beneficial insects, beneficial bugs, ladybugs, ladybirds, lacewings, braconid wasps

Beneficial Insects and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

By Catherine Winter

If you’ve already started seeds for this year’s garden, you likely have several different vegetable and herb seeds sprouting merrily. What a lot of people forget to do, however, is include a variety of flowers and herbs that will help attract beneficial insects as well.
There are a number of plant species that can draw specific insects to your space, so if you’ve had particular issues that you’d like to address without the use of harmful insecticides, read on!

Organic Pest Control

Braconid

Braconid Wasps

These creep me right the hell out so I’m going to write about them first to get them out of the way. Members of the Braconidae family, these parasitic wasps lay their eggs into the skin of caterpillars and beetle larvae. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae feed on the host’s internal organs until they reach maturity, at which point they bugger off.
Ew ew ew, but hey, they’ll kill the cabbage moth larvae eating your organic kale.

Which plants do they like?
These wasps love small-flowered flowers and herbs that produce a fair amount of nectar. Yarrow, coriander, dill, fennel, lemon balm, thyme, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, and sweet alyssum are sure to coax them to your garden.

Lacewings

Lacewings

You’ve probably seen these delicate beauties clinging to your porch or window screen if a porch light has drawn them close. Their larvae look like alligators and are sometimes referred to as “aphid lions” because of how voraciously they devour the wee beasties. They also eat caterpillars, thrips, and whiteflies.

Which plants do they like?
Yarrow, caraway, angelica, cosmos, fennel, coreopsis, mallows, dill, tansy, sunflowers, and dandelions.

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Ladybugs (aka Ladybirds)

Adorable and colourful, these happy-looking little beetles annihilate aphids, spider mites, and various other teensy soft-bodied critters. If you haven’t seen many in your area, you can usually buy them at your local garden centre.

Which plants do they like?
Butterfly weed, coriander, yarrow, dill, tansy, cinquefoil, fennel, vetch, buckwheat, calendula.

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A Good Water Source

Remember that insects need water to wash down all those bad bugs they’ve been eating, so make sure they have a source of clean drinking water handy. If you have a pond or marshy area on your property, they should be okay, but for everyone else, it’s recommended that you make a couple of watering areas.

The easiest way is to pour a layer of pebbles, marbles, or decorative stones in the bottom of a ceramic planter pot, and keep enough water in it to **almost** cover the pebbles. This will give the insects safe places to land while they drink.
Remember, most of these happy bugs have wings, and if they don’t have an easy water source when they’re thirsty, they’ll fly elsewhere.

Please don’t use commercial pesticides!

If you need to use some kind of pesticide, please use methods that are low impact, natural, and/or biodegradable, rather than full of toxic chemicals. You can get repel slugs from the garden with copper strips, use neem for various mites, ants, and beetles, etc. There are many different options that won’t harm the beneficial bugs in your garden, nor seep into the soil to poison plant life.

wildflowers, medicinal flowers, medicinal plants, herbalism, herbal medicine, poppy, poppies

Change is Good.

By Catherine Winter

I love to grow vegetables. Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I pore through seed catalogues every winter, getting all giddy about the different varieties I’ll be able to plant once spring rolls around. Eventually. The snow doesn’t melt completely here until the end of April/early May, so by the time the last frost passes, I’m more than champing at the bit to get my seeds into the ground: I’m pretty much frothing.

The thing is, growing veg on my land is really, really difficult to do.

My home is perched on the side of a mountain, and the only flat, sunny spots on it are the septic field (upon which I can’t grow any food), and the paved driveway. There are a few flat-ish bits here and there which I have taken advantage of, but they have their challenges as well. The 40-foot trees all around my land cast a lot of shade around, the soil is clay and sand atop solid Canadian shield rock, and the unevenness of the ground itself means that raised beds are pretty much out of the question.

Then there’s the weather to contend with. A freak heat wave last May caused all my brassicas to bolt, and a hailstorm in July killed my tender greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Literally all that survived last year were potatoes, sorrel, and the peas I had climbing up the shaded north wall.
This will be my sixth summer living on this property, and I can honestly say that the yields I’ve had from my vegetable-growing efforts have been paltry at best.

echinacea, wildflowers, native wildflowers, butterflies, bees, pollinators

Changing Direction

Since I’ve had so little luck growing vegetables, I’m moving in another direction this season. Remember that article we posted last year about working with your land, rather than against it? Well, it may have taken me this long to really learn that lesson myself, but yes. Yes, I’ve finally learned what I needed to and will be taking advantage of what I do have available to me, instead of trying to force plants on an area they’re ill suited to.

