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Country Moon


Paying Attention to Phenology

  raddish
Unsplash/phillippe collard

Gardening and farming are a whole lot more complicated than just putting seed in the ground, tending it and reaping a harvest. Knowing when and what to plant, when and how to fertilize, how to control weeds and insects, how to manage too little or too much rainfall, temperature changes and so much more plays into it. And just when you have it figured out one year, it changes the next.

Yep, we need all the help we can get. We read farm reports, we listen to the experts, we learn from generations before us. In spite of all this, one of the best sources we can listen to is nature herself. Even though it seems at times that she has no rhyme or reason, Mother Nature always has a perfect plan and she reveals it to us through phenology.

A new word to my vocabulary, phenology is the study of cyclical natural phenomena and events, also known as the science of appearances. Plants, animals and insects don’t use a clock, but instead they use the condition of the environment to keep time.

It is basically taking note of when certain events happen from year to year. Natural events may not occur at the same time each year but they occur in the same order. For example, many die-hard mushroom hunters know that when redbuds and lilacs bloom, it’s time to look for mushrooms. These events occur together each year even though they don’t occur on the same dates each year.

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Unsplash/dave dollar

Many universities devote studies to phenology, which is by no means new. It actually started in 1736 with the English naturalist Rober Marsham. His records, keeping track of the connection between natural and seasonal occurrences began that year and spanned the next 60 years.

Phenology may be the easiest and oldest way to see and feel when the world is changing around us. Data is gathered from multiple sources such as farmers, gardeners, fishermen and nature observers. It affects whether plants thrive or just survive.

The food supply depends on the timing of phenological events. Farmers and gardeners have long used this data to know when to plant and fertilize. Just watching nature from bud burst to bird migration is nature’s way of telling us when to perform certain tasks.

Understanding phenology and being able to put it to use also depends on understanding growing degree days, or GDD. As the number of GDD increases, interaction between the various species changes. So, basically, it is a weather-based indicator for assessing crop development, whether it be field or garden crops.

Without getting into the exact mathematical equations, GDD allows producers to predict plants’ pace toward maturity. Without other factors like amount of moisture, development rates of crops from the time a seed sprouts to maturity is dependent on air temperature. Because the development of plants and insects depend on certain amounts of heat, it is possible to predict when these things should occur during the growing season.

So, what’s the big deal of knowing this? Well, considering the price of fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides for both farmers and gardeners, it helps them to know when is the best time to apply to be the most effective. Herbicides and insecticides are only active for a certain amount of time so it is good to know when to apply them according to when the emergence of the weeds or insects that we are trying to control should be happening.

This is where GDD comes in. It can be used to decide the suitability of a region for certain crops and to estimate the growth stages of crops, weeds and insects.

Phenology events progress from west to east and south to north. This is called Hopkin’s rule and it means that events are delayed four days per degree of north latitude and one and a half days per degree of east longitude. It’s just saying what we have known all along: it gets warmer sooner in the south than in the Midwest, farmers get in their fields sooner in Missouri than in Michigan. This gives us a general timeline of how fast it is moving north and eastward.

Studying phenology tells us that many insects are emerging earlier than they did in the 1970’s because climates have advanced 2.5 days per decade.

Going a little further, we have phenological synchronization. Plants and insects respond differently to climate change which means that the timing of when a plant is flowering and when an insect is active could get disrupted. Some plants and insects change together and some do it separately.

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Unsplash/amoon ra

Paying attention to phenology can be an immense help in knowing when to plant, fertilize, apply insecticide and herbicide and, to a lesser degree, when to harvest.

When it comes to planting, many farmers and gardeners have long adhered to phenological signs as to when to plant certain things. Here are a few:

  • mushrooms pop when lilacs and redbuds bloom
  • when forsythia bloom, plant peas, onion sets and lettuce
  • daffodils bloom, plant beets, carrots and chard
  • wait for dandelions to bloom before planting potatoes
  • when maple trees leaf out, plant perennial flowers
  • when quince blooms, plant cabbage and broccoli
  • wait for apple trees to bloom before planting bush beans
  • when apple blossoms fall, plant pole beans and cucumbers
  • when lilacs are in full bloom, plant annual flowers and squash
  • when lily-of-the-valley blooms, transfer tomato plants to the garden
  • when maple leaves are full-sized, plant morning glory seeds
  • when bearded iris bloom, plant peppers and eggplant
  • when peonies blossom, plant heat-loving melons like cantaloupe

I will admit, I have not noticed these associations before but I will certainly be paying attention this year. Just imagine, following these signs and incorporating phenology with planting by the moon calendars, what an awesome garden that should be. Following nature’s clock and signs helps us to tune into the rhythm of life around us and truly get back to basics.

