VICTORY GARDENS AND QUARANTINE KITCHENS: Seeing the positive and feeling in control

“Victory Gardens showcase patriotism in its truest sense, with each of us taking personal responsibility for doing our individual part to create a healthy, fair and affordable food system.”
-Rose Hayden-Smith

Victory Garden: Our family garden

As I sit at my computer to type this for a column I write for a local magazine, I am sure that I join many of you with thoughts whirling with wonderment at the challenging times we are facing. While it is early April, by the time you read my words it will be May. That brings me a huge sense of relief – perhaps our lives will be somewhat back to normal by May? Though, what does that mean anymore? While I admit that I am growing tired of the phrase, “The new normal” – doing things differently than we did before may be a reality that we are facing. Also, because I try to be a glass half full sort of person, maybe adapting and changing some aspects of our lives is not necessarily a bad thing.

When I think back to a few months ago I never imagined that “Zoom Meetings” and “Google Meet-Ups” would become the way I learn how to communicate with my high school students, fellow educators, and administrators. I could not fathom  “Shelter in Place Orders” or the bickering I would witness on social media over Essential vs. Non-essential workers. Yet, here we are. 

As a teacher, a writer, and a blogger I repeat constantly how one of my guiding philosophies is that our writing is a time capsule. As uncomfortable as it is at times, we are experiencing history and whatever medium we choose to document the Covid-19 pandemic will become a primary source for future generations.

My husband, as a police officer, is one of those Essential Workers and I have to give him credit for being full of grace under pressure. Whenever he detects that I may be feeling anxiety over a situation, or feeling stressed out he reminds me to put things into focus. He is known to ask me, “Is the house on fire? Is it an arterial bleed? Then things are going to be okay.” When I hear his voice of reason it always makes me giggle a little and realize that I need to calm down and not panic. Needless to say, I relied on him often in the past couple of months.

One of the things that has helped me stay centered during a time of confusion and uncertainty is to rely on the things that bring me joy. This means nourishing my family with healthy foods and leaning on nature (even when it dumps two feet of snow on us like it did yesterday). However, there is a sense of satisfaction knowing that the weather is temporary. Our days are already much longer and soon they will bring warmer weather.

Over the past couple of months I have read several blog posts and comments from friends on social media stating that they have enjoyed a slower paced life and being able to sit down as a family to enjoy a home cooked meal together. Perhaps that will be something positive that many families will take away from these trying times and continue to practice?

My step-son Lukas and Apollo making peanut butter cookies.

Home cooked meals are one of the cornerstones of my husband and my marriage. Not only do we delight in making dinner in our own kitchen, but we pride ourselves in raising much of the food ourselves. Having a little extra time at home has brought even more cooking into the mix. Not only did my husband and step son make banana bread and homemade peanut butter cookies, but they also tapped and boiled down maple syrup from our own trees.

In addition to cooking, we started our Victory Garden. Those familiar with history know that during WWII families were encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables to help supplement the food rations to aid the war effort, but also to boost the morale of the citizens. Now as you may know from reading my columns, gardening is not something new to the Waldos. However, I dare say that I approached it this year with renewed gusto and vigor. With our family trying to take fewer trips to the grocers, having a backyard full of fresh greens, herbs, and vegetables is even more appealing. So I thought I would share some tips that I have for how to start your own seeds in your own home.

If you have a small home, with limited space, as long as you have a sunny windowsill – you can get seeds to sprout. I find that our windows with eastern exposure and morning sunlight do the best.

While you can purchase fancy seed trays and pots, I make sure to save all of our large yogurt/cottage cheese containers for tomato seeds. Since I like those seedlings to get quite large before transplanting them into the ground, the larger containers allow the roots to grow. A tip from my mom for tomato seedlings is to allow a fan to circulate a couple weeks before getting them into the ground and plant them deeply. The fan allows them to strengthen and become more resilient to the elements outside.

Another great tip if you love to recycle is to keep the large clamshells that you purchase greens in. You can fill them with garden soil and they make the best mini-greenhouses.

Once you are ready to move the seedlings outside, you can move them to a bed outside, or utilize a container garden. For years before I had the land that I do now, I grew gorgeous tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets. Herbs grow great in containers, as well as peppers, and you can even buy or make trellises and grow peas, beans, and cucumbers in large pots or buckets. 

As far as seeds go, we like to purchase our seeds in bulk because they are more cost effective. As long as they are stored in a cool, dry place (a jar works great) they will keep for up to five years (or more). 

