Friday, October 30, 2015

Winding Down the Garden

Sunset at the community garden.
Our home garden got frosted, catching us off guard about two weeks ago.  We'd been checking the forecast and thought we were fine.  Other gardens in town didn't get frost, including our plots at the community garden.  It must be our proximity to the rims or something.  I don't know.
Matt pulling tomato plants--and green tomatoes--at the community garden plot.
It was a mixed bag though.  Covering the garden with sheets and things can be a hassle--and is only postponing the inevitable.  Our fall had thus far been unseasonably warm--much to the benefit of our peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes.  We've had good harvests of all three.  So, we really weren't that broken up by the shriveled, black tomato plants.
A beautiful fall day at the community garden.
We've been systematically winding down the garden--harvesting food, pulling plants, building compost heaps, mulching open beds--since then. There has also, of course, been much canning, drying, and freezing of homegrown goodness for later use.  Its been a really good gardening year on most counts.
A counter top of bounty:  red and gold potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, red peppers, yellow and green summer squash, pint jars of apple sauce, a windowsill of tomatillos.
We added more flowers to the mix and have really enjoyed them.  The bright colors make being in the garden even more pleasant--which is saying something because we already thought it was a pretty great place to be.  The bees buzzing around them make me happy.  I think Matt and I are finally starting to "get" flowering gardening.
We grew the biggest cabbages I've ever seen in real life.  Huge.  Bigger than basketballs easily.  The largest of them was stolen from the community garden, but the other two were pretty close to it in size.  We just keep telling ourselves that someone hungry really needed it.  And then Matt adds a little joke, "...just so long as they didn't make sauerkraut with it..."  Though we both like cabbage, neither of us are fans of kraut.  We're going to freeze some for soup--at the suggestion of one of Matt's co-workers.  We've sure enjoyed loads of springrolls and stir-fry dishes, too, and have some cabbage-potato samosas in the freezer for those I-don't-feel-like-cooking nights.  I'm so glad my friend, Meagan, convinced us we actually do like cabbage.
Big, beautiful cabbages.
We still need to harvest our sunchokes, but had been holding out on that for some frosts.  We've never grown them before, but from what I've read the tubers are sweeter after a frost or two.  We should have cut the flowering heads off, I guess, to encourage more root growth, but...we didn't.  They were really pretty, yellow flowers though--and tall!  Goodness did the sunchokes grow, grow, grow!  They were multiple feet taller than our garage.  At least 15 feet, I'd estimate, maybe more.
Towering sunchoke blooms.  They made me think of sunflowers or brown-eyed susans.
We've been working on growing more herbs, too.  We've been self-sufficient in sage and oregano for a couple years now.  We'd like to grow on that.  We let some of our fennel go to seed.  If we have homegrown fennel and homegrown sage we can make homegrown sausage spice for country gravy, pizza, etc.  We also have some tarragon drying--though we don't really use it much.  We'll have to find some ways to incorporate it.  There was a huge tarragon bush in the community garden plots we inherited this year.
Fennel seed from the community garden.
The hot weather crops did pretty darn great this year.  The peppers were just off the hook!  This, of course, makes my pepper-loving soul very happy.  We've got a few pints of the sweet peppers chopped and frozen and have been eating them fresh like mad.  I could put peppers and onions in just about anything though and be happier for it.  The hot peppers--cayenne and jalapeno--also did superb.  I've been playing around with some different hot sauce recipes.  I almost have one perfected enough to share.  Its much spicier and less vinegary than my go-to hot sauce.  Matt likes it much better.   I also pickled some hot peppers for the first time.  I am eager to try them--soon I'll be passed 30 days in the brine and will crack one and have a go.  I've got hundreds of peppers strung up to dry.  It will be a hot and spicy winter.  Just the way I like it.
One loaded sweet pepper plant.  I got a kick out of, not only how many were on this plant, but that they were all growing upside down.
This harvest basket made me overjoyed--pepper heaven!
Pickled jalapeno and cayenne peppers along with some fresh eggplants and sweet peppers.  The mini-pumpkin was a gift from my friend, Mary--though I gave it the smashing, snaggle-toothed expression.
The tomatoes did pretty well--more than double what we managed last year.  We had a bum year for tomatoes in 2014.  This year we grew a variety called Bellstar that did not do well for us.  The plants were puny compared to their neighbors.  We really adore the Amish Pastes though.  They are perfect for making sauce and grow quite prolifically.  We also tried a few oddballs, including a tiger-stripped tomato.  They're pretty and interesting, but those Amish Pastes are like the workhorse of the tomato world in my mind.  We'll probably always play around with our tomato varieties, but the Amish Pastes are in for the duration.  I actually got turned on to them by one of my blog friends--Jamie, over at Ngo Family Farm.  We ended up picking a bunch of our tomatoes while still green, but are letting them ripen up in boxes and baskets in the craft room.
Pulling the tomatoes at the home garden.
The final tomato harvest at the community garden. 
Matt meticulously washes and spreads the tomatoes out, sorting out one that are soft, before packing them into boxes for further ripening.  He checks the boxes daily, pulling out the tomatoes as they ripen and checking for any that are just going bad instead of turning red.
This wasn't our year for squash.  We were super late in planting both the summer and winter squash.  As such, we actually had to buy some zucchini at the Farmer's Market.  I can't remember the last time we had to buy zucchini.  I guess the plus side is that we never got tired of it or overwhelmed by mountains of zucchini.  We got a good number in the end, but they were all near the end of the season, too.  We got rather tiny, under-ripe butternut squash.  We'll see if they ripen off of the vine (we don't know) or if they're any good as is.  We bought a couple dozen various winter squash from a friend that operates a local greenhouse to hedge our bets though.  We must have squash for the winter and they were locally grown and affordable, too.  It just wouldn't feel right without a stash of squash in the storeroom.
Baby butternut.  It probably only as big as a couple fists.
Like the tomatoes, the tomatillos did well this year.  Better than last year.  Plus, we go so many purple ones!  They are so pretty.  Actually, I think that tomatillos in general are very pretty.  I like their little hanging lanterns.  We'll be making a bunch of salsa with them, mostly.  The salsa is a great addition to chili we discovered last winter (or was it early this spring?).
Even the parts you don't eat are strikingly attractive on a tomatillo.
We still need to dig the rest of our potatoes and the small patch of celariac roots (an experimental new vegetable in our garden this year).  The garlic needs planted, but it had been so warm we wanted to wait a bit so it didn't sprout early on us.  We also still need to bag up some leaves for overwintering the carrots and get that bed all tucked in.  Projects for the weekend.
The fall home garden--lots of open beds these days.
Ginger has been keeping us company in the garden all year--including this tear down phase.  In fact, she has been especially interested in all we're up to lately.  She absolutely must smell and rub on the plants as we pull and mound them up.  While I think she prefers having a lush "jungle" to stalk through, she has been rolling in all the newly de-vegetated earth with great delight, too.  She still has her carrot patch to hunker down in--for the moment at least.  She curls up in there even when the carrot tops are covered in frost.  She loves the garden.
When picking the tomatoes at home I turned around and see Ginger just going to town in the empty potato bed.  She rolls and writhes and gets herself thoroughly dirty.  "Dust bathing" seems to make her quite happy.
There has been a frost on the grass every morning this week, I think.  But, no snow yet.  I can't believe its almost November.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tomato Sauce Worthy of Eating Plain

