Sunday, May 31, 2009


Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands.
--Robert Louis Stevenson

On my way to pick the cherries, I came across (literally) this snake. I stepped over him before I saw him. I guess he was on his way to get the birds that get the cherries. It was lying so still that I think I thought it was a stick at first. Then I thought it was dead. But it was merely sunning itself in a very relaxed way in the driveway.

The cherry tree is in a neighbor's yard. They let me pick all I want, and sometimes they help me. The cherries are sour cherries; the sweet ones don't grow easily here.

I made a cherry-berry jam, with about half berries (blackberries and strawberries) and half sour cherries. I cooked it for about two hours before it gelled. My new jam recipe is: 2 quarts fruit and 2 cups of sugar, cook a long time slowly on low (about 2 hours); insert candy thermometer. When it gets to 208 degrees, it's probably done. Check by putting some on a cold plate and see if it gells.

This new recipe is liberating: you can make jam with pretty much anything you have. The original recipe was for 2 quarts of strawberries, but it seemed to work fine with other berries and cherries. It's not as sweet as the recipe in the Ball Blue Book or the Joy of Cooking, which is a good thing. The flavor is very intense, like "essence of strawberry" or "essence of cherry." Also, because you cook it a long time, the berries cook down a lot: 2 quarts of fruit makes 2 pints of jam, approximately, but sometimes less.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Life imitates flowers

I made a watercolor painting for the first time in a long time the other day. I was inspired by my neighbor's Rose 'Graham Thomas,' a David Austin rose. I also put some peony buds from my own garden in the still life set-up. The whole set-up didn't fit onto the paper, so I just painted part of it.

I made a small painting about 8"x 12". But it took a long time: a couple of hours. I'd forgotten how long it takes to make a painting. The intricacy of the rose petals was very difficult to draw, and so was the mason jar, with all its refractions and reflections.

Service berries

I have had this service berry tree in my yard for over twenty years. It is about eight feet tall now, and it bears these delicious berries in late May and early June. Sometimes it is called June berry for that reason. The genus name is Amelanchier, and there are several species with edible berries. I don't know what species my tree is.

The berries look a little like blueberries, and they have a nutty, sweet taste. There is a little crunchy seed inside. It is time-consuming to harvest them, and there are usually not a whole lot, so I just eat them in the garden. The birds do, too.

Service berry is a nice edible ornamental tree, small, and adapted to partial shade.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yes We Can Food

A great article in the New York Times about the "new" fad for canning food. I didn't know I was part of a movement! Last fall I just had a lot of apples and pears, and so I started canning them. Then I got obsessed. Apparently I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tiny Dinosaur

I found this baby turtle in the driveway. It was about the size of a half dollar. I think it's a baby snapping turtle. It has a very long tail, which it curled up under its shell when I picked it up, and it has a very pointy nose.

I brought it up to the house and photographed and then drew it. It had the most amazing armor-like shell and tiny little BB-like eyes. After it had been traumatized for a while by its experience on the kitchen table, I released it to the wild, down by the creek, into a bamboo patch.

Upper Cumberland Caviar

We don't have sturgeon in the Upper Cumberland, but we do have catfish. My neighbor Joe caught a big one at his place on the river, and he brought me the roe in a ziploc bag. It was a disturbing looking piece of anatomy. Some people thought I was carrying around a brain. It reminded me more of a placenta, which is closer to the truth actually.

I researched cooking catfish roe on the internet. Most cooks advised warming it gently in a pan, still in the egg sac, but the egg sac should be punctured to let steam escape.

I did that, but it was exceedingly fishy-tasting. However, Molly the Border Collie liked it a lot.

Joe said that maybe the problem was I didn't season it enough. Maybe some soy sauce would have helped?

Marmalade this time

I saw my neighbor, Joe, the other day, feeding oranges to his cows. He was cutting the oranges up with a knife, having brought them from his place down in Florida. Some of the oranges were in pretty good shape, really, so he gave me about a dozen. This was just enough to make the marmalade recipe in The Ball Blue Book.

I found out, reading The Ball Blue Book, that marmalade is any jam that has citrus peels in it. So it can be made with grapefruit peels and lemon peels as well as orange peels, and it can have other kinds of fruit in it.