In addition to planting our Victory Garden, one of the things that I have been trying to do to stretch our grocery trips is to make multiple meals out of one main ingredient. Therefore, I have been sharing on my social media accounts tips to help others do the same thing. Since we raise our own pork and chicken, I made the recommendation for others to purchase a whole ham or whole chicken. For example, a ham can be made into sandwiches, ham and scalloped potatoes, and you can toss the bone into your pressure cooker (or on the stovetop) and make bone broth that can then become a pot of Ham and Cheesy Potato and Broccoli Soup. A pork loin can be slow cooked in the crockpot with potatoes and carrots for a delicious roast. The extra meat can be seasoned for tacos and the juices from the roast can be thickened with flour and butter with sausage added for breakfast biscuits and gravy.

The same can be done for a chicken. Our Easter dinner was a chicken roasted in our pressure cooker. I reserved the drippings and thickened for gravy and then reserved the carcass for homemade bone broth. The bone broth can be put in jars and frozen(with about an inch of head room so the jars do not crack) or can be used right away as the liquid to cook flavorful rice or make a pot of chicken soup.

Do you make your own Bone Broth? If not, here is my basic recipe that I believe is a staple in any kitchen, but especially a Victory Garden or Quarantine Kitchen.


*One chicken carcass (I take all, or most of the meat off. You can also use chicken thighs or legs if you have them. Of course this method works with turkey as well).
*4-5 cups of water
*One onion halved (I leave the peels on)
*Few carrots (leave the tops on if you are using whole carrots)
*A few celery ribs (I use the tops that often get discarded)
*A few cloves of garlic or minced garlic (if you use whole – no need to peel)
*3 Tablespoons of vinegar (it helps draw out the healthy minerals the bones)
*Salt and Pepper 

Pressure cook for 45 minutes. If using a stove top or crockpot method you can simmer for several hours (the longer the better).

This is just a basic recipe, and you can change the flavor profile by adding other herbs and seasonings. You can add rosemary, thyme, ginger, parsely, cilantro, lemon, and even hot peppers. 

As I write this I am not certain what is in store for the future. However, I want to wish you the best and hope you are safe and healthy. Please feel free to reach out to my Facebook page or comment here if you have any gardening, canning, or cooking questions. I am not an absolute expert, but I have learned a lot of tips and tricks over the last several years.

The most important thing to remember in a time of uncertainty is that we are in this together. Check in on each other and let us continue to make our communities a safe place to live. Make sure to do something that brings you joy.

If you have never gardened before, I guarantee you will not regret picking up this healthy hobby. Whether you try to put up enough vegetables for the entire winter like my family does, or simply grow a little kitchen herb garden, there is something incredibly satisfying about growing your own food. If you ask me, nothing tastes as fine as a fresh, juicy garden tomato still warm from the sun. May is the perfect time to start your Victory Garden. Get growing!

YEAR ROUND SUMMER SIMPLICITY – LATE NIGHT ZESTY BROCCOLI

“It was such a pleasure to sink one’s hands into the warm earth, to feel at one’s fingertips the possibilities of the new season.”
― Kate Morton

My ten-year-old stepson Lukas is the King of Questions. Not simple questions either. If you spend any time with young children you know exactly what I am talking about. Luke’s questions often border on the bizarre with a hint of gruesome thrown in. 

“So, Amy,” he inquires, “Would you rather swim with a shark or with an alligator?” “Would you rather be hunted by an invisible alien queen or a carnivorous dinosaur?” “Would you rather be trapped in a car without gas during a blizzard or in the path of tornado?” 

Therefore, I am always relieved when he asks me an easy question such as, “What vegetable would you choose if you could only eat one for the rest of your life?” Of course, when my response to him was that I would have a difficult time deciding between tomatoes and broccoli — he remembered our discussion last year that tomatoes were technically a fruit. So my answer had to undeniably be broccoli. 

For years broccoli has been a favorite. One of my college memories is of a Chinese take-out restaurant near the campus of Marquette University that my roommate Kat and I were known to frequent. Being frugal college students, and since the portions were large, we would share an entree. She would choose either Beef and Broccoli or Chicken and Broccoli. She would eat the meat and I would eat the broccoli. It was a perfect system and part of the reason that we lived together during all four years of our undergraduate studies. 