We bought a new canning book last year.  I think we got a gift card somewhere and unsure what to buy ended up choosing this book.  I think it was a good choice.  The book is called the Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving.  I think it has a neat concept because, unlike most other canning books, it deals in rather small amounts of produce, often resulting in just a couple pints of the finished product.  Its a great way to try out new canning recipes without committing 15 pounds or more of produce to it.  The recipes certainly can be scaled up, but they start small.  I think that is great for the home gardener.  Sometimes, like the end of the season, we have a glut all at once.  For much of the year though its more a steady trickle of a few pounds of this and a few pounds of that.  All summer long we made small batches of tomato sauce.  As such, we don't have one massive weekend of canning ahead of us still now like we usually do.  I like it.  It breaks canning up into little, easy bites.
Plus, the Small Batch book has a recipe for a roasted tomato sauce with balsamic vinegar that is worthy of eating plain with a spoon.  Its a small thing, the addition of the balsamic, but oh does it take things to a whole new level of awesome.   After the initial test batch we've since been making quadruple batches.  Its incredible.  Its also incredibly easy.
So far we've found it works in any recipe that calls for tomato sauce.  We weren't sure how the balsamic would play out, but it tastes amazing on pizza and pasta, as a base for chili and curries, and, well, just plain!
Below is our scaled-up variation on my current favorite recipe from the collection, but I'd recommend the book as a whole for sure.
Balsamic Tomato Sauce Heaven
10 lbs of tomatoes
5-8 small onions
3-6 sweet peppers
2-3 heads garlic
1 C balsamic vinegar
4 t salt
1 T sugar

