Posted on Leave a comment

Gifts to Myself

There it is. In black and white. I have finally admitted it. Twice in my life I bought myself a gift. The first time it happened, I was shopping for others. I promise I was. It started innocently enough, with the best of intentions.

Staub Roaster

I was in a kitchen store poking around in the clearance section, as I am wont to do. I noticed an indigo blue enameled pan on a lower shelf. Curious, I pulled it out. It was a small Staub roasting pan.

Now I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I have a not-so-cleverly disguised penchant for enameled cast iron cookware. Let’s also just admit that the French-made Staub is the Range Rover of enameled cast iron.

IMG_5760 (2)

I realize that one doesn’t need a Range Rover in the “I need a large glass of water in the middle of the Sahara desert” sort of way. But there’s something about its superb design and construction that pulls you in. (Pardon me for not using a French car as an analogy, but I just can’t think of one that fits the metaphoric bill).

As with a first-rate automobile, Staub cookware’s carefully researched qualities work. Its thickness makes for evenly dispersed heat that is very forgiving. The black matte enameled interior has nonstick qualities and is quite tough. The covers for the cocottes are flat, their insides covered in nubs. The condensation that naturally builds up on the inside of these covers during cooking constantly drips back onto the food. This self-basting results in the tenderest and juiciest dishes imaginable.

Giving into Temptation

All these compelling factoids were swirling around in my head as I stared at this little roasting pan I’d just pulled out. I hadn’t planned to buy anything for me on this trip to the store. But it virtually had my name on it. The color was perfect. The size was also handy, a little smaller than your typical 9”x13” pans yet a little deeper. Just the dish for a cozy dinner party. And then there was the heft. This pan was not going anywhere on a windy day. And the price, did I mention clearance?

You know the rest of the story; I took this beauty home with me and have not looked back. It was the holiday season, so I wrapped it up, marked it “To Cami, From Cami” and placed it under the tree.

It’s been years now, but this little pan still brings me joy every time I use it.

IMG_3757 (2)
Two pairs of Felco shears. The original purchase was the pair on the top left.

Felco Shears

The other time I self-indulged was early in my journey as I gardener. I had been struggling to prune because of a pair of horribly dull shears I had acquired on the cheap. The task at hand was reining in a long row of red-twig dogwoods and my collection of grape vines. There is nothing like a cheap, dull tool to lengthen an already big job. After struggling for a while, I up and got into the car and drove to the garden store where a nice selection of Felco shears awaited me.

My sharp Felco shears have served me tirelessly for more than twenty years and have at least that much life left in them. Like my knives, I have been known to tuck them into my luggage if I suspect I’ll be doing some pruning during my travels.

IMG_3761 (2)

Whether in the kitchen or the garden, procuring and correctly maintaining the right tools for the job at hand makes life much more efficient and pleasurable. As passionate about foods and plants as I am, I am also passionate about having the needed equipment and tools to cook and garden well, be it a sharp knife, an enameled cast iron pot, or a pair of Felco shears.

Treat yourself today to a great tool…and don’t look back!

Posted on 2 Comments

Farm to Your Table

If it’s Saturday morning and it’s summer, our farmers market is open for business. The center aisle is packed with shoppers. A folk music group serenades us with background tunes. A young couple meanders, sipping their steaming cups of freshly brewed Cherrybean coffee. Others are loaded down with bags of vegetables or a massive bouquet from Alissa’s Flower Farm. The aroma of wood-fired pizza wafts through the air, welcoming us in from the parking lot. We bump into friends, catch up on the latest happenings, compare loot, promise to get together soon, and then move on.

Produce at the Market

I have so many favorite stops. I make it a habit to buy a little something from many. Sunnyside Gardens is my go-to for unique and colorful annuals that make up the flower pots flanking my front door.

John at The Cornucopia was kind enough to bring me a bushel of basil last year when I was binge-making pesto. He carries gorgeous greens like red bok choy and long, curly garlic scapes. He is always ready to tell an interesting story. We know about how he had to harvest his 1400 heads of garlic early because of flooding.

I count on Jensen Sweet Corn for their purple, lime green, and pale orange cauliflower. True to its name, their sweet corn is deliciously sweet.

I have become quite obsessed with the pearl oyster mushrooms from Daniel at Dakota Mushrooms and Microgreens, often making the trip to the farmers market with the intention of picking up some of these tasty fungi. Pearl oyster mushrooms, when sauteed in a little olive oil, finished with sherry and truffle salt, and served with roasted new potatoes is positively addictive.

The middle of August is the time for picking up flats of tomatoes from Carper Sweet Corn and Produce or Seedtime and Harvest. These ruby heirlooms are an essential component to canned salsa, pasta sauce, and tomato basil bisque.