Hiding from Your Neighbor: Adding a Living Fence

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Pixabay/Antranias

You get along great with your neighbors…or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to have some privacy when you want to grill out, have friends over or just hang out in your space.

Living in the country all of my life, I hadn’t realized that this could be an issue until a friend who lives in the city brought it up recently. Where she lives, the houses are very close together and she mentioned how sad it was that they never used their back yard simply because of no privacy.

Being the curious person that I am, I did some checking and was amazed at how many different ways there are to make your space well, your space. With a privacy fence, you can be as elaborate or as frugal as you like and you can customize the look to fit your existing décor.

There is an old saying that fences make good neighbors. I think this was originally meant for fencing in livestock but it applies here too. Before building any kind of fence or boundary, it would be wise to talk to your neighbors, especially if you are on good terms with them. You certainly don’t want them to think that they have offended you in any way.

It just may turn out that they have been wishing for a bit more privacy too. In this case, you could agree on what type of structure to build and they could also use it on their side for hanging potted plants or other decorative pieces. It could be that they may even offer to split the cost of material or offer labor to help construct it. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Probably the most popular privacy borders are living ones. Various shrubs and plants make great borders because they still let you feel that you are a part of nature. Spirea, forsythia, holly and lilacs are good choices because they grow close together and tall enough to be effective.

Boxwood plants are also excellent choices since they can be sculpted into fanciful shapes and mazes. Many other varieties of evergreens are ideal for building a privacy wall as well, just be sure that you choose ones with dense, dark green foliage that only grow to a moderate height. Burning bushes are coming into their own for this purpose because of their bright, showy foliage in the fall.

Living fences surround your space with nature, however the drawback is that they still need to be trimmed and maintained. There is a compromise though. If you want the best of both worlds, you can choose plants like bamboo. They can easily be potted and placed where you need them. As a matter of fact, they should be potted since they are invasive and will take over your yard if they are not contained.

My personal favorites when it comes to living fences are the ornamental grasses. There are so many varieties to choose from that you can get the height you want as well as the aesthetic affect you want. The really nice thing about these grasses is that maintenance is limited to once a year when you cut back the dead foliage to allow for new.

Living fences are only one solution to adding privacy to your space. There are many other creative choices out there, but you have to first decide on how much privacy you want. Do you want to be completely closed off in your own world or would you rather add just enough barrier so you have your privacy without completely closing off your neighbor?

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 Pixabay/chainrasp

The absolute in privacy fences is a stone wall.  A more natural looking one can be constructed with field stone or a more traditional one can be built with landscaping bricks. These take a little forethought though, as they are definitely permanent and more costly. Be sure you know what you want because it’s not easy to change up the look with these. What you got, you got for many years down the road.

A stone wall borders on the extreme. For many of us, the challenge is to create a sense of privacy without being blatantly obvious. Trellises or arbors are inexpensive ways to achieve this goal. They are basically free standing and can be changed up from year to year. Countless different vines can intertwine them, adding color and fragrance to your backyard.

Taking this idea one step further, lattice panels and re-purposed wood pallets can add charm and provide privacy at the same time. Vines can also grow on these and, at the same time, you can add planters, lights and other decorative objects. You can also arrange these items as close as you want or distance them to let as much or as little sunlight in to suit your needs.

Speaking of planters, why not make your privacy fence double as your garden? Various planters can be filled with strawberry plants, herbs, lettuce and other edibles. Vertical gardens are gaining popularity as it frees up space in a regular garden or gives you a chance at gardening if you have no horizontal space for it.

Don’t forget about fences, especially split-rail fences which have a charm all their own. Usually not very high, they can provide a partial border around your space or they can be constructed in front of a living fence to add a little something extra. Not only can chimes, planters and other items be hung on these, solar lights wound around them add extra charm for enjoying your space at night.

