Homespun Life in the City

Pressing Apples for Apple Wine

Erin SheehanLast year we made apple wine with cider we purchased at a local orchard. This year we decided to press the apples ourselves to convert into wine. Unfortunately for us, it was a terrible year for wild apples, so we had to buy them all for this project. We'd hoped to be able to pick apples both in the urban area where we live and also out in the country from abandoned trees, but an early warming followed by a frost meant no wild apples this year — not even crab apples, which would have added a nice tartness to the flavor.

First order of business was to cut up the four bushels of apples that Jim bought at the orchard.


Then we put them through the grinder to chop them up further.


Finally, into the press!


Luckily it was a beautiful day, so we could enjoy the sunshine out on the deck while we worked. And it was work. We spent nearly eight hours making five gallons of cider!

It was so delicious that we couldn't resist having a glass to enjoy our efforts. The rest went into a glass carboy on the kitchen table, where it will ferment for a while.


Eventually Jim will rack it, and it will go to the basement to sit until February or so, when we bottle.

Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Erin SheehanI have always wanted to try to do something with squash blossoms. What held me back was simply that I didn’t know how to distinguish between male and female flowers. I was afraid to pick flowers that might turn into squash. Come to find out, it’s easy to distinguish between the two.

To identify the male flowers, just look for a stem between the plant and the flower. Female flowers grow right next to the plant, but male flowers come off a long, slender stem. That’s all there is to it.


You can use any squash blossom for frying: pumpkin, winter squash, zucchini, yellow summer squash, anything. My favorite is tromboncino squash flowers. Tromboncinos are similar to zucchini but grow very large. I like the flowers because they are also very large and easy to handle. They are a little tougher than smaller flowers, however, so you may want to take that into consideration when you are harvesting your flowers. Yellow summer squash have small, tender blossoms, but they can be hard to work with due to their size and fragility. No matter what you use, they get stuffed with cheese, dredged and deep fried, so you really can’t go wrong!

The recipe below is one I pulled together after reading through several recipes online. Some people fry without stuffing, but where’s the fun in that? I thought if I go through the trouble to fry them, I want them to be hearty and filling. I hope you will give fried squash blossoms a try!

Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms


• 10-16 (depending on size) squash blossoms
• Spaghetti or pizza sauce for serving

For the filling:

• 1 egg
• 1 cup ricotta cheese
• 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
• A few sprigs each of fresh basil, parsley, thyme and oregano, minced
• 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
• 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the frying batter:

• 1 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3/4 cup water
• 1 egg


1. First, ready your frying batter by stirring all ingredients together. Set aside to rest while you prepare your other ingredients. The batter should have the consistency of pancake batter; if it is too thick or thin, adjust your water or flour accordingly.


2. Clean squash blossoms carefully. Cut off the stem and slit the side of the flower open. Remove the pistil or stamen (the inside of the flower, which has a bitter taste). Wash under running cool water to remove any critters that may have tried to make a home in there. You may find squash bugs or other small insects, but they wash off easily.

3. Mix together all filling ingredients and stir well.


4. Carefully stuff your blossoms with the filling. Place them on a plate or tray as you work. Don’t worry if they look overstuffed, or even if some of the filling is bulging out — it doesn’t really matter.


5. Heat up oil to a depth of one inch in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. If you have a thermometer, heat your oil to 350 degrees F.

6. Dredge each stuffed blossom through your batter. Let the excess drip off. Gently put each blossom into the hot oil and cook for about two minutes on each side. Only add four or five at a time to your pan, or the oil will cool down too much. A spatula works best to turn them.

7. After they are sufficiently cooked — they should be a pale golden brown — remove from the pan and place on a few paper towels to cool.


8. Serve with your favorite tomato sauce. Enjoy!

Front Yard Gardening

Erin SheehanOur entire back yard is a vegetable garden and we have a community garden plot, so when we wanted to expand our food growing this year we were sort of at a loss as to where to go.

Short of asking neighbors if we could rototill up their lawn and plant a garden, we didn't have a lot of options.


Jim had the idea of putting in two raised beds in our front yard. We looked into the zoning in our neighborhood and it appeared that raised beds probably aren't allowed because you can't put a permanent structure or certain kinds of fence in the front. But we decided to go ahead and build them anyway and hope for the best. They measure 8' x 4' and have added about 60 square feet to our cultivated land, bringing us up to about 1,800 square feet of vegetable garden space.

