Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year According to Garlic

Sitting down to peel some of the 2012 harvest, 2013's cloves in the ground, I have time to think about garlichronology. Like its pungent Allium kin, it's ideally planted in the Fall, not too long after harvest. Add to that the need to cure the crop to get the best out of it, and the garlic cycle tales a year.

This will be my 5th year of garlic growing near the southern tip of the Salish Sea, and I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. At least on a forgiving glacial sandy loam at 200 feet above sea level. In this 5th year, I feel like I get the rhythm and finally can write about it without being a (complete) fool.

The goal is to write the garlic-centric year, and to post in time to be useful, instead of my usual procrastinatory irrelevance. Today, I'm posting a calendar, beginning with October planting. As the garlic cycle rolls on, I'll post with more detail. 


Saturday, December 29, 2012

777 Marmalade

Last Winter, I made marmalade and wrote about it. The marmalade was great, the recipe acceptable, and the writing kinda bad. 

Last week, I made another batch, because Cara Cara oranges were on sale for 88 cents a pound. A lucky double-eight smiles on fate in many cultures, so I took it as a sign that I should fill a couple bags and get to cooking. Even without mystical callings to make jam, cheapskates like me know that 88 cents is about half the usual sale price, and that it's a good bet the citrus is dead ripe and they're in a hurry to move it. Deal lapse and fruit rots, but every once in a whole fate smiles and if you're alert you can capture it in jars, preserving it til you need it.

With enough for a couple of batches, I had opportunity to improve on last year's operation. So here I am again, reporting, but this time not burdened with writerly pretensions.

It's called 7 7 7 Marmalade because there are 7 pounds of oranges, 7 cups of sugar, and it makes 7 pints. The amount of water isn't 7, but I'm gonna ignore that. Here's the recipe.

7 7 7 Marmalade

Get 7 pounds of oranges, (Cara Cara is what I use, but the main thing is to get something with an aromatic skin.)

Peel the zest from 3 oranges, and then halve and slice the whole batch. Make the first cut from naval to where the stem was, and the slices should be a half centimeter thick. (That's a skinny quarter inch, Americans.) Cut up the zest however you want. I go for a random chop that yields everything from slivers to uncut pinky-sized pieces (That's over 5 cm, everyone else in the world; in the US, "pinky" is your small finger, and is an acceptable unit of measure.) Put the zest aside.

If you're smart, lazy, or both, you'll be sliding the orange slices directly into a 12 quart stock pot, which will be about full when you finish.

Pour 4 cups of water into the pot and start cooking.

I start at the low end of Medium High on the stove, and once the boil begins, start to inch it up to high Medium High. (That's, uh, nobody really knows what temperature stove knob units correlate to. Sorry, citizens of earth.) Let some of the water evaporate, but the goal is not to boil off the liquid; go for a long low boil that dissolves the pulp and a lot of the pith. The end result will remain liquidy and most un-jamlike.

After the first boil.

Now, let it sit til the next day. It gives you a break, and I think it helps maximize the natural pectin. Yeah, that's right, don't add pectin to marmalade. It makes its own. 

When it's time, get your canning set-up in order, and be sure you're ready to stand at the stove and stir for a while. Put on "Blowout Comb" by Digable Planets, or some other hour-long album, and then put the pot back on a low Medium High stove. 

Add 7 cups of sugar and the zest and stir them in well. I also experimented by grating half a nutmeg into one batch at this point, and about an inch of ginger root into the other; not sure if I really taste it.  Watch and adjust the temp as necessary until you have a hearty simmer. No lid this time, because you do want to cook it down. At first, no need to stir constantly, but by about Track 7 (titled "Dial 7," see why this CD fits this recipe?), you should see the marmalade beginning to emerge. I've been using a large metal spatula for the stirring, because it's long handle keeps my hands away from the sugary lava, and it's good for scraping the bottom so nothing sticks. 

There are all sorts of recipes that say the jam must reach specific temperatures, or recommend tests like dropping some jam on a cold plate to see if it is thick enough. But the risk of burning yourself to get thermometer readings or the hassle of another dish to wash are not necessary. Here's how you know it's ready:
  • You see the jam getting darker, and that more of it is sticking to the side of the pot.
  • You hear the boil change from simmer to thick ploppy bubbles, and finally to a rumble bubble that explodes each time you stir.
  • You feel your arm muscles burning as you stir through thickening glop.
Cut the heat and get the jars ready. Make sure your canner water is boiling before you put anything in the jars. I usually start that at the same time as the marmalade boil, dialing down once it reaches its own boil, and then crank it up again along with a smaller pot of water to sterilize the lids when the marmalade is ready.

Leave a centimeter or a skinny half inch of headspace as you fill half or whole pint jars. (I put a spoonful of bourbon in the bottom of two pints, but will wait a while to sample those.) Screw on the lids loosely and process for, you guess it, 7 minutes. 

For those of you who cannot abide stream-of-consciousness recipe format, here's the listy version:

  • 7 pounds oranges, sliced thin after removing the zest of three oranges.
  • 4 cups water
  • 7 cups sugar

Boil 1: oranges and water until pulp dissolves and skins soften
Wait overnight
Boil 2: and sugar and zest to the mix and slowly return to a boil, stirring increasinly often
Use your sense and the done-ness list above to know when to stop.
Boil 3: process half or one-pint jars in boiling water canner for 7 minutes.  

Yields 7 pints.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Tidal Beds

Low Tide

Back in March, I briefly referenced sunken garden beds, and just the other day I railed against the false wisdom of raised beds. The more I think about it, the more it seems like the garden wisdom takes a while to play out, and favors an oscillation, an ebb and flow, rather than zealous favoring of one level or another.

If you read the raised bed rant, you may have figured out that many of the problems stem from inflexibility: the unchanging, unyielding perimeter with a static elevation. Horizontal extent of a garden bed may be constrained by your available space, but still the bed (or at least the weeded portion thereof) should be able to grow over the summer, and perhaps retreat during winter.

Rising Tide
You can play around with elevation a lot more, though. Some plants like to be in mounds to begin with. You've heard of a 'hill of beans," right? My cukes start out in ringed hills worthy of Celtic chieftans. Then of course there are the potatoes and other plants that benefit from having more and more soil piled up around them as the season progresses. Meanwhile, blueberries and mints like the low wet ground, sopping up whatever water runs from the hills. Within a given bed, highs and lows occur across space and through time.