Related: Work With Your Land, Not Against It

This is kind of huge for me, since I’m just a raging perfectionist and am normally the type to keep fighting onwards solely for the sake of not giving up. Maybe I’m mellowing in my middling years or something, but I’m recognising that there are many different ways to approach an issue, and compromise is a gentler and sweet technique that my younger self would have benefitted from immensely.

Two summers ago, I let most of my land go fallow just to see what would grow there. I put the mower and snappywhippy thing away, and just let everything go wild.
You know what happened?
Amazing things.

I discovered that several dozen medicinal herb and flower species grow wild on my property. St. John’s wort, heal-all, mullein, coltsfoot, evening primrose, jewelweed, yarrow, shepherd’s purse, comfrey, echinacea, wintergreen, bee balm… I could go on, but you get the idea.
Having dreamt of studying herbal medicine for years, I saw this bounty as a sign that it was officially time to pursue that interest, which I have been doing so (with the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine) whenever I have a spare moment. It also made me realise that I could add to this treasure trove instead of fighting to grow things that didn’t want to be there, much like forcing an artistically gifted child to pursue a career in accounting.
Bad fit, no-one’s happy.

lavender, herbs, flowers, wildflowers, medicinal herbs, herbal medicine, flowers

Herbs and Flowers

As such, nearly all of my attentions will be put towards growing medicinal herbs, and native pollinator flowers rather than veg. I still have my little culinary herb garden just outside the kitchen door, and I’ll still grow climbing peas up the side of the house because they grow so very well there, but that’s pretty much it.

Since so many medicinal plants already grow here, the ones I’ll be planting and tending are:

  • Black Cohosh
  • Chamomile
  • Marshmallow
  • Horehound
  • Elecampane
  • Calendula
  • Lemon Balm
  • Cleavers
  • Motherwort
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Cayenne
  • Mint (in a pot, else it takes over everywhere)

Related: 7 Healing Herbs to Grow in Your Garden

As for flowers, some of the native species I’ve scattered have medicinal properties as well, whilst others are just great for attracting beneficial pollinators. I have asters and lupines growing pretty much everywhere, but this year I’ll be scattering the following:

  • Bachelor Buttons
  • Coreopsis
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • Cosmos
  • Scarlet Flax
  • Field Poppies
  • Milkweed
  • Columbines

I’ll be tossing around a few non-native species as well, just because I love them so. Hollyhocks and foxgloves will look gorgeous around the perimeter, and I rather like nasturtiums and pansies in window boxes and planters.

Herbal-Medicine

The Bottom Line:

Why am I blathering about all of this?

Quite frankly, to reassure those of you who are struggling with your growing endeavours that even seasoned gardening veterans get frustrated and need to shift direction now and then.
I’ve been growing vegetables and herbs in my own garden spaces for 30 years now, with varying degrees of success. I’ve had yields so bountiful that I foisted massive baskets of produce on friends, neighbours, even the postal workers, because I had more than I knew what to do with… and I have had epic failures that would have left me starving to death if there weren’t a grocery store nearby.

The point is, we work with what we have, and flow with the current as best we can.
We do what we’re capable of, especially when those capabilities shift over time. I mean, we’re all in a constant state of growth and flux, and our priorities can change from one day to the next. Family responsibilities may cut down on gardening time, health challenges can limit mobility, and hell: we just might change our minds about what’s important to us over the next few months while we reevaluate what we want to do with our lives.
And that’s absolutely okay. All of it.
You’re good.

Considering how much I love flowers, I have a sneaking suspicion that this year’s garden may be the most smile-inspiring I’ve had yet.
I won’t be growing many vegetables, but I can support local farmers by buying their produce, and be far less stressed out about my own efforts.

Instead, I can focus all my attention on growing plants I adore: those I can transform into healing salves, teas, and tinctures, and that will make me very happy indeed.

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Pickles!

By Catherine Winter

Since autumn is settling into the southern hemisphere, and friends in Australia and NZ are harvesting merrily, we thought it might be a good idea to focus on them today and offer a little post on preservation techniques.
Namely pickling.