When I met my husband John, I was happy to discover that he shared my affinity for broccoli. Frozen broccoli became a staple in our grocery cart and it was one of the first vegetables that we planned for our garden. Since we have a hoop house, we are lucky enough to grow enough broccoli in the summer to last the entire year. We start our seeds in March, plant them mid-April, and for the past couple of years are able to start harvesting by the 4th of July. 

I can usually cut several heads of broccoli off of a plant before it starts going to seed. At that point I pull the plant and another takes it place. Therefore, once the seedlings go in the ground, I make sure to start another tray of seeds for backup. Most summers we are able to grow at least three individual crops of broccoli. 

I love when the seeds start to sprout!

To preserve I blanch the broccoli for three to four minutes (until bright green) in boiling water and immerse instantly into ice water. I then squeeze out any excess moisture and lay the broccoli out on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for approximately 10 minutes. I then vacuum seal the broccoli in plastic bags which keeps it fresh all year long in the freezer. I find that freezing the broccoli, as well as squeezing out the moisture, makes sure that the vacuum bags seal properly without pulling the moisture into the sealing machine. 

I eagerly await the 2020 growing season.

Once we started growing our own broccoli, it would be hard to go back to store bought. The flavor of fresh out of the garden, or even garden fresh out of the freezer, is dramatically different. We use broccoli in pressure cooked meals, in green salads, as a simple side dressed with real butter and a splash of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt, or even as a late night snack (our favorite especially in the summer). Truth be told, I am known to sneak out to the hoop house in my nightclothes to cut fresh broccoli, a few beans, and peas (if they are still growing) and whip up a batch with the seasoning mix I am sharing with you today. 

I think that meals and snacks should be fresh and simple, especially in the summer when our chore list is a mile long and we do not want to heat up the kitchen. Though this winter we’ve been turning to vegetables often as snacks to balance out winter’s comfort foods. After all, spring break is around the corner and we have a special bucket list trip planned.

LATE NIGHT ZESTY BROCCOLI

*1 head of fresh broccoli or one large frozen package (cut fresh into florets)

*Juice and zest of a lemon (you can use concentrate if in a pinch, fresh is always best)

*1 Tablespoon of soy sauce

*2 teaspoons of chili paste or to taste (found in the Asian food section. It can be spicy, so use an amount to suit your taste)

*teaspoon of olive oil or butter

*Optional – teaspoon of minced garlic. (Some chili paste already comes with garlic. However, you can always add some for good measure.)

Prepare the broccoli with your favorite method. When I use fresh I use the blanching method and with frozen I cook in the microwave for 3-5 minutes (depending on the amount I use). In a bowl add the lemon juice and zest, soy sauce, chili paste, garlic, and butter (the hot broccoli will melt the butter) or olive oil. Toss and serve warm. 

This sauce perks up other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, green beans, or cauliflower. It makes a nice dressing for a cold salad and works well drizzle on vegetables before roasting. While most people may imagine a late night snack in the summer to be a creamy bowl of ice cream. Trust me on the broccoli. It if you also want something sweet then finish it up with a cool piece of watermelon, or in the winter, a juicy tangerine. It is a summer treat that you can enjoy year round. It is pleasing for the taste buds and the waist-line alike.

February is the perfect time to start planning your garden. I know that the seed catalogs have started to arrive at our house and the stores are starting to get the garden centers ready. Homegrown broccoli is a life-changing taste – you will be thankful all year long that you took the extra effort to grow your own.

Broccoli = Summer Year Round

Spring Fever Remedy: Cucumber Soup

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson

Our hoop house is in the distance, patiently awaiting summer.

 

 

Today is a snow day off of work/school and to say that I have spring fever is an understatement. I have been dreaming of leafy green vegetation since the first hint of snowflakes graced the sky. A couple of weeks ago my husband John planted trays of seeds in our family room window, and in front of our sliding glass door. Daily we watch the thermometer that measures the temperature in our hoop house – waiting until it is warm enough at night to start planting the seedlings. Today it is only 30 degree in the hoop house, but on sunny days it has been reaching the low 50s. Last summer was our first taste of large scale gardening and we are hooked. Winter was our time to dream and make plans for even better produce.

Morning Glory

This was in the beginning of the season. We ended up going to a drip hose watering method since the plants were ENORMOUS and a sprinkler wasn’t able to do the job.

Last year we were able to harvest cucumbers from July until late October. Not only were we able to fill our shelves with quarts of pickles, we were also able to share our bounty with friends.

