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The Last Paw Paw Muffin

Oh yeah hey blog! Its 2015, time for my annual post. Actually when Bethany posted her paleo recipe earlier week, she reminded me of this half-written post from last summer. Since 1/1/15, our paleo posts have been seeing an uptick in traffic, which I can only assume is due to new years resolutions.  Meanwhile, I am trying a diet called “eat all the sugar and drink all the soda” (don’t recommended). So sorry to disappoint, but much like my diet, there’s nothing healthy for the remainder of this post. Womp womp. But there is a reference to the Jungle Book movie.

—–Written in August 2014—-

Well, its an exciting time over here in Johnson land.  Having been here just over a year now, we’ve made it through all the seasons at least once and yet are still discovering new plants here and there.  Since spring we’ve found a sizeable stand of wild blackberries, a mulberry tree, and two pawpaw trees.

Pawpaw, you ask?

Why yes, apparently they are the largest indigenous fruit in North America.  I had never heard of such, outside of the Jungle Book song Bare Necessities.

bear necessities

Here’s the youtube if you’re craving some Baloo now. So good. Anyway.

One afternoon earlier this summer, Ransom’s Pawpaw (no joke) was walking through our yard and asked August about a tree bearing some unusual fruit.  We had never even noticed it.  I don’t think the trees had much fruit last year, or if they did, we missed it completely.  A few google searches later, we learned that we were proud owners of two pawpaw trees.

As I learned from wikipedia, pears, apples, citrus, etc. were all brought from elsewhere. Besides pawpaws, the only actual indigenous fruits are basically berries and grapes.

That was in May and now, after much anticipation, the paw paws are ripening. The internet will tell you that they taste like a mixture of banana and mango. In my opinion, they are in the same genre as a mango, banana, or papaya (i.e. mushy) but really have a flavor all their own. Honestly to me they taste kind of like a starburst candy.  And that being said, if a mango and a pawpaw were sitting next to each other on the shelf at a grocery store, I’d definitely grab the mango.

pawpaw1However, we’re not talking about grocery stores here.  These are in the yard, and so obviously we’re going to eat them.  And so what did we do first?

Pawpaw Sherbet

Ingredients

1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups pawpaw puree
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups very cold whole milk

1) Mix it all up, and then freeze in your ice maker.

pawpaw2

———– end of old text, resume Jan 2015 ——

Step 2) would be:

2) Leave the sherbet in said freezer and then throw 90% of it out a month later when you need the container for a new batch of non-pawpaw ice cream.

The ice cream was fine but I like my ice cream to be AWESOME. We barely ate it.

I also made some pawpaw muffins and in fact, I am consuming the LAST one right now, in honor of this post. I made a big batch for the freezer in August and we’ve been working our way through them. They are kinda awesome with a unique flavor that’s closest to…. strawberry cake, maybe? They even turned faintly pink inside.

I just took my favorite banana bread recipe and substituted paw paw and slivered almonds for bananas and pecans, respectively. Most reviewers agreed that they were awesome, although in to be fair, all the reviewers were related to me (mother, father, sister-in-law, brother, husband, sons). Husband actually said he’d rather have banana bread.

And now, The World’s First Pawpaw Muffin Selfie
pawpawselfie

The end!

Composting for Dummies

Bethany mentioned composting in her awesome post on Monday, so today I will share about our new compost pile.  We just so happened to start informally composting several months ago.  {Read: not an expert.}

I happened to visit Bethany during her last composting phase, I think, although this was years ago now.  I believe there was a plastic bin and some worms involved.  I believe she referred to the composting process as “feeding her pet worms”.

That is one way to do it, yes.  Maybe this is what is making Keith shudder – more mouths to feed.  So much responsibility, and so forth.

So take heart, this composting thing does not have to be complicated.  Here are my pointers:

1.) You can’t really mess this up.

Last summer, I let a patch of morning glory vine really get out of control.  Here it was:

IMG_1662

One afternoon I decided to reclaim my flower patch, so I spent a couple of hours literally rolling the Morning Glory vine into a giant lump.  The lump was so big that I could roll it but not exactly pick it up.  I’d say it was approximately the size of bathtub.  And so there it sat in the middle of the garden the several months.

Do you know what it had turned into by springtime?  Compost, {morning} glorious compost.  (har har)

2) Add some brown, add some green.

Sure, there are some complicated composting methods out there.  Lots to learn about ratios and turning and so forth.  My “Self-sufficient Gardener” book has a whole chapter on it, complete with diagrams.  However, the simplest method I’ve come across is, just dump about equal amounts of green to brown.

Sources of green: watermelon rinds, squash necks, all other veggie waste, fresh grass clippings, morning glory vine.

Sources of brown: dried leaves, dried weeds, dried grass, chicken poop, dryer lints, shredded newspaper, dirt

We’ve been following this formula very loosely for several months and haven’t had any odor problem.  (Except for the time that August threw some dead fish in. That was stinky.  Fish are neither green nor brown matter and don’t go in the compost pile, fyi. )  I suspect we add more green than brown in general, just because we have so many garden scraps, but nothing bad has happened to date.