If you don’t love pickles, don’t bother reading this one. Seriously, it’s all about beloved pickled vegetables, from gherkins and bread-and-butter pickle slices to spicy pickled beets, cauliflower, and sauerkraut. There’s a bit of history here and a few splendid recipes to try, and an overall pickle-licious paradise. If you love ’em as much as we do, feast your eyes on the smorgasbord of pickle-dom ahead.

Pickle

The History of Pickling

I had assumed that pickles came about sometime during the Medieval era, when Brother Osbert the Drunken accidentally dropped a cucumber into a vat of vinegar and decided to eat it anyway when he fished it out a couple of days later, but I was wrong. Apparently pickles of various forms have existed for thousands of years, and although the earliest recorded picklings happened in India around 2030 BCE, I’m assuming that much like longbows, arrows, and wheels, they must have sprung up in various parts of the world around the same time.

Pickling is a cheap, effective, and delicious way to preserve the harvest, as all you need (in addition to jars and lids) are vinegar, salt, and sugar. Herbs and spices too, depending on what it is you feel like making.

Fermented and pickled foods are great for your health, as they replenish your gut with good bacteria and help keep the acidity in your stomach balanced. Just be careful not to eat too many pickles if you have issues with acid reflux or ulcers.

Jars Pantry

Recipes

Now, because these are pickled (and as such, are acidic), you only need to use a water bath to process the jars once they’ve been filled. Some people only use boiling vinegar poured over the vegetables and then let the jars auto-seal, but I’m going to suggest erring on the side of caution and processing your jars according to your elevation above sea level.

In fact, if you plan on doing any canning in order to preserve food longterm, I’d recommend reading up on safe canning procedures so you don’t end up with botulism, or with several jars of spoilt food. The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving is an excellent resource, as is Putting Food By, but there are countless canning DIY books that you can find on Amazon at your local bookstore. I’ll recommend getting yourself an actual printed book, rather than relying on web resources: in case of power failure, you can still read a book for information, right?

fridge pickles, quick pickles, refrigerator pickles, easy pickled cucumbers

Fridge Pickles

This is probably the quickest and easiest recipe you can possibly use, and is great for beginners because you don’t have to can your jars in a water bath: you’ll just be keeping the jar in the fridge for a few days, and likely devouring its contents before they have a chance to go manky.

Bread-and-Butter Pickles (Cucumbers)

5 1/2 cups thinly sliced (about ¼-inch) cucumbers
1 1/2 tablespoons salt (kosher is best)
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion (like Vidalia)
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons pickling herb mix

Toss the cucumbers and salt in a large bowl, then chill in the fridge for a couple of hours, then rinse in a strainer and drain it well. Toss those back into the bowl and add the onion, mixing everything very thoroughly. Pack these veggies into a few glass jars of your choosing.

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, and pickling mix, bring up to a boil, and then reduce to a low simmer, stirring constantly until all the sugar has dissolved. Pour this mixture into each jar, covering the veggies completely. Allow the jars to cool a bit, and refrigerate. Wait about 48 hours until eating them so the flavours have been allowed to develop. These will keep in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

carrots, pickled carrots, pickled carrot recipe, canning recipes

Dill Pickled Carrots

When using dill for pickling, take note of the fact that fresh dill sprigs will make the pickling liquid cloudy and murky over time. Crushing the dried seeds slightly and using those will add dill flavour as well, but they won’t cloud the liquid. When you pickle carrots, it’s important to peel them as well as halving or quartering them so that the liquid can seep into the flesh properly. The following recipe is from Serious Eats.

  • 1 and 1/2 pounds carrots: peeled, quartered, and trim to fit into your jars
  • 1 cup plain white vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon pickling salt
  • 1 teaspoon dill seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves garlic

Prepare one pint and a half jar, or two 12oz jelly jars. Place lid(s) in a small pot of water and bring to the barest bubble to soften sealing compound.
Combine vinegar, water and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Place spices and garlic cloves into the bottom of the jar or jars.
Pack carrots sticks upright in jar(s).
Pour the boiling brine over the carrots, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.
Tap jar(s) gently to remove any air bubbles.
Wipe the rims clean and apply the lids and rings.
Process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath, then remove the jar(s) from the canner and allow to cool.
Sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Refrigerator pickles should be placed in the fridge as soon as the jars are cool.

Salsa

Salsa

This one is adapted from the Ball Blue canning book. As with all recipes, adjust to suit your own personal tastes!

