Archive | May 2014

Saucers for Candle Holders

bThe warm glow of a scented candle is an affordable little luxury I enjoy.  A lit beeswax, fruity or floral candle set on the dining table sends fragrance to most of our first floor living area.  I found a very attractive and inexpensive method for protecting the surface of the table from candle heat: old cup saucers.

At thrift stores, saucers without cups can be had for fifty cents or less.  Odd vintage saucers by famous and expensive manufacturers in lovely patterns are usually available.  The cup breaks, but the saucer is too pretty to throw away so it ends up as a donation to the thrift store.

I’ve acquired several saucers in patterns to coordinate with many seasons and color schemes. Makers I’ve collected include Royal Albert (producers of beautiful floral patterns,) Meakin, Staffordshire, Homer Laughlin, and Consort.  The English china is particularly nice.

Saucers have an indented area in the center that will perfectly accommodate a pillar candle or votive holder.  Most are also cupped to some degree and will prevent wax from escaping.  Currently, I’m displaying the White Dogwood saucer by Royal Albert, perfect for spring.a

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Portmeirion Fish Plates

fish2Another great thrift store find I just sold in one of my online stores:  vintage Portmeirion The Compleat Angler, set of eleven dinner plates in very good condition. Of the eleven plates, eight are doubles of one design.  I was amazed to stumble on these plates for ninety cents each.  After all the auction fees and expenses, I netted nearly $16 each!  Pun intended.

These are heavy, the shipment weighs 16 pounds.  There was some serious bidding for the plates because they are rare, especially some of the scenes such as the pike and the perch.  The final sale price was more than double the starting price I set.  This is the sort of find I wish would happen more often.

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fish4The designs are from watercolors done by an English artist, A.F. Lydon in 1879.  Each plate features different fish from the British Isles.  The condition is quite good, just a few light utensil marks.  The backstamp seems to indicate the plates are from 1981.

Portmeirion Pottery is located in Portmeirion, Wales.  I visited there with my daughter, mom and her husband back in the early 1990s.  The town is an amazing place, similar to an Italian village with buildings, fountains, statuary, mosaics and plantings intended to evoke the landscape of Italy. Portmeirion is right on the ocean, hence the “port” in the name.  We journeyed there on a narrow gauge railway, an adventure in itself.

The pottery is modern and large, with a lovely showroom stocked in their high quality and expensive wares. Their ceramics are prized for the beautiful designs, exceptional craftsmanship and durability.

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Crazy Rhubard Pie

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Springtime means lots of Crazy Rhubard Pie!  The rhubarb plants are sending up their juicy shoots, ripe for the picking.  Grab a dozen or so fresh, plump stalks and cook up some of this yummy dessert.

Be sure to string the rhubarb so no one has to contend with the long strips of outer skin from the stalks.  An easy way I found to remove the outer skin is to use a sharp knife to cut a thin slice nearly through an end.  Then use the slice, with the outer layer of stalk covering attached, to pull down the stalk, removing the skin in a long, thin peel.  Continue cutting and pulling from both ends until the stalk is cleaned.  Rinse the stalks well and chop into 1/2″ pieces.

This pie is called crazy because it uses a Crazy Crust to produce a very moist, cake-like pie that is hard to describe but irresistible served slightly warm, topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Crazy Rhubarb Pie

2 eggs, beaten                        1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 1/2 cups sugar                     1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup flour

3 or 4 cups chopped rhubarb, may add up to 1 cup strawberries

Mix first three ingredients and spices until creamy, add rhubard (and strawberries) and stir well to coat.  Spoon onto crazy crust.

Crazy Crust for Fruit

1 cup flour                                         1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup water                                   1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup oil                                         2 tablespoons sugar

1 egg, beaten

Mix all ingredients together, blend well.  Pour into oiled 13″ x 9″ pan.  Spread until even.  Spoon in filling, spreading evenly over crust, nearly to edge.  Bake at 425 degrees for 30-35 minutes, until crust is brown.

