Soil-sense Intervention

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Meager morning harvest. Was this really it? I was already on the path of knowing I needed to improve my soil, but this was a total eye-opener. Even these few offerings from the veggie garden aren’t as healthy looking as they should be. I realized recently that I’ve been gardening the same backyard for ten years now and somewhere along the way I forgot that soil upkeep doesn’t happen with an application of leaf mulch twice a year.

I’ve always known that the soil is where it matters most in the garden. Regardless of the quality of plant or seed or the amount of sun and rain, if you don’t stay on top of building and maintaining the health of the soil, you’re losing.

At some point, I got lazy. That’s the truth of it. I could give the typical excuse of “life” getting in the way and all that bull, but really it was pure laziness. And then last week a book that has been on my shelf for two years finally caught my attention—The Third Plate by Dan Barber.

Just 100 pages in and there have already been so many poignant quotes that have made me say, “DUH, Jenn. DUH.” Gah.

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It’s embarrassing, really, to acknowledge here that at some point I lost all sense when it came to the soil of my gardens. After that pitiful morning harvest, I started thinking back to just a few years ago when I would go out on a similar morning and come back with my big ol’ antique colander and shirt full of tomatoes, peppers of all sorts and sizes, piles of herbs, eggplants with depths of purples so beautiful it became my favorite color. I would make sauces and salsas, cook and freeze, share with friends, coworkers, and family, and still have more.

It wasn’t just the abundance either. You could taste the difference in each variety of tomato, pepper, and eggplant. There were flavor and textural variations, as intended. I think I first noticed two years ago a drop off of not only production but quality. Did I do anything? Put out six inches of leaf mulch twice a year and hoped for the best. Stupid.

Today, I started the fix. With a weather forecasting rain for the next few days, I figured it was a good time to get some nutrients into that soil. By the way, this is what the skies looked like even with a 90% chance of rain for the day…

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But anywaaay, I know weather prediction will never be perfect or spot on, so I got out there to work. First thing, I put out a big bag of mushroom compost. Pulled what was left of the leaf mulch and some of the scrappy, dry dirt away from around the trunks of my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs, and filled in with a hearty moat of the compost. I know it’s not ideal to apply the compost in this way, but the hope is that the rain will work it in and the worms I know are still down there will come up to pull it down.

After doing this around all of them and going through the mushroom compost and a bag of cow manure I forgot I had, I put down a fresh layer of leaf mulch and watered it all in. This is my idea of a patch in hopes of salvaging some flavors and production. I also started more long term repairs.

Finally got a compost bucket going again. I used to always have one and it was easy and obviously rewarding. Again, laziness took over. No more. I set up the bucket right down off the back deck, which is right where the kitchen is, so all kitchen scraps will now go into the compost pot. Luckily, I found a 30 gallon black plastic pot under the front deck that still had some previous composting attempt in it. Already rich with worms, I added some leaves and grass clippings and will start to add those veggie bits. Getting back on the right path seems doable now.

I know that there are the fancy-schmancy compost bins you can buy, but an elevated bucket that drains has always worked for me. It’s big enough to make good compost, but not so big that I won’t want to work it correctly.

My other longer term plan is to plant clover or beans or some other nitrogen-fixing cover crop. That will make a big impact for the next growing cycle. I am also doing more research into crop rotations that will improve the soil in a specific area for the planting following it.

I’ve had a soil-sense awakening because of a book. It’s overdue, but I’m relieved that it happened. My gardening practices needed an intervention, and as I get back on track to improving my garden soil, I’ve found a renewed interest in learning as much as I can about soil and the microbial life that is right below our feet. It truly fascinates me. For some people, it’s the galaxies above. For me, it’s the intricate universes below.

 

 

 

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Jenn Gin Cookies: An attempt to bring the happy back to the hour.

The funtastic start to the long weekend quickly took a turn by Saturday night when I started having some psychologically deflating side effects from the high dose of Prednisone I was put on last Wednesday. I had forgotten how intense this level can be and ended up feeling awful on Sunday. By Monday, I needed something to get me back on the positive mental track and since gardening out in the heat was out of the question, I went to the other space where I can always find something to invent, experiment with, or edit— my kitchen.

