Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Day 240: Tomato Time – Summer’s First Blush


It’s hard to remain patient while waiting on tomatoes. Summer is stubborn this year. My garden suffers at least a two week delay. The waiting is even more difficult because of the mystery shrouding my vines. I have no idea what to expect in terms of variety. My planted seedlings failed to thrive, so I’m relying solely on volunteer plants that popped up from last year’s crop. I gathered the volunteer seedlings from raised beds and transplanted them to my tomato pots. I raise peppers, lettuce, tomatillos, eggplant, squash, peas, beans, and cucumbers in my raised beds and the tomato seedlings continue to pop up through the other crops like weeds. I may never have to plant tomatoes from seed again. That’s the beauty of raising heirlooms. Heirlooms keep on giving and grow like weeds.

Green globes weigh down the vines, promising a sweet crop and hinting of things to come. It seems that most of my plants are small salad types. I have a few large tomatoes on, but the majority are cherry-sized. Smaller tomatoes are my favorite anyway. Cherries ripen faster, are more split resistant, and the vines seem to fight blight a little longer. And it is the cherries that I found today. I saw red and yellow and a little purple peaking from a camouflage blanket of leaves this morning.

Today’s pick included the classic yellow pear, tiny Hawaiian Red Currant, Cuban yellow grape, and one of my all-time favorites, the purple-hued black cherry. Breakfast this morning was as it will be tomorrow morning, plucked from the vine and eaten in the garden. Summer has arrived, finally.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Day 239: Solar-Powered Dinner Party


I complain too much about Seabeck weather. I spend winter and spring pining for summer, and then spend most of summer whining over gray skies and cool temperature. But not yesterday, yesterday I got my summer. And yes, still I complained a little. It was so stinking hot!  

Nearly every Sunday, a handful of neighbors get together for dinner and a shot or two of vodka (I have Russian neighbors). It was my turn to host, but it was too hot to cook, and I was too lazy and frugal to drive into town and find an alternative to a home cooked meal. I decided to get creative.

I’d been looking for an excuse to build a solar-powered oven, like the one I saw demoed at the Mother Earth News Fair a few months ago. It was as a bell-shaped, cardboard structure with a flat bottom. Aluminum foil lining gathered the sun’s heat and reflected it back on a tin baking dish slid inside one of those plastic roasting bags. I looked through the steamy bag and watched the water in the pan simmer. I could not believe how well it worked. Something about the whole experience made me think back to the Easy-Bake oven Santa Claus failed to deliver one childhood Christmas Eve.

The young man at the solar booth explained how his non-profit organization was trying to get the solar cooking idea spread to third-world countries as an alternatiave for women who spend much of their day scrounging firewood to cook meals. The idea is awesome, but I questioned the availability and expense of cooking bags. As it turns out, the bags are not totally necessary, but do assist in heating speed, heat retention, and clean-up.

I found similar solar-cooking models online for about $40. But I wanted to make my own, or at least try. I dug around in the office and garage and found some boxes to up-cycle. I grabbed a box cutter, a roll of aluminum foil, a stapler, and my favorite construction material ever, duct tape. It took me about an hour to make my first prototype and another hour to get supper in the oven.

It was about 90 degrees on my back deck, but I was able to get the cooker up to 180 degrees. I didn’t have any of those roasting bags, so I used Pyrex pans and glass lids. The cooking was slow going, and I had to keep adjusting to avoid shadows. I’d like to make another cooker that comes apart easily for camping. Mine is bulky and storage is going to be an issue. I noted other flaws in the first prototype, areas to improve to increase heat. I got ambitious trying to accomodate more than one dish. My cooker ended up too big and open to be efficient. A one-pot model or dual one-pot models seem like a better option.

