Working on the Yard

I spent the majority of the last two days working on my back yard. First I put in the garden along the fence I’d been wanting for the last few years:

I’d had one there before, and I’m pretty sure the previous owners of the house had one too, since the soil was black and rich instead of being just clay, at least for the first few inches. I hadn’t done anything with that garden since the old fence started to fall down, but this year we have the new one up, so I don’t have to worry about either a pile of wood or contractors squashing my plants. I planted Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, butternut squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and asparagus, alongside the rather tiny rhubarb plant I planted years ago. I tried putting down landscaping fabric to prohibit the weed growth, but we’ll see how that goes.

I cut back the apple tree, although it’s still pretty huge, all in all. There were a bunch of dead limbs and I ended up losing almost a whole one of the major subsections closest to the house. I really hope that whatever killed those branches doesn’t spread to the rest of the tree, though. One of the reasons I got a deck (instead of a patio like originally planned) is to accommodate the apple tree’s roots. It would really suck if the tree then ended up dying. Also, I just plain old love that tree, especially every second year when it blooms.

In my main veggie garden, I’m happy to report that the potatoes are starting to sprout — alongside a bunch of tiny weeds. I only just weeded that bed, I’m a little annoyed that the weeds are already returning. Hopefully the plants I actually want will grow tall soon and start choking out the plants I don’t.

A friend of mine gave me a black tomato plant to add to my cherry tomatoes, and I’m curious to see how the fruit turns out.

My pear tree is flourishing, despite still being shorter than me. I might get twice last year’s harvest, so… Ten fruits, maybe? I always like how pears grow up while they’re tiny, but then the weight of them drags them down to hang how you’d normally expect over time.

I also had to mow the grass, at which point I discovered that apparently I have wild strawberries growing in my front lawn, which surprised the heck out of me. I don’t care much about my lawn so long as it is green — grass, clover, strawberries, it’s all okay by me, so long as it’s not thistles, which are painful to step on. After a quick Google, I discovered that wild strawberries are perfectly safe to eat, especially if you know that the ground they grow on is pesticide- and herbicide-free, which mine definitely is. They’re not really big enough to make much of a crop, but they are definitely more flavorful than the commercially-grown variety.

I finished the day with a barbecue dinner for my family, my parents, my brother, and his friend. I made salmon on the smoker barbecue — not burned, just a little ashy — with a glaze of maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt. My mom brought over her famous potato salad with bacon, and I grilled up some zucchini and steamed asparagus. I also made some rice to serve on the side, at my kids’ request. All in all, it was a lovely meal, and I’d eat it again in a heartbeat.

Spiced Pancakes with Apples & Caramel Syrup Recipe

Last night I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to make for dinner, and I really didn’t want to head out of the house again to buy ingredients, especially dragging the kids with me. It’s not really that big of a deal to get groceries with my kids, but it inevitably takes twice as long — or more — than shopping on my own. I looked at a couple of pancake recipes in my cookbooks, but nothing was exactly what I was craving. I wanted to make some kind of spiced pancake that paired well with chopped apples, which were the only fruit I had left in the fridge. Apples are a staple around here, since they winter well and can last months if kept properly. For those reasons, they’re also relatively inexpensive all year long. (Berries, which I generally prefer, get ridiculously pricey in the winter since they all have to be imported, and they begin to spoil after only a few days.) I started by combining about four different recipes; I made so many changes after a while that I knew if I didn’t write it all down, I’d never be able to duplicate my results.

In the end, I’m extremely happy with what I came up with: Spiced Pancakes with Apples & Caramel Syrup. We had it for dinner, but it would make an equally tasty breakfast or even a dessert. The pancakes are also great on their own and can be served with the more traditional butter/margarine with syrup (preferably maple), honey, or jam, or fruit butter (apple butter would be divine).

Here’s the recipe:

Spiced Pancakes with Apples & Caramel Syrup
Yields 10 to 12 five-inch-diameter pancakes (approx.)*

In a large bowl, mix together:
1 1/2 cups flour
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
In another large bowl, combine:
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp 2% cow’s milk OR almond milk OR soy milk**
3 Tbsp plus 1 tsp canola*** oil
1 egg, beaten

Whisk together wet ingredients until they become a smooth mixture. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Beat mixture with an electric or hand mixer until batter is smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula to remove lumps.

