Signs of spring. March 23, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: aconites, first spring bulbs, first spring flowers, signs of spring, snowdrops, winter aconites
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Finally! Spring is here, though it’s hard to believe here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We still have patches of snow on the ground. Ugh!
However, spring is making its presence felt. Snow geese and Canada geese are migrating overhead, filling the air with their distinctive calls. Our trees are full of squawking starlings (alas). We’ve yet to see the first robin, but it can’t be long now.
And, an annual delight, the first of our spring bulbs—the winter aconites and snowdrops—are in bloom. Winter aconites have small, starry, glossy buttercup-yellow blooms born on glossy green feathery foliage just a few inches tall. They’re bulbs in the genus Eranthis, not to be confused with the perennial aconites (genus Aconitum) with tall spires of purple flowers that look like upside-down foxgloves, giving them the name monkshood. These perennials are deadly poisonous, also giving them the name wolfsbane and many another referring to their poisonous attributes. But they’re still great perennials for the late-summer garden; just don’t feed them to your wolves!
Anyway, getting back to the cheerful little winter aconites, they couldn’t look less like the perennials and aren’t even related to them. How they acquired the same name is one of those botanical mysteries our friend Ben will have to look into. But I’d recommend them to anyone; the joyful clumps of yellow flowers slowly grow bigger every year, and seeds will give you new clumps nearby.
Best of all, they bloom at exactly the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), another small bulb with strappy leaves and downturned white flowers. These bulbs also spread, and grown with winter aconites, they create an Easter patchwork of yellow and white, cheering winter-worn eyes before the grass turns green or even the hellebores bloom.
They also require absolutely zero maintenance from you after you plant them. We started with a shovelful of snowdrops from a colleague that just happened to include a couple of winter aconite bulbs. We planted them in our shrub border, and over the years they’ve grown into the cheerful display that reminds us that spring really has arrived and many more glorious blooms are yet to come.
Don’t hit this iceberg. March 13, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: eating iceberg lettuce, homemade wedge salads, iceberg lettuce, tacos, vegetarian wedge salads, wedge salads
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I read a story on Yahoo news begging people to stop hating iceberg lettuce. I couldn’t agree more. As a health-conscious, salad-loving foodie, I adore Romaine, arugula, watercress, radicchio, endive, escarole, kale, and all the other salad greens that pack more vitamins and minerals in every leaf. But I also love iceberg lettuce and Boston, Bibb and the other butter lettuces with their unrivalled crunch or luscious, buttery texture. Right, they don’t pack the nutrients of the super-greens. But they’re still good for you.
Iceberg in particular has acquired a bad reputation because it has little nutritive value and little taste. Both these claims are true. But what iceberg does have is loads of water, fiber and crunch, and, like most greens, virtually no calories. To my mind, that puts it on the plus side in terms of a dietary addition. Filling, hydrating, no calories? Count me in. I’d rather eat an iceberg salad for lunch or before supper than gag down bazillion glasses of water any day.
Popular culture has come on board with this in the form of the wedge salad, an old, resurrected favorite that features a wedge of iceberg, typically topped with blue cheese dressing and crispy bacon, and served as a fabulous appetizer in steakhouses. Diners just can’t get enough of the crunchy, creamy, crispy treat. As a vegetarian, I make my own as an occasional hi-cal treat for our friend Ben and myself, with wedges of iceberg topped with chopped tomatoes, diced sweet onion, crumbled blue or gorgonzola cheese, and olive oil-based blue cheese dressing. Yum!!! Talk about the perfect salad to go with pizza or a tomato sauce-based pasta dish. Or, say, a lunch all by itself.
But wedge salads aren’t the only thing iceberg lettuce is good for. A nice fat slice of iceberg adds that perfect crunch to a BLT or CLT (cheese, lettuce and tomato) sandwich. A few iceberg leaves also add heft and crunch to a burger, cheeseburger, or veggie burger. And shredded iceberg, available in the produce section of most grocery stores, is the perfect accompaniment to homemade tacos or ingredient in homemade burritos or taco-inspired dips.