Think outside the box and check out garage sale finds. Old shutters and doors make charming fences. Hinged together, painted to your liking and placed strategically gives you privacy where you want it.

Without creating a fence, you can actually build a privacy space within your backyard. Cedar panels can be erected on three or four sides away from your home, leaving large open spaces which can be filled in with potted plants. Along the panels, construct shelves for plants or set up a BarBQ area along one side, complete with grill or smoker, utensil, outdoor bar and entertainment area. For extra seating, benches can be placed by the panels or can be built into them.

A friend took this idea one step further and used an abandoned round metal corncrib to create her own space. She put seating and a firepit inside and hung decorative pieces and shades where needed on the outside. You can be extreme as you want, I even saw a fence made of cactus… uhh, not sure I would want to send that message!

Whether you want some privacy on your high-rise balcony, in a small city backyard or want to create a living space from the rest of your spacious yard, privacy fences have become a lot more creative than in the past.

With spring approaching, our attention turns to projects. Maybe this year is the time for a privacy fence to be added to that list with the thought of hiding your neighbor, at least partially. Sometimes this just may make better neighbors all the way around.  

What's Up With Kombucha

Country MoonWhat Is Kombucha?

There is a lot of buzz lately about fermented foods and one of the more popular ones is kombucha. It is a drink that is made from specific strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar. These are added to black or green tea and allowed to ferment for a week or more. The bacteria and yeast form a mushroom-like cloud on the surface called a scoby.

This fizzy, sweet and sour drink all rolled into one has a host of health benefits. It is a good source of probiotics, has the benefits of green tea and antioxidants, kills bacteria, reduces heart disease risk, may help manage type 2 diabetes and protects against cancer. Some even toot its help with weight loss.

So, what’s not to like? In certain people, it can promote the growth of bacteria that result in infection. However, this is usually due to unproper processing since it is unpasteurized and contains a mix of bacteria and yeast.

The Fantastic World of Fermentation

Fermentation has been in the news a lot lately. Eating fermented foods is one way to get probiotics into your system, the good bacteria that balances the gut microbiome. Fermentation refers to the process in which microorganisms convert carbs into organic acids and alcohol. Natural bacteria feed on the starch and sugars present in food to form lactic acid which helps to preserve food and extend shelf life.

Preserving foods using microorganisms has been around since we started cooking. Practically any kind of fruit or vegetable can be fermented including beets, carrots, green beans, watermelon and citrus peels. Most people, when they think of fermentation, think of sauerkraut. Icelanders ferment shark meat and folks in Sardinia do it with cheese teeming with maggots. Sauerkraut is fine for me!

When the bacteria break down the sugars into acids, it not only preserves the foods but also imparts a distinctively salty, tangy flavor. Preserving food in this manner creates deeper, more resonant flavors that canning and freezing can impart.

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Fermentation has gone from the relics of yesteryear to a massive food trend. Health foods made with this process was up 149% in 2018. Part of this trend is due to consumers’ demands for natural products that deliver added health benefits and fermented foods have long been associated with positive digestion. These foods are easier absorbed since they are pre-digested by beneficial bacteria.

Fermenting foods is actually fairly simple to do. Cut up the veggies or fruit and sprinkle with spices and then cover them with a salt solution which is usually mixed at a rate of two teaspoons of salt to one quart of water. Pack all this in a Mason jar, leaving an inch of space at the top. Seal it up and wait for the bacteria to do its job. Check after a few days and your taste buds will tell you when it is ready.

There are some newer kids on the block, so to speak, when it comes to fermented foods. Kefir, tempeh and miso are ones that you may have heard of lately. Kefir is a cultured, fermented beverage that tastes like yogurt, but in drink form. It is made from starter grains, much like you would use a starter to make sourdough bread. It has a tart, creamy flavor and is loaded with probiotics.

Tempeh is a cake-like substance made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans. Fermenting breaks down phytic acid, making it easier to digest. It can be cubed, ground or sliced and fried, often used as a meat replacement. It has a nutty, earthy flavor that is similar to the flavor of mushrooms.

