Archive for July, 2011

If I’m not working, you’ll usually find me either gardening, cooking or blogging. We talk often of our gardens and what we’re growing here and you’ve seen many images of the fruits of our labor. I thought this week we could show some of what we’ve been mixing up in our kitchens, or over the fire on some days. The REAL food challenge continues all year long for some of us. Here are a few things that I’ve been cooking up at Chiot’s Run. If I have posted a recipe for the food in the image you can click on the image to head on over to my post that includes the recipe for that dish.


I (Xan) did all my cooking last week for our Lammas party–we’ve been subsisting on fresh fruit and leftovers this week! I’m going to send you over to Mahlzeit to see what I’ve been cooking; what I’ve been doing in the kitchen mostly this week is figuring out garlic braids, and I think I nailed it. Only took me, um, years.

What have you been cooking up this summer?

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There is this amazing thing happening all over the world lately, and the media has recently gotten wind of it, claiming it’s a “new trend”. In fact, it’s been building over the past few decades and it seems to be coming to a head. It’s this bizarre, unprecedented trend of 20-and-30-somethings to become involved with agriculture.

I didn’t even really know I was a part of this trend until recently. I’ve always known I wanted to farm somehow, but I never dreamed that I would be attempting to grow and preserve food on the scale that I do now. The best part of this recent rise in agriculture and environmental awareness is that it’s not just about the 20-and-30-somethings, though they certainly get the most press since it’s Oh-So-Hip to be a farmer right now.

My husband, Jeremy, is a 30-something guy gaining interest in agriculture.

No, it seems like every age demographic is experiencing a rise in awareness, at least here in the states; it’s as if it’s happening to us as a culture rather than only as a specific age demographic. People all across the country (and in many cases the globe) are changing their ways, with a surge of interest and involvement, by growing their own food or actively promoting more sound agriculture practices. Whether it’s just to save a few dollars on the grocery bills, to keep the kids busy with a summer project, or to take on “the man” with an intense drive to be off the grid and self sustaining, it seems like so many people are simultaneously waking to the concepts of more local and sustainable agriculture, and the reduced ecological footprint.

Of course there are still those who have no interest in where their food comes from or the impacts they make on the world around them. They choose the easy way, rather than the best way, and I admit there are days I completely sympathise and I long for a break from trying to eat what’s “right” or “good” (Oh God, to indulge in an occasional slice of deep dish anchovy/pepperocini pizza from Jets!)

Still, there are others who do have an interest but don’t act simply because they either think it’s too time consuming or it’s too difficult. Whether or not these people are just looking for excuses is really more their deal than mine, but I like to think that the best thing for these on-the-fence people is to have others shove them off the fence.

By any means possible, I like to try to inspire, nudge, shove, push and drive others to grow their own food, or at least to have a say in what goes into their bodies. Sometimes all it takes is my ridiculous repeated facebook updates on homesteading to make them think maybe they can do it too. Sometimes it takes a little more coaxing, in the case of my mother (“You can do this! You will do this! OR ELSE.”) More than anything, I think inspires others to hear stories about how simple it is to get started.

By writing, blogging and documenting about just how easy it is to get started it’s possible that a few of these people may realize that they too can be directly involved not only in this fantastic upswing in ag/eco-awareness, but also in their own well-being and health. It’s time that we as the individuals and small communities take control of ourselves, our bodies, our world… to bring things just a little bit back towards balanced.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting in my living room and it occurred to me that I didn’t know where my husband was. He had been doing laundry in the sun-room/porch a moment before, but was suddenly no where to be found. I wandered through the house sort of lazily looking for him (our house really isn’t any larger than a cottage) and finally found myself looking out the front door to the yard where he stood, determinedly pinning clothes to the clothesline. I stared, open-mouthed for a few seconds and then (naturally, as a blogger) ran to grab my camera. My husband was hanging his clothes on the line.

I caught Jeremy hanging his laundry on the line.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very environmentally conscious guy, but he had never gone this far before. It suddenly dawned on me. I have definitely “rubbed off” on him. In fact, I think I’ve “rubbed off” on, or nudged or poked or prodded (or demanded) a lot of people.

I’m pretty sure I guilted my mother into growing vegetables this year, but she’s loving it now!

