Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ascension Day

View of our knob pasture from Morgan Cemetery, Ascension Day, May 21, 2009

On the eve of May 21 I went up to the large rise of land behind our house at sunset, called "the knob" by locals, the highest point of land on our long ridge and which comprises half of our farm here. I discovered that the next day was Ascension Day, honored by our Mennonite friends and many Christians as a significant feast day: the 40th day after Christ's crucifixion when he rose into heaven. This had significance to me because I feel at times on the knob so near the sky that I could touch it. And it seems, in its separate otherness and beauty, like many remote places on the earth, to have its own spiritual climate.

View to the east on our knob, sunset, May 20th, 2009

Sunset over Green River Knob from the top of our knob, May 20, 2009

Knob field at noon, Ascension Day, May 21st, 2009

Our weather this week has been spectacular: dry, hot, blue skies and sunny (with cooler nights). It has been well-deserved. It has also been fine haying weather and most farmers have taken advantage of this stretch. Our hay was cut on the knob in large round, 500-pound bales. At sunset, sunrise the next day, and again at noon, they stood like scattered sculptural monoliths, as at Stonehenge where the mysterious druid circle still stands on Salisbury Plain in England. Our knob has a spectacular 360 degree view but because of its height it would not be wise to build there because of the occasional severe storm and winds (not to mention lightning). It would also be a shame to put a house on that field but I am tempted, believe me. At least it is a lovely spot for peace and reflection, perhaps a picnic. You can imagine the smell now, too, of new-mown hay permeating the landscape. There is no other scent on earth that seems to capture the essence of green, fecund grass and earth warmed by the sun.

Green River Knob at sunrise from the top of our knob • May 21, 2009

Certain views of our knob "mowing" make it seem as if you will go up off the top of the world and into the blue yonder. There is a freedom in that sense of limitless, prairie-like expansion.

Here on our knob we can see the sunrise to the east and the sunset over Green River Knob, the highest elevation in Casey County, just to our west on the Casey/Pulaski borders. At 1789 feet above sea level, Green River Knob it is also the highest point of land in Kentucky apart from the coal region to the east. We chose the knob region and this land because of its hilliness and open stretches on the ridges: the best of the New England hills that we love and at times the rolling openness of the prairie in its large pastures and fields.

...The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day. from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

For the next day, on several occasions, I went back up to the knob to take photos of the hay bales in different lights. Perhaps Monet was as obsessed with his hay stacks. Sunrise was spectacular over the knobs to the east near Berea and I was able to watch the first pale pink light of the day followed by its streaks across the field. Sunset is also visible, just over Green River Knob, but seems more prolonged and stealthy.

I was also reminded of the last chapter of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and how Tess and Angel Clare come across Stonehenge in the night and rest there before she is captured. Here is a passage from that novel, one of my favorites:
...Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front, rising sheer from the grass. They had almost struck themselves against it.

'What monstrous place is this?' said Angel.
'It hums,' said she. 'Hearken!'

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the wall. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless. Tess drew her breath fearfully, and Angel, perplexed, said –

'What can it be?'

Feeling sideways they encountered another tower-like pillar, square and uncompromising as the first; beyond it another and another. The place was all doors and pillars, some connected above by continuous architraves.

'A very Temple of the Winds,' he said.

The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway enough for a carriage; and it soon became obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced farther into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.

'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare.
'The heathen temple, you mean?'
'Yes. Older than the centuries; older than the D'Urbervilles! Well, what shall we do, darling? We may find shelter farther on.'

But Tess, really tired by this time, flung herself upon on oblong slab that lay close at hand, and was sheltered from the wind by a pillar. Owing to the action of the sun during the preceding day the stone was warm and dry, in comforting contrast to the rough and chill grass around, which had damped her skirts and shoes.

'I don't want to go any farther, Angel,' she said stretching out her hand for his. 'Can't we bide here?'

The view of Green River Knob, noon, Ascension Day • May 21, 2009

'I fear not. This spot is visible for miles by day, although it does not seem so now.'

'One of my mother's people was a shepherd hereabouts, now I think of it. And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home...'

