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I’m Afraid of What is in My Freezer

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I’m afraid.

I’m afraid I have addiction problems.

I know I have addiction problems.

Often associated with work, accomplishment, and success.

That high that I achieve when I just work a little bit harder.

When I do just a little bit more.

Over the past two years, I’ve made great strides in overcoming my workaholic tendencies.

I don’t let the tasks control me.

I don’t lose sight of my priorities.

I don’t over multitask.

I clean up in between projects.

I strive to start everyday as a new day.

But yet, I am still afraid.

It is autumn in North Dakota.

The instinct to squirrel food away for the winter is strong in this part of the world.

Harvesting, hunting, freezing, drying, canning, preserving.

If you took a look at my Facebook feed everyday, you’d be amazed to see what friends are preserving.

At times they look like super heroes.

At times I feel a bit like a super hero myself.

When I know that we have chicken stock, tomato juice, pickled beans, apple sauce, and even ketchup in the basement.

We have been busy filling the larder.

But along the way,

Amid the finished gleaming jars,

Among the produce waiting to be canned,

Somewhere between the pressure canner and the stove,

There is a bit of disappointment…

A bit of sadness…

A bit of feeling that comes when an recovering addict realizes they are living a “sober” life.

While we’ve been busy,

I haven’t caught the buzz.

The drive to make one more recipe,

The high that comes when you are so deep in the process that you forget about everything else.

The only thing that matters is the finished product.

Forget dinner, forget dishes.

This is awesome!

THAT- I haven’t felt that this year.

Yet.

I’m about to tap into the goods in the freezer.

I’m about to embark on my favorite process of preserving.

Making jam and jellies.

I have a freezer full of fruits.

Hand picked luscious fruits.

Chokecherries.

Blackberries.

Blueberries.

Juneberries.

Black Currants.

Wild Plums.

Buffalo Berries.

Amazing goodness waiting to be unlocked.

And yet, I am afraid.

I’m afraid this is where I will “fall off” the road to recovery.

I’m afraid that after 7 jars of juneberry jam and 10 jars of blueberry jelly,

And 14 jars of blackberry jam,

And 21 jars of chokecherry jelly,

That I will not know how to say no.

I’ll dig into the Black Currants,

“Just a small batch.”

And the wild plums.

“I’ll have to prepare to more cases of jars…”

And more blueberries.

“We have so many! Let’s do pancake syrup.”

And more blackberries.

“Maybe I’ll make a pie for after dinner…

Wait, dinner? Did I eat lunch? What did the kids eat for lunch?

What day is it anyway?”

So wish me well,

As I venture into the basement.

As I open the freezer.

And I try to say,

“That’ll be enough for now.”

All things are possible, with tomatoes

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Some days are better than others. But any day with tomatoes can be a good day. Because when it comes to tomatoes, all things are possible.

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

With or without tomatoes, one thing remains certain each day, that there is something for us to learn.

The day my boys and I went out to the garden to bring in summer’s first big haul of tomatoes, we learned just how heavy a tub of produce can weigh. Good thing there was three of us.

(This was the small tub.)

photoMy oldest son learned that he was not going to be rewarded for picking the green tomatoes.

I learned that grilled green tomatoes are equally divine as their fried counterparts.

Later that night, as a family, we had the opportunity to truly witness the fruits of of labor. Six varieties of tomatoes had yielded nothing short of a bounty and in just a few days of steady summer heat. Our counter tops were full and we were blessed with tomatoes.

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

We had a plan, sort of, to savor every ounce of homegrown goodness.

Cherry tomatoes were for fresh eating. They sat in a bowl. Ready for snacking. They went fast. Even though my youngest son preferred the mellow and sweeter flavor of yellow pear tomatoes. To his despair, those have another purpose.

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We grow the profusely abundant yellow pear tomato with one purpose in mind, to make yellow-tomato basil jam. Yes. Jam. It is sweet and savory and delivers a strong essence of summer. We first came upon this recipe in the wonderful cookbook Preserving the Harvest.  Last year, I learned that it is best to prepare this divine preserve in small batches. The two hour cook time for a double batch simply does not work. This year I learned that using Greek Basil takes the jam to a whole new level of delight. While the recipe is time consuming it is not difficult. The hardest part is waiting to enjoy this. But it is the darkest days of winter that benefit most from a little sunshine in a jar.