I’m definitely the kind of person to guilt people into things. Don’t have time? Too bad, make time. Don’t have the money? You don’t need it, here have some seedlings. Don’t have the space? Don’t kid yourself – you can grow food in a pop bottle on a windowsill if you have to. I can be pretty brutal, but I think that’s what it takes sometimes. Whether it’s my mother, my in-laws, my teenage students, my students’ parents, my readers, or even complete strangers: I’ve found myself preaching to them about the need to become more proactive. That’s a goal I try to pass on, too. Make people believe that they can do things on their own. No task is too great if you put your mind to it.

My 17 yr old student, Ellen’s Garden, is in it’s second year after I helped her get it started.

So I guess I come to you with a challenge today. Try inspire growth in yourself and the people around you. Encourage yourself to actually try the thing you’re researching, instead of just reading up on it. Offer to help someone get started in something that you already do that they show interest in. Buddy up with someone, even. Sometimes it’s easier to try new things when you’ve got a friend by your side. So many of the blogs we post here (and across the internet) are about things that we’ve never done before, and there’s no reason you can’t do these things too!

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During the month of August I’m doing a special at Chiot’s Run called “Alphabet in August”. Every day we’ll focus on one letter of the alphabet and try to come up with words or phrases that describe us. It’s a great way to excercise your creativity, both verbally and with images if you can come up with them. They can be serious, funny, good, bad, things you love, things you hate. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and start adding words and phrases to the list when you can think of it.

If you’d like to join in on your blog you can grab the image from my Flickr Photostream and link in the comments below or on my blog. I’ll be including a list of everyone that’s following along. We’ll be officially kicking it off on Monday, August 1st and starting with the letter A on Tuesday, August 2nd. We’ll take Sunday’s off for a bit of a break.

So who wants to stretch those creative muscles?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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I went to high school smack dab in the middle of high corn country–Champaign County, Illinois. (Well, it’s corn now. In the 40s it was hemp. It was fun going to high school there!) We lived, literally, in the last house in town. We were surrounded on three sides by corn fields. I walked through it, skated on it, and more than once accidentally ran into it (blame the, ahem, “hemp”). I never thought that someday I would actually grow it.

But I love growing corn. I grew my first backyard corn in 2007, and every year I find out something new about this amazing plant. Its unique vascular system that self-waters during droughts. The “adventitious feet” that keep the top-heavy stalks from falling over in our variable weather. That every strand of silk goes to a single kernel–if you’ve got “holes” in the ear, it’s because that one strand did not get pollinated.

Corn is such an iconic plant. For Americans I think there is no plant that moves us as deeply. Corn is ours. It’s in our earliest mythology and rules our midwest (where everyone is from, right?). Someone simple and honest is “corn fed.”  In Ur-America, it was currency.

It’s silly to grow backyard corn in Illinois. Corn is cheap and available here. You have to devote a lot of space to it to get a reasonable harvest. Most varieties give you only an ear or two from a single stalk; the high-yield ones I’ve tried sacrifice flavor. You can’t grow more than one variety, because it cross-pollinates in the current generation, so you don’t get the variety that you think you planted. (Another fun corn fact.)

It’s an amazing and wonderful plant.

Corn grown sustainably and eaten correctly (i.e. not in monoculture and not processed into everything you consume) is a marvelous food– high in protein and nutrients, easy to preserve, beloved by everyone. It’s fun to grow because there’s always something going on. Once the corn has reached its maximum height, a tassel, the male flower, will form at the top. After this happens, ears start to form where the leaves and the stalks meet. They start as just a little  darker green thickening with translucent buttery-white silk forming after a few days. The pollen from the tassel drifts down and pollinates the impending ears turning the silk a soft pink. You mostly don’t need to hand-pollinate corn, the wind takes care of it. After a few days, the silk turns a deep mahogany and the ear starts swelling in earnest. Pick it when the silk is brown but not dry, and milky liquid squirts out when you press a fingernail into a kernel.

Corn handles transplanting well, inasmuch as it stays pert even after replanting, but doing this really slows down its growth and the seeds sprout so well it hardly matters. The first two years I grew it, I planted in dense rows along a fence. The last 3 years I’ve done 3 Sisters–corn, beans, squash. (The rabbit gets the beans. Sigh.) In one of the beds I tried a desert technique–multiple seeds in a single hole.

Another fun discovery was “corn feet.” You plant the Three Sisters in a mound, which I always thought was for the squash at the center, although I had read that corn would root horizontally into the mound, both anchoring the dirt and preserving the mound shape, and strengthening the stalk. Turns out corn sends out these cute little blunt-tipped feet called “adventitious roots”; the ones on the high side of the mound do indeed go horizontally into the dirt. The ones on the low side grow straight down like Midwestern mangrove roots.

