Stacking Functions Garden

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Growing woody fruit plants in the midwest

Being a Hennepin County Master Gardener is great.  Among other reasons, we have monthly meetings with an education component, and the speakers are usually pretty great.

I recently saw a presentation by Rebecca Koetter, who manages demonstration plots at the Urban Forestry & Horticulture Research Institute at the U of M.  She was kind enough to post her presentation (a powerpoint file) to her blog for anyone to download.  So have at it!  There were a couple slides that I found particularly helpful:

Slide 6: a breakdown of commitment levels and fruits to match.  Basically, she breaks fruits down into three levels of commitment:

Relatively low time commitment: elderberry, currant, gooseberry, juneberry, apricot
Medium time commitment: pear, plum, tart cherry, blueberry, kiwifruit
High commitment: apple, grape

Raspberry isn’t on this list but I’d put it somewhere between low and medium.  Standard strawberries are also low-medium, while alpine (wild) strawberries are low.

Slide 19: another great slide that shows the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (aka antioxidant power) of various berries.  The two highest berries (by far) just happen to be ones that we can grow right here in USDA hardiness zone 4: choke berries (aronia berries) and elderberries.  Sadly I have NEITHER of these in my yard.  This will have to be remedied.

Slide 45: a while back I saw a whole bunch of beautiful pictures of apple trees growing up the sides of walls; apparently training an apple (or other fruit) tree to do this is referred to as the art of espalier.  Traditionally it was done to achieve certain aesthetic goals; today it is very useful for growing fruit trees in really small spaces.  I am intrigued and a little intimidated by the concept.  Now that I know the name of what I’m looking for, I will search the library for a book on it.

Anyway, those were the slides I enjoyed most, but if you’re thinking about fruits you could try in your yard, there are a lot of options in the presentation.  Enjoy!  And if you have any questions about the content, feel free to ask in the comments and I can check my notes.

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Book Review: Build Your Own Earth Oven

So it’s been over six months since my last book review (and my last few reviews were pretty lame).  I went on a total fiction binge this year.  I can now say I’ve completely exhausted any need to read about vampires for a very, very long time (at least until the sequel to The Passage comes out).

Anyway, so here’s a little non-fiction book that I picked up on impulse from the library a few weeks ago:

Build Your Own Earth Oven
A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves
by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field

Ever since I tasted pizza from my friend Robin’s wood-fired pizza oven, this idea has really intrigued me.  But why build it out of mud?  Well, firebrick is pretty expensive — $2-$3 a piece.  Denzer’s ovens use a handful of firebricks for the oven floor, but they are mostly built out of mud.  He gives seven basic reasons to use mud: it’s fun, fast, artistic, cheap, builds community, is adaptable, and finally — the most compelling reason of all — it turns to brick through the heating process.

Not just any old mud will do, however.  You need mud that has high clay content.  This generally involves digging down a couple of feet past the topsoil.  The easiest way to tell if your soil has enough clay is to pick up a handful, roll it around in your hand into a ball, then squeeze it into a snake shape.  The longer and smoother “snake” you can make (with no cracks), the higher your clay content.

Most people (theoretically) should be able to find soil with high enough clay content for cheap or free, even if they don’t have it in their own yard.

So you build a foundation (Denzer gives multiple options here), lay a couple firebricks, and build a mud-based (also called “cob”) dome top.  While that dries you make a nice neat little oven door.  And… you’re done.  Denzer claims the whole thing can be done in a 1/2 day.  I am skeptical.  Up here in the north country you also definitely need some sort of shelter to put this in: nothing fancy, just a simple structure to keep the rain and snow off.

The chapter on sourdough baking (with recipe) was interesting, but I’m not ready to pick that thread up again for a while.  There are multiple right ways do bake sourdough bread — I just have to [someday] figure out the one that works for me.  Maybe someday if I am lucky enough to retire from full-time work…

If we ever get around to building a wood-fired oven, I will check this book out again.  These things are way cool, and they churn out some really delicious pizzas and breads.  They can also be a neat work of art — here’s some inspirational imagery for you.

My ultimate fantasy: to have a building that somehow incorporates a root cellar, a chicken coop, a garden toolshed + potting bench, and a sheltered but open area with an earth oven.  And then to be able to play there all day every day!  (In my fantasy world, obviously, winter doesn’t exist…)

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Going small and low-tech

I was recently introduced to the joy and wonder of french press coffee, and as a result we got rid of our old coffeemaker and replaced it with two secondhand french presses that Adam found on eBay (we got two for when we have company).  This corner of the countertop used to be completely dominated by the coffeemaker, but now it’s a nice workspace.  Love it.  Also pictured is our wee stovetop espresso maker.  (It’s the Bialetti Moka Express, if you’re wondering.)

So yeah, I like fancy coffee and I like espresso, but I also like to not have my kitchen countertop be totally dominated by expensive single-use appliances.  I have a giant stove.  Why not use it to heat water for my coffee?  I’ve got 5 burners, for pete’s sake.  I never need more than two for the kids’ daily oatmeal and scrambled eggs.  Plus, now we can make fancy coffee even when we’re camping.