'Sleepy are you dear? I think you are lying on an altar.'
'I like very much to be here,' she murmured. 'It is so solemn and lonely–after my great happiness–with nothing but the sky above my face. It seems as if there were no folk in the world but we two; and I wish there were not...'

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pies from Farm Journal's Country Cookbook

I enjoy my collection of vintage nasturtium tinware. The canisters are beat up but I got a match holder that is like new, complete with stamped-on price: 15 cents (probably from an old hardware store inventory).

I love this cookbook. I remember taking it out of the Jaffrey Library when I was around 10, back when I had long summer days to spend on visits to my grandparents' New Hampshire farm. Along with The Butt'ry Shelf Cookbook by Mary Mason Campbell, which I've blogged about many times before, I transcribed many of the recipes because I wanted to absorb all of it (not much has changed in the information gathering department–and you should see my boxes of recipe clippings that need sorting and organizing...). Today, thanks to the internet and scouring used bookstores, I own it. My cookbook collection is vast and some would argue unnecessary. (But hey, I'm recycling used books in purchasing many of them...)

The winter before last, our first in Kentucky, our neighbor Larry made us a cushaw pie. We started talking about cookbooks and he said that Farm Journal's Country Cookbook was one of his favorites. Published in 1959 and revised in 1972 it includes 25 years of Farm Journal's best recipes. I'm not sure if this magazine is still in publication but I've collected many old issues and used some in my research and imagery for The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses. It integrated a section called "The Farmer's Wife" that focused on recipes, sewing patterns and other tidbits for running a farm home (my favorites are letters and ideas from women readers).

Fresh, local rhubarb chopped and ready to bake in the pie shells–it looks like pinkish celery and is puckery sweet when mixed with sugar. I also like to make rhubarb sauce (just rhubarb with sugar, cooked on the stove) which is d-i-v-i-n-e when swirled into homemade vanilla custard with a bit of whipped cream (I think that might be Rhubarb Fool).

A few weeks ago I posted about making the first rhubarb pie of the season (well, the first pie I've made in a long time, actually, and you should have seen how dusty was the rolling pin!) At the time I made enough for four 9" bottom crusts and froze two of them. Such ease to remove them from the freezer, thaw in the fridge and roll out (well, I'm still working on the "rolling out" part...).

No, it's not quiche, silly, it's rhubarb custard pie with leftover custard to bake for the boys' breakfast in the morning.

Tonight we are having pie for dessert: I made two rhubarb custard pies (husband's request) and two strawberry chiffon pies (baker's choice and using those ready-made graham cracker crusts–not the same as homemade when you blend melted butter, sugar and cracker crumbs, but it works). I also wanted to make two pies for Anna and Melvin to "show off" Rosemary's pie crust (and Anna is always making us pie and it's time to reciprocate). The chiffon pie is the result of having a really lackluster taste of one at a place billed as an "Amish buffet" somewhere off I-70 in Indiana. I should have known better about the Amish authenticity (not) and could taste the distinctive artificial topping flavor (although I now realize it always "sets" better than whipped cream). As it is rhubarb season in Kentucky and there are soon to be local strawberries (what a difference in flavor), the timing seems opportune. And, as you can see, the ingredients are all real. Enjoy!

Both recipes are from Farm Journal's Country Cookbook (1972):

Strawberry Chiffon Pie
"Fresh as Spring and Luscious" (I couldn't have said it better...)

• 2 cups fresh strawberries
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
• 1/4 cup cold water
• 1/2 cup hot water
• 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
• 1/8 tsp. salt
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 2 egg whites
• 12 strawberries (reserved for optional garnish if you want to gild lily!)

Crush 2 cups of berries; cover with 1/2 cup sugar and let stand 30 minutes. Soften gelatin in cold water; dissolve in hot water. Cool. Add crushed berries, lemon juice and salt. Chill until mixture mounds when dropped from spoon. Test frequently while chilling (I found it to be fine in about 45 minutes–maybe less as I ran an errand in that time). Fold in 1/2 cup cream, whipped. Beat egg whites until frothy; add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating until glossy, firm peaks form. Fold into strawberry mixture. Spoon into pie crust and chill until firm. Garnish with remaining 1/2 cup cream and sliced or whole berries.