It’s a little corny, but it makes me feel like a patriot to look out my backdoor and see corn.

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Sunday photos

Just sitting here waiting for the zucchini bread to finish. Yes, I (Xan) bought zucchini, even though I have a larder full of food picked in my own garden, which is going gangbusters. How could I resist? It was something called “8-ball” zucchini and it looked really cool. I bought currants, and golden beets, too. You really have to keep me out of the farmers markets. The food below is from “Xan’s Truck Farm.”

Now, please keep me out of farmers’ markets for the rest of the summer, hmmm?


Here at Chiot’s Run I go to the farmer’s market almost each week. I buy a few things that I don’t have room for or don’t want to grow in my garden. I don’t usually grow zucchini as I can get it super cheap from local farmers. I’d rather use the space to grow celery, which I can’t find locally. I love my local farmer’s markets – there are two that I attend.

One is a regular outdoor type with vendors. I do love chatting with the farmer’s, but since it’s only open on Saturdays May-Nov and I usually have to work on Saturday’s in the summer I don’t get to go as often as I’d like.

The one I visit most often is set up a bit differently. The farmer’s aren’t there, they set up booths and you walk around the various stations. You pick up everything you need from everyone, then pay at a central cash register – there are even bar codes on things. While I did miss talking to the growers when I first started going to this market, I now realize this is much better for them. They can spend their days working in their fields rather than being at the market. I also love that it’s open Wed-Sat, which is good for me since I work most Saturdays. It’s also open year round and they carry thing like cheese, grains, vegetables, meat, milk, pottery, yarn and soaps. I can pretty much get anything I need from Local Roots in Wooster, OH.


What did you pick (or pick up) this week?

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Mr Chiots and I were talking the other day and I said, “What did I ever do with all my time before I started blogging and gardening?”. Then I laughed and said, “I guess I kept the floors clean”. That is so true. I used to be crazy about having clean floors and a clean house. My floors were vacuumed and moped three times a week, the bathrooms cleaned several times a week, and a dirty dish rarely was seen in the kitchen. Then we started a business and our busy season happens to be in summer. Gardening came along next and naturally canning and preserving followed. Before I knew it, I had too much on my plate and there was no way I had the time to keep up with the thrice weekly floor cleaning. There’s simply no way to keep the counters clear when you have vats of pickles and sauerkraut fermenting that need tending. Summer’s bounty from the garden usually coveres half the table and I’m about to move all those tomatoes just to wipe the table down every night. The floors can get pretty dirty with all those trips in and out and with three pets living inside.

At first it really aggravated me when the house was messy and I would stay up late and use every spare minute to try to keep up with it. Then I decided to give myself a break. I noticed that the more leeway I gave myself the less it bothered when the house got a little cluttered. I must admit, I almost appreciate some clutter now as I feel it makes my house looked lived in. I also feel like it helps visitors feel comfortable knowing that I didn’t spend hours cleaning before their visit. That being said I can only let it go so far before it needs cleaning up. The bathrooms still get cleaned once a week and the kitchen gets tidied up almost every night, though not scrubbed to sparkling. The floors however can go two weeks *gasp* between cleanings now and it doesn’t even bother me. The dust bunnies will hold a convention at the end of the hall and it doesn’t phase me when I walk by. Now that I allow myself to let a few things go, I can breathe easier in the summer. I would much rather spent my precious spare time going for a stroll at sunset than inside mopping the floors.

What’s the first thing to do when you get busy?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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I’ll take you on a walk. Down those paths maybe. Close your eyes and imagine you enter through a tall wooden gate, painted with flowers. The neighbor rebuilt his side, which my door is hinged to, and now it doesn’t close properly. My daughter says the sound of gate pulling open gives her goosebumps. One of these days I’ll pull out the wood plane and fix it.

The gangway–that narrow walk between the buildings that is so typically Chicago–is dark and spidery. I always think about Dorothy and friends stepping out of the forest into Oz– “step out of the dark step out of the woods step into the light”– because once you get through the gangway there is no more shade. This is a full sun garden despite being surrounded by trees. An accident of arrangement means that the shade misses everything but the house. I often think I’m a gardener purely by accident, because if I’d had shade, I’d probably never have tried it, since no one in my family ever gardened.

