Vegetarian Sloppy Joes

IMG_1389My family loves tofu meatballs, so any tofu I buy usually ends up in spaghetti with meatballs. But I enjoy tofu in many forms. Vegetarian sloppy joes comes in a close second to meatballs for me. This is a winter-friendly recipe, using canned tomatoes and dried herbs, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make it with fresh tomatoes and herbs in season.

300 g firm tofu, crumbled
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
8 button mushrooms, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
2 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground fennel
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp mild mustard
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste

Sauté the tofu in the oil until it begins to brown. Add the onions and paprikas and continue to sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and mushrooms. When the mushrooms begin releasing their moisture, add the remainder of the ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for at least 30 minutes. You may need to uncover the pot during the last 10 minutes or so to allow some of the moisture to boil off.

Serve on Mum’s Fluffy Buns.

Throw the Windows Open

2016-06-29 13.02.59Until we moved to New Zealand, I would have laughed at the idea of opening the windows and doors in mid-winter. When it’s well below zero, a fresh breeze through the house isn’t exactly welcome.

Somehow here, the idea of a fresh breeze through the house at any time of year is welcome.

It helps that the climate is warm—there’s never a day that remains below freezing, even in the depths of winter. But even so, I noted after I flung the house open today that the outside temperature is only 11°C (52°F). I’m sure I never opened the windows at that temperature in Minnesota or Pennsylvania.

Of course, in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the windows never ran with moisture. Puddles didn’t form on the windowsills every morning (in MN, it was ice, but that’s another story). The winter air here is warm enough to hold plenty of moisture, and without central heating to dry out the air, it can get pretty damp indoors. A couple of hours of a brisk breeze on a sunny afternoon can do wonders for the indoor humidity.

Perhaps that’s part of what I like about living here—the opportunity to invite the outdoors in, even during the wintertime.

As Horace Everett wrote (to Aaron Copland’s music): Stomp your foot upon the floor / Throw the windows open / Take a breath of fresh June air and dance around the room.

Functional and Meaningful

2016-06-28 16.00.01The pattern weights in the slick sewing magazine were tempting, for sure—sleek brass cylinders that screamed ‘professional sewer’. Just looking at the picture, I could feel their delicious heft and smooth finish.

But my life is not one of polished brass. Though the fancy pattern weights were elegant and undoubtedly fit for the job, my beach rocks are, too.

Smooth greywacke cobbles I collected myself from the beach just 4km away beat out the fanciest weights. They belong here. They fit my hand nicely, come in many sizes and weights, and they speak to me of waves and water, sun and sand. Nothing purchased can do that.

My pie weights come from the beach, too, and work just as well as a fancy set of ceramic beads. More so, because they make me smile whenever I use them.

Objects that are of a place. Objects that belong.

In our global economy, with the products of the world just one click (and a credit card number) away on the Internet, it’s easy to forget that what is in our back yard may be just as useful, and far more meaningful, than anything manufactured and stamped with a brand name.


Playing with Fire

2016-06-25 11.56.06There is nothing better calculated to get my teenage son outside than the prospect of fire.

Most weekends, he spends the day indoors reading books or playing computer games. He’ll come out to help in the yard or garden if we ask him to, but as soon as he’s released, he’ll be back inside.

Tell him we’re going to burn off the brush pile, though, and he’s out the door like a shot, and will spend all day pottering around the fire—tossing sticks in, raking coals together, hosing down the grass around the fire to keep it from spreading.

What makes fire so compelling, especially for teenage boys?

Believe it or not, scientists have actually tried to answer this question. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that gazing at even a video of a fire reduced subjects’ blood pressure. The longer they watched the fire, the more relaxed they became. The researchers suggest that the multisensory aspect of a fire focuses our attention and reduces anxiety.

Whether that is simply an outcome of meditation associated with this sensory focus, or an evolutionary response to the social and physical security that a fire was to our ancestors is a matter of speculation.

Fire is, in fact, essential to humans. Our power-hungry brains need the extra nutrition provided by cooked food (about one-fifth of our calories are used by our brain). We can’t grow and develop properly on a raw diet, and human culture never would have evolved without it, so it stands to reason it would be important to us.

So, why are kids so interested in fire—more so than adults?

Researchers at UCLA have studied fire play among children in various cultures, and have concluded that the desire to master the control of fire is common among cultures. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint—we need fire to survive, so those able to control it historically did better and produced more children.

In westernised cultures, where open fires aren’t used on a daily basis, children’s interest in fire lasts longer than in cultures where fire is a daily necessity for cooking or heating. They remain fascinated by fire until they’ve learned to master it.