Miso is a salty, savory Japanese fermented soybean paste made by inoculating a mixture of soybeans with a mold called koje. The koje has been cultivated from rice, barley or soybeans. Thus, if you are trying to stay away from soy, look for miso that doesn’t have soybeans as its base. It is used for broth without meat, creamy salad dressing with just the right amount of salt, glaze that leaves fish crispy and caramelized and also to balance the sweetness level in doughnuts, jams and cobblers. It’s one of those products where you have probably eaten it without knowing it.

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Brewing Your Own Kombucha

Now, back to kombucha. It is relatively easy to make your own or you can purchase it plain or infused with different flavors.

The first thing you will need is a scoby, which is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Basically, it is a cousin to the “mother” in vinegar. Yep, it’s the rubbery, weird looking thing that floats on top of kumbucha. The easiest way to start is to get a piece of a scoby from a friend, just making sure that it comes from someone who knows the proper way to ferment and is sanitary. You can also buy a scoby or grow your own.

To grow your own, you will need 7 cups of water, 1/2 cup sugar, 4 bags of black tea and 1 cup of unflavored, unpasteurized store-bought kombucha. Bring the water to a boil, stir the sugar in until completely dissolved, then add the tea bags and allow to steep until completely cool. Combine the sweet tea and kombucha in a quart jar. Stir the mixture, cover with a few layers of cloth, coffee filters or paper towels and secure with a rubber band.

Place the jar in a room with average temperature (around 70*F) and out of sunlight. Be patient, first bubbles will form on the surface, then they will collect into a film and finally the film will thicken into a solid, opaque layer. This is the scoby and when it is about a quarter inch thick, it is ready to be used to make kombucha tea.

Now, for the tea. This is your first fermentation. It is basically following the same instructions as for making the scoby except you should double the ingredients. When it is room temperature (very important), with VERY clean hands place the scoby in the tea and then add the starter tea (from the jar the scoby was in). Unlike when you made your scoby, you can use other teas in this step.

Again, place the jars in a room with average temperature and out of direct sunlight for six to 10 days. At day six, begin tasting your kombucha. It should be mildly sweet and slightly vinegary. The longer it ferments, the less sweet it will be because more of the sugar molecules will be eaten up.

Now, you are ready for the magic, the third fermentation. Strain the kombucha and funnel into bottles, leaving 1 ½ inches of space at the top. Add flavorings such as an orange peel, a couple teaspoons of honey, fruit or fruit juice, a piece of peppermint candy, candied ginger or any other of your favorite flavorings. Tightly seal with a lid and let set in a dark room for three to ten days at room temperature. After this, place in the refrigerator to slow the carbonation process and enjoy. Leave your scoby in the starter jar with one or two cups of starter tea for your next batch.

One word of caution here, until you become an old pro at this and when starting this third process, place a little of the liquid in a plastic bottle. When the plastic bottle becomes rock hard, the others are probably “done” and need to be burped by loosening the seal and letting some pressure out. If not, they can explode if the pressure becomes too high.

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Also, if something just seems “off” or it doesn’t taste right, discard the batch. Remember, you are working with bacteria here and even good bacteria can become bad if not handled properly.

Kombucha, while it has mega health benefits, isn’t for everyone. Start drinking it slowly, about 4 ounces a day until your body gets used to it. After that, the Center for Disease Control recommends drinking 4 ounces one to three times per day.

To everyone, kombucha cheers!

Sugar Has Company

Country MoonSugar is in the news a lot lately. It’s bad for you, cut down on it. Don’t eat sugar at all. Try sugar substitutes. It all can be confusing.

With all the choices, it is hard to tell what the best choices are. Honey, molasses, sorghum, maple syrup and many more can be whole food sugar substitutes. I have sort of muddled through this field, sampling different ones here and there without really knowing what I was doing. So, I decided to give it some serious thought.

I remember my uncle growing sorghum and pressing it into this thick, gooey substance that he, my Mom and the rest of the family loved over pancakes. To me, it was anything but a sweetener. Bitter is more the word that I would use.

Still, sorghum and its cousin, molasses, are often used as sweeteners. Many folks think they are one and the same although they are two distinct products.

If you ask most folks today, they haven’t a clue what sorghum is. A cereal grain, it is the fifth most important cereal grain in the world. With its natural draught tolerance, it can be grown in dry climates and is versatile as a food, feed and fuel. In the United States, besides human consumption, it is used as livestock feed and in ethanol plants.

