How an unlikely plant saved Denmark’s farms.

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If you were trying to grow something in Denmark in the 1700s, you were in for a host of problems. Your field was prone to flooding, your yields decreased every year and you might wake up one day to find that your field is covered in a foot of sand.

By the 1850s, though, Denmark was a different story. It was a breadbasket and dairy for all of Europe, with rich and productive fields. I came across this reference in a book on Danish cooking and wondered how they had turned around the country in such short time. I was able to find a great book on Danish ecological history on Google Books and learn the answers.

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Almanac: Forcing Dandelions and Fighting Illness

Dandelions

Awhile back, I dug up some dandelion roots to grow indoors. This may sound like the first time ever that someone has intentionally grown them, but the Italians and French have a long history of cultivating them and gathering them wild. I’d read a note in an Eliot Coleman book about certain varieties of dandelions that you can force (that is, grow indoors from roots) and I wanted to try. I had this dream of going to the basement to harvest gourmet leaves in the dead of winter. What a bonus that I could use weeds from the garden along the way.

Well, five weeks later and the experiment was largely a failure. The leaves were crisp and slightly bitter but they were not leafy enough to make a worthwhile garnish, much less a salad. I reckon this could be better if one had about fifty roots, but I am not that desperate for dandelion greens in the winter. That said, I’ll still be foraging them up in the early spring. They go great with wood violet leaves for an extra-early wild health tonic.

Speaking of health tonics, I have a runny nose right now. I’m treating it with my entirely-ineffective home remedy of hot beef stock with miso, lemon juice, ginger, pepper and shiitake mushrooms. I boil it up and then strain it and sip it like a tea. It probably does nothing to help me recover faster, no matter the myths I tell myself about vitamin C and the anti-nausea power of ginger. It DOES get me to drink more water, though. That (plus pharmacy-grade pseudoephedrine) should knock this out in no time. I’ve still got work to do.

Almanac: Artichokes, Compost, and Caterpillars

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Time for another brief recap of my activities in the Almanac. Things are starting to green up already!

  • I am growing artichokes this year. The height of ambition and folly, but a fun project. I am growing an improved variety of Imperial Star, which allegedly will grow ‘chokes in the first year. They traditionally need two summers to grow, so what do we do? Fool them. The plan is to grow them for 4 weeks, then plunge them into 40 degree temperatures for ten days. The plants think they have gone through winter and get reprogrammed for their second season artichokes. Counting back on the calendar, that means that I’ve already started my seeds so that they get winterized in time.
  • I got to really get into the cold frame today. The picture above depicts the chicory plants I’m growing. The green dandelion ones are puntarelle. I noticed, alarmingly, that most plants were actually three to five plants growing right on top of each other! I blame my overzealous seed planting in the fall. I dug up the plants and gently separated them out, but we’ll see if I ended up killing them instead. Plants really don’t like getting their root systems messed up. On the other hand, this will give a lot more space for each plant to grow.
  • I moved the compost pile cage so I could start a new pile. I tossed the half-composted stuff in it to give it a good start. Part of the pile includes a couple dozen oyster shells, which I have a feeling I’m gonna be seeing for years. They’ll eventually break down and add calcium to the soil (I hope). The end result of a year of composting? Only this much black gold:
    Compost finish smushed

    Kind of disappointing to have only a cubic foot. My guess it that I probably could have bulked it out a lot more with brown, dry materials. This was mostly kitchen scraps, meaning high-nitrogen compost. At least that’s plant matter that didn’t end up in a landfill.
  • I am trying a new hoop house technique to protect seedlings. I twisted #12ga wire into hoops and I’m using insect-proof garden fabric on top. Often, it’s not the cold that kills seedlings. It’s the wind, the weight of snow, the temperature swings. Covering plants will allow them to live a stress-free life. I am working on how to best secure the fabric with the nylon string you see here.You may be wondering about the “Caterpillars” in the title. These hoops are called chenilles in French; that means “caterpillar,” an analogy to the appearance of those long white tunnels.

    chenille
    It’s going to end up being planted with fava beans and sugar snap peas, most likely.