Clearly, the explosion of single-use kitchen products (like this or this or especially this) are what led to people feeling like they needed a huge kitchen.  If a gadget only performs one function (and this applies to choosing plants for  landscapes as well), you have to ask yourself, REALLY ask yourself, is it worth it?  And not just the money it will cost, but also the space it will occupy and the maintenance required.

My kitchen is 82 square feet; the attached breakfast nook is 42 square feet.  It feels huge and spacious to me; it has a great layout.  We do A LOT of from-scratch cooking and we never feel like we are cramped in any way. According to this 2005 article from ABC/Good Morning America (the most recent I could find), the average kitchen size in new home construction is around 300 square feet (or was, as of 2005).  Wow.

Reading this article is fascinating, by the way, because it so clearly captures the mood of the country in 2005.  Check out this quote:

“There’s more money around,” said Barbara Corcoran, a New York-based real estate agent and “Good Morning America’s” real estate correspondent. “People are more vested in where they live. The houses that are driving the housing prices and sizes way up are the ego homes, though. The really rich people.”

Bigger and better seem to be the way to go in housing these days.

These days, indeed.  Too bad they didn’t find room in the story to point out some of the crazy/shady lending practices that were making all that expansion possible.

Full disclosure: we do have some kitchen gadgets.  I love our heavy-duty stand mixer — but it has many different uses beyond simply making cookies.  We make flour with it!  And butter!  And ice cream!  We also have a waffle maker, a food processor, and an immersion blender.  Actually, I guess we do have, uh, quite a few gadgets.  What was the point of this post again?  Oh yeah, that we eliminated ONE gadget from our kitchen…  It’s a start, right?

If you’re feeling like your kitchen is simply not big enough, look around and see how many single-use gadgets you have.  Eliminating even just one or two can really make your kitchen feel more spacious and useful — and save you money in the long run.  Another digression: I recently taught Anneke the phrase “in the long run” and she says it all the time.  It sounds hilarious coming from a three-year-old.

OK, that’s enough of this random post.  Good night.

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Recipe: coconut cream ice cream

So, I got Adam the Kitchenaid ice cream bowl that goes with our mixer as an anniversary gift.  Was it a gift for him, really?  Well, he did like it.  He’s made three batches already.  This stuff is absolutely amazing — and the weird part about it is, it’s super filling, so it’s easy to exercise self-control and only eat a small portion.  We’ve been using Bittman’s recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, the best cookbook of all time.  (Disclaimer: nobody paid me to say that.  I wish. )

Bittman has a basic ratio for ice cream that can be endlessly varied — he lists a solid 15 different unique combinations just on this page.  The ratio is:

6 egg yolks or 2 Tbls. cornstarch : 3 c. total liquid : 1/2 c. sugar or sweetener

Here’s my favorite recent adaptation of that ratio.  It can easily be made vegan or dairy-free:

2 c. cream, milk, or non-dairy milk of your choice
1 c. coconut milk
2 Tbls. cornstarch
1/2 c. shredded coconut, toasted in a dry skillet until lightly browned
1/2 c. sugar

1. Heat the milk and 1/2 c. sugar just to boiling over medium heat.
2. Mix together 2 Tbls. cold milk and 2 Tbls. cornstarch, stir it into the just-boiling milk.  Continue to cook until thick and pudding-like.  Let it cool off for a bit on the countertop or in the fridge.
3. Stir in coconut milk.
4. Put it in the pre-frozen ice cream bowl and turn your mixer on low for 15-20 minutes (or follow instructions for your own ice cream maker).

5. Stir in shredded coconut during the last five minutes of mixing.

This recipe could also be made with egg yolks instead of cornstarch.  You get a more custard-like taste and consistency if you use yolks.  Bittman calls for 6 egg yolks, and you add them to the hot milk solution much like you would for a pudding.  Let me know in the comments if you have questions on that.

It’s best right away while it’s still close to soft-serve consistency — it gets quite hard in the freezer.  But still delicious.

UPDATE, 10/25/2010: Apparently homemade ice cream is healthier than store-bought, and this blogger also recommends adding 2 T. vodka to keep it from getting rock-hard in the freezer.

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DIY arm warmers

Arm warmers are pretty handy for bike commuting.  You leave your house and it’s 50 degrees but soon it’s 60, and you don’t exactly want to pull over to the side of the road to change clothes.  The spandex crowd Serious cyclists pay anywhere from $20-$50 for a pair of arm warmers — and they are really nice; I’ve checked them out.  My friend CJ makes them from the sleeves of old wool sweaters that she buys from Good Will.  I would love to knit myself some, but I haven’t knit anything in a really long time.  I can only do so much, y’know!

This week, I made myself some nifty arm warmers for FREE with an old pair of over-the-knee socks.  Here’s how I did it:

I cut off the toes and a small circle of heel.  I hemmed the toe end with the sewing machine, and the thumbhole by hand.  Took a little under an hour, total (and most of that time I was watching Curb Your Enthusiasm while doing the hand-sewing).  It was cool enough outside on Friday to try them out:

And a couple of detail shots — I may not be a super talented seamstress but they are definitely functional.

I’m jazzed about these!  They match my bike so perfectly that I’m about now ready to enter the next phase of hipsterdom.