This attitude is especially well suited to my local soil, which is a fairly sandy loam borne of glacial retreat. It's easy to work. I dig out lawn and sculpt to the levels I want. Or give the bed a tilt. Banking a bed high to the north and low to the south creates a small advantage to crops in northern climes, bringing the ground a bit closer to perpendicular to the lines of photons coming from the sun, fooling seeds and starts into thinking they're a few weeks closer to summer. The same aspect that makes Washington's Columbia wines more famous than Oregon's--a southerly slope to the river--can be replicated on a small scale in my yard with just a shovel and garden rake.

The plants themselves add to the effect, and so planning is important. Put the raspberries and pole beans to the north, and work your way down to the ground-huggers at the south. A big plant at the south snags the photons, relegating anything north to a dank dark pit. Fine if you want ginseng and miners lettuce, but not so good for your garden variety plants. Knowing how early and how fast things grow matters, too; you can plant greens that rise early or late in the shadow of a mid-summer monster, since the don't much care for solstitial high noons anyway. Knowing when and how quickly each plant will grow and fade allows a gardener to overlap to a degree, getting more out of every inch of garden space.

Any one variety of plant ebbs and flows, and likes to be high and drained or low and sodden. Your whole bed may start small and grow over summer, flooding south, toward that that photosynthetic sunbilical, only to retreat again. I use this knowledge to be a little lazier, dispensing first with those heavy, labor intensive (and pestiferous, don't forget) walls. I may be still digging bigger well after the solstice if some plant or transplant could use the ground; no need to cram a Summer's worth of work in March. Go with the flow.

And don't fight the flow. Why would you want boards or bricks or railroad ties blocking your garden's roots? A single-level bed works fine for a monoculture, but not much more. Roto-tilling a big bed for a few tiny starts and seeds invites a flood of weeds. A rectangle of introduced 'soil' intensively cultivated, watered, and fertilized year after year is great, if your aim is to create pest habitat.

Summer's tide pulls high only once a year. Long northern days feed photons aplenty to the plants that ride this one big wave. Growth crests, and drops off when the clouds show up or the days just get too short. It's a good ride, and sooner than you'd like you slide into Winter, where there's time to reflect and maybe even think ahead.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Riposte Repost, or A Lamentation about Consumeration*

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money
from "White Man in the Hammersmith Palais" by Joe Strummer

The clogged blogosphere of foodies, locavores, urban homesteaders, DIYers, and OTHers** renders my offerings invisible. I could try to gain a wider audience by joining the pinterested, or by linking to one of the other sites that aggregates such blogs, but I am too lazy and egotistical, not to mention dis-inclined. The ramps to fame, or at least garnering large numbers of eyeballs, prove too steep for my shiftless self. Make a logo, develop a not-off-the-shelf design, pay for a domain, suck up to corporations so they'll give me some swag to review or re-gift, and most dangerous of all, fall into the pond of self-deception, in which this platform can somehow become a revenue generator or a stepping stone to a book contract. 

Among my bookmarks is one such site, where people turn in their recipes, DIY tips, and so on. There's actually some useful stuff there, and I do check it out fairly regularly. The name of it is "Punk Domestics," which appealed to me before I really began to understand what it is. The name, which rings oxymoronic to begin with in my book (I grew up in a time and place where "domestics" were servants, usually darker than the, uh, dare I say, masters?), also fails to live up to anything like the spirit of punks, much less the "hardcore" ethos their blurb claims they embody. 

For starters, to submit anything, you're supposed to log in, get your ID, join the queue. And yes, submission is the name of the game, oddly enough, for any posting must comply with a list of rules. You are then encouraged to get a Punk Domestics "badge" to display on your blog, so you can funnel eyeballs to their site, which has a lot of ads, including irritating pop-ups that you have to click out of the way.

And it's not just ads. Entire blog posts are plugs. Like the William Sonomas give-away. A post waxes eloquent about how this upscale purveyor is embracing the DIY movement with darling canning jars and such, marketed as the "Agrarian" line. [Clever name, I will admit, harkening to a simpler time, a garden-ey feeling, and of course for the  baby boomers with fuzzy memories and their kids with vague historical understandings, it evokes the rhyming Aquarian age.] All you have to do to win it is drive up the site's numbers with comments, or post something on twitter or pinterest, whatever it takes to increase revenue at Punk Domestics, which just happens to admit that they've "done some copywriting for Williams-Sonoma, including for the Agrarian line." If you can stomach it, visit the offending link 

About 200 people fell in line to enter, and two won. I'd rather wallow in non-commercial, self-righteous, obscurity. Even if the readership consists mostly of myself, trying to recall how I made that meal or canned those things, it feels better than shilling for a company catering to privileged dilettantes. Those who have people to cook for them, and mostly only take it upon themselves when it will create a show. I'm more interested in food, basically.
* This post originally appeared at Mocavore.
** Other Things Homespun-ers

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Railing Against Raised Bed Orthodoxy

Earlier this year, I said something about un-raised beds. At the time, no allusions were made to the religious overtones--phoenix, messiah, or otherwise-- of the "raised" bed, and there will be no comment here other than to say I like the bumper sticker, rarely and courageously displayed in Born Again counties, that says "No thanks, I was born OK the first time."

Because today, sisteren and brotheren, let us instead turn our eyes to the earth, humble ourselves, and ask, "What do we when we pen our gardens in raised beds?" The answers speak to the soil, the people who would control it, and to their politics. That's right, this siblinglish English seeks not to sweet-talk your sacred center, it's after your political skin, the dermal you that touches the world, what everyone else is gonna see and feel.

In this physical plane, we can be good animals who adopt and adapt, or crazy ones who try to control, and end up starving. Not you personally (maybe), but the species at some point. When human populations reach a certain density, misery ensues on the coat-tails of a flea or a leader of men or maybe just a drought. 

Before the fall, we convince ourselves that we are smart enough to avoid the fate of the desertified Fertile Crescent and pauperized Aegean soils, or the overtaxed Yucatan and raped Rapanui palms. We thing that agriculture is better than nature, and never learn that as soon as we seek to select, to replace god or evolution with human intellect, things spin out of control, and one day land at a place where we humans are screwed if we cannot go elsewhere. Especially when we reach too far; take as an example the corporate American agricultural ideal: a single genetically-modified strain drilled into fumigated soil, fed aquifers, augmented with chemical feed and protection. What could go wrong?

All of which is my long-winded, overly-dramatic, tired-as-shit, fingers-doing-whatever-they-want on the keyboard way of saying that raised beds fool a lot of gardeners with promises of miracles that will one day be ground into the dirt.

