Tuesday, July 29, 2014

poop soup

My cousin and her husband drove up to see us last week. It was a short stay - only 48 hours - but we packed a lot of fun into that time. The guys took the kids to play a lot of frisbee golf and Steph and I went on a nice long trail run. We cooked and ate some really good food, drank some really good beer and talked a lot about everything - work, family, running, gardening.

The latter topic is something I'm more and more interested in lately (have you noticed?). Always up for new things, I started a worm bin in the basement last summer with all of three wrigglers that were given to my kids at a library program. Since then they have multiplied and made lots of dirt and I have been feeding them scraps of lettuce and coffee grounds and thought everything was hunky dory until Steph had a good look in the bin and was horrified to discover a vat of stinky sludge unfit for any living creatures, even worms.

My plan was to just set the bin outside and freeze them in the fall because I wasn't sure how to deal with them, but Steph is something of an expert on worm composting and offered me her services in fixing the problem and some advice on better worm maintenance.

I have such a bad history with composting. A few years ago our fancy black bin was so wet and smelly the neighbors nicknamed it the "dirty diaper compost". Then we aired it out and have some open piles that are in much better shape.

But back to the worms. When I'd checked on them in the last several weeks, I saw them writhing near the top and just assumed they'd reproduced into critical mass, but I was wrong. Steph stuck her bare hand right in the muck and informed me that yes, I had a lot of worms, but not nearly as many as I'd thought, and furthermore, it was so wet in the bottom of the bin they were trying to escape. She then washed her hands about 5 times to get rid of the smell, put on some protective gloves and dragged everything outside to get to work.

WARNING: Some of the pictures that follow are pretty gross. If you can't handle worm sludge, stop reading now!!!


First order of business was to shred some paper, LOTS of it, to stir into the mess so it wouldn't be so wet. Our old credit card bills are worm food now.

Before mixing in anything new, she sorted through the bin and took out uneaten scraps.

"HELLLLP!!! Get us out of herrrrrre!"
Another view of the sludge. See how shiny.

Old parsley in excess must go!

What was left we named "Poop Soup." Actually, I called it "Shit Soup" but then the kids came outside so I had to clean up the language. 

Because we have impeccable timing, this was happening in the back yard just as Stuart fired up the grill to make dinner. The smells didn't mix too well.

See why she's wearing gloves?
Even as they attempt escape, worms always find and take every opportunity to keep the population going strong.
W*rm p*rn...bow chicka bow bow
 OK, so the uneaten muck was separated from the digested muck. Excess was thrown into the regular back yard compost, and then Steph spent the next twenty or so minute stirring shredded paper into the bin. She mixed and stirred and stirred and mixed, breaking up clumps of yuck and eventually, it started looking better.

I added a few handfuls of straw from a failed garden bale and she stirred it up some more.

Now I have a bin full of drier, happier (I hope) worms in my basement. I have been instructed not to open the lid for a week, after which time I should stir it again and add some more shredded paper if it's not dry enough. I may also bury a handful of food (cucumber peels, bits of lettuce, that sort of thing) in the middle of the bin. It's best to chop the scraps into little bits and freeze and thaw before adding to help break down the cellular structure of the food so it's easier for the worms to eat.

I'm willing to give this a try. I didn't realize a few worms could be so high maintenance, but since their poop is the one of the best things you can put on your garden, it's worth a little effort. But by October, if all I have is poop soup again I'm just going to set the bin outside and freeze their little asses. No more worm sludge for me!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

happy birthday, joe!

34 years ago today Mount St. Helens erupted near Portland, OR, after more than a month of quiet. At approximately the same time that day, in a hospital in Albuquerque, NM, my little brother Joe was born. I was only 19 months old at the time, so I remember nothing about it, though I'm told I was not happy about having a squalling little person invading my space and taking up all the attention from my parents.

Now, Joe lives halfway across the country and I wish I could see him more often. I feel bad I didn't even get his birthday gift sent until today so he won't get it until later this week. I think when he opens it up he'll understand, though, and I hope he doesn't mind.