Put the tomatoes, onion, peppers, and garlic in a pan.  A flat baking pan with a lip is great for getting the vegetables all spread out and evenly roasting, but a glass casserole type dish will also work.
Roast for about twenty minutes at 425 degrees F.
Poke the garlic and onions with a knife.  If its soft and the knife goes through pull them out and set aside. If not, roast a while longer checking periodically.
Roast the tomatoes and peppers for about 45 minutes total, until the skins are starting to blacken and juice has been released into the baking pan.
While the tomatoes and peppers are still in the oven remove the onions and garlic from their papery skins.  Since they're all soft and roasted they should squish out quite easily.

When the tomatoes and peppers are nice and roasted puree them up along with the onions and garlic.  
Pour the sauce into a sauce pan over medium-high.
Add the salt, sugar, and balsamic vinegar.
Bring the sauce to boil.
Following the directions from Ball, your mom, or another reliable source, prepare and fill canning jars and then process them in a hot water bath.   At our elevation (about 3,100 feet above sea level) we processed pint jars for 40 minutes.
Or skip the canning part and just plan to eat it all up with a spoon.  You might want to...
One note:  We don't skin our tomatoes since we have a Vitamix, but with a regular blender it might be better to take a moment to slip the skins off the tomatoes and peppers, too.  Since they're roasted they should slide right off--though be sure they're cool enough to handle first!  The original Small Batch recipe calls for removing all skins.  We did so for the first couple batches, but then realized that with a Vitamix it was probably not necessary.  Testing proved that to be the case so now we just leave the skin on both the peppers and the tomatoes.  The onion and garlic skins we add to our freezer bag for making vegetable stock.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A New Dress, A New Pattern

Over the years I've made more than half a dozen versions of the same dress (Simplicity 2174).   Its a great dress for me and the different fabric patterns and materials make each dress look and feel different.  That said, I finally decided that maybe I should branch out and try a new style.  I was going to a weekend sewing retreat and was packing up some projects to work on.  I'd had a different Simplicity pattern--one from the Cynthia Rowley collection (1801)--for, oh, a couple years.  Time to try my hand at it, I figured.
I found a stretchy, sort of slinky, floral polyester in my stash that seemed like it would work--and make a nice dress, pretty with a good drape.  The pattern would force me to cover some new sewing territory in the way of neckline and a side-zipper which had to be installed around the pocket.  I also generally don't work with such stretchy fabric or add sleeves to my dresses.
It was a good learning experience--and I am reasonably pleased with the end result.  I really enjoy all the gathering around the waist and sleeves.  If I make it again I will add a couple inches to the length and bring the neckline up a bit.  Its a little low-cut for me, though nothing a tanktop underneath couldn't fix.

