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Greens: Cooked or raw? August 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I’m mostly an equal-opportunity greens fan; I love them raw (in salads and sandwiches), semi-cooked (in hot sandwiches like cheese panini with tomatoes and arugula), and cooked (in pasta, soups, dal, sauteed, or steamed). Pretty much the only greens I won’t eat are the ones that taste like dirt (beet greens, Swiss chard), the ones that are prickly (radish greens, turnip greens), and the ones that come from cans. (Just give me the beets and radishes and Japanese turnips and let me enjoy the colorful chard as an ornamental.) If I knew how to grill, I’d doubtless love the grilled halved Romaine lettuces and halved radicchio that have become popular.

I love to make a big pot of greens, including the “supergreens” kale and collards, along with spinach, arugula, and methi (fenugreek greens), cooking them down with a tiny bit of water clinging to the leaves, and then make saag paneer, the delicious, Indian dish that uses their equivalent of farmer’s cheese/fresh mozzarella, paneer, with a simply luscious mix of sauteed onion, spices, and cream. Served over basmati rice, which soaks up the sauce, it’s pure heaven.

Greens prepared this way are also a great base for soups and a great filling layer for lasagna. (You can tuck them in between the lasagna pasta and the ricotta or Greek yogurt, then top with sauce and shredded cheese.) So are greens that are added to dishes like pastas at the last moment. I love sauteing diced sweet onions and minced garlic in extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps with sliced mushrooms and diced red, orange or yellow bell pepper, a dash of crushed red pepper, Italian herbs (a mix of basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme), salt (we love RealSalt and Trocomare, hot herbed salt), and fresh-cracked black pepper. Then I add arugula when everything else has cooked down, use pasta tongs to immediately add cooked spaghetti to the sauteed veggies, and toss the pasta with the veggies and my choice of shredded cheese before serving it up. Yum!

But I’d still want to serve my pasta with a crunchy green salad. I really love salad, from a Caesar (yes to hard-boiled eggs, no to croutons and anchovies) to the famous iceberg wedge (I like mine with chopped sweet or purple onion, diced tomato, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and an olive oil-lemon dressing, with plenty of salt and fresh-cracked black pepper).

There are so many salad variations that I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love salad. One of my favorites has a crunchy Romaine base with arugula, radicchio, Boston (Bibb, butter) lettuce, watercress and frisee giving texture, flavor and color, with shredded carrots, diced bell pepper (red, yellow, and/or orange), diced red onion, cherry tomatoes (my favorites are the orange Sungold tomatoes), cucumbers, red cabbage, shredded white sharp Cheddar and/or blue or Gorgonzola cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, black olives, scallions (green onions), and pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for nutritional value and crunch. I’ll add avocado and/or jarred artichoke hearts in oil for an especially decadent salad. With so much going on in the salad—especially if I mix in fresh basil, mint, cilantro, or another fresh herb—I like to keep the dressing simple: good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

But not all is well in the raw greens world. I had a very sad revelation a few months ago when I read that eating raw kale was damaging to people with thyroid issues. I love raw kale in salads, but I guess I’ll be eating all my kale cooked from now on. A dear friend reminded me that the oxalic acid in spinach is bad for people with arthritis, and can not just accumulate in the joints but contribute to the formation of kidney stones. And if, like my father, you’re on blood thinners to prevent heart attack or stroke, your doctor will probably tell you to avoid all greens and salads, since leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, a natural blood thinner. Bummer!!! Not to mention that you need to eat some oil with your greens to release their nutrients in the body, preferably a healthy oil like olive oil.

The real divider in our household, though, is spinach. Our friend Ben likes it raw in salads, I like it cooked. I find the texture of raw spinach both limp and dusty—no crunch, and this dreadful musty, felted texture. (I feel the same way about raw mushrooms, and won’t eat them in a salad, either, although I love cooked mushrooms.) I, on the other hand, love cooked spinach (again, cooked down with just a few drops of water) with balsamic vinegar. OFB hates it. His exception is spanakopita, the Greek phyllo pockets filled with spinach and feta. We’ve finally found common ground with spinach sauteed in olive oil with minced garlic or onion. OFB will eat it if I add crushed red pepper, and I can discreetly add a splash of balsamic vinegar to my serving. And yes, I do buy baby spinach for his salads when I remember!

‘Til next time,


Why are tulips so short-lived? August 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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The thing about bulbs is that most of them are so long-lived. Plant them once, and they either come back reliably year after year, or come back and multiply year after year. They’re one of the easiest and most dependable flowering plants, something you can plant once and look forward to every spring thereafter. This is true of daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa), star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and numerous others.

