Our Fair Field


Keep in the Family

Renee headshotI just got back from a long awaited trip to visit my sister who lives in the Rockies. My cousin was also there and she had driven in from Illinois.

In the course of a week we caught up on old times and revisited cherished memories while we watched old Super 8 movies and poured over slides that my mom and dad had taken in the 50s of our whole extended family. In the midst of all this wonderful nostalgia my sister walked in with a book. "Look at this," she said.

I kind of got bug eyed. It was my mother's old Joy of Cooking written by Irma S. Rombauer that was published in 1943.

This was the 4th printing. The first printing was in 1931.

cookbook

Safely tucked into the pages was the lost recipe for my grandmother's wonderful homemade corn relish.

cookbook recipe

Frieda's Corn Relish (exactly as written)

Ingredients:

  • 15 ears corn cut from the cob
  • 1 medium size cabbage shredded
  • 5 onions size of walnuts
  • 6 green sweet peppers or part red ones
  • 1 large bunch of celery
  • 7 medium size ripe tomatoes (peeled)
  • 1/4 cup salt (Ed. Note: Not sure; partly obscured so go easy and taste test a little bit at a time)
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 quart Heinz cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons celery seeds
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds

Instructions:

  1. Cook about 20 min. after it starts to boil, stirring so it won't stick to the bottom (Ed. note: I'm assuming add everything to a large stainless steel pot).
  2. Can hot in scalded jars and seal tight. One can add sugar and salt to suit taste — I make it pretty sweet (Ed. note: bone up on your canning skills before attempting this).
  3. Cut celery in small chunks, remove seeds from peppers, and run cel., onions; and peppers thru food chopper. Use slaw cutter for cabbage.

My grandmother's corn relish recipe takes me back to days of the groaning table on which she offered homemade ham, butter rolls, green beans and almonds, jello salad and pie for dessert. Even now I can see in my mind's eye her large dining table spread with a white lace table cloth, these special flowered plates she had and cut glass drinking glasses.

We had many a wonderful meal at that table and everybody was always happy. Definitely something to "Keep in the family"!

family recipes cookbook


Photos property of Renee Lucie Benoit.

Cue the Raisin Music!

Renee headshotDo any of you remember the "I Heard It Through the Grape Vine" commercial for raisins grown in California back in the mid 80s? The clay-mation raisins danced and lip synced to the song by Marvin Gay and it went viral for its day.

We even had little plastic figurines made of the raisins that you could get in stores. I think I had one.

Just for fun here's the original commercial:


Video courtesy YouTube/RetroTy: The Pulse of Nostalgia

Now that I live in the raisin growing capital of America, I finally know a thing of two about raisins. Some people think raisins just come that way. Kind of like prunes.

Some people think both prunes and raisins come that way in nature. I'm here to tell you that they do not!

Raisins start out as Thompson seedless table grapes. You know, the kind that are the light green kind and there's the snap as the luscious juice explodes in your mouth. When the grapes dry they become dark colored.

Golden raisins are Thompson seedless with sulfur dioxide added to keep them from turning dark. Prunes are similar. Prunes are actually plums.

Any plum can be a prune after they dry, but usually they are European freestone plums. The seed pit is easily removed.

Any grape can be a raisin as long as it's seedless. Some of the most luscious raisins are made from the Flame cultivar.

I'm going to show you how to make your own raisins just in case you have a grape vine somewhere on your property or maybe you run into a good sale on grapes at the store. Call me a control freak, but I love to know that what I'm eating has not been messed with in some way. When I make my own food I know 100 percent what went into in and what is going into my mouth!

Thompson seedless grow anywhere but they grow very well in the central valley of California. I planted some last year from a bare root plant and now we have a large vine trailing over the corner of our front yard chain link fence.

It's beautiful and it only took a year for it to bear fruit. Such a deal!

making your own raisiins
These baby grapes will be ready in a couple weeks.

Pick your grapes when they taste sweet. Take them in and rinse them off. We're going to do it the kitchen table way. The way growers do it are the same steps but in a different order.

Once they are rinsed take a large piece of craft paper and spread it on a table. I used my fire pit screen to protect my grapes. Perfect!

Just keep an eye on them because ants will find their way up the legs and have a field day! That happened to me and I put the legs of my table in cans of water.

Ha! Foiled, you ants!

In the fields where they have thousands of pounds of grapes drying in rows underneath the vines they are not worried about bird predation or insects. There are so many grapes that they do not mind losing a few to the birds and they also don't mind that some insects get in. They know they will take the dried raisins to the processing plant where they are picked over, washed and sanitized before being stored.

making your own raisins
This is how the growers do it.