I thought about making a list of 34 things you should know about Joe, but he probably would mind that. Since I'm his big sister I'd probably just embarrass him anyway.

Happy birthday, Joe! Relax...have a home-brew.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Grill a Pizza

Last night Stuart cooked pizza on the grill. I'd had grilled pizza at a shindig in June and it was so tasty we wanted to try it here. According to Mark Bittman, grilling pizza isn't all that hard, and it turns out he's right! Cooking outside in the summertime has the added benefit of keeping the extra heat outside rather than turning your whole kitchen into a furnace, especially when your kitchen is small and poorly ventilated like ours.

So here we go.

1. Make the dough (no picture for this, sorry). Use whatever dough recipe strikes your fancy. Our favorite is the Now or Later Pizza from the King Arthur flour people. I always substitute some whole wheat flour for part of the white.

2. Once sufficient time has passed for the dough to rise and rest, divide it into two or three pieces and spread out on a baking peel or large cutting board.

For any of our college friends reading this, yes that is indeed an original "Spring Fling 2000" shirt that Stuart is wearing. 

3. While the dough is resting, get the grill going. I'm told hardwood charcoal is best, and that's what he used.

 4. When the coals are ready, move them to the side and slide the dough right on the grill over indirect heat. The first pizza we did was cooked over direct heat and it got a little charred. I didn't mind that one because I kind of like charred food...but it's probably better if you don't eat stuff that's burned to a crisp.

5. Do not worry if your crust isn't round. It probably won't be.

 6. Put the lid on and count to 100. After a minute or two, it will look like this:

Nice and bubbly!
7. Flip over the crust. If it's a big one, this may take several spatulas and an extra pair of hands.

8. Throw on your topping as fast as you can so they can warm up a little before the crust finishes cooking. It helps to have the toppings out, cheese shredded, and everything ready right next to the grill so you don't have to dash frantically back inside to grab the pesto and cheese before the crust burns. Ask me how I know.  Let the pizza cool a bit before eating!

This big ol' sliced up tree stump is handy for all sorts of things.

Our outdoor dining room could stand to be updated.
Happy chef!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

dried oregano

I have a sprawling, wild patch of oregano growing in my front yard. I don't remember when I planted it, though it must have been several years ago because now it is practically a small shrub. When the sprouts emerge in the spring, the leaves are fresh and charming, but by this point in the summer the stems are sagging and unwieldy, crowding out the surrounding plants. The bumblebees love it.

A week ago I casually mentioned that I should just cut back the whole plant and see what happens. Anya, my intrepid and loyal garden helper, persisted in reminding me about it all week: "Mom, remember what you said about the oregano?" Friday afternoon we found ourselves with a little free time, so we set to work. I clipped stem after stem and she piled the lot in her arms, and then we took the stack of clippings to the back deck.

At first I thought we should throw the lot on the compost pile, and then, when I looked at that pile of fresh, homegrown oregano, I decided to try and save some of it. After all, what's the harm in trying? So together, Anya and I sorted through the stems, pitching what looked too spotted and yellow, and saving what was nice and green. We dunked the stems in water to rinse, then laid them out to dry on a towel for an hour or so. (How I wish I had some pictures of her helping me do this! Next time, I promise...)

Once the stems were more or less dry (though not dried out), I piled them on a baking sheet and left them in the kitchen. Actually, I put them in the oven without turning it on, mostly because I didn't have room anywhere else. I read somewhere recently that you can dry herbs on the dashboard of your car, so this morning I put the baking sheet just under the windshield of my car, which is usually parked in the baking sun, and within two hours, my oregano looked like this:

It wasn't even that hot outside this morning, just nice and sunny. Those dried leaves just crumbled right off the stems. I crushed the leaves and put them in jars:

Voila! Oregano!

