Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snowed In...Bread Anyone?

We're officially snowed in.  Our electricity is still running, but who knows how long that will last.  Already we've gotten over 20 inches in certain parts of the yard.  Other parts have barely a dusting.  We have the high winds to thank for that, and it's expected to get worse as the day progresses.  The old windows in our house rattle with every strong gust, but that's part of the charm of living in an old home (or at least that's one way to look at it). 

In any case, it's a good day to bake some bread.  Lately I've been pretty good about baking at least one or two loaves of this no knead bread every week.  I've had success making more complicated artisan breads (like the one featured in Tartine), but for the moment, this easy no knead bread seems to fit our busy lifestyle. 

A few years ago, I converted the New York Times recipe into weight measurements and tweaked it a bit.  (You can find my original post here.)  My version consists of a bit more water (sometimes I add even more than what's stated below) and some whole wheat flour.  I like breads made from sticky doughs.  More water means more hydration and the resulting bread is chewier and sponger in texture.  I find that well-hydrated doughs also result in breads that are much easier to digest. In my opinion, this bread is well worth the little effort involved.

Basic No Knead Bread Recipe (adapted from The New York Times recipe)

380g bread flour
50g whole wheat flour (or an additional 50g bread flour)
360g water at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast (I use SAF)
1 1/4 teaspoon of salt
olive oil

In a large bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients thoroughly with your hand, then add the water and continue mixing until a loose wet dough forms. Coat a second bowl with a bit of olive oil and transfer the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise slowly for at least 12 hours at room temperature. (The initial rest time is pretty forgiving so you can leave it for  a couple hours longer if need be.)

At this point, with your hand, do 4 or 5 folds with the dough still in the bowl to shape it a bit. Then turn it onto a lightly floured surface.  Flatten it just a bit and do a series folds (like you're folding an envelope) to tighten the dough's surface and form it into a ball. With the seam side down, cup the dough with both hands and lightly drag the ball towards you.  Do a quarter turn and drag it again.  With every turn and drag, the skin of the ball should tighten a bit.  Do this several times until a tight skin forms all around the ball.  (This part is important to ensure a nicely-risen loaf.)

Lay the ball seam-side up in a floured brotform, cover with a kitchen towel and allow it to rest for 2 hours. (Note: rice flour works great to prevent the dough from sticking to the brotform.)

When it's time to bake, preheat the oven and a cast iron combo cooker (or dutch oven) for 20 minutes at 450 degrees. Then carefully invert the dough onto the heated bottom pan (seam side down) and make a few slashes to the top. Cover the loaf with the top pan (or lid) and bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes.  Then uncover and bake the loaf for an additional 10 - 15 minutes or until it's golden brown.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Morning Snow in January

 We awoke  Saturday morning to snow.  Strange to think that we've had so little of it this year - not much more than dusting up until now.  This weekend, we only ended up with about 5 inches, but it was enough to make the kids happy.

 I really like the way our front lawn looks covered in snow.  Ever since we cut down the old maples and choke cherry trees that once lined it, it seems much more expansive.  The large pine on the right started its life as a Christmas tree.  I'd love to cover it in lights one of these days.  The fruit trees I planted last spring are still pretty small, but doing well.  To the left, you can see the currant bushes that I moved from the backyard this past fall.

 Our dog Lucy loves the snow.   It doesn't take long for her to find a ball buried deep.

By midday, it began to rain and the yard turned rather slushy.  Tomorrow night, we're expected to get our first major storm of the year with 20 inches of snow and strong winds in the forecast.  We're keeping our fingers crossed that we won't lose power, which is an all too often occurrence in our neck of the woods.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Garden Path In Progress

During the next few weeks, I'll be posting about some of the gardening/landscaping projects I'd started last fall but never got around to writing about (or finishing for that matter).  At this point I've come to accept the fact that the garden(s) will be a work in progress for at least the next few years.  Though I'm truly of the opinion that a 'finished' garden is a fallacy, I do believe that I'll eventually get to a point when I won't be digging up great big patches of sod or shoveling through heaping piles of pea gravel.  I'll welcome that day when it comes, but for now, I'll try to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that follows a weekend's worth of backbreaking physical labor. 