I don't have that many grapes so I'd rather not lose any to birds and insects so I am going to protect them a lot more. Other than that we are going to let the sun make our raisins.

After spreading the grapes on the paper and covering them we just let them sit out in sunlight for a few days exactly like the farmers do in the vineyards. Out here where the relative humidity is only about 20 percent, things dry fast!

If you live in the Midwest where the wind blows a lot, you probably can overcome the higher humidity. In the deep south where there is little wind and a lot of humidity, you are better off drying them in the oven or in a special drier. Otherwise they will most likely mold.

making your own raisins
On craft paper and covered with the brilliant fire pit cover!

making your own raisins
Starting to turn brown two days later. They do alright just laying there without stirring.

making your own raisins
Homemade raisins! What will you make?


Photos property of Renee Benoit.

Do it Yourself Cold Brew Coffee

Renee headshotIf you have been following me you will know that I am an inveterate do-it-your-selfer. I'll try making anything from scratch at least once. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don't.

I'm pretty sure this comes from my life-long habit of penny pinching. Living on a ranch like I have has made me a person who will get by with nothing or, if I really need something, I will figure out how to make it myself.

Rarely do I ever just give in and buy it. I get a big satisfaction out of doing this and have fun in the process.

So when I started seeing cold brew coffee in the grocery stores at an outrageous price, I decided I needed to jump on the bandwagon and see if I could make a good brew myself. It turned out not only could I but that it was super easy!

I will share with you what I found through my trial and error. Mostly trial this time and hardly any error.

First off I had to get some beans and a method to roast them. I had done tours in coffee roasting facilities and always thought, well, how hard can that be?

They have giant roasting machines that spin the beans and heat them up. They look like a giant popcorn poppers. Can you see what's coming?

What about beans? That was one thing I wasn't sure of. So I did some research on that, too.

I was advised to get raw beans from a supplier who knows their beans and "cups" their coffee. I bought my beans online through Amazon because I don't live near a big city where I can buy them in a store.

If only I could grow them myself! I know people in Hawaii who grow their own on the Kona coast. Wouldn't that be nice?

cold brew coffee

Keep your bean collection in a cool, dry place out of any direct sunlight and they will last until you roast them. Actually green, raw coffee beans will last for years if you store them properly. You don't have to put them in the freezer or refrigerator.

As they age the beans will lose acidity and become more mellow. How cool is that?

I will reserve a stash of beans to age for a couple years and the rest I will enjoy whenever I want. I will try different kinds of beans, too. It's all good.

You can roast your beans on a coffee sheet in the oven, but I found that it was easiest to dedicate a popcorn popper and use it to roast a few tablespoons at a time.

I say "dedicate" because the coffee makes the popcorn popper saturated with coffee aroma. Maybe you might like coffee flavored popcorn, but I haven't acquired that taste!

When you roast with a hot air popper there will be chaff flying all over the place, so just know this so you won't be surprised and you have to get out your broom. Or you can do what I did which was roast them outside on the patio. That worked like a charm.

To roast your beans take your popcorn popper and place a few tablespoons of green beans in the well. Turn on the popper and let the fun begin!

It can take up to a few minutes to achieve the desired darkness so be patient and don't worry. It took mine about five to seven minutes before they got to a medium dark brown that I wanted.

I didn't time it. I just kept and eye on them. You can turn the popper off if you want to check how they're doing and then turn it back on. It doesn't hurt anything.

When they get to the desired darkness have a cool pan ready to dump the beans out after you turn off the popper. This is so they'll stop roasting right away.

cold brew coffee

By the way, don't leave your beans unattended while they are roasting unless you like really, really dark coffee! I mean like burned!

Let the beans cool before you grind them. I have a hand grinder that's a stainless steel version of the old hand crank kind.

cold brew coffee

Grind them to a coarse consistency of cornmeal. I think my grind was a little finer than corn meal but it worked fine.

cold brew coffee

Pour the ground beans into a ball jar and cover them with water. I recommend 4-5 tablespoons of ground beans per two cups of water. You can experiment around with the ratio of water to coffee grounds to get your desired strength of flavor.

cold brew coffee

Let the coffee steep at least 24 hours. It can steep longer and it won't hurt anything. Then strain it through a cloth or paper towel or coffee filter.

You're all set! Add ice cubes and sugar if desired, sit back and watch the chickens peck the ground!


Photos property of Renee Benoit.

Tornado!

Renee headshotA big tornado hit my old hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, the other day. There I was making dinner here in California and Marty was watching the national evening news. Next thing I know Marty says, "Come here. You probably want to see this." And there it was.

