Tending a Winter Garden

IMG_6055The beginning of the year has been a time of fallowness and flu for us, as well as change. I’ve been having my own personal wrestling match with the Great Flu Epidemic for three weeks now, and canNOT seem to get sleep enough to shake this rattling cough, so please forgive the long silence. (I usually work on the blog at night, when all is quiet, and I’ve been worshiping my pillow instead…)

The weather here has been very cold, at least for the past few days. I’m craving chili and soup, hot cider and cozy blankets. And new projects: I’m in discussions with a good friend and brilliant professor about a book we may write (details to come on that, I hope!), and plotting to launch a green business with another friend. Things are germinating, but they are still only seeds. It’s the middle of winter, after all.

In the larger world beyond my pillow, some things are also apparently afoot. The world has decided to ban new mercury emissions in an important new treaty, which will save future generations a lot of trouble if it actually gets done (and actually addresses the mercury released in mining). President Obama has announced some reasonable new policy proposals to limit access to guns, and my home state of Maryland is moving forward on sensible new gun measures, all of which is as reassuring as first steps can be.

I personally enjoyed the pomp of the inaugural festivities, including the patriotic thrill of the speeches. Unfortunately, the music was kind of awful, though, wasn’t it? Why so pop and warble-y? Even the lovely James Taylor seemed flat. Kelly Clarkson, really? And all the hype over Beyonce? Puh-lease. As we all know now, she Milli-Vanillied it. But that wasn’t the only false note: there were far too many fluttery fake eyelashes and streaky blonde highlights overall, IMHO.

The Prez sadly missed a moment to highlight more stirring acts — like the local and fabulous Sweet Honey in the Rock (perhaps singing “We Are the Ones”) or real blues and jazz folks (B.B. King? Or someone — anyone — with a little soul in their warble?). At least the First Lady rocked out her gown and new hairstyle. Rowr.

Anyhow, my real point is: I’m baaack. With lots of plans for this blog and the new year. While you await the coming guest posts from exciting contributors and my promised download on pjs, here are a few easy ideas for creating your own winter garden of possibilities. Dunno about you, but on these bleak winter days I’m desperate for some green and growing things, indoors where we can see them take root.

Like the mushroom farm, these are manageable and worthy projects for toddlers and bigger kids as well. I saw both the terrarium and the tulips in small glass jars for sale for more than $20 in Whole Foods yesterday — but making your own costs only a few bucks, using materials you can find outside plus a few simple craft-store vases.

Easy Idea 1: The Cutting and the Terrarium

IMG_6088Raid a friend’s (or your own) plants for cuttings and set a few up in a wine glass where you can see the roots start to form and grow. Maya likes tracking the shoots downward and seems amazed by the changes.

Once it’s got a little root action going, feel free to use it to make your own terrarium with moss, a few stones, and a small glass container (with a lid if you have one).

Our cutting was too large for our container, so we used a left-over bit from another succulent instead, as well as some moss from a hike in the woods today, and a few smaller stones. We misted it with the small spray bottle leftover from our mushroom farm, and will cover it with a dish some of the time to keep it moist. Its zen feel is cheering me up already.

IMG_6126Easy Idea 2: The See-Thru Garden

IMG_6079For this, you’ll need:

  • A milk carton
  • Paint and other materials for decorations as you like
  • (Decently sharp) scissors
  • Masking tape (I used painting tape as what I had on hand)
  • Plastic wrap (non-PVC is best if growing herbs)
  • (organic) Seeds that will germinate in such small space and in the light conditions you have indoors (we used organic English Thyme, which need full sun, in our bay window)
  • (Organic, i.e., no chemical) soil, plus a few rocks or corks for the bottom

IMG_6081Using a cleaned milk carton, cut off the top and cut 2 rectangular “windows” in opposing sides. Paint or decorate as you like. Maya painted ours white with tempera paint and then I made flowers by cutting shapes out of a pretty blue watercolor painting she made. She helped glue them on.

IMG_6098Using masking tape, tape some plastic wrap into the windows by setting the tape on one side and taping, then rolling the other side to fit and taping that. Fill the bottom with a few  rocks or corks, and then soil up to the level for planting seeds. Let the toddler shake the seeds, count and plant them as the instructions say, making sure some are close to the “windows.” Top with soil and water per the seed packet instructions. Watch the plants grow!

