It’s here. Can you feel it? I can. The world is opening back up.
No, I’m not talking about lockdowns or COVID restrictions. I mean the seasons have shifted. Yes, I know that cold weather hasn’t left us for good. We’ll probably even have one more frost before the winter is fully over, but down here, in Alabama, Spring is happening.
How can I tell? My garden is calling me. I hesitate to call it a garden sometimes. Sometimes I think a better name might be, “The Place Where My Dreams Go to Die” or maybe more poetically “Endurance Wanes.”
This happens to me nearly every year. A shift happens, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I come out of my winter hibernation, often it’s only during this shifting time that I realize I was even in hibernation, but out I come with energy and inspiration ready to meet my landscape and carve out some sort of harmonious relationship.
Last year I was so covered up I didn’t even try. But this year I’m thinking BIG. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve apprenticed myself to a local master gardener. I’m hoping that the knowledge I gain coupled with the fact that I now work from home will help me through the post Quickening slump that sets in once summer temperatures hit their peak and, historically, the demands of my paying jobs supersede my enthusiasm for the not-paying right away ones. Let’s be clear - gardening pays. You just have to be creative in how you look for those dividends.
Properly managed a garden obviously pays in groceries and as food prices rise so does your garden salary. But even in the years my garden didn’t produce as I had hoped I still got paid. My check came in the form of fresh air and sunshine, exercise and well being. Because, the truth is, I really like this work.
During my last visit to Lois’ garden I brought home several bags full of elderberry cuttings. I planned on planting them on the slope below the gym. It took me a week to find the time, but last Saturday looked good and I set my intentions. Only, other stuff got in the way and I didn’t start working until almost 4 o’clock.
Here’s how I know the Quickening is here. I started at 4 o’clock and once it got dark I kept working. I had plenty of energy, I was taking my time and enjoying the process. When it was too dark to see I put on a headlamp. I planted a good 40 or 50 elderberry starts and prepped the hugelkultur beds for herbs I had bought at Home Depot earlier in the day. I knew I couldn’t plant them until the morning, Sam had the car and they were still in the car, but I could get ready and make short work of them in the morning. I worked away, happily, until after 8 pm.
Hugelkultur is a style of gardening originating in Germany. It’s a form of raised bed gardening where the base of the bed is odd bits of wood. Rotten firewood and branches work great. I decided that this year I would make one of my raised beds a hugelkultur bed and plant my perennials there. I built my base with a bunch of sweet gum logs that have been slowly rotting over by the woodpile for several years. I had originally collected them for firewood, but realized that they didn’t split very well and they didn’t burn all that great either. Hence the slowly rotting.
No matter, they are perfect for the hugelkultur. You can see from the photo that I’ve built three rows and you can see each of those rows in various stages of development. Once I built the base from wood and branches (middle) I covered up it with mostly done compost (left). This was compost that had 90% finished before I added a few bags of leaves. To finish the row I added a few bags of garden top soil from Home Depot (right). I then amended the soil just a bit with Akomite (diatomaceous earth), lime, and a bit of Epsom Salt. After this they are ready to plant.
I want to establish a permanent herb bed populated with both the culinary and medicinal herbs we use a lot. This first planting consisted of another rosemary (I lost one of two last year), two flat leaf parsleys (I use parsley a lot), English thyme, and an Italian Oregano. Later on I’ll add basil and cilantro.
The whole point of a hugelkultur bed is that the wood base slowly rots adding it’s own compost to the bed. It also creates voids and cavities in the soil making homes for beneficial insects. Finally, the wood acts as a sponge soaking up and then slowly releasing moisture back into the soil. Alabama summers are notoriously hot and, barring last year, usually quite dry. I think that water absorbing quality will come in handy as past summers have taught me I never water enough - unless, we get another summer like last year in which case I’ll be fighting over watering and rot. There’s always something.
I’m hoping you guys can keep me accountable. I’m developing a vision for Alabama Sasquatch that includes three pillars - Kitchen, Garden, and Gym. I intend to write more about my garden adventures. Perhaps by doing so I can actually make it past the Quickening into the summer and, dare I hope, a second fall garden. Who knows I might even build up enough momentum to include an over winter garden?
Perhaps I shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself.
Pot Roast Stuffed Potatoes
My daughter, Madeline, is expecting our first grandbaby this summer. Sam and I are ecstatic, thank you.
Madz has asked me to come up with some slow cooker recipes to help her manage the early days of mamahood. I am equally ecstatic. I’ve settled on the Instapot as it gives the greatest degree of versatility. I know a lot of you have and use one and, to be honest, I wanted to get more out of mine than to just use it as a rice cooker. Which, by the way, it does a bang up good job as.