  • 5 cups chopped cored peeled tomatoes (about 12 medium)
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped seeded green bell peppers (about 2 large)
  • 2 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped, seeded hot peppers, such as hot banana, Hungarian wax, serrano or jalapeño
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro (optional: leave out if you hate it)
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, optional

Prepare your boiling water canner, and heat 6 Ball (8 oz) half pint glass preserving jars in simmering water until you’re ready to use them. Wash the lids and bands in warm, soapy water, and set aside on a clean towel.

Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, stirring frequently for 8-10 minutes. Remove the jars from the simmering water, drain, then ladle the hot salsa into the warm jars, leaving 1/2 an inch of headspace. Use a spoon handle or similar tool to remove any air bubbles, then wipe the rims, place the lids on your jars, and apply the bands fairly tightly.

Process the jars in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes, then remove the jars and allow to cool at room temperature. You’ll hear satisfying “pops” as the lids seal, but check them after 24 hours to make sure they’ve been drawn downwards: this will prove that the seal is secure.

pickled beets, beets, preserved beets

Sweet and Spicy Pickled Beets

  • 4 pounds of red or golden beets
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed (or use all granulated sugar)
  • 1 teaspoon pickling salt
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water

Sterilize your jars, lids, and bands, and keep them in simmering water in your water bath canner until you’re ready to use them.

Boil the beets in a large pot for about 20 minutes, then drain, rinse under cold water, trim, peel, and chop them into 1″ pieces. Place the cinnamon pieces, cloves, and chili flakes in a muslin or linen spice bag and tie up tightly.

In a large saucepan, combine the sugars, salt, vinegar, and water. Add the spice bag. Bring all of this to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often. In between stirrings, pack your beets into the hot, sterilized jars.

Remove the spice bag from the vinegar mixture, and compost the contents. Use a canning funnel to pour the hot liquid into each jar, leaving 1/2 an inch of headspace. Use a spoon handle to remove any air bubbles, then wipe the lip of the jar with a clean, tamp towel, and use a funnel to pour the hot liquid into each jar, over the beets. Make sure that the liquid still allows for 1/2 an inch of headspace. Place the lids on, tighten with the bands, and process the jars in a boiling water bath canner for 30 minutes. Allow to cool for 24 hours, then test to make sure they’re sealed.

These are just a few simple recipes: there are thousands of amazing combinations you can try, from pickled eggs to corn relish. If there’s a recipe you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments section below! Or, join us in our Facebook group—Farm the World: The Community.

Happy Pickling!

Organic and Heirloom Seed Companies

One of the most common questions we get asked is where we order our seeds from. Our main writers are mostly based in Canada and the USA, so the following companies are based in these two countries. If you’d like to add your favourite company to our list, especially if you’re from another country, please let us know in the comments section!

BakerCreek

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

www.rareseeds.com

Based in Mansfield, MO. USA Ships to Canada and USA.

Botanical-Interests

Botanical Interests

www.botanicalinterests.com

From Broomfield, CO, USA Only ships seeds within USA

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Greta’s Organic Gardens

www.seeds-organic.com

Based in Gloucester, ON, Canada Ships to Canada and USA. Being in Ontario, the seeds are well-suited to growing zones in Eastern Canada and NE USA.

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Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds

www.hawthornfarm.ca

Based in Palmerston, ON, Canada.

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Heritage Harvest Seeds

www.heritageharvestseed.com

Carman, Manitoba, CA. Ships to Canada and USA. Since they’re in Manitoba, you know the seeds will do well in cooler growing zones.

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High Mowing Seeds

www.highmowingseeds.com

Based in Vermont, USA. Ships to USA and Canada. Ideal seeds for cooler regions.

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Salt Spring Seeds

www.saltspringseeds.com

From Salt Spring Island, BC, CA. Ships to Canada and USA.

SeedSavers.png

Seed Savers Exchange

www.saltspringseeds.com

Decorah, Iowa, USA Ships to Canada and USA

WestCoast.png

West Coast Seeds

www.westcoastseeds.com

Delta, BC, Canada Ships to Canada and USA

Urban.png

Urban Harvest

uharvest.ca

From Toronto, ON, Canada. Only ships seeds and plants within Canada.

 

Regrow These Vegetables in Your Kitchen

By Catherine Winter

Chances are you’ve noticed that food is getting more expensive, especially during the winter months. Here in rural Quebec, a head of broccoli or cauliflower can run $7 in January or February, and don’t even get me started on how much lettuce or avocados can cost. I was spoiled while living in Toronto, having access to all manner of cheap vegetables year-round, but when you’re eking out an existence in a cabin in the woods, and there’s only one grocery store within 30km to fall back on, a bit of frugal ingenuity is in order.