I must not forget to give a shout-out to a recent farmers market addition, Darin at D’s Smoked Nuts. Darin slow-smokes a variety of nuts, then adds some spicy heat. His nuts are almost as good as his quirky videos on his website, or should I say they’re much better.

Cauliflower from Jensen Sweet Corn roasted with green olives and golden raisins

A Rich History

The history behind markets such as these goes back thousands of years to when farmers would bring their wares to the nearest town to sell in a centralized space. This central plaza was the place to be. Business was conducted, and people met to socialize.

In the history of our country, the first official farmers market was located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They actually designed the town around a central lot that was designated as the Central Market. This market continues to thrive today with many of the vendors being multi-generational. From that first market, farmers markets grew into a movement. Today there are approximately 8000 official farmers markets in the U.S. This of course does not include roadside stands and other pop-up markets (originally called “curb markets”) that you come across as you drive our nation’s byways.

Farmers Markets Today

What is it about a farmers market that is so magnetic? Why do we go to it even though we often have our own gardens at home? Perhaps it is the pervasive sense of celebrating community. Or is it about honoring our local family farmers and food artisans? A century ago the average family farm produced over fifty different kinds of crops or products. The resurgence of this sort of diversified farmer with just-picked organic produce faithfully offered each week, rain or shine, is an inspiration.

Supporting their commitment and hard work is crucial to their success. Crafting delicious dishes from these nutritious gems is beneficial for all. In our house, the weekly summertime tradition is such: Saturday morning, go to the farmers market and pick from our garden, then Saturday evening, cook from the bounty.

From cheese that is cultured just up the road to freshly-baked pastries. From hand-made soaps to cuts of bison, eggplants to zinnias, it’s all there at your farmers market. You just need to bring it home to your table.

Posted on 2 Comments

Bugs, Bees, and Butterflies

Insects Galore

The other day, when picking produce from my community garden, I was enthralled by a bumble bee buzzing in front of a cucumber blossom. It landed on the edge of the flower, burying its head inside. Soon it moved on to another blossom, then a third. Later, little hoverflies worked their way across a collection of white cilantro blossoms. It is the height of summer; plants have full leaves, and they are flowering. Fruits and vegetables are growing larger and ripening.

All of this verdurous growth creates a buzz in the insect world. A number of years ago, after deciding to garden organically and soaking in the wisdom of entomologists I have had the pleasure of learning from, both my tolerance of and fascination for bugs have markedly increased.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on three categories of insects. First, there are the insects that eat or otherwise destroy your plants, like the cucumber beetle I recently killed. Second, there are the insects that are very helpful, the above-mentioned bumble bee and hoverfly are two examples. Finally, there are the insects that “worm” their way into our hearts because they kill harmful insects (we love these guys!).

Fostering a Healthy Insect Population

There are many things one can do to foster the symbiotic relationship that insects have with one another and with our plants. As a baseline, it is wise to take the time to search for and plant disease resistant varieties of seeds or plants. I learned my lesson this year when I planted four kinds of cucumbers. A couple are resistant to cucumber wilt bacteria and a couple (that I just HAD to try) were not. Guess what? The varieties that aren’t resistant have cucumber wilt. This is a disease that is spread by the cucumber beetle, and the bacteria overwinters in the soil. This is happening in my community garden, where the history of what was planted in years past is unknown. (I might have been given a little bit of a break if I had known where cucumbers had been and planted this year’s in a different spot.)

A great way to help the pollinator insects is to let some of your plants go to flower and then seed. The butterflies, bees, and hoverflies will love you for it! I always leave a portion of my cilantro, arugula, lettuces, bak choy, basil, mint, among others to flower and seed. Those plants are very busy places right now. In addition, I scatter flower seeds throughout my garden. Nasturtiums, marigolds, and sunflowers are all edible and thus beneficial in several ways. Then there are the blossoms on tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, squash, peas, beans, etc. What a plethora of options for our insect friends!

Another helpful practice is to plant things that are specific foods for certain desirable insects. I let my fennel reseed itself every year and plant dill everywhere because that is what the black swallowtail butterfly larvae eat. With Monarch butterflies, their larvae only eat milkweed, so including that in your landscape will help them multiply.

One of the more interesting groups of the insect world are the predatory insects. We all know about ladybugs eating aphids, but other examples include the cicada killer wasp as well as spiders. One of the more voracious predators, and maybe the most maligned, are spiders. Let’s just say spiders are not vegetarians. They eat other insects, many of them harmful to our yard and garden plants. So instead of cleaning up all those cobwebs in your garden, leave them. I’m not saying to leave the cobwebs around doors, windows, and house. But in your garden, these hungry critters are doing your work for you.

Think twice before you buy packages of earthworms, lady beetles, praying mantis, etc. I could write an epistle on the downsides of introducing foreign bugs into your environment. Instead, foster the conditions to help the native bugs that are already present thrive and do their thing.