Planting them is ridiculously easy, too: If you’re planting a sizable group of bulbs, dig a trench deep enough to cover the bulbs (shallow for small bulbs, deeper for daffs) and long and wide enough to contain the number of bulbs you’re planting, set the bulbs in root-side down, put the soil back over the bulbs, firm the soil by walking over it, the end. If you’re just planting a few bulbs in an existing bed, tucking in some grape hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, and/or daffodils, a narrow trowel will open a V-shaped slit in the soil (again to the appropriate depth) and you can just drop the bulb in (making sure the root end is facing down) and step on the slit to firm the soil over it. This avoids the big holes that “official” bulb planters gouge out of the soil, potentially damaging the roots of nearby perennials, and saves the steps of inverting the bulb planter after each bulb, knocking out the soil, and then replacing it in the hole.

So, our friend Ben wondered, what’s the deal with tulips? Once planted, daffodils grow and multiply for decades without further effort from you. But tulips? Apparently, most tulip hybrids bloom for one or at most two seasons. So-called “perennial” tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, bloom for at most five years, typically blooming for three before declining. Yet they’re at least as expensive and as much trouble to plant as daffodils. Many gardeners simply treat them as annuals, planting them every fall, then digging them up after they bloom and discarding them.

This wanton waste didn’t sit well with me, and besides, I wondered why they behaved so differently from the rest of the spring bulbs. I consulted my good friend Google and found an answer from ornamental horticultural expert Rob Proctor. He pointed out that in their native land, tulips endured poor, rocky soil, cold winters, wet springs, and hot, dry summers. In these conditions, they were true perennials, just like daffodils, returning to bloom every year. He compared the climate to Colorado’s.

Apparently, our problem is that we cosset our tulips to death. We water their beds all summer, encouraging bulb rot; we feed them or plant them in rich soil (or both); our climate isn’t cold enough in winter or hot enough in summer. Our friend Ben read a fascinating tip, that in Britain, where summers aren’t known for being hot and dry, gardeners dig up the tulips when their bloom cycle has ended and their foliage is starting to decline and bring them inside hot, dry greenhouses to “cure,” then replant them in fall, thus encouraging many years of bloom.

Of course, this still sounds like a lot of work, and you’d need a greenhouse to pull it off. Is it worth it? Er. Our problem would be trying to remember where we’d planted the tulip bulbs, what they looked like versus the daffodil bulbs they were interplanted with, and how on earth we could dig them up without exposing our entire bulb border, a major undertaking. We had such a gorgeous display of daffs and tulips interplanted in our border last year it was breathtaking. But Silence Dogood and I have agreed that we’d better leave everything as is for next spring and see what happens. Maybe we won’t get a single tulip, or a single blooming tulip, but at least our daffodils can stretch out. And if we do get a few more tulip blooms, that will be great.

Love your lima beans. August 19, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. When I first moved North from my native Nashville, I discovered that most of my friends and colleagues hated lima beans. I was dumbfounded. How could anyone hate lima beans?! I found out soon enough when I ordered them in a restaurant and was served mushy, slimy “baby” lima beans, also the sort that I’d found in the local groceries’ freezer sections.

These nasty, slippery, tiny things bore no resemblance whatever to the big, plump, meaty butterbeans I’d grown up with, so delicious boiled and served with butter, salt, and pepper, as a side with mashed or new or baked sweet potatoes or baked potatoes or corn on the cob. (The limas were also often boiled, then sauteed in butter for a minute or two with corn just cut from the ears). Fried chicken and meaty slices of beefsteak tomato were popular accompaniments.

To this day, I don’t know if butterbeans got their name because they were invariably cooked with butter or if their taste and texture simply struck someone as buttery. But I did notice something here in scenic PA: The local Pennsylvania Dutch, including the Amish and Mennonites, weren’t buying those awful baby limas. Nor did they seem to eat lima beans fresh. Instead, they were making baked beans out of big, meaty dried limas. But when they were in season, which is now, they’d sell big, meaty limas in the pod at their farm stands or shell and sell them ready to cook.

If your farmers’ market sells big, plump lima beans in the pod or out, here’s what to keep in mind: Shelling limas is a pain. That’s because the pods are big and thick, and there are typically only two or three limas in each pod, so it takes a lot of work to get enough to eat, and you’re left with a giant mound of empty, somewhat hairy pods. (Hint: You can compost them.) That’s why, if you buy them pre-shelled, they cost so much more. You’ll be saving a lot of work and getting a lot more limas, but there’s a catch here, too: Once they’re shelled, they don’t keep too well, so you need to cook them soon or they’ll get mushy and slimy and you’ll have to compost them. I prefer to shell them just before cooking them, but there are only two of us. If you’re cooking for a family, I’d suggest buying a bag of shelled limas and saving yourself some prep time.