Homemade Bacon, from start to finish.

bacon finished adjustedFor as much as I don’t buy into bacon culture (to the point where I mention it in the About Me section), I still like to have it on hand and of course, I love to eat it. When I have good stuff on hand, I can use less of it and it makes things taste better. I make bacon about three or four times a year. This most recent time, I was inspired by a recipe for sorghum bacon in Garden & Gun’s cookbook. If you’re not familiar, G&G is an obviously-Southern magazine memorializing the enjoyment of the house and nature. It’s a fun and ridiculous magazine to read.

I returned from a trip Down South a few months ago and Danielle and I bought a jar of sorghum at a gas station. It’s an ultra-thick, kind-of-sweet syrup with a malty edge to it. It’s not my first choice of sweetener, but it has a good complexity to it and a little bit gives sauces and braises a certain depth.

I followed the G&G recipe, reproduced here. Keep reading to find out how it turned out!

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You need a soil sifter for your garden dirt – here’s how to make one for $5


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Years ago, when I was beginning to bend a corner of my parents’ lawn to my agricultural will, I found that I needed something to remove all the rocks, sticks and dirt clods that I kept encountering. Even the compost that I made needed sifting to remove the branches that I mistakenly tossed in. One evening, I got it in my mind to build a big sifter frame. I was not anywhere as handy then as I am now, and I still managed it all -for about $5. Here’s how to build this incredible tool for your yard.

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For the best beef stock, use a pressure cooker.

I cook seasonally, and winter cooking means stocks. That can be using bit of chicken stock to deglaze a pan or beef stock to add richness to a stew. Stock is like the most basic soup you’ve ever had. It’s a clear liquid with meaty flavors; a good stock is fine to eat on its own, but it shines when it can augment a dish. It is like the bass in a rock band; it’s not the melody, but you’d notice its absence. The three things that make a great stock are:

  • Richness: A meat stock should taste meaty! It should have a hearty, tasty flavor. If you use vegetables, you get those coming through clearly as well.
  • Body: A good stock should set like Jell-O when it’s cold. This is a feature, not a flaw. That setting is from gelatin, which melts when warm and makes the stock slightly thicker. Yeah, I know that gelled stock sounds gross, but you can really notice a difference; thin stock doesn’t taste as good because it doesn’t coat our mouth like stock with gelatin does.
  • Aroma: Great stocks smell rich, too. This means that you’re getting a full meat aroma and if you use vegetables or aromatic herbs, they are clear and inviting. A good stock simmering makes your whole house smell good.

Commercially-made chicken stock does a decent job of all three things here, but beef stock is all wrong. It’s not worth buying, it’s so bad. To find out why you should skip the commercial version and easily make your own, keep reading for my stock tips. (NOTE: my pictures I took for this sucked so I’m going to re-shoot and add them in later; I didn’t want to miss my Tuesday publishing time, though!)

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Alamanac: the week of January 1

Each Friday, I’m aiming to write a smaller post on a variety of things that I’ve thought about over the week. I’m calling it my “Almanac,” a fitting reference to both Writer’s Almanac and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

  • The cold frame is protecting the puntarelle, raddichio tardivo di treviso and quarantina broccoli that I’m growing… problem is, I think I planted them all too late and they’ve gone dormant before they could produce tasty winter greens. The puntarelle makes bulbous stems to eat, the raddichio makes ivory-colored leaf stems and the broccoli… you know what that is. Luckily, the first two plants are members of the chicory family, which means they’re perennial. They’ll still be alive in the spring and I’m hoping I’ll get to enjoy them as a very early Spring treat.
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Twelve things you can do for your garden this winter.

seed catalogsWinter blankets our gardens, covering our work in frost. The beds are tucked in; garlic and tulip bulbs alike sleep in the soil until spring. A gardener might think they must put their hobby to rest (and might even be grateful to!). When you’re getting restless in the late months, here are twelve great things that you can do to stay busy. The big payoff in gardening is that we get to see our successes; this list has more things with definite results. Keep reading to see what to do… Read the rest of this post…

The Hot Brown: “Whoever invented it was drunk, cooking it for drunk people.”

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The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. Legend goes that the hotel had big dance parties and the kitchen invented this sandwich as 1920’s-era drunk food. It’s made of toast, turkey, bacon and mornay sauce, a rich and thick cheese sauce. It’s ridiculous to eat. It’s the best way to use up leftover turkey. Here’s how I made it.

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