Saturday, June 21, 2014

November

November



JASPER MOUNTAIN has been on view a lot this fall; we had week after week of warm, sunny weather, so that I had tomatoes still ripening on the first of November. This was one of our most neglected gardens ever, and the number and variety of weeds that sprang up were astonishing and overwhelming.

To look for beans or cucumbers was an adventure akin to exploring an equatorial rain forest. And yet the veggies were there, in profusion, holding their own. I brought out the juicer my eldest son had sent me last Christmas, and ran it for two or three hours every Saturday, putting fruit juices and soup stocks into the freezer in every available container of whatever variety. Outside, the sunsets on the mountain became redder and darker each week; I turned on the kitchen light and juiced into the evenings.

The soup stocks I use in several ways.

Once thawed, they can be poured into a crock pot, and diced vegetables and grain thickeners can be added to taste, to create soups with those overnight flavor blends.

Or, they can be directly served hot or chilled as a vegetable drink.

Or, they can be used in bread. If I were doing pot roasts, which I’m not lately, the soup stock would be just the thing to add to the pan and used in basting.

When we get tired of the soups, we can whirl them in the blender and use the resulting paste in bread as well.

The bread lately has been of two sorts: round loaves raised and baked in stoneware plates, or rolls cut from the dough, rolled into a ball and plopped onto an oiled baking tin nested in another baking tin. Choice of wheat or whole wheat or spelt, honey, molasses, sorghum or sugar, and throw in anything that takes your fancy: oats or quinoa, for example.

My last two batches included a paste made from pie pumpkins.

The pumpkins were volunteers and roamed about the garden at will, investigating the tomato vines and trying to smother the lettuce. I gathered about fifteen (they’re quite small, under three pounds each) and hoarded them away from carvers until safely after October 31, then scattered them round the house under the guise of setting the tone for Thanksgiving.

Each week I take one, halve it, scoop out the seed pulp into a colander, and simmer the halves until they’ve softened but not fallen apart. I drain the simmer water and use for bread or let it cool to water plants or farm animals. The halves peel easily. They’re now ready to smash up and use either in bread, as a winter squash dish, or, if you insist, pie.

I run well water through the seed pulp and rummage all the seeds out into a bowl, salt them lightly, and toast them on top of the wood stove.

The seeds are habit -forming and, to my mind, better than popcorn. The seed pulp goes into bread, where no one objects to it.

Everyone here professes to hate pumpkin so I simply serve the mashings with cinnamon and nutmeg as winter squash, under which name it is quite popular.

As the weather cools, I’ve taken to gathering acorns. There are massive English oaks in front of my place of work, and these usually produce bushels of long, dark, mahogany-toned nuts which are very popular with the local squirrels. I understand from the literature that plain fresh acorns are inedible for humans due to the high level of tannins in them, and that one wants to shell them, grind them, leach the flour by running water through it for hours, then bake with it.

Being an impatient sort, I’ve tried them raw, keeping company with the squirrels, and aside from a puckery aftertaste found them palatable. The two basic varieties of oak in our town have either toothed or rounded leaves. Supposedly the toothed kind is more acid than the rounded kind and is to be avoided.

The English oaks are decidedly superior, but we have some large, handsome black oaks here (from the Eastern U.S., I think) which produce another large and handsome acorn that seems almost as good. They have sharply toothed leaves. Our native oaks, which produced the acorn meal famous as the staple diet of the peace-loving California Indians, have round-lobed leaves.

I have tried roasting these and also the English ones and I think they all roast well. The flavor changes to something between a parched peanut and a black olive. I haven’t noticed any adverse effects at all, except to my waistline; these things pack a calorie count comparable to peanut butter.

Why anyone with two legs and a pair of good hands would starve in a country of oaks, I don’t know.


We have dug up and divided the perennials, given the grass a last mow, picked and eaten the last tomato (in November!), and tasted a first frost in the steamed greens. We regret, however, that we did not manage to save seed this year. My target seeds were scarlet runners and sweet peas. Last year's scarlet runners were a big success. We had two kinds, the true runners and a bush variety, which you're supposed to mass, like salvia, for the red blooms. I built a pole tripod for the runners and planted the bush variety around its feet, resulting in a display in the vegetable garden that rapidly became the centerpiece that drew the eye of the visitor, whether human or hummingbird.

Somehow I managed to save the big purple beans, in spite of a week of rain at the end of that season, and in separate lots too, though there was no difference between them to see. I put them in clay bowls for safekeeping, one kind in each pot, and gloated over them through the winter. Occasionally I would stop by, plunge a hand into each bowl, and run my fingers though the beans like a miser bathing in gold.