This doesn’t fully explain my teen—he mastered fire years ago, learning to light and maintain a fire in our log burner. But I do think there is an aspect of control that keeps us coming back to fire, especially when we’re young. Fire has incredible destructive power. To ignite that power, then hold it in check to achieve a goal (heating the house, cooking dinner, or disposing of brushwood), is a heady thing, particularly for teens who have so little control over their own lives.

All of which leads me to believe that it’s important for us to teach our kids to safely light and control fires. Research indicates they will play around with it until they learn—it’s an innate need. Better they learn safely than by burning down the house.

I also think that giving kids safe ways to exert control is important for their growing sense of accomplishment and self-worth. There is so much we can’t let them control—they can’t drive, they have to go to school, they can’t leave home—I remember all those restrictions eating away at me when I was a teen, eager to exert myself on the world.

So, yeah, we let our kids play with fire. It’s good for them.

Gonna Feel That Tomorrow!

Einstein smI put it off as long as I could.

I waited until the new goats were happily eating out of our hands, enjoying (or at least tolerating) a good scratch.

Then I found other excuses for a couple of weekends—excuses to put off trimming the new goats’ hooves.

I knew it would be a circus the first time I trimmed their hooves.

I’ve been spoiled by the dairy goats so used to the routine I didn’t need to even hold onto them when I opened the gate—out of the paddock, onto the milking stand, stand calmly while I do whatever needs doing, then trot calmly back to the paddock.

But of course the three new boys aren’t used to the routine. For them, hoof trimming means being herded up, and slung onto their backs. I could have done that, but training them to stand nicely while I trim their hooves will make life much easier in the long run.

For today, though, it was killer. It was a day of many firsts for the new goats—first time on a lead, first time on the milking stand, first time to have their hooves trimmed standing up.

Their personalities came out. Newton was the timid one. As soon as he found himself on a lead, he stood stock still and refused to budge. I practically had to push him all the way to the stand. Einstein was a bucking bronco, lunging and twisting to get free of the lead. He sent me sprawling to my knees, and then cracked me soundly on the chin with his horns. Darwin was happy to go, but not ever in the direction I wanted him to.

In truth, it was exactly as I expected, and no different from a dairy goat her first time on a lead and on the milking stand. I was thankful that angora goats are small—nothing like being dragged across the yard by a 70 kg saanan. Still, my chin is black and blue, my back is sore, my knees are skinned, and I have a rope burn on my arm. I have a bad feeling that tomorrow morning, I’m going to feel every bruise and ache even more.

Tell me again why I do this…?

My Love/Hate Relationship with Yarrow

2016-06-24 13.33.30Growing up, yarrow was a flower to be dried for arrangements. An innocuous plant that grew along the roadsides. I liked the flowers, and I loved the insects and spiders it attracted.

It wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand, where yarrow is a pernicious weed in my garden, that I began to consider yarrow more closely and learn more about it.

Yarrow is native to Europe and parts of Asia, but has been spread widely, because of its many uses.

It is referenced in Homer’s Iliad as being used for stanching wounds, and has been used all over the world for many other medicinal purposes—from reducing fevers and soothing earaches, to curing urinary problems and head colds.

Yarrow was probably originally brought to New Zealand as a medicinal plant, but it has other uses that are more valid than the medicinal ones.

Today yarrow is a common pasture plant. Its deep rhizomes make it drought resistant, and it is higher in certain key nutrients than either ryegrass or white clover. I discovered this when I began to worry about the goat paddock. After two dry summers, the yarrow was taking over a big swath of the paddock. I worried, knowing that to remove that much yarrow would be a Sisyphean task—dig it out and any bits of rhizome left in the soil will simply resprout. Even herbicides are largely ineffective against yarrow.

So I was thrilled to learn that its virtues went beyond pretty dried flowers, and that I could ignore it in the paddock.

Of course, it grows everywhere, and isn’t bothered by mowing. But that has benefits, too. This past summer, when all the grass of the lawn was brown and dead, the yarrow remained some of the only spots of green.

And then there are the insects it attracts, which I naturally love.

And so, I love yarrow…and I hate yarrow. Either way, I have to live with it.

Evaluating the garden year

A jumbo pink banana squash--one of last year's winners.

A jumbo pink banana squash–one of last year’s winners.

The new seed catalogue will be out in a little over a week, so it’s time to consider which new plants did well and which didn’t last summer.

It’s difficult to really evaluate varieties I hadn’t tried before, because last summer was so devastatingly hot and dry, but I got a feel for them by how my tried and true varieties did.

Tomatoes were a bust—all varieties—it frosted extremely late, and then was just too dry. But I did find that one of the new varieties I tried—bloody butcher—was extra sensitive to the neighbour’s herbicide overspray. So that one’s off the list for next season.

Same went for the yard long red noodle beans—they didn’t recover from the overspray until March, and then it was just too late.