In this post, I'll be highlighting probably the biggest project of this fall - installing a garden path that runs along one side of our house.  Eventually, this path will lead from the front lawn to our future backyard patio/outdoor living space.  In this particular area, there used to be an ill-conceived low-lying deck, which was unceremoniously demolished shortly after we moved in. (You can read about it here.)  After the rumble was carted away, what remained was a large patch of dirt, which then turned into a large patch of weeds and at times a large pile of brush destined for the burn pile.  A year later, I decided that enough was enough and that something had to be done to make this area less of an eyesore. Over the span of two weekends, I went to work on installing a new garden walkway and two new flower bed. I won't bore you will the details, but here are a few photos of the project from beginning to end (or should I say, where it is now).

A new flower bed was dug.  Instead of a straight shot from the front lawn to the back yard, I wanted to create a semi-windy path.

I tried to clean up the area as much as I could before the weed barrier went down.  Thankfully, there was not much top soil here to dig up.  The ground was hard and compact. 

A layer of fresh soil mix was spread over the new garden bed.

 When we pulled out a part of the backyard fence, I saved all of the treated wood as it was in very good condition.  I used some of the wood to line the path and to give it a clean straight edge. The path is fairly wide (7 ft) to accommodate large landscaping equipment like a commercial lawnmower. 

As you reach the backyard, I wanted to give the path a more natural-looking border.  Again I decided to used a material we had on hand - in this case, large boulders. 

You can see how the path will bisect the future planting area in this part of the yard.

To the other side of the path (where the giant boxwood sits) will be another planting bed consisting of woodland plants that can tolerate tall shade.

Next the hard paint - shoveling nearly three yards of pea stone and spreading it evenly throughout the path.

I lined the beginning of the path with some jumbo cobblestones.  They are pretty secure but I think I'll add another two layers this spring for added stability.  The other end was also lined with cobblestones as temporary measure to keep the pea stones in place until we can work on our future patio this spring.

A few weeks ago, I started to shape front side of this planting bed, scraping away at the thin sod.  Because this area doesn't get much sun, the surface is more moss than grass.  Unfortunately, the ground froze over before I could any further on this project.  At this point, the project looks rather half-finished but I've since come to accept that - especially when you're working on such projects yourself.  Sure it might look a bit untidy, but it is what it is. For now, I'll just have to imagine what it might look like by next summer.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Connecting with the Past - Treasures Hidden Within an Old New England Home

Earlier this week, our friend Paige emailed me to say that she had a little present for us.  Paige and her husband Nate are the prior owners of our property, and during their time here, had done a considerable amount of work to transform a typical New England farmhouse into the amazing home that it is today.  For me, it's the home of my dreams - not too big, not too small...it has the bones and charm of many modest homes built during the 19th century, but renovated in parts to accommodate the needs of our modern day living.  We knew from the moment we laid eyes on the 'William J. Newcomb' house, circa 1875, that this was where we were meant to be.  It just had that 'feeling' about it.  And while the future is never a sure thing, there's a part of me that believes we will be here for a very long time, or at least long enough to leave behind an indelible mark. 

In any case, Paige went on to say that during the course of doing some renovations on the house, they had found some letters, which had been tucked away in the eaves of the attic, and that these letters appear to date back to the original owners of our home.  For a time, she considered giving them to the Scituate Historical Society, but now felt that it was appropriate to turn them over to us for safekeeping.  I will admit that I was a bit shocked by this revelation and had to read these lines several times for it to sink in.  I've always had an interest in American history (having majored in it at college) and in old homes, and to have a relic from the past, particularly of the people who once occupied our own home, seemed in many ways awesomely fortuitous and very special.  To think that these letters remained undiscovered for over a hundred years, that they might offer us a small glimpse into the lives of the Newcomb family - it's beyond words to express how I excited I am about this. 

So Marc and I spent some time this past Wednesday night carefully examining these letters.  Sadly, they are all in rather rough shape, having been subjected to the harsh atmospheric conditions of our uninsulated attic for almost 140 years.  We can decipher only parts of each letter at best.  Some remain barely intact, flaking away at the edges and folds, while others contain handwritten words that have mostly faded with time.  Still, there's definite indication that these letters were sent to the family's matriarch and that it was she who had tucked them away.  There's one letter from a son to his 'Ma' dated 1871 (six years after the American Civil War!) about the fact that his need for clean clothes has been tempered by the cool weather, though he would like for her to come over or send someone over to remedy his laundry situation (I guess somethings never change). There's another letter between sisters that offered the details of an Aunt's garden party and the possibility of a visit.  Also a letter of affection, though too faint and damaged to comprehend fully.