I have no idea if my homemade dried oregano will be any better than what you can buy from the store. There are approximately a zillion varieties of oregano and I'm sure some are better than others in terms of flavor, fresh and dried. (Note to self: research oregano varieties and grow the good stuff!) Still, it was fun, and this evening I put a bunch of it in some refried beans for dinner.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


A cold front came through last night and left us positively chilled here. It was barely 60 degrees late this morning when we should have been at swimming lessons, but hypothermia didn't sound like much fun so I decided we could skip today. It felt like a mid-September day, cloudy and cool and breezy, except that it's the middle of summer! This morning, I picked my first cucumber, the first sunflower bloomed, and my tomatoes are only beginning to pale in color; they're not close to ripe.

School has been out for a month already and while I've settled into a pretty good routine with the kids - I think we finally struck a decent balance of enough organized activities to keep them from getting bored without being over-scheduled - I've accomplished practically nothing on my own aside from keeping up with the regular housework and pulling weeds in various gardens. I made what I thought was quite a modest list of things I wanted to get done this summer, and what have I crossed off that list? Nothing. Goose egg.

It's frustrating. I have almost no childcare this summer, the one exception being two hours of summer enrichment at a nearby school from 8-10 every morning. Daniel and Anya are both really enjoying it, and the early time slot gets us going every day, but those two hours they're in class are just enough time for me to get some chores and errands done (laundry, dishes, groceries, gardening) or get some much-needed exercise (lately I've been running 4-5 miles of trails on Lake Mendota, which is delightful.) This leaves no time leftover for the bigger projects I fully intended to tackle this summer.

I suppose it's only mid-July. There is still time...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

gardening: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I am fond of saying that my enthusiasm for gardening falls short of my actual skill. I'm forever trying to grow things with only a middling success rate. Sometimes I just get behind on watering, or the weeds take over, or the rabbits chomp what I planted, or disease takes hold, or I completely misjudge something like hours of sunlight or night time temperatures...any number of things can and do go wrong. Still, I'm learning. And the good thing about gardens is that you can keep on planting every year and ostensibly learn from your mistakes.

We've had several trees removed from our back yard in the last two years. We used to have 7 spruce and a giant silver maple. Two spruce died in the 2012 drought, and a few months later another spruce - the largest, weakened with disease - started tipping over and nearly destroyed the house behind us. Last year we had the silver maple removed, in part as anticipation for a major renovation we're hoping to do later this year, and in part because those trees are safety hazards; weak wood and sprawling branches make for an accident waiting to happen in the next wind storm. Of the four spruce that were left, two in the southeast corner of the yard looked so spindly and out of place, we had those out, too. Left with a whole lot more space in the yard (and a smaller bank account) and a good bit more sunlight, Stuart said "Garage?" and I said, "Garden!" (We also had our house evaluated for solar panels, but it turns out we still don't get quite enough hours of sun to make them worth the expense. Bummer.)

Even with all the extra hours of sun, the soil in our back yard is terrible. At least, I assume it is, given the weeds and tree roots that have been there for so long. Also, if we're going to have trucks and construction vehicles in the back yard, I didn't want to put in anything permanent until that project is over. (If it ever begins...but that's a whole 'nother thing...)

In any case, I've been hearing a lot about straw bale gardening and decided this would be a good year to give it a try. I got the book for Christmas, read it cover to cover, and in April I had a dozen bales delivered to my house so I could get started.

I thought it would be a breeze. The book tells you how easy it is, the website is the same. I've heard the author on the radio on a local station and everyone who called in raved about how well their straw bale gardens worked. No digging! No weeds! No disease! Plants are happy! At the end of the season you compost the straw and start with fresh bales the next year! What could possibly go wrong??

Well. I'm here to tell you that I am capable of screwing up any kind of garden, even the kind supposedly for dummies. 

When you get your bales, you need to condition them for about two weeks with water and fertilizer. When you do this, the straw starts to break down, making nice warm, fertile conditions for plants to grow. After the two weeks, you put some soil on top of the bales and put in your seeds or seedlings, keep them watered, and then the magic happens.

I started one row of bales in April, planning on a spring garden of lettuce, spinach, carrots and onions. By the end of May, we'd be feasting on salad! 