April 2016:  See here for an update on this dress, as I modified it an made it even better.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Elephant Back Mountain Loop - YNP

In addition to hiking to the summit of Bunsen Peak on our last trip to Yellowstone, Matt and I also took a stroll up Elephant Back Mountain.  It was a two mountain weekend.

We weren't sure the views would be all that great--and really, they weren't--on account of all the rain and low hanging clouds.  Still, we really wanted to go and the hike seemed enjoyable and easy enough no matter what view the top held in store.  So off we went.

There is a pull-out for the trailhead about half a mile north of Lake Junction.  The trail runs parallel to the road for a short distance before hanging a right into the forest.  There were lots of lofty lodgepole pines in every direction.  Matt and I both like them a lot.  They're cool looking since they get so tall and remain surprisingly slim in diameter.  The mature trees don't have branches on the lower half either adding to their imposing effect and allowing for more open views at the forest floor.  We don't know our tree IDs very well, but we know lodgepoles.  Since they don't have deep roots they are easily blown over so there was quite a bit of lodgepole deadfall.  We're always hopeful this will mean woodpeckers, but that wasn't to be the case on this particular hike.  We did see one lodgepole pine that had been bent so strongly that it had two long cracks running the length of the trunk--but it was still kicking, with green growth and everything, for now.
The more diminutive trees along the trail all glistened with myriad raindrops.  Each pine needle had a single drop dangling from it.  We thought it was pretty neat.  We stopped and played with the drops for a while, seeing if we could get one to balance on each of our fingers at the same time.  (We did.)
There were a couple especially boggy points along the trail.  Of course, since we were hiking in the rain there was a lot of wet, muddy patches in general.  These two parts must always be boggy though because the Park Service had put some logs down in these areas to serve as primitive bridges.
For a trail that we knew was taking us up a mountain it was really flat, easy going for the first mile or so.  Elephant Back Mountain Trail is a lollipop loop so at the Y in the trail where the loop portion began we took the left fork.  We'd read that the climb was gentler that way.  After the fork in the trail the elevation gain started to really pick up, though it was still quite manageable because of all the switchbacks.

As we climbed the obsidian kept giving us reason to stop and take a breather--even if we didn't need one.  I've never seen so much obsidian in one place before.  At one point the surface of the entire trail and surrounding hillside were largely composed of it--small, shinny marbles of obsidian.  Most of the pieces were very small--little black pebbles--but there were some more impressive pieces, too.  We picked up, played with, marveled at, and photographed a lot of them before putting them back where we found them.  It was really neat.
All the dark earth in this photo is actually pebbles of obsidian.  It was crazy.
Matt balancing a piece of obsidian on his nose for my amusement, with Lake Yellowstone visible in the background.
I was surprised at how quickly we made it to the lake overlook at the summit.  It was such an easy mountain to climb.  At the overlook there were two log benches that had clearly been made by hand.  Matt and I have a strong preference for these older accommodations provided by the Park Service.  They fit so well into the natural landscape as to be quite unobtrusive.  The more modern benches look like something I'd find in any ol' city park.  I was tickled to sit on these sturdy, old benches--after spreading my wool sweater out so our behinds didn't get soggy since the benches were drenched--and gaze a while from under our umbrellas.
Elephant Back overlooks Lake Yellowstone.  We could see the historic Lake Lodge along the shore as well as three of the five Lake Yellowstone islands.  We could make out a handful of other landmarks we're now familiar with, including Pelican Creek, site of a different rainy-day hike.   As I said though, the views weren't great.  It was awfully grey that day.  The sky was grey which made the lake grey.  It was raining which made it hazy with mist.  We must come back on some nice, clear summer day.  I bet the lake water is just dazzling.
When the rain started to pick up again and the cold started to seep into us we opted to head back down the mountain.  Moving keeps a person so warm.  We  continued on the loop down and around the other side of the mountain until it met up with the stem of the lollipop again.  The whole hike was quite fast and easy.  It would be a keen place for a picnic lunch or to hang a hammock and swing a while.  We did bring the hammock to the summit, but the weather discouraged our breaking them out.  Some other day.
A couple of times while we were on the trail my mind brought to the surface the fact that it was just a half mile off this very trail that a man was killed by grizzlies while hiking two months back.  Matt and I were prepared with bear spray, of course, and always give a good announcing-ourselves holler when coming around a blind turn or rise in the trail.  We weren't worried, but still, it gave me pause to think a bit.  I realized that all the hubbub around bear attacks steals focus from the reality that most trips to the woods, most interactions with wildlife are indeed safe ones.  The deadly ones are the aberrations.  This was just like any other hike.   We'll have to do it again some sunny day.  I want to see that lake sparkle from my hammock.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Composting and Recycling in Yellowstone National Park