Why would I besmirch the sterling reputation of the raised bed? People love 'em, and talk about getting great production, the ease (it's getting hard to concntrate here with a Cobain crazed jam going on).

By way of answer, this list of the characteristics of raised beds that you are not likely to see in the article with all those pretty pictures urging you to get out there and raise a bed (or better yet, buy one):
  • Use untreated wood, and you'll be repairing the thing every year. Seems like a waste of wood, unless you pulled it from a demolished building (in which case, watch out for the lead paint), which leads me to
  • Use treated wood, and you're putting your gardening taste (and quite possibly your desire to cut corners) above the health of the soil that you are asking to feed you. And, therefore, your health. This is especially troubling because
  • Most raised beds don't last more than a few seasons. I admit that this statement is not backed up with data here, but there are a lot of neglected, abandoned, and ultimately forgotten raised beds. 
  • When a raised bed dies, it often becomes a nursery for invasive weeds. They spread into the driveways and roadsides, and into neighbor's gardens. The un-tended raised bed often becomes a haven for weeds because
  • Very few people make raised beds using the native soil. Often as not, they dump "soil" that fails to meet the actual definition of soil, comprised hereabouts of composted wood and food, bearing no relation to the stuff under the grass in your yard. Even if it does not carry a crop of weed-seeds, it is just what the invasive weeds want. You know why a certain wine appellation or coffee estate can make genuine claim to excellence? It's the soil there, the delicate balance of microbes, worms, and arthropods that stir it up. That does not come in a dump-truck.
  • Speaking of arthropods, every time you install a rectangle of cinderblock or boards, you create ant havens. By way of thanks, they will repay you by opening aphid dairies on your plants, sucking honey shit from bugs sucking your plants dry. 
  • Not speaking of dry, those same boards and masonry create slug havens as well, and I'm assuming you know that that ain't good for a garden. IF slugs are a problem, it's good to lay a board down in the path and turn it over once in a while to dispatch a few slime-bellies, but don't build a freakin bed for them.
  • This idea of an unchanging perimeter is hardening, not gardening. My bedds ebb and floww with the seasons. As plants grow, I dig out more grass so they can expand. If you hill up potatoes in a raised bed, you either have to bring in more fake soil or pull it away from the edges, which end up being pointless free-standing walls.
  • Not only is changing the size of a raised bed difficult, so too is moving the damn thing when the neighbor's tree grows and puts the original location in shadow.
  • ...  
There are plenty more reasons, but it's late and even though the music is done I am getting no better at concentrating. If you are not convinced by now, you're probably not reading this far anyway. If you are, stay tuned, because next time I'll get back to the benefits of another approach to garden beds. Much better than that March post, I promise.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

On-ward and Up-ward, or, An Ode to Cliches and Hyphens

Hops, hops, and away!

Vertical gardening has reached new heights (excuse the cliche, but it happens to be the direct and resonant way to say this) in the past decade, outgrowing tomato cages and trellises to climb urban walls many stories high. High concept architects and their landscape associates paint buildings with sedums and such, and occasionally recall the old Babylonian hanging gardens trick. While the web can cough up photos of these efforts without even turning its head, the search for a food garden cannot get much more than a couple of humans high without more effort than I'm willing to put forth. But if you look closely at the loftier architectural statements, of paradigm shifts to verticality and green living, you'll see that most of the images are of new installations and of high-end commercial properties maintained by professional crews; the same few places show up over and over in a single search, and many are still just conceptual drawings. Call me back when they've lasted a decade, and I'll be impressed.

Gardeners as I'm thinking of them tend to be (again, a cliche says it best) more down to earth. Our beans have always climbed cornstalks and poles and twine. Tomatoes and their friends clamber up cages like kids on the playground, branches hanging out on rungs, leaders never satisfied til they've summitted. Trellises and latticery are about as far as we go, architecturally (which we did generations before actual architects appropriated the forms).

Upward gardening's roots (am I pushing this cliche thing too far? Nevermind, it's working well enough) go even deeper than the gardeners, though. Some plant species and tribes just want to grow upward. Not just the obvious viney ascenders or even the sprawlers who can be coaxed onto a fence or frame. My Tongan mentors explained Polynesian gardening to me in this way: taro grows up and yam grows down...meaning that the big starchy corms of the aroid tribe build upward with each new leaf, while the yam tuber reaches further down into the earth with each week (the vine may rise five Tongans high, or six of an average human, but they aren't food, and therefore not the proper focus of Polynesian agronomic discourse).

Potatocage (background) and a rising sunken bed of spud-runts.

In my own Olympia garden, taro and yams are not possible (tropical species are by and large frozen out, I'd say, were I continuing the cliche theme), but potatoes are fine, and my tuberrific efforts cater to the plant's needs. The vines want to grow vertically, and must be propped up before they flop over, but with dirt or mulch instead of trellises and twine, so that they'll bear spuds. In theory, the higher you can pile the soil, the more taters you get. Northwest winters kill all manner of theories, this one included, but for a time I can fill this old cage made for tomato with it's rhyming tuber.

I love the down-to-earth climbing of soil-bound starch-balls (and hyphen-ation, clearly), but some plants do want to climb, to wrap one-tendril embraces as high as they can reach, and yield the fruit of this embrace way up high (often out of reach of tiny non-Polynesians like myself).

Last June, I wrote about hops being the upwardest of climbers, including an experiment sending them into the hazel. It worked well enough that this year I'm doing it again this sun-lap, but without the dead-hazel. Instead of a tipi of cut poles tied together, I just ran twine from the hop-sprout to the top of the biggest hazel-nut tree. Already, the vines have helixed up the line and into the tree (over twice my height, maybe even two Tongans high), with a few feet to go before they even think of budding. When the time comes, I'll cut vine and string at the base and yank it all down.

Meanwhile, the other aggro-climbers, the Himalayan blackberries, whose volume puts hops' height to shame, require restraint more than  support, or they'll eventually weave a thorny mat that begins in suburbia and ends with a net covering Puget Sound. I just now cut back a bunch of the vegetative canes, giving the flower-buds some sun and weaving a few leafy ones behind to make next year's berries; the cut tips are tender because of recent rains, and will become snacks or stir-fry or candy or pickles; I pretty much cut them just above where the thorns harden and skin toughens, so I won't have to do much peeling. I'm not even bothering with saving leaves for tea this time.

Once the vegetative enthusiasm is checked, what appears is a web of fruiting mini-canes, interwoven behind a few metal T-posts hammered in close to the house foundation. Instead of securing canes to a trellis (or, as some previous denizen of this house did, a 2-by-4 nailed to the siding) the idea is to pin the blackberries against the wall, which will help them ripen so that my kids can come along later in the summer and gorge on ripe berries...with only the occasional puncture wound.