If you’re cooking fresh limas, boiling is definitely the way to go, and they’ll take more time than, say, green and yellow wax beans, summer squash, asparagus, or broccoli, but less time than new potatoes. When I cook fresh limas to go with corn on the cob, I’ll bring a covered pot of water to a boil for the corn. If I were going to cook green and yellow wax beans to go with the corn, I’d prep the beans, put them in a pot, cover them with water, and bring them to a boil once I saw that the corn water was boiling. (Fresh corn on the cob takes just enough time to heat through, so you want everything else to be pretty much ready to serve before you put it in the pot.) For limas, however, I’ll put them in water and heat them the moment I start heating the water for corn. And I won’t add the corn to the boiling water until I’m sure the limas are done, when they’ve turned pale green and are tender and delicious, not hard or slimy (at which point I’ll turn them off, since I know they’ll stay hot in the water until the corn is ready).

What about frozen and canned lima beans? I’ve noticed that some of the more local brands occasionally offer frozen limas rather than the ubiquitous “baby limas.” They may not be quite as big and succulent as butterbeans, but at least they’re not tiny and slippery. If I’m craving fresh limas in the off-season, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for them. And yes, you can get big, meaty limas in cans, but they’re white, not green. I use them mixed with other canned beans in my chili; they add body and contrast, and are just great with several colors of kidney beans. I certainly wouldn’t attempt to heat them up straight out of the can on their own, though. Yecchhh!!!

What about those Mennonite baked beans? Well, they all have bacon or ham in them, even the grocery-store versions, just like most baked beans, so given that I’m a vegetarian, I’ve never tried them. (Not to mention that they involve the endless time involved rehydrating and cooking dried beans.) But they sure look good! When we want baked beans, we turn to Bush’s Grillin’ Beans, which have a variety of flavors that are vegetarian, but taste so rich and good, you’d never—and I NEVER say this—miss the meat. Paired with cornbread and coleslaw, or corn-on-the-cob and a classic wedge salad, or creamy pasta and a crunchy tossed salad, they’re heaven. And nobody’s slapping your hand if you want to have them with fried chicken or burgers or barbecue or whatever. And many of the Bush’s Grillin’ beans varieties do have meat.

So choose what you enjoy! But please, don’t ignore fresh lima beans, the big, thick, meaty ones we in the South know as butterbeans. If all you know are tiny, slimy, slippery limas, these will be a revelation.

‘Til next time,


Perfect peach crisp, plus salad. August 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s peach season here in scenic PA. Our friend Rudy just gave us a whole bag of fresh-picked peaches. Thing is, ripe peaches aren’t great keepers. Like heirloom tomatoes, you’d better eat them in a couple of days or else. And there are only two of us. What to do?

Well, there are plenty of ways to eat ripe peaches. Salads are one of my favorites. You can toss peach chunks, blueberries, diced red onion, and slivered almonds on a bed of arugula, add some extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon or lime juice, and some salt and fresh-cracked pepper, and enjoy a luscious salad. Or mix things up by subbing avocado and pistachios for the blueberries and almonds. Fresh mint leaves pair perfectly with peaches on a bed of Bibb lettuce with crumbled blue, gorgonzola, or feta cheese. Or make a cocktail in your salad bowl with Bibb or Boston lettuce, peaches, raspberries, crumbled pecans, and an olive oil and champagne vinegar dressing.

But when gifted with an abundance of ripe peaches, one of the most delicious ways to use them all is to make a peach crisp. Sure, save a few for eating fresh and adding to salads. But crisps are so luscious, flavorful, and easy to make, it would be a shame if you didn’t at least try one. Unlike pies and cobblers, crisps don’t require a pie crust, so you need no technical piecrust-rolling skills, no ability to create a piecrust lattice on top, no horrendously messy counter.

Here’s all it takes to make the best fruit dessert since fresh blueberry tart:

For the filling:

Butter a round 8-inch glass cake pan and add a touch of water to the bottom. Slice enough fresh yellow peaches into chunks or slices to fill at least 2/3 of the pan. If you wish, add blueberries, red raspberries, or pitted sour cherries on top. (We like the rich gold of the peaches with the blue and red of blueberries and red raspberries or sour cherries, but any one of the three makes a lovely add-in, as do, improbably, seedless green grapes.) Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon or cardamom over the fruit.

For the topping:

Combine 2/3 cup unbleached flour, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 stick butter softened at room temperature. Work the butter in with your fingers to make panko-like crumbs. Next, work in 1/2 to 2/3 cup rolled oats and spread the mixture over the fruit in your glass pan.

To make:

Bake at 350 degrees F. for an hour, covering the top with aluminum foil for the first half-hour, until the fruit is cooked and bubbly and the topping is crisp. Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or dished up in bowls with cream poured over the crisp. Yum!!!

‘Til next time,


Eating money. August 11, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

—Based on a Cree saying

This Cree warning of the horrors of environmental destruction in the service of human greed is certainly powerful. But these days, it’s apparently not true. People collectively known as “biohackers” have set out to prove that farms, plants and animals aren’t necessary to feed people—all we need are labs.

The first of these to make headlines were the creators of Soylent, a chemical concoction with the appearance and flavor of sludge, named ironically for “Soylent Green,” the only food given a utopian/dystopian population in the novel of the same name. In the novel, Soylent Green turns out to be made from dead people. In the lab, Soylent is composed of a cocktail of chemicals, vitamins and minerals that support human life. It was developed by a tech creator who was sick of making runs to Costco for corndogs and the like. Surely there was a faster way to glog down nutrients so you could concentrate on things that mattered, like creating new video games?

Today, a new group of biohackers have made headlines. They’re not trying to make glop for techno-nerds. They’re just trying to bypass the agricultural process to make meat and dairy products in labs. The meat producers use stem cells to grow lab meats, so that animals no longer need to be slaughtered. The non-dairy people, with names like Muufri (moo-free, get it?!), are more aligned with Soylent, making their dairy products from lab-concocted chemical combinations. Both groups tout how “clean,” how sterile their production tanks are compared to farms.

And both Soylent and the Muufri groups can proudly claim to be vegan—no animals are harmed, or used in any way, in their products. One reviewer noted that, if these lab-grown products were adopted by the public, animals would be so happy because they weren’t being milked or raised for meat, even on free-range organic farms. Well, no. If there were no agricultural reason to raise them, they would be allowed to go extinct. An extinct animal is not a happy animal. If someone asked you if you’d prefer a year or more enjoying a free life on open pasture under the sun, or never being born at all, what would you choose? There are plenty of non-meat, non-dairy options for vegans now that don’t involve the extermination of domesticated animals.

Of course, the parent of this trend is GMO crops, the Monsanto-led monsters that create a chemical soup of toxic herbicides, then create genetically modified crops that can withstand them, knowing all along that weeds will gain resistance to their chemical soup so they can sell ever-more toxic herbicide combos to the farmers who now depend on them and their GMO-modified seeds.

The lab rats who “biohack” pseudo-foods would be the last to identify themselves with Monsanto, though the inventor of Soylent has said that his product was the ultimate anti-organic food, being 100% chemical. Yet they fail to see the weakness in their system: The giant food price increases that could come if market giants bought their nifty startups, the market monopolies that could come if their techno-foods drove real food out of business, the end of actual food, real vegetables, real fruits, real cheese, real flavor. And then, if they were co-opted by some evil monster like Monsanto, the end of the world. “Buy our monstrous, lab-produced food or else!” Soylent Green is coming.

How to store sweet onions. August 10, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love sweet onions, especially the mild, delicious Vidalias. (We don’t get Walla Walla and Texas 1015 Supersweet here in our part of scenic PA, so when Vidalias go out of season, I end up buying generic “sweet onions.”) After years of sobbing through my contact lenses while cutting sulfurous onions, discovering sweet onions was practically life-altering. I no longer wear contact lenses (thank you, laser surgery), but sweet onions are still the only ones I’ll cook with.

So, what’s the best way to store them? You can, of course, buy just one or two at a time, but I use one or two a day, so I like to buy them by the bag. With all their healthful properties, my motto is “an onion a day keeps the doctor away!” (And unlike pungent onions, if you eat sweet onions, you won’t keep everyone else away.) What would cooking be without that luscious onion flavor in omelets and home fries, soups and stews, spaghetti sauce and pizza, refried beans and fajitas, curries and mushroom dishes, or roasted or grilled with other veggies to total caramelized deliciousness? I can hardly imagine a meal without onions.