IMG_6116Easy idea #3:  Bulbs and Rocks

IMG_6060 You will need:

  • Tulip or other bulbs, such as paperwhites (but beware the intense pollen from paperwhites if you are an allergic type!)
  • Rocks — roundish, in a mix of colors and tones
  • Glass vase (clear and round is best)

We like the children’s book, Paperwhite, which tells a lovely and simple story about planting a winter garden with rocks and bulbs, thus inspiring this idea. And collecting rocks to borrow is so much fun!

IMG_6111Soak the bulbs for an hour or so in warm water. After sorting through your rocks, place them carefully in the glass vase. Plant the bulbs (we used amaryllis in the middle and three tulips around the edges) and let the toddler or child water as needed.

IMG_6113Track the roots and shoots as they develop (you could even mark the glass with pastels). Some larger bulbs may need replanting in soil, as you like.

The projects look nice together as well:

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Easy Idea #4: Plant Your Spice Rack

When my Indian mother-in-law visited us several years ago, I came home and found she had planted some fenugreek seeds right out of the spice jar. They grew quickly with a minimum of fuss. And the sprouts were a delicious and healthy garnish on curries and rice.

Since then, I’ve tried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and anything else handy, with good results. (Obviously, you need to use the spices that are “seeds,” and not dried leaves or another part of the plant.) So just a few days ago, I polished off a planter from outside and now have a batch of fenugreek, or methi, popping up in my kitchen window. Thanks, Nanama!

IMG_6162Other super-easy ideas:

IMG_6104While at the hardware store, I also came across a package with a small glass vase and hyacinth bulb, which I snapped up as well. I got it started, but as they need several weeks under a paper bag in a cool, dark place like our basement, it won’t be the ideal touch of green I hoped for upstairs. Still, we’ll keep an eye on it as the roots grow into the vase.

IMG_6092

IMG_6093I also love, love this small collection of air plants, which are so easy to maintain and look cool in these hanging planters above the kitchen window. (You can order them on Etsy from a number of green-thumbed individuals — including nice planters, such as these — if they would be hard for you to find locally.)

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How are you bringing an early spring indoors?

Beef Tagine with Oil-Cured Olives, Almonds and Quince

I love my tagine. Why such gooey affection for crockery cookery, you ask, in a calm and reasonable tone?

Tagines, the Moroccan style of steam-boiling sauces and meats using a hat-shaped piece of pottery, allow me to have a really delicious and hearty dinner on the table in just over an hour, with minimal fuss and feathers. And mine has proven remarkably tolerant to my whatevs-in-the-fridge-and/or-cupboard approach to recipes, as the title for this post attests.

I already presented you with this delicious chicken dish with lemon. In fact, I probably use our stove-top tagine at least once a week, which is way more than I anticipated when I first boldly acquired yet another large new piece of specialized cookware.

One trick has been a side-investment in the most wonderful spice mix I’ve found — Ras el Hanout. It includes more than 20 spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace.

The blend is mild enough to be acceptable to Maya and me, while also interesting enough to add enough depth to foods so that my husband, who prefers it very spicy, doesn’t drown the result of my modest efforts in sriracha. It’s a magical middle that had eluded me for years, and, as a bonus, it smells heavenly.

And, although the flavor variations are endless, the method for this style of cooking is fairly simple: heat the tagine over low heat, add oil, aromatics and spices, then the meat until it browns, then water or stock to about half an inch below the edge. Bubble until falling apart and delicious.

Lacking a tagine, you could try this combination in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, like my (almost) equally beloved enamel ones. If you do this, please let us know how your venture into uncharted territory turned out…

Ingredients:

(Grass-fed, organic) Beef, cut into bite-sized pieces (I tried to use a full roast at first, as you’ll see, which, er, didn’t work at all)

2 Tbl ras el hanout or as many of those spices as you can muster

2/3 cups oil-cured black olives (I know, these use intense chemical processing. But I can’t help it! If you know things I should know about these, please share.)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Generous Tbl or 2 of quince paste (also called membrillo)

1 cup (organic) peas, fresh or frozen

1 good-sized (organic) chopped tomato

1 C-shaped piece of ginger, chopped (JK, yours could also be L-shaped)

1 (organic) onion, chopped finely

3 TBL butter, grapeseed or coconut oil

Sufficient water or (organic) stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice or cous-cous for serving

Directions:

Heat oil, ginger, onions and eventually, the spices, including salt and pepper, on low until the onions are translucent. (If you don’t have ras el hanout, use your best approximation from what’s on hand. And then order some… it’s truly worth a try!)