3) Don’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

(My life motto these days.)

I spent several months thinking about starting a compost pile but was held back by all the complications.  Forget about all that.  You just need a place to pile the compost, a shovel/hoe/rake, and a container with which to carry the kitchen scraps out to the pile.  After that, just get started.

I looked around for a suitable kitchen container for a while to no avail.  So now I use chip bags or other soon-to-be-trashed items.  Then when they get funky with slightly too old kitchen scraps, I just pitch them.  No need to wash.

Here are our duel compost piles.  Right now, Bin 1 is the compost for use in the garden.  We used a lot of it in the garden this spring, and now as you can see, its grown a healthy layer of grass.   Bin 2 is where we are actively composting.  Once we use up all the compost from Bin 1, we’ll switch.  The door on Bin 2 is removable and fits either bin.

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Having the piles right there on the ground means that the worms and other critters can just make their way in and out as they please.  i.e., no responsibility.  August gives our pile a quick stir with the hoe when we are adding a batch of scraps, but otherwise there’s no maintenance.

For urban composting, I’d probably use some pallets for walls in order to make it match my chicken coop.  But if that’s holding you back, perhaps just find a discreet corner behind the shed or something.  Its just a glorified dirt pile, you can always move it.

4) Chickens get first dibs.

More customized advice for those of us with urban chickens:  I think the chickens are more efficient composters.  So, I’d give them priority on any veggies or fruits you would normally feed them.  Then you can add their poop to the compost pile.

Here at the Johnsons we are composting very haphazardly and its working out just fine.  Our weekly garbage back is much less “messy” and of course I love making something valuable from trash.  Who doesn’t love that?

Moral of the story:

Make a small pile of dirt and dried grass clippings.  Start collecting your kitchen waste and throwing it out there.  The end!

 

What I Did With My Maternity Leave

Just like that, my new baby is 11 weeks old and I am back to work.  What?!?  Where does the time go?

So instead of ‘what I did on summer vacation’, here’s my essay on  my 11-week break from working.

First, I attempted to grow the largest baby on the earth.  Although I didn’t exactly achieve Guinness Book-level baby, I came close enough.  We have a seriously large child over here.  I mean, they all grow up too fast but one Sir Davis has grown VERY quickly.  It hurts a mama’s heart a bit to be constantly putting whole groups of onesies back into storage.  We have blown tall the way to the 9-month stuff.  9-month old baby clothes!  Sniff.  17 lbs.  Also, #backache.

   IMG_3185And this picture is several weeks old.

Second, we have also pretty successfully grown the largest tomato plants on earth.  They are threatening to take over the entire garden.  Well, the cherry tomato is trying to take over all the other tomatoes at least.  I can’t really claim this as a maternity leave activity because we have done exactly nothing to make them so huge.  I do sneak out there when I can to tend things when I can.  Up next: canning tomatoes?  What are we gonna do with all these?

IMG_3186Fun times in the garden.

IMG_3183Large tomato.  Our secret is… nothing.  Luck.

Third, we have all taken luxuriously long naps, day in and day out.  Yes that is a LIE.  Ransom’s daily nap has gone from a solid 2.5 hours to more like 45 minutes some days.  I can’t complain, many kids his age don’t nap at all.  Meanwhile Davis has become the champion of cat-napping.  No, its not good for his little 11-week-old brain development, but I mean honestly, what am I gonna do.  There’s no arguing with babies sometimes.  They wake up when they feel like it.

IMG_3182No one is actually sleeping in this picture.

Fourth, we have played with the LEGOs. Pirate ships, tree forts, castles, race tracks, all manner of wheeled vehicles.  Ransom is a die-hard Lego lover, and he has entirely too many of them even at the tender age of 3.5.  (They are hand-me-downs.  #daddyisapackrat.)  While playing Legos with Ransom, I have been cogitating on the most efficient Lego organizational system.  I’m still tweaking it, but once we get done, I promise to share with the internet.  When I do, a light will shine down from the heavens (with a chorus of angel voices) I’m sure because this has got to be one of the most enduring problems of the modern era.  I mean, what do you do with ALL THESE TINY PIECES?  His room is a serious construction zone/disaster area ALL THE TIME.  Really though, what’s clutter in the grand scheme of things.  Although stepped-on legos do hurt a lot.

IMG_3184Ransom has entered the ‘weird picture face’ phase.

Fifth, I dabbled in Paleo cooking & eating again.  I wanted to try to recapture that “energized” feeling I felt during that Whole30 (okay whole25) I did last year.  This year we made it just under two weeks (Whole11?), and then we had some travel plans and it wasn’t worth sticking to the diet while staying with family.  Plus I really wanted to eat some gluten.  ha.  But, now that the garden veggies are coming in, I am determined to up the health-factor in my cooking.  So get ready for some OKRA recipes because we are going to have a lot of that to eat.