The most important thing is that the experiment worked. I stunned and amazed family and friends with my ingenuity and for a moment, felt like the professor on Gilligan’s Island. The quality of the meal was not up to usual standards, but I wasn’t all that disappointed. I proved it could be done. Sometimes being right tastes pretty damn good. I pulled off Sunday supper without heating up the house. We ate wild salmon with killer red huckleberry sauce, cowboy beans with roasted tomatillo salsa, corn bread with pepper jelly, ham, and my neighbor Luba’s fabulous green salad. Not too shabby for a first solar supper.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Day 238: Celebrating the USCG's Birthday with Dungeness Crab


Today I celebrated the United States Coast Guard’s 222nd birthday with a cruise on the Hood Canal, a bottle of homebrewed Mountain Woman Red, and some of the best Dungeness crab ever eaten. It was on this date in 1790 that President George Washington commissioned the Revenue Cutter Service. The Revenue Cutter Service grew into the Coast Guard that we know today. The Coast Guard is unlike the other defense oriented services. Besides the mission of defense readiness, the USCG operates under another 10 demanding missions: ports, waterways, and coastal security, drug interdiction, aids to navigation, search and rescue, living marine resources, marine safety, law enforcement, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection, and ice operations. There is seldom a dull moment.

I retired from the Coast Guard in December of 2009. One would assume that a woman retired from the USCG would have a decent amount of boating experience. This is a logical assumption, but a false one in my case. I spent my first 20 years high and dry serving in the Army and Army Reserve. I was lucky enough to jump the fence and become a Coast Guard officer in 2005. My only regret is that I hadn’t jumped twenty years earlier. I loved the Coast Guard, and wish my health would have allowed me to serve longer and learn more about going to sea.

My lack of boating skill and knowledge on the water is a source of personal embarrassment. I love being on the Hood Canal, but the learning curve without my old crew is steep. To make matters worse, I married a landlubber with almost zero interest in the sea. He doesn’t even care much for seafood. What is a wanna-be mermaid supposed to do?
I suppose learning to boat is a lot like learning anything else, but more expensive and dangerous if you are stupid. I try hard not to be stupid, but sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. There is so much to learn. I attack the knowledge acquisition like I attack most new quests. I research and then do it. This usually works out for the best.
I own a 1965 Boston Whaler. She’s just a little 13-footer and not much to look at, but she is a classic. The toughest part so far has been dropping her in the water and pulling her back out on the trailer without getting into a fist-fight with my husband. We don’t work well together – evidently. It looks easy when we watch other folks unload and load boats at the boat launch. We tried a few years ago, but the fighting ruined the trip and damaged my boat. I was so pissed off. I swore never to do it again. But time eases drama, and I was hungry for crab. So, we gave it another go. Not only did we not fight, we actually had a great time. Whew…

The Hood Canal is full of amazing foods, and Dungeness crab is my favorite. I’ve tried crabbing on the canal before, but without a boat I didn’t have much luck. Today was different. I baited the pot with nasty smelling herring I let bake in the sun for a few hours. We dropped the pot with about 150 feet of line just outside of the traffic lane entering the boat launch. The idea was to drop the pot, cross over to a peninsula and state beach park, have a picnic, and pick up the pot on our way home.  
Toandos Peninsula State Park

It takes a decent amount of time and forearm strength to pull up a pot with 150 feet of line. I worked arm over arm, while chanting, “Please be crab. Please be crab.” I hoped for a couple Red Rock crabs for dinner. I had always understood that the best crab, the Dungeness, where out a lot further.
The pot felt heavier than I remembered, but I wasn’t sure if it was just wishful thinking. About halfway through the hoisting, we started speculating.
“Betcha got a pot full,” said Jim.

“Nah, probably pesky spider crabs, maybe a Red Rock.”
I need to be more optimistic. When the pot broke the surface of the water, I squealed. It was a long, shrill, girly squeal. Five lovely Dungeness crabs tussled with the wire mesh in hopes of freedom. The purplish hue of the shells and white tipped claws gave away their identity.  
Not-so-deadliest catch

Current regulations on the Hood prevent the taking of female Dungeness or males that are under 6 ¼ inches wide. The five crabs were on the small side. It was going to be close. I pulled out the first crab, a real fighter. It was a male and measured 6 ½ inches across the widest part of his shell. He was a keeper. The next crab took forever to get out of my trap. I flipped it over to examine his private parts, and he was a she. Male crabs have pointy appendages. Go figure. Female crabs have rounded girl-parts. Identification of sex couldn’t be more intuitive.  My catch yielded 3 male keepers and two females to release. I was thrilled.
Male crabs with pointy appendages

