Friday, August 28, 2015

Easy microwave summer squash recipe

This is one of my favorite ways to cook yellow summer squash. It takes longer to walk to the garden and harvest than it does to prepare.

In a 1-quart glass casserole or other microwave-safe dish mix:

1 squash, cut into 1/4-inch slices
About 3 Tablespoons chopped green pepper

Season with salt, pepper and paprika to taste.
Add pat of butter. (This is optional, but come on! It's butter, yum.)

No water is necessary. Cover with glass lid or plastic wrap. Microwave at high power, checking after 3 minutes. This is the amount of time to cook this in my 1100-watt appliance; adjust times accordingly for your microwave.

Be sure to check out Maple Hill's seed-to-table series today. This week's entry: Parsley.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Home orchards

Fruit trees can be an attractive part of a home landscape, as this carefully planned orchard shows.

The orchard space is about 16x16 feet on the west side yard of a historic home in my city's downtown. In the center is a pear tree flanked by two apple trees and two peach trees. The five trees are laid out in a circular cross design with islands of light brown bark mulch separated by black edging and light colored gravel paths. This ground design is striking all year long, perhaps even more so in winter when the trees are bare. The mulch serves an extra purpose: it covers the drip-line irrigation system. All the trees are dwarf varieties.

A bed of strawberry plants borders one side of the grid, which fits right in with the owner's orchard motivation: "Because we love fruit."

Here, the trees create a privacy screen between the street and the house.

This is the front of the beautiful home, with the orchard shown on the left. The home sits on a large lot, but its compact orchard offers inspiration for using fruit trees in residential landscapes of all sizes. These strategies are worth noting:

• Choose dwarf varieties for small spaces.
• Separate fruit trees from lawn if you can. First, their water needs are different. Second, grass will not grow well under a fruit tree's canopy. 
• Think of a tree's pollination needs. Most apple varieties require another apple tree nearby to produce fruit.
• Use landscape cloth and mulch to cut down weeds. Consider adding a design element with your choice of mulches.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A tip for space-saving flash-freezing

First of all, what is flash-freezing?

It is the process of freezing select food items in a single layer, such as on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, the items are transferred to a sealable plastic bag or other airtight container. The main benefit of flash freezing is that items can be stored close together in the bag, but can be removed in desired portions without the entire clump sticking together. 

Whole berries, sliced fruit, peeled bananas, peppers and tomatoes are easy to freeze. (Bananas work best with wax paper spread on the sheet first.) Other vegetables, like green beans, need to be blanched first. Blanching halts enzyme action, and is done by briefly boiling vegetables (beans, for instance, for three minutes), and then immediately plunging into ice water for double that time. The blanching step freezes vegetables at their most colorful peak.

But back to my tip. The only disadvantage of flash freezing is you need a lot of flat area in your freezer. I like to stack cookie sheets to consolidate space.

Find two objects of identical height and put them toward the edges so the tray above it will be balanced. You want something taller than the items on the sheet to ensure air circulation and obviously, so they are not crushed. Here I have used two yellow cups. Then stack your other sheet on top, for a double-decker space-saving flash-freezing option. Whew, that's a lot of hyphens!

After a few hours in the freezer, or overnight, transfer the items to your container. Another tip is to use a straw to suck out all the air from a zipper-style bag (oh no, not again) as you seal it closed. Easy-peasy. (sigh)

What do you freeze best?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Homemade ice cream basics

Making homemade ice cream is easier than ever with kitchen appliances that don't require ice or salt. It's an especially yummy way to enjoy homegrown berries and peaches.

There are many ice cream maker brands available with the premise of a bowl with cooling liquid inside an insulated wall. You freeze this ahead of time until the liquid is solid. It doesn't take much space -- so you can have this in your freezer ready at will for an ice cream craving. (Admittedly, if you don't have it frozen already that can be the hardest step to making a batch!) My maker rotates the bowl around the mixing arm to freeze the dessert in about 30 minutes.

Recipes are plentiful, but you can cobble your own fruit creations with a few guidelines. These tips are for a 2-quart maker. (Source: Cuisinart)

• Use 4 cups total of a milk/cream combination. For example 1 cup milk and 3 cups cream, or 2 cups each. Naturally a higher fat content will yield a richer and creamier dessert.

• Add 1 cup sugar (see note below)

• Add 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract, to taste.

Use a hand mixer to combine liquid and sugar, making sure sugar is dissolved.

• Use 3 cups fruit.

This next step takes a bit of time, but the flavor impact is well worth it:

• Combine your fruit (stemmed berries, sliced peaches, etc.) with 1/2 cup sugar and 4 tablespoons lemon or lime juice. Stir and let the fruit macerate for 2 hours, which releases those tasty juices. This also makes the difference between white vanilla ice cream with raspberries floating in it, and pink ice cream flavored with the berries through and through. Strain, reserving the liquid, and mash half of the fruit. Add all to your milk/cream mixture.

