Confessions of a Groupie

Confessions of a Groupie

I admit it—I’m a groupie. But maybe not the kind you’re thinking of. My fanaticism lies with the Mother Earth News Fair. I first learned about this terrific event back in 2013, a couple of years after I’d hit the retirement button on a public service career that had taken all of my energy. The Gnome and I thought going to the fair would be a great way to get our modern homesteading grooves back.

No ferris wheels or cotton candy at this fair. It’s all about sustainability and self-reliance. A perfect fit for two old, would-be hippies who wanted to get back to basics. Not that the fair’s attendees are hippies. It’s a broad spectrum of folks who fill the workshops and exhibit halls: young, old, rich, poor, hip, not so hip. They come for different reasons. I’m betting they all leave with new purpose and enthusiasm.

We took off to the fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, for what turned out to be the beginning of a great new passion for gardening, food preservation, and more. I had gardened years ago back in 4-H, and the Gnome and I had tried our hands at before we moved here, but it had been a really long time. We needed some remedial education.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited we were to discover that they planned one for the next year in nearby Asheville, NC. We’ve been every year.

Here’s just a sampling of what I’ve learned at these events. From great garlic guru Ira Wallace, I learned all about growing garlic. Haven’t had  store bought since. Sherri Brooks Vinton put pizzaz in canning. When the holidays came, we bought a box of grapefruit from the Rotary Club just so I could whip up some jars of her grapefruit in lavender syrup. Yum!

Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko shared their passion for community and reinforced what I already knew about the importance of prioritizing values when you’re striving to achieve an important goal. Deborah Niemann let me in on the secret that quiche is not just elegant, but a simple way to wow guests (and other ecothrifty ideas). Philip Akerman-Leist honestly laid out the good, the bad, and the ugly about homesteading in modern America. North Carolinian Linda Watson, who set out to teach people how to eat well on a food stamp budget, wowed me with inexpensive, delicious, and nutritious recipes. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

Niki Jabbour introduced me to all kinds of new vegetables and extolled the virtues of year-round gardening. If she could do it in Nova Scotia, surely I could in North Carolina. Craig LeHoullier, another Tar Heel, taught how to grow heirloom tomatoes successfully, always a tricky business up here in the mountains.

Well, you get the idea. At the Mother Earth News Fair there are workshops on things like foraging, wind and other alternative energies, animal workshops (raising, butchering, processing—not my thing), herbalism, composting, mushrooms, marketing your small farm or home-based business, edible landscaping, permaculture, cheesemaking, vermiculture, fermentation, ecology. There’s even a series of workshops for kids. There are exhibits and demonstrations and books. Oh, the books! We always bring home an armload.

Every year for the last five years, the fair has added a new location to its offerings. This year there are fairs in Vermont, Oregon, Texas, and Kansas as well as the ones in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And the best part is it’s just about the most reasonably priced event you could hope to attend. A two-day ticket only costs $20 in advance ($30 at the gate). The same money gets you three days at the premier Pennsylvania fair—it’s HUGE!

This year’s Asheville fair is May 6th and 7th at the Western North Carolina Fairgrounds. I highly recommend it.

Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons (Yum! Yum!)

Several folks have asked that I write more about our experiences related to moving here, hand-building our home, and trying to live more sustainably. I’m tackling that project, but it’s a big one. In the meantime, how about I leave you with our favorite pumpkin soup recipe?

We’re pumpkin fools around here. It all started a few years ago when I was browsing through a seed catalog and my eyes fell upon these words: Baby Pam pumpkin. Pam’s my mother’s name. That’s all it takes for me to become infatuated with a plant—a name that rings my chimes. (I’d be terrible betting on the horses!) The Baby Pams were great eating pumpkins, but awfully small, maybe softball size. It was always guesswork figuring out how many we needed to, say, bake a pie, and too often we found we hadn’t cooked up enough of the vitamin-rich orange flesh.

But the lure of pumpkin growing had gotten under our skins. With their bright colors, huge leaves and sprawling vines, we were hooked. And there was this plus–pumpkins store well, which means good eating well into winter with no up front preserving effort. All you need is a cool, dark place. A basement or unheated closet will do.

Catalog pages were filled with colorful displays–so many varieties. We got carried away with the weird-looking pumpkins: the green ones, the white ones, the ones with warts. Most of those were more for decorating than eating. We thought the grandkids might enjoy using them at Halloween. But they never did particularly well in our garden.

After that experiment, we read about Long Pie pumpkins, also called Nantucket Pie.

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Various pumpkins and other winter squash from our garden

An heirloom variety, the Long Pie is known for its sweetness, and it has very little of the stringiness pumpkins are known for. If you were to see it in the garden, though, you might think it was a zucchini on steroids with its elongated shape and dark green skin which rarely fully ripens to a deep orange until it’s in storage. Since trying our first Long Pie, we’ve never so much as looked at another pumpkin variety.

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Long Pie Pumpkin

But the problem with Long Pies, if you can call it a problem, is that they are both prolific and pretty good-sized. On average, they weigh five to eight pounds apiece—we’ve had some quite a bit heavier. One is always enough for a pie. In fact, whenever we’ve roasted and pureed a Long Pie, we’ve usually had extra to put in the freezer for some unknown future use. The last year we kept a record of such things, we harvested more than 250 pounds of Long Pies. That’s a lot of pumpkin. And just how many pumpkin pies can two people eat, anyway? (The Gnome says, “A LOT!”)