NOTE: I think "chill until firm" means all night...we more or less had strawberry pudding, but it was good!

Rhubarb Custard Pie

• Unbaked 9" pie shell (I used Rosemary's recipe)
• 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb (about 4 cups)
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 2 Tbsp. flour
• 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 3 eggs
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 2 Tbsp. melted butter or margarine (why, BUTTER of course!)
• 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
• 2 Tbsp. sugar

Combine rhubarb (cut into 1/4" slices), sugar, flour, lemon juice and salt. Toss to mix and turn into pie shell. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) for 20 minutes. In the meantime, beat eggs slightly, stir in cream, butter and nutmeg to blend. Pour over hot rhubarb in pie shell and sprinkle with sugar. Return to oven and bake 20 minutes or until knife comes out clean and pie is slightly browned on top. Cool before serving.

Chickens are in the House: Part 2

The chicken house has peonies emerging on the south side and day lilies on the front. I was pleased that its construction didn't entirely destroy the old perennial bed. We open the door for added ventilation on warm days.

This morning our Cornish X chicks arrived from Murray McMurray. Everyone was alive and we had a bonus chick in the box and a free "exotic" (who will eventually join the hens on their side of the duplex) for a total of 27. As soon as we got home, the boys and my husband introduced them to water by dipping in their beaks. Within minutes they were all drinking and eating to make up for the past three days of transport. Talk about cooped up! Their shipping box was just big enough to keep them clustered together for warmth. Their brooding box was all set, complete with feed and two small chick waterers and a light for warmth (it is still cool during the day at times, like today, and at night, and chicks need to be around 100 degrees until they grow larger feathers).

Eli held our newest arrivals all the way home from the post office.

Cornish X chicks in their temporary brooding box. I know--they are cute and fluffy and soon they will be in the freezer. The hens on the other side don't know how lucky they have it.

Now these chickens, apart from the as yet undetermined "exotic variety," will probably be in the freezer by the end of July so we can't get too attached. In the meantime they will have a happy coop and a nice yard to run in when they are big enough not to fit through the fencing (we made that mistake with the hens a few weeks ago...retrieved all but one and may she rest in peace somewhere...she was last heard clucking under the hen house). As the Cornish X are fast growers (4-6 pounds in as many weeks) I don't think that will be long.

My friend Jen emailed a few weeks ago that if we name them they should be food names. I see Fricassee, Gumbo, Marsala, Fried, Baked, Dumpling, Soup, Kiev and Cordon Bleu. And there's Giblets, Paté, Divan, Tetrazzini (well, I'm sure you can make the chicken variety), Pot Pie, Curry, Salad, Roast, Gravy, Sandwich, Al Fredo, Nuggets, Sausage and Stock.

This morning my friend Edie, one of the Cupcakes who also raises organic garlic and makes the best chicken stock, suggested a name from that retro 50s dish, "A La King" (how could I forget that one?). Not to disrespect our food in anyway or the chickens themselves but I suppose this kind of naming helps us to accept their freezer fate. [And how could I forget, Sweet & Sour or General Tsao!? If you can think of others, by all means, please let me know in a blog comment.]

And speaking of retro and weird food, this is a great opportunity to plug a hilarious take on food and diet culture: writer Wendy McClure sent me a copy of her book The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s. I received it in today's mail and over lunch was reading her wry captions aloud to my husband--and I haven't laughed like that in a while. It includes classics from the Weight Watcher diet cards, in those boxed sets, now in many yard sales or basements, as they were found in Wendy's mother's. All have delightfully wicked commentary on the food and its presentation. For more about meeting Wendy, read my blog entry at Cupcake Chronicles. Wendy is currently writing about the Laura Ingalls Wilder phenomena and fan base. Come to think of it, in the chicken realm, Laura deserves her own blog entry on that topic one day soon.

