Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Return to the Backcountry

Bear Lake
Matt took me backpacking for the first time in 2007.  I'll never forget that first trip because, in addition to being the first time I really got away from civilization, it stormed mightily with hail and wind and rain.  And we didn't have a tent.  Matt had always got by with a tarp lean-to.
My first backpacking trip, May 2007.
And get by we did, scrunched up into one corner of the lean-to as the rest grew progressively sodden.
Matt on that first backpacking trip, May 2007.  If one looks closely it is clear all our sleeping bags and belongings are crowded into that one dry corner of the lean-to.
We bought a tent after that.  And over the next couple years Matt shared with me his love for a long day on the trail followed by a night in utter solitude.
Adam, Matt, and Willie on that first backpacking trip, May 2007
But then, for reasons that are not entirely clear, we stopped backpacking, oh, six to eight years.  We're not quite sure when our last backcountry outing took place.  We developed a single-minded fixation on national parks and switched to car camping and developed campgrounds--though certainly many were still "primitive" with just pit toilets and no running water.

Resuming our backcountry adventures was one of our goals for last year, but failed to come to fruition.  [I took an overnighter with one of my girlfriends last year, but Matt and I didn't make it to the backcountry together.]  As such backpacking made a repeat appearance on our list of outdoor resolutions for 2017, too.
Western Toad along the trail.  (I think...I'm fairly inexperienced at IDing amphibians.)
Last weekend we hiked a little over 5 miles, one way, to the Bear Lakes nestled up in the mountains near Bozeman, MT.  It was exhausting and delightful at the same time.  We both worked up some sore leg muscles from our efforts.  We enjoyed backpacking as much as we'd remembered.  Maybe more.  We slept like babies through the stillest night I can remember.  We let the relaxation of a glassy mountain lake flow right into us.  We ate wild raspberries.
Bear Lake at dusk.
In a world where it seems we're encouraged less and less to rely on ourselves it felt pretty dang empowering to charge up the trail with all we'd need slung across our backs.   We'd forgotten about that in our delight over the luxury of car camping, with its coolers of beer and guitars and such.
Matt on the trail, heading back down the mountain.
This was just a baby trip, an overnighter.  A first step.  A new start.  It marks the renaissance of our backcountry adventures.  This is only the beginning.  As we hiked back out on Sunday Matt asked,  "So, when can we go backpacking again?"

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Creamy Coconut Carrot Soup

I've shared a carrot soup recipe here before.  This one is so much better.  
Carrot soup with chopped cashews.
So.  Much.  Better.  Orders of magnitude better.  Out of this world better.  
Carrot soup and corn fritters.
The reason is simple--coconut milk.  

Ah, the miracle that is coconut milk.  It is like culinary gold.  A not-so-secret ingredient.  It adds a light, creamy, luxurious element to any meal.  It gives every dish just a hint of a wonderful melt-in-your-mouth quality.  It steps up the decadence of even a simple offering such as carrot soup.
Carrot soup served with slices of aged nut cheese and black beans.
We're still plugging away at the 2016 carrots which grew prolifically and overwintered well.  In doing so we've eaten a good many pots this soup.  It is easy, beautiful, and satisfying.  It isn't water or thin.  And it doesn't taste like health food.  Those are two obstacles that carrot soup usually has to overcome, in my opinion.  
Even with our "old" and increasingly woody carrots it is still amazingly delicious.
Wild and local morel mushrooms, brown rice, carrot soup, and chopped cashews.
Creamy Coconut Carrot Soup
1 T olive oil
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 T fresh ginger, grated or minced
1 large onion, diced
1.5 pounds carrots, chopped
2 t yellow curry paste
1/2 t ground cumin
1/4 t crushed red pepper
4 C vegetable stock
1/2 C white wine (or 1/4 C white wine vinegar)
1/4 C honey
16 ounces coconut milk 
1 t salt
ground black pepper, to taste

In a large soup pot heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.
Saute the onion and carrots for 7-10 minutes until the onions start to turn translucent.  
Add the garlic and ginger and cook saute for another 3-5 minutes.
Add the curry paste, cumin, crushed red pepper, stock, wine.
Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30-35 minutes.
Remove from heat and add the honey, coconut milk, salt, and pepper.
Puree the soup until smooth.
Serve as is or topped with chopped nuts, cilantro, black beans, cheese, etc.
Wild and local morel mushrooms, brown rice, carrot soup, and black beans.
I actually tossed the recipe card for that other carrot soup right in the recycling bin.  I'll never make it again now that I've perfected this one.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Great Garden Expansion of '17

