gifts from the freezer

Well look at that, I did a little website cleanup! 

I've been in the mood to post here lately, after a long break.  Maybe it's the as-always frustration of early spring, when I'd like to be outside but it's raining/snowing/sleeting/blowing 40 mph winds.  Maybe it's the excellent posts I've been reading elsewhere lately. That's how I got started writing here, inspired by other folks.

So it's been a while!  I could go into all sorts of reasons, like a huge (ongoing) kitchen remodel for one, but I thought I'd just start back here with a recipe. This is the time of year of pulling hopefully awesome stuff out of the pantry and freezer that I put away last fall.  I got in the habit of writing on my freezer bags suggested uses besides just quantities, and when my spouse was rooting around to make a batch of wine last month we found a bunch of bags of cherries marked "2 cups, for clafoutis"  Oh yeah, I had almost forgotten!

Clafoutis has become a go-to treat for us the last couple of years.  It started with our first harvest of tart cherries, but I now use it for all sorts of fruit.  It's faster than a pie or cake, uses one bowl and the the simplest of ingredients you always have around, and is relatively low in sweetness which to me makes it a perfect breakfast with a cup of coffee. 

 

Cherry Clafoutis

There are a lot of versions of this, Julia Child uses even less flour, but while I like the custardy-ness of the texture I wanted a little more density.  My version, after noodling around online, was originally found here). 

 

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sour cherries
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup (one stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/8 tsp salt 
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp almond extract (or more to taste, see notes)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • optional: 1-2 Tbsp. cherry or almond liquor

Directions

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. Melt the butter and let cool slightly while you get started. Beat the sugar and the eggs with a whisk until they turn light in color and increase in volume.  I like a stand mixer for this, but it's not required.  Slowly add the butter, beating to incorporate. Tip the salt into your cup of flour and add all at once, continuing to whisk until incorporated. Slowly pour in the milk a little at a time. Add the vanilla and almond extracts, and the liquor if you are using it, mixing well. The batter should be very smooth and shiny.

Place the cherries in a 9 or 10 inch buttered dish (a cake or pie pan, or even a skillet will work). Pour the batter over the fruit. Bake in the pre-heated oven for approximately 40 minutes, until puffed, moderately browned and almost completely set in the middle.  Once it's close, I gently jiggle the pan every five minutes until the center no longer moves--this is a very moist dessert so it's unlikely to hurt if you go a little longer here; under-cooked can be a bit runny, especially in warm weather.

Allow to set up for 15 minutes or so before serving, it will collapse slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature. I store in the refrigerator for several days, but it doesn't last long around here.

Notes

Last summer I made my own lazy cherry "almond" extract by covering a jar's worth of cherry pits with vodka and steeping them for several weeks before straining.  The result is a rosy-colored concoction which is lovely in baked goods. I use this in place of the liquor here, using a tablespoon or two--I have had this turn my batter a wee bit grainy, I suppose from the alcohol, but it didn't seem to affect the outcome at all.

As mentioned any fruit (fresh, or from the freezer) works fine here. I've used apples, rhubarb, raspberries/blueberries.  Frozen fruit tends to stay at the bottom, while fresh will sometimes float up a bit, but either way tastes delicious. While in-season or home preserved fruit is great, this would work equally (well, almost) as well with a pint of berries from the grocery, or from a bag of frozen (unsweetened) store-bought fruit. 

I usually use a glass pie pan, because you can see the pretty fruit better. I'll set it on a sheet pan just for ease of loading it into the oven without sloshing.


Fall garden cleanup pep talk

This is the lecture I've been giving myself the past week, and I figured I'm not the only one who needs it:


It's okay to pull the plug on your garden, even if it's not dead/frozen/finished yet.  I took out my tomatoes last week (all but those in the hoop house).  Sure, it there was a forecast of possible patchy frost, and it's better to pick green fruit before vines are damaged by a freeze.  But the truth is, it was just diminishing returns at this point.  One or two fruits were ripening up outside, but mostly they were just sitting there.  Another week, even of 60 degree weather (unlikely) was not going to help.  The plants were succumbing to late-season fungal diseases, and ripe fruit had issues anyway.  I picked only perfect fruit and brought them inside, where they will may not be as good as high-summer toms, but they will keep me in sauce for a few more weeks.  It's really hard to abandon that tiny eggplant or pepper, but the reality is there's just not enough time/heat/daylight for things to mature.

BUT

It is also okay to string a pet plant along, if you're inclined. If  you have a full fridge and can't deal with processing the last picking of green beans, or if the forecast has a rogue hot spell after one cold night and you think you might get a few more jalapenos, go for it.  Cover plants with remay, sheets, or tarps, and most things can survive the first couple of light frosts.  My summer squash is miraculously healthy and plugging away at fruit (and I'm not tired of them yet!) and I think I"ll let that baby drag on until the final freeze.