As the world's population expands, land will seem to shrink, and we'll be forced to make the most of whatever patch of soil we can cultivate. I hope I never have to see the end-ish times when such things are a matter of survival. In the meantime, getting the vertical most out of horizontal space is a game I like to play.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fourth (Maybe Sixth) Spring

At some point past, I began blogging re: The Many Springs. The  Anglicized seasons draw quarters of the year, but reality splits further. The first lengthening of days is not the latency is not the emergence is not the bloom. And certainly not the seed. 

But full-on bloom and filling leafage wait for no writer, and I don't think I did anything beyond the second installment. [I provide these links because some people would never scroll back through the 10 while posts it would take it find the originals, and because the colored font draws attention to the self promotion.] Gardening takes time, and who the hell wants to sit inside when they could be out soaking up the lengthening days?

Not me, and so Spring has flowered, and bees did their thing without my writing about it (well, maybe once, over there). And the birds did theirs. The eggs in the photo leading off today's post, laid by a junco on the ground, hatched and were eaten by racoons immediately, while the alien sparrows in the birdhouse by the front door fledged and took off. Such is nature. Sometimes.

Many Springs have happened, and now we stand at the verge of shortening days. It'll get drier and warmer (I hope) in southern Pugetlandia, but that counts as summer. Apples and berries are set. May they ripen.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lil Tomato Houses

Girl in action. Lil tomato house inaction.
The first weekend in April, Olympia's Farmers Market opens (and I rejoice). That time of year around Puget Sound, even the best farmers don't have much produce, so they fill the gap with plants started in greenhouses (and all of us gardeners rejoice). 

But April, even May, can be a cruel time for plants to have their roots thrust into cold wet soil, tops shivering in the mist one day and wind the next. This is especially true for tomatoes, which might enjoy the occasional sunny days, but not the cool wet ones, and especially not the frigid nights (which tend to be even colder following a clear sunny day). They may not actually shrink, like mammalian maleparts may in such conditions, but they sure as heck don't wanna grow, and cannot summon the strength to fight blights and fend off fungal foes. 

So you either wait til it's warm, which may not happen til days are already getting shorter, or you give them shelter. Following Solomon's advice (conveniently reproduced for us moderns in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades before he took off for Tasmania, that devil), I grew them in a hoop house (instructions here) last year, which worked out very well. Even though the Spring was long and cool, a little bit of plastic allowed me to harvest photons throughout, giving the plants a big head start by the time Summer finally arrived.

This year, I decided to grow more, and to experiment with individual tomato houses, which are basically cages with a form-fitting plastic cover. This will let each plant get about twice as big in the warm confines of its home before it starts bumping into the plastic cover, demanding release.

This shot gives you the basic idea. First, make a wire frame (what does not show up well is that if you use fence like this, you should cut out a few 2 x 2 holes in the grid so you can reach in later and harvest). Then, cut plastic wide enough to wrap completely around and tall enough to close over the top. Slide this prophylactic over the cage, and wait for juicy tomatoes to burst forth. That's about it.

But not completely it. Already, I've learned of some flows in my brilliant plan. Try not to replicate my idiocy and inexperience:
  • Plant the tomato first, because it's a pain to reach inside to plant it. Literally, if your cutting left sharp wire nubs like I did.
  • Stake down the cage, or it'll blow over. I used the wire I cut out to tie the cage to a rebar pounded into the ground, and it has held so far.
  • Make the plastic slightly loose fitting. That way it is easier to slide up so you can water, or let the tomatoes breathe on the hot day that will inevitably follow your planting. 
  • Don't depend on tape to hold the plastic together. In the photo above, I did not remove the plastic to make the cage visible; it fell off. [I am leaving a couple like that as controls to test the efficacy of the remaining lil tomato houses. Ineptitude and laziness can be recast as science.]
  • Don't leave town. You can cook your plants in a hurry if you don't slide the plastic up several inches on sunny days, and make sure they are watered. 
  • Try and make the roof tighter than I did. All I did was clip the top, which does not make anything even close to a sealed envelope. I am pretty sure the heat flows out by nightfall,  but again am too lazy and inept to fix it. [Sometimes they cannot be called science, although I am able to rationalize that I'm probably not baking the plants during days when I am not there to coddle them.]
No doubt, as time passes, I'll learn more. Maybe I'll follow up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see if the covered plants outperform those left to the vagaries of the Puget Spring (as I write, they are enduring a cold rainy night). If nothing else, they are in nice cages, so I won't have to do anything more than guide a few branches through the holes to give them support. These plants won't be as crowded as their hoophouse sisters, which according to Solomon should pay off. We'll see. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


This post appears over a few blogs. I've been self-referential before, linking to old posts and between Mojourner blogs, but this time it's a matter of there just being two approaches to the same focal point: Spot Shrimp, Pandalus platyceros. Here, I'll do the heads--over at Mocavore, I'll deal with the tails.

In Hawai'i, shrimp tales involve the whole thing. Even though not everyone partook, every time shrimp or prawns showed up intact, some people could be counted on to rip off the head and suck down the juice before mocking non-partakers. But on the Salish Sea, that doesn't happen, and I can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that my manhood and epicuriosity won't be maligned for my reluctance to slurp green guts. A woman who grew up fishing and cooking Northwest critters and another whose husband fishes for a living both said not to eat the heads. One allowed as to how I could make a broth, but didn't sound too sure, much less enthusiastic. 

So what you do is snap off the heads and toss 'em. Unless you are friggin' frugal. In which case you make the shrimp-head broth, realize that not a single person you know will help you eat it, chicken out on eating it yourself, and decide to re-purpose. [In the interest of self-referentiality, may I digress and link here? If you can figure out why, I'll, uh, give you a prize, maybe.]

The broth I recognized as the far superior aromatic kin of that weird shrimp ramen stank, a single waft enough to dispel my 30-year befuddlement over why anyone would want shrimp-flavor. But I still didn't eat it; I fed it to an apple tree. No particular reason. 

Then I was left with a kettle o chitin and shrimp sludge. The dog was beside herself wanting to eat it, roll in it,...whatever it took to immerse herself in the smell. I figured raccoons and rats and various vermin would be similarly attracted if I were to compost it, or even work it into the garden. In the end, I decided to bury it in a pit near the base of a Japanese maple that decided to come up a couple of years ago. Then put a rock on top to keep the dog out. If the rats tunnel into this cache, no prob. They'll transport pieces and transform the rest into poop. It'll return to the earth, if not that particular maple.