Jim bought cedar to make the boxes and put them together in the spring. He had dirt and compost delivered from a local company and spent a morning in the rain moving dirt from the driveway to the boxes. Neighbors and passersby were quite curious about what we were doing. I think maybe some were a bit skeptical, but no more now that we're harvesting!

Raised Beds

Raised Beds Building

Raised Beds Done

We planted a little of everything in the boxes: carrots, tomato, peppers, beets, Swiss chard, cabbage, pak choi, eggplant, potatoes, beans, cucumber, broccoli, onions, dill, and basil. We wanted it to be a sampler to help teach people who walk by our house a little about growing food. It's been pretty fun to walk out to the front yard in my slippers and pick something for dinner, too!

Raised Beds Planted

Raised Beds 2

We've had a lot of fun showing off the front yard garden to friends and neighbors. One day a police car pulled up outside of our house and started asking Jim about what he was growing. Turns out the officer is a gardener who had heard from another officer about our front yard boxes. He ended up getting a full tour of our front and back yard gardens and talking gardening with Jim for about a half an hour!

Raised Beds Both Full

If you are in an urban area and have a sunny front yard, I hope you will consider putting in a front yard garden. It's well worth the effort.

Black Walnut Cake Recipe from Grandma

Erin SheehanIn 2014 we harvested more than 30 pounds of butternuts from neighborhood trees, thinking we’d have some free nuts. The only problem with our plan is that butternuts are notoriously hard to crack and yield only a small meat. With our move and setting up our new homestead last year we never got around to cracking the nuts, but over last weekend we finally made some progress.

Grandpa had black walnuts and he had a special log where he would hit the nuts with a hammer to get them open. Then he and Grandma would sit on the porch and scoop out the meats. After we realized we had butternut trees nearby, Jim bought a supersized nut cracker made especially for butternuts and black walnuts, hoping it would help us with the nuts we had so easily available.

After looking at those nuts in a box for the past year and a half, Jim and I finally used the nutcracker out on the back deck on Saturday. He cracked, I scooped. We opened up about 20 pounds of the nuts. It took two hours and we ended up with 1/2 cup of nuts. Yes, half a cup! It’s truly a labor of love!





Grandma had a “Black Walnut Cake” recipe that she noted in 1960 was “excellent.” I thought it was more like a bread than a cake, so I baked it in a bread pan. If you want to try an old-fashioned walnut bread recipe, I think you will like this one. It came out great! You could substitute regular store-bought walnuts, of course. No need to scour your neighborhood for wild nuts and spend hours cracking them like we did!


Black Walnut Cake

3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup white sugar
3 eggs or egg substitute
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup non-dairy milk (almond, soy, cashew, coconut)
2 cups white flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped black walnuts or butternuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Blend sugar and butter or margarine until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and milk and stir well. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Stir just until combined. Add walnuts and combine. Turn into prepared pan. Bake about 1 hour. Cool in pan on wire rack 15 minutes. When cool, remove from pan and frost with your favorite frosting, if desired.


Crock Pot Steel Cut Oats

Erin SheehanIf you are like me, you have been trying to avoid processed foods and rely more on healthy whole foods. In addition to avoiding processed food, we are also steering clear of animal products. This all makes breakfast pretty tough. No store-bought cereal, no eggs, no store-bought bread, no sausages … we run out of options pretty quickly it seems.

I discovered steel cut oats a while back and have found that they are delicious when cooked in the crock pot. You can either make them overnight or make a batch ahead and then keep it in the refrigerator to heat up each morning.

I first posted a steel cut oat crock pot recipe a couple of years back. Since then I have refined the recipe and made a few changes that I think make the finished product tastier and healthier. I hope you will give this gluten-free, vegan, high-protein, whole-food breakfast recipe a try!

Steelcut oats


Slow Cooker Steel Cut Oatmeal

1 cup steel cut oats
5 cups almond milk (or soy or coconut milk)
1 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange peel
4 tablespoons unsalted sunflower seeds (can be raw or roasted)
3/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (or other fruit – chopped apple, apricot, peach, etc)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated turmeric* (optional, see note)

Add all ingredients to slow cooker. Stir.

Set slow cooker to high. Cook for 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes or so. Reduce heat to low and cook another two to three hours, continuing to stir occasionally. If it starts to look too dry add in a little additional milk or juice and stir well.