Don't try to do everything at once.  Just like in the spring, tackle a section or two at a time.  I picked most of the remaining harvest last week, and tackled the aformentioned tomato vines; this afternoon I'm working on peppers and beans.  Prioritize by what is the least cold hardy (BASIL) and what can stay standing long into winter (kale, broccoli, leeks). 

BUT

Don't leave everything until next spring either! Leaving mildewy or diseased plants over the winter is just creating issues for the following season.  Non-beneficial insects will overwinter there as well.  Besides, cleanup and preparation makes getting started in the spring SO MUCH easier.  Everybody hates weeding, especially with the rationale that the coming freeze will kill plants anyway, but a last pass in your gardens and paths will really pay dividends later on.



It's okay to not compost everything.  Our city collects yard waste, and while I try and recycle most of my weeds and garden byproducts within my own property, some things just aren't worth it (for me).  I send sickly tomato and potato vines to the curb for pickup, as well as woody stems and root balls that will have a hard time breaking down.  This reduces the time it takes my compost to be ready to use, and also cuts back on introducing disease or weeds. While definitely having volunteers like dill or celery is the norm in my garden, unfriendlies such as stinging nettle are not welcome.  Even plants I like that are aggressive (cleome!) will often get send to the city, whose composting volume is large and hot enough that they do a better job of killing seeds and fully composting woody stuff.

If you don't have this option but you have the space you might want to separate out the more difficult waste products and give them their own pile.  As woodier bits break down you can introduce them to a future turn of the compost. 

Speaking of which, fall is a great time to turn that big pile of compost.  I mostly feed my beds in the fall.  One reason for me is that I have chicken manure going into my bins, and depending on the timing or my skill at building a great compost pile--this may not be broken down thoroughly when it goes into my garden.  Too-fresh manure can burn plants, and has the potential to transmit pathogens. While I don't have a lot of worries about catching anything nasty from my girls, the generally accepted practice is to wait 90 days after spreading fresh manure before harvesting (longer if the food is in contact with the soil).  So for us Northern gardeners, this works out well for feeding beds in the fall anyway.  If my compost isn't fully finished, a last sit in the garden over the winter helps break the remainder down, all the while sending nutrients into the soil below.

Putting gardens to bed:  The last fall task for me is mulching with leaves and grass clippings.  The final mows of the season are great for creating a lovely brown/green mix of mulch that can cover sleeping gardens and feed them all winter long, as well as protecting the soil from harsh conditions.  If you're a planner and know where your earliest crops will be next season (onions, lettuces, peas etc) you can prep those beds thoroughly now, so they are ready to plant as soon as the ground is warm enough.  No digging required, I often plant my onions right through the mulch.  Actually the first planting will be this fall's garlic:  so I clean up and feed that bed first so I can plant around Halloween, and mulch it super well with leaves/grass (and straw, if I have it).

Makes notes for next year.  I definitely struggle with this,but it's the perfect time to reflect on what worked and what didn't, and what your goals are for next season.  I think the hardest part of this is the natural let-down of the end of the season.  As I work in my overgrown and weedy beds, I tend to only see the failures (how did I make so little pesto this year? Why were my peppers so non-prolific?) but sitting down with your spring notes/plans can help you gain a little perspective and remind you of what did work (what a great year for cauliflower, I had almost forgotten).

While most of this week I have just wished for it all to be done already, making plans to spend the last brisk sunny days putting my garden to bed for the winter is not the worse chore I can imagine.  I can't wait to see the (mostly) neat beds ready to sleep away until spring.



A successful garlic experiment

Last year I was a wee bit short of garlic.  I ended up with 80ish heads, when our goal is generally closer to 100+.  I couple of things contributed to this--obviously I didn't quite plant enough bulbs--but also I had purchased a few "fancy" types from the market to diversify my crop a bit, and NONE of them survived the winter.  Lesson learned.  Also: our pickle production has been HUGE the last few years, and I forget how much garlic you use in every batch.

There was a bit of hoarding and skimping of garlic over the winter--I had resigned myself for buying garlic for the first time in YEARS, but we actually made it thanks to a hefty load of scape pesto in the freezer.  We limped along until this year's scape harvest, and I've been nicking a few baby green garlics out of the garden here and there.



Anyway, last fall's planting had a little more pressure to get it right.  I had to walk a balance of saving enough for planting, and having enough to mostly get us through the winter.  Then I had this idea.  There was a "plant".  A sort of chive, sort of not, at the end of one of my beds.  I realized somewhere along the line it was a garlic that I had missed one year, and it just kept coming up, making tasty snippings for dinner, and then teeny tiny little scape heads in June.  So I kept it, as kind of a volunteer pet plant (other people have these right?  That weird arugula patch growing in your pepper patch you just can't stand to pull?
 


So last year, we revamped that little bed for strawberries, and I dug that sucker up.  TONS and TONS of tiny garlc bulbs.  I wish I had taken a picture.  It was like a little garlic factory.  SO, this was my secret weapon last fall.  I planted half of my bed (about 75 bulbs) with big fat mature garlic from the last season's harvest.  The second half was chock full of wee baby bulbs.  I figured, at worst, they'd be tiny but edible, or I could replant them again and build them up to a larger size in a year or two. 