It took longer than I expected to cook the marmalade down to the gelling point: about 40 minutes. But the results were pretty and delicious. I gave some to my neighbor so he would keep bringing me citrus from Florida.

My second attempt at strawberry jam resulted in jam that was a little too stiff, especially after refrigeration. I cooked it too long, and the temperature got too high. So I gently warmed it again with a little added water, and voila: perfect jam again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rosemary Mint Wine Jelly

This has been a cool, wet spring, so the mint in the garden has thrived. What to do with it all? I dried some of it by hanging bunches upside down in a closet (it's supposed to be dark to preserve the green color).

But I also tried making mint jelly. The Ball Blue Book's recipe was not practical for me, as it called for a lot of apples, and the making of apple jelly juice as a preliminary to making mint jelly. Apples and mint aren't at their peak at the same time, and none of the apples from last year were still good. They had shriveled in the refrigerator drawer.

I looked for a recipe online. The first recipe I tried wasn't very good: it had too much vinegar, and it was very tart, and not very minty. But the second recipe I tried was really good: it was from the April 1990 Gourmet, and I found it at the Epicurious website. I had to get rosemary and wine from a neighbor. Rosemary isn't hardy here, and it has to live in a pot that is brought into a greenhouse in winter. And you can't buy wine in the grocery store here for some reason, although there is a winery in Baxter.

Rosemary Mint Wine Jelly

2 1/2 cups firmly packed mint leaves
1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves
2 cups dry white wine
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 1/2 cup sugar
a 3-ounce pouch liquid pectin

In a food processor or blender blend together the mint, rosemary, and 1 cup of the wine until the herbs are chopped fine and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Bring the remaining cup of wine to a boil, add it to the herb mixture, and let the herb mixture stand, covered for 45 minutes. Strain the herb mixture through a sieve lined with several layers of rinsed cheesecloth set over a large bowl, pressing hard on the solids, and add 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Measure the liquid to make sure there is exactly 2 cups. If there is not, add additional lemon juice. Transfer the liquid to a pot, stir in the sugar, stirring until the mixture is combined well, and bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring frequently. Stir in the pectin quickly, bring the mixture again to a rolling boil, stirring constantly, and boil it one minute, stirring. Remove the kettle from the heat, skim off any foam, and ladle the mixture immediately into 4 sterilized half pint jars, filling to within 1/8th inch of the top. Wipe the rims with a dampened cloth, and seal the jars with the lids. Process in a boiling water bath for five minutes.

Wild Bread

My sister gave me a great book for my birthday: Wild Bread, by Lisa Rayner. It's about sourdough bread, and it's pretty definitive. I've been making bread for thirty years, and I once had a sourdough starter that I liked in the seventies, but I lost it. Since then I've been trying to make another good starter, but the flavor was always sort of off.

Rayner explains in detail how to capture a good wild starter. One secret is: do it outside! I set up the "trap" once inside and once outside, and the outside starter worked a lot better. The trap is just a slurry of flour and water.

The other secret is to use pineapple juice as the liquid, the first few times you feed your starter. This inhibits the bad-tasting bacteria and yeast from growing in your starter and favors the good ones.

Also, I had never understood before the correct way to feed your starter when you take it out of the refrigerator. You have to feed it gradually, in stages, to activate it. Rayner recommends three feedings. The time between feedings varies depending on how lively your starter is. The last time I made bread, I fed it before I went to bed; then I fed it when I got up, and then again around noon. I made bread in the mid-afternoon, and it was baked by bedtime. I'm sure I could have speeded that schedule up a bit in order to have bread by supper time, because the starter was pretty bubbly by mid-morning.

Rayner uses the "baker's percentage" system in her recipes: that is, she gives the recipes by percentage weight (as well as by measure). I learned that whole wheat artisan bread uses a different baker's percentage than, say, a pan sandwich bread made with white flour. Whole wheat artisan bread has a hydration of 75%, which means that for every 100 grams of flour, you use 75 grams of liquid. White pan sandwich bread uses a 60% hydration.