The tides sent the plankton. The shrimp incorporated the plankton. The fisherman plucked pots of shrimp from Hood Canal. And I traded some cash and a stash of willow bark and red ochre for a few pounds. Thus flows the migration of primal sea life into an Olympia garden.

This ain't natural, I suppose, but a pulse of shrimp protein into urban soil a few dozen miles from where it was caught falls far short of bizarre. Unlike the petrochemicals flowing year-round from the other end of the globe, this fertilizer was an unexpected gift. That smell my family couldn't stand will feed flowers some day. Shrimp stripes will echo in maple bark.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

DIY Salt

One gallon of ocean, dehydrated.
As long as I'm behind on the seasonal updates, I may as well talk about something that can be done pretty much any time you can turn on a stove. Yeah, I'd like to make salt under the sun, but that's hard to arrange in the maritime Northwest. Making pa`akai ('solidified ocean) is a different matter. It would be a shame to make salt on a stove with the Hawaiian sun available, and one of my favorite memories from the island was pouring the kai into bowls carved into the lava by ancient Hawaiians, and coming back a few days later to peel off flakes of Kona crystal.

But here I am, next to Puget Sound, Spring hiding in the most somewhere. So I fire up the stove and start cooking. 

There's not so much a recipe for salt as some techniques. Like once you have the water, you should filter it, unless you want the added flavor or plankton. Then while you cook it (in a stainless steel or enamel pot, because iron rusts and aluminum gets skudgy), stir now and then, because you can actually burn it if the salt starts to cake on the bottom of the pan. Eventually, this gets impossible, and you want to scrape the salt slush onto a plate or pyrex dish, so you can spread it out and bake it in the oven. This you do at very low heat--all you're trying to do now is evaporate, not boil. I'd turn the oven on, pop in the plate, and then turn it off. Do not rinse, but repeat, until the moisture is gone.

And you have salt. A gallon of sea water (I got mine up near the Strait--the far South Sound is less saline) yields a cup or so of salt. Enough to last a while, unless you're in a rush to increase blood pressure.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Influx Off

Gardening is good. Almost always, especially if it begins in a backyard and ends on a family table. 

But then, I am curmudgeonly (ever since I was a kid--age ain't got much to do with it), and can find fault with most anything. And so it is that I cringe when I surf the gardening and urban homesteading sites that proliferate like dandelions, because so many of them rely on quick fixes that undercut the soul of a gardener and the soil of the earth. The blogs I'm drawn to resist chemical assaults and may even proclaim organicity, but it is possible to disobey and disgust Mother Nature without raping her. 

High on the list of such actions is the Raised Bed Full of Trucked in "Soil" Syndrome. I've gardened in volcanic cinder rendered near-lifeless by city-scaping, in Virginia clay stripped of topsoil and driven over for good measure, and in glacial sand that can't hold nutrients or water any more than Monsanto can get a grip on the importance of diversity in evolution. As my last post admits, I am not pure, and there have been occasional bags of compost and other inputs into my gardens (that Honolulu cinder got on the road to soil when I'd go steal bags of clippings from rich people who had yards and then compost them, but I like to think that's more of a Robin Hood action than buying bagged steer-shit). 

But here in Olympia, which many would consider an epicenter of groovy organicism, there is this fascination with raised beds full of fake soil. Slap up a frame (I see photos sometimes of chemical treated wood used for this, ick), and fill it with alleged compost. Even if the material is not full of nitrogen-leaching wood products or feedlot chemicalized cowshit, it ain't soil. It may be the best compost ever, fluffy and black, rich as a Romney, but it has nothing to do with the soil in your yard.

In bags or trucks, it is a big fake input, not borne of the stuff in your yard. And often as not, people put some kind of barrier between their yard and the new stuff, attempting segregation as if the microbia of their own yard are somehow dangerous and inferior. Although mixing and incorporation into soil development is inevitable in the long run, your earthworms and fungi must think the new stuff tastes weird. 

The box o' compost may produce a great crop or two, but it is also a destabilizing force. It may be so rich in nitrogen that it feeds foliage at the expense of strength and structure. It may turn your raised bed into a symphylans corral. It may come laden with weed-seed, or it may just play host to the thistle and dandelion that ride the wind to your domain. 

Much slower to augment slowly from your own leaf-fallen, grass-clipped, storm-dropped organics. Much slower to plant and plow under legumes or cultivate shrooms. Much slower to exercise the patience Solomon (no link, you either know whereof I speak or you don't) advises and keep the additives to a minimum lest pests be fruitful and multiply. Much slower to grow soil before you grow your ideal grocery list.

But in the end, this slow, influx-starved process proves more resilient, more healthy, more durable. Soil is not the stuff you add, it is the multi-layered organism that grows over the land. It is earth's skin; like your skin, it is healthiest when you do what is good for the body, not when you add chemicals (organically derived or not). The best topsoil is on intimate terms with the subsoil, formed from its minerals and the poop of a thousand worms, a million hyphae, a trillion bacteria, all flowing up and down and all around. Taking off in the worm-grit of a robin's craw and returning in the chickadee's droppings, but not arriving by the ton in a truck.

Soil well grown, plus an acceptance of what works in your yard and what does not, is the solution to the long-term gardener. In Honolulu, a decade of growing cane and ti and banana produced the leaf-mulch that changed cinder with a few skinny cockroaches into black loam full of worms. In Virginia, a couple years of woodpile followed by grass and leaf compost (and yes, hours of back-breaking cultivation) turned compacted clay into reasonable topsoil. In Olympia, cook-out ashes (from alder cut in my yard) and various other home-grown biomass--and of course, the miracle of wild strawberries--seems to be working. Based on past performance, the fact that this yard's soil is much-improved must mean I am about to move, to take on some new deadscape...oh well. The joy is in growing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Under the Strawberry Hide

Free the Bulbs!

It's Spring Break, time for play, maybe a trip south for the cold, the old, the collegiate lemmings. 

Or, hours of bending, kneeling, and crawling along, ripping up a web of strawberry vines run amok. And though my spine's got the grindey-disk blues, my mind's deep-down satisfied. Weeding can do that.

The long bed running roadside was the first one I dug. The top edge cuts into the gravel, and mostly it didn't have much of what you'd call top-soil. Sandy clay. So I put herbs in as is but most everything else was planted with anything from a fist-full to a few gallons of whatever manure or bark-based compost was cheap at Home Depot at the time, and one year I mulched it with compost that was mostly nitrogen-sucking bark fiber.