It is naturally gluten-free and, unlike other grains, has an edible hull. It is high in antioxidants and the wax surrounding the sorghum grain contains policosanols which research is showing promise in its ability to lower cholesterol as well as statins. A couple generations ago it was the staple sweetener in southern dishes because it was cheap and plentiful.

Sorghum is made from the green juice of the sorghum plant, extracted from the crushed stalks, then heated to steam off the excess water, leaving the syrup behind.

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Molasses, on the other hand, is a by-product of processing sugar cane into sugar. Sulphured molasses is made from green sugar cane and is the highest quality because only a small amount of sugar has been removed. Molasses from the second boiling is darker in color and less sweet. Blackstrap molasses is from the third boiling and is high in iron and is used in the manufacture of cattle feed and in medicine.

Molasses is usually preferred for cooking and baking whereas sorghum is popular as a syrup. Ironically, sorghum has more calories in equal measure than molasses, maple syrup or honey.

Maple syrup is made by boiling down the sap of various maple trees. It is one of the oldest sweeteners and is mild and fragrant. It can be substituted for sugar in baked goods by adding 3/4 cup maple syrup for one cup of sugar, decreasing the liquid by 3 tablespoons and adding 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.

Honey has been called “nature’s golden nectar.” It is made from flower nectar that bees gather, take back to the hive, where worker bees process the sweet syrup and store it in the honeycomb. How honey tastes and looks depends on what kind of flower the nectar comes from and weather conditions. It is 20 to 60 times sweeter than sugar and can be substituted in baking by using a very scant cup of honey for sugar and adding 3 tablespoons of liquid and a 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda.

That brings us back to sugar itself. There is white sugar, light and dark brown sugar, powdered sugar and raw sugar, just to name the main ones. What’s the difference?

Even white sugar is not simple. Crystal size is what makes the difference in types of granular sugar. Different sizes are used for different applications. Table sugar is characterized by fine crystals and a paper-white color.

Raw sugar is what is left after sugar cane has been processed and refined. It is sugar before the molasses has been removed. It is served in coffee bars as coffee and tea sweeteners and is often used as a finishing sugar.

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Powdered sugar is regular white sugar that has been ground into a powder. It is perfect for creating foods with a smooth consistency, for dusting desserts and in frostings and icings.

Brown sugar is simply sugar that has molasses added back in, giving it that brown or caramel color. The difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses that it contains. It has .25 fewer calories per gram than white sugar.

As with most subjects, there are different views on whether any of these natural sweeteners are actually better than sugar itself. Some say that the less processed sugars are healthier than regular sugar. Some, like honey and sorghum do contain nutrients that regular sugar does not. Others say sugar is still sugar, in whatever form.

Even though a sweetener contains some vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes, even in trace amounts, that still does not justify eating large quantities of them. Perhaps the main basis for choosing a sweetener is on its taste. Different ones work better for different recipes and applications.

Variety is still the spice of life and so it is with sweeteners too. Sometimes I make my cinnamon rolls with white sugar and sometimes with brown. Where would gingerbread be without molasses or honey rolls without honey? Different strokes for different folks go for us sweet tooths too!

Ovens Like Cast Iron Too

Country Moon

Cast iron, the stand-by cookware of years ago, is being re-discovered by many cooks, and not just for frying taters either. Baking with cast iron lends some delectable results. Just like it puts a good sear on steaks, it does the same with baked goods. Those brownies come out with crispy edges and nice, gooey insides.

The main reason cast iron works so well in the oven is that it gets hotter than traditional baking sheets and has higher sides. It also retains heat better than other baking materials. On the flip side, its greatest downfall is that it does have hot spots and does not heat evenly. But, with a little cast iron savvy, it can become your oven’s best friend.

When using cast, it is critical to remember two basics; to preheat and to season. Cast is thicker and heavier than most other cookware so, naturally, it takes longer to heat but retains heat longer. If you add cold food to a cold pan, you will have food sticking. Thus, cast always needs pre-heated, whether you are using it on the stove top or in the oven. It will take a little practice, but once you get your timing right, cast will yield amazing results.

Seasoning is the biggest factor when using cast iron. It is probably the thing that also scares folks away from using it. This makes no difference if your cast iron is new or vintage. On this note, the consensus is that old is better. If you are fortunate, you have your grandparents’ skillets or if you are a fan of flea markets or yard sales, you can usually find vintage cast iron there.

