29 November, 2008

The Aromas of Gratitude

The day began with bowls and spoons, whisks and cups, and a whole lot of mashed, roasted pumpkin. With Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks chick-flicks keeping me company on the television, I whipped up some delicious pumpkin bread, thanks to the recipe Mom sent from the Paint Bank Ladies Auxiliary cookbook. An adjustment here, a substitution there and this country women's recipe helped to produce two beautiful, mahogany loaves.

City Mouse Pumpkin Bread
3 rounded cups bread flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp nutmeg
2 eggs
1 cup oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups roasted pumpkin, mashed
3/4 cups raisins (sultanas)

Preheat oven to 180C (350F). In a large bowl, beat eggs until fully blended. Add oil, sugar, and pumpkin, whisking until relatively smooth. In a second bowl, mix remaining ingredients and fluff with a whisk to incorporate more air. Add the dry to the wet and stir until well mixed, adding in raisins at the last minute. Lightly grease two loaf pans with oil spray and dust with flour. Pour the mixture evenly between the two pans and bake for an hour, or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool out of the pan, on a board or wire rack. Slice and serve with steaming hot coffee or tea!
As that bread tempted both Laney-dog and myself with it's sweet aroma, it was time to prepare the pie. Oh yes. Pumpkin Pie. The one thing that makes any day Thanksgiving Day. This year's turned out to be the best pumpkin pie I've ever made. I really should write these things down. But I think, if I try, memory will serve.

Next came the veggies that needed chopping, the homemade bread that needed to be dried and diced for stuffing, and myriad other ritualistic practices I've always associated with this forth Thursday in November...even if we were celebrating on the Friday after.

While goodies baked and cooled, treats roasted and fried, I set myself to work washing up the mess I'd made, laying the table, and deciding just how many serving spoons one really requires for a fulfilling life.

Everything turned out fabulously! I couldn't have been more pleased. Though far from home, and one day off schedule, it was the nicest Thanksgiving dinner one could hope for, not to mention being a first for my Aussie husband. But what man wouldn't love a holiday devoted to bountiful food? Even the dear pup shared in the festivities.

I think that is my favorite thing about Thanksgiving. There's just that one thing that makes it my favorite holiday. It asks for, and expects nothing.

I love Halloween, don't get me wrong. And though I'm not of that religious persuasion, I am very culturally ingrained in Christmas and, to a lesser degree, Easter. But all of those fine days ask for candies and gifts, requiring money and pomp, even on the most modest levels.

Thanksgiving asks none of these things. It asks only that we come together we put aside our yearly sorrows, and show gratitude that we've got what it takes to provide ourselves, and loved ones, a feast proportionate to our means.

How lovely it would be if all countries, the world around, adopted the spirit of such a day. Gratitude. Appreciation. Love. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

28 November, 2008

Seeds, glorious seeds!

Here it is, the American harvest festival day, and here I am, still planting seeds! These beauties recently appeared in our mailbox.

Imagine my glee, a few weeks ago, when I ran across a random post on cheap living journal, offering seed samples from a commercial farm supplier. New world records were set with the speed I used to e-mail the lovely girl offering the freebies. Before I knew it, an envelope stuffed full of veggies-to-be arrived.

The generous girl, a dispatcher for the company, had no real motivation beyond generosity, to offer us the seeds. This company typically sells in bulk to large market farms. So, I have high hopes for these little gems.

Ten days ago, I planted some iceberg and red coral lettuces, though Laney-dog dug up a fair few, leaving the results in question. Two days ago, slow-bolting summer varieties of broccoli, cauliflower, and pak choi found their way into the ground. I'm very excited to see how this experiment plays out. And it will be a long one, as she also sent some autumn-growing varieties.

Following the plant theme, yesterday we celebrated a four-way birthday for my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandma-in-law, and me...Plants were, by far, my predominant theme. Hubby's mom and her partner gave me a lovely gift certificate to a small nursery they've grown to love, and his aunt and uncle gave me some gardener's gold in the form of a Bunnings card. There will be much landscapey goodness to come!

If this weekend weren't booked to the "nth degree" with tonight's Faux-Thanksgiving, tomorrow's holiday spree and decoration fest, and my birthday celebrations on Sunday, I'd be spending every last dime of those gifts right away.

The remainder of my day will be filled with preparations for tonight's private Thanksgiving meal. It's only the two of us, but it will be good. But for now, be sure to head over to Razor Family Farms and wish my sister, Lacy, a happy 25th. Yes, our birthdays are two days (and five years) apart. And yes, that means I'll be 30. I blame our father.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

26 November, 2008

Rebuilding the Holidays

When a person ups and moves across the globe they are faced with unusual decisions. High amongst these is the selection of what stays and what comes along for the journey. Unfortunately, for my move, holiday decorations found their way into the stay-behind pile.

A few dear items made the trip. Treasured ornaments, the dreidel hand-carved by my father, a couple charmingly dilapidated votives that are from before my birth...these things I kept. However, the garlands, the shiny red strings of beads, and all the pretty lights bit the big one.