Add the olives, almonds and peas, and stir.

Next, add the meat and brown on all sides. Do not make my mistake and foolishly think the tagine can conquer a roast, unaided by humans. Duh. Tagines are great. They’re not that great.

This…

…eventually became the more sensible stew format that the universe intended.

When the meat is well browned, add water or stock to about 1/2 inch below the edge and put the hat on.

Keep it at a high simmer for an hour or so, depending on the texture desired. Serve the stew over rice or cous-cous and enjoy for several days, until you feel compelled to tango with your tagine again.

It’s Etsy Being Green

Or greenish, anyway. I thought I would take a breather from my furniture fail tale to share something with more fun in it, inherently.

Despite my grumpiness on the sofa question, eco-friendly can also be modern, affordable and well-designed. Most people know all about Etsy, the wonderful and wild DIY marketplace in which only the crafty survive. (And I hope you also know about Regretsy, “where DIY meets WTF.” Snicker.)

Etsy, of course, is also a great source of green and handmade items, including decor, toys and organic hand-knitted clothing. I particularly like two wooden toy companies, Little Sapling Toys and The Wood Garden:

In addition, there are adorable prints for the nursery from many artisans, like this one:

And if you have an urge to go all organic on bedding for a new baby, as I foolishly did, but have no skill at sewing, also like me, you can find help for your problem on Etsy.

(I used Etsy’s formerly-amazing Alchemy function, in which you could dream up what you need and have artisans bid for your attention like courtesans. At least, you used to be able to do this, before the Etsy folks put the function on ice. A replacement is eventually promised, and in the meantime, I gather Artfire’s Forge now does the same thing, so you could try there.)

Basically, I ordered fabric and batting from NearSea Naturals, a wonderful organic fabric company, and had it sent to an crafter (no longer on Etsy), who made this beautiful quilt and bedding set, with simple matching curtain valances:

What I didn’t realize is that babies and toddlers have about as much use for bedding as I have for a sewing machine.

While it’s a devastatingly cute idea to outfit the crib, and all the stores push the stuff, what you really need is a decent organic mattress and fitted crib sheet — the rest is, basically, just an adorable strangulation hazard. (This set, thankfully, is not too babyish, as it will have to do until Maya is a gangly, protesting pre-teen.)

I’ve also asked crafters to design custom items for me on several occasions, including these affordable and sweet decoupage frames with paper I picked out from Scappin’ Sassy (given the materials, I let them off-gas away from the nursery for a month or so before hanging):

Custom pillows are a cheap way to reinvigorate tired or staid old furniture, like this shoe bench, leather chair and 2 rocking chairs (one was my mother’s from when I was a baby, and one we acquired at a yard sale for $5 with no usable cushion).

This makes them new again with modern patterns. Rocking chair pillows, in particular, are usually deadly with quaintness. You could go super-organic with these, as you like and have the budget:

These were all made from my fabric selections by the very talented Maureen of 2 and 2 Together. I re-upholstered the ottoman in the matching fabric (I’m dangerous with a staple gun…).

Etsy also solved a space problem in our narrow cabinets caused by the fact that we have a lot of spices. “Spice” was one of Maya’s first words, so she evidently shares our obsession with star anise.

After weeks of looking in vain for a spice rack that could hold 50+ spices, I found a woodworker, who now has his own on-line shop at Custom Quality Crafts, who made a beautiful, towering solid wood spice rack in a nice cherry stain to match the kitchen cabinets, and at a very reasonable price ($72, plus shipping):

I recycle old spice jars by putting chalkboard contact paper on them. Most of the time, anyway, it doesn’t wear off. We use this when a recipe is missing, oh, je nais se quoi: