Homemade Pumpkin Puree

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Ceci the cat jumped up on her stool to check out the pumpkin action. I know that my grandmother is turning over in her grave because we let the cat sit on a stool and watch us cook. She (the cat) seems to enjoy it. Grandma would hate it!

Fall is in full swing here. The leaves are off the trees and we start most mornings with a fire.  Our spare fridge is full of enough local onions, garlic and potatoes to last until spring. The onion sets I planted to provide green onions through the winter are up and looking perky. Winter salad mix and arugula are flourishing under hoops covered with frost cloth. The kale is going to town on it’s own since freezing temps don’t bother it a bit. The produce shelves are filled with pumpkins, Brussels sprouts and winter squash. I love fall and the foods that it brings.

Salad mix is thriving under frost cloth. It's time to thin it!

Salad mix is thriving under frost cloth.

One pound of onion sets cost $1 at the old hardware store in Marshall. Those green onions will be delicious all winter.

One pound of onion sets cost $1 at the old hardware store in Marshall. Those green onions will be delicious all winter.

Russian kale is beautiful year round. Those little dots on the leaf are snow! It started while I was writing this post.

Russian kale is beautiful year round. Those little dots on the leaf are snow! It started while I was writing this post.

The mustard greens in my spring salad mix went to seed when the weather got hot. One of the seeds jumped the raised bed border and this cold-loving volunteer came up.

The mustard greens in my spring salad mix went to seed when the weather got hot. One of the seeds jumped the raised bed border and this cold-loving volunteer came up. We are set for greens this winter!

I didn’t grow pumpkins this year, but wanted to get a head start on Thanksgiving pie-making by preparing the puree now. I brought home a bunch of the Sugar Pie variety of pumpkins; perfect little pumpkins with great flavor for pies, cakes, breads or just eating roasted or pureed. They weigh 2-4 pounds, produce three to four cups of puree and are cute as a button. Of course you can get pumpkin puree in a can, but puree is an easy thing to make from scratch and is truly worth the small amount of effort required. You’ll want to eat the stuff with a spoon! I gave my husband a taste of the puree and he said it might need a little more sugar. It was so rich and flavorful that he thought I had already dolled it up for pie filling!

Roasted pumpkins ready to be scooped and pureed. You can see where I pricked with a fork to check for doneness.

Roasted pumpkins ready to be scooped and pureed. You can see where I pricked with a fork to check for doneness. Aren”t they gorgeous?

 

That caramelized edge is like candy.

That caramelized edge is like candy and the cook gets first dibs.

The flesh easily pulls away from the shell.

The flesh easily pulls away from the shell.

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In the food processor.

Roasted Pumpkin Puree:  Preheat oven to 400F. Rinse and dry the pumpkin. Beware: pumpkins are slippery devils when wet, so dry before you attack with a sharp object! Using a sturdy knife or cleaver, cut off the stem and cut the pumpkin in half vertically. Scoop out the seeds and fibers and feed to your chickens or toast the seeds for a tasty snack. Put a piece of parchment paper in a rimmed baking dish or cookie sheet and oil the parchment with olive or vegetable oil. Place the pumpkin halves, cut side down, on the parchment. Bake for 30 minutes and check for doneness. A fork will go right through the skin and pulp when they’re ready. I usually let then go a few more minutes so that the flavor concentrates and the flesh starts to pull away from the skin.

Remove from the oven and scoop out the pumpkin flesh. You can let the pumpkin cool first if you’d like. The cook gets to consume as many of the caramelized brown edges as she wants to! Puree the flesh in a food processor or run through a food mill until smooth. It’s now ready to serve as a side at dinner or to bake into all kind of goodies. The puree will keep for days in the fridge and freezes beautifully. I freeze it in jars, leaving an inch or two of airspace at the top for expansion. You can use your favorite freezer container or a resealable freezer bag. The bags can be frozen flat on a cookie sheet and then stacked for compact storage.

Now that wasn’t too hard, was it? You just won’t believe how good this stuff is!  Some of this batch of puree went into Martha Stewart’s Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Icing. I made it for my pumpkin-loving niece and it was a hit with the whole family at Sunday dinner. The last sliver tasted pretty good breakfast too.

Happy fall to you. Now run out and get yourself a pumpkin!

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Nestled in the freezer until pie-making time. The stale bread is for my favorite Italian soup. I'll share it soon.

Nestled in the freezer until pie-making time. The stale bread is for my favorite Italian soup. I’ll share it soon.

 

Peach Crisp and Signs of Fall

The sunflower heads were so heavy with seed this summer they couldn't stay upright. Now they're dried out and ready to become chicken treats!

The sunflower heads were so heavy with seed this summer they couldn’t stay upright. Now they’re dried out and ready to become chicken treats!

We had a wet summer this year with much less sun than usual. The 60 inches of rain that had fallen by the end of August was too much for some of our flowers and vegetables. Others flourished in the cool moist air. We had a bumper crop of rabbits and wild turkeys and the bears who wandered through our yard looked awfully fat and happy.

All PostsIMG_2978Some folks complained about the lack of heat, but I didn’t miss it. The last three summers were unusually hot and dry so so a gentler summer was overdue. It’s reminded me of childhood visits to the mountains. We’d drive up from Raleigh in the un-air-conditioned heat of summer, the kind of heat that shimmered on the streets and sidewalks and made your legs stick to the car seat, into the cool highland air. Wearing sweaters and sweatshirts was a treat. It was magical visiting Mount Mitchell back in the 60s when there was snow on the ground in July and we shivered in our shorts and sweatshirts! I’m happy to have weather that takes me back to those days.

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Fall sedum and asters.

Fall started sneaking in at the end of August. September has brought lovely sleeping weather with most nights in the 50s. Our family gathered around a bonfire Saturday night under a clear starry sky and sweaters and even a down throw made their way to the circle. Sedum and asters are in full bloom and the hens are joyfully feasting on dried sunflower heads. Turn up your volume for the full effect of the hen video. There’s a bumper crop  of local apples and we’re still getting peaches from South Carolina.What an excellent overlap!  I’m thinking about another batch of peach preserves since the peaches aren’t long for this world. My sister and I had a great time making our first batch ever  earlier this summer.

Peaches and apples are both ripe right now!

Peaches and apples are both ripe right now!

But in the short-term, there are six large, ripe peaches lined up on the screened porch railing so a crisp is in order. I’ve worked at a friends bakery for the last month to learn more about baking, especially yeast breads. In addition to batards, boules and focaccia, we made pies and granola. The granola makes a perfect topping for fruit crisp. I don’t use a strict recipe, just peel and slice the peaches, toss them with cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract (optional but really good),  a bit of lemon zest and juice, a pinch of salt and a scant handful of flour to help it all thicken. Toss to evenly coat the peaches. I use my hands, but a spoon works too. Taste to see whether you need to add salt or sugar and let it sit for half an hour or so to develop the juices. While that’s going on, make the crisp topping. Combine a few handfuls of granola or oats with a couple of tablespoons of softened butter, a few tablespoons of brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands or a fork and taste. If it’s really dry, add a tablespoon of butter or a splash of olive oil and mix again. It should taste good!

Pour the juicy peach mixture into a Pyrex rectangular or square baker or a pie pan (or two if you have lots of peaches). Crumble the topping over the peaches and bake at 375 for about forty-five minutes. Make sure it’s good and bubbly when you pull it from the oven. Serve within an hour or two if you like it crispy. It’s good plain or with a dollop of yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream. The neat thing about a crisp is that it’s hard to mess up. You can make a thick layer of fruit and a thin layer of topping or vice versa. You can make it really sweet or not too. Just don’t forget the pinches of salt.  They really liven things up. You can substitute berries or apples for the peaches if that’s what you have. I make crisps with lots oats/granola because I can’t get enough of that crispy topping. It won’t be crispy the next day unless you re-crisp it in a low oven, but it’s a great breakfast anyway!

Sliced freestone peaches.

Sliced freestone peaches.

Granola, butter and brown sugar topping.

Granola, butter and brown sugar topping.

Peach crisp with greek yogurt on top.

Peach crisp with greek yogurt.

Update from the hen-house: I know you’re dying to make a peach crisp this very minute, s0 I’ll make it quick! Paul installed a solar-powered, Pullet-shut Automatic Chicken Door on the coop that will open at dawn and close after dark when the girls have put themselves to bed. It even gives a second chance to any stragglers by reopening for a minute. I know it’s slothful, but not heading out to the coop at 7 a.m. on a 15-degree morning sounds pretty good. Mostly it makes things a lot easier when we travel and have chicken sitters. Although the hens were a little agitated during the construction, they calmed down once their house was back in order. I don’t think they’ll even notice the special door, but the humans love it!

I’ll still go out to say goodnight to them. I like to think they’d miss me if I didn’t.

 

 

A Simple Garden Dinner

Sunday night, after socializing on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July, we had a simple supper at home. Just the two of us and some veggies from the garden.  We’ve had more than twenty inches of rain in two months so the plants are really happy. The summer squash grew so quickly, it was like watching time-lapse photography! The dinosaur kale hasn’t slowed down since the mercury has stayed at or below 80 on most days. There’s a bountiful crop so far. Here’s how the veggie dinner came together.

Lacinato or dinosaur kale and summer squash fresh from the garden.

Lacinato, or dinosaur kale, and summer squash fresh from the garden.

The KALE leaves were mostly tender so I rolled stacks of them long ways and sliced across the roll into half-inch ribbons. A few leaves had big stems so I chopped them in half-inch pieces too. The kale went into an inch of salted water and braised for 20 minutes with the lid on. Then I uncovered it, let the liquid cook away and finished it with a squeeze of lemon juice and a few red pepper flakes.

For the SQUASH, Barb Swell inspired me with her Log Cabin Cooking blog. Her parmesan-fried summer squash is a quick, easy and nearly perfect dish for one or two people. It tastes almost like a southern squash casserole without the extra fat and prep time. This squash was so good I wanted it all for myself. Paul is lucky he saw any of it!

Parmesan shards for the squash

Parmesan shards for the squash

Then there were the FINGERLING POTATOES, earthy and delicious, from friends John and Melissa’s Highgate Farm up the road in Marshall. John is a regular at the Weaverville and East Asheville tailgate markets and always has lots of great naturally grown produce.

Here’s a simple method for cooking fingerlings. I believe it’s French in origin.  For two servings, add a tablespoon of butter, a good splash of olive oil and a healthy pinch of salt to a small to medium dutch oven and set over medium heat. When the oil/butter is good and hot, add enough fingerlings for two people. Give them a stir to coat and cover.

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Try not to peek for at least 10 minutes, 15 if you’re strong. Then stop by every 4-5 minutes and give the pan a few good shakes to turn the potatoes and prevent sticking. Use your kitchen timer if you tend to get distracted. Do a fork test around 20 minutes for doneness. Adjust the heat as needed for browning. Total time depends on the size and number of potatoes, but estimate 20-30 minutes for two servings. Magically, the little fellows will cook in their own juices (with a little help from the butter). If you’re patient, they will be creamy on the inside and crispy-brown on the outside. You can add a dash of lemon juice, a few chopped chives or a grind of pepper to them on the plate, but it’s not really necessary.

You can make these for a crowd. Add a bit more oil, butter and salt, but don’t go crazy. The potatoes release a fair amount of liquid as they cook. And use a larger dutch oven. Surface area is important here. A double layer is fine if you’re very good about shaking to rotate the potatoes. Otherwise, they will steam but the top layer won’t brown. Stir them if you have to and allow more cooking time. Be sure to use a thick bottomed pot, preferably cast iron, for this recipe. I use Creuset. You can use any potato cut into a large dice if you don’t have fingerlings. These taters are so good, you could make a meal of them!

Our dinner was heavenly. Sometimes after a hectic weekend, simple pleasures really are the best.

P.S. Paul is away tonight and I picked a squash today. Guess what I’m having for my solo supper!

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Why Chickens?

Every once in a while someone asks me, “Why chickens?”.  The quick answer is why not, but of course there is more.  Eighteen months ago, I got very sick and nearly died. After I got better, I realized just how unpredictable life is and decided to start doing things I wanted to do instead of waiting.  Like going to Italy, playing more music, writing a blog, and raising chickens to name just a few.

I heard a woman on NPR talking about chickens, how much fun they are and how easy it is to raise them and have your very own eggs.  I’d always liked chickens and had bought local eggs for years, so the story caught my attention. The woman was Jenna Woginrich and that’s where my chicken saga begins.

Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.
Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.

My birthday was coming up in June of 2012. My darling husband, Paul, asked what I wanted and I said a coop and chickens.  He even put the coop from a kit together for me. Overall it’s been a great experience. It’s cost more than I expected, but no more than any other really good, long-term hobby that requires an investment.  But you do have to get used to tragedy.  The avian vet (part of that unexpected cost) says that chicken are synonymous with tragedy and she’s right.  There is almost no way to protect your flock completely from predators and disease. It’s just part of the deal.  I started with four pullets, hand-raised five chicks this spring, bought assorted additional pullets last year and this. In one year I’ve lost six to tragedy, given four away to start my sister’s flock and ended up with eight.  And I love it.  I’m sad when I lose one but I steel myself and move on. Losing a chicken is not as hard as losing a house pet. I’ve talked to other people who have chickens and they all agree. You have prepare yourself and keep going.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Another trial is that the chickens dig up our gardens. It’s natural for them to scratch and dig for bugs and worms. They do so daily and they know no boundaries. They can throw mulch in the air like high-powered machines! It’s fun to watch the antics, but not to sweep the front walk for the hundredth time.  We’re seeing less mulch throwing this year, thank goodness. They also uproot very small plants so it’s hard to starts plants outdoors without a fenced garden. I learned this after they dug up one small stock plant 10 days in a row. I replanted it 10 times, but alas, it died. They will propel themselves into the air until they have swiped every blueberry from every bush. These are the times that try a woman’s soul! Solution? Waist-high raised beds for lettuces and herbs, buying bigger plants and using bird netting to drape the blueberries. Problem solved (Mostly).

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

I’ve had three of the girls, Ruby, Baby and Mattie, for almost a year now. Ruby survived a bout with coccidiosis, an evil parasite. I kept her isolated in a plastic tub/hospital room with food, water and gave her medicine through an eye dropper. The tub was in the sun in winter. She took full advantage of the spa treatment and recovered beautifully. Baby has survived a year of sleeping in a tree, exposed to predators and the elements. She’s a Sumatra and doesn’t like coop confinement unless she’s got chicks. No tragedy for her yet, but one of her offspring disappeared from my sister’s week after only one week there. That was surely a predator tragedy. Mattie survived having ALL her tail feathers removed by a neighbor’s dog. Do you know how close that is to being eaten alive?  She missed a day of laying, but was back to work in 48 hours. The feathers grew back. These girls are tough!

The girls play queen of the mountain, running each other on and off just for fun.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy on a garden boulder.

There are endless positives.  First, the eggs.  Our chickens are free-range and eat lots of insects, worms, grass and clover in addition to the food we supply.  Because of this, their eggs are better for us, containing more vitamins A, D and E, beta carotene and omega-3 and much less cholesterol and saturated fat than cage-raised eggs.  The beta carotene makes the yolks a beautifully bright yellow-orange color.

What about the blood pressure effect? Paul and I both think there is something soothing about chickens. We rock on the front porch, listen to them coo and cluck in the garden and feel our stress float away. Sometimes they come up on the porch to visit, or hop up on the garden boulders to talk to us. They follow the lawn mower nabbing bugs that pop up in its wake and sun bathe while lying on their sides with their wings spread. They make us laugh when they jump two feet in the air to grab flying insects and eat clover with a family of rabbits every afternoon. What could be nicer than having eight clucking chickens at your heels while you weed or cut flowers? As a bonus, they keep the area clear of ticks!

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

We marvel at their personalities. Ruby and Mattie are best friends and do everything together. They only separate when one heads to the coop to lay. They aren’t afraid of people and will gladly eat out of your hand. Raisins and leftover cat food are Ruby’s favorite treat, while Mattie prefers dried mealworms. Baby is a loner but hangs out with her daughter Opal when she wants company. They sleep in a tree together. Baby lays her eggs in various places; the coop, the wood edge, the potting bench and the wheel barrow. After finding eggs on top of the potting bench under our second story screened porch, I put a cardboard box there as a nest for her. She used it for a month and then moved on. I’ve yet to find where she’s laying now, but will keep looking. If I’m outside after she lays, I will hear her triumphant calls and may discover her secret.

Baby's nestbox on the potting bench

Baby’s nest box on the potting bench

 

Mattie laying in the wine box

Baby laying in the wine box.

One perfect eggin the winebox.

One perfect egg in the wine box.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy are almost four months old. They are buddies and enjoy eating out of hand. They turn their noses up at the girls who arrived a month after them and have recently decided that they love, love, love bananas. That leaves Dovey and Number Eight. They are americaunas and run as a pair.  We thought we heard Dovey practicing a crow the other morning, but we haven’t seen any rooster-like behavior so aren’t convinced yet.  Number Eight has developed a limp this week. She’s spending more time resting but runs as fast as the others when she needs to. We hope she’ll get better and start laying lovely green or blue eggs soon. We can’t see anything wrong with her leg but there may be a trip to the vet in her future. Dovey and Eight are a little skittish but have eaten from my hand a couple of times. They are fruit-lovers too and always want a fair share of the bananas and raisins. Right now they are at the bottom of the pecking order, but everything will change if Dovey is a rooster!

