Monday, June 27, 2011

Great River Bluffs State Park

For the first time in I don't know how long, we managed to go on a camping trip that wasn't cursed with downpours. It was glorious. We had a bit of drizzle on Saturday, but the rest of the time the weather was pretty close to perfect. We enjoyed the peaceful and small campground at Great River Bluffs State Park in southeastern Minnesota. The vistas from this park are spectacular for a non-mountainous state.

The hiking wasn't challenging, but it went through an amazing amount of different scenery for such a short distance. We covered nearly all of the trails and all but one overlook during our stay. I was especially taken with these trees that looked like they were straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I think they are Bur Oaks, but I am not sure of that.

Due to the absence of rain, we actually got to cook all of the meals we had planned. We enjoyed this foil packet meal of curried potatoes, cauliflower, peas and onions that were cooked over the fire. We served it with brown rice. Yum! We also ate red beans and rice with grilled bananas (the co-op was out of plantains) and avocado for our other dinner. Steel cut oats with strawberry sauce and veggie frittata with goat cheese were cooked for breakfasts. And, we had lovely picnic lunches with cabbage salad, potato salad, cheese, crackers and fruit.

There were many of areas at the park that are undergoing prairie restoration. They were host to a ton of beautiful wildflowers.

The biggest hike we took involved a mid-point picnic atop King's Bluff. It was a gorgeous place with Queen's Bluff in the foreground and the Mississippi River flowing below us on both sides.

There were two sad parts to this trip. You might notice, we normally have one more dog. Jack has shown us over the last year that he isn't up for camping and hiking anymore. He toughed it out last year, but we knew it was going to be too much for him this year. Luckily, my dad was able to take him in for the weekend and was able to cater to his separation anxiety by remaining in Jack's site almost the whole time.

The other sad part was that we had to say goodbye to Paul's trusty camping hat. It was falling to pieces and got left behind at the campground dumpster.

Those two losses aside, it was a great weekend. It was the most relaxed I have felt in a long time. Plus, in order to get Jack from my dad's house in Wisconsin we had a long drive from SE MN to NW Wisconsin. Since we missed a turn right at the start, we deviated from our Google directions. I navigated us through the smaller county and state roads for the 4+ hour drive. I now have a much better mental map of those parts of the country!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Foraging for Oyster Mushrooms

For most holidays my dad asks for my presence as his present. I honored his request with a trip up to his place in Wisconsin over Father's Day weekend. Paul and the dogs came along, too. I did also take the opportunity to give him his Blue Thuja socks. Since we were also fitting in time to see Paul's dad on Sunday, our trip was pretty quick.

We had two goals during our brief time there.
1: help out with some manual labor as my dad is recovering from an injury and isn't at 100% strength.
2: forage for oyster mushrooms.

Paul got to work on the manual labor part. He hilled the potatoes in my dad's nearly immaculate garden. With his injury, my dad can still pull weeds like nobody's business. Plus, he has a lot of time on his hands as he isn't able to work his physically demanding job. (As an aside, his garden was so pretty that I spent a big part of last night yanking up weeds and tidying up our garden space to try to achieve some semblance of the awesomeness that is his garden. It does not yet measure up.)

While Paul was working on the garden (and taking a nap afterwards!), my dad and I jumped in the car to go "road hunting" for oyster mushrooms. Luckily for me, my dad has been at this for a few years and knows the roads of rural Wisconsin pretty well. He knows of some good mushrooms spots that aren't posted as private land. We drove those road looking for the right trees with flashes of white mushrooms. When you see a possible batch, you pull over, jump out with your bucket and knife and head into the woods. In the photo above my dad is heading towards the tree that is fallen. If you look closely you can see a bit of the white clump of mushrooms at about shoulder's height. Oysters! I wasn't that great at spotting them to begin with, but after a while my eyes got tuned into the bits of white.

Our ideal oyster mushroom was only a day or so old and white with minimal bug invasion.

These oysters are too old. They've been invaded by bugs and have turned darker. We leave those for the bugs and for "seed".

Sometimes even the new, tiny mushrooms have bugs! Mushroom foraging is not for the bug-fearing. It was a bit uncomfortable as the bugs were swarming my head. I got a few tick bites and even more mosquito bites. Plus, it was wet and cold.

Still, it is so worth it!

This one was probably growing at about 12 feet. I ended up finding a big stick and knocking it off because it was too perfect to leave behind. No bugs on that one!

We picked 2 flats worth and then called it quits on the foraging stage of the mushroom experience. Next came the cleaning, sorting, trimming, chopping and drying.

Most of our mushrooms went into the dehydrator. I had dried some of these last fall and shared them with swappers at the first swap. I think I'll bring another round for the next swap, too. I definitely have enough to share!