It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, but it’s also incentive to do some research about which vegetables can be re-grown on a countertop. It’s really quite startling to see just how much can be grown from leftover scraps: all you need is water, and a sunny spot to place the plants, and within a week or two you’ll have a fresh batch of edibles to enjoy.

Kohlrabi.png

Root Vegetable Greens

Do you like fresh greens? If you do, you’ll be happy to know that it’s incredibly easy to re-grow all manner of root vegetable greens from scraps.
When you’re trimming turnips, rutabagas, radishes, or even kohlrabi for roasting (or however other way you’ll be using them), make sure you leave about half an inch of flesh beneath the upper knob where the greens used to be.

You’ll then place these in a shallow container, add a little bit of water, and place in a sunny spot. Within a week, you’ll see noticeable green growth! Just make sure to refresh the water often so it doesn’t get slimy and manky.

Cabbage

Cabbage, Lettuce, and Fennel

You can use the same technique as that used above, but you’ll be placing a good couple of inches’ worth of rootstock into a glass or small cup of water. Pour an inch or so of water into the container (again, change it out daily), and make sure to put it in a spot where it’ll get direct sunlight.

Green Onions

Spring Onions (Scallions) and Leeks

Their roots are really cute, aren’t they? Like mini Cthulu tendrils.
When you use these onions, chop off the green parts but leave at least an inch of white bulb above the frilly roots. Place these in a clear drinking glass and add water (change it often, yes) and watch it grow.

These—and leeks—can re-grow several times over, as long as you’re diligent about keeping the water refreshed. Also, the reason why you’ll put them in a clear glass is so light can get right to the roots.

In addition to helping your grocery budget, re-growing these vegetables can go a fair way towards satiating your need to garden while there’s still snow on the ground outside. Most of us champ at the bit to get out there and GROW STUFF and find it difficult to wait for the big thaw to happen, so this can keep us occupied in the interim.
Growing cucumbers and sweet potatoes in your bathroom also helps.
…I’ll write about that next week.


Catherine

mouse, field mouse, house mouse, mouse in the house, mouse eating, mouse eating seeds

Mice Will Play: Lessons in Seed Storing

By Catherine Winter

There are a few basic truths about living in a rural area: dining options tend to be limited (no going out for Ethiopian or Thai food at 3 a.m.); serenity will be disturbed by camping aficionados on summer holiday; and you will have mice in the house at some point.

They’re not as much of a nuisance in summertime, since there’s plenty to eat outside, but they will certainly find their way indoors once the weather turns cold. Since I no longer have a cat (RIP Callie and Aylwyn), my mousey housemates have gotten a bit bolder, and have been venturing into places they wouldn’t have dared to go before. Case in point, I discovered yesterday that the little monsters have somehow gotten into what I thought was a secure cupboard, and helped themselves to some of my vegetable and herb seeds.

My heirloom, organic, sacred-to-me seeds. Not cool, mice. Not cool at all.

Glass-Seed-Tubes

Storage Solutions

I’m of the opinion that every setback is an opportunity for learning and growth, and the lesson I learned this past weekend (Happy New Year!) is that my current method of storing seeds just doesn’t cut it. The mice chewed through plastic containers that were holding my paper seed envelopes, so I’m going to have to take more extreme measures and transfer my remaining seeds—and others I’ll purchase in future—into glass storage containers.

For small batches of seeds, I think that clearly labeled test tubes are the way to go, and then I can store those in wooden boxes. Hey, if it works in the Svalbard seed vault, it’ll probably be just fine for my homesteading needs, right?

Related: New Year, New Opportunity to Start a Community Seed Bank

Seed-Storage-box

When I do my big seed order at the end of this month or the beginning of February, I’ll likely order a couple of boxes of glass test tubes so I can store the seeds properly. Until then, I picked up some glass spice jars from the grocery store: they can hold what’s left of my seed stash and will hopefully keep the furry little jerks from raiding my seed stash from now on.

Permaculture really is about working with the land and environment in order to cultivate a symbiosis, but it also takes into consideration the other life forms with whom we share living spaces. I plant alliums like chives, leeks, and garlic around my garden beds to dissuade deer and rabbits, for example, and protective cloth goes over the brassicas to keep the cabbage moths at bay.