We opted out of our community garden this year which prompted a rather fantastic garden expansion at home.  Not only is it bigger, but oh!  It is so much better, too.
Last year we felt our performance at the community garden was rather sub-par.  Matt was working full-time which meant he didn't have mornings to work on things with the retired guys anymore.  We were still selling tie-dye, camping, volunteering elsewhere, going to concerts, and all other sorts of wonderful, time-consuming activities.  So, the community garden got neglected.  And we felt bad.  I mean, if we let our own garden get full of weeds that is one thing, but neglecting the crops we're growing collectively for the needy is another.  So, after much reflection we decided our days there were over.  It was a positive experience and served us very well when we were still renting and just had that bitty flower bed to garden in.
To expand the garden we did a pretty major reconfiguration.  Previously we had beds that ran north-to-south as well as beds that ran east-to-west.   We decided to streamline that and make them all run north-to-south.
Initially we'd made the beds four feet wide and the paths three feet wide.  We decided that could use some adjustment, too.  The beds are now three feet wide and the paths 18-24 inches wide.  Four foot beds were just a little too wide to reach across comfortably.  They were also too wide to jump/step over easily.  Both those issues are resolved by making them just a foot narrower.  By making the paths narrower as well we retained an equivalent amount of growing space.  Two feet is still wide enough to push a wheelbarrow down, albeit just barely.
Matt sank some 2x4s into the earth around the perimeter of the garden.  This has been fan-foo-goo-tastic at keeping the grass from encroaching on the veggies.  It was a pain in the butt, so Matt tells me, but it was worth it.  A short term pain for a long term benefit.
Ginger really loved the expansion project.  She thinks it is swell when we spend hours and hours on end outside with her.  She'd prefer it if we'd just quit our jobs already and hang out in the yard all day.  So, she's stoked whenever it happens.  She also gets quite the thrill from rolling in dirt and as Matt was ripping up sod she kept getting more and more exposed dirt to flop about in.
Matt considered renting a machine that removes sod, but in the end decided against it in favor of some good ol' fashioned elbow grease.  It really didn't take him long either.  He pulled the edge boards from the old raised beds and just cut out the grass paths that had been between them.  The end result being one larger and contiguous garden space.
Matt ripped up all the sod contained by that red line in the photo above, connecting the four nearest beds with the rest of the garden.
After the sod was removed Matt borrowed a tiller from his dad and ran it over the whole space until it was light and fluffy, just begging to be planted.  (The garden had to wait though as it took us forever to actually get around to planting most of it.)  We walked back and forth over the paths compacting it down.  We're still not sure if we'll cover the paths with something--stone, bark, etc.  Or maybe we'll just have perpetually muddy garden shoes by the back door.
The hardware store down the street from our house had a sale on compost and we bought a lot.  Like.  A lot.  While we make our own compost we never seem to make enough of it.  We thought we'd started to notice a decline in the productivity of our soil, too, so....  a few carloads of compost later and hopefully things will be better this year.
We've harvested the garlic, but it is still drying and hasn't been weighed or enjoyed yet.  We've eaten a few meals with chard.   We didn't get around to covering it before the leafminers found us though.  Alas.  So, we're back to eating bugs.  :)  Or checking the leaves super closely.  That's what I meant, of course.
We're trying onion starts this year instead of sets or seed.  So far they seem to be growing well.  We hope they work out.  It was certainly a lot less work than starting and tending seeds in the basement from February on.   Ginger has no respect for paths or plants, of course, so she insists on laying on/in the onions.
The flowers, too, for that matter.  Good think she is so cute.
And such a helpful garden companion.
We had quite a nice haul of berries--currants, raspberries, and strawberries.  We didn't get them all.  Life was too chaotic, but we got most of them, I think.  There were some days where I could only squeeze in five minutes of picking.  But hey, five minutes is better than none!  We're already up over five pounds with the raspberries.  The birds and bugs can enjoy the rest this year, I suppose.  We'll still be making jam so....hooray!   We need to be sure and cut back some of the raspberry canes this fall though.  It is a jungle in there--hard to pick and rather poky.  Ginger thinks it is a swell fortress though, so there is that at least.
This summer marks the first time one of the mini-orchard trees is actually fruiting--the Haralson apple.  The others, well, they're not thriving quite as well.  The three in the front yard have been mowed down repeatedly by the neighborhood deer.  Matt finally had to cage one to give it a fighting chance.  I joke that it looks like fruit tree Alcatraz.  We planted a couple grape varieties along the front fence this year, too.  We'd love to have our own grapes for fresh eating, jelly, and wine.  Someday!
It looks like it will be a good year for peppers.  The eggplants are dressed in lovely purple blooms--and even a couple fruits about as big as Matt's thumb.
We've expanded our flower offerings again this year.  We took the back corner bed out of rotation for vegetables.  It didn't get enough sun and was a pain to work in because it was such a wide bed.  So, we made our own blend of flower seeds from odds and ends we'd been gifted and scattered the heck out of it.  We moved the garden bench back there, too.  So now we've a lovely spot to sit among the flowers and look out over the garden.  Our neighbor recently gifted us some seeds and slips from her garden so we found places to tuck them in as well.  Hooray for flowers!  They do really brighten up the place.
The squash didn't really take off, but fortunately a volunteer did.  We're hoping it is a butternut, our favorite.   The tomatoes sure are taking their sweet time, but might surprise me and amount to something.  I wasn't so sure after we tried to kill them with thirst back in that distracting first week of June.  The potatoes are up and looking quite vigorous....we're (im)patiently waiting for our first taste.  Too late to be paired with peas (which we didn't even get planted this year because the expansion took so long...so it all worked out), but hey, new potatoes rock all by themselves.  No peas required.
We're very pleased with the new configuration back there.  I think it will serve us well.  Better than the previous arrangement for sure.  It is easier to water and there are fewer edges to have trim around before we mow the yard.  Having the narrower beds has already made planting and weeding a delight by comparison.
We got a late start, but who knows!?  The 2017 garden might yet play out better than expected.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Kefir Volcano: Happy Little Accidents