The gold standard of cast is Griswold brand, that was manufactured in Erie, Pennsylvania from 1865 to 1957. Today, they are collector’s items. Lodge, the family-owned company that has been making cast iron in Tennessee for 123 years, is the only remaining company that makes the cookware today. Although their pieces come pre-seasoned, it is still best to do it yourself. Through the years, their formula has changed slightly, so if you find vintage, that is still the way to go.

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To season initially, scrub the skillet well and dry thoroughly. Drying is the key because rust is the biggest enemy of cast. After drying, spread a thin layer of shortening or vegetable oil over the skillet, inside and out. Then, place it upside down on the center rack of the oven and heat to 375* for an hour. Be sure and place foil on the lower rack to catch drips. Let the pan cool in the oven.

That’s all there is to it. After using the cast iron, a shortened version of this process can be done on the stove top. After scrubbing and drying a skillet, place on a hot burner and add a thin layer of oil when hot.

Seasoning is essentially applying a layer of fat to the surface. The oil will be polymerized to the surface until it wears off. This layer protects the cast iron from rust and helps food to release, making cast iron cookware non-stick. The polymerized layer is more like a plastic than a fat.

Although any oil can be used, it is best to use healthy ones like canola since some of the oil will end up in whatever you are cooking. This brings us to the question of whether cast iron cooking is healthy for you. Some argue that iron from it will leach into the food which, for most people, is a good thing as it will supplement their iron intake. You also tend to use less oil when cooking with cast iron. There is a misconception that you cannot cook acidic food in it, but as long as it is seasoned well, tomato-based foods are fine.

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Cooking and baking with cast is easy. It is very forgiving, if you mess up, just re-season and start over. The main thing to remember is to always have it seasoned well, to preheat and to not over heat. Here are a couple recipes to get your oven acquainted with your cast iron:

Giant Buckeye Brownie

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg chocolate cake mix
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • Optional, hot fudge ice cream topping, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and melted creamy peanut butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350*
  2. Combine cake, eggs and oil, then stir in chocolate chips
  3. Press half into a greased 10-inch cast iron skillet
  4. Combine peanut butter and confectioners’ sugar, spread over dough in skillet
  5. Press remaining dough between sheets of parchment paper into a 10-inch circle and place over filling
  6. Bake until toothpick comes out just moist, about 25 minutes
  7. Server warm with optional ingredients

Shoofly Choclate Pie

Ingredients

  • Pastry for single crust pie
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup molasses

Instructions

  1. Line a 9-inch cast iron skillet with crust, flute edges and sprinkle chocolate chips in crust, set aside
  2. Combine flour and brown sugar, cut in shortening until crumbly
  3. Set aside 1 cup for topping, add baking soda, water, egg and molasses to remaining crumb mixture, mix well. Pour over chips, sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture.
  4. Bake 350* 40 to 45 minutes or until knife inserted comes out clean, serve warm

Garden Rotation My Way

Country MoonThe seed catalogs have been piling in and, as they do every year, their colorful pages entice me. They do their job well, the pages burst with pictures of vegetables and fruits that look so succulent that I want to plant them all, even knowing fully well that mine won’t look or grow anything like theirs.

Here lies the problem; I always do try to have it all. I think that is the case with most gardeners, especially here in the north where we have such a short growing season. We dream during the long winter days, especially when the seed catalogs show up, place our orders for a wide variety of produce and hope we can make it work when planting season actually gets here.

We even try to be creative by doing two or three different plantings of vegetables and ordering varieties with different maturity dates so everything is not ripe at the same time. I also think that the garden gods laugh at this method every year because, invariably, everything seems to ripen at the very same time, year after year.

Here lies the frustration. I am tired of trying to can, freeze and dry all vegetables and herbs all within a two or three-week span each year. So much of it goes to waste before I can get it all preserved no matter how hard I work.

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Well, this year I have a new solution to the problem…I hope. I am going to try a garden rotation plan, and I don’t mean for the soil. This one is for me to make better use of the produce and my time.

It follows the same philosophy as being good stewards of the soil. Because certain crops deplete the soil of some nutrients, it is always a good idea to rotate crops each year. When I grow tomatoes on the north side of the garden one year, then the next year they move to the south side. I do this with most vegetables, taking care to plant companion style since some crops like to be planted by certain other ones.