Or not. I followed the author's instructions exactly and nearly all of my seeds failed to sprout. The bales were wet, all right, but they were cold and didn't seem to be decomposing as they should. We had an unusually cold, wet spring, so I'm sure that had something to do with it. Also, I'd plant seeds and we'd get a downpour that would wash everything off the top of my bales. I'd replant, and it would rain again. Nothing had a chance to take root. If I'd been growing that stuff in the dirt, I suspect I wouldn't have had that problem. 

Then, the stuff that did come up was puny and stayed puny. Assuming a lot of nutrients had flushed out of the bales, I put plant food in the water, but it didn't do a whole lot of good. Below is a picture of the bale fail:

See all that grass? My bales sprouted. The grass grew happily where my salad didn't. 

Also, those bales are breaking down so much they were really starting to slump, so this morning I  chucked two of them into the compost. Live and learn, right? At least they should eventually make some good dirt.

I'm glad to say that the straw bale experiment hasn't been a complete failure. Planting seeds for a cool weather crop didn't work, but I saved two rows of bales for tomato, pepper and cucumber seedlings, and those are looking much better:

I also, on a whim, threw some compost (from MY COMPOST PILE BECAUSE I MADE DIRT ALL BY MYSELF!!) and sunflower seeds between the last row of bales and the neighbor's fence, and those are getting nice and tall. 

I've had some other garden fails in my yard this year. When we took out that big maple tree, I took several loads of mulch and dirt from the ground up stump and dumped it on my beds in the front yard. I had thought it looked like such beautiful mulch, but nothing much wants to grow there. I planted peas with inoculant to fix nitrogen into two beds and added bat guano and Purple Cow compost (that stuff is pricey but REALLY nice) to coax along some other plants that were looking awfully stunted. I think it might finally be paying off, but I wonder what was wrong with the stump mulch in the first place? Maybe it needs another year to break down first, I don't know.

Blah, blah, blah. I could go on and on and on about garden stuff. I often do, in fact. So I'll stop here and leave you with a picture of Anya, who has claimed some garden space in the front yard for flowers. We planted salvia (didn't come up), zinnias (they're puny but finally getting somewhere), cosmos (on top of the failed salvia) and there are some random volunteer sunflowers and Chinese broccoli, both reseeded from last year, as well. Last, we tried nasturtiums, which is a first for me. This morning, Anya went outside and discovered a brilliant orange bloom, the exact same color as a balloon she was playing with, so she had to compare the two and I got a picture:

Is all this effort worth it? We happen to live in one of the best places in the country for fresh produce. Southern Wisconsin has one of the highest concentration of small organic vegetable farms in the U.S. (or so I'm told), which could explain why the restaurant scene is growing and high-profile chefs are settling here. (Not like I can name any of them; we rarely have a chance to go out to eat.) We subscribe to a CSA, and if there is anything in season I want that didn't show up in our weekly box of vegetables, I can go to any number of nearby farmers' markets and buy it there. And yet, though I can  find and purchase fresh, delicious tomatoes so much more easily than growing them myself, I keep trying. Each year, I grow things to eat, determined to find more self-sufficiency than the year before.

It's a good thing I don't give up easily.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Howard Karp

Yesterday I learned that Howard Karp, professor emeritus of piano at the UW-Madison School of Music, died last week at the age of 84. His obituary is here.

I didn't really know Howard (he retired right before I started my first masters degree), but I certainly met him and heard him perform and I know one of his sons. I do know that he was a towering musician, as well as a humble and generous person. He will certainly be missed.

Monday, July 07, 2014

eat like the french?

I just finished reading the book French Kids Eat Everything , thanks to a recommendation from my friend Heather, and I can't stop talking about it. In fact, I think everyone who spends time with me must be so sick of hearing about it, and I don't blame them.

It was just the kind of book I needed to read, though. The author, a Canadian who married a Frenchman and has two young daughters, spent a year living in a village in northern France, where her kids (and, as it turned out, she herself), learned how to eat like French kids do. It wasn't easy because her kids were used to frequent snacking and were picky eaters, both big no-nos in France. According to her, French kids don't eat between meals (no snacking!) and learn to eat - and enjoy eating - what's in front of them. If you don't like what's served, the logic goes, you don't have to eat it, but you'll be plenty hungry for the next meal and will thus be less finicky about the food in front of you.