So, I find myself on the brink of Decoration Day with a very meager collection and a lack of overall holiday spirit. It's a truly unique experience to go from holidays dusted with snow, a cold bite in the air, soft scarves and bulky sweaters, to one where going to the beach for a dip might not be a bad idea. Add to the mix our ongoing efforts to scrape up spare change when and where we can, and this holiday month could prove to be a daunting hill to climb!

Tomorrow is the joint family birthday dinner, as my 30th falls nearby three other birthdays in the husband's clan. Friday, we're quietly celebrating a belated Thanksgiving, and Saturday has hubby doing some tree trimming, for work. I'll be tagging along for an excuse to spend some time cityside.

My journal and I will spoil ourselves with a bit of coffee and people-watching, and a trek to Target for some sale-priced ornament shopping. Then, it's off to the craft store. I'm hoping to gather up enough goods to sew a couple simple stockings (my husband is the tailor, not I), build a small wreath, and see what other goodies I can dream up along the way. These all seem honorable uses of my birthday gift monies from near and far.

It's been a long time since I've done any crafting, so it will be an adventure! I'm starting to look forward to it, and hoping I can bring a touch of Norman Rockwell to this sun-baked, seaside season.

25 November, 2008

Recipes Lost in Translation

Last evening, I was taking the pooch out for a wander in the front yard when our neighbor, Janet, dropped by. She has been thoroughly charmed by our sweet pup, but the dog seemed to be an easy entree into what she really wanted from us.

Janet is a lovely grandma of Scottish extraction, who lives to our left with her garden-mad husband, Eddie. She's often seen strolling across the street to visit those we believe to be her children and grandkids. It's a very closely knit neighborhood, aside from us.

We chatted a bit, and she rather timidly asked, "Are you American?"

"Why, yes I am," I answered, not finding the question unusual, in these parts.

Well, my reply seemed to relax her and set off a rapid-fire explanation that she is on a mailing list for recipes, but that all the recipes are in American terminology, leaving her a bit flummoxed on what ingredients to use and when.

I happily clarified a short list of foodstuffs, and she so kindly offered us a huge, beautiful pumpkin from her garden, for my Thanksgiving pie. But the exchange left me wondering how many folks out there struggle with this very thing. Google can be a great help, but what if you just can't find that ingredient you need?

So, in honor of Janet, I have built this small list of American-to-Aussie ingredient translations. I will attempt to freshen it up a bit, over time. Happy cooking!

CilantroThe green, leafy part of coriander plants
Coriander, seed or groundThe powdered coriander form, often used in curries
CornmealFinely ground polenta
Filé PowderGround sassafras leaves. Used as a last-minute thickener for gumbos and other Cajun/Creole dishes.
Graham CrackersSadly, there is no Aussie equivalent. Usually these cookies are crumbled for use in a sweet pie crust. You could substitute most types of tea biscuit. Gingernut works well.
Half and HalfA 50/50 mix of milk and pouring cream. Thickened cream doesn't work as well.
Ketchup/CatsupTomato sauce
Powdered/Confectioners SugarIcing Sugar
PumpkinIn the U.S., this specifically refers to an orange-shelled pumpkin, typically used for making Jack-O-Lanterns, and fall dishes like pies and breads.
Pumpkin Pie SpiceA blend of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice or ground cloves, used mostly for pumpkin custard pies.
Squash, summerSimilar to yellow and patty-pan baby squash varieties in Oz, but much larger and tastier. Can also include zucchinis.
Squash, winterPumpkin, including Butternut, Jap, Queensland Blue, etc.
Tomato SauceTricky! Aussies reading this in an American recipe should think of it as a bolognese sauce before the meat and veg are added.

24 November, 2008

Seeing Through the Days of Haze

Once in awhile, I find myself in a prolonged haze, with apathy creeping in. It's times like these that the old movies and chick-flicks find their way to my television screen. Naps become frequent and lengthy, and I start fantasizing about things currently out of reach, like renting a van and driving across India, or buying a stone shell of a Tuscan house and becoming an olive farmer. Nothing at hand holds interest, and only that which is beyond my grasp is appealing.

When I worked for the pimped-out non-profit, or the places before that, I might take a "mental health day" or just bury myself in work and, soon enough, the haze would clear. In worst case scenarios, I'd simply pack up and jump off to San Francisco for a week, or run away with the circus for a few days of French Quarter fortune telling in New Orleans.

Alas, being a car-free, cash-poor housewife and fledgling freelance writer precludes those tried and true forms of self-medication. After all, I can't exactly call in sick, and I certainly don't feel like burying myself in dishes or laundry, though both are quietly begging for my attention. There will be no spontaneous adventures abroad, or even afternoon tea in the city. So, how does one push through the haze?

I need a project.

Oh sure, there are a million things undone around this little suburban plot. There are weeds to pull, seeds to sew, a patio to dig, and likely much more. And I do have my bursts of productivity. Currently, there are two steaming cauldrons of broth simmering away atop the stove, and the laundry has all been put in its place. I've plans to vacuum a bit and inventory our food stores, but today these hold no real satisfaction.