A video of the steeple on the courthouse of my old hometown being ripped from its moorings and toppling to the ground! I was in shock. Later on we heard how the F4 tornado had made its way down Main Street and messed with just about every building there. We were amazed to hear that no one was seriously injured.

tornado
Photo credit: Fox 4 News KDFW

That got me thinking about my own upbringing in Iowa. My mom had a lot of knowledge about what to do in a tornado, or so it seemed. I was wondering if any of it was really sensible. At the time I was just a kid and I believed her.

Here are things she told us:

  • The TV will glow when a tornado is approaching. — I have not been able to find any information that the change in atmospheric conditions caused by a tornado has any effect whatsoever on a television set from the 50s. If you know of anything I would greatly appreciate your input.
  • Open the windows on the side of the house away from where the storm is coming from because this will help equalize the pressure when the tornado passes by. — Opening windows during a tornado provides no benefits. Though the center of the vortex has less pressure in it the wind will destroy your home way before the lesser pressure reaches it. Opening them only creates a portal through which more debris can enter your home.
  • Go to the southwest corner of the basement for safety because tornadoes always come from the southwest and the debris from the house will blow away from you. — I didn't know tornadoes were so rule driven! Marshalltown's tornado came from the west and went in a easterly direction. So there you go.
  • Brick houses are not safe because the walls always collapse inwards. — Brick walls actually help against blowing debris. The tornado itself usually sucks the roof off first. If the tornado is an F4 or F5, then brick walls will not stand up to that force of nature but it's anybody's guess which way the walls will collapse.
  • Wood frame houses are safest because they blow away from you. — A tornado turns a wood-frame house into a gigantic, wind-driven pry bar. As soon as some of the house gets blown away and there's a hole in the structure, the wind enters and dismantles the home like a bomb. Pronto. Think about what worked for the Three Little Pigs.
  • Towns built at the confluence of two rivers will never be hit by a tornado. Indians always made their camps near a confluence. — Marshalltown is built at the confluence of the Iowa River and Linn Creek. Now we know how well that worked!
  • Lying down in a ditch or depression will save you. — There's a partial truth here. The lower you can be, the safer you are from the tornado's powerful wind, not only because wind speed increases with altitude, but also because you are less likely to be picked up by the wind. Some experts also claim that tornadoes tend not to follow topography precisely, so they may pass over a ditch rather than dipping into it.
  • It's safe to hide under a highway over pass. — People have tried to take shelter and been killed in overpasses. The wind forced through a small, rigid opening like that can actually increase the wind speed and likely tear you right out of there, which has happened. Maybe you can survive a dust devil but not a mature tornado!
  • If the clouds look green a tornado is coming. — Green is significant, but not proof that a tornado is on the way. A green cloud will only occur if the cloud is very deep, which generally only occurs in thunderstorm clouds. Those are the kind of storms that may produce hail and tornadoes. Green indicates that the cloud is extremely tall, and since thunderclouds are the tallest clouds, green is a warning sign that large hail or a tornado may be present.

What really works:

  • Having a home that is constructed out of insulated concrete. — In 2014 my sister and I had a road trip trough Kansas. We had a blast and one of the high points was visiting Greensburg, Kansas, which is home of the largest hand dug well. Greensburg is also famous for being almost completely destroyed by an F5 tornado in 2007. The only buildings left relatively unscathed were the grain elevator and the courthouse. When we visited the museum we were told that people are now encouraged to build homes that have similar construction to the grain elevator.
  • Having a safe room. — A safe room can be as simple as a cleaned out closet (so you can all fit in) or a specially built room just for the purpose. I remember the storm cellars of the old days. Who can forget Dorothy as she desperately tried to get the storm cellar door open as the terrifying tornado approached her family's farm in The Wizard of Oz.
  • If you're driving stay in your car. — If you can ascertain which direction the tornado is moving you can outrun it by driving away. If for some reason you can't and you can't get into a safe building, stay in your car, lock the doors, put on your seat belt and keep low. If you have anything to wrap around your face do that so if glass breaks you won't be as hurt. Also don't turn off the engine. The air bags can hopefully deploy if you're hit.

In conclusion, I'm glad the whole time I was growing up in Marshalltown we never had a direct hit. I may not be here to tell the story if we had been. Mom didn't know what she was talking about!