That’s most of it!  There was also: replacing the cabinet pulls in the kitchen, two weeks of swimming lessons, a stomach virus, a couple of trips to Columbus, a couple of power outages, a partridge, and two pear trees.  Oh, wait, make that a couple of paw paw trees.  yes, seriously.  More on that later.  Now we are three days into the next ‘new normal’, and struggling to adjust to another new routine.  I’m now working half-days for the rest of the summer, and looking forward to it, but also missing our totally carefree do-whatever-slash-survival days.

 

 

 

Garden Tour 2014: Nashville Edition

A few weeks ago, Mary Hall graciously took us on a tour of this year’s Johnson family garden.  And it got me thinking that I should follow suit.  Now before you get all excited, lets review that I don’t have a large garden.  In fact, I just have a few things growing here and there, but what I’ve got is strategic so I just had to share.

First off, we have an herb box on our back porch willed with lavender, rosemary and cilantro.  Everything grew gangbusters this year thanks to some stakes and netting I added over it.  Last year, the chickens decided that the herb box was the perfect size for them to hop in and take a dirt bath so our herbs didn’t make it very far.  Although the netting is only loosely draped over the top, it’s been enough to deter my feathered friends from trying to get cozy so I’ll probably continue this practice in years to come.

Lavender, Rosemary, Cilantro.  Yummy tasting and yummier smelling.

Lavender, Rosemary, Cilantro. Yummy tasting and yummier smelling.

 

Next is a new addition to the yard….two blueberry bushes.  If you remember from years past, Keith and I both really love picking blueberries (see here and here for more blueberry adventures, or here and here for some yummy blueberry recipes) so it really only made sense for us to add our own bushes.  Louisa the chicken has developed a penchant for jumping up to grab the ripe berries off the top so we may not end up getting very many until the bushes get bigger.  But I’m glad to have them in our yard nonetheless…and have enjoyed the few tasty berries I’ve already been able to pick from them.

Our two blueberry bushes.  Tasty fruit and nice addition to our landscaping.

Our two blueberry bushes. Tasty fruit and nice addition to our landscaping.

Berries!  Wonder how long before Louisa the chow-hen figures out they are there?

Berries! Wonder how long before Louisa the chow-hen figures out they are there?

Last on the list of growing our own food this year is the actual garden portion of our “garden coop.”  Last year I decided to bring some shade into the coop by growing pole bean plants and cherry tomatoes up the side of the coop.  (You can see the start of that project here, although I apparently neglected to post update photos.)  The beans were wildly successful and the tomatoes were as well so I reprised the project this year and planted from seed long before the last freeze not knowing that you’re supposed to start seeds inside and that beans and tomatoes both have a planting season.  I don’t know if it’s all that fertile soil from the chicken poop, or just dumb luck or a combination of both, but my little seeds are growing like champs, climbing the coop wall like a trellis and already bringing shade to our hens.  The bean plants are full of blooms and I have several baby tomatoes on my tomato vines.  I put some bird netting around this garden too to keep the chickens from digging up my plants and so far it’s been successful.

Edible shade....green beans and tomatoes growing on our chicken coop!  We should have our first harvest in a few weeks!

Edible shade….green beans and tomatoes growing on our chicken coop! We should have our first harvest in a few weeks!

 

Look at how huge those tomatoes and bean plants are!  No stakes needed....they hold themselves up to the side of the coop.

Look at how huge those tomatoes and bean plants are! No stakes needed….they hold themselves up to the side of the coop.

baby beefy boy tomatoes.

baby beefy boy tomatoes.

green beans ready for harvest!

green beans ready for harvest!

And on the non-edibles front, we did a few hanging baskets and such, but the most notable victory has been our daffodils.  Aren’t they lovely?

image

So there you have it.  Not as fancy as the all-out farm that Mary-Hall has cranking at her place, but always exciting to grow your own food.

2014 Garden Tour

Besides our actual new baby, we sort of have another new baby right now, albeit one that is much much quieter – the garden!  Knowing we’d be having the baby this spring, I was envisioning more of a “3 tomato plants and a pot of basil” type of garden for this year.  Happily, I underestimated and we’ve got a lot more going than I expected.  (Tip:  Low expectations can be so rewarding!)  Both my husband and I really enjoying working out there, so I find it easy to run out there for a quick errand to pull a few weeds or stir the compost.  And, I should also mention that we got off to a great start due to a heroic effort on the part of my parents.  My mom (and dad and husband) spent an entire afternoon out there, and those of you who know her well will probably be amused by that.

Additionally, the previous owners really put a lot of work into their garden and we definitely got a leg up by picking up where they left off.  The dirt is super rich from being heavily composted and “worm juiced” and so forth.  Its all soft and easy to till up.  Plus there are several semi-raised beds which help make things neat and tidy. And there may be an irrigation system that we aren’t sure how to use exactly.  Thanks previous owners!  (We’re not as ridiculous as you thought.)