I really need a project.

For the past, ohh, dozen years I've had ideas for more than five books, novel and non-fiction alike, rolling around inside my head, some even testing the waters in the outside world, but none have really come to much at all. Perhaps I could try again, and really get one started. I've recently concocted an idea for a new business I'd like to try, but the car situation has slowed that roll, though I suppose some prep-work could begin. I'd give my eye-teeth for a paint set and canvass right now, to again try my hand at oils.

Perhaps one of these projects will ignite my passions once more. Perhaps the upcoming, very round, birthday will do the trick. Perhaps pulling out the holiday decorations and lighting things up will set me right.

I'll never be one of those women who jumps for joy at the thought of a day's chores, or who professes tirelessness when tackling monotonous tasks and to-do lists. I'll always be the gypsy roamer, at heart; the office worker who moonlights as a nightclub tarot reader; the housewife who dreams of refugee work in Africa.

Ah well. A hot cup of coffee, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Brie Bleu on fresh toast will have to do, for now.

23 November, 2008

The Quest for Local Food

Yet again, we find our food bill creeping northwards. Ironic, as fuel prices have finally dropped nearer to cheaper oil markets. Still weeks away from any real harvest, and more than a month until we will have our chooks, we again find ourselves struggling to cut back on grocery costs.

One possibility we've been considering for awhile is the purchase of whole or half meat-animals, direct from smaller farms. Ethically, this appeals to my inner hippy, as I'm ever aware of the necessity of a locivorous (see Locavore) diet. Financially, one can't deny the spendthrift lure of discounted bulk products.

Here's the problem: We don't know any farmers!

I did stumble across South Rock Lamb, a Kangaroo Island producers cooperative that delivers (I think) 10 kg cuts of lamb to the Adelaide area once monthly. If the price seems right, we'll be signing on with them for every third month, or so. But, primarily, we prefer beef, fish, and chicken. I'd love to support a local cattle farm, a fish hatchery or fisherman, and certainly would enjoy some free range chicken that isn't corporate-stamped. I just have no idea where to begin.

So, blogaverse, I put the call out. Creep out of your lurky hideyholes and recommend your local farmer, friend, service, or co-op. We'd also be open to dairy producers as well!

Our region is the Fleurieu Peninsula, in South Australia. So, anything from KI, the Riverlands, Adelaide Hills, or Adelaide suburbs would be great. If it's a bit further, we're open to that too—We really just want to cut some cost, and get a bit greener in the cutting.

If you have no suggestions, or are far from our region, how do you keep your grocery bills from skyrocketing in these pricey times?

22 November, 2008

Growing Strong: A Three Sisters Garden Update

Oh, how the girls have grown!

Sister Corn is reaching for the clouds, growing more shoots than any corn plant I've ever seen. Sister Bean has curious tendrils, finding their serpentine way around Corn's long, leafy arms. And Sister Pumpkin is not to be outdone, spreading her vines around the base of it all.

Visually, it's quite impressive how these three, with no guidance or assistance, have gravitated toward each other and remained tight and tidy on their little mound home.

Here is a reminder of their humble beginnings.

Nearly every plant has survived the peculiar up-and-down dry-then-wet weather we've had, with four corn stalks, four (five?) pumpkins, and around eight beautiful beans.

I am more than a little excited over the harvest these ladies have promised with their consistent bright green growth and unwavering sturdiness. If my predictions are anywhere close to accurate, we should expect a delicious harvest of all three just in time for the winter holidays.

Added bonus, husband has large amounts of time off at the holidays, and that means I get some help with harvest! And help will be much needed and desired as plans (Ha! Gardens, plans? Yeah, right.) have not only corn, beans, and early pumpkin arriving on Santa's sleigh, but dozens of tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces too! Depending on the birds, we may even have ourselves a fresh apricot pie with our holiday meal.

I really couldn't be more pleased with this Three Sisters experiment. In fact, I'm so overjoyed with the progress that I've begun a second mound for later harvest.

These neighboring sisters bear the same varieties of corn and bean, but with cucumber as the littlest sibling, providing cool comfort to the other girls, and refreshing summer salad fixings for us!

I look forward to sharing more updates on this beautifully simple gardening method in the coming weeks. Any guesses as to poundage of the harvest?

21 November, 2008

Canine Cuisine: Brekky Muffins & Dinner Noodles

I'm not one for spoiling our furry friends. I do my best to treat dogs like dogs. On the other hand, I love to cook and will take any possible opportunity to try something fun in the kitchen.

So, each week, I'll be whipping up Laney's biscuits and dog food, trying to find the right balance of nutrition to plump up our bone-skinny pup. I hope you enjoy!

Oh, don't forget that nearly every recipe is workable for we mere humans, too!

Laney's Brekky Muffins

1 3/4 cups rolled oats
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup light yogurt or sour cream
1/3 cup light cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup olive oil
2 granny smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
splashes of milk and apple juice

Note: Please remember to omit raisins, sultanas, and nutmeg from any muffin recipe intended for your dog.

