs from my garden inside (rosemary, sage, some oregano), along with a halved lemon that’s been partially squeezed inside and around the bird, and a bunch of peeled whole garlic cloves. Placing the bird n a Dutch, I brushed the skin with a mixture of olive oil, minced garlic, various dried herbs and salt and pepper. Around the bird I placed more whole cloves of garlic (some not even peeled because I got a bit lazy — there were about 30 cloves of garlic in this dish), and put the remaining whole herbs around it. Everything is brushed with oil and then popped into a slow oven (about 325ºF) for a couple of hours. How long you roast for is dependant on the size of the bird; you need the breast to reach 165ºF. Most recipes recommend you start the oven off high (450ºF) for 10 to 15 minutes and then roast the bird at 350ºF for 20 minutes per pound. I find using a Dutch oven gives me that rich caramelized skin without having to bother with the fast and slow oven method, and I can leave the lid on the pot to keep everything beautifully moist. I stick it in the oven and forget it for a couple hours — it’s the easiest way to roast a chicken ever.

Once I’ve picked the carcass clean I put all the bones and uneaten skin into a bag and freeze it. Once I have 3 or 4 carcasses I will turn them into stock, which I then pressure can for soups and stews. I used to just freeze my stock but the freezing process routinely breaks plastic containers and pressure canning allows me to save on freezer space.

Next up, I’ll post about the tastiest and easiest way to roast a squash — a perfect side accompaniment for this chicken that can roast along with the bird to make this your laziest but possibly most impressive Sunday meal ever.

Back to school

Last week I started a continuing education course at the University of Toronto, the foundations course and first of three required to obtain a certificate in Digital Strategy & Communications Management. As it turns out, one of the two major projects of the course is to start a blog.

I wasn’t feeling too excited about the prospect of starting yet another blog that I was going to have to maintain. I already have a couple that aren’t exactly thriving at the moment. And I’ve said before that when I spend all day (and often many hours in the early mornings and evenings) on social media for my professional day job, it’s kind of the last thing I want to do in my increasingly shrinking personal time.

However, I was happy to discover once I got to class that I could use an existing blog. If my instructor Eden Spodek is reading this right now, hopefully she’ll approve my rather varied topic(s) of interest… (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

It already feels like the kick in the seat of the pants that I needed to breathe some life into this well established but languishing blog. There’s innumerable reasons why I’ve let it slide in priority — huge family earthquakes and after shocks; massive upheavals of home and hearth. But in recent months life has returned more or less to some kind of stability, even if only temporarily, so it’s a good time for me to focus on some writing, some photos and all my favourite things. And just maybe, by posting about it here, I’ll really start to feel like I’ve settled in again.

Hello deer

Deer in the Ravine

Deer in the Ravine

Friday night I was doing a bit of plant clean up on my deck, the only real garden I’ve had in two years, when I noticed someone was staring back at me.

I watched him for a while, as the squirrels dropped acorn bombs all around him. He was utterly unconcerned about the assault hailing down from above. I quietly decided to go in and grab the camera. I managed to get this one shot of him in focus, and a tiny bit of video, before he bounded off to hook up with his Mom, who was hanging in the shadows.

This was the first time I’ve seen a deer in the ravine right from my deck. I spooked one back in the summer while hiking up through the ravine towards my house, but I hadn’t actually spotted one right here, in my backyard. It was magic. Now let’s hope they don’t decide to munch on the bulbs I’m planning to plant in a couple weeks.

No longer a mud pit

Frontyard landscaping

Curb appeal

Last night I came home from work to discover I have lawn. Lawn! No more mud, but a beautiful new front and back yard! Not to mention gardens waiting for plants. After nearly 9 months of living in, walking through and picking my way around mud. Finally!

Frontyard landscaping

Steps on both sides of the upper front yard make it easy to reach the front door from either side of the property.

Despite the fact that we’re nearing the end of summer and the end of the traditional growing season, I’m very much looking forward to getting some late season veggies going. Some fresh lettuce, radishes and maybe some winter crops. It has been such a cool summer that these things will do well even though it’s August. We’ve also been talking about setting up a cold frame, so if we can get our act together to build it, I won’t have to completely miss out on this growing season.

Frontyard landscaping

Future perennial gardens.

I also have to find some time to go plant shopping. We want to put some kind of ornamental tree in the rounded corner above, and there is a plan to put in a boxwood hedge in front of my veggie beds. Hopefully it’s not too late to get those plants going and established; it may be a few weeks yet before I can get to this project.

Frontyard landscaping

Veggie beds!

We reused the cedar beds we had built a few years ago using stainless steel corners my Dad made for us. The landscapers were a bit hard on them, and there’s evidence they pounded them into the ground without regard to bending the steel. We’re not very happy about that.

Backyard landscaping

Backyard ravine table land.

And we have a lot of new lawn to water to get it established. It’d be easier if we’d put in some kind of sprinkler system, but alas, we’re not sprinkler system people, and once the lawn is established I hope to never water it again. So instead, we’ll be spending the next three weeks dutifully moving sprinklers around the property every 20 minutes or so about a dozen times each night. Oy.

Backyard landscaping

Backyard ravine table land.

The changes from what was here before are dramatic. For a taste of what was here before, you can check out my first post about the house when we bought it, or for even more photos you can view the whole slide show of our reno project on Flickr.

Backyard landscaping

Steps down to the basement walk out and patio.

We ended up doing such substantial rebuilding of the retaining walls because a.) we had to rip out most of everything that was there previously in order to do the exterior waterproofing and b.) all the old retaining walls were done with pressure treated wood which was easily 10 to 15 years old already, and rotting apart. The stone was pricey, but, as with most of our renovations, we hope to never ever have to do it again.

Backyard landscaping

New retaining wall love for our spruce tree.

Now we just need our general contractor to come back and do the final touches on our interior and exterior and maybe, just maybe, this project might eventually be finished.

Backyard landscaping

Retaining wall around the base of our deck.

In the meantime, you can find me out watering the lawn.