Next on our priority list was to use the very very ripe tomatoes as soon as possible. I paired the tomatoes with garlic, onions, kale, and a pinch of red pepper and served it over grits for dinner. I am, at heart, a girl of the southern states. Grits are a part of that, but the dynamic flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to a sauce and topped with crispy kale leaves… ooh goodness. I felt like I was home.

Along side of the dinner preparations was another preservation project for late summer months: tomato juice. I cut and cored my tomatoes, put them in a pot with a little onion, salt, and celery and mash and boil, mash and boil until it is all a pretty red mash of savory goodness. Then I add a handful of parsley for an extra boost and let simmer for a bit.

Tomato juice in the process

Tomato juice in the process

Typically I prefer to use the yellow lemon boy tomatoes for this juice recipe. But it is a good way to use up lots of well ripened tomatoes up quickly, so this was a bit of a mix. I then strain the juice through a sieve and bring to a simmer again. The tomato juice can then be frozen for later use, cooled and enjoyed, or if I plan on preserving it in a water bath canner, I test the pH and add lemon juice to ensure the juice is acidic enough for safe canning.

In less than 24 hours we had taken care of at least half of the tomatoes. But there were still more. We needed to act fast, or the invasion of fruit flies would begin. But the next day would be a new day. image

As we started our new day, I was thinking about tomatoes and teaching. After all, we had begun our first official week of homeschooling. It hit me then- Tomatoes can be a teaching resource!

I led my first grader through the process of sorting the tomatoes. We talked about plant varieties and characteristics. We distinguished Cherokee Purple from Black Krim based on the fruit shape. We distinguished Champion from Better Boy based on color variation. Thus leaving the Lemon Boys as the last option for those left behind through process of elimination.

We began counting our categories, using a simple spreadsheet to track our data.Tomato Spreadsheet

And then weighed the total of each variety. We even got to venture into decimals. The boy clearly got it when he said, “So 6.25 pounds of tomatoes is a lot like $6.25, right?” Right on my boy, right on! If tomatoes were currency, we may be rich.

When it was all said and done, we were able to determine which tomatoes we had the most of by number and weight. And even toyed with the idea of averages. On average, the Champion tomato weighed the most, followed closely by Better Boys and Black Krim. Cherokee Purples came in close behind. The lemon boys had by far the lowest average weight per tomato.

We had good fun, and I gained confidence in my homeschooling abilities.

We sliced two tomatoes and shared them for a snack when we were done. Because what fun is tomato math without taste testing.

The next day, we tackled another priority on our list– salsa making. Twelve pounds of tomatoes went into the salsa. DSCF4440

Along with peppers, onions, corn, white wine vinegar, coriander, salt, and cilantro. Oh how I love the cilantro!

imageWhen the salsa was done, I was astonished by the flavor the variety of tomatoes contributed. But I was so sad to see how pale the salsa was. Sure I used yellow tomatoes, orange peppers, and sweet corn, but the finished product was so less than vibrant. Then it hit me… I had forgotten one ingredient I had added to last year’s recipe: paprika. Paprika makes the salsa red. Well, this year, we’ll just have to learn how to love a flavor loaded, color muted salsa.

Finally, our tomato harvest became manageable. We prepared what was left for dinner, returning to our love of tomatoes and basil. Because some pairing never grow old.

DSCF4470Tomato salad with basil along with grilled eggplant, chicken artichoke sausage, and garden fresh kale, topped with balsamic vinegar. (Not pictured: fresh mozzarella cheese.)

This cycle will continue for the next few weeks as tomatoes ripen. This weekend we will likely prepare another batch of jam and some yellow tomato juice. We’ll likely try something new like homemade ketchup and eventually we will begin canning crushed tomatoes for winter spaghetti dinners. Along the way, we will have some fun. Enjoy the bliss of summer’s end. And learn something new, everyday.

Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

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Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

If Mother Nature has taught me anything, it is that success cannot be rushed.