Preheat your oven to 200c (400 f).

Get two bowls. In one, beat the eggs well, add in oats, yogurt, cream cheese, oil, and apples. Mix until moistened. In the second bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, mixing until well blended.

Add the dry to the moist and stir a few times, wetting lightly with milk and apple juice until ingredients are just moistened.

Line muffin cups and give a light spritz with an oil sprayer or non-stick spray. Spoon enough mixture into each cup to fill them nearly to the top.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the tops are browned.

Cool, serve to the pups, and have one for yourself! These treats work for the whole family.

Puppy Pad Thai

1 tbsp sesame oil
2 cups poultry, ground or chopped
1 handful parsley
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup carrot, grated
1 tbsp peanut butter
1/2 tbsp honey
2 cups rice noodles, cooked and chopped (could substitute brown or white rice)

Prepare just as you would for yourself, in fact, this recipe came about as I was craving Pad Thai for us bipeds and thought that, with a few modifications, it would make a lovely dinner for doggies too!

Sautee the meat in a bit of sesame oil, adding in parsley and bean sprouts, stir-frying until cooked through, as sprouts sometimes contain bacteria harmful to pup. Stir in beaten egg, peanut butter, and honey to coat chicken and veggies.

Soften the rice noodles for a few minutes, in water just off of boiling, then drain and chop coarsely so long noodles don't get stuck in pup's throat.

Turn off the stove and stir in the chopped noodles and grated carrot, mixing well to coat everything in sauce and juices.

Cool to moderate temperature and serve it up to your favorite mutt!

These recipes are Laney-dog approved.

20 November, 2008

Thar sh'grows!

Tom Petty sang it right, the waiting is the hardest part. When it comes to a first-year garden, you plant, you weed, you water, and...you wait.

Sometimes seeds sprout, sometimes they fail. Sometimes the heat abuses your young plants, sometimes they survive. Sometimes Mother Nature uproots the whole works, sometimes she brings a bit of rain. After awhile, you really start hating the word "sometimes".

And then it happens. A tiny little knob of green appears on a tomato vine, or a lettuce head begins to form. Your bean plant's tendrils find their place, and apricots fatten on the branch. All that hard work, worrying, and yes, waiting, begins to pay off and you see the telltale signs of the harvest to come.

It's all happening. We have four beautiful, gleaming lettuces, with two more on the way. The tomato jungle, as it's become lovingly known, has little balls of tangy green goodness dangling on nearly every plant. The Three Sisters are getting friendly, and the leeks are nearly ready for transplant. It's starting to look like a real vegetable garden!

Such an exciting, and perilous time!

We keep waiting for disaster to strike. Pessimism probably isn't the best route, but with last autumn's bolting-fest, we've grown a bit cautious. What keeps me positive is the dream of one warm, crispy plate of fried green tomatoes on my birthday. Oh yes, that will make it all worthwhile.

18 November, 2008

10 Ways to Garden Yourself Skinny

Weight loss and gardening...really? Is there a connection? Of course there is!

We all want to be healthy, fit, and many of us want to slip into slimmer party clothes for the days when we've dusted the dirt from our heels. But who has time (or money) for gyms, memberships, classes, and equipment? Not I, said the City Mouse.

I began my own weight loss journey at the end of Aussie winter, sometime around early August. Since then, I've managed to slough off a respectable 12 kg (that's over 26 lbs, for the Americans out there). There were several aspects to the whole deal, but the most significant of these was, you guessed it, gardening.

My nightly hour of garden upkeep, and weekend half-day blitzes, have played a huge role in my newly increased fitness. It feels great when you see the scale creep downward, and when clothes begin fitting better than ever before. And, in the process, I made food grow! Personally, I find fitness a whole lot more palatable when it has deeper purpose than what might seem like vanity.

There's still a fair bit to go, on the veggie patch and my waistline, but I just thought I'd share ten great ways to get fit while gardening.

1. Shining it up: Getting your dose of sunshine each and every day is the perfect way to boost your body’s levels of Vitamin D, a vital ingredient for strong bones and a healthy immune system. Keep those ankles strong for your next power-walk by getting out in the garden and letting the sun shine in.

2. Raising the roof: Hammering, lifting, drilling, and filling. If you don’t see the calorie burn in landscape construction, you aren’t looking! Build a bench in your favorite flower bed, or reach for the sky with a homemade tomato trellis and your body will build right along with it. One hour of general home project-making burns off between 200 and 400 calories, depending on what's topping your To-Do List, today.

3. Getting dirty: Squat, lunge, thrust, bend! Nope, not a gym class on whole body toning, but it may as well be. Grabbing the shovel and hand-working your backyard veggie patch will get those biceps showing, thighs tightening, and it’ll shrink your belly too. Add in some weeding for butt-firming squats and you’ve got a full body workout right outside your door. Weeding knocks off around 296 calories for each hour. Digging earns you an extra 40, on top!