Although I’ve tried to seal most cracks and such in my home, and use mint oil to fend off the mice, it’s inevitable that a few will get overzealous and make their way into my cupboards. Humane traps are great, but removing temptation entirely by storing things in glass and metal is probably the best action I could take.

Field-Mouse

How about you? How do you keep your seeds and stored foodstuffs from being gnawed upon? Share your tips with us in the comments section!

Stockings on the Staircase

by Anneke Bon

Growing up in the eighties, my Christmas recollections are split into two separate memories. The first is a soft focus memory, featuring scenes from Saturday morning cartoon Christmas specials, energizer bunny promises of toys that will run forever and that damned my little pony castle I wanted so much but never got. All this reminiscence plays to the tune of the Toys r Us theme. Prepackaged consumerism, perfectly wrapped in Santa’s sleigh that carried him to our roofs, conditioning our responses to what this time of year means,  is exactly what this time of year was never supposed to be about.

The second memory is the reality. The small town house, second to last on a row of six. Red brick, with a small back yard and a shared driveway. Christmas there was not like the one I saw on TV. It was understated, it was without some very pivotal elements, like the mountains of toys the TV promised, and the stockings perfectly placed on the fireplace. Santa was in for a surprise when he visited me, because we didn’t have a fireplace he could shimmy down. His portal to give me my presents was reduced to a window or door. How disappointing for Santa. I always wondered if that was why I never got the things I thought I wanted. But mostly I really wanted to hang my stockings on the fireplace. Instead we hung our stockings from the banister of our stairs. I always felt cheated. As if Christmas was not being performed properly.

Christmas changes, as in all things in life because we change. So not getting what I ‘wanted’ didn’t matter as much anymore. It was more important I got what I needed. And that was family and friends. Being with my Dad and Mom, especially after they divorced became important. Seeing friends, spending time with them is more precious than money. The consumerism the eighties bred into me is still there, but it has been tempered with more humility from living through the nineties and opening my eyes to see the world. The fact that I know that places in this world are so wrought with pain and suffering, that the concept of crying over a plastic castle for miniature toy ponies seems so frivolous its nearly offensive. But I was a kid, and its not fair to judge ourselves when we were so naive.

Many of the traditions that my family and I created became have become very important. Even though the childhood thrill of Christmas faded as I grew older. Hanging the stockings on the banister became a vital component of my holiday experience. It wasn’t in front of a picturesque fireplace, but it made me recall days of playing in the snow till I couldn’t feel my toes, and being with those I loved.

Now I am a mother of two boys, living in a house that has a grand staircase and a fireplace. I was giddy when I realized I could hang my stockings the old fashion way and really give my kids the authentic experience. But in honour of my traditions, I’m still going to hang my old stockings from the banister, as an ode to my youth and to show my kids that stockings and life does not always have to look like how we’re told its supposed to be. Some traditions are meant to be broken, others are meant to remind us of where we came from.
The biggest tradition that I think this season should be about is love. Love for mankind and the earth is the only thing that will one day bring light to the places in this world still masked in pain.
Love.
Not like what we saw in cartoons, or advertised on TV.
It’s better than the energizer bunny, better than that plastic castle, and better than Santa.
It’s what we really want for Christmas and why I will still hang my stockings from the Staircase, because we need to remember the people that love us and who we love back.image1.JPG

Around the Table, Around the World

By Siv Volden, Anita Rubino, John Martin, Pamela Capriotti Martin

One of the greatest benefits of Facebook to our family has been connecting with family members, particularly overseas. Daughter Maille connected easily with her cousin Siv in Vinstra, Norway and her cousin, Anita in Naples, Italy about their family traditions in their homes and countries. When I read their accounts, I immediately recognized some of the traditions from my childhood through Siv (we are related through my grandmother, Hildred) and some from Anita (Johns mother Giulia and Anitas father, Guglielmo are sister and brother). John has added his memories of how his Italian mother and Irish father brought their family celebrations together during the Christmas holidays.

Anita:

One of the two main Christmas traditions in our family and in Naples can be found in the nativity or ‘presepi’. At midnight the 24th of December we sing a song and in procession take the little Jesus Christ to the main scene of the nativity. Usually it is the youngest member of the family who has this honor of carrying the Christ child.24956869_10213029430922792_1783634754_o.jpg

On Christmas Eve we eat fish. We begin with a salad with shrimp followed by spaghetti with sea fruits, bass cooked in the oven, fried shrimp and there is a special salad which is named insalata di rinforzo (backup or reinforcement salad) ironically because the dinner doesn’t need any backup! The salad is cauliflower with olives, pickled peppers and many other things.Image-1 (1).jpg

The rule for the end of the meal is fresh fruit and eating almonds and other nuts.