So we began looking for other ways to use pumpkin. We’ve substituted it for sweet potatoes, we’ve made pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin chili, pumpkin risotto—all delicious, by the way. But our favorite alternate use for pumpkin has got to be this cream of pumpkin soup, especially on chilly winter nights. The cream makes this dish extra smooth and rich. Add the cinnamon croutons and it’s a standout.

Of course, you don’t have to grow your own pumpkin to make this pie, nor even buy it fresh (though if you do, you’ll need to roast and puree the pumpkin first.) A can of pureed pumpkin will do fine. Just be sure you don’t accidentally buy pumpkin pie mix.

Unfortunately, I don’t know where I found the recipe for this soup, and I hate not giving recognition. I’ve searched my cookbooks, recipe cards, and online favorites, all to no avail. I found one that’s awfully close, though, from Judith N. over at the Food Network website. Since I can’t find the exact recipe I use, why don’t I just go ahead and give her credit?

CREAM OF PUMPKIN SOUP (approximately six servings)

Croutons

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 slices whole wheat bread

Soup

1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
4 cups homemade or 2 cans veggie broth (chicken, if you prefer)
2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (or one 15.5 oz can)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

For the croutons, combine butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl and mix well. Spread this mixture evenly over one side of each bread slice. Place bread, buttered side up, on a baking sheet. Bake until bread is crisp and topping is bubbly, about 10 minutes. (You may want to do this step ahead of time to give the croutons time to crisp up as they cool.) Cut each slice of bread into bite-sized pieces.

Saute onion in butter in a saucepan (one that will comfortably accommodate eight or ten cups) until tender. Add half the broth and stir well. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes.

If you have an immersion blender, use it to process the mixture until it’s smooth. Otherwise, transfer to your blender or food processor for blending. (When it comes to outfitting the kitchen, I’m kind of a minimalist, but an immersion blender is a wonderful tool to have on hand. It works like a charm, saves on dirty dishes, takes up very little real estate, is easy to clean, and is relatively inexpensive. So glad I finally learned about this device.)

In the saucepan, combine blended mixture with remaining ingredients and stir well. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the soup is cooked, you have a choice. You can add the cup of whipping cream to the entire mixture and warm, being sure not to boil the soup or scorch the cream, but it’s much prettier to dip the steaming soup into serving bowls and swirl the cream directly into each bowl, approximately 2-3 tablespoons per bowl. Top each serving with cinnamon croutons, and call everyone to the table for some super deliciousness.

(Disclaimer: No chefs live here. But with a great big garden, we’ve discovered lots of terrific recipes–mostly simple to make and without exotic ingredients. I enjoy sharing our finds with others just as much as I enjoy being on the receiving end. I do try to be clear, accurate, and thorough, though. And I can promise that all the recipes I put on my blog have been rigorously taste-tested right here at Living on the Diagonal and have received the Gnome’s seal of approval.)

The Garden in January

It’s a pitiful sight, the garden in January. After the final harvest each year, we’re too tired of the whole thing to bother with clean-up: weeding, pulling up spent plants, removing row covers, and so on. I might be sorry when spring comes and the task can be delayed no more. But I don’t feel guilty.

Want to know why? Because an undisturbed garden is full of great places for bees and non-migrating butterflies to hunker down for a long winter’s nap. Because predatory insects also have a place to hang out and they’ll be on patrol as soon as the first pests emerge. Because birds love a winter garden and we love the birds because, among other things, they’re plucking hangers-on from dead stems and branches. Just saw a couple of crows out there doing a little housecleaning for me today. Way to go, crows! (I learned all this, as I’ve learned so much about gardening, from my favorite gardening site, savvygardening.com. These gardening gurus truly are savvy; if you’re a gardener, or want to be, I encourage you to check it out.)

There’s still garden work to do in the depths of winter, though. If you’re not a gardener, you may not know that seed catalogs are filling up your gardening friends’ mailboxes as we speak. In fact, they’ve been coming in since at least mid-December.

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There’s nothing quite like thumbing through a colorful seed catalog on a cold January night to warm the cockles of one’s heart. It’s one of life’s great pleasures for someone who digs in the soil. Some make you drool with their slick pages and vibrant, full color photographs of juicy red tomatoes and bell peppers in every color of the rainbow.

The wish lists fill up with old favorites (for me Christmas limas, Super Sugar snap peas, Painted Mountain corn, Long Pie pumpkin, Bright Lights chard, and Who Gets Kissed corn. (Who could resist something with a name like that?) Exotic new varieties capture one’s attention, too. I’ve found pumpkin-on-a-stick, strawberry spinach, Love Lies Bleeding amaranth with its burgundy dreadlock-like flowers, and cucamelon—that cute little one-inch cucumber shaped and striped like a miniature watermelon—utterly irresistible. Indigo kumquat, anyone?

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Love-lies-bleeding from our garden

Suddenly I have a list longer than both my arms, and when I add up the cost of that long list, I risk cardiac arrest. Not to mention that I’ve completely ignored the physical limits of our gardening space. Time to stop dreaming and begin the ruthless process of cutting my list to something realistic.

Winter nights may be for wishing and dreaming, but winter days are filled with diagramming garden plans: what to plant, how much space to devote to each variety of vegetable and fruit, where to plant them. Rotating plants for pest control and soil quality is an important management tool.

Before I know it, it’s time to actually order those seeds, especially if I plan to give them a head start in indoor seed trays under grow lights. For a few plants—even in our short-summer climate—that process can sometimes start as early as February.

So you see, there’s no time to waste.