Monday, March 28, 2016

Seed starting preparations

Well, here it is Easter Monday, one of those strange quasi-holidays that some people have off and others don't.  Banks and government offices are closed, but most stores are open.  Working in the public sector as I do, I am one of the fortunate ones who have today off, so I am taking advantage of it to get my seed starting gear ready to go for another season.

It actually really does feel like spring out there today -- cloudy and rainy, but mild and the buds on the trees and shrubs are starting to plump up, the daffodils and hyacinths are shooting up tall and sturdy and the lawns are slowly starting to green up. 

But, what caught my eye and made my spirits soar was this:

This miniature iris appeared out of nowhere a few years ago and has been coming up faithfully ever since.  I have moved it a couple of times and I've hoped it would multiply, but so far it has been content to remain single.  It's always the very first bloom to appear in my garden and when I see it I know that winter is indeed over and it's time to start getting ready for another gardening season.

The first thing I do is get all my seeds, flats, pots and planting paraphernalia out of storage and go through it all, selecting the seeds I will be planting this year (whether I'm starting them indoors or sowing them directly in the garden later when it warms up), checking the flats and pots for damage and making a shopping list for anything I might be needing for starting seed indoors.

Although I do have a 3-tier seed starting nursery with grow lights, I don't yet have the space for it in my basement, so it is currently in storage. I hope to have it installed in time for next year's planting season. So, for now, my wine-making countertop is doing double-duty as a seed nursery. I have temporarily suspended a two-bulb, 4 foot fluorescent fixture on adjustable chains above the countertop and installed grow lights in it.  I will be able to lower the fixture to float just above the flats to sprout the seeds, then gradually raise it as the seedlings grow taller.  For now, though I have it up close to the ceiling so I can use the counter as work space.

It's always a good idea to start each growing season clean and to that end, I like to wash all my pots, flats and clear covers.  In addition, I try to save as many black cellpacks as possible.  It's not that I'm cheap, but since they are not recyclable here, I like the idea of reusing them rather than throwing them in the garbage.  It's not always possible to save the ones that garden center bedding plants come in since the root systems are usually so developed that it becomes nearly impossible to remove a plant from a cell without ripping it.  However, with a little patience and gentle handling, sometimes you can luck out.  I find the cellpacks fitted inside their flats and covered with a clear dome make an ideal seed starting environment.

When washing pots and cellpacks for re-use, it's always a good idea to add a little bleach to the wash water to help kill any bacteria and other soil-borne bugs that may have lingered over the winter.

I half-fill the laundry tub with warm water and add about a half-cup of bleach and a generous squirt of liquid laundry soap (less foamy than dish soap).  When washing cellpacks, I just use my fingers to gently wash out the individual cells.  I have some 6-cell packs that I bought new from a garden center last year as well as a number of 4-cell packs re-used from bedding plants I've bought over the years.

I stack the cell packs as I wash them and let them drain in one of the empty flats.  Then, in the same water, I wash all my 3-inch plastic pots.  I find this is a handy size to transplant seedlings into from the cellpack flats once they are large enough.  I use a nylon bristle nail brush like this one from Lee Valley to scrub the pots as they are quite sturdy and then stack them in the empty flat to drain with the clean cellpacks.

I then empty the laundry tub, rinse it out and half-fill it with clear water, throw in the clean cellpacks, gently swishing them around to rinse out the soap and bleach and then leave them upside down on an old towel to drip dry.  Same with the 3-inch pots.

Later, I will set up the seed flats and get my tomatoes and marigolds started.  Spring has sprung!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pantry in Action: Vegetarian Chili

The "Pantry in Action" series shows creative ways of using all the wonderful food we've preserved during the year. I will include recipes wherever appropriate with links back to the post(s) where a particular ingredient (or ingredients) was canned.

Although it's now the second official day of spring, you would hardly know it by the weather!  It feels more like January now than it did in January!  And they are forecasting up to 10cm of snow by Thursday!  Arrgh!