The blue corn was preferentially eaten by the rats, and none survived past seedling stage. Doesn’t mean I won’t try again next year, but I’ll need to protect it better.

Jumbo pink banana squash was a winner, though. Not only was it a spectacular plant in the garden (anything that can grow half a metre in one day has my vote), but the fruits were equally spectacular. They have good flavour and texture, too. The only real drawback is that it’s difficult to fit one in the oven, because they’re so big.

The purple carrot, pusa asita, was also a winner, though its germination was spotty, like all the purple carrots seem to be. The colour was worth it though, as the purple goes all the way to the centre.

And the fire candle radishes were fantastic—delicious, spicy, and slow to bolt.

I’m looking forward to the arrival of the new catalogue and the chance to try out some new varieties for the coming year!

Preserving the Harvest

About a third of the harvest.

Gardening is a never-ending struggle against the elements.

Seeds must be stored cool and dry to maintain viability.

Then they need to be kept warm and moist in order to germinate.

But not too moist, or they’ll rot, or damp off once sprouted.

Then the plants need to be nurtured with just the right amounts of sun, shelter, water and nutrients so they will grow and produce. They need to be protected from pests.

With luck and hard work, the gardener can nurture the plants all the way to harvest.

But even once that produce is harvested, a gardener continues to fight—some foods can be canned, dried, or frozen so they keep longer, but others can’t. Or, maybe they can, but they’re better fresh. Or maybe there’s no room in the freezer for them.

It’s about now that these fresh foods begin to show their age.

Members of the onion family—shallots, onions, garlic—are stored as living bulbs. When the solstice is past, they want to grow, so they begin to sprout, even hanging in their riestras in the shed or the kitchen.

Then there are the pumpkins. In theory, some can keep for up to six months or more after harvest. That is, in ideal conditions—cool and dry, sitting on dry straw and not touching one another. I don’t have ideal conditions, nor the space to spread out my pumpkins. They hang in mesh sacks from the rafters of the cool, but damp shed—the only way to protect them from the rats.

Three months from harvest, the first pumpkins are beginning to rot. I discovered them today when I selected pumpkins for a galette for dinner.

Now comes the race to bake as many pumpkins as possible and freeze their pureed flesh before they go bad, and before the freezer is full.

I can fit about eight pumpkins at a time in the oven, unless they are jumbo pink banana squash or musquee de Provence, which only fit one at a time . There are sixty-six pumpkins left in the shed. That’s a lot of baking!

Light in the Night

2016-02-24 20.57.32Last night was the longest night of the year. It’s fitting that we all overslept this morning. Everyone left for work and school in the dark, and will come home in the dark. To add to the dark of this winter solstice, the day is overcast.

But all is not black and bleak.

Yesterday, we saw the first of this year’s lambs bouncing around in the neighbour’s paddock.

The young blackbirds and magpies are already singing and vying for territories.

The breeze is from the north today, soft and gentle.

And from here, the days will only get longer.

At the bottom of the well, there is only one way to go.

So we’ll enjoy the sun while it lasts, light the table with candles this evening, and look forward to our slow climb toward spring.

A happy solstice to you, whichever one you are enjoying today.

Confessions of the Resident Exterminator

2016-06-20 16.14.21Being the least squeamish member of the household, it falls to me to deal with all members of the animal kingdom on our property.

That means I take care of the livestock, of course (I can’t even imagine anyone else dealing with kidding or mastitis), I dispose of the gifts the cat leaves lying beheaded on the lawn, and I deal with pests.

Though I don’t enjoy killing anything, I have no problem squishing bugs in the garden, and dropping slugs into soapy water (I don’t recommend squishing them—its really slimy). I don’t even flinch at the idea of setting mouse traps or possum traps, either.

But rat traps? *shudder*

I put it off until the rats are so numerous that they’re having loud parties in the attic, keeping me up all night racing around, gnawing on the rafters.

And then I wait longer, until the rest of the family starts to notice the noise in the attic, or a greasy body sliding through the wall cavities.

Then I pull the rat traps out and look at them for a while, screwing up my courage.

Finally, after many excuses, I get out the ladder, prepare some bait (bread with peanut butter is reliable), and make my way to the attic with the traps.

Bait on the trap, set trap in place, pull back the bar to arm it…


Bait goes flying, fingers sting, and I jump, cracking my head on a rafter.

Try again. Bait on the trap, put the trap in place, pull back the arm…


Maybe we can coexist with the rats? I calm myself and try again. Third time’s the charm, right?

Bait, set it in place, hold my breath and pull the arm…

Breathe out slowly. Carefully move my hands away from the trap, willing it not to spring shut.

Get the second trap. Repeat.

The good news…and the bad news is that the traps work. Within 24 hours I’ll have to empty them and reset them. The parties will stop. I’ll be able to sleep.

But I hate setting those traps.