4. Stretching it out: Increasing flexibility is always a good bet when it comes to getting in shape. It builds endurance, strength, and helps stave off a laundry list of injuries and strains. The garden is full of rigorous stretching routines just begging to be discovered. Prune a tree or pluck a plum and you’ll feel the stretch down to your core. And the senior-most putterers amongst us don't have to miss out a bit! Table-top gardens allow for a lot of the same movements, with less back stress.

5. Walking to the beat: Pop in those earbuds and grab your watering can. Turn daily watering chores into a beat-driven frolic in the flowers. A spring in your step, set to music, can serve to increase your walking pace and boost your heart rate. Sing while you work and you'll exercise your respiratory system at the same time. Your plants will thank you, and your heart will too!

6. Getting brighter everyday: If knowing really is half the battle, then gardeners are winning the war! It takes real green smarts to make that garden grow, and what better way to plan your nutrition than to know where it comes from? Growing veggies in your back yard, patio, or even a balcony, can grow a wealth of knowledge, not just great food. We do so much for our veggies, so get to know what each veggie does for you. Don't just plant it. Know it.

7. Lifting you higher: Who doesn’t feel better after seeing a rose bloom, or a berry burst forth? Gardens are well known as stellar mood enhancers, and the fresh air can’t be beat. Carve yourself out a little corner with a view that allows you to truly appreciate the bounty you've scratched from the green earth, or take an evening stroll through your favorite beds, not working, just walking, and admiring what's around.

8. Cleaning up your act: One thing about which nearly all dietitians can agree is that chemicals in your food are doing you no favors. Organic is the way to go for optimum nutrition, but the prices can often send you running for the frozen peas! As homesteaders and semi-steaders, we have a unique advantage in that we have 100% control over everything we feed our food.

9. Reaping what you sow: Nothing beats harvesting the evening’s dinner salad from your home-grown garden. Fresh corn, peppers, fruits, and greens help us add vital nutrition to every meal. This is not news to the seasoned gardener. We wouldn't do this without knowing the value of fresh food, cooked with love. But there's always room for improvement, right? Next planting season, make a concerted effort to have a veggie of every hue in your garden patch. Antioxidants, vitamins, and healthful enzymes come in every shade of the vegetable rainbow.

10. Sleeping it off: All that gardening will wear you out! No more listless nights and bouts of insomnia, that’s for sure. Studies have shown that the hormones produced during a full, solid night’s sleep aid in reducing pesky belly fat, and we all know great sleep recharges you for the next day’s good mood and healthy living. The sleep brought by hard, satisfying work will set you firm and fast on the road to a slimmer, healthier you.

So, there you have it! Many of you out there are doing every single thing on this list, whether you call it fitness or not, and kudos to you! Let this serve as a pat on the back for taking care of your health and family.

But, next time a friend tells you they long for a leaner, meaner shape, you can spread the gardening gospel as a path toward health. If a pal is down in the mouth, and needs a self-esteem and confidence boost, let them know that nothing makes you smile like your plants bursting with fruit.

If you've got this fitness gig nailed, why not invite your gang over for an afternoon gardening together? After all, almost all things are best when shared.

17 November, 2008

Beauty in the Barossa - A wine valley weekend

It was a gorgeous weekend, followed by days of intense catch-up work on my latest writing assignment. But let's forget work and talk about the beauty that the Barossa Valley shared with us, last weekend.

The entire trip came about as a gift from hubby's boss. A lovely, considerate favor of a pre-paid cabin in a quaint little caravan park on the edge of Tanunda. With our lower cash-flow, these days, the mini-break was such a welcome getaway from all the daily drudgery of home.

We drove up to the wine country early enough to catch the last bits of a legendary local farmers market with the mission of living a 10-mile diet for the getaway weekend. We scored some nice duck legs, a strange local (muntrie) berry jam, some fresh eggs, and tasty produce. Perfect fixings for a gourmet meal.

As a stroke of fortune, while dining at a neighborhood lunch spot, we learned that TV cooking show host, Maggie Beer, had a farm a short trek from where we were staying, so this became a goal of the day. Up to the Pheasant Farm we went, and what a sight, indeed!

The Beers have, what must be, the most beautiful and varied game bird collection ever. There were pheasants of every variety, peafowl, geese, ducks, grouse, squab...a veritable smorgasbord of spectacularly feathered friends.

It was a peaceful afternoon wander about the native-planted bird alley, where we had the frequent company of no less than four peacocks, though the only way we got to see them at their flourished best was from the rear. Yes, we were mooned by a peacock. Cheeky devil.

We made our way back to the farm shop and tasted everything that shop had to offer. There were jams, jellies, sucos, chutneys, pates, fruit pastes, vinegars, and verjus, oh my! We hardly needed food for hours. But they fed us further still as the cooking demonstration began.

For those local to Oz, you might recognize this photo as the set of ABC's The Cook and the Chef. I adore this show, and it was a genuine treat to sample some of Maggie's recipes in her "home" kitchen. Should you view the season opener, know that we were there when the tongue was being simmered, and the Pavlova was puffing!