On a day in May, with a week to go before planting, I went to look over the beans, only to find that one of the bowls was empty, while the other was twice as full as it had been.

"So, um, what's happened to my beans?" I asked Beloved.

"Looks like one of the kids has been having a tactile experience," she calmly replied.

I was so unnerved that I went out and planted the lot indiscriminately in a cold flower bed, a week ahead of schedule; only about ten came up, which were all vining runners. These ultimately produced beans, but my heart wasn't in it, and they are languishing now among the year's dying calendulas and zinnias.

The sweet peas are more of a success story. We have a spectacular variety that grows here along fence rows and right-of-ways, which with patience can be captured. Three years ago, with this in mind, I rambled into a field which I remembered seeing a brilliant display of pink blooms. I looked over the available plants and their pods (there were about fifty to choose from) and selected three healthy specimens which I discreetly marked with flagging tape. Each week thereafter, on my lunch hour, I dropped by and checked the pods. These will turn brown and become dry and rattly, then begin to twist into a corkscrew shape. You want to get them just after they dry and just before they twist. I was able to do so, and brought home about 100 pods.

"What are those?" asked Beloved.

"Sweet peas!" I began shelling them into a bowl.

"May I suggest you transfer them from that bowl into an envelope at your earliest possible convenience? And label it clearly?"

"Sure...uh, how come?"

"Well, it's good practice generally, but I notice you tend to leave your experiments round the kitchen -- and these happen to be poisonous."

"Yes'm." So I've been told, and now you have too.

Not knowing the viability or germination rates for the peas, and having a shortage of two-inch pots, I elected to put all of the peas in the ground by the corner of the front fence, in spring.

Nothing happened.

Mr. T. dropped by later that summer, presumably on his annual inspection of all the painting and glazing we haven't done (he built the house, after all), and during the course of a tour I showed him our dismal fence corner.

"Oh, those; you plant them in the fall. Takes 'em a long time to get going, too."

Oh.

So, more as a matter of maintaining a faint hope than anything else, I kept the little spot cleared and gave it a drink or two over the course of the summer, then eventually gave up.

The following spring, I discovered three wimpy six-inch-tall pea vines amid the dandelions.

Aha!

I cleared around them, gave them sips (not much; these are supposed to do fine in our summer droughts), buried them in leaves for the winter, and crossed my fingers.

This year, I have sweet peas.

They've taken over the fence corner, and bloomed all summer long, right behind the mailbox with its wagon wheel, for all the world like a calendar photograph. There were well over a hundred seed pods, too, ready for harvesting; but life has been cruelly busy. When I went out to collect the pods for shelling, they had done their thing. Each pod had dried, twisted into a corkscrew shape, and exploded, dumping peas near and far. If some of these come up, two years from now, perhaps I'll be able to write about transplanting them. Otherwise, I'll have to wait for next fall to write "sweet peas -- poisonous" on a manila envelope.


I frequent abandoned farmsteads, where I hope to find enough apples and pears not yet worm-eaten to stay ahead of our pantry requirements till the new orchard gets into production. It sometimes happens one comes across irresistible items, lost and forgotten in the shifting tides of homesteading. I remember coming home four years ago with a small duffel bag absolutely stuffed with roots.

"What's all this?" asked Beloved.

"Well, I was out at this old place picking apples, and there was all this comfrey and I couldn't resist...."

"Comfrey!" Eyebrows.

"Why? Doesn't everybody have comfrey?" I could remember clearly that in a valley where we had long lived, all the communes and homesteads had comfrey all over the place.

"Comfrey was big in the seventies, but they found out it has poisonous alkaloids! And it spreads like the dickens and never goes away. You grew up in Georgia, don't you remember the kudzu?"

Yes, I remember kudzu.

But our kudzu here is the Himalaya blackberry, and we've learned to coexist with that -- just check our freezer.

But I had a plan. "Look, I'm only going to put it in the orchard, on the other side of the creek. I'll watch to make sure none of it ever comes up over here."

"But what do you want it for?"

"Pigs. Gonna feed it to pigs. Heard it's high protein and doesn't bother them."

Well, I got away with that one. The comfrey, that is. Our pig barn, in case you're wondering, is the shed up on the hill that's full of all the trash we've pulled out of the blackberries. So that's a project for another millennium... meanwhile the comfrey is a raving success, but to keep it from spreading across the bridge, I harvest the stuff three times a year, before it goes to seed.

Makes splendid compost.

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