Anyway, this year we are growing:

  • 5 tomato plants
  • 4 types of peppers
  • A bed of strawberries
  • Two beds of okra
  • About 50 sweet slips
  • Two long rows of lady peas
  • Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm
  • Plus the previous owners’ leftovers: cilantro, leeks, onions, garlic, and asparagus

I’ve been meaning to pick up some oregano.  There is talk of planting corn.  And I think that should cover it.

In case you are wondering, “lady peas” are my husband’s favorite and frankly they are about the best type of peas I’ve had.  I’m not a huge fan of peas in general.  However, they are hard to find, even at local farmer’s markets.  But, I believe I found some on a website appropriately titled “rareseeds.com”.  My husband is skeptical that they are the “right” thing, but only time will tell.  The little seedlings are definitely doing good, so we are pleased with our purchase from that aspect.  And I’m kinda looking forward to making some future purchases of weird produce from them – like red okra or purple tomatoes.

Now for the “tour” part:

 

IMG_3168The blueberries are looking good.  Last year we gathers at least two gallons worth.  And this year looks about the same.

IMG_3169It appears to be a good year for produce in general.  I guess the plants appreciated all those polar blasts.  The peach tree has a promising crop (as do the plum, the pears, the apples.)  Fingers crossed!  I wonder if we should be spraying with something?

I should start making plans for jams and jellies.  Mmmm.

IMG_3170Asparagus from the previous owner, now gone to fern.  We harvested about 8 servings worth, of which I ate at least half – so good!  Better than store bought.  Now we wait for another crop in the fall.  I also want to look up whether there’s anything we could do to get MORE asparagus out of these plants.  More is always better in the garden.

IMG_3171Onions in “flower” mode?  I don’t know.

IMG_3172Tomatoes and pepper plants, all in a row.  I took this pic last week and those tomatoes have doubled in size.

IMG_3173Strawberries in the foreground, garlic in the rear.  Leeks on the right.  Still haven’t eaten a leek.  Mom had to identify them, I was clueless. 

Nowadays they are looking kinda worse for the wear, so I suspect their season may be ending.

IMG_3174This is our wild forest of cilantro.  I’m hoping to harvest some seed (coriander) off these puppies, in order to eat it, and also in order to plant more cilantro in an actual pot or bed, and not just out in the middle of everything.

IMG_3175(It appears that something is on/in my camera lens.)

These are the little sweet potato slips, growing like crazy.  They know they’re in Mississippi where the best sweet potatoes come from, I guess.

IMG_3176Peas in the front, okra in the rear.  The okra ain’t looking too hot. August thinks its the shade, I wonder about the quality of the seeds we bought.  We are thinking about putting a few more seeds out.  However, okra is a heavy producer.  Theoretically I still think we’ll have more okra than we know what to do with.

So friends, come visit us later this summer.  I will cook you stuff straight from the garden and it will be fabulous.

 

Wins and Losses

You win some, you lose some. Here is an update from the Johnson household the last few days.

First, obviously bringing home baby Davis is a big one in the ‘Win’ Category. We did successfully name the child before leaving the hospital – Davis Charles Dale Johnson. (I’ll have to explain the name sometime soon!) Davis is a good sleeper, although he’s better at it in the day than during the night lately. He’s a cuddly little chunk, and I am perfectly content to sit with him sleeping on my shoulder all day long. He has one dimple and he flashes his sweet smile a lot. Sure, I know they aren’t “real” smiles but who cares?? 🙂

 
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On the other hand, I forgot that baby delivery actually does require some recuperation time. So although Davis is sleeping a lot and I theoretically have a lot of free time, I’m pretty much couch-bound. That’s maddening, because there is plenty to do. On the other hand, I guess my condition is pretty conducive to typing out long rambly blog posts.

Here’s a fun tale. Friday morning I went to fill up my giant thermos (must stay hydrated) at the fridge and the found the dispenser wasn’t working. Opening the freezer, it was noticeably too warm in there, and some items had already begun to thaw out. PANIC! Ransom had just returned from his grandparents, I was a little low on sleep and high on hormones, and now, the freezer full of food that I’d managed to put aside for post-baby meals was THAWING. This fridge was our one Mississippi craigslist purchase, a standard-grade 7-year-old Kenmore. So began deliberation about whether to try to fix it ourselves, call a repair man, or just buy a new one. My newborn-addled brain was no use. Meanwhile the food was THAWING. We found basically the exact same refrigerator for $800 at the nearest Lowe’s so we opted for replacement. My parents headed off to Lowe’s to pick it up for us. August and Ransom carted the whole contents of the old refrigerator over to his mom’s house. Then a couple of hours later, while everyone was still out of the house except for me and the babe, the darn thing cut right back on.