So the first real test of the Instapot. Can in render a pot roast as good as my cast iron Dutch oven?
I’d say it’s pretty damned close.
I followed the same basic recipe I use for my regular pot roast. So you can use this with either the Instapot or a Dutch Oven. First, get a chuck roast. Pat it dry and sprinkle it liberally with salt on both sides. Set aside.
Then get the rest of your mire poix together. Dice carrots, onion, celery. Slice some garlic and grind your spice blend. As usual I went with the Four C’s (cardamom, cumin, coriander, and chili.) I decided to add an additional Mexican flavor by adding another variety of dried chili from the pantry. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you its name as I’ve long since lost the label, but it’s a long, smooth skinned chili, that has a nice smoked flavor. I chose two and steeped them in boiling water to soften and reconstitute a bit.
Once everything is together hit the saute button on the Instapot. Then pat the roast dry of any moisture that the salt might have brought to the surface. Doing this helps ensure a nice crust and adds a little texture to the final roast. Sear the chuck roast on all sides.
Here’s how I do it. First get the pot, or Instapot, hot. Then add oil. Just as the oil is beginning to smoke the slightest bit add the roast. Hear that sizzle? Yeah, that’s good. Now, keep an ear out as you do other things, wipe the counter, do a few dishes, maybe go grab that red wine vinegar you’re going to need in a little bit. In a few minutes the tone of that sizzle is going to change. As the crust forms it’s going to sear the meat locking the juices and moisture inside. As the moisture is no longer hitting the hot oil in the pan the sizzle diminishes. After about five or so minutes in should be markedly reduced. Flip the roast over and you’ll be reminded of how intense it actually was at the start.
Now pull the roast out and set it aside. See all those brown bits on the bottom? Yeah, that’s gold. Throw in your carrots, celery, and onions and give a good stir. Toss in a healthy pinch of salt. As the vegetables cook they’re going to release their juices. That moisture is going to pick the fond up off the bottom of the pan and add rich flavor to your vegetables. I’ve said this before, but you're going to saute those vegetables longer than you think you should. I want the carrots starting to soften noticeably and the onions to get a little brown. Add your garlic and spice blend. I also added the chilies I’d reconstituted. I just cut the tops off and scraped out the seeds, giving them a rough chop before adding.
Once the vegetables are cooked add your acid. I used a red wine vinegar, but you could also use wine, apple cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or sherry. Let your taste be your guide. A classic combination here is red wine and crushed tomatoes. We actually find the acid level a bit too high when we add tomatoes so we don’t.
The best thing about being a home cook is leftovers. Right before the pot roast went in I added the tail end of last week’s pot roast. It was just a little bit of meat and a blend of the vegetables and jous. It’s the kind of cheat restaurants can’t pull off and adds wonderful flavor.
Put the roast back into the pot and nestle it into the vegetables. You want your liquid level to come just to the top of the roast but not cover. Add stock if you need more liquid. Then put the lid on your Instapot, seal it, and hit the Meat/Stew button. Now you can walk away. If you don’t have an Instapot, just put the lid on you Dutch Oven and put in a 300 degree oven for about four hours.
As you can see I used this roast to stuff baked potatoes. Once baked just split the potato, salt, pepper, and butter, then add a healthy ladle of your roast, the veg and the juices. I topped mine with a hard goat cheese, pickled onions and those peppers fried in oil that I keep on hand for just such occasions.
If you follow me on Instagram you may have seen this photo of the tacos I made Friday. I didn’t have enough pot roast left for a full meal, but I had a few venison cubed steaks. I dredged them in flour and fried them in my cast iron skillet. Once done I set them aside. To the skillet I added what pot roast I had left plus a few scoops of the vegetables and plenty of the jous. Once hot I added the cubed steaks back in having first sliced them into taco sized bites. I turned down the heat and set to making my salsa crema.
I’ve got a Cuisinart blender that has a small food processing attachment. I’ve become rather fond of this doo-hickey as the big Cuisinart is to cumbersome to drag out especially for little jobs like this. I blended about half a bunch of cilantro and some garlic cloves. I added the juice of one half lemon and some chili powder I made from the various labeled and unlabeled chilies in my pantry. To this I added salt and a few tablespoons of plain yogurt.
Back on the stove the meat mixture was thickening up thanks to the flour on the venison. Finally I just toasted some tortillas on the griddle. If I still had some, pickled red onion would have been nice, but ya’ll those were some of the best tacos I’ve had outside of Mexico. All thanks to the power of leftovers and compound flavoring...wait, is that a thing? Did I just make that up? I think I just made that up. #compoundflavoring