But here’s the thing: Unlike those pungent onions, sweet onions are high in water, so they bruise easily, which can lead to mold and rot. You must handle and store them with care, and inspect them often, using those that start shriveling or softening or showing signs of mold first. Even so, I would never recommend storing any onions in the refrigerator, with one exception: the sweet onion Candy. Candy is so full of water that it bleeds milky sap when you cut it, and around here, anyway, it’s always sold without its skin. If your farmers’ market or farm stand sells Candy onions, and you want to use them, refrigerate them in the vegetable crisper drawer and use them as soon as you can. I bought them for a couple of years when they first began appearing at farm markets around here, and they’re certainly good, but they were just too messy for me, and took up precious refrigerator space that other vegetables were clamoring for. Sorry, Candy!

Of course, if you end up using only part of a sweet onion (gasp, why would you do that?), you should store the rest in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer and plan to use the rest within a day or two. (Maybe your fridge is roomier than mine or your crisper drawers are emptier, but I think those trendy onion-shaped onion storers just take up too much room. With sweet onions, I’ve never had the onion flavor migrate out of the plastic bag.)

Otherwise, I’d store my Vidalia or Walla Walla or whatever sweet onions with my garlic, shallots, and the like, out in the open where they can get some air and avoid refrigerator condensation. I store mine in a huge stainless steel bowl, oldest on top, and check them every day. Given how fast I use them, this works fine for me. Checking our good friend Google, I saw that there were several other recommended storage methods. One is the good old technique of storing them in the legs of sheer pantyhose, knotting the hose between each onion, then hanging them in a cool, dark place like a basement. (Not, mind you, a cool, damp place like the basement of my family home.) When you need an onion, you simply cut off the pantyhose above the next knot. Another tip was to spread them out on screens so they weren’t touching, and store the screens in a cool, dark place. A root cellar is great for this if you have one.

I don’t have a root cellar (sob), or a basement, or a cool, dark place. Nor am I trying to store a 50-pound bag of sweet onions. For me, the bowl works fine. But I still had a question: Would sweet onions store better if they were placed in the bowl (or any storage situation) with their root sides down and their stem sides up? Might this add to their longevity? Or might storing them root-ends up be the answer?

Sadly, Google offered no advice. I’ve decided to try an experiment, putting the latest batch all stem-ends up, and see if I notice a reduction in spoilage or extension of longevity. If not, I’ll try them stem-side down. Has anyone found the fountain of youth for sweet onions? If so, please share it with us.

‘Til next time,


Sandwich spreads gone wild. August 6, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I was reading an article on the Wall Street Cheat Sheet site this morning about seven great vegetarian sandwiches you could make at home. Given how many steps, ingredients, and dishes they all used, I would never make even one of them at home. I could easily make a great Indian feast or pasta dinner or pretty much anything using less time and effort than a single one of these sandwiches would take. No wonder people would go for the PB&J or BLT or takeout burger or sub or deli option. Geez!

But the article did bring to mind something I don’t often think about: sandwich spreads as condiments. Take hummus, for example. I typically think of hummus as a dip for veggies or as the main ingredient in a pita pocket, with tomato, lettuce and cucumber adding crunch and veggie goodness to the hummus’s protein. But what if, instead, hummus was a spread on a sandwich with plenty of other ingredients? How about white bean hummus smeared on olive oil-brushed grilled buns and topped with roasted sweet onion slices, goat cheese or feta, basil, beefsteak or heirloom tomato slices, and a couple of Romaine leaves?

I love falafel sandwiches, and it’s so easy to make your own. Buy tzatziki sauce (Greek yogurt with onion and cucumber), falafel patties (I like the garlic ones best, but plain are good, too), shredded carrots, and shredded purple cabbage at your local grocery, along with plump, moderate-sized pitas. (Not the authentic thin pitas that shred when you try to open or eat them, they’re best for dipping or rolling at the table.) Heat the falafel patties with a drizzle of olive oil on top to make them crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. Put halved pita pockets on top of the falafel patties for the last few minutes of cooking. Once the pitas are hot and the falafel patties are sizzling, open each pita half, add liberal amounts of tzatziki sauce, shredded cabbage and carrot, stuff in a couple of falafel patties, and enjoy! Oh, yum.

Tzatziki sauce is a great spread for veggie burgers, too, so much more flavorful and healthful than mayo. So, of course, is fresh salsa (pressed and drained), if you’d like some heat on your burger or quesadilla. (Works on real hamburgers, too.) I also like horseradish heat on my sandwiches. A horseradish-mayo spread will really bring a BLT, CLT (the vegetarian version, subbing cheese for bacon), or club sandwich to life. Or try sriracha-mayo or wasabi-mayo.