Clearly something was frozen up and now it had thawed out. I heard the compressor fire back up and the water dispenser started flowing again. Agh.. Now that fridge resides in our garage, colder than ever, while we figure out what to do with it. Sell it ‘as is’ on craigslist? So all this is a big ‘LOSE’. I mean, I’m glad the old fridge is gone. It had a squirrely ice maker and always made weird noises. Surely it was only a matter of time till it really broke down for good. But I could’ve done without the random $800 expenditure this week.

After all, this is the week taxes are due, speaking of losing.

Enough negativity. Here’s another one for the ‘win’ column. The day I went into labor, my parents and husband spent the whole day working in our garden – weeding, tilling, planting. It all looks fabulous, about 50 times better than what I was planning for our 2014 gardening effort. So far we have tomatoes, a variety of pepper plants, strawberries, several herbs, and at least three plants that came back from last year: leeks, asparagus, and cilantro. Who has ever eaten a leek? Not me, but I intend to get on that soon. There are also two more beds that need to be planted. I think my excitement over all the progress in the garden was what finally sent me into labor, and the rest is history. I’d love to be out there weeding right now, instead of gazing longingly from the couch.

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And yet, guess what the forecasted low temperature is for tonight? 29 measly degrees. The supposed frost date for our area is April 10th. So I guess we’ll try our hand at frost protection tonight. The actual time below freezing is just a few hours, and the garden can be fairly easily protected. But was about all the buds on our poor fruit trees? I can’t think of a way to protect them, so I guess we’ll just see what happens. I

 

**Update: the forecast is now 34! Fingers crossed!! We may just make it through with minimal damage. August is out covering stuff now.

Old Fashioned Fig Preserves

The Johnson Nature Center is blessed with two sizable fig trees so we’ve been up to our eyeballs in fresh figs for the past few weeks. They’ll still be producing for a while, I think, but we have crested the peak. I’m basically a fig newbie but I’ve learned a bunch in the past few weeks.

When to Pick

I believe I ate my first fresh fig at a restaurant last year. It was underwhelming, but I know what the problem was. The fresh fig is ONLY tasty when its perfectly ripe.

figs (7)

Picked even one day early, the fruit will be fairly bland. The figs on the bush ripen at all different times, so basically you need to scour the tree every day or every other day, just taking the best ones. Some signs a fig is ripe are:

  • color has changed from green to brown (for my ‘brown turkey’ variety anyway)
  • feels pretty soft but not mushy
  • skin is starting to split open
  • not fuzzy but smooth on the outside

A ripe fresh fig is SO good.  Nothing at all like a fig newton.  I highly recommend you test for ripeness by just tasting every so often.  Then you know that a fig that ‘looks like this, tastes like that’.  My two trees are a little different, even though they’re right next to each other and the same variety.

figs (8)

Fig Preserves

Canning some fig preserves are the perfect way to use up a big batch of fresh fig.  Both mine and my husband’s grandmothers separately gave me this method to try, and it works well.  So basically, this is the real deal if you are looking for Old Fashioned fig preserves.  All you need are figs and sugar.

First, you need a bunch of figs.  I used ‘two days’ worth, but last week I could pick all I needed on one day.  Basically, you need about half a bucket full.  This was not quite enough, so I combined with some from the previous day.

figs (2)

Add a layer of figs to the bottom of  a large non-stick pot (for easy cleanup.  Any pot will be fine.)  A wide pot is preferable for faster cooking.

Cover the first layer of figs with about 1/4-1/2 cup of sugar.  Then add another layer of figs and sugar.  Repeat until your pot is full or you run out of figs.

figs (3)

Then stick the pot in the fridge over night.  This allows the figs to ‘make their own juice’ as the Grannys said.

Sometime the next day, put the pot on the stove and turn the heat up to about ‘medium-high’.  Let the figs boil rapidly until they reach the desired consistency, stirring regularly especially as you near the end.  Total cook time was about 30 minutes.

I preferred to mash my figs with a potato masher while they were cooking, that’s just a personal preference though.

figs (4)

There are several ways to check whether the preserves are ‘done’.  First, watch how the juice runs off the stirring spoon.  If it pours off like rain water, you aren’t there yet.  When done, the juice will run off in sheets or streams.  I also used the cold spoon test.  Keep several spoons in a glass of ice water.  Quickly dry one off and drop a dab of preserves on it.  If it cools to the consistency you want, then you’re done cooking.

figs (1)

Next drop your preserves into sterilized jars. From here on out, you can just use whatever canning procedure you are comfortable with, and if you don’t have one, I recommend google.  Actually this site was quite helpful, though as you can see, I did just fine without any special tools.

I leave 1/4 inch of room at the top, and then close tightly with sterilized lids.  I also prefer to ‘process’ my jars for about 7 minutes in boiling water, because I don’t fully trust my sterilization skillz.

figs (9)

Some additional thoughts:

Practice makes perfect. My first batch took forever, and I’m sure I looked like Lucille Ball juggling molten preserve jars with kitchen tongs. However, Rounds 2 and 3 were easy as pie.