Then one time down by some cranberry bogs, I saw this strawberry that grew on the road.  From off the shoulder, runners long-jumping onto asphalt, implanting roots, en-planting and growing into another team sending out runners onto that sunny country road. Soon enough, runners cross each other and red-strung web plays out over the colony. Plants branch like multi-headed giant millipedes (which infestation, incidentally, can be avoided by planting any Artemisia), and beneath that their roots tangle a tough horse-hair blanket.

Then there's the road. Except, the interstices are investigated by all manner of arthropods and microbia, including regular-headed millipedes. Pretty soon, the paltry bacterial stratum that had slowly been working on the tar hosts a mat of vegetation reaping photons enough to feed a host of other plants, fungi, and critters. Which poop, causing hyphae to send out web-forming runners to clean up. For every creature eating another, there is something else feeding on it's waste. The result of all this cleaning up is, ironically to some, dirt. Soil, a living layer, incorporating whatever road gravel it loosens from the matrix, as well as sands blown or washed in, leaves and twigs, rabbit pellets and deer hair, a crow feather. Anything that gets snagged in that red-runner web goes through this slow-motion grinder til it is soil.

Or until some guy happens by and cuts out a little mat and takes it home to plant in a roadside bed. Not really thinking of soil formation, but of strawberries. I teased apart the mat and spaced the plants in the bed. 

But it doesn't take long to learn that these plants just want to vine and entwine, not set still and make berries. That was fine, I figured, let them roam. All through the rest of the bed, up over the edge and into the roadside gravel, into the grass. The runners are so bright that it's easy to nip them off before they run into another bed where I don't want them.

Three or four years later, and the strawberry mat has run its course. They were good groundcover--tough and undemanding, abundant flowers, red leaves hanging through the Winter--but now they smother the camas and tulips and assorted plants venturing out for the Spring.  

So I bent down to start ripping. Thumb and forefinger pinch a rhizome, and pull it's rootfro from the rain-soft earth. Easy, but then you do it a thousand more times. Maybe more. A couple of wheelbarrel loads. Then collapse, just laying there with the mist dropping on you, surveying the bed.

Where there is soil. It always looks better in the Spring wet, but I see dozens of worms wiggling, waving, and peristalsis-ing on a crumbly black field. It was easy to feel how friable the soil was while pulling the weeds; roots 4 inches deep came up willingly. Whatever reluctance I'd had about removing perfectly functional ground cover imploded when I saw what lay beneath. Sweet happy soil, ready to receive something new.

The strawberry field may not have been forever, but it had a good run. Ripping it off quick like taking off a band-aid was the way to go. I could have piddled around, clearing one small section, or just continuing to clear little pockets for other specimens, but it would be bothersome, and it would have been hard to perceived the overall transformation and potential. I'd have missed things I planted long ago and forgot, which may never have poked up through the grizzled strawberry hide, and instead been drowned and ground down. Contributing to the soil, yes, but maybe the soil can do fine without it's mono-mat, and in its place the charms of new flowers and foods will have their day in the sun.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Second Spring

Hot on the heels (or is that, coldly nipping at the heels?) of First Spring, comes the mayhem of Second Spring. Clear days approaching warm followed by snow that plays mayhem with morning commutes only to disappear by lunch. At the greenstead, this time requires constant motion combined with a focus on the long term, instantaneous reaction paired with faith in the long slow progression of earth in her orbit. 

This year, Second Spring was Nettle Spring, early March madness devoted to snapping tender tips as nettles push up from the leaves. Already, these plants are stretching, gathering up urticaceousness sufficient to keep the tender-skinned at bay through summer. Only about a week  separates the hidden in humus from the lanky "Howdy, you're a might late ain't ya?" wave of the stinging nettle, but this year I managed to gather a couple big grocery bags full and freeze them for later. To get more this year, I'll need to head up, following Nettle Spring into the lagging hills.

But here at the greenstead, Second Spring gives the snowdrops a rest while the daffodils begin opening. Grass grows rank, berries black and blue loose leaves from huddled buds. The wild greens get a head start on the planted ones; some say this is weeds getting the upper hand, but I see it as first course of the long garden feast.

But there is planting to be done in Second Spring, especially successive sowings of spinach, broadcasts of poppies, rills of radishes, pokings of peaseeds, and all the other cold spring crops. Sow early, sow often. If round one succumbs, the next will fill in, but if it succeeds, I get to eat early. I plant too soon because it just may pay off, books and master gardening 'wisdom' be damned. 

 There's still time in the prequinox to make some last minute moves: take those blueberries languishing under the hazelnut and put them where they stand a chance. Gather up that rhubarb from the not-quite-right spot before its leaves turn from pale crinkly February scrotums to stalks aroused by full-on Spring.

A little weeding this early (whether it yield a meal or not) is a good bet. Dandelions plucked easily with small roots in moist soil will never be this cooperative again. Grasses can even be manageable. It's time to decide where you want to let blackberries roam, and where you will do battle. A minute of Second Spring becomes an hour of Summer. 

In truth, Second Spring is already over. Most of the perennials are already putting on growth. Firework bursts of flax have exploded everywhere, valerian and lupines remind me they are not dead yet, emerging from the grave. It'll be too late to plant early things soon (or will it? I push the boundaries in both directions, because you never know when we'll get one of those everlasting springs), and there are still those clean-up jobs lingering from First Spring procrastination. I observe with a mixture of anticipation and franticism that the soil is warming, that dry days arrive more often,...and I rush.

But not so much that I cannot pause to soak in sun that actually has some warmth. Not so frenetic that there is not time to listen to the varied thrushes with the mellow substrate to a growing list of songbird virtuosos inhabiting the Indian Creek watershed. With each new Spring, new levels of beauty and bliss, the kiss of the sun awakening passions from chlorophyllic cells to the sparrows nesting in the birdhouse by the door.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cutouts, Or the Sunken Raised Bed

In that interim between freezing and foliating, I tend to engage in a campaign of expanding cultivated area. Out comes the flat-bladed spade, and back go the grassy margins. Beds expand, the ground still wet and soft enough to dig and shake soil from grass-roots, dandelions readily separated from matrix. Then, I rake the dirt into a raised bed, which usually rises no higher than the surrounding grass, the persistent mockingly unproductive remnant. There are no wooden or masonry edges, just a low ziggurat slouching in a cutout of the lawn.