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Red rhubarb

 

More Wildflowers

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Wildflowers are one of my favorite subjects.  The abundance of spring wildflowers in Maine brings me many hours of enjoyment.  Here are a couple of wildflowers with similar petal structures, prefering the same sort of woodland habitats, although they are from unrelated families.  Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica,) pictured above, is from the Portulaca family and grows from an edible, nutty flavored corm.

a2I find the fine purple veining of the petals very beautiful. These grow on our farm in many places, especially along the banks of Martin Stream, a small river.  The seeds of Spring Beauty include elaiosomes much as Dutchman’s Breeches’ seeds.  Ants eat this fleshy part of the seed cover and disburse the seeds by adding them to their underground waste piles.a3

Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia,) also called Nightcaps, in the photo above, are from the buttercup family.  These lovely little white to pinkish-white flowering plants form large colonies in our woodlands.  a4The anemones spread by underground rhizomes, are quite sensitive to habitat change and die out easily. Their petals are actually sepals.

Finding a spread of anemone in the woods, a carpet of green and white against the brown winter leaves, is magical.  A perfect place to seek for tiny elves and woodland fairies.

Fiddleheads and Ramps

a3When the blackflies arrive, it is time to gather fiddleheads.  The delectable, immature, coiled fronds or fiddleheads, of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are best found along stream banks after the spring flood waters have receded.  Collect only the tightly coiled shoots, with short stems, they are the most tender and tasty.  Always leave a few frond coils on each fern clump, taking no more than three shoots, so the plant is not stressed.

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Remove the brown, papery covering before cooking and rinse the vegetable well to clean away sand.  Be sure to boil fiddleheads until they are tender and discard the dark cooking water.  Some people recommend a water change half-way through boiling.  The ferns contain toxins that must be removed by thorough cooking prior to consumption.  Boiling is preferable to steaming to remove the toxins.  The cooking is worth the trouble as fiddleheads are delicious with a flavor similar to asparagus mixed with spinach.  I like them hot with butter and salt.  For an authentic backwoods experience, cook fiddleheads with ramps, a wild onion.

If you are ever walking in the woods of New England, perhaps on the way to collect fiddleheads, and suddenly notice an onion scent in the air, you have probably passed through a colony of ramps.  a1These wild members of the onion family grow in rich, well drained soil of shady places on the East Coast from Canada to the Carolinas.  The leaves are broad and don’t look like regular onions at all.  They appear more lily-like.  Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are sensitive to habitat disturbance and easily die out.  When things go well for them, ramps will spread to cover a wide area.

Ramps can be used like leeks.  The bulb and attached leaves are removed from the ground.  Young ramps leaves are tender and can be consumed along with the stem and bulb.  Ramps have an onion-garlic flavor all their own. Add some to a bowl of fiddleheads and you will be eating wild cuisine.a2

Here, my hiking pals, Holly and Otto, demonstrate the best location for finding fiddleheads.a5

Preparing The Vegetable Garden

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Gardening time has arrived, along with the swarms of blackflies.  A perfect combination.  Here in central Maine we can get frost right through late May, so it doesn’t pay to plant vegetable seeds too soon.  I no longer grow the cool weather plants like peas, radishes, chard, lettuce or spinach.  They are too much work, especially the peas, since I’m the only one who eats them.  So I can wait until late in the month to start.

The garden lies fallow for the winter, although we do spread wood ashes in the area.  Any vegetative garden waste such as vines, stalks and roots are removed in the fall so insect pests can’t winter on them. When the soil dries and is no longer a mud pie, I use my manure fork to pull any large weeds that established last year.  Then I spread composted hen manure and wood ash on the area.  I once used horse manure, but hen contains much less weed seed.  It is also a very potent manure so less is required.

Our trusty old Troy Bilt 8 hp Horse rototiller makes short work of tilling the soil to an 8″ depth.  The photo above was taken after the initial 5″ deep pass.  The next pass with the tiller will dig 8″ or more down, breaking up and spreading the manure and giving the soil a uniform fine texture.a3

One year I tried no-till gardening and it was a disaster.  I mulched everything heavily with old hay and planted all the rows and hills of seed without breaking up the soil except right where the seeds were planted.  Sprouting and growth were slow.  Many of the plantings failed, including the indian corn which is nearly impossible to kill. I harvested a few pumpkins and beans.  Only the tomatoes did well, to be expected from mulch-loving plants.

The concept of no-till gardening is that the network of mycelia of essential fungi and the beneficial bacterial colonies within the soil are not destroyed.  By maintaining the structure of the natural flora and fauna in the soil, the vegetables are supposed to benefit.  My experience is that tilling somehow gives the seeds a necessary advantage.  The fungi and bacteria seem able to re-establish themselves very quickly after the soil is broken.  My vegetables perform much better with tilling. I mulch, water and weed and never have an entire garden fail.