It goes without saying, use insecticides either not at all or very, very sparingly. Most insecticides don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

It doesn’t take much to change your way of thinking and your practices. Just like many of us try attract birds to our yards, we can attract insects. In fact, it is easy to do this because much of what attracts insects is leaving your garden alone. Don’t harvest some of your greens, don’t apply insecticides, don’t pick all your flowers. This laid-back approach will, in the end, increase your insect population, which will increase the health of your plants and lead to higher production.

Posted on Leave a comment

Early Summer Bounty

Abundant Produce

Now that summer is in full swing, gardens are following suit. I find myself wandering to my garden beds before almost every meal prep, snipping this, gathering that, filling my basket. After all, marinated Italian white beans need mint. Furthermore they have to be served on a bed of bitey arugula. Lettuces are necessary for a whole host of summer salads. Bok Choy works itself into almost every meal; a tossed salad with mulberries, a quinoa salad, marinated in lemon and oil then served in a pulled pork sandwich. Because I tend to put everything in my morning smoothie, in goes the extra Bok Choy. A vase of its tiny yellow flowers even sits on my counter.

Grilled peach arugula prosciutto pizza anyone? How about mulberry mojitos? Frosty cucumber mint brews straight from the garden? Purple basil blossoms seem to dot everything nowadays. Baby Italian kale sauteed with almonds and lemon zest makes a delicious side.

While my tomatoes, beets, and eggplant are at least a month from being ready, there is still plenty of produce to get crazy with right now. Our strawberries are so sweet that the only option is to eat them straight up, unadorned. I planted these beauties three years ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to produce. This year’s bumper crop has been much anticipated.

A Garden’s Fine Routine

It seems that summertime brings an interesting shift in routine. All winter, we walk the produce aisles, filling our carts with those cold-weather staples like potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Sweet Texas grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges notwithstanding, there isn’t the same olfactory allure to the produce. These dog-days are different. Right now, I wait to plan menus until after scoping out the farmers’ market and bringing home what catches my eye. Even more, what is ready in my backyard garden or my community garden makes all the difference as to what meals I make.

Harvest, then create. It seems backwards compared to wintertime ways. But I can’t help myself; cooking this way is truly satisfying! When purple or green cauliflower or oyster mushrooms somehow end up on my kitchen counter, my mind starts racing…grilled veggies, oyster mushroom crepes…the dishes start rolling out. Freshly slivered basil and freshly cut cilantro inspire me, so one only needs to eat and enjoy.

Summer bounty is a long awaited pleasure. In these cold climes, when the grey days call on us to light candles, listen to Bach, drink lavender lattes, and peruse seed catalogs; this is what we’ve been waiting all winter for.

I, for one, am taking full advantage.

Posted on 2 Comments

What Should You Plant First?

As early spring begins, I am starting to think about what seeds I want to plant in my garden beds for the first planting of the season. You are probably thinking it is too early to start thinking about one’s summer vegetable garden. However, this is the ideal time to plan and purchase those first seeds. Some of the most interesting varieties of seeds sell out fairly quickly, so once you know what you’re hoping to plant, get the seeds while they are still available.

A number of types of vegetables thrive in the cool, wet days of spring. Many plants need this weather to really do well.  I take the temperature of my garden soil, and when it’s around 50 degrees, it is time to plant.

The vegetables I am planting this early spring include:

Radishes

Last year I planted “D’Avignon,” the traditional French breakfast radish. This year I am trying two very different varieties. Early Scarlet Globe is a very dependable radish. It is ready in 20 to 28 days, so we can enjoy eating them early. And because I like to try new things, I am planting Purple Plum, a purple radish with a great flavor. A second new venture for me is Watermelon, a white radish with a stunning, dark pink center. This variety shines in the very early spring. It lends itself well to pickling, so I may play around with doing that later this spring.

Sweet Peas

I’m going all out on three completely new varieties of snap or snow peas this year. I chose two from Seed Savers Exchange (an organization that preserves historic and heritage varieties of seeds, saving them and also reproducing some for sale) The first pea variety is the Amish Snap. This is a pea that was been grown by the Amish community long before our present varieties existed. It vines tall and vigorous. The other choice from Seed Savers is Swenson Swedish. This heirloom variety was brought to Minnesota from Sweden in 1876. It is sweet, flavorful, and productive.

Another seed company that is doing great work in preserving rare and heirloom varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Missouri. I chose my third variety of sweet pea from them. This hypertendril snap pea produces more tendrils instead of some of its leaves. These, along with the beautiful pink blossoms, are deliciously edible and taste just like peas.