I've always enjoyed the awesome recycling options in the national parks that I've visited.  At Grand Canyon, in addition to recycling, they offered a drop box for unwanted camping supplies which were donated to a local Boy Scout troop.

It shouldn't be surprising that monuments to our natural wonders should be ahead of the curve when it comes to resource protection and conservation.  Being from Montana though, where recycling isn't readily available in many locations, I have always been impressed by the recycling program in Yellowstone.  In most of Montana its hard or impossible to recycle glass, say.  In Yellowstone it is no problem at all.  I know recycling is a part of most, if not all, the national parks, but Yellowstone is the one I am most familiar with and know the most about.

In Yellowstone National Park a person can recycle plastic #1-7, glass in all colors, office paper, cardboard, newspapers, magazines, phone books, propane canisters, bear spray canisters, empty aerosol cans, aluminum cans, metal, and paperboard.

On our last visit we noticed a new dumpster in the row, one for compostable trash.  Huzzah!  Since we only live a few hours from the park we always take our pepper cores, onion skins, etc. home  with us in a ziplock bag to add to our own compost pile.  Now we won't have to.  Plus, the folks who are coming from around the world--and who don't have the option to just take it home--can now return their food scraps to the nutrient cycle, too.  Good work, Park Service!
Matt cleaning out the trunk of empty beer bottles and yogurt cups in the Madison Campground.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bunsen Peak Hike - YNP

Bunsen Peak (8,564 feet) was on our agenda for our trip to Yellowstone in May of this year.  That weekend though the peak was so socked in with clouds and fog we decided that the views wouldn't be very good and so changed plans.  We finally managed to get to the top this past weekend though.

The whole weekend had been pretty overcast, really, but since it was October we were just happy it wasn't super cold.  We thought we might have to skip Bunsen again because of the low-hanging clouds.  Sunday proved to have patches of blue sky breaking through the solid wall of clouds we'd hiked under the previous two days though and so off we went.

The hike to Bunsen Peak is an out and back with an easy round-trip mileage of only four miles total.  The rise in elevation was really gradual and mild, too.  It wasn't until the last half mile or so that it even felt like we were going uphill.

The trailhead and parking area are along the Mammoth-Norris Road, about five miles south of Mammoth.  In fact, you can see the brilliantly white geyser terraces and red roofed park buildings at Mammoth at many points along the trail up to the summit.