Old Fashioned Seed Saving

Renee headshotHave you ever thought of saving seed from your vegetables or flowers only to get stymied because it seems like a lot of trouble for possible failed returns? I'm here to assure you it isn't as hard as you might think and it's also not as risky. You might read about seed saving from the experts, if you wish, but don't let them intimidate you. They throw around big words like "open pollinated" and things like that, but let me tell you great grandma did not have this science. She just knew that she would let certain plants go to seed and then she'd take them. It wasn't a big deal. I was curious as to when commercially packaged seeds became available. They're ubiquitous now. Almost no one saves their own seed but not too long ago that's all everyone did.

According to Wikipedia, the Watervliet Shakers near Albany, New York are thought to have been the first to package seeds in small, paper envelopes and then sell the seed commercially in 1811. I think it would be very cool if everyone started saving seed again. There's only a few things you really need to know.

This year I am saving seeds from sunflowers, spinach, tomatoes and cilantro. I might also try zucchini and zinnias. These all have "big" seeds that are easy to find. Just for fun I'm also going to go along the road sides and take seeds from the wild sunflowers I find. I want to seed the ditch in front of our house for a nice crop of wild sunflowers next year.

If you grow a garden from store bought seed make sure you get varieties that say "perennial." Here are some of the sunflowers I am growing this year that I'm going to let dry out and get seeds from. I like the idea of sunflowers. The seeds are really big and are almost fool proof.

sunflowers
Look at these beauties!

seed head
A dried up sunflower ready to have seeds removed.

sunflower seeds
This is a lot of almost free seed!

For anything where I plan to save back seed I grow extra so I could have some to eat, use for cut flowers and some to let go to seed. I also leave some for the birds. They have to eat, too!

And speaking of birds that's one way to tell if seeds are getting mature. Watch to see when the birds are coming to eat. If I've grown a lot there's plenty for both them and me so I don't worry to much. I wait until the flowers die back and get brown and crunchy. I keep looking at them as they wither to see when I'm getting some seed. This is when the flower is pretty dry (see above).

For crops that produce "wet" vegetables, the seeds are usually not mature when the vegetables are ready to eat. We eat eggplant, cucumber, and zucchini when the fruits are immature and tasty, but before the seeds are actually mature. This means that I need to leave a few vegetables to fully mature to save the seeds. You'll see a vegetable that is getting very soft and even decaying. The harvested vegetables are either crushed or cut open, and the seeds are extracted from the flesh and then the seeds are dried. I'm going to do this with my tomatoes this year. Last year I let some tomatoes stay on the vine and this year a got a few plants just growing like "wild" all by themselves. I have had this happen numerous times.

Certain vegetables, like lettuce or beans, can be harvested once seeds are dry and hard. Cilantro is an herb I grow a lot to use in tacos, sauces and marinades. What I love about cilantro is that not only can I use it fresh but I can crush the seeds and make coriander which is an Indian spice.

spinach seeds
Here are my spinach seeds. Pretty big, huh?

cilantro
Little round seeds of the cilantro are not quite ready. Let them get a little brown and dried out.

lettuce
Lettuce is also not ready. Wait until the flowers die back and dry.

Store your seeds in a cool, dark, and dry place. When you get really good at this you can think about selling the seeds as a boutique home based business! But that's another story!

jar
No need to buy sunflower seeds next year!

Bitter Tomatoes, Tiny Onions and Weird Zucchini

Renee headshotTry as I might, and in spite of reading everything I can get my hands on, I always have failures in my garden. Some days I think to myself that I am not very good at this.

So for all you people who are agonizing over why your garden doesn't look like Martha's, or even your next door neighbor's, please take heart. Failure is a part of gardening and it's actually more often than not and especially when you're just starting out. Don't give up!

sunflowers
Good morning, sunshine! The Earth says hello!

This year I have a small garden. We are spending so much time rehabbing this property that I don't really have time for a big garden. It's OK. I do more and more as time goes on.

This year I got well ahead of the heat and I amended the soil a lot. I took soil samples last fall and spread gypsum before winter set in so in the spring I could till the soil a little better. We have hard pan, also known as sandy clay with a bit of loam. There's almost no organic matter.

Having done all that, I planted peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, and garlic. My first failure was the garlic. I put in about 50 sets and they started to grow, and then one by one they all croaked. Just rotted away. I never did figure out why.

Last year I planted Walla Walla onions. I really love sweet onions. When we lived at The Ranch, the local Hmong people had the most wonderful giant Walla Walla onions so I got inspired to try them. Mine never got to any decent size, so I asked a friend what she thought was wrong and she said maybe they didn't get enough water.

onions
Only a few are left once I harvest all the tiny ones.

So this year I started out much earlier and made sure I watered before things got too dry. Sure enough the telltale signs started to appear. The tops started to fall over. Not all of them this time, about half of them. So I staked up the floppy ones and let them keep going as long as they would.