And they've done fantastic.  They've been noticeably shorter than the main crop, but I've pulled a few for fresh eating over the last few weeks and they are a nice size.  Today I lifted them all out and they are awesome.  I will definitely be integrating these little troopers into my main crop.  It looks like I may have harvested them a little late so they may not store all winter, but I'll definitely hang onto a few to plant this fall.  I should note my main crop is just selected from an unknown variety--probably organic grocery store garlic--and they are dependable if not exciting.  I am happy to have these little red-skinned cuties to add to the mix.



I'm totally going to cultivate a few intentionally neglected plants in my herb bed from now on.  It's the perfect fall-back garlic to cover for a poor year.   Meanwhile my "main crop" doesn't seem quite ready.  They still have 6 green leaves and are just turning brown at the tips, so I'm leaving the rest for another week or so. 


0-2 weeks to last frost(!) - Some tips on early spring planting

As is fairly normal for this time of year, we've had a rollercoaster of weather the past two weeks.  When the temperature dropped into the forties with rain, most of my plants came back inside for an extended break, and I bunkered up as well.

 
Inside the hoop house, spring plants loved it though.  They didn't get the rain, but the cool, grey days were perfect for spinach, salad greens and peas.  This week I had to start adding support to the indoor peas, while their outdoor counterparts are all of an inch high.


But the pendulum swung back the other way this week, we're at nearly 70 degrees as I write.  I semi-opened up the hoop this week--rolled up the sides and took out a few side panels that were getting in the way of my snap peas.  For the most part, the plants inside now are tolerant to light frosts, and are less happy when the temperature climbs to 100+ degrees.  Also, with the sides up I can install my gutters and take advantage of that rain!

Last week I was talking to a woman who works with local farmers, and she was saying that the window of opportunity for spring planting was frustratingly small this year.  We'd have a couple of nice days, then lots of rain, and they couldn't get their tractors into the fields.  It made me realize that home gardeners have an advantage for sneaking in early crops.  Still, dealing with wet soil can be an issue.  I have a couple of tricks:

1.  Prep beds in the fall.  I turn my compost piles in the fall, and give all available beds a nice layer of compost and a mulch of leaves.  For beds that will have bedding plants, I don't have to do anything in the spring--just move some mulch out of the way, and plant.  This is great for broccoli/cabbage and onions, who are often ready to plant when the weather is wetter.   One note, I am observing some slug issues with the leaf-mulched beds where I did this, they apparently can also be cozy spots for critters to overwinter.



2.  The 2-step turnover.  I know the latest trend is minimal working of soil--a lot of folks go the no-till route, and some say not even to turn compost into the soil at all, just let the worms do the work.  I've never had or used a tiller, but I do like to dig a bit in my garden.  Sometimes I have late fall plantings that don't get fed before winter--I'll have a pile of compost on the side of a bed that needs distributing.  And also, I confess, turning over soil with a shovel is a distinct pleasure for me.  I love the physicality of the process, and the sight of bits of eggshells and mysterious half-composted bits, fat worms and thousand-legged bugs.   I love how the robin follows me around, snatching treats when I turn my attention elsewhere for a minute.  So despite the slight risk of bringing weed seeds to the surface, I still do a bit of shovel work.

So I have a trick for wetter days (Not too wet! If you soil really sticks to the shovel it's best to wait, you don't want to damage the soil structure.) A day or so after a rainy spell, I do a light turnover, and let the bed sit, chunky and uneven.  After a few hours or even the next day, it will be dry enough at the surface to come back with a rake and break up the larger bits and smooth into a lovely surface for planting.

3.  The cheat.  When I want to plant tiny, fine seeds (such as lettuce or carrots), or the ground is just too wet to work, I spread a little potting soil.  In this spot, I had beds prepped for beans, but wanted to add a few rows of lettuce and arugula around the outside.  I pulled back the mulch, and spread some leftover soil mix.  In this case I recycled some empty (i.e. failed) pots from my seed starting extravaganza. 


This works great for folks who use lasagna-style gardening, and have heavily mulched beds.  It just gives the seeds a nice layer of fine soil to sprout in.  It's also not likely to have weed seeds, which gives more delicate plants a nice head start.  (Ahem, in my hoop house I spread some lovely fine sifted compost before planting carrots, and ended up with a cover crop of lambs-quarters, darnit!)

So here we go!  There are currently no days below 44 in the Madison 7-day forecast, and I'm getting pretty optimistic that we are past a danger of a hard frost.  I'm still waiting on planting my heat-loving peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, and am holding off on cucumbers and melons.  But, I did seed some beans yesterday, and my zucchinis as well.  My fruit trees are getting ready to bloom, the grapes are breaking bud, and all the birds are telling me spring is here!




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