Life happens at its own pace. It is up to us to try not to force it through commitments, deadlines, and expectations. Sometimes all we can do is our best, with what we have to work with.

Such as I am at this moment. I find myself riding in the back of the vehicle with two kids, who are happily enjoying their snacks. My husband is giving his mother the grand tour of small town North Dakota.

For the moment we are in Harvey. I admire the gardens that we pass by- gauging the height of the corn, the weight of the peppers on the plant, and color and ripeness of tomatoes. I am reminded of a request by the new local foods marketing specialist at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to participate in the Specialty Crop Blog Challenge.

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I am a bit delayed, just as so many things have been this growing season. July’s challenge topic was Zucchini, perhaps one the most prolific specialty crops. In fact, if I ever met any one who made a career of growing this green summer squash, I might question their sanity. But then again here I am, tucked in the backseat, writing my July assignment in August on my iPhone… so feel free to question my sanity as well.

But for the common vegetable grower zucchini is like a promise, never to be broken. There will be an abundance.

At this time of year, abundance can come in the form of boxes of bounty, jars of pickles, and loaves of bread. It is a time of year that takes me back to my childhood– back to my grandparents’ garden.  Their garden was one of my happy places as a child. I was always at peace there, comfortable in the scent of dill and tomato plants. Delighted by the textures of concord grapes, the sounds of the birds, the abundance all around.  My grandparents never let me leave their home without a box of tomatoes, and cucumbers, and of course, zucchini.

When I have the opportunity to visit now, I still seek out the garden, even though Grandpa isn’t there to make sure I notice the radishes and keep me from stepping on the beans. Also, I seek out the stories. My grandmother is a wonderful storyteller, even though she sometimes gets a little distracted.

Seeing as I live more than 1000 miles away, I more often opt to hear her stories over the telephone. Our conversations are sometimes scattered, working in bits about children, chickens, and gardens in such away that I can’t help but smile.

We discuss the garlic and the chard. I tell her about the rhubarb festival we went to. DSCN9151She is so surprised that my youngest loved the rhubarb. And she tells stories about how when she and grandpa were poor and living in Montana, that they would always be on the look out for rhubarb along the roadside that they could harvest.

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It is hard to believe they once lived in a time when food was scarce. As they started to build their home and raise their family, having a garden meant something entirely different than it does to me now.

I have a garden by choice. Because it keeps me grounded.

Because I like growing my own food.

My grandparents grew a garden so they could eat.

But even with scarcity, they never ceased to be generous.

Three years ago when I began growing my garden, I had such a bounty of everything– corn, potatoes, eggplant, basil, tomatoes, and squash. I wanted to waste nothing, but was up to my ears in everything.
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I began to take a preventive approach, especially with the zucchini. The tricky thing about this squash is the more you pick it, the more it produces. It is all too easy to bite off more than one can chew. But rather than let the fruits grow to monstrous sizes, I began harvesting the blossoms.

I had read about fried zucchini blossoms in many cookbooks and often thought them to be a fine culinary pursuit. Zuchinni BlossomsI selected both male (above) and female (below) because at this point, I wanted to prevent more zucchini from coming on.

Female blossoms (not the minature fruit at the base)

Female blossoms (not the miniature fruit at the base)

We stuffed the blossoms with mozzarella cheese and basil. Then dipped them in a batter and fried them. The result was amazing!

As I told my grandmother about the culinary adventure and the crop management techniques, I was surprised to hear her voice calling up memories of a time when she had enjoyed zucchini blossoms,

Now long ago, before your daddy was even born, I think, we had zucchini blossoms deep-fried. Your grandpa and I had been building the house. It was early in the summer and we had planted a small garden, but of course we didn’t have much time to tend to it. We wanted to get the house done before the winter. So we were busy and all. I think we had planted some zucchini and tomatoes, and maybe some potatoes. Things that wouldn’t need much attention.

Well one day we got notice that the new pastor for the church was coming into town. At that time, your grandpa had been delivering the sermons and doing much of the work. So the pastor was going to come visit us before he got settled in.

And remember, in those times we were poor, but it was early in the summer and we didn’t have much in the garden. And of course we had some of the staples in the pantry. So I hurried out to the garden to see what I could find. The zucchini were blooming, but the fruit had not yet set. So I harvested the blossoms and served this new pastor fried zucchini blossoms. 