If you cook your preserves too far, they’ll be super hard at room temperature. You can salvage them by adding more water while cooking. Just make sure to bring everything back to a boil for a minute or two.

This size pot of figs makes 5-6 full 8-oz jars.  I’ve given away a few but here’s my stash so far.  I feel like a prepper!!

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Squashed-Banana Muffins

While we were in the jungles of Brazil, the veggies in my boss’ garden were forming their own sort of jungle in her backyard.  We returned home to find tomatoes the size of grapefruits, snap beans too numerous to count, and even a baby watermelon.  Lurking in the corner of one raised bed was a zucchini that had grown to about a foot and a half long and about 5 inches in diameter.  What in the world does one do with a zucchini that big, she mused, proclaiming it was way beyond optimal-flavor size.  In the end, the gigantic vegetable came home with me, bound for my juicer…and then I realized that I’d loaned my juicer to a friend.  Not wanting to see such an impressive piece of garden bounty go to waste, I started to look for alternative uses and Keith suggested zucchini bread.  Bingo.

The gigantic zucchini that started it all.

The gigantic zucchini that started it all.

Admittedly I’ve loosened up on my strict Paleo diet in recent months and settled into a healthy eating pattern that feels great for my body, schedule and lifestyle.  But when it comes to baked goods, I still prefer Paleo-friendly recipes, so this zucchini bread idea seemed like the perfect opportunity to find a new, healthy treat.  I flipped through my Paleo cookbooks and trolled the interwebs and found two potential winners to whip up in my kitchen.

Getting down to business, people.  Sporting an apron, I clearly mean business.

Getting down to business, people.  All it takes to feel like a real cook is a color-coordinated apron, clearly.

For my first round, I made the “Grain-Free, Banana-Zucchini Bread (nut-free)” recipe that I found on the blog of Preppy Paleo.  She had two versions and since I had more coconut flour on hand than almond, I opted for the second recipe listed in the post.  It was SO close to what I was looking for that I almost stopped there and didn’t go another round.  Almost.  But I caught myself scribbling the words “perfect texture – would like a slightly sweeter/stronger flavor” across the bottom of my printed recipe and it made me realize that what I wanted was a recipe that anyone would enjoy…not just the “Paleotarians” and other health nuts.

Round One: Grain-Free Banana-Zucchini Muffins.  "Close, but no cigar."

Round One: Grain-Free Banana-Zucchini Muffins. “Close, but no cigar.”

So I surfed around a bit more online, and since I had a need-to-be-eaten-soon apple hanging out in my fruit bowl, I settled on the “Zucchini Apple Spice Muffins” by PaleoOMG for round two.  These muffins packed the flavor punch that I was missing in the other recipe, but I noted “too moist & too MUCH nutmeg/cloves” on the bottom of this page.  And by too moist, I mean that after 45 minutes of baking, they were still more like soup than muffins.  I’m pretty sure this was “user error” not a recipe flaw since I didn’t do a great job of squeezing all the water out of the zucchini before baking.  But still, I didn’t think my muffin-perfection quest ended here.

Close only counts in horse-shoes and hand-grenades.  These muffins had lots of potential, but weren't final product material.

“Close only counts in horse-shoes and hand-grenades.” These muffins had lots of potential, but weren’t quite the  final product I had in mind.

Inspired by Goldilocks and Mary-Hall who both tried two things before settling on that “third time’s the charm” bit, (Goldilocks of course test-drove porridge and beds while Mary-Hall baked cinnamon rolls not once, or twice, but three times) I went in search of a third recipe.  I combed through many and then decided that the best thing might be to just make my own.  I was so close on my first two attempts, and each one had qualities that I liked…so why not just combine them into the perfect muffin?  After a little thought and measuring, I came up with the recipe below, and decided to close the kitchen and call it a win.  The texture was perfect.  The flavor was tasty.  The health benefits satisfactory.  I bring you:

“Squashed-Banana Muffins”

Ta-DA!  Call the muffin man...we have a winner.

Ta-DA! Call the muffin man…we have a winner.

Wet Ingredients:

*4 eggs, whisked

*1 cup almond butter (i used crunchy…smooth would work fine as well.  Just make sure you stir the butter before measuring it out as the oil and solids sometimes separate in the jar)

*1/4 cup honey (i haven’t tried this…but you could probably substitute agave nectar with good results.)

*2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Produce Ingredients:

*1 average size ripe banana (mashed)

*1 cup zucchini (shredded)

Dry Ingredients:

*3/4 cup coconut flour

*3/4 teaspoon baking soda

*pinch of salt

*1 & 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

*1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

*1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

*1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees, place paper/foil muffin cup liners in a six-regular-size muffin tin.

2) Shred zucchini and mash the banana.  I used the shredder attachment on my food processor for the zucchini because a traditional grater would have taken for-Ever, and mashed the banana with a fork.  I left the skin on the zucchini and obviously peeled the banana.