My kids aren't as bad as they used to be, but they really put me through the wringer with picky eating. I still maintain that it's not entirely my fault, despite the judgmental comments I endured from everyone around me during that long, awful phase. (It's also my fault they were terrible sleepers.)

After reading that book, though, I now believe that while I'm doing a lot of things right, there are a few things I could have done differently, and there are a few rules I'll be implementing now. Starting yesterday, actually. One big rule for the French, evidently, is NO SNACKS. See, snacks are an essential part of a kid's life in North America. Kids snack all the time! They get snacks at school, after school, at the park, sometimes even at night. They get snacks as rewards, as distraction when they're bored, to shut them up when they're whining, to tide them over until dinner is ready, to comfort in times of anxiety. Notice that none of these reasons have anything to do with actual hunger. Also, since snacks are often unhealthy processed foods, kids end up with bellies too full for regular meals, and the cycle continues.

No wonder we have an obesity problem.

Lord knows I have been guilty of this over and over again. When my kids were little, I was so anxious about how little they ate at meals, I made sure snacks were available other times of the day -healthy ones, mostly, but there were more graham crackers and goldfish consumed than I would have liked. Now that they are in school during the year, they barely have time to eat lunch and then come home starving in the afternoon. But also, I notice that when they have a big snack or two in the afternoon, they pick at dinner and whine they're hungry later. Duh.

It's the whole "follow the child" approach taken a little too far, where the kids have too much say about what they eat and when. Preparing food and cleaning up afterwards takes up so many waking hours, it feels in itself like a full-time job. And now, guess what? It's within my power to reign that in. So, while I can't convert us totally to the French way of eating (nor am I sure I want to), I am resolved to at least do better with the whole snack situation.

It feels almost silly to write that down in the first place. It feels like admitting I've had no control over their eating habits up to this point. And that makes me feel like I've failed somewhere, that somehow I allowed my kids to be picky. Maybe that's even true, to a point, but starting now, some things are going to change.

I don't think we can do away with snacks entirely. In fact, even French children are accustomed to a late afternoon gĂ´uter (substantial snack that tides them over to the late dinner hour), so I want to model their afternoon snack after that. I just need to make sure it's something more nutritious than crackers or cereal. I also usually have something for my kids to eat mid-morning and while it might be best to do away with that eventually, I'm not sure how. We eat breakfast pretty early, and have lots going on before lunch, so even I need a little something to eat around 10:00; a handful of trail mix and a piece of fruit usually does the trick.

When it comes to the bigger picture, I really wish there was something to be done about the food served at school. The snacks they get in the classroom are almost always processed carbs out of a box - easy to serve and approved for those concerned about hygiene. The hot lunches aren't terrible, but they aren't good, either, and the kids certainly don't have enough time to eat unless they gobble everything down before heading out to recess. That this occurs on a daily basis 180 days out of the year sets children up for questionable eating habits down the road. Also, too often kids get treats like pizza or popsicles as rewards.  I know for a fact I'm not the only parent who is concerned about these things, but I don't know how we can change these realities without changing our food culture and that would be a Sisyphean effort.

Still, indulge me for a moment and imagine what it would be like if kids in public schools had really, truly good food to eat and enough time to eat it. Imagine school lunches prepared fresh on site and served hot (not re-heated in a packaged disposable tray). Imagine kids having an entire half hour at lunchtime so they could eat without being rushed, and experience the tastes and textures of that food that has been so carefully prepared.

Do you think that maybe if kids had the opportunity for a truly satisfying food experience in the middle of a long school day that maybe we would see a ripple effect in behavior and academic performance? I'm not saying this is a silver bullet, but it would surely be a good start.

Karen Le Billon says in her book that the French believe good food is the most egalitarian experience of their culture. No matter your socioeconomic status or your family background, if you are French, you learn to eat well. I think we could benefit from some of that attitude here.