My pal, Jesscy, turned me on to making kefir in March.  It is pretty dang amazing, I gotta say.  I'm an on-again, off-again soda junkie.  Kefir is a bubbly, refreshing, and satisfying probiotic beverage.  Even better:  I can make it at home with simple ingredients (sugar, water, fruit juice) and reusable bottles.  Like I said, it is pretty dang amazing.  It has been a brilliant tool to keep me off of the Diet Pepsi.
Water kefir flavored with unfiltered, local grapes.
While I'm certainly still learning (and have made a few not-quite-right batches) I've found that brewing kefir is a snap.  It requires just a tiny bit of daily attention, rather reminiscent of our forays into sourdough cultures.

Every couple days I take the finished kefir water and drain it into a pitcher--catching the kefir grains in my mesh strainer.  The kefir grains are fed on a mixture of water and sugar.  For my brewing vessel I use 48 ounces of water to 1/4 cup of raw cane sugar.  Once I get the grains fed and going for the new batch I switch back to working on the pitcher of finished kefir water.  I add some fruit juice to it and fill my swing-top glass bottles.  The amount of fruit juice varies depending on whether it is lime juice, say, or grape juice.  Grape and tart cherry are my two favorites.  I "burp" these bottles of flavored kefir daily for a couple days (depending on the ambient temperature of my house) allowing them to get nice and naturally carbonated.  Then I pop them in the fridge and drink them over the course of a couple days until the cycle repeats all over again.
Water kefir flavored with unfiltered, local grapes.
Except that one day (over the Easter weekend) when I forgot to burp the bottles.  And I made a kefir volcano in the kitchen.

When I popped the lid off the bottle a jet of purple kefir rocketed up to the ceiling.  It got everywhere!  The lights, the curtains, the windows, the overhead rack of kitchen doodads.  And of course, I was using homemade, unfiltered grape juice so....yeah...what a dark purple mess.

But it proved to be a happy little accident, a minor blessing in disguise.  We took down the curtains and tossed them in the wash.  The ceiling, cupboards, walls, and windows got scrubbed--and were well overdue for it, really.  And we realized it looked much more bright and open without that rack of kitchen tools hanging there.  So, we decided not to use it anymore.  We went through the measuring spoons, potato masher, peelers, bottle openers, and other kitchen bric-a-brac and decided to donate several and relocate the rest.
We really enjoy having quick and ready access to the measuring cups and spoons, but realized the rest were used much more sporadically.  We found homes for the latter in our various kitchen drawers.  To maintain the quick-draw use of the measuring tools we pounded some nails into the side of the cupboard and hung them up there.  We're quite pleased with it.
I hung a couple plants over the sink instead.  It feels so much more spacious and uncluttered.  What a happy little accident indeed!
I'm currently in the process of waking up my kefir mother for the first time.  In all the craze of June from Ryan to Grandma to Silvercloud to LA to family reunion I just didn't have the time to tend to it daily.  Like a sourdough mother kefir can be made to go into a sort of hibernation state in the fridge.  We'll see how happy this mother is when I wake her up again!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Comfort Zones, California, and Old Friends

I figure it is a good thing to leave comfort behind sometimes.  This can be in the form of the creature comforts of civilization or in the mental comforts of familiarity.  It's rather easy to play it safe in this day and age.  (But, not always as rewarding, if you ask me.)  It is rather terrifying to leap into the unknown, be it literal or metaphorical.  I've learned a lot about myself this way over the years.  It can be challenging to do, of course, but sometimes the best things come as a surprise, wrapped up in a moment of I-could-never-do-that...oh-wait-it-is-amazing.
So I went to LA for the weekend without Matt.  I took my mom who'd never been to California and who considers me the world traveler (which I'm really not).  We went without a plan--aside from having a hotel room lined up.  We went to meet a friend (our exchange student from Belgium) whom we'd not seen since May 2002--15 years.
And it was an absolutely superb odyssey.
Marj was the same fun person I remembered from back in high school.  We talked and talked and talked--about old friends and new adventures and everything in between.  The beaches in southern California are dazzling.  Hooray for palm trees, abundant flowers, and sandy beaches!  I took my first Ubers.  I ordered the most expensive cocktail of my life--twice!  I managed to locate a vegetarian restaurant within walking distance of our hotel.  I swam in the ocean.  I basked in the sand.
It was a priceless experience.  One I almost talked myself out of because it intimidated me.  ...Maybe it'd been too long since we'd seen Marj....or maybe it would be too expensive for such a short trip...or maybe LA is too dangerous...or maybe it would be too hard without Matt planning everything...or maybe...
I'm so grateful I took the chance and just went for it.