It was a learning process since it was our first year with a hoop house. This year we will be adding a large fan to circulate the air and we will be start our pumpkins inside and move them outside. We will also make sure that we have plenty of seedlings as backup for when plants (such a broccoli) go to seed and stop producing.

We used a trellis system with pulleys and plastic clips for the tomato and cucumber plants.

As I tried to come up with different ways to serve up crunchy slices of cucumbers, I often joked that I needed to come up with a cucumber cookbook. While my eleven-year-old step daughter Avalon’s favorite way to enjoy cucumber is putting them on her eyes to pretend she is at a spa, I think one of my favorite ways is a cool and refreshing bowl of cucumber soup. In fact, this time of year I find myself yearning so much for summer that I make sure that I pick up the ingredients at the supermarket so I can whip up a batch.

We harvested this many cucumbers often on a daily basis.

 

My favorite way to eat cucumbers is sliced with some fresh dill, raw apple cider vinegar, and salt and pepper. I am even known to eat this for breakfast.

This soup is light, healthy, and a wonderful way to welcome spring. You will also want to set this recipe aside to recreate in the summer when cucumbers are in their prime. It is a wonderful meal when the temperatures soar and cooking in a hot kitchen feels out of the question.

Stick with wholesome and fresh ingredients and your body will thank you.

CREAMY CUCUMBER SOUP WITH AVOCADO & DILL (makes one large bowl or two small)

*1 large Cucumber
*1 cup of Plain yogurt (use your favorite brand – low fat or full fat version. Greek yogurt is thick and works well for this dish)
*Juice and zest of one lemon or lime
*
1/2 Avocado
*1 small clove of Garlic
*1 Tablespoon of Onion (or a couple green onions)
*Few leaves of Kale or Spinach
*¼ cup of fresh Dill (or to taste)
*Salt and Pepper to Taste

If it is a garden cucumber, or organic from the market, I only remove ½ of the peelings. Cut the cucumber in half and with a spoon remove the seeds (they make the soup too runny). Chop and reserve ½ of the cucumber. Add the other half of the cucumber and the rest of the ingredients to a blender. Do a quick blend if you want the soup to be chunky and longer if you want it smooth. Pour in a bowl and add the chopped cucumber to the top and a sprig of fresh dill.

This soup is extremely versatile and if you are not fond of dill you can use cilantro. I like to add different toppings depending on what I have on hand. Some of our favorites are kalamata olives, feta cheese, and grape tomatoes. Sometimes if I am looking for a lighter soup, I leave out the avocado. Since it’s so easy to make you can leave the ingredients out for friends or family members to make their own bowl.

It only seemed fitting that I snapped a photo last summer in the hoop house. ❤

If you have spring fever like I do, I encourage you to try a new recipe or do something light and lively with the decor in your home. Grab your camera and record the way the sunlight sifts through bare branches or watch the way your pets delight in puddles of sunshine. Continue to dream and eventually spring will be here! Until then, make the most of today and enjoy every healthy moment.

 

Here you can see the pulley system that we used for our plants. It really worked well and we will be using this system again. It is unbelievable how heavy tomato plants and cucumber vines get and this system really helped hoist them up.

Peach Salad with Roasted Beets, Goat Cheese, Pistachios, & Raspberry Orange Dill Dressing

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Autumn, tinged in bittersweet emotion, is arriving on the familiar formation of goose wings. As a teacher and stepparent, next month I welcome the school routine and falling back into regular working, sleeping, and eating patterns. While I will miss late morning coffee sessions pond side with our three noisy and entertaining ducks — Lucky, Dante, and Beatrice — I am ready to embrace the next chapter. Living on a farm I find that I trust my senses more to announce the transition of seasons in the landscape. I analyze the birds circling the sky, measure the way the morning light radiates with a golden filter through the pasture, and I capture various spicy scents in the air. With a renewed concentration I anticipate watching our honeybees visit the gladiolas and sunflowers in our yard (they will be blooming soon) and imagine their amber honey in our mugs of tea this winter. I take nothing for granted. Every moment of beauty I witness becomes a fleeting reminder of nature’s last dash for vibrancy before everything is covered in white fleece.

Lucky, Dante, and Beatrice

The new pond that John is building. It has a “rushing river” (inspired from our honeymoon in Alaska) and a waterfall.