• Note: Taste mixture before pouring into machine. Keep in mind that freezing can reduce the sweetness of fruit. If it tastes tart, add more sugar

That's it! What are your favorite ice cream creations?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My fair, Matey

We love to go the county fair every year. This year, after our long hunt for a parking spot led us into a bit of a no-man's land, we entered the fairgrounds from a different vantage point. My 7-year-old son piped up as soon as he realized the livestock pens were first in our path.

"Oh, good! This is the place we go to see the goats eat their blue ribbons!" he exclaimed, running ahead.

Yes, yes, County Fair 2013, I remember thee well. That was the year we rounded a bend just in time to see a goat stand on its hind feet, crane its neck and with stick-his-tongue-out concentration snag in its teeth the blue ribbon hanging from the top of the pen's gate.

What a sight! We were thrilled, but I was a bit blue myself that I didn't have a camera to capture the scene -- for I knew it could have been quite the photo. (My camera was broken and I didn't have a quality cell phone.) It still makes me sad thinking about this lost photo opportunity. Kind of like when my husband and I, in college, were driving around town and I spied a bride and groom in their fancy clothes using the car wash to remove the whipped cream "Just Married" from their vehicle. "Stop the car!" I urged my husband. Nah, he said, and drove on. Here's the stickler: he was a photography intern at the newspaper at the time. (Has he ever liked my ideas?)

Anyway, I guess I've recited the story of the blue ribbon munching-goat enough that my kids know I'm on the prowl for the quirky. That's part of the fun.

Sleepy black bunny that nibbled its ribbon some time ago? Ho-hum. Not the same as catching in the act!

I'm not sure what to make of the curling iron and combs and brushes in the vacant animal pen. Was it to doll up the sheep or the sheep's owner before the show?

If you look at the railing in front of my husband (on the left) you can see a blue ribbon detached from its yellow cord. Must not have tasted as good.

I like how intently goats return your gaze.

Goats! I love them.

One thing I adore about our fair is the petting area, and the chance for my children to approach and feed the animals. My son has struggled with anxiety -- it touches this momma's heart to see his unbridled happiness (and pixelated smile) at interacting with the animals.

The fair helps us learn about unusual livestock breeds, such as the Watusi, native to Africa:

and a B.W. Whiskers, a big-horned alpine goat:

The sign next to his pen says he thinks he is better than the rest of the goats in the herd. No kidding!

Our county fair made my daughter's elephant-riding dream come true.

There are chickens of course:

and fun facts:

and also huckster-style sideshows, like a touted tiny horse and gigantic pig, both behind curtains (we didn't see):

If you haven't gone to a fair before, give it a look. Check here for a website that will help you find one. I hope you will have as much fun as we do each year.

 Carnival ride (light rings) photo specs: ISO 100, f/9, bulb setting with shutter held open for 1.3 seconds.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Salvaging fruit from broken raspberry canes

I had nothing to lose when I submerged a broken raspberry cane into a bucket of water to see if the berries on it would ripen. Whether by storm or a critter passing through, the cane was broken clean through. I found it on the ground soon after its detachment; the leaves were still lush and it was just starting to form the creamy green-colored balls that normally would develop into red berries. What a bummer to lose so many, I thought. It was either off to the compost heap or to my weird idea of a bath.

I was pleasantly surprised that putting the cane in water worked! No, the cane's leaves aren't pristine, but the vase treatment apparently bought enough time for certain berries to ripen (about three days later). I say certain ones, because not all did -- mainly the larger ones. Better than nothing.

Have you had any last-ditch efforts that surprised you, too?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Website: Find a county fair near you

Chances are, if your county has any sort of publicity arm, you will see signs and promotions heralding the fair coming to town. Maybe you want to find as many fairs as you can in neighboring counties or as you travel this summer to other states. Either way, check out the website

The site lists American county fairs by state and has a blog with articles about animals, home and garden, farming and other interests. It also provides information about state fairs.

From the home page, scroll down until you find this on the left:

Select your state and be sure to click on the Go! button -- otherwise you'll go nowhere. Look in the bottom right of the next page to see the results. Hey, Dave, here's what's happening near you!

The fairs are current and are listed in chronological order (so if your area's fair already closed it won't appear). The underlined areas (shown in red) indicate links to those fair's individual websites.

What is a county fair, you may ask? To me it's a celebration of livestock, home-grown produce and home arts mixed in with carnival rides and food on a stick. It's a validation of working hard together and rewarding your family with play. What do you like best about a county fair?

To our international readers: I'd like to know if your communities have events similar to the American county fair, and if so, what appeals to you the most.  Hi, Carie and Becky!