Pretty soon some of the onions started to get tops on them and produce seed. Today I noticed all the onions, except for the large ones with seed, are finished. "Pau," as they say in Hawaii. So I harvested them and got a lot of small onions. Not a total disaster, but definitely not what I expected.

early girl
These look good but they taste bitter.

My tomatoes looked good, but when I took off a few ripe ones and used them in a salad they were awfully bitter. Not sweet at all. Very acidic. I have no idea why.

At least I have no blossom end rot. I had that in spades at The Ranch because our soil and water were very alkaline. The plants were not getting enough calcium. See? I now know about lack of calcium for tomato plants.

zucchini
If I hadn't split one open I might have thought these were baby watermelon.

Here's a picture of this year's zucchini. Last year I planted zucchini and they grew very well. This year something is happening and, again, I have no idea why.

At first I thought they put watermelon seeds in the zucchini package. They were round as softballs. When one got pretty big, I decided to see what was inside. When I opened it, by golly it was a zucchini all right, but a very mature zucchini.

How could this be? Is this how this variety is supposed to be? Again, I have no clue.

Gardening is a science, but also an art. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. I've talked to Master Gardeners all over who say the same thing. It's a boots on the ground and a loving of the process and less about the end result.

Of course, it's great to have a bountiful harvest. Some of us try to feed our families from the garden, so sometimes it's more than just a fun project. It's about quality of life and good nutrition.

All I can say in summary is to soldier on and you will get better at it. That's my plan.

And just so you know that it's not all doom and gloom, here are some pictures of a few of my successes.

mint
I'm pretty sure you can't kill mint.

carrots
If you remember to thin the carrots they'll do all right.

potatoes
Potatoes galore!


Photos property of Renee Benoit.

I Love Lombardy Poplar Trees

Renee headshotWhen we bought this place we loved that it had a lot of mature trees. Trees give beauty and shade, fruit and firewood.

Shel Silverstein wrote a great book years ago called "The Giving Tree," and it's true. Trees give a lot.

In our back yard we have a gigantic fruitless mulberry tree that makes the whole back yard a more pleasant place to be when it's hot. Without it the yard would be intolerable when it's over 100 degrees.

mulberry
Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

Our southern facing front yard has a large Deodar Cedar but it's off to one side and does not cover the whole area in shade, so in the front yard we planted a Raywood ash that does well in the extreme heat we have here in summer. These existing trees are all planted appropriately which means not close to the house and in such a way that when they mature they will give shade and a natural air conditioning effect.

deodar
Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

The rest of the property also needed a few trees here and there especially on our lane and to replace dead tees we had to take out on the perimeter fence. I did some research.

I wanted trees that grew fast and that were tall and thin for our borders so as not to take up open space! What I found surprised me.

The poplar tree, also known as the Lombardy poplar, grows almost 6 feet a year in the right conditions and this was a tree that I remembered with fondness from my childhood. My grandmother had some in her yard. As a wind break and privacy screen they excel.

lombardy poplar
When a person needs trees in a hurry... hooray for the poplar trees. Photo by Getty Images/xeipe.

I love how they sway in the wind and that the leaves "quake" like their cousins the aspen and cotton wood trees. It's like they're waving at you. Little flags in the breeze.

On the Great Plains growing up we had a huge cotton wood tree on our back property. I love the aspens you see in the mountains.

I looked around and could not find any poplar trees in any nursery. Apparently they are not very "poplar" now (sorry). They have a reputation for short lives (15 years) and for being disease-prone.

I did not give up but now I did not want to spend a lot of money for a short-lived tree that might die on me. I looked online and I found some there but those were too expensive.

Then we visited some friends who lived in the foothills near here. Lo and behold, they had some full grown poplar trees on their property. Could I have a branch or two I said? I know they can be propagated easily. Yes, they said. Have as many as you like.

So I chopped off some branches about a foot long and took them home and put them in water. I kept them in water for a few weeks and then roots started to form. After I got a good amount of roots I planted them in pots with good soil. I kept them from completely drying out all winter and, of course, they lost all their leaves.

In the spring I was happy to see that they over-wintered just fine and were now sprouting new leaves. When the weather was past frost, we dug holes and layered it with natural soil and soil conditioner (we have heavy clay soil here) and then I watered every other day.

poplar
Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

This growth is just after a few weeks. Here's one and it's 3 feet tall already. I predict by fall we're going to have a 6 foot tall tree or maybe even taller!

Next year they will take off and we'll have pretty good size trees. Free. You can do it, too.