My bread looked and tasted just like I wanted it to. It had the nice holes that artisan hearth bread is supposed to have, and it has the tang of sourdough, without that bad "whang" that my old sourdough used to have. It is wonderful toasted, and it has good keeping qualities.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Strawberry Jam

I bought strawberries at the farmer's market today, and I made some jam. I had some strawberries in my own garden, but I eat them as I pick them, and there are never enough left to make jam. (The ones I bought at the farmer's market didn't taste quite as good as the ones in my garden, but they weren't sprayed.)

I found a lot of different recipes for strawberry jam. Some call for added pectin and some don't. The Joy of Cooking says that jams taste better if you cook them down to the jelling point the old-fashioned way with no added pectin; they say that pectin requires extra sugar, too. But the recipes in the Ball Blue Book that use pectin don't seem to use as much sugar per cup of berries as the recipe in The Joy of Cooking. So, what's a mother to do?

I decided to try The Joy of Cooking recipe first. It calls for a quart of berries and four cups of sugar. You bring that to a boil over low heat; then you boil it without stirring for 15 minutes. Weirdly, you then allow the jam to cool before putting it in the jars. The Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) does not call for processing in a boiling water bath.

I did boil the mixture for fifteen minutes, and I stirred in the juice of half a lemon, but then I immediately poured it hot into the jars, as I wanted to process them for fifteen minutes. I don't know how the jars would seal if you poured cool jam into a jar and then simply capped it.

The jam did set up. The strawberries are floating at the top, but in the past when I made preserves, ingredients that floated later sank into the liquid. So that will probably happen this time too.

Next, I'm going to try a recipe I found on this youtube video:

It calls for a lot less sugar than the Joy of Cooking recipe.

I also made mint jelly, but I'm not sure yet whether that worked or not.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Painted Mountain Corn

Last year I grew this field corn called Painted Mountain. I love multicolored corns, and this one seemed as if it would be good because it is short--only about four feet tall--and it doesn't shade other plants in the garden, and it yields dry ears in 85 days, whereas most field corn requires 100 or more days. I could harvest it in August before I went back to Houston.

But it didn't do very well. The stalks were unhealthy looking, and they yielded few ears. I didn't expect the ears to be big: you can see in the picture that they are small. But some stalks didn't have any ears on them at all.

I think the reason this didn't work well was because in the South, flint corns like Painted Mountain don't thrive as well as dent corns. Dent corns literally have a little dent in each kernel, whereas flint corns don't. So this year I am going back to dent corns.

Painted Mountain was developed in the mountains of Montana, where summers are no doubt cooler and drier than they are in Tennessee.

I did shell out the kernels for cornmeal. I dried them in the oven for a few hours and then ground them. They made a delicious cornmeal. Too bad Painted Mountain is not more productive.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lepiota americana

I found this mushroom growing on a pile of wood chips in the yard. I think I have identified it correctly as Lepiota americana. My mushroom book says that it is "edible but best avoided," so I didn't eat it.

A big egg

I found this large egg in the driveway today. It seems that something recently hatched from it: you could still see the blood vessels attached to the inner membrane. It must have been a pretty big something, because this egg was easily as large as a hen's egg. It had brown speckles on it.

At first I thought it was an owl's egg, but they are white mostly, and so are hawks' eggs. But crows' eggs are speckled like this, so maybe that's what it is.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Women's Day!

I have decided to change this holiday of Mother's Day to Women's Day, to be more inclusive. An International Women's Day already exists, but it is not celebrated in the United States.

After the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe instituted an anti-war Mother's Day observance in Boston. She wrote the following in 1870:

Mother's Day Proclamation

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Anna Jarvis, the founder of the official Mother's Day on the second Sunday in May, became so disgusted with the commercialization of her holiday that she was arrested for protesting against it!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Home after a long absence

I just got home to my garden after having been gone for two months. But, the garden did ok! It had no attention from humans, yet most of the plants did fine. There were some weeds, but they were quickly cleared away. The new fence kept varmints out, so all the cabbage plants--prime objects of varmint desire--were still there. I planted more cabbages (Early Jersey Wakefield) and set out some rainbow chard (pictured here).