Pesto? Perfect slathered on both sides of a crusty roll or demi-baguette and heated before being topped with cheese, lettuce, sauteed onion, and tomato, a veggie burger or real burger, a BLT, or a grilled portabello. You can even make your own eggplant parm sandwich by “frying” eggplant slices dipped in beaten egg, then in a mix of breadcrumbs (or panko), salt, pepper, and granulated garlic, then sauteed in olive oil until both sides are golden and crispy and the eggplant is tender. Heat the rolls or baguettes with the pesto, top half with the eggplant, add a dab of marinara sauce or jarred salsa (not fresh this time, too runny), some fresh bufalo mozzarella slices and a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella, and then the top half of the pesto-covered roll or baguette. Yum!!!

Homemade pimiento cheese? Easy and oh so good. (Type in “pimiento cheese” in our search bar at upper right for the recipe.) But rather than making it into a sandwich by itself, why not spread it as the cheese layer in a sandwich? It’s a fabulous topping for a veggie or ground-beef cheeseburger and lends itself to other toppings like pickles and onions. It’s great in a BLT, CLT, or either with fried green tomatoes. Try it in a Subway-style hoagie or a quesadilla.

A thick spread of egg salad, with lettuce and tomato, can up the ante for pretty much any sandwich, be it chicken or turkey or roast beef. Try a “Cobb salad sandwich” or a “Caesar salad sandwich” or even a “chef’s salad sandwich” or “antipasto sandwich” using egg salad as a base. You’ll have to agree that salad makes a great sandwich!

There are so many more options, but that’s enough for now. I guess I’ll tackle the whole nut-butter issue another day.

‘Til next time,


Why buy pullets? August 4, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading.
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Most people who want to raise chickens buy chicks, either directly from a mail-order hatchery or from a local ag store like Tractor Supply or Agway. Hatcheries offer the greatest variety of breeds, but they also usually stipulate a minimum order of 25 chicks. That’s way too many for a backyard chicken yard such as our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. There are only two of us, anyway: How many eggs can we possibly eat?! Six chickens is our max.

In the past, we’d go to our local Agway and sign up for six of their heritage-breed chicks. Then we’d go to an appliance store like Sears and pick up an empty refrigerator box. When April rolled around and the chicks arrived at the Agway, we’d set the huge box up in our mudroom, add a layer of wood shavings, put a chick feeder and water dish on top of them, top the box with window screens, and place a heat lamp on top of the screens. Then we’d pick up the chicks, put them in the box, turn on the light, and spend the next two months waiting (and waiting) until they were big enough, and it was warm enough, to transfer them to the chicken yard, where they’d have plenty of safe, enclosed room to roam and perch and a secure coop to stay in at night. Needless to say, this made the mudroom inaccessible for other purposes, and cleaning up and removing that box once the chickens had been transferred was something else. Phew!

The upside was that we only had to do this once every eight to ten years, since we let our hens live out their lives (which can extend to 12 years, though we’ve never been fortunate enough to have a hen get that old) with us once they were with us. But after two rounds with the refrigerator box, Silence had had enough. “Ben, we need to get young hens that we can put outside right away without worrying about them getting cold or squeezing through the kenneling fence. We need pullets!”

Pullets are first-year hens that have not yet begun to lay. We began our pullet experiment when we needed to replace two elderly hens who had gone to their reward. Someone suggested a farm that might sell us a couple of young hens, and they did. There was some squawking in the chicken yard as the hens settled on their new pecking order, but everything went smoothly after that. No fuss, no muss, no mess in the mudroom! Silence was ecstatic.

But eventually, our last flock dwindled and died out. I was desperate for more chickens, for their bright colors, cheerful personalities, and super-fresh, organic eggs. Silence agreed, but only if we were able to get pullets. We like heritage breeds, the big-bodied, healthy, multipurpose layers of brown eggs (or, in the case of Ameraucanas, olive green, blue, or even pink eggs), and we like a mix, so we have lots of colors in our chicken yard. We asked around, but this time, didn’t find any pullets for sale at local farms. What were we going to do?

To our surprise, we discovered that our favorite hatchery, Murray McMurray (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com), now sells pullets as well as chicks. And it has a nice selection of heritage breeds. Best of all, there’s no minimum order, so you can get as many or as few as you like, and mix and match, to boot! We chose six different heritage breeds, one of each of Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Delaware, Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, and Spangled Sussex. The chicks have been raised organic and free-range, eating bugs, grains, and other chicken goodies out in the field rather than confined to a cage. McMurray gave us our shipping date—not until (sob) July—so that they could ship the entire order to us at once. We resigned ourselves to waiting months and months.

