and natives

Back when finished up the backyard terracing project, we were left with a middle zone between our two stone walls that needed planting.  It was semi-crappy soil, a steep slope, and blazing hot southern exposure.  Since one major point of the wall project was to eliminate perilous mowing, we wanted this section to be fairly low maintenance.  Due to chickens and dogs, it also had to be able to take some abuse.  This was not the spot for delicate, diva plantings. and not really a good spot for edible plants, except for the grapes that D planned to plant along the walls.

One option we had in mind was to try a prairie planting.  I knew they were drought-tolerant, put down deep roots for erosion control, and were good for pollinators.  I had  never really thought much about native plantings before, our ornamental flower beds have many of the regular old classic perennials: spring bulbs, sedum, asiatic lilies, heuchera and hostas, with hybridized monardas and lupines.  I'd seen plenty of cool permaculture/hippie front yards in Madison planted with natives, and while I thought they were interesting, I guess I just didn't get it.  It just seemed like an cool option if you had acreage, and great for municipal park areas, but maybe not for my backyard.

But here we were, with a problem area looking for a solution, so we decided to give it a shot. The UW-Aboretum has an annual plant sale, so we ordered a mixed flat of shorter, sun-loving prairie plants, and picked up a few more natives from The Flower Factory, our favorite local perennial place. We started prepping the area in sections, and covered/smothered the areas we didn't have time to get to yet (and grew pumpkin the first year, why not?). In subsequent years we learned about a very cool program called Plant Dane! which offers a group discount on native plants in their spring sale--it's a great deal and a perfect way to get started. We've added lots of blooming varieties, more grasses, and some shade tolerant plants for the side near our garage and under a maple tree.

So now we're in year 4, and while it's still a work in progress, I've fallen deeply in love with this section of our yard.  More so than our other ornamental areas, it's just a crescendo of blooms and textures, starting with ephemeral prairie smoke in the earliest days of spring, and rising to a point, mid-summer, where it's a riot of color and activity.

And oh, the bugs!  I knew we'd attract bees, but it's a zoo of damsel flies, spit bugs, caterpillars, fireflies, butterflies, and tons of different bees, wasps, and other pollinators. The birds (native and imported alike-- even our hens) love it for it's seed-heads, insects, and to collect materials for nests. I can sit happily on the steps and listen to the humming of activity on a muggy afternoon, and come dusk the bats arrive, making calculated sweeps over the yard.

And of course we're not quite at "low maintenance" yet, there are some perennial weeds we are fighting (bindweed, ground ivy) that will probably take a few years of editing to get to the point where the desired plants can hold their own.  Some natives are more aggressive than others in spreading around, so we are learning what to recognize, and when to move/remove things that are volunteering in the gaps.  It's a little more chaotic than the cultivated spaces I have elsewhere in my yard, and takes a little more patience on my part to let things be wild.  But I'm learning to go with it :)

So I get it now.  I'm happily on the native plant bandwagon.  I'm never going to be purist about it: we've transplanted a few random "regular" plants that seemed to have an affinity for growing in this environment--thyme is super happy along our stones, as are creeping phlox.  Black-eyed Susans have been naturalizing all over our yard for years, and I have no idea what their original variety was. 

At the end of the day, I live in a relatively un-natural place: (some of) our neighbors are always going to spray their lawns, there's a gas station up the street, lights from a sports field sometimes stay on late into the night.  And yet there is wildness too--we live close enough to corridors of undeveloped space that we see fox, mink, kingfishers and wood ducks regularly.  It's always going to be a mishmash, and our yard is always going to be a haven.  Milkweed is popping up in my front yard flower garden next to the towering lilies, bumblebees are feasting on my hosta blossoms, and that's just fine with me.

Boom


The garden exploded this weekend.  Some rain and a couple of 90ish degree days were just what we needed to push past spring seedling-hood into early summer growth spurts. The tomato plants are bigger every time I go outside, and the raspberries and grapes are wildly taking over their parts of the backyard.

One of my tactics of gardening is to plant a large variety of plants knowing that not everything will turn out in a given year. Weather and pest pressure can make big differences and a crop that normally performs great may have a lackluster year, or a novelty item you grow for fun may turn out to be your best harvest.  There's a few standbys I need to do well every season (tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions) but the supporting roles help mix things up. This year I had terrible germination on spinach and peas.  I had a few small patches do okay in the hoop house, but it wasn't the spring of planning every meal around spinach.  I did have a fantastic bok choy crop, which was an afterthought planting in a little bed where my eggplants would eventually fill in.  This led to lots of fun experimental side dishes and a nice batch of kimchi.  I replanted my pea patch with Christmas Lima beans to cut my losses, and we'll just snack on what we do get (if the pea-loving hound does not find them all first).



I'm trying a 3-sisters bed this season: we haven't grown corn in years as it takes up a lot of room and oftentimes gets eaten by squirrels--plus fantastic sweet corn is readily available from local folks.  But, I thought I'd try a rainbow dent corn this year, so I'm imitating a raised bed design I found online with four blocks of corn inter-planted with bush delicata squash and cranberry pole beans.  We'll see how it goes!