I checked on fresh crab prices the day before in an attempt to fuel my desire to get out on the water. A local grocery store advertised at $8.99 per pound.  It seems like a ridiculous price, but one that is readily paid by non-boaters all over Kitsap County. Each of my keepers weighed about 2 lbs. That’s over $50 for dinner, if I had purchased from the grocery. 
Crab season is short on the Hood Canal. It runs from July through the first week of September. With a drama-free crabbing trip under our belts and bellies full of fresh crab, we intend to hit the water again during this upcoming week. I pray for a drama-free launch and a full pot.
Sad eyes

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Day 237: Bonus Roo & Ronda, the Broody Hen of My Dreams

Pot-Pie, my new office mate

Craigslist is an amazing resource. I advertised for a broody hen, a plus-size surrogate to assist Lucy and Gerry in baby-making efforts. I didn’t get many responses. One helpful soul informed me that broody hens were hard to come by, and I might want to up my offer of $15. But I think fifteen-bucks for a surly hen that won’t lay eggs, eats and poops, and pecks hands trying to gather the eggs of others, could not be worth more than my offer. Even still, I worried.

About a week after my post, Kristi sent me an email: “Hi there, I’m so sorry to hear about your raccoon attack! We just lost a 2 year old barred Rock and a 5 week old Maran to a raccoon last week – they are vicious things! I have a 2 year old Barred Rock hen that I can’t stop being broody. She has actually been broody for about a month and I’ve tried to break her but she’s determined to sit on the nest all day. If you want her, you can have her for free... I also have a 5 week old chocolate Maran rooster that you can have if you want him – he was supposed to be a hen.

I know it’s silly to get excited over chickens, but I was thrilled. A broody hen and a little roo all for free. I met up with Kristi today to pick up the birds. She lives on beautiful Bainbridge Island, about 40 minutes from my house, but worth the trip.

Ronda is broody alright. She was sitting in her nest and acting rather nasty when I gathered her up. She is larger than I imagined. I’m guessing about 7lbs. The Barred Rock is a heritage breed, originating in Plymouth rock and prized as a dual-purpose bird, excellent for both meat and eggs. The breed is cold-hearty and known to be quiet and gentle. Ronda may be the exception. She's an old biddy of a bird and went psycho on me once I got her home. I really ought to wear gloves. If she keeps up her crap, her dual-purpose as a stewing hen may be tested.

The little roo is smaller than I assumed, so that leads me to some logistical juggling. I only have one coop, and he is too small to run with the big girls. I’m also not sure how Gerry will treat him. For now, the roo is living in my office – kind of odd, but he likes it.

Whenever one gets a “pet” from Craiglist, especially a pet that tastes delicious, it’s important to clarify plans. I plan to hang on to Ronda for brooding purposes, but the little Roo’s fate is less secure. I may wait until he is bigger and then eat him. I informed Kristi of my plans, just to be sure he was still available. She was fine with it, and had thought to eat him herself, but didn't know how to go about such things. I know it sounds harsh, but I'm hungry for chicken. I haven't had roasted poultry since I started this killing spree back in December. I plan to shoot quail or pheasant or duck or goose or wild turkey or something chicken-ish to satiate the need, but it hasn't happened yet.

I temporarily named the roo “Pot-Pie,” just to get used to the idea of raising something for dinner, but I’m having my doubts. He’s so damn cute and far to easy to adore. He is also a Cuckoo Maran, a rare breed that produces dark-chocolate colored eggs. I'd like to add Marans to my hen house, but they are hard to find. Maybe when he is older, he can make babies that will produced chocolate eggs.

 If I don't eat Pot-Pie, I'll have to eat Gerry. Sometimes two roosters can co-habitate as long as there is plenty of room to free-range and establish territories. But raccoons and coyotes eliminated free-ranging as an option.

The truth is there is only room for one cock in the hen house. And that room is conditional on behavior. I won’t have an aggressive rooster, one that jumps on me when I enter. Gerry is a sweetheart, but he’s starting to do that side-step thing around me. He thinks I’m a rooster and a threat to his status. Maybe I need my hormone levels checked. Maybe I’m putting off too much testosterone. This is the second crazy rooster that confused me for a dude… It’s tough on the self-esteem.