And we worried about chickens being shipped to us from the Midwest via the US mail, not even overnighted through FedEx or UPS. Not even shipped to us, but to a “nearby” post office, which was supposed to notify us for pickup. We frantically rushed around to several post offices in the area and left our names and phone numbers, pointing out that live chickens might be showing up between July 8th and 11th. Yikes! We received an email from Murray McMurray that the pullets had been shipped at 3 pm. What, 3 pm?! They couldn’t possibly arrive here until the following day. How could they possibly survive?!!

Silence was frantic. She had me calling all the post offices in the area the next morning. No pullets. I tried to reassure her, but we both were envisioning boxes of dead chickens. By late afternoon, I finally got hold of the right post office, which had been trying to contact us by calling a wrong number since 6 am. I rushed over and retrieved what turned out to be six very healthy pullets.

They took to their new chicken yard and perches at once. There wasn’t even any fighting to establish the pecking order, as we had feared. They were (and are) considerably smaller than they’ll be at full size, so we probably won’t get any eggs ’til next year, but that’s fine with us. We’re happy to wait, and enjoy them just as they are, letting them grow on organic scratch grains and pellets and lots of our own leftovers, from produce and fruit to bread and pasta. (Watermelon is their favorite.)

Ordering pullets is way more expensive than buying chicks, but you can get exactly what you want. Mail-ordering them sounds scary, but they arrive, improbable as it may seem, safe, sound, and healthy. Buying pullets saves you the work and mess of raising chicks indoors for months. If, like us, you only need a few hens, and if, like us, you plan to let them live out their lives with you, then we think pullets are the way to go. They’ll earn their $20 price tag again and again each year with delicious eggs, wonderful colors and personalities, and genuine companionship.

Morning rituals. July 31, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Do you find yourself beginning every morning the same way, with some soothing activity that brings you a little calm, peace of mind, and feeling of security before you plunge into your day? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up a cup of your favorite coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on the way in to work. Or maybe a walk or bike ride every morning sets you up for the day. Sometimes a hot shower or a soothing rub of body lotion is enough to make you feel pampered and centered.

We have a friend whose morning would be a disaster if he couldn’t pore over the baseball box scores, and another who begins every single day by reading the comics, convinced that a good laugh is the right start to a good day. Another rises early every day to meditate. For yet another, it’s worth getting up an hour early to go to the local diner and indulge in the “farmer’s breakfast”—pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, homefries, and toast, with plenty of coffee to wash it all down. (Gulp. But it’s heaven to him.) One relative couldn’t imagine a morning beginning without attending morning Mass.

Of course, we have our own morning rituals here at Hawk’s Haven, too. Silence Dogood is not what you’d call a morning person, yet she wakes with the light. In the interval between daylight and the return of consciousness, she likes to keep things calm and absolutely quiet. She sits at her computer and reads Yahoo news and her e-mail, then visits a few favorite sites, and then will write a blog post or two to kick the day off. Our friend Ben, meanwhile, will put on some coffee, take our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, out for her morning walk, feed the chickens, water the garden, and get the papers, which he (and, eventually, Silence) will read. OFB enjoys hot toast or croissants or English muffins and marmalade or hot pepper jelly and lots of butter along with that morning coffee and the papers. Silence can’t even look at food before 10 a.m., and then she’s more likely to opt for fruit and cottage cheese or a quinoa salad.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in the morning, as long as it makes you feel good and sets you up for the day. But we do think that morning rituals, whatever they are—doing the same things at the same time every morning—will get your day off to a healthier, more empowered start. We even think that applies to the eye-popping diner breakfast, morning walk, and meditation equally.

That’s because so much of the modern workday is about powerlessness—you do this for this many hours in this exact place and you’d better do it just the way we say and produce these results, even if that’s impossible, or else. Your time, your life, your mind are not your own, your talents are unappreciated, you’re just another faceless cog on the wheel, a “worker bee,” as a heartless boss at one old company described his employees.

But before work, you’re in charge. You have the power. No one can tell you what to do, can make you keep up with 50 social media sites while also doing your job for the same pay but ever-increasing hours, can put you on call after you’ve already put in a full day’s work. The difference between morning ritual and the lack of it can be the difference between feeling in control and out of control. So don’t feel ashamed of that Mickey D’s Egg McMuffin you pick up every single morning. Think of it as an empowering ritual.

Five must-have hot sauces. July 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It seems like hot sauce has taken over the world. Our friend Ben, Richard Saunders and I see thousands of different hot sauces every September when we attend the annual Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival in scenic Bowers, PA, where vendors are offering all things chile*, from chile chocolates to salsas to jams and jellies to pickled hot green tomatoes to chile-raspberry soft ice cream. And yes, of course, those hot sauces with the incredibly clever names and packaging (like skull keychains hanging off the bottles), as well as artisanal, small-batch sauces whose creators box and bring them themselves.

Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders really goes for the hot stuff, bottles with names like Endorphin Rush and Mad Dog 35 Ghost Pepper. Once he and OFB got into a hot sauce-naming contest, coming up with dozens of memorable names for hot sauces. (My favorite was OFB’s Emergency Room Special.)

But OFB and I prefer sauces that don’t numb your tongue, burn your eyes, and send you to the emergency room. We like sauces that add both flavor and moderate heat while letting the flavor of the food you’re putting the sauce on shine through. With that in mind, here are the five hot sauces I reach for again and again:

Tabasco Chipotle Pepper Sauce. From the famed McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana comes my favorite sauce for anything that needs smoky heat. It may sound crazy that the makers of the ubiquitous Tabasco Sauce could make my favorite go-to sauce for refried beans, burritos, tacos, and other Mexican food, but to my taste, Tabasco Chipotle adds so much depth and richness that I can’t imagine making Mexican without it. Or chili, for that matter.

Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce. This may not be the healthiest sauce (it has 70 calories per 2-tablespoon serving, as opposed to 0 calories for Tabasco Chipotle, and it has a lot of sugar, its second ingredient after water), but boy, is it good. The fire is more spicy than mouth-burning, so it’s a great addition to spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and other places where you’d like a little heat and the rich tomato sauce will make sure nobody says “Hey! There’s hot-sweet sauce in here!” But it’s really great with Chinese food. If you’re heating up spring rolls or egg rolls at home, forget the duck sauce: Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce adds spiciness and sweetness, and you don’t have to squeeze out those awful packets. And you can pour out as much as you want! If your eggplant with garlic sauce or veggie lo mein or General Tso’s tofu could use a kick, add a splash or two. Make it your secret ingredient mixed with ketchup on burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, chicken wings, sloppy joes, you name it, not to mention as a dip for French fries and sweet potato fries.

Pickapeppa Sauce. This product of Shooters Hill, Jamaica, has so much flavor that it will make you want to burst out singing your favorite Bob Marley tune every time you add a splash to soup, an omelette, a stew or casserole, the filling for stuffed peppers, a frittata, mac’n’cheese, you name it. No wonder: The ingredients list includes cane vinegar, sugar, tomatoes, onions, raisins, sea salt, ginger, peppers, garlic, cloves, black pepper, thyme, mangoes, and orange peel. Mix some with mayo on your next BLT (or veggie TLC) or burger, or slather the mayo/Pickapeppa on grilled veggie kabobs or grilled corn on the cob. And all for just 5 calories a serving!

Pili Pili Hot Sauce and Marinade. Heading to Africa, we love the Pili Pili Sauce produced in small batches by Alando’s Kitchen in nearby Quakertown, PA. It IS hot, but not mouth-scorching hot, and it’s so good on dishes like samosas, the amazing Kenyan fried potato dish bhajia (so try some on French fries!), on polenta, in chili, and in other bean, grain, and egg dishes, not to mention soups and stews. We haven’t tried other pili pili sauces besides Alando’s (order from http://www.alandoskitchen.com), but I know they’re out there, in stores and online, so make sure you try this delicious flavor for yourself.

Sriracha HOT Chili Sauce. For hot (but not too hot), garlicky goodness, it’s hard to beat sriracha. Fans use it on everything from Asian dishes to scrambled eggs to cheese to salads and sandwiches to Mexican to, well, anything. OFB and I have only had the classic Huy Fong (“rooster”) sriracha sauce, but there are other brands filling store shelves now, so find your favorite. If you love garlic and heat, add some to your next pizza sauce or spaghetti sauce or eggplant parm sauce. Drizzle some on kebabs, add some to sloppy joes, slather some on wings. Or splash it in a Bloody Mary. (That poor woman.) Or tomato juice or V8.

That’s it: My five must-have hot sauces. There are plenty of others, many of them are superb, and there are plenty of other ways to use them. But if I had to settle for just five, these would be the “fabulous five.” They’re flavorful, they’re affordable, and they’re available. Not to mention distinctive and adaptable.

‘Til next time,


* Wondering why some things are called chile, some chili, and some chilli? Chile is the name of the fresh hot pepper in the Americas. Chili is the name of the bean, meat, or meat-and-bean stew made with lots of hot chiles. And chilli is the way the chile (fresh or dried) is referred to in Anglo-Asian cultures. But we’re all talking about the same hot pepper pods.


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