So, last year I concentrated on growing tomatoes, lots of tomatoes. I canned tomato juice, stewed tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and everything tomato-based. I knew when I was canning, that I would have more than I needed for one year. I also preserved an abundance of peppers, onions and dried herbs like rosemary, oregano and others that compliment tomatoes in dishes like spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, etc.

As it nears planting season this year, my pantry still has ample jars of tomatoes and tomato products. Looking at these leftovers is what inspired me to try this new gardening plan, a plan of rotating family of crops from year to year.

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I will start the rotation this year by having a few tomato plants to eat fresh and not concentrate so much on canning them. Instead, I will dedicate more garden space to a few different varieties of green beans, lima beans, etc. and plan on canning more than one year’s worth of them.

Next year the rotation will go to various varieties of cucumbers and canning dill pickles, bread and butter and a couple other varieties.

My theory is to concentrate on preserving a different family of vegetables each year. Of course, Mother Nature will have something to say about this. Just like the Chinese New Year recognizes a different animal each year, I truly believe crops have their “glory” years too. You can fertilize, water and do everything the same and yet some years tomatoes (or any other crop) will be better and more prolific than others.

I always notice this phenomenon particularly in flowers. There is usually always one variety that steals the show whether it be zinnias, marigolds, hydrangeas, or a number of different ones. Vegetables are no different. So, in some ways, this method will be a gamble that will, hopefully, pay off in the end.

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This plan of specialized planting each year should yield some advantages such as:

Natural Crop Rotation

If half the garden space is planted with different variety of beans, it will give the soil a break from tomatoes and the nutrients that they pull from the soil. The next year the garden can rest from what it takes to grow beans while something else is produced.

Ease of Fertilization

Each vegetable has its own nutrient needs. Sometimes it is like a puzzle trying to get the right combination of nutrients to each species of plant. This method would simplify the process.

Ease of Preservation

Although different varieties of each crop would probably still be ripening at the same time, the same equipment and processes would be used instead of trying to wrestle all crops in the kitchen at the same time.

Extra Reserves

With this method, you would actually be canning or freezing at least twice as much as the usual amount for one year. Since canned goods are shelf-stable for more than one year, you would be guaranteed enough for the following year in case of crop failure or other circumstances prevented that produce being put up the following year. It would take at least two or three years of using this strategy to ensure that the pantry was stocked with enough of all of the food groups for more than one year’s consumption. After that, it would be easy to stay on a rotational basis. This method would benefit everyone with a special emphasis on homesteaders.

Compensating for Bad Years

Even if there were a bad year where one crop did not produce at all (the year the squash bugs devoured my entire squash crop), you would just plan on doubling that crop the following year, thus still only losing that crop for one year.

This is the trial year to see if this method works as well functionally as it does on paper. I just remember previous years with tubs, boxes and baskets of tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and a host of other vegetables all waiting to be processed at once. Now, when I do one species, the cleaning and processing will all start the same making initial preparation more streamlined. Adding different spices and herbs will dictate the final product.

Hopefully, Mother Nature will give us a good gardening year to either prove or disprove my theory…to be continued.

Buckwheat Should Be a New Pantry Staple

Country Moon

Growing up I remember many a morning waking up to the smell of buckwheat pancakes. Those stacks of sweet, nutty wholesomeness slathered with rich maple syrup made for the best breakfast ever.

That was over 40 years ago and today buckwheat is making a comeback into folks’ kitchens. A lot of this renewed interest is because of the gluten free movement. It is more readily available than other non-wheat flours. Wait a minute, did I say non-wheat? Yep, buckwheat is literally in a class of its own.

Buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal, neither grass nor grain and has nothing to do with wheat. Instead, it is a fruit that is related to wild rhubarb. Its name came from the Dutch which means “the fruit of.” It is a popular plant to grow in many parts of the world because it is hardy and survives difficult conditions without requiring many pesticides or herbicides.

It matures quickly and is often planted as a cover crop. The entire plant is harvested and allowed to dry before removing the outer husks. The inner part of the fruit is what is used to make flour.  Buckwheat flour can be either light or dark, depending on how much hull is preserved. Light buckwheat flour is made from hulled kernels and the dark is derived from un-hulled and has dark specks in it. As it stands to reason, the dark has more fiber than the light.