As you step out of the gangway and past the cellar stairs, you first hear and then see the pond. It’s supposed to be inauspicious to have a water feature at an entrance, but the only other place to put it was in the wealth bagua, which is worse (my children are shaking their heads in despair at this point).  If you like, come around the end of our “puddle” and sit in the one shady corner (but only after 4 p.m.). Just a couple of old porch posts set up as a bench, where you can listen to the water running and try to spot all 5 fish.

Up a path past pond and cottage garden, down a path past cottage garden and berry patch (still new–just mulch and seedlings pretty much. Is that a strawberry?) Down the sidewalk, and peer into the tomato patch to see if anybody’s red. This bed is Fort Knox of Chicken Wire in an attempt to keep our resident rabbit from eating all the beans. Two pastes, 5 slicers, 4 types of cherries. Some basil and some zucchini, stupidly planted in the shade of the tomatoes, so it isn’t very happy. Who plans these things anyway.

Hook a left past the original bed, shaped like a half circle. There are no straight lines in my garden, or my life. The garden, like the gardener, zigs and zags, never really settling on anything. The half circle bed has corn this year, in a Three Sisters bed, although the rabbit has pretty much taken ownership of the beans. There are skinny little paths through here, too so I can groom and harvest, but my paths are never as wide as they should be–I just hate to give up the space where I could be growing things. Tomatillos, parsnips, carrots, black beans, leeks, Swiss chard and Brussels sprouts in a skinny box and potatoes in a SmartPot®.

There’s a patio, ringed by bell peppers in pots, with an umbrella table; I’m expecting the squash to start climbing the umbrella at any time. The squash is a volunteer, way too big for my tiny space, with a sister taking over the compost pile. The fruit is oblate and yellow; some strange hybrid.

Leave the vegetables and wander into Narnia, so named because my children were constantly trying to find the magical entrance when they were small; I told them if they went through the trellis entry to this path in just the right way they’d get there. To prove it, I placed Aslan against an old stump. Out through the trellis and you’re back in the vegetables–a serpentine bed (lord, more curves, don’t tell Mel Bartholomew). Onions, eggplants, turnips, shell beans, dill, cucumbers, more chard, broccoli, beets.

Turn one way and find a tiny grassland with a glass brick path; turn the other and glass bricks lead you through an herb garden and into the other gangway.

The whole walk can talk 5 minutes or 5 hours, and it’s how I start every day. Thank you for joining me!

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You simply cannot start the day badly, when this is what greets you out your back door. –Xan


I too love morning light, although evening light is my favorite. I love that golden hour right before sunset when everything is showered in a golden cast from the setting sun, especially in summer. Probably this has something to do with the fact that I don’t really see morning sun here at Chiot’s Run. The sun rises in the back of our house behind the tall old trees. We don’t really even see the sun until afternoon here. In winter however, when the trees don’t have any leaves we can enjoy some morning sun. Thus most of my photos of morning sun are in winter. I especially love capturing the morning sun on a cold clear morning.

Every now and then I’m lucky enough to be out and about early and I am able to watch the sun actually rise up over the horizon away from the tall trees that limit my view. It’s quite a site for sure.

When we’re on vacation we always try to make it a point to get up and enjoy the sunrise somewhere. Last October we traveled to Acadia National Park in Maine and got up in the wee hours to watch the sun rise over the ocean. It was quite lovely.


This morning’s light was particularly golden at Tanglewood. We’re in the midst of a terrible heat wave (as, I suspect, is much of the country) and I’ve been greeted by red-orange sun rises several days in a row.

Today’s most important goal for me (aside from catching the mink that has been terrorizing my poultry yard) was to “tail” the five pounds of gooseberries that Jeremy and I picked yesterday afternoon. If you’re not familiar with tailing, it entails (heh) cutting the blossom and stem ends off of each and every berry. It’s so boring!

The soft orange light this morning provided a sort of reminder that despite being boring, I was handling some of the most beautiful berries I’d ever held. The light bounced off of, and through, their translucent skins to make them almost glow.


What sort of sunlight takes your breath away? Sunrise? Sunset?


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Mysterious Ms. Rubus

Alright, it certainly seems like I’m always posting about berries. I guess it’s got to do with my super-duper-sweet tooth, or maybe it’s the fact that I grow so many of them that they kind of saturate my life this time of year.