Yesterday the late evening sun hit the yard after a long day and everything was bathed in a cornball golden and flattering light.  I had a mini-revelation: Oh yeah, this is what the hard work is for.  We take on a lot, we tackle big projects and do a ton of things ourselves from scratch, and the rewards, usually (hopefully?), are proportionate to all that effort.  Sometimes when you're focusing on a long to-do list you forget to step back and look at the big picture!

the bagel habit


I made bagel dough this morning before work. 


This week (this month, really) I'm struggling with finding balance with my workload at home.  Last year's kitchen remodel caused some garden neglect, and we really thought that this year would be all about maintenance and refinement in the backyard.  But the reality is that the kitchen project has spilled over into this year--not in nearly as much of an intensive way as last spring--but in little ways that get in the way and make you put off weeding that perennial bed (again).

I've wondered here before how many DIY habits a person can fit into their routine.  Bagel dough takes all of 15 minutes, but how many quarter hours does a person have?  Enough apparently to check on twitter (a lot) and watch junk-food TV shows (once in a while).  Like everyone I juggle work and home and family and dog, and some weeks it works better than others. 

And I keep making bagels, because while I may whimper a little when I remember at 6:30 am that I made the sponge last night and I need to make dough, when I form those little rounds and smell the tang when I drop them into a water bath...they give me joy.  Every damn time.

Sourdough Bagels:  
Adapted from The Baking Notes of Scratch Baking Co

Sourdough sponge:

6 ounces of well-fed, liquid-style levain, I do a build of 2 ounces starter, water, and wheat flour, 8-12 hours before making the dough.

Dough:

6 ounces sourdough sponge
24 ounces flour (I generally use 12 ounces of  Lonesome Stone wheat bread flour, and 12 ounces all purpose)
14 ounces water, room temperature (this works perfect for my 50/50 wheat mix, but you might need to adjust slightly if using different flours that absorb more or less water)
1 tablespoon salt

1/3 cup of baking soda for boiling
Misc. toppings (sesame seeds, poppy seeds, etc).

Process:
Scrape the developed starter into your mixer bowl and pour the water on top.  Measure out your flour and salt, and add all at once.  Mix on low speed until the water is absorbed and continue on medium until a stiff dough forms, 4 or 5 minutes.  Let the dough rest for 10-15 minutes, then knead again on medium speed for 4-5 more minutes.  Turn out onto your counter and knead a few more times, the dough should form a firm, elastic ball.  Place in a bowl, cover, and put in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours (I've left it as long as a couple of days).

The next day, pull the dough out of the refrigerator--it may not look like it has risen much, but that's fine. Divide into 12 equal pieces, usually about 3 1/2 to 4 ounces each.  Form each into a tight round ball, and let rest, covered.   After 30 minutes, turn on your oven to 450 degrees, and form each round into a bagel shape--I poke a hole through the center with my thumb, and gently pull outward on all sides.  Let rest on a lightly floured work-space and cover: set your timer for another 30 minutes.  Fill up a large pot about halfway with water (~ 2 quarts), and bring to a boil.  I find it works out if I start mine up about 10-15 minutes before the bagel rest is over, but on my old stove it took closer to 25.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

When the oven is hot and the bagels have rested and the water is boiling, gradually add the baking soda to the pot--it will foam up at first. Adjust to a simmer. 3 or 4 at a time, depending on your pot's size, slide the bagels gently into the water bath, top side down, nudging gently to make sure they don't stick to the bottom of the pan as they sink (a chopstick works well for this).  In 15-30 seconds or so they should rise to the surface, (don't worry if it takes a little longer, as long as they are not sticking to the bottom). Once they float, set a timer for 30 seconds, then flip over, and simmer another 30. Fish out of the water with a slotted spoon, and transfer to the sheet pan.  While the next batch simmers, sprinkle your desired toppings on the damp bagels.

Bake for 20-30 minutes--I reduce the temp slightly to 425 and use my convection for these, which also works well. You are looking for a firm, dark golden crust. I often check the interior hole to make sure that they have fully cooked--sometimes that area takes longer to finish baking.

Cool on a rack and store--I find these keep well for 4-5 days at room temperature, but I usually freeze half of our batch and pull them out mid-week.

Additional notes:

Stand mixer:  Note this is a stiff dough, and can be hard on a smaller Kitchenaid mixer. I can get away with a double batch in my Electrolux mixer, but I wouldn't try it in my aging Artisan. Just go slow, and it's fine to take a break and let the dough and your mixer rest a few times if you're getting that overheating smell.

Mixing by hand:  I tried this last week to see if it's do-able, and it was not much trouble at all.  I added the flour a bit more gradually, but with patience it all comes together fine.  It is a firm, stiff dough, so I would knead for a few minutes, let the dough rest, and then knead some more, 3 or 4 sessions in all.  The rest, or autolyse, really helps the gluten develop, you'll be surprised how soft and elastic the dough feels when you start kneading again.

Timing: I've tried different options, but a long rising time and dividing the cold dough straight out of the refrigerator works the best for me. If I let it warm up more (or it's a hot summer day), the bagels can become softer and harder to work with (but will still turn out fine).  If I let the dough go an extra day before baking, they can also sometimes get a little soft, but they also have a nice additional tanginess.  Having a good, stiff dough at the beginning makes the bagels easiest to work with.

If I do a double batch, I will stick half the dough back in the fridge for the first 30 minute stage so that I can stagger the baking schedule.


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.


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