Besides being gluten-free and high in fiber, it has a host of other health benefits to offer. Buckwheat is rich in, potassium, phosphorous, iron and calcium. It is one of the best sources of protein from plants and contains all of the essential amino acids.

It’s so good for your heart, you love it and it loves you right back. Buckwheat will lower blood pressure and also lower the risk of developing high cholesterol because it is rich in flavonoids, which are phytonutrients that act as antioxidants.

As if this weren’t enough good news, buckwheat has high levels of magnesium which relax blood vessels, which in turn improves blood flow. The nutrients in it also help control blood sugar levels, making it a great choice for diabetics.

Buckwheat can be purchased as whole groats (little pyramid-shaped seeds) and ground into flour or it can also be purchased as milled flour. Either way, there are many ways to use this versatile plant.

Groats can be toasted or eaten raw. When toasted, buckwheat groats are crunchy and flavorful like tiny nuts. They add a distinct flavor when topping salads or added to granola. They can be cooked and used to make a kasha side dish which is similar to pilaf or porridge. Some folks add them to cookie or cracker dough for a little extra crunch.

They can be purchased pre-toasted or you can do your own. To toast, place them in a dry skillet over medium heat and stir constantly until they are a shade darker than when you started. Just be careful not to toast until the hulls burst or they will taste burnt.

When the groats are ground, they produce a crystalline flour that is slate and lavender to brown in color and is flaked with darker bits of hull.

Baking with buckwheat flour can be rewarding and yield amazing results or the experience can be quite the opposite. The key is knowing how buckwheat flour performs with other ingredients. When switching from an all-wheat flour to a non-wheat, folks tend to want to go whole-hog, so to speak. When you switch out all the flour, it is a recipe for disaster unless other changes are made so the outcome doesn’t fall apart, taste like sawdust or otherwise misbehave. Excessive mixing or beating may make it taste bad and have a denser texture.

Pancakes, waffles, crepes and other baked goods that you don’t desire to rise a lot are the exception to the rule. All of these call for just enough mixing to blend the wet and dry ingredients without beating or whipping. They get plenty of structure from eggs, so 100 percent of the flour called for can be replaced with buckwheat or other gluten-free flour.

For other baked goods that need to rise more, the general rule is to replace 25 percent of the flour in recipes with buckwheat and leave the remaining 75 percent all purpose flour instead of other gluten-free varieties. Some cooks prefer to go with a larger percentage of buckwheat and some even go 100 percent. If you follow this path, the rule of thumb is to add extra eggs and extra baking powder for “lift.” In this case, add an extra one-half teaspoon baking powder for every half cup of buckwheat flour used. These rules will make for a better outcome when baking cookies, muffins, scones, cakes and quick breads.

Although buckwheat pancake mix is readily available, it can be a challenge to find plain buckwheat flour. Be sure and check local flour millers in your area because that will ensure that the flour is fresh. However, it can also be purchased in natural food stores, in the natural foods sections of some grocery stores and on-line.

It is certainly worth the extra bit of effort it takes to include buckwheat in your recipes and make it a staple in your pantry. More folks are falling in love with the robust, earthy, grassy, slightly bitter (in a good way) flavor with a hint of rose that is buckwheat.

buckwheat-array

Buckwheat Bread

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups buckwheat groats, rinsed
  • 1-1/4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt

Directions

  1. Place rinsed buckwheat in large glass bowl. Cover with water until it is 2 inches above the buckwheat. Loosely cover with a towel. Soak at least 2 hours or up to 24.
  2. Drain off liquid through a mesh strainer until most of liquid is out, set strainer over bowl and continue to drain for a minute longer. Liquid will be gooey. DO NOT RINSE
  3. Place drained buckwheat and 1 ¼ cups water and salt in food processor or blender. Blend just until it still has some texture.
  4. Pour in large glass bowl, cover with towel. Let set for 8 to 24 hours. It will rise slightly and be bubbly.
  5. Spray or grease a 9 x 5 bread pan, pour in batter, taking care not to deflate bubbles
  6. Bake in 425* oven 35 to 40 minutes or until browned at edges and firm in center
  7. Cool completely, toast or eat as is






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