Baby and Oal in the forground and Buffy and Mattie in the birdbath.

Baby and Opal in the foreground and Buffy and Lil’ Mattie in the bird bath.

 

 

In spite of the pecking order, the girls move about the yard as a flock and are mostly nice to each other. I can see them out the kitchen window grazing with the rabbits while our cat sits close by. She watches their every move but doesn’t harm them and seems happy to observe from a few feet away.  Every day, I collect eggs and thank the girls for laying them, clean the coop, serve the girls kitchen scraps and treats and on occasion, sing to them.  I love the routine and the happy sounds that come from a contented flock. They’re good listeners.

And that’s the long answer to “Why chickens?”.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens. In case you’re wondering. Ceci is Italian for little chickpea and pronounced Chechi.

 

 

 

Arugula Pesto with Angel Hair Pasta

Late last fall I planted a raised bed with arugula seeds. Arugula is one of my favorite greens and the thought of having it on a dreary winter day made me deliriously happy. We affixed flexible hoops to the sides of the bed and covered them with a large piece of frost cloth held down by rocks. Not exactly high-tech, but it works. Arugula is a cool weather crop so does well in winter if you protect it from the harshest weather.  

IMG_1765Winter gardening is almost carefree at our scale; no bugs, no watering if it snows and rains, and best of all, no weeds. We had spicy arugula all winter. It’s oddly wonderful to harvest salad greens on a cold night when snow is starting to fall! 

After five months in the ground, the arugula is budding and flowering in preparation for setting seed. We harvested all of it and I’m making pesto to eat now and some to freeze. I hate to waste even a leaf of the stuff! 

The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare meaning to pound or crush. In the old days, they used a mortar and pestle (pestle comes from the same  Italian root word), but I use a food processor. Arugula is fibrous so really needs the sharp blades to break it down. A blender will work in a pinch for basil pesto, but will jam and bind with the arugula fibers. Trust me on this; I speak from experience.

IMG_1771Pesto is usually a combination of these: something green (arugula, basil, parsley,  mint, green beans, etc.), some nuts (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts), garlic, salt and pepper, olive oil and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. Once you’ve made it a few times, you can improvise and make it your own.  

photo (15)With all those flowers and buds in the arugula patch, I had to do a taste test. Turns out they are tender and spicy with a hint of sweetness. I threw some into the processor with the pesto ingredients and added the rest to a salad where they looked and tasted great. 

The best part of pesto-making is tossing the pesto with hot pasta; the heat softens the cheese, marries the flavors and sets the emerald-green color of the arugula. I want some now!

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Periwinkle Raised Beds

It finally feels like spring is really here. Just a few days after all that snow, the wind stopped and the sun came out big time.  You can pretty much see the grass growing. Paul ordered parts to tune up the miniature John Deere and that’s a true sign!

photo (11)He also built new raised beds that I painted periwinkle blue. They are waist height so we should have fewer weeds and no bending! The heirloom, cool weather plant starts are already in and seeds are germinating in the garage for planting after our frost date.

I learned the hard way not to let the warm days fool me. One year we yielded to temptation and planted on the first of May; guess what, a hard frost on May 9th. I may have uttered an inappropriate word or two as I replaced all those frozen plants. The old folks around here say not to plant tender things until after Mother’s Day and I’m taking their advice!

The four-week chicks have graduated from the laundry room to the garage. They’ve outgrown their large plastic tub and live in a huge box courtesy of the new book shelf in my office.  Paul made a frame with hardware cloth for the top to contain the flying chicks. They are light and have big wings so can really fly!

photo (12)They spent their first afternoon in the yard and loved it; started scratching and pecking immediately. A frenzy ensued when I tossed a few earth worms into the pen. I’m always amazed that they know what to do without having a mom.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

The 8-week olds look like real chickens now and are spending a little less time with their Mom, Baby. Baby is a Sumatra, a breed from Indonesia that likes the woods and jungle and doesn’t like containment. Before she had chicks, she slept in a tree. Now she sleeps in a nest box in the coop with her wings over all three even though they are pretty darn big. The four of them spend a good bit of time in the woods, coming home at night to sleep with the flock.

We anxiously await the arrival of our new, larger chicken coop and expect it within a week.  Independence approaches for all the chicks and they’ll need perching space inside at night. In the meantime they own half the garage. We’re thrilled to have the laundry room back and look forward to reclaiming the garage too!