The other tradition every year are lighting fires in every home, out on the balcony or on the terrace of the building: at midnight of 31st of December. It’s a gesture of invitation to the Virgin Mary, who can warm newborn Jesus next to the warm flames. Afterwards, according to tradition, families would use the ashes as charms to protect the house from damage.

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Siv:

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Advent is very important in the Norwegian tradition. It starts Dec1. Most children get a Christmas calendar with one little gift a day until Dec. 24. Norwegian television has calendars with Christmas stories and lots of people are having Christmas parties with neighbors and family.

Building up to the Christmas holiday we will make homebrewed beer, bake lefse, clean the house and make seven different cookies. Years ago, Norway was a very poor country which is why so many families emigrated to the United States, including Pamela’s great-grandparents Mathea and Thron Thronson. (Siv and Pamela are related through Mathea). So long ago the custom was to bake the seven kinds of cookies to show neighbors that we were wealthy enough to bake so many cookies.24209224_1483484111698650_1112224394_o.jpg

In Norway, Christmas Eve is when Santa Claus arrives with gifts. The holiday starts Dec 24 at 5 pm. Dec 25 and Dec 26 are also holy days. Santa Claus has a Norwegian relative: fjøsnissen, who live in the barn and are taking care of animals and people at the farm IF people treat them nice. So we’re making porridge and putting it in the barn on Christmas Eve so fjøsnissen will keep on helping us at the farm.

Typical Christmas dinner is: pork ribs, lamb ribs, lutefisk and lefse.24321780_1483482095032185_956396611_o.jpg

John’s Christmas traditions include Italian traditions like the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve and Irish traditions on Christmas Day.

John:

We always had pasta with different fish including smelt, shrimp, and some sort of white fish. On Christmas Day there would be a roast, usually beef with roasted potatoes, brussels sprouts and for dessert a Christmas pudding with stirred custard.

Pamela:

My family had Christmas Eve with my mom’s parents and Christmas Day with my dad’s family where we usually had turkey with all the trimmings including pies for dessert. My Norwegian grandmother always thought Christmas Eve was more important than Christmas Day and was always the first to open her gifts. The house smelled of cookies and lutefisk but she always made a pork crown roast with lingonberries for dinner.

The melding of John and Pam’s heritage began with honoring our Italian and Norwegian roots on Christmas Eve. While I did not grow up with any Italian Christmas traditions despite my last name, John did. On occasion we would prepare several fish dishes and pasta, but mostly we would order a crown pork roast stuffed with sausage, my grandmother Hildred’s Norwegian tradition. There would be cranberry compote (too hard to find lingonberries) mashed potatoes, and root vegetables. For dessert? That’s always been pretty open to whatever the girls wanted to make or wanted to eat but there would be lefse and sandbakkels. This year we are making pasta. Christmas Day we now are fully committed to prime rib, roasted English potatoes, brussels sprouts and for dessert – well John gets his mince pies, Christmas pudding and a puddle of custard. For the rest of us – an apple pie with the same perfect custard robe.

Happy Christmas to all.IMG_0694.JPG

Yalda: Midwinter in Iran

by MK Martin

There are one or two mentions of Pagan solstice festivals in the facebook feed these days. Midwinter is a ‘trend’, and did you know that Santa was really tripping on mushrooms? But one I’ve never heard of, until I went looking, is Yalda. I’ll only give some brief details, as it’s worth reading about yourself. *

Of Iranian and Persian descent, this 5000 year old, four day Fire Festival, beginning on the 21st, marks the Birth of the Iranian sun god Mithra, and the symbolic triumph of light over darkness. Dating back possibly as far as 3rd or 4th millennium BCE, Zayeshmehr, Shab-e Cheleh, or Yalda marks the beginning of the solar year. Fires burn all night, to ensure Ahriman (Satan!) will get a clue and keep away from the feast. At the party, forgiveness, god worship and acts of charity are custom, and in the morning, it is believed Creator, Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom and affordable cars), would grant wishes.MithraONE.png

Much like certain European festivals, this was a time for servants and lords to trade places, with the king ‘hiding’ among commoners. The strict standards of living were relaxed. These traditions merged with the Roman traditions, which included decorating with greenery, throwing massive parties (though, that was a Roman theme for anything), and letting bygones be bygones. Wars were suspended, businesses closed and grudges forgiven.