The drive to edit doesn’t stop when I leave the office. I’ve realized that it infiltrates most of my life. From the high-walled, razor-wired personal stuff to the blatant spray painting of an antique chandelier, I’ll make a tweak if I see fit.

Baking is not immune to my editorial revisions, to be sure. As I’ve said many times before, I can’t seem to follow recipes to the letter. It must be some sort of mental block. Or I’m just too damn stubborn.IMG_20170529_131438_897

So when I needed a pick-me-up on Monday, I searched the kitchen to see what I could create from what was on hand. I knew I needed a dessert for the Greek family Memorial Day dinner, so I first gathered up the basics of flour, sugar, and butter. Found three limes that were leftover from a gin and tonic weekend…and then it hit me—new cocktail cookie! I already knew a good iced-lemon cookie recipe, so I decided to adjust it into a liquored-up treat.

20170529_132811I always like a splash or two of whiskey or bourbon in a pie, and I’ve done a cookie with tequila, so gin seemed like the natural next step in editorial experimentation. Starting with the original recipe, I changed the call for lemon zest and juice to lime, added a big dousing of gin and an extra egg white (because it was there and needed to be used). I’m no chemist, and I barely math, so this was risky and I knew it. But it felt right and I was starting to feel better myself. The dough came together nicely. Perhaps a bit sticky, but the taste was spot-on. Sweet tart scrumptious. As with the lemon cookie recipe, it was hard not to sit there and just eat all the dough raw. I controlled myself and rolled out tablespoon-sized clumps onto the cookie sheet.

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While those sticky, little dough balls were in the oven, I whipped up the icing for their tops. Knowing the liquor in the dough would mostly bake off, I decided to bring back the full strength in the icing. Powdered sugar, lime zest, lime juice, and gin—what could go wrong?

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Nothing. Nothing went wrong with that. It was delicioso! Meanwhile, the dough balls were puffing up into what looked like wee biscuits. It was bizarre and I wondered if it was the addition of the gin or the extra egg white. Either way, they were looking almost fancy and I was getting excited. The previous day’s pains and discomforts were melting away as this new baking adventure was coming together.

Ding! The cookies were done, out da oven, and onto a cooling rack to set a bit before drizzling with the icing.

The smell was like the feel of summer evening drinks with a sweating glass pressed cool against a hot brow.

20170529_140426.jpgOnce they were cool enough to drizzle, the idea of a drizzle wasn’t enough anymore. I coated those biscuity looking babies to the hilt. I mean, why not? They ended up sitting in puddles of ginny sweet goodness and it was glorious to gaze upon.

The final cocktail cookie had a texture that carried the heft of the glaze well and the combination felt just right. The full-force gin in the icing gave it a kick that everyone was surprised with but enjoyed…especially my coworkers. What? *Clears throat*

Moving on…the pick-me-up experiment is going down in the books as a success, and I’ve named them Jenn Gin Cookies. Gin and tonics are restricted to a glass no longer!

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Jenn Gin Cookie Dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely grated lime zest

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 stick of unsalted butter, room temp

1 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg (plus one egg white if you want to do what I did)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon Gin

Gin Glaze:

2 cups confectioner’s sugar

2 tablespoons lime zest

1/3 cup fresh lime juice with a big splash of Gin in it

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and zest in a bowl. In another bowl (I used my KitchenAid), beat the butter and granulated sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and lime juice, gin, and combine. Finally, add in the flour mixture gradually with the mixer on low.

Drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the cookie sheet about 1 inch apart and bake until golden on the edges. About 15-20 minutes depending on your dough ball size. Be sure to flip them halfway through.

Let cool completely and then “drizzle” with the glaze. They should set for about an hour before devouring.

Bottom’s up!

 

Pi(e) Day: the most wonderful day of the month.

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Today was an obvious choice of a day for me to make a pie. I don’t math, but I do know what pi means and since I’m pretty all right with letters, I knew that adding an ‘e’ would really level up this day. *insert Link opening a treasure chest music here* Also, I can’t remember the last time I made one, which is true sadness.