He thought they were the most wonderful thing. He was from Chicago and hadn’t had anything like that before. Oh my, he loved them. And you know, years later when he moved on, when he delivered his final sermon, those zucchini blossoms were still on his mind. He thanked us for our hospitality and the wonderful meal.

I think of this story often and how much it reflects our perspective of abundance, and our ability to make the most out of what we have. Whether we have too much, or not enough– there is always something we can offer the world. Male Zucchini Blossom

Taking Time and Making Memories

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Taking Time and Making Memories

There are times when time passes with rapid speed. Days fly by, hours slip from our grasp. When this pace goes on for weeks on end, sometimes it takes an effort to take a grasp on life again. Thus the pleasures of living in a small town. Such places can provide unique opportunities to slow down a bit. To feel like perhaps that there is not a need to keep letting time pass us by, but to instead feel it pass through us.

There are so many similarities I find between the small town I live in now and the one I visited my grandparents in as a young child. Granted, the distance between the two is more than 1000 miles. And the population of my grandparents’ rural villa far surpasses where I now reside. But, there is something about the tempo that I cannot help but find accessible… if I take time to listen.

The best place for me to begin slowing down and listening is my garden. This is the third year we have grown a large garden in our backyard and each year it looks different. This year, we have focused on a variety of herbs, tomatoes, and cabbages. This morning I went out to explore what might potentially fit into a scramble of eggs and potatoes. I was please to find an ample amount of chard…

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And some garlic scapes to experiment with…

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And began to seriously wonder what we are going to do with all this tarragon…

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And realized that the tarragon has been growing as fast as the ducks. DSCN8951

And that perhaps all that tarragon would go well with all that duck….

But not today.

After the egg scramble and a little house cleaning, we were off to the Annual Rhubarb Festival at the Eddy County Museum.

Yes, Rhubarb Festival, where the tangy sour stalks of this green leafy plant are honored and transformed into a variety of delectable dishes.

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Such a wonderful variety of baked goods and also slush, and soda, and ice cream too.

I admit, I made some rather beastly noises when I first tasted the ice cream. DSCN9151

My husband was lucky that I let him taste a tiny bite before I cleared it off the plate. Because nothing makes me stop and enjoy the moment much more than homemade ice cream. And considering that I recently discovered many of my digestive ills were related to a gluten-intolerance (and most of the rhubarb dishes were baked goods) I am eternally grateful to a fellow gluten-free friend who made a contribution of a gluten-free rhubarb, strawberry, and raspberry pizza. Simply amazing!

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And speaking of beastly… we explored another of my loves at the museum. Taxidermy!

Yes, I know I’m weird maybe I spent too many hours with the stuffed loon at my grandparent’s house as a child (and as an adult). But there is something about taxidermy that continues to amaze me. In fact, had I not been accepted into graduate school, I would have sought out training as a taxidermist. But exploring wildlife with a three year old through taxidermy mounts can be an incredible experience.

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“Mom, what’s that?DSCN9022

Is it a tye-ote”

“Yes, it is a coyote.”

“It has teeth!”

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“And look Mom, it’s a mean cat. A big mean cat. Can we get a cat like that?!”

And on we went…

“Mom, what’s that?”

“That’s fox. And an avocet. And a five-legged lamb. And a two-headed calf.”DSCN9025

And we visited a small boy wearing clothes from long ago. My son wasn’t sure what to think, but I assured him it was not taxidermed.

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But I still advised him not to touch the boy, as it might bite.

I don’t think he took me seriously.

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I was so amazed at his interest and curiosity in all these old items. “WOW! Look at this!” He said over and over again.

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Truly it was worth every moment. To make time to enjoy, explore, and appreciate. To mingle, laugh, and play. To be part of something larger than yourself. To know that these moments that slip through our hands belong not just to us, but to our future as well. What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday.

So when the time came, that my son wanted to go back for another round of rhubarb desserts. What could we say?? After all, it’s the little things it life that make it so sweet.

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Special thanks to the Eddy County Museum for putting on an event that gave us a chance a take the time and make some memories, right close to home!

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