Yesterday I was out foraging for wild black raspberries in the old orchard. There are massive islands of black raspberries out there, and after Monday’s wonderful gift of rain the berrie
s are swelling from their previous raisin-like state into shiny, delicious little berry sirens. I can hear their call from my bedroom window each morning (above the sound of our super-obnoxious before-dawn adolescent rooster, aptly named “Dinner”). The raspberries are the reason I wake before dawn this time of year. I run a summer day camp at the horse farm where I teach, and with my busy schedule there is little time for the foraging of these little black jewels.

Yesterday evening was a rare evening that I found myself home from the horse farm earlier than usual. Despite feeling as thought I was filled with sandbags, and being so tired I couldn’t make much sense of the world, I grabbed a little berry bucket and headed out into the orchard to pick black raspberries before dinner. It wasn’t until I’d decided it was nearly time for me to give up the ghost and crash for the night that I spotted them.

This was the largest of the mystery berries I was able to find.

A mysterious little red berry, masquerading as an unripe black raspberry on a cane very similar to the others thatched around it. This little red berry had 1-5 fruit-lobes that were considerably bigger than the many lobes found on the black raspberry. The odd thing is that it looked ripe! I started looking around me and found several other plants bearing these strange berries so I decided to pick one and smooooosh it against my hand to smell it. This berry might just be a god among fruits. I haven’t tasted it yet, but the deeply musky smell of raspberries that it emitted after I assaulted it with my clumsy hands was more intense than any other berry I’ve ever smelled. It was intense!

Like a small child who has stumbled across a rare and beautiful baby bird, I cupped the little berry in my hand, abandoned all other tasks and hastily marched up the the house with a huge and unhindered grin splayed across my face. I had forgotten completely what it felt like to be this intensely surprised by mother nature. I’ve been foraging for wild berries since I was very young (Michigan is known for it’s wild low-bush blueberries – yum!) and to discover a berry I had never seen before, especially one so beautiful, tiny and alluring, was enough to give me butterflies in my suddenly-eight-years-old-again stomach.

Many of the berries are single lobes like this one!

After literally hours of sifting through google images, university extension offices and more, I came up with nothing. I began to think I had some slightly lame mutation of a cultivated raspberry, and slumped around defeatedly for the rest of the night.

Then, today while I was at the horse farm I took a student on a trail ride. I love to share my trivial nature knowledge with my students as we ride along, pointing out medicinal plants and edible berries. We rounded a bend and came to a thicket where I had often foraged wild blackberries as a teen and as I was pointing it out to her I stopped mid sentence. What were those little tiny gleams of red poking through the blackberry brambles? My Mysterious Ms. Rubus! Like a taunting child, the berries peered at me, just out of reach from the saddle. I dare not dismount from my horse because unfortunately I had chosen to take one of my less-seasoned horses out on the trail and I knew if I hopped off to inspect a berry she would make all sorts of trouble for me and I’d probably never get back in the saddle. So, I let the berries sing their siren song, and I stuffed my ears with cotton and rode on, satisfied by the suspicion that the little berries in our orchard are not just a fluke mutation. But what are they?

So I come to you, dear readers, with my query. These little gems are consistently 2-5 large lobes of deep red goodness. They grow on a very upright cane and have leaves that are exactly like other cultivated raspberries (pointed, not rounded), but smaller and more dense where they grow from the cane. They grow in part shade, in South Eastern Michigan, and both patches were found in loamy, non-acidic soil. Hmm…

The unripe berries are almost pure white, unlike any raspberry/blackcap I’ve ever seen.

Does anyone have any idea of what this mysterious little Rubus might be? Have you ever encountered any other unidentifiable edibles in your yard?

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Taking Some Time to Relax

It’s been busy, busy, busy here at Chiot’s Run. I haven’t had much time to sit down and come up with some great, deep and in depth blog posts. I found myself yesterday afternoon thinking, “I really need to sit down and write a great post for Not Dabbling”. Then Mr Chiots handed me this beautiful cup of coffee.

I decided that during the crazy weeks I’ve been having, instead of spending my time writing a long blog post I would spend my 15 minutes relaxing on my front porch enjoying my afternoon coffee. I spent my time thinking about how blessed I really am and how wonderful my life is. So I’d like to encourage you to take some time today out of your busy schedule to sit back and enjoy yourself. Use this time to dwell on the blessings that you have.

How do you like to take time out and relax?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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