Paige also gave to us some relics that had been discovered around the property - a broken medicine bottle, a decorative ceramic dish of some kind, a rectangular piece of leather stamped with a large insignia, and a buckle of some kind (previously part of a leather satchel perhaps).

It was difficult to decipher the lettering on this insignia, but it appears to read 'B & Co. Manufactures'.  Pictured in the center is a bald eagle surrounded by stars.

Could this have been a candy dish of some kind?  It looks too decorative to be an ashtray.  Hopefully we'll know for sure one of these day.

We'd like to send the letters off to a professional to have them preserved in a shadowbox and maybe translated by someone accustomed to examining such things.  Eventually, I'd like to display these artifacts in our study, as they remain part and parcel of this house.  But for now, we've tucked away our treasures to some place dark, sealed and safe.  I'd also like to pay a visit to the Scituate Historical Society to learn more about the Newcomb family and to see whether there might be other letters or documents out there. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Winter's Harvest - Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

And we're back again...hopefully for the long haul, but one can never be too sure these days.  Without purposefully doing so, I ended up taking a three month break from writing about the garden.  That's not to say that I haven't been busy gardening or that I've lost interested in this blog. Only that I'd suffer through a couple of moderate health issues (one of which is pressing me to make some changes to my diet) and had been forced to slow down a bit.  But now that the New Year has arrived, I'm feeling invigorated again.  I have a lot planned for this year and am eager to get going.

In any case, after breezing through a relatively mild December, January has predictably brought with it the sudden reminder of how frigid our New England winters can be.  Temperatures fell to 0 degrees F this past week, which left me scrambling to protect some of our more vulnerable outdoor plants (like my oriental persimmon tree for instance).  Any hopes that we would get through this winter unscathed is gone at this point.  I can only hope that the next two months will be kind to us gardeners and our plants.

One thing I was able to do before the temperatures plunged last week was to dig up the bulk of my Jerusalem artichokes.  This was my first time growing this edible tuber and the results were  interesting to say the least.

 Flashback to November 2013, I'd purchased a single tuber from the produce isle at Whole Foods, cut it up into three chunky pieces and planted them at a spot in the Great Border.  The following spring, they sprouted and the resulting plants grew tall and strong as the growing season progressed.  
 By late September, they were well over 12 feet tall, with long sturdy stems stretched high into the sky and swaying with the breeze.  I can imagine walking through a field of them, looking up at a glowing canopy of golden yellow flowers. 

 Up close, the blooms themselves are simple yet attractive, and in my opinion, perfectly fit for any fall cut-flower arrangement.  Unfortunately, they seem to fade rather quickly with the ever-so-sudden arrival of fall in our part of the world.  By mid-October, the whole plant is suffering and destined for the compost heap.  I left intact the bottom foot of the main stalk to mark where the plants were. 

Fast forward to last week, I decided to lift the stalks and dig for some edible tubers.  And boy did I find them.  I dug in areas up to 2 - 3 feet away from the main stalks and still found them.  So far, I must have harvested about 25 lbs  - all from a single tuber purchased at the grocery store.  And I'm sure there are others that I've missed.  It's a bit unsettling if you ask me to have a plant/vegetable like this, which thrives on neglect and still produces in abundance. I can see how this plant could easily take over an entire garden if allowed to do so.  And so, if you're looking for a crop that produces very high yields with little to no work, this is the vegetable for you. (If there were ever a zombie apocalypse, I know what I'll be growing for sustenance.)

The tubers themselves were fat and completely blemish free.  I peeled and boiled a few, then sauteed them lightly in some melted butter.  The taste?  Well let's just say they're called Jerusalem artichokes for a reason.  They have a flavor and texture that's almost identical to a steamed green globe artichoke heart, without any of the fussed associated with growing or eating the latter.  (Well that's not entirely true.  They tend to propel some eaters into tomorrow if you know what I mean.)

In any case, I will undoubtedly be growing them again. However, I'll be moving the crop to an isolated raised bed to prevent any overly precocious tubers from escaping.  I don't know of any other local gardeners who are growing Jerusalem artichokes, but I hope that some of you will give them a try.  It's the lazy gardener's dream vegetable for sure.  You just dig up the lot and leave behind 1 or 2 tubers for next year's crop.  It couldn't get any simpler.