The rest of the weekend passed at an easy pace, with walks through vineyards, wineries, a second local market visit, and midnight Monopoly in our delightful little cabin. Hubby was beside himself when we stumbled across a classic Ford show at one of the vineyards, and even I got a bit giddy over the 1922 restoration we saw.

My favorite, of course, was the wine tasting at Chateau Tanunda. This place is glorious! Croquet fields outside, salt trains chugging by, old sandstone construction, and flawlessly manicured gardens everywhere

The whole trip really motivated us to get hopping on the garden. We got ideas for fruit tree cultivation, rose plantings, veggie patch planning...oh it was a treasure trove, that place. It was hard to leave!

But, the promise of the hunt for a new pup drew us homeward, and now that mammoth critter is anxious for some outdoor play, despite the icy wind blowing this morning. So off we go, our Laney-dog and me. We've a lot of training to cover, and it's going to be a very busy day. In the grand scheme, it's really good to be home.

14 November, 2008

Gone to the Dogs

Oh blogaverse, how I have neglected thee! And the first thing I must do upon my return is to ask for a little advice.

Someday soon, I will spill all on the organic, green beauty that is the Barossa Wine Valley, but for now, I need to introduce a new family member.

This is our, as yet unnamed (though we're leaning toward Laney), newly adopted dog! She is a beauty, and will be making her way through our front door on Sunday afternoon. I have no shame in saying I've been like a whiney kid before Christmas, waiting for Sunday to arrive.

We're adopting her from a wonderful, generous woman who operates a rural no-kill, non-profit, non-government shelter on her riverland farm. In addition to her work with abandoned pets, she and her helpers also bring local folk's pets into the city, four hours away, for less expensive medical care. Should any Aussies read this, please consider adopting your next pup from the Moorook Animal Shelter, just west of Renmark, SA. They will rehome at least a number of their rescues interstate.

On to the needed advice! We've decided to make Unnamed Beauty's food, at home. I have done some research and have devised the basic recipe below, subject to change in protein types and available starches and veggies. With 12kg of quality dry food running nearly $40 AUD, this seems a much more sensible option.

Meat Week Pupper Dog Food
1 cup cooked ground turkey, with ground bone
1/4 cup cooked sheep heart
2 cups diced potato
1 cup rolled oats, dry
Slow-simmer above in enough water to cook and soften, but not enough to make soupy, then add:
1 cup raw veggies*, chopped or grated

Veggie Week Pupper Dog Food
2 cups green & brown lentils, dry
1 cup brown rice, dry
Slow-simmer above in enough water to cook and soften, but not enough to make soupy, then stir in 1 beaten egg and heat through until egg is done. Then add:
2 cups raw veggies*, chopped or grated

*varied amongst green beans, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and pumpkin/squash

My plea for advice is this. Do any of you make your own pet food? If so, any words of advice, changes to my recipes, or other thoughts? I'm also unsure how much to feed to a medium-to-large 18 month old dog. Usually these things are printed on pet food packaging, which we obviously won't have. I also plan to try my hand at homemade crunchy treats and biscuits, but will need some practice first.

So, dear blogaverse, share your expertise with an expectant and nervous doggie-mom?

08 November, 2008

Symmetry and Six Moons

We had a small realization as we sipped our morning coffee and began preparing to leave on our wine country adventure. We made this exact same trip six months ago, to the day. My dear friend, Annette, was in town for our wedding and we three musketeers drove off to the Barossa for a day of tipsy fun. Funny how things work out that way.

It's harder than I thought to leave our budding garden. Just last night we spotted fledgling tomatoes, dangling from most of the vines. The corn is knee-high (by the fourth of November? Just doesn't have the same ring), and the spring onions have, at long last, poked up their wispy little crowns. Hopefully the weather will be kind in our absence.

In my absence, should you be inspired, please share your favorite photo of your own little garden. I would love to see what motivates you to dig, pluck, water, and weed.

Six months married. Seems shorter! Seems longer too.

06 November, 2008

Backyard Burnout

Have you ever gotten to that place where if you sow another seed or pluck another weed, you might just take a torch to the whole damned lot? With the time and space that separates we few, proud gardeners, it's easy to feel as if you're the only one.

I am in that place.

I swear to all that's holy, if I dig one more spadeful of dirt for our patio, or transplant one more seedling, I will go insane! It's been a few days since my last real garden blitz. I spent most of Sunday afternoon digging, planting, watering, weeding, organizing, and mending the garden while hubby hid away in the shed, sawing up something for my upcoming birthday.

Truthfully, there's not much to do, and I think that's part of the problem. Perhaps that sounds odd, but when there was a full spring planting to manage, and the start of our patio to spur us on, motivation was much higher. But now that we're out of money for chicken house supplies, we've gotten most of the garden situated, and with the patio project seeming so endless, I've temporarily lost my zeal.

Of course, "real life" is always a factor, events conspiring to present distraction after distraction. As you read this, the City Mouse should be penning eleven 500-word articles on the benefit of some weight-loss plan I've never heard of and working up two more pieces for the environmental mag. Ah, the joys of freelance writing.