Cooking the spiced pancakes uses the same technique as my buckwheat pancakes. Lightly coat the cooking surface of a heavy, non-stick frying pan with cooking spray. Place the pan on the burner, turn the heat on to just a little bit higher than medium heat, and immediately pour a single ladle-full of batter directly into the center of the pan. (Never preheat an empty nonstick pan.) The batter will spread out without help to its optimal thickness. Watch the cooking pancake carefully for bubbles to appear on its surface. When the bubbles pop and leave little craters behind that don’t immediately refill in with batter, it’s time to flip the pancake. Have patience when cooking pancakes; better that they be cooked on a low temperature and finish slowly than to have them burn. Once the batter has started to solidify, you can peek underneath the pancake to check its colour. Cook each side until it is golden brown.

While the pancakes are cooking, core and roughly chop:
4-5 medium-sized eating apples****
Place the apples in a bowl to serve alongside your pancakes, if they are to be topped at the table. Beside the apples, place:
caramel syrup*****
whipped cream (optional)******
finely chopped walnuts

When the pancakes are cooked, serve immediately or stack on a warm plate which is covered by another warm plate when not being dished onto. To keep the pancakes warm, it helps to cover the top plate and edges with a tea towel or two.

My preferred way of plating the pancakes is to place one or two on a plate, mound with chopped apples, (optionally) dollop on a bit of whipped cream, and drizzle with caramel syrup. Lightly sprinkle each dish with chopped walnuts for added crunch and flavour.

Enjoy!

*This recipe can easily be doubled (or more) to serve a larger crowd. My family of four generally eats about a batch and a half of pancakes, and the leftovers go in the fridge to be reheated the next day.
**I used almond milk.
***Canola oil may be replaced by another light oil such as sunflower or vegetable oil.
****My favourites are Ambrosia and Honeycrisp, but whichever you like is fine. Use your best judgement about the size of the apples and how much the people you’re serving are likely to eat; my family likes their pancakes loaded with fruit, as pictured, but yours may differ. Since the apples are a topping and not a baking ingredient, having an exact quantity is not as essential.
*****Store-bought is fine, but you can also make your own. I got my recipe from the Joy of Cooking (page 849, 2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), but you could just as easily use the Caramel Syrup Recipe from Martha Stewart, as they are virtually identical. They’re both essentially cooked sugar and water. Optionally, you can add a splash of vanilla for additional flavour. I’d recommend preparing this in advance, since it takes a while to cool down enough to eat. Also, I burned my first batch because I was trying to do too many things at once and forgot about it for about twenty seconds. That was all it took to make it completely inedible. The second batch was supervised nonstop and turned out well. Please learn from my mistakes!
******Real whipped cream, canned whipped cream, and non-dairy whipped cream substitutes are all grand.

Crab Apple Jelly

A while back a friend of mine offered to let me pick crab apples from trees just outside of her back yard, on land that is owned by her community association. She has been picking apples from those trees for years in order to make crab apple jelly, as have a number of other neighbours who are inclined to make preserves. These totally wild, untended trees produce an overabundance of fruit every year, and the canners in the neighbourhood only make a tiny dent in that. I’d never made jelly before, but I figured sure, why not? I love cooking with ingredients that I can harvest locally, especially when that harvest is free!

The first thing that I realized is that making jelly is a lot more difficult than making jam. After washing all the tiny little apples and making sure to remove all leaves and stems, you have to cut them all in half. Sometimes the fruit can be wormy or rotten inside even though the outside is pristine, and cutting it in half means that you can check every single one. Then you have to cook the fruit, strain it through a jelly bag (being careful not to squeeze the bag so that the jelly will remain clear), boil the resulting juice along with sugar and any additional ingredients until set, and then finally can it.

After all that work, I was really happy that I liked the end result. Crab apple jelly is packed with tart flavour, even with all of the added sugar. I’m definitely going to make more next year. I’ll be sure to pick twice or even three times as much fruit. It’s not like the neighbourhood wildlife will miss the relatively small quantities that I will use.

One of the things that I was surprised about regarding crab apple jelly is how many of my preserving cookbooks don’t have a recipe for it. Not only that, but some of them don’t even consider crab apples to be a fruit worth canning. I find that odd because a) they’re very tasty, b) they are winter hardy in northern climes, and can even grow wild, and c) they’re often planted in orchards among the larger apple trees because it helps with pollination. They’re also a very popular ornamental tree, so it’s not like crab apples are hard to come by, either. The books that I have that included a crab apple jelly recipe are, in no particular order:

Joy of Cooking page 932, or on the app (Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, 2006 edition)
Pickles & Preserves page 58 (Love Food, 2012)
The Complete Preserving Book page 92 (Canadian Living, 2012)
The Good Cook: Preserving page 94 (Time-Life Books, 1981)
Preserving page 166 (Oded Schwartz, 1996)

Although there are many variations when it comes to additional ingredients such as lemon juice, lime juice, or in one case hot peppers, all of the recipes seem to agree on a ratio of 1:1 of volume of strained juice to white sugar.