We absolutely love making homemade tacos with refried beans and our choice of toppings, including piles of shredded iceberg, shredded cheese, sliced black olives, sliced jalapeno peppers, diced red, yellow or orange bell peppers, sliced green onions (scallions), diced sweet onions, chopped tomatoes, our choice of red or green hot sauce (or both, we both love chipotle and I’m a big fan of tomatillo), and sour cream. Iceberg may not add to the flavor but it sure does add to the crunch, and since its calorie count is close to zero, piling it on can help counter the cheese and sour cream.
This works when you’re loading up a hoagie at Subway or Jimmy John’s or wherever, too. Ask for lots of shredded iceberg lettuce to balance out the calorie load and up the crunch factor.
And if, like me, you hate the soft, revolting texture of the ever-popular “spring mix” and baby spinach, but appreciate the colors and nutrients, consider adding shredded iceberg to the mix to bulk it up and add actual crunch. Yes, you can add nuts and pepitas and sunflower seeds and the like, and you should, they’re giving you omega-3s. But iceberg contributes a texture hit that is desperately needed. Romaine does this too, which I suspect makes Caesar salads so popular: you have crunch, creaminess, and sliced hard-boiled eggs, plus salt and pepper. No soft, decaying spring mix here!
I don’t have a clue why this lettuce variety was called iceberg. It hardly seems like an attractive name. But its sturdy, crunchy texture, its ability to stand up to storage conditions, and its lack of flavor—seemingly a drawback, but actually an asset where crunchy texture is called for in a dish without additional flavor—should make iceberg a respected ingredient on all our grocery lists.
Bring on those wedge salads!
‘Til next time,
Mud season. March 11, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: endless snow, hazards of mud, mud season, Pennsylvania winter, Vermont, where is spring, winter
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In Vermont, spring is known as “mud season,” when the snow finally gives way to deep, wet, slippery mud. But where our friend Ben and Silence Dogood live in scenic PA, mud season has just been a good reason not to visit Vermont until the mud has dried and the blackflies have subsided… until now.
Last fall, we planted 200 daffodils and tulips in great swaths in the front yard, taking advantage of generous gift certificates from OFB’s brother and his family. Because it was fall, this also left great swaths of exposed soil along each side of the sloping path we climb to reach our parking square and mailbox. We knew that grass would return with the spring, and with our recent mild winters, it never occurred to us that this could be a problem.
Unfortunately, this winter’s relentless snow and ice has been kinder to the bulbs—which appreciate the insulating blanket—than to us. Trying to climb an ice-slicked slope to reach your car or the mailbox is horrific enough. But now that a tiny bit of ground has emerged from the snow cover, it’s foot-deep mud of unspeakably slippery proportions. After Silence slid backwards down the muddy, snowy, icy slope while trying to get the mail, she proclaimed that unless I accompanied her, she wasn’t going to try the climb again until the ground was dry. Which, given our snow cover, may not be until May.
Vermonters, we sympathize.
Save milkweeds, save monarchs. March 7, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: milkweed, milkweed for monarchs, monarch butterflies, Monsanto, save the monarch butterflies
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Another reason to hate Monsanto. Our friend Ben read an article on LiveScience this morning that said that monarch butterfly populations were being driven to extinction because of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (generic: glyphosate). Because Roundup is so widely used in this country, milkweeds are being killed countrywide. And because milkweeds are the only food of monarch butterfly larvae and the only plants on which monarch females will lay their eggs, the monarch population has declined drastically, from over 1 billion to 3.3 million in just ten years. Our yard used to be full of monarchs; last summer, we didn’t see one.
People sometimes ask me why I hate Monsanto. Is it because of their “Frankenfoods,” GMOs (for “genetically modified organisms”) like corn and soybeans created out of things like mouse DNA to withstand massive applications of Roundup, with no thought to how these so-called foods might affect the animals and humans that eat them? No, not really. Is it because of the trick Monsanto pulled on farmers, forcing them to buy the GMO seeds, which they produce and sell, AND the Roundup in ever-increasing quantities every year to keep weeds at bay? No, not really. Surely farmers are smart enough to figure out this devil’s bargain for themselves.
What really frosts my flakes about Monsanto is its ruthless pursuit of world domination. When its horrible GMO pollen gets into the field of a small farmer who’s nurturing an heirloom strain passed down in his family for generations, instead of the farmer suing Monsanto for contaminating his crop, Monsanto sues him for “stealing” its seeds. And wins. Money talks, and Monsanto has ever so much of that. Every time a state wants to have GMO ingredients listed on food labels so its citizens can make an informed decision about whether to buy them or not, Monsanto throws big money around and buys so many votes that not one of the many GMO-labelling initiatives has passed.
Worst of all, Monsanto goes to Third World countries and persuades their small farmers, who have grown crops suited to their areas for thousands of years, to give them up in favor of Monsanto’s supercrops. And suddenly, they too find themselves paying for seed every year instead of saving their own, seed that isn’t suited to their climate or their diet. Or else.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are faced with Roundup residue in our food and water and soil and pet food, whether we want it or not. (Soon to be combined with 2,4-D, one of the herbicides used in Agent Orange, to give its waning efficacy a boost.) And we’re seeing the die-off of beautiful species like the monarch butterflies as a result, and wondering why our own cancer rate and our pets’ is shooting up.
I’d like to encourage everyone who loves monarch butterflies to stop using Roundup on your property and to plant milkweed. If you feel the need to fight weeds on your property and don’t want to pull them up, use one of the flamethrower weedkillers, sort of like a bigger version of a grill starter. (Except in the case of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac; you really need to keep after these while they’re small and pull them up wth latex gloves, then toss them and the gloves out in a plastic bag. Flame could blow the active ingredient, urushiol, on you, and give you a rash like you can’t imagine.)
We have encouraged the growth of our native milkweed (showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa) here at Hawk’s Haven, as well as planting the aptly named butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). Both are highly decorative; showy milkweed has dense heads of pink flowers, and you can now find butterfly weed in every shade from yellow through orange to red. Showy milkweed will form sturdy colonies if you let it, and butterfly weed is one of the perennial joys of summer. Please try to help the monarchs. And defeat Monsanto.
As the Catholic crusader for workers’ rights Dorothy Day said, “People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”
Like “Chopped”? How about “Cropped”? January 29, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Chopped, cooking competitions, cooking shows, Emeril Lagasse, gardening competitions, gardening shows, gardening TV, Iron Chef, Iron Chef America, Julia Child, Last Holiday
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Silence Dogood here. I love interacting with cooking competitions like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” on the rare occasions when our friend Ben and I are on the road and able to stay in a hotel. (We don’t get any of the cable channels at home.) I say “interacting” because I carry on a vivid commentary throughout the shows, critiquing the judges’ bad calls and the competitors’ bad choices, cheering them on when they get something right. As someone who loves cooking, it’s a great interactive experience for me, and I totally understand why these cooking shows are so popular.
But as a passionate gardener, I also lament the absence of comparable gardening shows. There was a time when programmers assumed gardening shows would be as popular as cooking shows, but they were wrong. Why? For the same reason how-to cooking shows, in the mode of Julia Child’s iconic “The French Chef,” have disappeared: The internet made sure that there were tons of other ways to find out how to cook things. Shows like Emeril Lagasse’s, immortalized in the movie “Last Holiday,” gave way to competitions.
Cooking shows adapted, but gardening shows didn’t, and so gardening shows died while cooking shows flourished. If, like me, you love gardening, imagine how a gardening competition would go:
First, you have a panel of snooty judges who want to hate everything in the worst way. Then, you get
landscapers and garden designers who are eager to win. But how do you reduce the size of the playing field to that of the display kitchens on “Chopped” or “Iron Chef America”? Yes, they’re big studios, but hardly acres of ground.
Easy: Just take a look at a flower show like the Philadelphia Flower Show. There, competitors build “garden” displays in small, room-sized areas. They add plants, from lawn to flower beds to trees, water features, paths, seating areas, sculpture and other lawn ornaments, lighting, and the like. From sustainable organic vegetable gardens to native bog gardens to wildly imaginative gardens dominated by bizarre sculptures, you can see it all.
So imagine this: A “Chopped”-style competition where the chosen contestants were given the equivalent of the basket of horrific ingredients that the poor “Chopped” chefs must deal with (grotesque combinations such as live sea urchins, cotton candy, peanut butter, and wheat grass), then given an hour to create a stunning garden in, say, a 6-by-12-foot plot. All have the same horrific combination of plants and accessories to work with; all have an assortment of good garden tools and willing assistants; and all have just an hour.
Your landscapers and designers rush around, trying their best to impress the judges by how they put their area together. Some can manage to put the clashing plants and other landscape features together more imaginatively than others. When the hour is up, the judges light into every attempt, then decide on whose effort beat the others. The worst among them would be roundly ridiculed and sent home; the others would face more weeks of challenges.
If you were a passionate gardener, would you watch this show? I think I would, simply because of the way I react to the cooking competitions on the very rare occasions when I can see them. The judges’ verdicts and contestants’ choices draw me in, making me comment, making the show a truly interactive experience. I’d love to enjoy that in a gardening competition as well. You?
‘Til next time,
Whatever happened to Blotanical? November 1, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Blotanical, garden bloggers
Blotanical, a compendium of garden blogs, was a big reason why our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders were able to launch our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac. It gave us an audience of fellow gardening enthusiasts from all over the world, and gave us access to lots of wonderful gardening blogs. From South Africa to Australia, from Canada to California, we were suddenly seeing and connecting with bloggers we’d never have heard of without Blotanical.
We were grateful, but we were busy. So we didn’t check into the site as often as we might have. We did, however, check in often enough to see that its founder appeared to have abandoned it several years ago, promising a monstrous makeover, then simply freezing the site. Ever since, we’ve checked in every six months or so, and have found no new updates on this fantastic transformation. Then today, we checked in once again and were unable to get on to the site.
Is Blotanical dead? Does anyone know? What a shame. It was a wonderful way to connect garden bloggers.
Thinking outside the (greenhouse) box. October 30, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: custom greenhouses, greenhouse innovations, greenhouses, home greenhouses, Ken Burton, solar greenhouses
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the greenhouse our genius woodworking friend, Ken Burton, custom-designed and built for us when we bought our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It’s big and bright, with a long in-ground raised bed on the low side and a long greenhouse bench on the high wall.
Ken’s goal was to make the greenhouse as solar-friendly as possible in our cold-winter climate. Glass covers the south-facing sloping wall, along with a glass window and glass door on the east and west sides. The north wall is white-painted wood to reflect the light pouring in from the south and to highlight the plants.
Under the bench, black-painted barrels hold water and act as solar collectors. And behind the north wall, a hayloft adds extra insulation in the form of straw bales for our chickenyard, while we stack wood for our woodstove beneath the loft, which also serves as added insulation..
But we think Ken’s most brilliant innovation was to use the sliding glass doors normally used for deck or patio doors as the long windows on the south-facing, sloping side. They’re double-paned for insulation and let in a ton of light. Over and below them, Ken added rows of screened pull-down windows so we could open them for fresh air and circulation (we also open the screened end-wall window and glass door).
The other day, as Silence and I were furiously hauling our bazillion plants back from the deck to the greenhouse for the winter (it’s already been in the 20s here at night, a real aberration, as we can usually leave the plants out well into November), our friend Ben was struck by an idea. Not a MacArthur “genius award”-worthy idea, no doubt, but still.
Our sliding glass doors that lead to our deck are designed so that one slides over the other, and if you wish, you can pull a full-length screen over the open door to let in fresh air. So why couldn’t you design a greenhouse wall of sliding glass doors that do that, too? One door would be fixed in place, and the other would move over it, and you could pull the screens to let in tons of fresh air to circulate, make sure the greenhouse didn’t overheat in summer, and combat fungal diseases and the like, without letting in bugs.