Following the final tilling, it’s time to install the fence to keep hungry, digging chickens and rampaging dogs out of the garden.  For years I used chicken wire and stakes.  The set-up was difficult to work with.  It took hours to erect every year, and in the fall was a nightmare to remove.  Weeds grew through the wire, binding it.  Pulling it loose caused tears in the wire weave.  Then the wire had to be cleaned of weeds and re-rolled for next year.  Baby chickens were small enough to squeeze through the wire and scratch in my seed beds.  Finally, I decided to find a better way.

After much thought I developed a simple system that takes a lot less time to install and remove, stores well, is more attractive than wire and doesn’t develop holes for chickens to exploit.  At the garden center, I bought several 4′ x 8′ white plastic lattice-work panels and sawed them in half length-wise.  Also, I found pressure treated wood balusters for deck stairs.  These are the perfect length and are pre-sharpened on one end.a2  The panels are supported by one baluster stake at each end and one in the center.  Baling twine holds the panels to the stakes.  I also run a line of baling twine along the top of the stakes to add height and dissuade athletic dogs from leaping over.a4

This system has been working for, I believe, four years now. I’m still using the original parts, they appear strong and ready to go several more years.  There have been no problems with animals getting in the garden.  The lattic hides the tempting open soil and juicy vegetables from the chickens’ view, so they don’t even bother to get inside.  I imagine pressure treated wood lattice would work as well as the plastic, but I was looking at cost and longevity when I made the purchases.

Now, the garden is tilled, the fence is in place and I’ve planted the long season vegetables:  indian corn, decorative sunflowers, gourds and carrots.  Today I’m setting out the tomato seedlings and planting wax beans, winter squash, pumpkins and a decorative top border of bachelor buttons.  The Jerusalem artichokes are a perennial and have already sent up shoots in their corner of the garden.

We have had exceptionally chilly, damp weather, slowing the warming of the soil.  Many seeds, like beans and squash, require warm soil to sprout.  Today there is supposed to be some sun, that will be nice.  Then rain is predicted for the weekend.  A good time to plant, nature will do the watering for me.

First Asparagus

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Just picked the first asparagus of the year!  Enough for one person, and luckily only I like to eat asparagus around here.  I love it simmered until tender then placed on buttered toast and salted a bit.  Delicious.  Asparagus is also yummy eaten raw, it tastes very much like raw peas, another favorite.

The best way to keep asparagus fresh is to store it in water in the refrigerator.  Stand the fresh-picked shoots in a glass of water.  For stalks purchased in the market that have been held a while, cut off about 1/2″ of the end of the shoot before placing it in water, much as is done with fresh flowers for arrangements.  This will perk up limp asparagus.

Most everyone knows what eating asparagus does to the smell of urine.  The odd odor arises from asparagusic acid in the vegetable that is converted to sulfur-containing compounds in our bodies. The compounds have the characteristic scent.  The lucky people, somewhere between 20% to 40% of the population, can not detect the odor or do not produce as much of the sulfurous compounds, and are spared the smell.  I don’t mind a little pungent urine for the privilege of eating asparagus.

We have a decent sized asparagus bed, about eight feet long and two feet wide.  The plant is a perennial and has male and female members of the species.  Pollinated asparagus produces bright red, round berries in the autumn.  Birds eat the berries.  Over the years they have spread asparagus to several other locations on the farm.  Some people grow only the male plants which tend to produce larger, thicker shoots, and avoid spreading asparagus.  I like to hunt for the maverick shoots in the orchards, just adds to my eating enjoyment.

Every year I cover my asparagus bed with a layer of well composted horse manure and sprinkle on some wood ash to keep the soil sweet.  It is a good idea to maintain a well-weeded asparagus bed, mulched with enough compost to discourage weeds.  The asparagus beetle is the major pest around here.  It is a bright orange and black beetle that lays eggs on the plant and eats the foliage. I hand pick the insects when I find them.  The larvae can be knocked to the ground by brushing the ferns and will tend to die on the ground before they can crawl back up the plant.  The beetles overwinter in garden debris so always cut and remove the ferny stalks of the asparagus in the fall.

I only harvest asparagus for a short while in late May and early June.  The plants must be allowed to send up shoots that grow to maturity so energy can be stored to maintain the roots.  Knowing when to stop harvesting can be difficult.  The plants should have at least two full months to grow. I get my fill of asparagus after five or six servings, giving the plants plenty of time to mature.