Friday, July 31, 2009

In the swim of summer...

by June last.

We once brought out-of-state friends to our favorite spot on the lake. The mommy waded in and said, "I feel like I'm swimming in a big drink of water."

It is a big, clear, precious drink, Portland, Maine's big drink of water. It's worth protecting. C'mon, dear neighbors, stop worrying about dandelions in the lawn. Eat 'em up in soups and salad -- and help keep chemicals out of the big drink (a.k.a. the best swimming hole ever).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Little Red Hen

by June

It was a chicken emergency. Blossom and Fern noticed one of our Rhode Island Reds, sweet Maple, was twisting her neck in a funny way. She would stand still for a long time. She wasn't acting like the other two-month-old chicks.

They whisked Maple into the house and examined her on the front porch. Her baby-size comb looked good, but her eyes were rimmed in red. And her crop was hard. Out came the chicken guides. Off we went to Backyard

The diagnosis: She might be crop-bound. Maybe her crop was so hard because she had been eating long grass.

The remedy: A drink of warm water and a massage.

Fern put the warm water in a syringe and let the little hen drink her fill. Blossom gently rubbed Maple's crop. Maple made some funny noises and anointed the newspaper with some very grassy (and wet) poop. And soon she made happy-chicken noises and settled down into a nice nap.

Thank goodness, she's been happily eating beetles and ticks ever since. Once again, though, it reminds us how fragile our little flock is. We can play the radio to keep the fox away (thanks, Emma and Grace, for that great tip!). We can rush out every morning with fresh water and food. We can let them be free to stretch and scratch and run. We can keep the chicks separated from the grown flock until the little ones are less susceptible to disease. We can entertain them with rides on our shoulders (and hair buns). But nature is still nature.

Blossom with Rosie in her hair

Monday, July 27, 2009


by June

Doesn't look like much of a harvest, huh? But these are Sungold tomatoes. Sungold! The essence of tomato-y tomato yumminess. Accordingly, we had our annual first-tomato celebration Saturday night.

Here's how we served our harvest for four people who are long-cold-winter-into-long-cold-summer starved for fresh tomatoes:

Sliced in half.

Sprinkled with sea salt.

One. Two.!

In unison: Hmmmmm...hmm.

Be sure and jump over to the amazing Daphne's to see her palate-boggling Monday harvest and to find links to other gardeners' posts about what's coming out of their gardens. Good fun! Good eating!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cherry memories

by June

Few things stir up memories for me like sour cherries. My grandparents had a sour-cherry tree in the side yard, and summer meant us kids scrambling up, up, up into the branches to pull down a pie's worth of fruit. Then we got to hand-crank my grandmother's antique stoner to separate the pits from the tart, yellow flesh. Oh, that was fun.

But time tends to bulldoze even the dearest things. The tree and my grandmother are both gone. Her cherry stoner is lost in the family somewhere. And I have moved to a place where there is a lot of space between me and the next person who thinks there is no more beautiful sight on earth than a scarlet bubble of fruit hanging against a summer-blue sky.

New England is just not enthusiastic sour-cherry country. But, back at our first home here in Maine, we were lucky enough to live near some favorite farmers who were enthusiastic cherry-pie bakers, and they put in a double row of cherry trees that always begin to murmur my name sometime in June. Usually, by the Fourth of July, I am sitting on the porch with an olive pitter, punching out cherry stones one by one. This year, the fruit wasn't ready until mid-July, but oh the abundance.

The four of us picked thirty-three pounds in under an hour.

Which meant that we then had to go home and pit thirty-three pounds for pies and for jam and for freezing to make future pies and jam.

With an olive-pitter (or even four) that would have been an almost impossible feat. Fortunately, my mother recently gave me a gift I will treasure all my life. On one of her flea-market crawls, she unearthed a Number 16 Chop-Rite Cherry Stoner (made in Pottstown, USA). And this beautiful piece of machinery is all mine! To keep!

With one daughter at the crank, and the other feeding cherries into the chute, we got a production line whizzing that churned out gallons of cherries for the freezer, two pies, and sixteen jars of what we call "cherry pie jam."

When I eat this jam on toast or yogurt, I might as well be eating one of my grandmother's cherry pies. I'm suddenly back in her cherry tree, and my grandmother herself is standing on the ground, looking up at me and laughing and waiting for me to stop eating the cherries and bring some down so she can finish making her pie. Up in her tree, if only in my memory, oh, that is a good place to be. More jam, please.