Three sets of doors would be plenty for most home gardeners, and what a gain in greenhouse circulation! Our greenhouse is still going strong, but if we ever need an update, we’ll see what Ken thinks about this idea. Meanwhile, what do you think about it?
Fall bulbs for spring bloom. October 26, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
Tags: bulb planting, bulbs, fall bulb planting, garden gift certificates, Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, The Works, White Flower Farm
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Silence Dogood here. For many years, I’ve wanted to plant White Flower Farm’s naturalizing daffodil mix called “The Works.” You get 100 bulbs of at least 30 varieties of daffodils. As anyone who grows daffodils knows, they’re long-lived, trouble-free, and deer-proof. Also squirrel-proof. Nobody and nothing is going to bother those poisonous bulbs, and they multiply all on their own every year.
There’s just one little problem, besides the fact that you have to plant them: You have to plant them in fall. As in, now, when it’s hitting 29 degrees at night here in our part of scenic PA. Not exactly planting weather, if you ask me, and totally counterintuitive for spring-blooming bulbs.
I guess I’m not the only one who feels that way. I was sitting in an examining room with our friend Ben this morning, waiting for his doctor to appear, when a pair of staff members came in and apologized for having to use the computer to call up someone’s schedule. I said it was no problem, we’d just been talking about daffodil bulbs. At which point one of the staffers said that she’d always wanted to plant daffodils and tulips but never seemed to get around to it, since it seemed like they should be planted in spring.
I told her that the one surefire daffodil you could plant in spring was the little, cheerful yellow ‘Tete-a-Tete’ that’s sold in pots all over the place every spring. You can enjoy the show indoors, plant out the pot’s contents when bloom is over, and the hardy little bulbs will return year after year to brighten your yard with their delightful blooms.
I, however, had finally reached a tipping point. White Flower Farm was offering “The Works” at an unbelievable discount: $56 for 100 bulbs, the cheapest I’d ever seen it. But that wasn’t all. They also had a special deal on their “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix”—100 bulbs of at least 50 different cream, primrose yellow, ivory, pink, peach, soft orange, white, rose, and lavender tulips for $59. It was time to have a serious discussion with OFB.
Most people think that to plant bulbs, you need a bulb planter, a conelike device that you shove into the soil and twist, removing enough soil to allow you to drop in a single bulb, at which point you upend the planter and dump the soil back into the hole on top of the bulb. Want to do this 200 times, while bent double on a freezing fall morning? I didn’t think so.
Fortunately, there’s a much easier alternative: trenching. Take your favorite garden spade and dig a 12-inch-wide, 6-inch-deep trench where you want to plant your bulbs. Then place the bulbs in the trench, narrow end up, 3 to 15 inches apart, depending on what sort of show you want in subsequent years, and cover them with the spaded soil, tamping it down to firm it snugly around the bulbs. No fuss, no muss, as long as somebody’s willing to dig the g-d trenches, which is where OFB came in.
“Ben, would you be willing to dig a few trenches in the front yard so I could plant some daffodils and tulips? I love the daffodil display in front of our island bed and alongside the house, and would love to extend that and plant bulbs around our parking square to brighten our spring show.”
“Trenches?!! Say what?!!”
I patiently explained that surely carting him to the eye surgeon and to work 300,000 times might warrant his digging a few trenches in return. Even OFB couldn’t argue with that.
What I didn’t tell him is the problem with tulips. Unlike daffodils, tulip bulbs aren’t poisonous, and squirrels love them. But they’re also not true perennials. Even the so-called perennial tulips bloom at best for 5 years, while daffodils are true perennials, blooming decade after decade with no care whatever. The “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix” I had my eye on would probably bloom for two years, if that.
So why plant tulips at all? In my case, the answer was simple, and so luxuriously indulgent: My brother had given me a White Flower Farm gift certificate for Christmas several years ago, and it covered the cost of both “The Works” naturalizing daffodil mix, the “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix,” and shipping and handling, and left me with a $32 credit. In other words, I could revel in a year or two of beautiful tulips for free, not to mention a lifetime of daffodils.