As an aside, if you’re interested in harvesting unused fruit from local sources and aren’t up to approaching homeowners/tenants on your own (although if you’re shy, a politely-worded letter is often well-received), you could volunteer for an organization here in Ottawa called Hidden Harvest. The group harvests fruits and nuts that would otherwise go to waste on public and private property. When the bounty is harvested, one quarter goes to the homeowner, one quarter goes to the volunteer harvesters, one quarter goes to the nearest food agency, and one quarter goes to Hidden Harvest. The portion kept by Hidden Harvest goes to their sponsors, who in turn help pay to run the organization. Last year alone the group harvested almost 4,500lbs of fruit and nuts, and donated almost 2,000lbs of that to charity.

In my case, I’m a homeowner whose apple tree drops hundreds of pounds of fruit every year, and I’d love to be able to have Hidden Harvest come and take most of the fruit away. I don’t need nearly so much. However, I’ll have to deal with that poor tree’s apple scab first. And my poor little pear tree‘s harvest of four pears this year isn’t worth volunteering. Perhaps when it grows a little bigger. Next year I’m seriously considering becoming a volunteer harvester, though. As for this year, I understand that apples with apple scab can actually make a better hard cider, so if any cider-makers want to clean the rest of the apples off of my tree, they’re welcome to them.

Maybe one of these days I should just buy/make a cider press.

Blossoms

Now that I live in a house with a proper yard, I’ve decided to try to grow some of my own food. I don’t think it saves me any money (especially the first few years, with all the set-up and trial and error), but I am proud of the food that I grow, and I know it’s as fresh as can be. I’ve never been one for taking care of purely ornamental plants, but I wish I’d started at least with basic herb pots years earlier — those things are very difficult to kill, and the fresh flavour is unparalleled.

One of the things I’m cultivating, since I do have the room and I do like shade, is fruit trees. Until a few days ago they were all in bloom, hopefully meaning that I’ll have a decent fruit yield this year. I know that flowers don’t mean that I’ll necessarily get any edible fruit, but without blossoms I definitely won’t get anything.


Pear tree.

The first tree to bloom was my pear tree, which I planted only three years ago — and this was the first time there were any flowers! It’s what I like to call my “mutant tree”, because it’s actually four kinds of pear grafted onto a single tree (it used to be five, but one branch died). Only two of the four main branches bloomed this year, but who knows if the maturity rate of all of the kinds of pears is the same? The rest of the branches are still alive, at any rate. I didn’t do the right kind of research before I planted this tree, because the blossoms do not smell very nice — which is apparently pretty common. Ah well, they don’t flower for very long, and it will be a number of years before there are enough blossoms to perfume the air; the tree is still shorter than me. The odor also isn’t very intense, since right now I have to stick my nose almost touching to smell anything at all.


Plum tree.

I was thrilled that my plum tree flowered as well; I only planted it early last year, and it didn’t flower then — and then Japanese beetles ate all of the leaves. I honestly didn’t think the poor tree would survive the winter. We shall see if the beetles return this year! They’re not quite in season yet. I would be happy if I never saw another one, to be honest. They are persistent pests that can decimate a garden, although the only plant they were interested in that I planted last year was my plum tree.


Apple tree.

The tree that I was least surprised to see flower this year was my apple tree. It came with the house, and it was probably planted about thirty years ago, when the neighborhood was new. I’m not entirely sure what kind of apple tree it is; the fruit is yellow-green when ripe, and ripens late into September, much later than a lot of the farmed apples around here. This indicates to me that it’s some kind of wild apple crossbreed (there are lots of those), or possibly a (or partly a) Russian Antonovka tree. It also seems to flower only every second year, and this is a boom year.


Apple tree.

This tree was very unhealthy when we first moved in. There were lots of dead branches, the apples all had apple scab… But I’ve trimmed back the dead wood, and (hopefully) taken care of the root of the apple scab. Last time this tree bloomed, it produced hundreds of pounds of fruit. It’s even healthier now, so I expect the yield will be even greater — especially if the sheer number of flowers is any indication.