Monday, July 20, 2009

First raspberries!

by June

Today our darling daughters, Blossom and Fern, turned ten. Of all the sweet gifts that came their way from far and near, the simplest was a discovery out in the brambles: The first raspberry harvest was ready! Fern picked the berries and dropped them into the skirt of her dress. What a birthday treat!

Happy, happy birthday, sweet girls!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nothing says happy birthday like...chocolate (beer) cake with salted caramel frosting

by June to say happy birthday to the stoutest-hearted daddy on these four green acres? How about a chocolate cake made with beer and frosted with salted caramel? Yeah! That'll do it.

We found a cupcake recipe over at the Brooklyn Kitchen blog that said, "Try me, try me." So we did. We turned our lush batter into some cupcakes and also a one-layer cake of splendid flavor and yumminess. It seemed a cake suited the birthday boy better than a mere cupcake.

Did we mention the sprinkle of Malden's flakes of sea salt on top? And espresso beans gleaming with dark chocolate?

Happy birthday, Birch!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer in technicolor

by June
Poppy Lauren's Grape in the back-porch planter

All winter, I dream about poppies. They are the color of summer beginning. So summer is really just beginning here on the four green acres in often-cloudy Maine. We're still sleeping under our down comforters (really), and though the girls have sustained longer swims in the lake, I have only managed a quick dip. The river has been roaring and frothing all season, which at least makes for pleasant music to fall asleep by, even if it does not make for pleasant floating. We have yet to turn on a fan.

No eggplants yet, only the first blooms. No tomatoes but green beads growing bigger every day. Peas fading to wilt. Even the potatoes are grudging this year.

But the poppies have brought an essential jolt of summer.

A Shirley in her glory

Poppy Imperial Pink up close and...

...from a distance.

These amazed me when they grew as tall as the girls.

Now they look me in the eye.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Drink your peas

by June

I know, I know: Pea soup is the metaphor for thick fog. But that's not this soup. This soup is a metaphor for walking into the garden early on a July morning when the tomato plants are starry with yellow blooms and the poppies are lively in the breeze and the pea pods look like stained glass in the sunlight. This pea soup is summer in a steaming cup...or a chilled glass.

Shouldn't pea soup taste as sweet as the peas we eat off the vine when we're standing among the vines?

With gratitude to Deborah Madison (again!), because she can do no wrong with a vegetable, here is what you need (and if you're as lucky as we were, it will all be growing in your kitchen garden):

Fresh-off-the-vine shelling peas, a pound plus
Tender new leeks, about six
A handful of parsley, stems and leaves
Sea salt
A dash of sugar
A dab of butter

As you shell the peas, put the peas into a bowl and the pods into a few quarts of water on strong heat. (Using more or less peas will make the soup more or less thick, but it will be delicious either way.) Add some chopped leek (two or three). Add some whole stems of parsley and a nice half-teaspoon of salt. Once it boils, turn down the flame and let the broth simmer for twenty minutes or so.

Meanwhile, chop the remaining leeks (enough to make a half-cup).

Melt the butter in a soup pot, then add the chopped leeks. Let it sizzle for a minute, then add a ladle of the broth. Cook until the leek is soft. Add in the peas, sugar, salt to taste, and a grinding of pepper (if, like us, you're not fussy about black flecks in your soup). Strain two-and-a-half cups of the simmering broth into the soup pot. In about three minutes, the peas should be bright green and cooked.

Use an immersion blender to zip it until it is smooth to the point of ethereal (or not, if you can't wait).

Serve steaming. Or chill the soup for a truly refreshing sipping experience.

If the children in your life are anything like ours, they will slurp it.

Last week, a friend took one taste and said, "If I were dead, this would bring me back to life." Yeah, me too. Maybe that's because the peas don't have the life cooked out of them; they still taste as if they are alive and growing toward the sun.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A prickly situation

by Birch

She saw the little one first. Blossom was riding on my back as though I were her own personal Lipizzaner pony as we took an early-evening turn over the grass. She pointed up into the black locust tree towering over the chicken coop. "Is that a monkey?" she asked.

I looked up at the creature on a spindly branch twenty-feet off the ground. It was stripping whole branches and stuffing the leaves into its mouth. It had agile little hands, an expressive face and a curly-ish tail—it did look like a monkey.

Fern came trotting out to see what we had found. She looked up toward the top of the tree and pointed. Another one! "We have monkeys! We have monkeys!" The mama, um, monkey was forty feet up, paws like hands reaching for leaves—an eating machine. This thing was huge—should we call Jane Goodall?