We did save a stash for eating right away. Since we've been back from Wisconsin we have had them sauted in rosemary garlic olive oil and added to the Carrot Tomato Soup I made with last year's tomatoes. I also added chopped up basil from our garden and a splash of homemade plain goat yogurt to the soup. I paired this with crackers and the fig, lemon and anise preserves that I got at the last swap. I felt super happy eating so many homegrown, homemade foods in one meal!

I also sauted up a batch in that same oil and tossed it with whole wheat pasta and a bunch of the tomatoes that I roasted last fall. I realized recently that the next crop of tomatoes is going to be here soon. That was when it dawned on me that I did way too much saving of special foods and not enough eating of them over the winter. So, into the freezer I have been diving.

Lastly, we finished off the fresh mushrooms tonight with a fried batch. We made them just like last year's batch except for that Paul fancied them up this year by adding chopped preserved lemons into the pan right before they finished frying. I call this my own personal state fair night, because I seem to eat this fried dinner once a year when we have the fresh oyster mushrooms. Fried foods are not normally my thing, but these are a real treat!

Now that all of the labor is behind us, we have these dried goodies waiting to be rehydrated and added to soups, pasta and whatever else we can think of.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June Swap

We did it! Another excellent swap went down this past weekend with the MPLS Swappers. Prior to this swap, Kim posted tips for prettifying your swap items. The message was received! Let us relish a few visuals...

My contributions included this Orange Almond Cake made with the infused coffee olive oil I made for the last swap. This was my snack table contribution. I hope everyone read the name so they weren't surprised when they couldn't fall asleep that night!

I also made a giant batch of my pumpkin hummus. This time I altered the recipe to include a bunch of diced preserved lemons. Pretty much anything that we make in our house these days includes preserved lemons.

I also brought some jars of my blueberry lime sauce. I have come to learn after a few swaps, that sampling is key. People really get excited about what you have if they can taste it. However, sometimes I have a hard time tasting the jams or sauces when I eat them on a bread or cracker. What I really want is to just have a small taste of the item by itself. Luckily I happened upon these little sample spoons. I set them out with my sauce, saving the dirty ones after the swap so I can wash them and reuse them next time.

Another thing I realized is that it is great to include at least one of these little 4 oz. jars when I make a batch of preserves. They make the perfect size for sampling. And that way I don't have to worry about eating all of the leftovers after the swap when I really want to be eating all of the items I just got!

So, that brings us to the list of what I brought home with me in my foodie goodie basket.

For the 7 pumpkin hummus containers and 5 jars of blueberry sauce, I received:
  • garbanzo bean tempeh
  • cultured butter
  • black bean brownies
  • chocolate chip banana bread
  • backyard horseradish mustard
  • sundried tomato pesto
  • sorrel pesto
  • roasted pepitas and cilantro pesto (pesto was a popular item this time!)
  • fig, fennel and lemon jam
  • dandelion lavender jelly
  • cranberry maple butter
  • rhubarb hibiscus sauce
This time I just brought the two things, filled out the bid sheets in advance and didn't have anyone that came with me. All of these things afforded me time to chat with my fellow swappers a bit more than I have in the past. It is so exciting to be among people who are as excited about food as I am. So many of the swappers are so skilled and I am looking forward to learning from them. And, as with the previous swaps, I took away not only my basket of food, but so much energy and inspiration as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Establishing an Herb Garden

Phew! I've been playing catch-up with gardening this year. This spring left rare windows of time where gardening was a possibility and long swaths of unfriendly weather. I've been trying hard to get things in the ground before it is too late. I am finally starting to see the end of that phase.

This is our third summer in our house, but really only the second growing season we've been here for, as we moved in at the middle of June that first year. We are still working on what we would like to grow and where it would work. We are taking into account sun/shade, dogs, water access, potential temptation to passersby and level of plant need when we evaluate what to put in and where to plant it. We are taking the long term approach, picking one or two projects to focus on each year. Last year, we established the vegetable garden. This year the biggest project we are taking on in the yard is to establish an herb garden in our front yard.

We started with a lot of grass that is being slowly infiltrated by the dandelion patch in our neighbors yard. I am not sure if we converted the space from lawn to garden in the most efficient manner, but we wanted to make sure the grass wouldn't just grow back so we invested our sweat equity. We manually dug out the sod, shook the soil off and then carried it to the backyard where we spread it around the new compost area.

That change might not look like much but man was it a lot of work! We spent many hours digging out the roughly 7'x8' space and ended up with a blank slate and sore shoulders.