While White Flower Farm is having incredible deals on bulbs, I suggest that you check them out online (www.whiteflowerfarm.com). It’s not too late to bring spring beauty to your landscape! And I also think a WFF gift certificate to an ardent gardener in your family is a wonderful idea. Like me, they may wait a while to use it, but when they do, the pleasure and appreciation will be boundless.
‘Til next time,
Cold days, warm appetizers. October 23, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: fall appetizers, hot appetizers, winter appetizers
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Silence Dogood here. We’re still a week away from November, and the weather this week is dipping to 32 and 30 degrees F. at night here in our part of scenic PA. Baby, it’s cold outside!
Yes, we’ve hauled all our plants back inside or into the greenhouse, along with our earthworm composter and water-garden plants. We’ve put up our birdfeeders and cleaned out our raised beds (sob). We still have to plant our garlic and ornamental bulbs, but everything else that needs to be in the ground is there. And we’ve put the “mufflers” on our sole window a/c and our outdoor faucet.
Still, our friend Ben and I aren’t ready for freezing and sub-freezing temperatures. What happened to fall, our most treasured season, when the colors of the leaves and the clear blue of the sky combine to form an incomparable, soul-lifting beauty, when you can sit out on the deck to watch the sunset and enjoy the blaze from the firepit and not even be cold?
Brrr. Cold is certainly the operative word around here. And the last thing I want when it’s cold outside and I’m cold inside is cold food. Suddenly, the thought of gazpacho and guacamole and Caprese salad and yogurt and all those other yummy hot-season dishes give me cold chills. So you can imagine how appalled I was to turn on my computer this morning and see an article devoted to “quick, easy, no-cook” foods! Sure enough, these foods were all cold. Brrrrr!!!
It’s not that I forgo all cold foods when the temperatures drop. I simply change the focus by adding richness. I’ll happily serve cold appetizers like my famous endive boats (Belgian endive leaves stuffed with blue, feta, and/or gorgonzola cheese, craisins (dried cranberries), pecan pieces, and cracked black pepper). An assortment of cheeses, crackers, and olives is a great warm-up to a hot meal; so is cheese and crackers paired with sliced apples or dried apricots, or cheese, nuts, and dried fruit.
A crusty baguette sliced and served with dipping oil (extra-virgin olive oil infused with lots of minced fresh garlic, herbs like oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme, Parmesan, red pepper flakes, and Trocomare or RealSalt or sea salt) will warm the coldest night. But there are so many luscious hot appetizers for the cold season as well:
* Popcorn. Simple hot popcorn with melted butter and salt, or with herbs and cheese if you prefer, is a welcome cold-weather treat, especially when served with a stemaing mug of apple cider.
* Baked Brie. Oh, yum!!! Topped with pecans, with brown sugar, with orange marmalade, with pepper jelly, or with the topping of your choosing, and served up molten with a sliced baguette or table water crackers, this melt-in-your-mouth treat is irresistible.
* Fondue. Okay, I’ve never had fondue. I think it skipped my generation. But there’s a fondue restaurant in a city near us, and one day, maybe I’ll finally try it. I haven’t so far because I think of fondue as an appetizer: skewered baguette chunks dipped in melted Swiss cheese, not a meal in itself. Somehow I’d rather have slices of buttered, toasted baguette covered with melted Jarlsberg. Add some orange marmalade or apricot jam between the buttered baguette and the melted Jarlsberg and oh, my!
* Roasted veggies. Okay, here’s the simplest hot appetizer of all, because it can be made ahead. Roast a medley of veggies—thinly sliced or diced sweet onion, mushrooms, red, orange, and/or yellow bell peppers, asparagus, broccoli—with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and some fresh-cracked pepper and salt. Now you can toss them with hot penne pasta and Parmesan, stir them into a frittata, or even use them to top a pizza.
What do you enjoy when it gets cold outside?
I’ll talk about more hot food for cold nights in upcoming posts.
‘Til next time,