Weather wise, it has been a challenging Upper Peninsula summer. While the lake levels took full advantage of rain, I heard friends and family mourn lackluster gardens. On the contrary, my husband John and I grew the best garden we both have ever had. We were fortunate to acquire a hoop house last year with a grant from the USDA. John, always the industrious workaholic, braved icy fall and spring weather constructing its massive structure and we were able to start planting in April. We were thrilled to harvest broccoli, peas, and beans the first week of July (greens much earlier), and in addition to eating fresh produce, I have been canning, blanching, and freezing at a steady rate. Our goal is to put up enough vegetables to get us through until next summer. It has been a lot of work, but it is worth it knowing where our food comes from – our own backyard.

It’s been a dream come true to have this incredible hoop house.

It has been a dream come true to pick fresh greens daily for salads and have a variety of fresh kitchen herbs at my fingertips. While I always have felt that my happy place was my classroom, I also enjoy letting my creativity bloom in the kitchen. As I always say, there is a close relationship to cooking and writing poetry.

John and Avalon picking peas.

Lukas and John picking cabbage for sauerkraut.

The salad recipe that I am sharing with you today was created in celebration of a visit from my Muskegon in laws. While my husband John fired up the grill to prepare barbequed pork ribs (raised on our farm) I prepared sweet potatoes, cheese bread, broccoli, and assembled a salad with fresh greens that I hoped to be beautiful on both the eyes and the taste buds. I combined fragrant and rosy peaches with earthy and sweet roasted beets, plump and tart raspberries, crunchy and buttery pistachios, and creamy goat cheese and gorgonzola. The dressing honors my Scandinavian roots with the addition of tangy dill (beets and dill are a wonderful flavor combination). I think that I achieved my goal, but you will have to try it and see for yourself.

I made one large family style salad and it served five adults. This salad would also make a fantastic Mason jar salad (remember to layer the dressing first and the greens last so the salad does not get soggy).

Ingredients for salad:

  • Large bag or clamshell of greens (I used leaf lettuce, spinach, and baby kale)
  • 2 fresh sliced peaches
  • 1 pint of raspberries
  • 1 bunch of beets (3 or 4…salt and pepper and a couple Tablespoons of cooking oil)
  • ½ log of goat cheese
  • ½ of a small brick gorgonzola cheese
  • 1/2 cup of pistachios

Ingredients for dressing:

  • 1 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup of olive oil
  • 1 pint of raspberries
  • ¼ cup of dill
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon onion
  • Zest and juice of one orange
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparing beets can be a bit messy but their sweet flavor and silky texture makes them worth the mess.

Cut the beets into several pieces. Scrub well and leave the peelings on. If you have smaller beets you can cut in 1/2 or thirds. Once they are done roasting the peels will slide right off. Roast the beets for 40 minutes at 450 degrees (time may vary depending on your oven). After 20 minutes give them a toss. Let the beets cool before making the salad. The beets can be prepared the night before.                                                                                                                                                       

To make the dressing you can chop the berries, onion, and dill, finely mince the garlic and whisk all of the ingredients together. However, the best method that I have found is to put all the ingredients into the blender and give it a good pulse. If you want to make the dressing more visually pleasing you can add some chopped dill to the final product.

Store in the refrigerator in a cruet or Mason jar and give it a good shake before serving. Leftover dressing will last for a few weeks in the refrigerator.

Arrange the greens, beets, raspberries, peaches, and cheese in a large bowl or on a platter. Pour on the dressing and sprinkle with pistachios (the dressing could also be served on the side). I did not toss the salad since I wanted the lovely beets, peaches, and berries to be on the top. Serve and enjoy!

Printable recipe: Peach Salad with Roasted Beets, Goat Cheese, Pistachios, and Raspberry Orange Dill Dressing

I hope that your transition from summer to fall is a peaceful one. The Waldos will be celebrating a Marquette county autumn with apples from our orchard. Since our family time and being self-sufficient is important to us, we will be making apple crisp for weekend breakfasts to go along with John’s homemade waffles. I will be busy canning apple pie filling and applesauce for our winter table. I hope to squeeze out a few more front porch sessions watching our roosters Shakespeare and Hamlet strut around the yard as the sweet hens and Harriet the turkey warble and free range. Maybe you will join me for some virtual hot apple cider? Make sure that you stop by my Facebook page or leave a comment here for how you are celebrating the autumn and not forget to tell me what you think about this salad.

John bought me a pressure canner to preserve our harvest.

Green beans!

Our shelves are filling up fast.

Shakespeare and Harriet.

Our honey bees stopping to take a drink from the pond.