The house needs cleaning, not much, but a good tidying for sure. And the emotion of the last two days, of these amazing and life-changing electoral times, has done much to split my focus. Even the fly buzzing around our dining table has it's tiny little mind set on disturbing my flow.

What is the cure for general feelings of disinterest and lack of motivation?

Get away from it!

Okay, so maybe my time would be better spent working on the piles of things that need, and deserve, my attention, but not this weekend. Nope, no sir. The City Mouse and spouse are heading off to the wine country. A quiet cabin in the Barossa Valley is paid for and waiting, with our names on it. One night free of house and garden, deadlines and bills, oh it will be bliss.

It may only be a single night, but last night showed us what amazing change just one day can bring. Perhaps this is just the renewal and change I need.

05 November, 2008

Free Range Politics

Photo by Marilyn Jane

It'd be difficult to let a day as monumental this pass without comment. But, it's not the presidential election that compels me, today. It's not even the most controversial of the California measures up for vote. It's a lesser-known California proposition that would prevent some of the cruelty heaped onto factory-farmed livestock. So, please join me around my soap-box for awhile, won't you?

Proposition 2, on the California ballot, would require the phase-out of all battery house confinement of egg-layers, tight-box housing of calves (veal), and the use of gestation crates for breeding sows, by 2015.

Basically, this statute would do for production animals what we all do for our own meat and dairy critters in our own backyards. It would allow them to move.

I'm not a vegetarian, and I love cheese to much to go vegan, and I've eaten every type of meat you can imagine. But, I respect animals and the sustinence they provide for our breakfast omelets, and that favorite Sunday roast. Prop 2 would set a precedent for prevention of the cruel housing of these sacrificial beings, and that seems right to me.

As with any measure, there are drawbacks. There will be an initial financial hardship on effected farmers, and it may take time to work around the psychology of often-aggressive pregnant pigs, but we homesteaders and semi-steaders know that there is always a way, if you just look hard enough.

I don't write this to sway votes. Most of you aren't even American, and the California polls close within mere hours. I write this to encourage you to research your local regulations. Should unethical farming be legal in your council, your city, your province or state, please press your leaders to change. Please help provide the grocer-dependent public with ethically produced foods.

Not everyone can have a herd, flock, or drove in their back garden, but everyone should have the peace of mind that their food was produced under less cruel circumstances than currently prevail.

04 November, 2008

Flights of Island Fancy

Today finds me sipping strong coffee on the shaded front porch of a sandstone house, with a sea view off in the distance. Rolling, faded-green hills surround me, stitched with fenceline and hedgerows. If you look to the right, you might glimpse a few wallabies sneaking past the acre of hard-worked vegetables. On the left, a pond gurgles, nestled in a horse-shoe of fragrant lemon myrtle and presided over by a lush-furred, keen-eyed cat.

We could go for a walk through the berry patch to pick ourselves a snack. Don't mind me if I nervously duck a bee or two that are heading to the neighbor's honey farm. Afterward, we can make our way back to the house, the dogs at our heels, to check on the tajine of local treats I've been simmering all afternoon.

The family animals are going about their business. The fowl are laying eggs, the sheep and cow are out the back, contentedly relaxing, having done their work for the day. The air is filled with their gentle collective chatter, and we're fairly sure they're discussing whether or not it'll rain.

The sun is setting over a nearby seaside cliff and tonight's dinner scents the air with simmered lamb, a waft of honey-tinged haloumi, and the crisp perfume of sparkling shiraz, breathing from an opened bottle off to one side. This neighborhood knows its food, and provides it all, without assistance. Freshly harvested veggie dishes cover the table, and those berries will make a lovely pie, don't you think?

There's a lot of work in this place, nearly constant and even back-breaking, but the payoff is this quiet bliss. It makes it all worthwhile, just to have an evening like this.

This is how I spent my day...in my head.

Being a bit under the weather gives one an excuse to kick back a little, and the chance to daydream a little too. Today's sick-day dreams find me on Kangaroo Island, and I thought I'd invite you along.

We're not ready for that dream to come true, not for years still. It's toyed with and tossed about, and though we check the listings each time we go, we're not in that place yet. Still too young to trade the city fringes for island isolation. But, if any place in Australia could lure this City Mouse into the quiet life, that tiny blip on the map, that land just south of south, and just beyond the beyond—that would be the one.

02 November, 2008

How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

In the way-back genetic machine, it's a fair estimate that most old American families have a smidgen of Native American (or American Indian) blood. You can see it in our culture, music, food, and in the few rare gems we seem to recall from that aboriginal past.

The Three Sisters Garden, a blend of corn, bean, and pumpkin, is a traditional method of Companion Planting used from time immemorial, now used worldwide by some who aren't even aware of the origins. Just this weekend I spotted Aussie gardening legend, Peter Cundall, informing a TV guest that pumpkin and corn are just obscenely drawn to each other, though he didn't know why.

Traditionally, the story goes thus. Corn is the eldest sister, tall and steady, providing support through the growth of her little sisters. Beans, the middle child, attempts to nurture the family, but clings to her elder sister in admiration and need. Pumpkin, the littlest sister, often overlooked, spreads her love around her sisters, keeping them grounded.