The bed is soil mixed up bottom to top so any remaining weeds lay dispersed and unrooted, easy to pluck out later. Seeds in, weeds out, so goes the next few days. The weeding continues: pluckings of non-productive obviocracy, cullings of non-crops, ferreting out of sneakerweeds. The seeds sprout and flourish. 

Sandy soil makes this easy. No clay-clung weed-root balls propagating. Easy extraction. 

My hope is that unimpeded root-foods will grow large here, that cultivars will flourish into the weed-freed spaces. We'll see...Even the weeds that may emerge are better eating than the pathetic lawn that preceded them...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Occupy Our Food Supply - Herbs First

Beginning the cure.
I admit it, I'm more of a slowcial media person than a twitterbug, and so it is that I'm only finding out late on the day itself that February 27th is Occupy Our Food Supply day, when we stand up to Monsanto, Cargill, ADM and the very few others who control most of the seed and crops. And, I guess I should mention, the vast market in chemicals that most food growers use.

So what can one blogger do? Coincidentally, I planted 8 more blueberry bushes today, but it'll be a while before production outstrips the capacity for the kids to eat them before they make it into pies, much less the freezer. I could write about problems with the food system, but plenty of people have done that. I might even conjure up a pipeline of dreams about living off the agribusiness grid, about a self-feeding urban greenstead, but who am I kidding, I still use stores.

Or I could just talk about the one part of my life in which I exercise food autonomy: herbs. People with space might've gone for a staple-ish staff of life, some storable starch on the potato to quinoa continuum. Canning mavens may've favored veggies or fruit sufficient to put up a year's supply. And of course, there are the chicken yarders, beginning and ending with the egg. 

But me, I likes me some spice, some flavoring. And, I am kinda lazy. So at this point, all the self-sufficiency I can point to is on the herban front. I buy no garlic, no oregano, no thyme, no mint, no chives. It's a small success, but I grow enough of these to eat all I want (and I want a lot, profligate herber that I am).

There are some things that would be hard to grow here in Olympia--tropical exotica, and some years even a decent chile--but for those this town is lucky enough to have Buck's spice shop, where you can get just about anything you can think of, from local alder-smoked salt to finely tuned curries, not to mention some fine conversation. They do mail order, but I'm lucky enough to be able to walk in, sniff around til I find what I want, and buy however much or little my taste-buds desire. If you read my blogs, you know I'm no shiller or plugger, but in this case it makes sense to send readers to this finest of spice ladies. 

Are the agri-giants are quaking in their boots, knowing that I grow my own herbs and buy spices from a freedom-fooder? Probably not, but my autonomy is mine, not a foil to their hegemony. Small a step as it is, growing my own herbs is a move away from McCormick monotony and corporate subjectitude. I'm  getting closer to doing the same with growing tomatoes (weather permitting, I should get there this year), and will keep buying as much as I can of everything else from local farmers. Maybe I'll even get off my ass and start making my own salt this year, something that hasn't happened in the years since I stopped working in Kona. 

Life will continue to taste good, and the big boys will get an iota less. I may not be an important voice, Pollanating the culture, making corporations Shiva, but I do what I can, and for me, that begins with aiming my money where it benefits farmers most, and starting on the road to self-sufficiency with some tasty flavors. 


Friday, February 24, 2012

First Spring

Spring in the northwest defies the simple "April showers bring May flowers" logic I grew up with back east. Since arriving here four years ago, I've been presented with several theories about how it works: Spring comes late some years, Spring takes it's own sweet time reaching fullness, there is no Spring between Rain and Summer. According to my yard and the plants and critters of the maritime northwest, however, the truth is that there are many Springs.

A foot of snow and ice may have distracted us, but First Spring began not so long after the Winter Solstice, as the earth revolves toward longer days, and some things begin to awaken. But if you looked closely at those branches downed by the storm, you could see swelling alder buds, catkins, and other signs of growth. By mid-February, even in my procrastinating yard (which seems to do everything a week or so after the rest of Olympia), shoots are emerging from the ground, blueberry buds are swelling, and the grass is growing again. Even garlic in the pantry is heeding the call, going soft and sending out roots and shoots.

It will take months for this precursory promise to become full flower, but it's enough to keep me going. More than that, to get me going. Emergence begets urgency. Dormancy is slipping away, so it's time to transplant those things I intend to move, plant new fruit I want to establish, and cut those scions if I am wont to graft. Seeds need sorting, new beds must be dug, bushes and trees cry out for pruning so they can grow in the right direction, and so on. Garden gear stashed or abandoned in the Fall has to be checked and fixed (or culled), and Winter's windfall is not totally sorted, stacked, and otherwise re-deployed. The list grows longer as time flows faster.

First Spring is the farmer's breakfast, imbibed early while the rest of the world sleeps, warming the belly and fueling the body for work that must be done. While the rest of the world awaits the more obvious Spring, replete with flowers and sunshine, here at the greenstead those first shoots and sprouts say it's time to wake up from that long Winter's nap. Subtle snowdrop blooms and blushing budswells reinvigorate me with beauty--latency before blatancy--and serve as quiet reminders before fully unfurled foliage says it's too late to be ahead of the game.

Some people are already busy starting seeds under lights and on heating pads. Maybe I am too cheap to buy the gear or the watts (in more pious moments, I'd say I'm loathe to consume too much), and it definitely could be that I procrastinate (or, sayeth the self-righteous me: not hubristic enough to force nature to my timetable). In the end, I know that come April I can support local growers by buying their starts at the Farmers Market: I get a good healthy selection without having had to buy seeds months ago, and they get some income before crops are ready.

Another thing that has been on people's minds over the past few months has been planning. I've never been that disciplined, and since the garden skeleton (trees and bushes, the woody parts that don't move so readily) is articulated already, I don't do that much planning. While others studied and fretted, I ate and carved. At some point soon, I'll think about how I want to flesh out the gardens as I plant spinach and radishes, but for the most part the foodscape is formed by habit and whim. Shoots of garlic, daffodils, and tulips, as well as the hoop house full of embiggening lettuce and spinach seem to suggest that I did some planning last Fall, but I don't recall. The seasons, and in particular this year's version of how they will play out, have their own plan, and I am mostly just along for the ride.

Which brings me back to where I started: First Spring. Spring begets Summer begets Fall is way too simplistic, and not so helpful. The first year I was here, I saw signs of Spring and immediately started planting. The result? I had some beans that sprouted and remained in suspended animation as tiny seedlings for a few months, while the rest just rotted in the ground. Things like that need to wait til Warm Soil Spring, which is after Nettle Spring and Burgeoning Spring. OK, I am just making up those names on the fly, but the point is that the seasons hold more complexity than how our calendar is drawn and quartered. Look at the "moons" identified by farmers, or those named in Lushootseed and the other native languages of our region, and you'll see that for most of our history, humans had a more refined appreciation of what happened to their world as it swung round the sun.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Severe Windfall

The weather has cleared, but the debris has not, which means that it is time to apply Clearing Theory. The storm that dumped over a foot of snow and ice pulled down billions of branches, and people are still clearing and cleaning; yesterday I saw a convoy of pick-ups and trailers filled with alder and others, headed for the city's overflow pile. Back at Mojourner Truth, I wrote about the normal windfall of alder, and how I'm one of those back to the earth freaks who welcomes the organic rain of catkins, cones, and twigs.

But the aftermath of an ice storm is a different thing. Not the normal seasonal droppings. More like the difference between the farmer whose flock drops fertile pellets and the farmer who awakes to find the pasture strewn with the torn remains of a chupacabra frenzy. My usual compulsive conservation of biomass broke down, and a couple of small loads went to the city's chipper.

Not all of the severed limbs went away, though. Surgical machete work first freed the biggest pieces, which will cook salmon and whatever else need grilling this summer. (Just a week before the storm, I'd been fretting about where the wood would come from...careful what you ask for.) I waded into the carnage, blade a-swinging, but with a mission in mind. 

I'll ramble on about Clearing Theory at length, but later. Right now, suffice it to say that what looks like a guy skittering and pausing, whacking branches and tossing them this way and that follows a plan. It's pretty basic, and boils down to a few basic decisions based on branch diameter and length. Anything as big as my older daughter's wrist is firewood, and all the smaller stuff gets chopped off and sorted into bean or hops poles (if it's long enough), kindling (between wrist and finger caliber, and with at least a foot of straight wood), and the twigs of less-than-finger diameter that will break down fairly quickly. Along the way, I stack the gnarlier mid-sized pieces for removal.

It sounds like a lot of work, but with a sharp machete, it goes quickly. I don't even bother moving the small stuff, stomping it where it falls to kick off the decomposition process. All the other piles are stacked--more or less--branches parallel. That makes the stuff I plan to haul off easier to pick up (after hacking off a few more itty-bitty ends), and lays out the bigger stuff so that a few chainsaw swipes will reduce it to the size I want. Before long, the crazy tangle is reduced to a pile of mini-logs, a stack of bean-poles, and a pick-up bed full of branches. The ground takes on a grey haze of twigs that in the coming week or so will be stomped into the dirt or tossed under the alders where the native blackberries will clamber and blanket them.

Traditional Clearing Theorists still hold that this is an anti-entropic enterprise, a transformation of chaos into order. The post-modern contingent points out that the integrity of any one branch is violated, and that the "order" is no better than Belgian colonialism. I can see sense in the first part of this argument, but the latter part is ridiculously cantilevered. Yes, the branches are cut up, and parts of them are a couple of miles away. But I'm just hastening the natural process of returning cellulose to the earth, and snagging some firewood in the process. Nobody gets rich, nobody gets abused, and there is no Kurtz lurking in the dark reaches of the far back yard.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Storm Cookery

A pot o beans

I admit it, this is one of those contrived blogposts, and you know, I think we've all learned something here. 

But there really was a big winter storm here in Olympia last week. I blathered in truly blogallistic style elsewhere, but here, I want to real it back in. Like, how to feed the 'stead after icy branches bring down the electric grid. There are those in the secret backroom of the Chamber of Commerce who scream for the pre-emptive beheading of all those trees who would terrorize Americans by attacking the consumerist infrastructure, but wiser heads prevail. Meanwhile, I just adapt.

Fortunately, I have a primitive fireplace. No wood stove, not even an insert; there was a grate once, but I threw it out. Just the flueless firebox (within a magnificent heatilator, to be sure). Wood goes in, heat flows out(and not all of it up the chimney). 

And when the wires go down and the stove strikes in sympathy (or sometimes, when I just feel like it), I cook in that there fireplace. 

Step one: burn through a half dozen logs, heat up the big chunk of heat-sucking concrete underneath, and get a nice batch of coals going. Put a couple of bricks in one side of the fireplace, to support the grill later on; I start herding logs to the left, and coals to the right, where they can give me nice steady heat. Flames are good for cooking marshmellows or quick sterilization of the sausage that the dog licked, but that's about it.

When there's a solid layer of ember reaching nearly up to the top of the bricks, put on the grill. Not that you have to grill anything. This time, I heated up soup one time, and beans another, in a heavy aluminum pot. As long as you are willing to stir it often enough, half the pan can sit on the brick while the rest is over the fire. That way, there's space to grill something, because you know you want to, and anyway, the electricity's out, so you may as well use some of that stuff in your no-longer-freezer. 

Foil is your friend as well. Packets of just about anything can be heated or cooked in foil, then tucked into whatever space you have left, off the grill and even in the coals or ash. I'm not much into skewery, but if you are tight on space or cooking stuff on sticks is your thing, there's the whole yakitori/kebab world of food waiting to be held over the fire.

Whatever techniques the fireplace chef brings to bear, vigilance is a must. A bed of coals is not uniformly hot, so pots must be stirred and packets or grillables rotated and flipped to avoid ending up with a half-charred half-raw abomination. And because the fire is more a distraction than a source of light, a good flashlight is key to keeping watch, because trying to eye golden brown perfection in a hot sooty cave is not as easy as you imagine.

On the invisible handle is an even more invisible hand-print.

Then there's the issue of injury. It's effing hot in there. Making espresso in one of those little Italian rigs last week, I grabbed the plastic handle which, as I predicted, would not conduct heat from the metal pot, but which, as I was stupid enough to forget, can still get hot when it's sitting near a fire. The burn was not too bad, but it took most of the day for me to finally be rid of the melted plastic stuck to my palm. Oven mitts help, but you still have to move quickly lest they burst into flame. So yeah, hot, flamey, careful.

Otherwise, it's just a matter of managing several flows. The flow of air through the fire side, keeping flames licking wood and birthing coals. The flow of coals from fire side to cook side, replenishing those that burn out (half-cooked meals suck). The flow of which food first, of flipping, of stirring. The flow of kindling to blaze to embers to slumber.

It was less than 48 hours without power, but we ate hot food, and we ate not badly, considering my limited talent. Basics like black beans, potatoes, and canned soup, but also impromptu pie (spiced apples wrapped in pie crust and grilled on foil). Grilled brats and skewered veggie sausage. And of course, marshmellows.