Lettuce

With lettuce I like to plant several kinds. I start early in the spring and reseed several times throughout the summer so I have a constant supply. I am planting two mixes, a Mesclun blend that contains some peppery lettuce varieties and a lettuce blend. All the Romaine lettuces are wonderful, so this year I am planting Red Romaine. A large variety, it is both a colorful and tasty addition to salads. Lastly, I am planting an English variety Craquerelle du Midi, sweet and crisp with dark green curled leaves. Its slowness to bolt in the heat of summer is another desired trait.

Carrots

I am starting with two varieties of carrots this year. One is an old faithful I have used for years, Scarlet Nantes. It is sweet, tender, and a proven producer. The other is a red carrot called Dragon. I love the beauty of red carrots. This tasty variety is red on the outside and orange in the center.

Arugula

The arugula I planted last year will come up again this year. I am also, however, planting a bitey variety that will nicely complement what is already out in my garden. Wasabi arugula has the spicy taste of wasabi, a very helpful addition to Asian dishes. It is more tolerant of swings in weather than other varieties. I’ll also be picking the edible blossoms to throw into salads or pasta dishes.

Kale

Lacianto Dinosaur is my kale choice this time around. This Tuscan variety dates back to at least the early 1800s. It is beautiful with dark green, deeply savoyed leaves. It is quite flavorful, making for a fabulous addition to soups and stews. This grouping of vegetables prefers the cool wetness of spring. At least a month before the final frost, I am out cleaning my garden beds and burying the these little nuggets in the ground. They don’t mind a little snow, frost, and cold spring rainstorms. They get to work, germinating and soon popping their little heads through the surface of the earth. The unsuspecting surprise of eating sweet lettuces or crunchy peas in the middle of May when most of us are just starting to put in our summer vegetables is refreshing indeed.

These early vegetables in an otherwise dormant space is like spring opening her door and saying, “Welcome to my home.” And, in fact, welcome it is!

Posted on Leave a comment

Late Winter Pruning

The Great Storm

A few years ago, we had the oddest, and as it turned out, most disastrous, April ice storm. First it rained like the dickens for a day. Then the temperature dropped, and the rain changed to heavy, wet snow of which we proceeded to get about a foot. When it was all said and done, our city looked like a war zone.

Massive branches, limbs, and even whole trees were strewn everywhere. Streets were impassable, city parks a disaster. Our town came to a complete standstill. Not only could people not actually drive anywhere. It was not safe to do so because ice and snow-laden limbs continued to fall, even after the storm had moved on. Our city called on tree trimming crews from all over the upper Midwest to help clean up and restore order. This ended up taking weeks.

Lessons Learned

A few months later, I was in a lecture listening to Dr. John Ball, South Dakota’s very own brilliant and always entertaining Department of Agriculture forest health specialist and SDSU professor of agronomy. As he discussed the storm, he laid out for us how a properly pruned tree or bush makes for a healthy tree or bush. This health better enables the trees to withstand that which nature throws against it.

Later as we walked through the grounds that surrounded the lecture hall, Dr. Ball pointed out dozens of examples of negligent pruning. Trees that were allowed to be misshapen, creating rotten junctions between limb and trunk, were susceptible to breaking apart in the next big wind or ice storm. And then there were open wounds where branches had rubbed together. Said open wounds are places where harmful insects and diseases can enter the tree, set up shop, and start wreaking havoc.

Dr. Ball taught me the importance of pruning your trees. Start creating the correct shape when the tree is young and the branches are small, so the healing will be quick. And do it during the right time of year.

When is the Right Time to Prune?

Early March, or “late dormant season, is the best for most pruning.” So advises the University of Minnesota Extension tree specialists. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that the tree will soon wake up for spring, allowing the tree to heal itself much faster. Another reason is that the harmful insects are not yet awake and moving around, enabling the trees and bushes to heal before they are. A third reason is without the leaves to block one’s view of the tree’s structure, clearer decisions can be made about which branches to take and which to leave.

So, who should be doing all this pruning? I am of the full belief that the trimming of medium and large trees should be done by a certified arborist. They have both the expertise and equipment to do this job safely and properly. That said, bushes, shrubs, and small trees can all be done by you, the homeowner. Most state extension offices have very helpful tutorials on how each plant needs to be trimmed. I am also available to guide you through this process.

Caring for our Trees

IMG_0517 (2).jpg
An example of an obvious branch to prune on a young apple tree.

Trees, bushes, and shrubs are anchors in our properties. They can be a large financial investment, and once planted they last decades. We carefully choose. Are they a fruit tree or a shade tree? Do we want to use their branches for a swing or a birdhouse? Whatever their purpose, they offer a pivotal contribution to creating a beautiful landscape for our homes. They give us so much, and they deserve to be cared for.

So get outside and get your trees and bushes all pruned. This summer on a sweltering August afternoon, when you are enjoying the cool shade of your beautifully trimmed oak tree or admiring your rose bush in full bloom, you will thank yourself!