Then, we added tons of worm compost. As it turns out, our worms don't eat the eggshells or avocado peels.
Then, on to the fun part! I had mapped out the space before we dug. My map was based on a bit of research about companion planting, perennial herbs and annual herbs. We planted lots of herbs from plants, some from seeds and some lettuce, flowers and herbs as well.

The seeds are just starting to come up now. I look forward to seeing how it looks once everything is fully grown.

For posterity, here is the full list of what we planted in this space this year:
  • Spearmint and Chocolate Mint (potted)
  • Spinach
  • Arugula
  • Green Leaf Lettuce
  • Red and Yellow Onions
  • Grandma's Cut Flower seed mix
  • Chives
  • Thai Basil
  • Sweet Basil
  • Tarragon
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Lavender
  • Lemon Thyme (potted)
  • French Thyme
  • Parsley
  • Dill
  • Cilantro
  • some annual flowers that I can't remember the name of

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Messages from Cohabitants

Paul says some weekends are best started with a Bloody Mary and a big, homemade breakfast.

Tchazo says, "Look! In this tree! There is a squirrel!"

Fanny says she doesn't mind being an indoor cat so long as she gets to peer out the windows and cackle at the squirrels Tchazo has chased into the trees.

Jack says that the world is a rough place to be and that it is very easy to get your leg stuck in the rope for the blinds. Twice. In the same hour.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Again with the Rhubarb

I think rhubarb season is starting to wind down. The 103 degree day we had today in Minneapolis didn't do these cold weather plants any favors. Luckily, I have been the recipient of 2 more rhubarb deliveries. A batch from my mother in law and a batch from my Grandma have given me more opportunities to make some sweet and tart goodies.

I used some of those blueberries from my freezer stash for this Blue-Barb Buttermilk Muffins. I followed this recipe, but just used a mix of rhubarb and blueberries. The recipe isn't anything fancy, but it was just what Paul was craving. He doesn't crave sweets very often, so when he does, I like to deliver.

I've been so happy with all of the recipes I have tried from Food in Jars, that I thought I would keep the good momentum going and try out Marisa's Orange Rhubarb Butter. The only change I made to the recipe was to add 2 vanilla beans.

My mother in law has not one, but TWO patches of rhubarb. One patch yields thick green stalks and the other yields thinner red stalks. I mixed them together for this double batch of butter.

The cooking time on this was quite lengthy, so I set it to simmer and took care of other chores around the house. Every 5-10 minutes I stopped by and gave it a good stir.

In the end I produced 5 jars of thick, rhubarb goodness. I look forward to having this richly flavored, yet low sugar option this winter. It'll be a nice change from the sweet jams I seem to be stockpiling!

I'd like to try combining rhubarb with other fruits that don't come into season until later in the summer. So, in order to extend the rhubarb season, I chopped and dry packed a few bags of rhubarb in the freezer. That chest freezer comes in so handy!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

DIY Deodorant

If you don't want to hear about my armpits, you probably don't want to read this post. You are warned!

As I have mentioned before, I have really sensitive skin. I need to be really careful about the products that I use or else I pay for it with rashes and swelling. I decided to cut out mainstream, antiperspirant deodorants when I made the connection that they were causing rashes on my arms. Since then I have been trying a variety of natural deodorant products, but none have really done the job. I recently came across this recipe for deodorant and thought I should give it a try.

I found that a batch filled the tin I had right up to the top. I opted for the tin because that was what the photo in the recipe featured. Now that I have worked with the texture, I can totally see this working just fine in an empty deodorant container. Plus, it would be nice to apply deodorant without having to rub it on my armpits with my fingers.

Now, you probably want to know...does it work? It does! So far it is keeping the stink away and is not staining my clothes.

In this first batch, I used grapefruit essential oil. I think that might be a little harsh for my skin. With the next batch I make I will omit the essential oil to see if that lessens the tingling factor. Other than that, I am happy with it. I am actually surprised by how well it seems to keep the stink away and, equally importantly, so far there are no rashes on my arms.

Hooray for DIY, food-grade, toiletries!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Preserved Lemons

Remember these lemons I started a while back?

Well they are now sufficiently preserved and ready to use.

We are just starting to play around with them and so far are super happy with the tangy, salty flavor they add to dishes. I made French Lentils with Onions and Preserved Lemons.

And, tonight Paul made up a burrito concoction that included sauted veggies with goat cheese and preserved lemons. Tasty!

There are so many other great recipes that I would like to try with these lemons. To name a few:

Spinach Saute with Red Bell Peppers and Preserved Lemons will be a good option when our spinach starts to come in from the garden faster than we can consume it.

This hummus recipe puts the preserved lemons to use, including the peel and pulp.

If you are interested in making your own preserved lemons, it is super easy. Super easy. Here is a link to instructions.
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