Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Post Produce: Calendula Lotion

Last summer the nice Korean family gardening across the path from our community plot grew masses of amazing golden flowers. I asked them what they were and he said that they were Calendula and added that they were good for the skin. This year I grew some and, remembering what my garden neighbor said, looked into the “good for the skin” thing. Calendula, it seems, is used in different healing balms, salves and lotions. After perusing a few recipes on the Internet I decided to take a shot at whipping something up from the dried flowers I’d saved from the garden for this month’s Post Produce.


The lotion would consist of only three ingredients: olive oil, beeswax, and dried Calendula flowers pulled from four or five inflorescences.




I started by adding the flowers to two tablespoons of olive oil and gently warming it on the stove. Taking it off the heat, I let it steep for about an hour and then strained the oil.





To melt the beeswax I first broke it into pieces. Beeswax is less brittle and more sticky than candle wax, I noticed.




I started with six grams from my thirty gram bar.  To melt the concoction I put the oil and wax inside a clean can—not a tuna can!—in a small pan of simmering water and stirred with a wooden stick. When it looked like the mixture was still pretty liquidy and not so lotiony I kept adding small amounts of wax.




Eventually I had added the entire bar. The next step I do not recommend. While I was lifting the can out of the pot with tongs I bumped the edge and splattered the oil and wax on the stove, counter, my shoe and the rug. As I was scraping and cleaning up the mess I realized there was too much wax in the mixture making it brittle so I added another tablespoon of oil, carefully placed the can in the oven on a piece of foil and alternately warmed and stirred.


Stirring Glop

Eventually, after gradually adding small amounts of oil it appeared to be maintaining an acceptable consistency.  I scooped it into a small jar and tried rubbing a tiny bit into my hands. There appear to be some small bits of wax yet, but they smoothed out and didn’t remain a problem. This stuff is really waxy, though. After applying it I did have to wipe my palms so I could handle things without gumming them up.


It was an interesting exercise and I ended up with some nice-smelling if odd textured lotion. Were I to do it again I’d definitely use a recipe with exact proportions. The Calendula flowers themselves were ridiculously easy to grow from seed. In fact, I noticed some seedlings springing up around the mature plants late this past summer. Whether or not I make anything with them, I do intend to grow them again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Home-Grown Black Bean Chili

BeanzThere really isn't much to this recipe but a friend asked about it so I thought I'd try writing it out. It's just something simple I threw together to use some fresh shelled black beans I had on hand. My Black Valentine bushes produced a second flush of pods late this summer that didn't have time to ripen and dry before the cold weather hit. You can, of course, cook dry beans to use or even resort to canned beans if you absolutely have to.

  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1/2 medium white onion, diced
  • 1/4 cup peppers finely diced -- blend sweet and hot to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-3 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 cups diced whole tomatoes
  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • salt

Heat canola oil in a saucepan and in it sauté the onion and peppers. When they're softened, add a couple cloves of minced garlic and chili powder. Sauté half a minute more. Add tomatoes and cook until they're soft. Dump in the black beans and simmer gently to blend the flavors, about 20 minutes. Salt to taste and serve. When I made this I purposely tried to primarily use produce from my own garden and did pretty well. Only the oil, chili powder and salt were purchased. I'm looking into making my own chili powder but it's going to require a better cumin crop than I had this year--which would be any cumin at all. I was inspired to try the bit of frying the powder with the first round of  veggies from a lot of the Indian recipes I've made. I believe the theory is that the more intense "dry" heat brings out the flavor and toasts the spices before adding the liquid component. In any case, this was tasty for being so simple. Doubtless there are many variations I could try, especially in the home-grown vegetable department.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Garden in November

The garden is ready for winter, as far as I’m concerned. The last big project this year was to reshape the layout of  last year’s half of the plot. I had originally created beds running north/south which resulted in them also running up and down the slight slope rather than across. As a result I had to be extra careful when watering in newly seeded rows. If it rained hard, the water pooled and ran down the row dislodging the carefully placed seeds. As beds became close to empty this fall I worked on digging and shoveling to reorient them east/west and thus across the slope so the tops could be more level. I also made the beds a full three feet wide. Previously I had limited their width to whatever I could easily step over. Since they ran the full length of the garden I didn’t want to have to walk all the way around one to get to the next row. In the end that didn’t prove to be an advantage since it was more the height of the plants that determined what I could step over. I drafted a fairly accurate representation of the previous and new bed layouts in AutoCAD and it appears that we gained a bit of plantable area.


November GardenAfter the new beds were established I dumped a load of partially composted leaves on each one and roughly spaded it into the top eight inches or so of soil. There is a good amount of clay present in the garden so we take advantage of any opportunity to add 0rganic matter and loosen it up. I left the surface rough to slow water running off it through the fall and winter. Finally, a thick layer of leaf mulch was spread on all the beds and paths. Fortunately there are still a few living plants or the garden would look like a dozen unmarked graves.


Last year I made a note in my garden notebook to ignore the typical predicted first frost date of somewhere around the last week of September or first week of October. I sort of heeded that by planting some fall crops that would take me past that date, but I held off doing a cover crop because by the time I thought of it I was sure it wouldn’t have time to grow. While we may have had a light frost up there, we’ve been nowhere near a real freeze for over a month past the expected dates. I kind of wish I’d taken a chance and put in some buckwheat anyway, but at the time I hadn’t yet done the bed rearranging. Next year I definitely plan to do a cover crop of something.


The biggest veggies still surviving and producing are the Brussels sprouts. They’re going to make an appearance on the co-conspirator’s Thanksgiving table. My note for next year is to plant them a lot farther apart.

Brussels Sprouts

A few parsnips are still in the ground but I pulled one to cook some time this week. We tossed one in when we roasted a chicken recently and it was wonderful. One aim of loosening the soil is so that we can grow better root crops. The parsnips did OK, but we had a lot of forked carrots. There are some more unusual root crops I want to try next year as well.



Off in the corner where I planted cilantro that promptly flowered and went to seed is…cilantro! I thought I had harvested all the seed to use in curries and such, but apparently I missed some. The volunteer plants are growing much better than the potted plant I bought last spring so next year I’m just going to direct-sow this crop. I’m one of those people who thinks cilantro tastes like soap. I used to loathe it but now I merely dislike it. I’m working toward tolerating it and perhaps one day actually liking it.Cilantro

Another herb that is still going like crazy is the French sorrel. It’s too bad because I never did find many uses for it this season. I had no idea it would get this big, nearly smothering the winter savory I planted it next to. I don’t even know if I should be using the big leaves or only the tender young ones. If you grow this one, let me know how you use it.

French SorrelThe winter savory was used at least a little. It went into bean dishes and I believe I used it with chicken once. It kind of reminds me of rosemary which I’ve never had any luck growing. Hopefully it will make it through the winter and come back next season.

Winter SavoryI suppose I could be doing some season extending things like a little coldframe or some row cover, but what with rearranging the layout—a process that took multiple sessions of work over several weeks—it looked like it would be a logistical pain in the neck and a bit of overkill. Maybe next year I’ll experiment more with fall and early winter crops, but for this season I really feel like I’m ready to be done.  Now to start really planning next year’s garden! 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Bee or Not to Bee

OK, yes, that was lame. But it does kind of sum up the exploration I've undertaken over the last several months. I've been reading a lot about honeybees and beekeeping. It's hard to resist such an interesting undertaking and I'm still weighing different options. But it's seriously looking like we're going to become beekeepers along with a friend of ours. Ironically, just as I was deciding to go ahead and put a hive or two in our back yard, the Co-conspirator brought my attention to a news story about the city council considering an ordinance to expressly allow beekeeping in the city. Up until that point I had found nothing in the code that expressly prohibited it so I thought I'd just go ahead and do it without asking. Unfortunately, the proposed ordinance as it currently stands is a little too restrictive to let us place and maintain our hives as I was planning to. It was also around this time, I think, that I mentioned my beekeeping fantasies to a good friend of ours who also happens to be an entomologist. As luck would have it he's also interested in starting up and has connections to rural opportunities to place our hives. Problem solved.

It will be interesting to see how the ordinance shapes up. I feel it's kind of a cop-out to just go outside the city to avoid conflict altogether, but one look at the neighborhood list-serve reminds me how "engaged" some of neighbors are. Perhaps in the future when the ordinance is settled and we've got some big, healthy hives going we'll move some into town. For now we're going to just work on getting better educated and better connected to experienced beekeepers. We attended this month's meeting of the local beekeeping association and they seem like a friendly and knowledgeable bunch. I was relieved to find out we weren't the only "no-bees" at the meeting. So there's the big winter project. Stay tuned as the adventure unfolds!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Braised Sauerkraut and Bratwurst

In my last post I mentioned how nice it would be to have a summer kitchen for when canning or cooking are too hot or smelly to be done indoors. Almost immediately after that it occurred to me that we can and do cook outdoors and I'm not talking about the grill. Last evening I wanted to make some braised sauerkraut but didn’t want to risk another case of “outhouse kitchen”--Enter the Dutch oven!


Setting the StageI started by setting up a cooking area on our patio. I laid out some of the leftover pavers we've got lying around to make an elevated, fireproof platform for the coals. Cooking directly on the patio would have scorched it. When we are camping and cook in the Dutch oven we just place the coals directly on a patch of bare ground.


Light my FireWe had just enough charcoal left over to do one round of cooking. For dishes that take more than an hour or so, we usually end up lighting a new batch to replace the burned down coals but I didn't anticipate needing to do that with this dish. I piled them up and put a match to them. We've always used briquettes because Dutch oven cooking recipes are often calibrated to the number to use. There is a bag of real hardwood charcoal laying around here somewhere and I'm thinking some time I may give it a try and see how the process compares. Incidentally, it was about this time a light breeze kicked up and I was starting to question the wisdom of doing this with a thick layer of dry leaves all over the back yard.


Ingredients in DO While the coals were starting I assembled the first ingredients in the Dutch oven. The full recipe is at the end of this post.


Coal Layout When the coals all had some ash on them I arranged two thirds in a rough circle just a bit smaller than the Dutch Oven. They're spaced so they aren't touching so air can circulate. This particular Dutch oven has three short legs that elevate it just above the coals. The one we us indoors in the oven doesn't have legs.


CookingThe Dutch oven is placed on the cooking area and the remaining third of the coals arranged evenly around the edge of the lid. As you can see, this oven has another feature the one for indoor use lacks. There is a lip around the edge of the lid to hold the coals on. Heating from both the top and bottom are probably more important when baking, but I thought since it was getting cold out a little extra heat wouldn’t hurt.


Smoked BratsMeanwhile back in the kitchen, we unwrapped the much-anticipated special ingredient. At yesterday’s Market we picked up a package of smoked bratwurst from Pecatonica Valley Farm


Searing BratsTo get a little extra flavor out of the brats we seared them a bit –in cast iron, of course, but they were on the dry side and I think if I were to do this again I’d skip this step. It really didn’t seem to add anything to the dish.


Simmering By this time the sauerkraut and friends had been bubbling for a while. No foul odors, by the way, were detected!


Brats in Kraut I sliced up the brats into thirds and nestled them into the kraut to share flavors for a while.


Brat Kraut and Taters The final result, served with a delicious mound of garlicky mashed potatoes was a hearty, seasonal and satisfying meal.


Dutch Oven Braised Sauerkraut and Bratwurst


  • 1/2 White Onion, Sliced
  • 1 Pint Home-Fermented and Canned Sauerkraut (substitute other if you absolutely must)
  • 1/2 Cup Local Beer
  • 1 1/2" Cups Chicken Stock
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Caraway Seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dried Thyme
  • Black Pepper to Taste
  • 2 Delicious, Local, pasture-raised-pork bratwurst


Start and arrange coals as described above. You will need sixteen coals for under the oven and seven for the lid, a total of twenty-three.

Place sauerkraut in a colander or strainer and rinse off salty brine. Add to Dutch oven along with the beer, stock, herbs and pepper.

Place oven on coals. Note: Do not preheat oven and then add cold ingredients. Shocking the hot metal thusly just isn’t good for it. Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Slice bratwurst into thirds and add to simmering sauerkraut. Allow to simmer for an additional 2o minutes.

Serve with a delicious starchy side dish and more local beer.


Serves 2

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Canning the Kraut

Apparently my first attempt at making sauerkraut was successful. Along the way there were a couple of surprises. The first was that it didn't stink. What a relief. I think the method of covering it with plastic wrap had something to do with that. When I'd check on its progress I always did a sniff test and while it developed a "vegetably" fragrance it wasn't offensive. You could only smell it if you stuck your nose right in the crock.

The second surprise was that it was done fermenting long before I expected it to be. I was figuring on a four week process. Somewhere in week three I read something to the effect of "it's done when it stops bubbling." I hadn't noticed mine bubbling for several days at least so I decided to go ahead and put it away.

Freezing didn't seem like a good idea and the refrigerator was way too full at the time so I opted for canning it using the boiling water bath method. The entire batch fit nicely in four pint jars. During the canning I could definitely smell it but didn't think much of it. Soon after I was done the Co-conspirator came home and announced that the kitchen smelled like an outhouse.

Earlier this year I did a fun little "dream home" exercise where I listed on paper all the things I'd like to have as part of my ideal home. One feature is a summer kitchen--an outdoor, covered but unenclosed cooking area. There we could can away to our hearts' content without steaming up the house in the heat of July, fry fish and can sauerkraut without stinking up the place, and share the "external benefits" of our cooking adventures more with our neighbors.