Among the captions in Wendy McClure's book (for more see her website):
Chicken Liver Bake: Enjoy it with the ashes of a loved one.
Or maybe what's left of the chickens are in that urn. Maybe the chickens were your loved ones. But chickens never love back enough. And that's why you have to KILL them. And eat their livers ritualistically. And then they're a part of you forever. Forever.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the duplex, the girls are thriving. They are now just over 7 weeks old and starting to look like hens. They have developed so quickly and lost their "chick look" at only a few weeks (I'm glad that nature allowed me a few decades reprieve before that happened in my life). They won't lay until September or October but have their adult feathers and features and it is such fun to watch their behaviors. We've had them using hanging feeders for a few weeks (and the growers feed mix) which is less mess and waste and they like their raised waterer, too. Some have even started roosting at night on the special platform designed for that. This week I'll try letting them out in the hen yard again as I think they are too big to slip through the wire at this point. Eventually, I'll let them free range. [Photo above taken of chicks at a few weeks old--they grow fast! Almost as fast as children...]

I threw a weed into the coop today and, at first, they didn't know what to do with it. Soon they will be outside in the pen eating all of the emerging greenery. So far they've enjoyed bits of bread and strawberry hulls/leaves for treats.

A waterer on raised blocks keeps the manure and shavings out of it.

The puppies have exhibited great interest in the chickens and even helped us retrieve some from under the hen house a few weeks ago. I bring the pups in with me and they watch from the door when I feed the chickens. It is my hope that they will get used to each other. So far so good. While they bring everything else out of the woods I'm hoping that the chickens will be respected--otherwise, they can't free range. Our pups are part Jack Russell terriers and they are natural hunters or at least expert dead-animal finders and excavators (you just wouldn't believe what they've hauled out of our woods!).

Well, do we know yet what comes first: the chicken or the egg? I do know that I should have looked into this before now: poultry processors in south-central Kentucky! I did discover one, SS Enterprises in Bowling Green, a certified organic facility, but that is a two-hour drive for us. The last thing I want to do is to butcher chickens in July. The University of Kentucky rents a mobile facility, too, but I would rather pay the $2.50 or so a bird for the processing. It might seem hypocritical but I'd rather not be a direct part of that process. I helped my uncle and family "put up" chickens after my grandfather died in the summer of 1974. Once was enough but at least I know how if I have to do so.

In internet browsing I have discovered a "must see" place up in Danville, about 45 minutes north of here. While they don't process chickens (except their own, as well as turkeys), they raise organic eggs, meat and cultivate rare breeds: Cackling Knobs Farm, also the home of Kentucky Seasons, Inc. (a commercial cake baking, candy making and catering facility) and the ingenious "Chick Wick" candle. Love the name, love the products. And if we can't cackle now and then, what's the point?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Crazy for Coleus

In recent years, since potting up large pots of annuals around our old house in New Hampshire–and gearing up for our first summer of the same in Kentucky (although a bit fewer pots)–I have become enamored with coleus. Most of the photos in this blog are of former coleus groupings back at our old house. There are so many more varieties now aside from your basic greenhouse "Mixed" six-pack that it is fun to mix it up or enliven other flowers. Some coleus are even now sun tolerant. Each summer in the past four or five years, I made several treks across the river into Vermont to buy unusual varieties of coleus and all sorts of wonderful plants at Walker Farm in Dummerston. (As well as friends and family, Walker Farm is on my list of places I miss.)

Last week in Missouri I had the good fortune of staying for a few days with my friend Anna's sister, Mabel. She and her husband Harvey operate a greenhouse and raise flowers and planters for the wholesale market. She had several coleus I hadn't seen before and said, "Take some!" I had no idea that they are mostly propagated from cuttings–although they can be grown from seed**–so she snipped off about 12 stalks from three different varieties. On Monday they made the 10-hour trip back to Kentucky with us in a full glass of water in a back-seat cup holder. Since this afternoon, they have been on my windowsill in four glasses of water. [For more info on coleus, and I am still a novice, here is a blog operated by Rosy Dawn Gardens in Michigan who have extensive offerings of coleus by mail.]

Coleus clippings on my kitchen windowsill await planting.