3) Squeeze the water out of the shredded zucchini.  THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT.  I skipped this step on my second round of muffins and I think it contributed to their soupy nature.  To squeeze the water out, I simply dumped the shredded squash onto an old dishcloth and rolled it up and pushed on it until the dishcloth was soaked through and nothing was dripping when I picked up the zucchini.

4)  Pour all the “wet ingredients” in a large mixing bowl (I used my Kitchenaid stand mixer) and mix until blended.

5)  Add in the “produce” ingredients and mix again.

6) In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together.  Then gradually pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture….mixing until there are no lumps.

7) Pour into the six, regular sized, lined, muffin-cup tin.

8) Bake in pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  They are done when a toothpick stuck inside comes out clean.

9) Enjoy!

Diet Information:

*Obviously the addition of the almond butter means this recipe is not ok for anyone with a nut allergy.

*This recipe is gluten-free and dairy-free.

*This recipe is Paleo-friendly although the official Paleo foods list recommends that bananas and honey be consumed “in moderation.”

*This recipe does not meet the guidelines of the “Whole30” diet as their website not only forbids the consumption of honey and agave, but also proclaims, “In addition, no Paleo-ifying dessert or junk food choices.  This means no desserts or junk food made with “approved” ingredients—no coconut-flour pancakes, almond-flour muffins, …..”

Garden Adventures Season 1 Episode 1

Our new house includes a really nice vegetable garden area, complete with a fence, raised beds, and 4 water spigots.  Given the timing of our purchase, I had already written off gardening for this year.  We are pretty much swamped with the moving bit and its already well into the growing season here in the deep South.  But, shortly after we took ownership I realized that the previous owners had already done a smidgen of work this year.  Either that or their plants from last year have re-seeded themselves.  I have no idea which it was, primarily because I have NO IDEA about gardening in general.  Like zero.  None.

And so begins a new season in my life which is sure to be fraught with excitement and adventure  – growing a vegetable garden.

That initial survey of the garden has left me inwardly panicking.  Now I have more mouths to feed, meanwhile I don’t know even know what half of them area, much less what care they need.  Also don’t know where my blue jeans are, much less where the garden tools are.  In the 4 weeks I’ve own it, the garden has already gone from kinda messy to nearly disastrous Jumanji jungle.  Panic! We need to get a weed eater in there, stat.

To keep the panic feeling under control, I’m telling myself that I invested nothing in these plants and therefore lose nothing when they die off.  Keep it simple.  Next year will be awesome and any produce for this year is just icing on the proverbial cake.  So that brings us to Garden Goal #1 for this year:  Keep things under control.  Don’t let the weeds and vines win.

gardenDO NOT PANIC.

Now, about the vines.  Guess what the #1 crop under production at the Johnson Nature Center is?  Poison Iiiii-vvvvv-y-y-y-yyyy. {Sing like the song folks.}  Also, guess who is ridiculously allergic.  ME! Right here.  On ownership day 3(?) I yanked a little one out some monkey grass by the front door, was immediately notified of what it was, immediately washed, and still ended up in the dr’s office 4 days later to get a steroid shot.  Because one eye was swollen completely shut.

I’d show a picture but uhm no.

You know what?  I can now spot poison ivy and its poisonous cousins from a mile away.  You would think it would look ominous and nasty, but it doesn’t.  In fact its kind of pretty and totally harmless looking.  Let me remind you of the old adage “Leaves of three, let it be.”  This is the truth.  Nothing complicated.  No matter what the shape of the leaves or plant are, if it has leaves clumped in groups of 3, keep your distance.

poison_ivyExhibit A.

The stuff is everywhere here.  In the flower beds, on the trees, covering the ground in the woods.  Thankfully, I haven’t spotted it in the actual garden yet.  Garden Goal #2: Don’t get poison ivy again.  I think once is enough per year.

Poison ivy aside, there were still many plants I couldn’t identify.  So, I did the only thing someone of my generation knows to do in these situations: I posted a whole album of unidentified plant photos on Facebook and begged for assistance from real gardeners.  It was a success – almost everything was identified.  So let me share what the old homeplace has in production right now:

  • Blueberries – tons!
  • Figs – there will be tons in a few weeks
  • Pears – a few
  • Apples – a few
  • Peaches – like 4 or 5
  • Garlic – pulled up ~20 to dry out.
  • Tomatoes – fruit is looking kinda small for this time of year.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower – totally annihilated by a pest of some sort before I even identified them.  That’s okay though, broccoli is gross.
  • Green beans – the beans got too big and tasted nasty.
  • Asparagus – already gone to “fern”
  • Herbs: rosemary, bay

cauliflower_failCauliflower fail.

We have two blueberry bushes that have been going gangbusters for a couple of weeks, and I’m stocking my freezer and several other folks’ freezers as well.  And THAT is what I want to do a lot more of in the future.  Be that lady that forces my excessive zucchinis on people.  That brings us to Goal #3:  Can something.  You know, in a mason jar.  Fig preserves, blueberry jam, anything.  I am going to need canning skills next year for my awesome garden, so I might as well practice now.