So, to help combat this (hopefully) final blast of winter weather, I decided to make a batch of hearty, warming chili, without the carne for a change to keep my vegetable intake up. When I make chile con carne, I normally use a combination of ground beef and ground pork, but in this vegetarian version, I am using chopped portobella mushrooms as a substitute.

First, roughly chop about 6 large-ish portobellas, then load them into a food processor and pulse them for about 10 seconds or so until they are in fairly small pieces. Peel, chop and process 1 large white onion and several large cloves of garlic.

Sauté chopped mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil on medium-high heat until the mushrooms have cooked down somewhat and have released some of their moisture, the garlic is soft and the onions are translucent -- about 5 minutes or so.

Chop a few stalks of celery, some sweet peppers (I'm using a red, a green and an orange one here -- you could also seed and chop a jalapeno or habanero pepper for more heat, but I'm not for this batch) and slice a few white button mushrooms or creminis.

Pour a jar of your favourite home made tomato sauce (mine is this one from the Bernardin website -- canning instructions can be found here) into the bottom of a slow cooker, pile in the sautéed mushroom-onion-garlic mixture and add the chopped peppers, celery and the sliced button mushrooms.

Drain and rinse a can of mixed beans, red kidney beans or your favourite beans and add to the slow cooker.

Add a jar of home made tomato paste to help thicken and add a bit of body to the chili, then add your seasonings. I am cheating here and using a pre-packaged chili seasoning mix, but concocting your own blend can be fun and very satisfying. When I do, I usually start with the three C's -- cumin, coriander and cayenne and go from there, rifling through my spice cupboard, trying a bit of this and a bit of that. No two chili batches are ever the same and to me that's the beauty of it!

Cover and turn the cooker on to High until it's hot, then turn down to Low and leave it to slow cook for 8-10 hours. I like to start a batch of chili in the evening while I'm getting dinner ready and leave it to cook overnight.

The next morning, I turn off the cooker, give the chili a good stir, then leave it covered all day to cool to room temperature. I usually give it a taste test at this point.  If it's a bit flat, I'll add some salt and taste it again, adjusting until I feel it's right. If it's a little too acidic and/or tomato-ey (which this batch was due to the strength of my tomato paste!), I'll add a bit of white granulated sugar and taste again until the tomato acidity has been mellowed. Be careful adding the sugar as you don't want any sweetness to come through. For this batch, I ended up adding about 1 teaspoon of sugar in total.

In the evening, I take the crock out of the cooker and put the whole thing into the fridge to chill for another 24 hours or so. I find this really brings the flavours together and re-heated chili really does taste better.  

So, although it's two days in the making, it's definitely worth the wait, IMHO! Top with a dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheddar and you have a hearty warming supper on a cold early spring evening. You can find my recipe here.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A cure for what ails ya!

Hello friends! It's been a while and I do apologize for the unintended hiatus, but two things happened. One was my modem decided to pack it in after 5 years or so of faithful service, so I was left without connection to the ether for a few days. Actually, it took longer than that to discover that the root of the problem was actually the modem itself and then another couple of days to work with my service provider to get me a new modem and then go through the motions of setting up my network all over again.

And all this while the second thing was happening -- I was under the grip of the horrendous bug that has been plaguing Ontario lately. Some call it the flu. Some call it a cold. I just call it miserable! So, between the two, I have had next to no patience with technology and have been less than inspired to post anything over the past couple of weeks. Please forgive me. I am definitely on the mend and I hope to be back posting with regularity very soon.

It's no wonder so many of us have been sick lately. We have gone from this:

to this:

in a matter of a few short days!

To alleviate the symptoms of this ugly bug (dry hacking cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, extreme fatigue), I have been dosing myself with an old tried-and-true family cure: a hot rum toddy!

There are probably as many recipes for hot rum toddys (toddies??) as there are families to make them, but here is mine.

The ultimate, though, has to be this. Although the recipe was passed to me too late for this latest affliction (it needs 6 weeks to brew -- just imagine!), I will definitely be concocting some to have on hand for the next barrage.