Scientifically, this translates to simple botany. Corn requires nitrogen-rich soil to be at its best, and thus depletes the nitrogen from wherever you plant. Beans, climbers and pole beans to be precise, fertilize the corn with their nitrogen output, removing the need to rotate corn crops each year. At the same time, the tall corn stalks provide a climbing post for the beans. Pumpkin, squash, and relatives such as cucumber, grow thick blankets of leaves which work as a mulch to the sensitive and water-hungry corn plants, and help deter damaging pests.

Enough back story. The gist is, this is an amazing garden to grow if one wants to witness nature in it's simple perfection. This garden teaches science, history, and can be worked in a very small space, even by kids! So, let's give this garden a go.

Supplies and Tools:
1 meter2 of space
Seeds of Corn, Climbing/Pole Beans, and your pick of Squash, Pumpkin, Melons, or Cucumbers.
Fertilizer. We prefer poultry manure.
Lots of dirt

Find your spot. What's needed is some good sun exposure and some wind exposure as well, as corn pollinates on the breeze. Be careful to put several meters distance between differing varieties of corn as they will cross pollinate.

Shovel enough soil to build a flat-top, sloped-side mound 1 meter2 in area, about 8-12 inches high (enjoying my mixed measurements?). Mix in a good deal of organic matter, manure, compost, etc as you construct the mound. Form the flat of the mound into a bit of a tray, so that the outer edges sit slightly higher than the middle, allowing for better water usage by the plants.

In the shape of a cross, or a circle for those unsure any corn will sprout, sow 2-3 corn seeds in each hole, centered in the mound, following seed instructions on depth and distance apart. Water well, and wait for your corn to sprout. This will take a week or two. Once the corn sprouts are about 4-5 inches tall, thin them out to the four strongest plants. Corn grows best in clumps as opposed to rows.

Now that your corn is standing tall, plant the climbing beans, about 6 inches from the corn, in a ring around the edge of the mound. Just use one bean seed per hole, but plant more than you need as you may lose a few to dormant seeds or slug attacks. Again, water well, and wait. Sprouts should appear in a week or so. Thin as needed.

About a week after the beans have poked up their little heads, plant 3 pumpkin seeds in each corner of the mound. Water, water, water...and wait. When the littlest sister sprouts, thin them out to the two strongest plants in each corner, sit back and watch your Three Sisters Garden grow!

What will happen: As time goes by, the corn will grow as much as 2 meters high, the beans will slither toward the stalks but may need your guidance. Gently wrap bean vines around the base of a corn stalk and they will find their way from there. As the pumpkin grows, coax it to spread across the mound to keep the topsoil shaded and moist.

I really hope you give this method of gardening a try. If you've used Three Sisters or similar, please let us all know and share any tips you might have! I'll be adding more images as our sisters grow big and strong.

Update! Be sure to see the November news on how the girls have grown.

01 November, 2008

A Howling Good Time

Halloween is, by far, my favorite holiday. It's a day of pure fun, experienced with inner-child abandon and blatant disregard for sensible things like "No candy before supper," and "Don't wear that!" Halloween is also an excellent time for building a bit of community spirit and getting to know the locals.

I grew up in a land where All Hallows Eve is the second most money-making holiday, after Christmas, and everyone really gets in the spirit. Kids dress up. Grown-ups do too. People decorate, throw theme parties, attend haunts and hay rides, carve Jack O'Lanterns, and just have a terrific time.

Now that I'm in Australia, there's a bit of a Halloween buzz-kill. You'd think that a country known for the any-excuse-for-a-good-time mentality would heartily embrace such a frivolous fete, but nay!

Bucking local (lack of) tradition, hubby and I strung up the meager decorations I brought from the US, pooled with a few bits and pieces gathered from the cheap stores, and it started a wave of Halloween cheer amongst the neighbors. The house across the street strung up spun-cotton spider webs, the kids bugged parents until costumes were pieced together, even a couple moms got into the act, urging their kids to visit a few more houses before it got dark, smiles all around.

The sounds of giggling, sugar-hyped kids filled the cool evening and we made them all light up when I answered the door in my gypsy-esque finery, hubby in his old school uniform. We had fifteen Trick-or-Treaters total that came for our goodies, and to see the mummified stuffed animals we'd perched on the rose arch.

What does this have to do with ecology, gardening, self-sufficiency, or anything really? Community. Halloween builds community. We met neighbors who've never even waved hello, but Halloween had them knocking on our door. We made their kids smile, and gave them a good laugh. We learned who belongs to whom, and just what faces float about our little street.

Community is something that's faded right along with all the skills we try to cultivate as suburban semi-steaders, and though many sustainability-focused families seem to isolate themselves, shunning the more commercial world, we're of the ilk that believe the key to a better world begins with knowing the folks next door.

So, next year, when you're tempted to turn out your porch light, or to pass that perfect carving-pumpkin on by, consider the people in your neck of the woods and ask yourself if you might grow something a little more important than organic veggies today. Ask yourself if you could grow a community.