Turn off cooker and allow to cool. Serve hot.

*Fresh turmeric is available at most Asian food markets. It’s a super-food and helps support your body’s immune system. I try to add it to nearly every recipe I make!

If you make this recipe overnight, set the cooker on low for 6 hours. I use a timer to turn it off during the night when I cook it overnight. You don't want to go over 6 hours, even on low, because it will dry out.

I hope you enjoy this healthy breakfast recipe!


Homemade Soft Pretzels

Erin SheehanI love baking but most of the year there is just too much to do relating to the garden. But in the winter, I’m freed to spend time with the oven! When it comes to baking, I seem to especially enjoy trying new recipes for complicated things that are cheap to buy already-made, ha ha. In keeping with that, last weekend I tried my hand at making soft pretzels. They turned out to be fun to make and tasted great. The biggest challenge of making them was not eating all of them in one sitting.

Baking pretzels takes a few hours, but they taste a lot better than the frozen ones you buy at the grocery store. And if you have children at home it could be a fun project to take on together. Here’s the recipe I used. I hope you will give it a try.

Soft Pretzel Bites

1 cup warm water (I used zucchini milk)

1 tablespoon sugar

2-1/2 teaspoons yeast

1 cup white whole wheat flour

1-1/2 cups white flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

6 cups water

1/4 cup baking soda

Coarse salt

For dip:

2 tablespoons mustard

1/4 cup mayonnaise

Combine warm water (or zucchini milk) and sugar. Make sure your water isn’t too hot – 100-105 F is fine. Stir in yeast. Let sit for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the white whole wheat flour, salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium bowl or in your KitchenAid mixer. Add water/yeast to the flour mixture and mix together well. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Knead in your Kitchen Aid with the dough hook or with your hands until dough is smooth and elastic.

Place dough in a greased bowl and cover bowl with a towel. Let rise in a warm place for about an hour.

Grease two cookie sheets. Punch dough down. Separate dough into 12 pieces and roll each piece into a rope of 10-12 inches. Lay ropes on cookie sheet and let rise for another 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400F.


After dough has risen again, use a pizza cutter or a knife to cut your ropes into 2-inch pieces. Meanwhile, add baking soda to 6 cups of water in a medium or large pot and bring to a boil. Drop pretzels into the boiling water 15-20 at a time. Boil for about 30 seconds and remove them from the water with a slotted spoon. Return them to the greased cookie sheets and sprinkle with coarse salt.





Bake for 8-10 minutes and remove from oven. Brush tops of pretzels with remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Return to oven and bake an additional 2-4 minutes until browned. Serve while warm with dipping sauce. To make dipping sauce just combine the mustard and the mayonnaise.


Makes about 5 dozen pretzel bites. They will keep in an airtight container for up to one week, but I bet you will finish them the first day!

Enjoying the Season

Erin SheehanMid-January I know a lot of people in the northeastern USA start to get a little cabin fever. The cold and the snow start to get us down. We miss the sun. We miss tending our garden and being outside. But there is still fun to be had, even when the days are short and the temperatures plummet.

I am very fortunate in my community to have a free outdoor ice skating rink that’s open to the public. It’s only about a mile or so from my office, so once a week after work I walk down and take a few spins around on the ice. It can almost feel like I’m flying sometimes as I let the skates glide me around. Last night it was windy and cold (about 25 F) but the skating felt so good I didn’t want to leave. I stayed so long it was starting to remind me of when I was a child and I’d skate until my legs were ready to give out.


When I was young my dad would shovel off an area of the millrace in our neighborhood so we could go skating. We’d sit on the ground together at the edge of the ice to put our skates on and I’d skate for hours. I always outlasted Dad out there on that ice. There was a municipal pond that our city cleared as well, much larger, where I’d go with friends on weekends. If the skating wasn’t good but there was snow we’d go sledding in the back yard, where we were fortunate enough to have a good sledding hill. I have such good memories of those times.


Recapturing some of the joy of the winters of your childhood is possible if you are open to it. Maybe there’s an ice rink near you. Or maybe this year you have enough snow to take out a sled. There’s a storm heading up the east coast today, I hope for you that you are lucky enough to be in its path. Winter doesn’t have to be all negative. We can bring back what it feels like to slide down a hill on a sled or fly across the ice on our skates. We’re never too old for those joys.

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