A King Kong coleus in my husband's Aunt Belle Temple's Victorian-era terracotta planter. I often put the pot on a millstone in the back yard. By the end of the summer the coleus was almost three feet high, as seen below. Not as sun tolerant as other varieties, it did well in the dappled sun, shaded to the west.

I bought some root hormone to give Mabel's cuttings a boost but just snips hers off and shoves them in pots around her greenhouse. Having just spent almost $100 on coleus varieties for a round raised brick garden up at the Brick House, I wanted to figure out a way to make this less expensive each year. According to Mabel all you do each fall is bring in one good specimen plant and pluck off stems with a few leaves and a long enough stalk and put them in their own pots in early spring.

By summer you have individual coleus plants, large enough to plant in a container or garden. Of course, I'm sure light and the right amount of water helps, too, so this will be an experiment for me over the winter (ah, someday a small greenhouse...). Besides, some coleus varieties, like King Kong, are perfect for the holiday season in their bright colors and red and green tones. Who needs poinsettia?

At the Brick House I wanted to do a Victorian-style circular garden in the raised brick bed out front. In the center are three TropiCannas that will grow to be over 5 feet. Once the heat arrives and with regular watering, this bed will be full and lush in no time with several coleus varieties surrounding the cannas in tapered heights.

I have a lot of respect for a plant that is willing to put all of its show into its leaves. The coleus seems such an indulgent plant yet easy to grow and wonderful in planters. I'm convinced the Victorians liked coleus because it was a sexy, showy plant when they, under their own societal conventions, had to be so restrained in other ways. They could mass it in drifts and enjoy the exciting floribunda of color. I don't like to let coleus bloom just as I don't like to let hosta send forth their ugly spikes. For the same reason–that beautiful and variated foliage–I enjoy hosta but fear we don't have enough cool shade and too much summer heat here to try some. Maybe a woodland boarder garden would work with hosta but soon I will have cows along the woods when the yard around the house gets fenced in. For now I'll enjoy big splashy pots and beds of coleus.

**NOTE: I found this online on a coleus chat Q&A:
"What I do is to let these cutting/propagated coleus go to seed, allowing the bees, flies and butterflies to pollinate the flowers. Then I save that resulting seed. It's a little messy, but just allow the flower spikes to dry up and cut off the stem, below the flowers. I fold large white artist paper in half twice to make a pocket to put the flower head. There it dries additionally and will collect any seeds that fall out. The seeds still in the dried foliage then has to be 'threshed'. This is the messy part. The advantage of all of this trouble is that you can get some really unusual plants. Colors and combinations that I've never seen for sale. I'd really recommend trying this as the purchased seed raised coleus I've grown doesn't get a foot tall before it starts to head out. Some of the coleus sold by these firms is supposedly from plants originated over 100 years ago."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Little Update In the Pantry

The little cottage behind the tree was the "summer house" behind the farmhouse in Missouri where our Old Order Mennonite friends Anna and Melvin used to live. It was originally designed as a summer kitchen away from the house for hot summer days. Wouldn't it make an adorable garden shed, guest house, writer's room or cottage? I want one!

Hello pantry fans and blog readers! I'm back from a six day trip to Missouri, highlighted by a stay in an Old Order Mennonite farmhouse, near Versailles, a trip to the Laura Ingalls Wilder farm at Rocky Ridge, as well as a stop at Baker Creek Seeds' Spring Festival (both in Mansfield). I just posted a rather lengthy blog at our book group blog, Cupcake Chronicles, all about Laura Ingalls Wilder and my morning at Rocky Ridge. You might enjoy it until I blog here about a few other topical things...including more about Laura's home, kitchen, and the pantries she had (elsewhere) and wrote about...soon!

I also have some news to share and, as usual, lots of topics (and photos) that I want to blog about here. With all the rain we've been having around here I predict sooner than later.

I'm also "trying out" Twitter. I don't know if it will stick or not. But it might help me to articulate things in 160 words or less. We'll see. If you want to follow me at Twitter, I've added a feed in the column at left. Kind of silly, really. But might be worth a try, at least.

Happy May!