When discussing what kind to make, Yvonne, who knows I always bring them into work for taste testing, said any kind but blueberry because that would turn her teeth blue. So to me that meant it was definitely going to be blueberry. Luckily for her, blueberries weren’t quite in season yet, so they were still ridiculously priced. The strawberries and raspberries were on sale and to add in a color and texture variant, I threw a pack of blackberries into the cart. A lemon for fresh juice and I was ready.20170314_192753.jpg

Shockingly, I actually planned ahead for this day and made my dough the night before. I’ve seriously mastered that pie dough, yo. As seasoned bakers already know, the quality of butter makes ALL the difference in it coming together. When I got home from the store, I rolled out half of the dough and pressed it into the plate.

The dough went back into the fridge while I prepped the filling. Sweet, sweet berries, come to momma. I cut the strawberries into 20170314_193128.jpgdifferent sizes and left the blackberries and raspberries whole. A bowl of beauty. The recipe I loosely followed called for adding granulated sugar, lemon juice, and salt to the berries. I cut the sugar by about a quater cup and added in an overflowing tablespoon of good quality maple syrup. Once that was mixed, add in the thickener, flour, and then it was time to get the other half of the 20170314_192702.jpgdough out of the fridge to roll out for the top crust. I knew I wanted to do something to represent pi, so I stared at the rolled out dough and contemplated how to do it without just doing the pi symbol. The problem is that I’m still an amateur with creative pie lattice tops. The brainstorming resulted in an idea I thought I could handle, so I filled the plate with the berry delicious filling and got at it. After some serious finangling, I finished my top and popped that heavy baby into the oven.

About an hour later, my gooftastic Pi Day pie was done. As usual, it was juicier than I’d like it to be. I think this happens because I usually add more fruit than the recipes call for, I can’t abide a sunken belly, and then forget to compensate with more thickening agent.

Do you see my pi representation?

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The taste testers were pleased—the pi pie disappeared with a quickness. I did get a slice and I have to admit that regardless of the slightly pooling liquid, the taste was spot on. Not too sweet or too tart. I’ll mark it as a success and make yet another note to watch the thickener when making fruit pies.

I didn’t get a “pretty” picture of a cut piece, but here’s a jank one with sliding crust on a Target brand generic paper plate because we can’t care about everything…

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Pie Dough:

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar (I used slightly less)

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-1 tablespoon pieces (I used Kerry Gold)

1 1/2 cups cold water

Put the cold water into a 2 cup liquid measuring cup with a spout and handle. Set into the freezer. Measure out the flour into a mixing bowl, add the sugar and salt, then the butter pieces. Lightly toss them until they are coated and then take handfuls of the mixture into your hands, pressing the butter into the flour between your fingers until it’s incorporated and the butter pieces are pea to walnut size.

Next, get the water from the freezer and drizzle it in for a count of about five seconds. Then toss it like you’re tossing a salad. Don’t knead. Keep doing that with the water until you can put together a small ball of dough, toss it in the air, and when it lands in your hand it stays together. At this point, make two thick discs of dough, wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for up to three days.

Pie Filling:

5-5 1/2 cups of mixed berries of your choice

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 heaping tablespoon maple syrup

2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

1/4 cup flour (or more if you add extra fruit)

2 tablespoon chilled, unsalted butter cut into small chunks

1 egg white for wash

Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 425.

Mix the berries, sugar, syrup, lemon juice, and salt together. Taste and adjust to your preference. Stir in the flour and set aside while you roll out the top crust. Pile the fruit mix into the dough, dot with butter, and then add your version of the top. Brush on the egg white wash and heavily sprinkle with the demerara sugar.

Middle rack for 15-20 minutes, with an edge protector. Then turn oven down to 375, rotate pie, and bake for another 35-45 minutes. Take the pie edge protector off for the last 10-15 minutes.

Cool on wire rack for at least an hour and then devour.

 

 

38th Rotation Ruminations

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Today, my grandmother would have turned 98. In twelve days, my dad will turn 78. Four days ago, I turned 38.

Today, I went to my kidney specialist.

I’m thinking that having a chronic illness that people can’t visually see the damage being done by it, and more so by the treatment, is mentally taxing. Finding myself trying to act normal because that’s what everyone expects, since I don’t look differently on the outside other than flushed, chipmunk cheeks and a raccoon eye mask. Considering the short list of side effects I’m feeling–extreme fatigue from the relentless insomnia, physical weakness from the muscle waste, and near constant, unfocused anxiety–all caused by the steroid treatment. Having to do the entire six-month regime, regardless of the quickness to remission, steroids building in my system along with the rage. Raging at having to continue with these devil meds knowing my body is already working right again.

Today, I’m exhausted on all the levels.

I’m recalling last weekend’s birthday celebrations in my mind. Reliving the moments with two of my best friends and my doggie daughter. Road tripping with Ruby Joon doing her dog thing sniffing all the sniffs out the back window, ears flapping, the playlist blasting, and the sun shining in on us. Highway 27 blanketed in patchwork quilts of pink, white, yellow, purple, and red wildflowers. Quietly rolling and winding through agricultural lands spotted with grandfather oaks, pine forests, cow pastures, and small towns that sported more confederate flags and crosses than common sense. Seeing a billboard saying, “She’s your daughter, not your date” gives a…perspective of sorts. Turning off the highway and stopping for lunch at the place with the best New York-style pizza outside of New York. So good. So, so good. Heading south over the Sunshine Skyway, dough and cheese-filled bellies, salt air inflated lungs, riding the waves of the suspension bridge like that dragon-themed kiddie roller coaster at the county fair, knowing I was almost home. Our theme song had become Road to Nowhere along the way, but I knew exactly where we were headed.

Home. “I live in Tallahassee, but my home is Sarasota” has always been my response to people when I’m asked where I’m from. I guess even though I’ve now spent more of my years in Tallahassee, the only way that statement will change is if I ever stop waiting to leave. One reason Sarasota will always be home in my head and my heart is the person I was going to see at the end of that drive–my longest time friend, who happened to be home from London. On my birthday weekend. Yes, sometimes the universe really pulls through when you need. Sometimes.

Today, I was told I will have to wait for the med I need.

I’m seeing the blues of the jays and reds of the cardinals, hearing the bizarre squawks of the black grackles jumping from the dew-soaked grass to the limbs of the Jacaranda. Cattails waving from the creek’s edge and I am tasting the bitter coffee and fried eggs of those mornings. There was no feeling of waiting in those days. Each moment held its own importance and melded into the next like a watercolor painting itself.

Ruby Joon racing, hips and tail tucked, throwing herself down wiggling to scratch her back in the lawn, legs flailing. Smiling. Laughing. Laughter when she tongue-kissed Becca on the revamped double decker coffee bus downtown. Laughter when we were making a pie, balancing and piling more and more apples into the crust as Mikey manned the music and drew us–drew me to look like an old man, while they looked like cartoon supermodels. Laughter with hard root beers in the pool. Laughter with Bloody Marys by the pool. There’s no feeling of waiting for anything at all when hearing the laughter of two people that are at the core of making you who you are. Who you were. Who you will always be.

Today, doc said that this next step will only be for one year. Not for always. Whew.

Our feet are back in the white powder sand. We’re all agreeing that this sunset won’t be as pretty because there are no clouds in the sky. Pictures at the tidal inlet. Pictures at the water-lapped edge. Pictures of the awkwardness of the couple near us with the lady that might or might not be topless. More laughter. Pictures of the sun sliding down the horizon, melting into the dark chop, a boat crossing its path, lone chair in the sand, sinking. It’s all sinking. Take another picture to keep it. Hold it right here. Take this last selfie with the fading light of the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen behind us. It’s 8:08 p.m. on May 8th and I’ve finished my 38th rotation around that sunken sun.

Today, I want to hold it all still. Just for one more perfect moment.

Let’s Be Still …

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