But wait. These things were covered in quills not fur and had a tiny snout with close, round eyes. Fern and Blossom insisted (very hopefully) that monkeys were roosting. June brought out the camera and examined them through the telephoto lens. Fern and Blossom clambered up to the roof of the chicken coop for a better view with binoculars. The creatures kept eating and eating.

Mosquitoes (hatched out since the heavy rain) finally chased us inside where we consulted books and Google for more information about what looked to us to be odd tree-climbing porcupines. Sure enough: Who knew there was such a thing as a tree porcupine?

Kid's World reports that "The tree porcupine is one of the largest rodents in North America." They love salt and will eat the tires off a car to get at the road salt. Their destructive powers to take down trees and wood structures is unmatched in the animal kingdom. When June discovered they love to eat gardens, their resemblance to monkeys disappeared and they looked like nothing so much as menacing rats with quills. When Fern and Blossom found out that tree porcupines are a favorite snack of the fearsome fisher cat, all they could think was (something like this, it was hard to tell through the panic): The fisher cat will smell the tree porcupines, who will have eaten the wooden door off the chicken coop, exposing the chickens to the fisher cat. And after eating the porcupines and the chickens, the fisher cat will eat Meow Meow, their beloved kitty, for dessert.

We needed to act fast. I left a message with a local animal-control expert. If we trapped the things we needed to release them far, far away. (But wouldn't they just be someone else's problem, then?) As the full moon rose, silhouetting Thing One and Thing Two in the tree, they were still eating.

Morning came. There was no sign of the porcupines. The animal expert returned our call and said he'd be happy to trap them. But porcupines often just pass through, he happened to mention. Sometimes they're headed for the next salt lick down the road.

No sign of them since, but don't think Fern and Blossom (and June) aren't keeping an eye on those high limbs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Garden candy

by June

The sun came out just along enough to put its sweetness into the shelling peas. Bliss!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy firecracker weekend!

by June

If you don't have the big boom-and-bang going on where you are, have a flower with some sizzle... (My poppies are finally blooming!)

Friday, July 3, 2009

100 snails

by June

You know how, on summer nights, children go out and play until the dusk overtakes them? After supper tonight, ours went out and frolicked between thunderstorms and caught...snails. The snails have scaled up to the tops of my delphinium and hollyhocks. They lurk on the front steps. They sway in the chamomile. But now their damp-induced rampage is imperiled: The girls have discovered that the chicks love to eat them, emphasis on love.

This is what one-hundred snails look like. I know because nine-year-olds count when they capture snails.

(For the squeamish among us, just take comfort in the fact that their daddy is currently sitting on Fern and Blossom and scrubbing them with hot water, soap, and a fingernail brush.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Strawberries: Summer in one bite

by June

Yesterday, we shrugged off the shroud of mist and went strawberry picking. I have been out in the strawberry fields since the age of six months, but I have never been out in the fields in my winter boots. (Granted, these are my beloved Bogs, which I brag are my three-season boots because I wear them comfortably from leaf season into snow into mud; they just got promoted to four-season!)

A wise friend of mine (who may have come by some of her wisdom in a twelve-step program) once told me that if you don't feel the feelings you want to feel, act as if you do and then you might. She swore it worked in regard to her mother-in-law. What we want to feel is the feeling of summertime: The sense of blue sky and possibilities stretching to the horizon, the sound of the lake lapping at our toes, the smell of the tomato plants in the sun. So how to get that feeling when we have seen the sun maybe a total of ten hours since the solstice? Hmmm.


We do not grow our own strawberries because if we did, we would not have a reason to drive out to our favorite farm on earth. Dole's Orchard is a yellow farmhouse and acres of apple and cherry and plum trees and a dog named  Vosker and strawberry fields that run forever
 and blueberry bushes and raspberry brambles and three-generations of a family of people we hold dear. It all sits on a hill, and the sky bends all the way over it and touches the mountains in the distance.

The four of us joined other pickers in the field. We filled up the new strawberry flats Grandpa Hickory made us (and it was his birthday too). The strawberries were bountiful and beautiful and tasted like summer. When I bit into the first one, the perfume burst into my mouth and I thought, "It tastes like a rose," and there it was...summer in one bite.

Later, at home, we stemmed the berries with spoons and laughed together. It was dark outside and with Madeleine Peyroux singing on the stereo, we couldn't hear the rain. The house filled up with the aroma of strawberry jam and the feeling of summer.