This concludes Episode 1.1 of my garden melodrama.  3 simple goals, nothing too lofty, but still lots to learn.  Now I’m off to look for a class to take or a “gardener for rent” program or perhaps a “gardening for dummies” book.

A Rain Barrel, BeanSprouts & Garden Clogs.

Our local farmers market opens for the season today and I’m so excited I can’t stand it.  Partly because it’s just so fun to walk down with friends and eat dinner at the food trucks and browse the locally made and grown goods for sale, and partly because it reminds me that in a few weeks I will be gleaning edibles from my own mini garden.

I swore I wouldn’t do a veggie garden again after our previous possum-and-squash-bug-fueled failures. And I haven’t REALLY done a garden this year. But, I do have a few things growing in the back yard.  We have already used some of my herbs…cilantro for our tacos on Cinco De Mayo and Rosemary and Thyme when we cook our veggies for dinner.  So yummy, and so fun to pick stuff in the yard instead of pulling out a jar of something I paid $6 for at Kroger.

And then this past week I acquired two jalapeno plants and three tomato plants that my boss was throwing away.  (She’s a little crazy about her garden which is so fun….to go and see everything she’s planted…and she even gave us a batch of spinach last week!  It was dee-lish!)  And, I’d planted some Burpee Kentucky Heirloom pole beans next to the chicken coop in hopes that they would grow up the side and provide a) beans for us to eat and b)shade for our chickens when the Tennessee summers get so hot.  The beans sprouted this week and I was in such amazement over the whole thing (I typically haven’t had great luck keeping plants alive) that I texted photos to other gardening friends.  I know.  It’s beansprouts.  But I was thrilled nonetheless.

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My first sprouts! So exciting. This photo was taken on May 5…

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….and my sprouts today! see all those bright green little guys popping up back there? The chickens think it’s cool too.

In other garden updates, we got a rain barrel this week!  I’ve wanted one for a while, but it hasn’t really made sense until now.  I’m still learning about all the benefits of having one and how to maximize it’s potential, so I’ll have to give you all some pointers as I learn more. Keith was a trooper and hung a gutter on our backyard shed that feeds in to the new barrel.  We haven’t added barrels to any of our house gutters yet, but we might do that soon.  I’ve put some additional rain barrel notes at the bottom of this post in case you are interested in trying it yourself!

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I was so excited to get my first watering can full of water this morning to water my beans!

an updated shot of the coop with it's completed landscaping and rainbarrel in the background.  You can also see the gutter that Keith hung!

an updated shot of the coop with it’s completed landscaping and rain barrel in the background. You can also see the gutter that Keith hung!

We also started the organize-the-shed project the other day and I found a pair of rainboots from college that I was going to throw away when I saw an opportunity to re-purpose.  I’d been wanting a pair of garden clogs anyway for my daily trips out to the chicken coop and to water the garden, so I simply cut the boot part off and made them slip on clogs.  I love them and have used them every day for the past week.  If you want to try this trick with an old pair of boots, I’d recommend using tinsnips instead of scissors.  They are a little more heavy-duty and make the project easier.

Target rainboots circa 2002 turned "up-cycled" garden clogs circa May 2013.  Love a quick DIY project!

Target rainboots circa 2002 turned “up-cycled” garden clogs circa May 2013. Love a quick DIY project!

What are you guys doing in your backyards?  I know Mary-Hall has some schemes for all that land she’s buying and would love to hear any ideas or advice you guys have!

Rain Barrel Tips:

If you are in the market for a good barrel, let me recommend the Rain Wizard 65 Gallon Rain Urn by Good Ideas.  As always, I’ve done my homework and this is by far the best product for the cost.  It holds an amazing 65 gallons (most in this price range only hold 50) and it comes with the best overflow system out there and a metal spigot as opposed to a plastic one that will crack and leak.  The link I’ve provided is to Home Depot where it’s $109 + fee ship-to-store.  However, if you are a Sams Club member, they carry it for $78.98 and I purchased mine at Tractor Supply Co for $99.  (They are on sale there right now, but are not listed online.  You have to find one in-store).  You can also find it on Amazon for $129 + free shipping.  [Bargain hunting is one of my favorites.  If you want to read my other thoughts on this subject, check out my post on the Great Ottoman Search.]  My friend Kris has about 6 rain barrels on his property that keep his large garden watered.  He puts goldfish in his barrels to keep the mosquito population down, a trick I plan to try.  Minnows and guppies also work.  Just remember that  while all rain barrel water is non-potable (not for human consumption) if you try this, you will have “fish tea” (poop) so you will want to use the water for gardens/plants only…not as drinking water for pets.  You’ll also want to take the fish out when the weather turns cold and keep them in a bowl inside for the winter.  And make sure to add water during dry summer months so the fishies always have water in their barrel.