From the trailhead the ever-so-gradual ascent begins and all of the sudden we were surprisingly high over the Golden Gate Canyon with the highway running through it down below us, cars whizzing by.  It was such an easy stroll with good views of the canyon.
The opposite wall of the canyon from where we were, across the highway, is part of the Snow Pass/Hoodoos hike we enjoyed in April of this year.  We could seek other hikers over there and waved to them.  They waved back.  It was neat.  We were all clearly happy to be out of the car, high above the highway, and taking it all in.  The trees on their side of the canyon, on the ridgeline above the hoodoos, were frosted white.
As we continued, Matt spotted a solitary Mountain Goat on the upper slopes of Bunsen.  The bright white coat stood out starkly against the rocks.  The goat was clearly aware of us--we had a minute long staring contest.  We'd never seen them in the park before (and as it turns out they not native and were introduced to the area  in the 1940's and 50's).  It was a pleasant surprise.
The trail, really flattening out and making for nice, easy strolling, continues on into some lodgepole pines and fir trees.  The area was part of the fires of 1988.  Partly as a result of this the forest contains a real mix of tree generations.  There are towering adults and minuscule babies.  The ground is scattered with deadfall, though the trail is kept very clear.  There were American Red Squirrels using all the downfall as a network of superhighways.  It was impressive to watch them navigate from one tree to the next, never touching the ground.
Leaving the trees the trail opens up into a grassy field which permits nice, unobstructed views of the Swan Lake Flat and the surrounding valley.  The blue sky panorama, absent for the majority of the weekend, was a very welcome sight.  It also meant we could actually see the mountains rising up as the beautiful backdrop to the autumn-changing valley.
Its probably around here that the elevation gain becomes noticeable.  Its still easily manageable, but its no longer so gentle I couldn't even tell aside from our increasing distance from the roadway.  There are switchbacks to make the climb agreeable, though some of them are rather long switchbacks, in my opinion.  The longest one does have a reward at the end though.  When we stopped to have a sip of water and take in the view the unusual, orange-tinted Cathedral Rock was jutting out of the side of Bunsen Peak right there before us.  I'd noticed the lovely hued rocks perched high above the highway when coming and going through the north entrance.  I'd never realized they were carved into such impressive columns from that vantage point though.  The Mammoth terraces were visible in the valley behind it.
It was really interesting to us to see Terrace Mountain and the hoodoos area from such a different vantage point as well.  We've seen it countless times as we drive by on our way in and out of the park.  We hiked around Terrace Mountain and through the tumbled, grey travertine rocks that lay around it.  Terrace Mountain was once a geothermal feature, much like Mammoth, really, a massive hot spring terrace.  Now its inactive, but a very fascinating relic of the always-changing nature of the geothermal areas.
Continuing up the mountain we got warmer as we went up, up, up, and the air got cooler.  The trees grew increasingly frosted. It was just a scant coating at first and then at increasing elevations grew thicker and thicker.  At points it was half an inch thick, clinging to the individual pine needles.  Many of the trees were solidly white, but there was not a speck of snow or frost on the ground.  It was pretty special, pretty strange.  We took in mouthfuls of frost right off the bough melting it delightfully in our warm, thirsty mouths.  It was another unexpected treat.
After a couple more, much shorter, switch backs we could see the telecommunication equipment that the Park Service has up on Bunsen Peak and knew that the top was very, very close.  Passing the rather cute little log cabin that houses radio technology we continued on to the summit, soaking in the views in every direction.  We were so happy the thick, white fog and clouds that had been clinging to the peaks the previous couple days broke up just enough to allow us this opportunity to see the distant peaks.
We found some comfy rocks to lean against at the summit and sat and enjoyed the lay of the land, scouting animals in the spotting scope, and generally just basking in the calm, quiet, intermittent sunshine.
Knowing we still wanted time to have lunch, soak at the Boiling River, and make it home to Billings before the middle of the night we, reluctantly, headed back down the mountain.  We'd seen no one on our ascent, but passed two groups and a solo hiker on the way back down.  The frost was completely gone.  We'd have never guessed at that winter wonderland we hiked through if we hadn't seen it ourselves.  Its amazing what a fraction of sunlight can do.  We scanned the slopes for the Mountain Goat and spotted him once again.  He was resting under a tree this time, looking very comfy himself.  It was a very good hike and an easy summit to attain--our second of the weekend.  We'll have to come back with a picnic lunch on some crystal clear day.