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But now for the important bit: the food. Preserving summer foods for Shab-e Cheleh is important, as the mixing of summer with winter food is the feature, and there are no specific recipes. Watermelon, pomegranate, feta cheese and nuts served alongside herbs like mint and tarragon are devoured with lavash bread and ground Angelica. As long as the food is contrasting in seasons, it’s welcome at the table.

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I found a great recipe for a Baghlava cake. There are photo steps, as well as written, and it looks not -too- difficult to pull off. From persianmama.com:

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Bake 35-40 minutes at 350 F center rack
yield: Twenty 2 x 2 inch pastries

Author: Homa
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Persian

INGREDIENTS:
FOR THE DOUGH
8 ounces sweet butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla powder or 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE FILLING
2 tsp cardamom powder
2 tsp cinnamon powder
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts, split-pea sized
2 egg whites, beaten until foamy (save the yolks)
2 egg yolks mixed with 1 tsp cold water for the egg wash
FOR THE SYRUP:
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ TBSP honey
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water
GARNISH:
Chopped Pistachios

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F, center rack
2. Grease a 9 x13 x1 inch nonstick baking pan with butter flavored Crisco and lightly dust with flour. Tap the pan over the sink to shake off the excess flour.
3. In a small bowl mix 2 tsp cardamom, 2 tsp cinnamon, ¾ cup powdered sugar and 1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk all the dough ingredients except the flour, until smooth.
5. Add the flour gradually and mix well with a wooden spoon after each addition. Add enough flour until the dough stops sticking to the fingers; you may have some leftover flour. On a lightly floured surface pat the dough into a fat rectangle, then divide it into two equal pieces.
6. Use a rolling pin to roll out one of the dough pieces into a 9 x 13 inch rectangle.
7. Gently lift the rolled dough and lay it on the prepared baking pan, use your finger tips to gently stretch the dough to fit the bottom of the pan perfectly.
8. Brush some of the foamy egg white on the dough.
9. Sprinkle all of the walnut filling mixture over the dough in the pan.
10. Drizzle the rest of the beaten egg white on the mixture.
11. On the floured surface roll out the other piece of dough into another 9 x 13 inch rectangle for the top. Carefully cover the nut and spice mixture with the rolled out dough and stretch it with your fingertips to completely cover the top of the pastry. Press the dough onto the filling.
12. Use a sharp plastic knife to mark the dough into 20 equal rectangles. Cut through the thickness of the pastry on the marks you have made. Brush the egg wash over the entire surface of the pastry.
13. Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is a rich golden brown.
14. After 15 minutes into baking start making the syrup: In a 2-Qt saucepan add 1 ½ cups water, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 1 ½ TBSP honey. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add 1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water. Set aside until ready to use.
15. By the time the pastry is ready, the syrup should reach a lukewarm temperature.
16. Remove the pastry from the oven. Place the pan in a larger baking pan to catch any possible syrup dripping.
17. Use your plastic knife once again to cut through the baked pastry between the squares. Drizzle all of the lukewarm syrup evenly all over the hot pastry, don’t forget the borders. It might look like all the syrup will not fit in the pan, but it does and all of it will get soaked up to make this cake amazingly moist and delicious. Sprinkle the pastry with chopped pistachio. Allow to cool completely in the pan over a cooling rack before transferring the pastries to a serving platter in a single layer.
18. This pastry is best when served at room temperature
NOTES
Freeze any extra pastries by arranging them in a single layer in an airtight freezer container, cover the top of the pastries loosely with a sheet of parchment paper, then cover the container with the lid tightly.

*These details are truncated. If anyone sees an incorrect one, let me know!

Rustic Yule Dinner

By Catherine Winter

There have been many years in which I have cooked for an army during the holidays, whether it was a mountain of latkes, brisket and sufganiyot for Hanukkah, or turkey with stuffing and all the side dishes in the world for Christmas luncheon, but the past few years have been softer, quieter. Relatives do the majority of the cooking for massive Christmas get-togethers, while I just put together a Yule (solstice) dinner for two to four people.

latkes

This time of year is quiet and sacred for me, and is usually a time of reflection by the fireside while snow falls softly over the forest nearby. Ancestors are honoured, and so the foods I make for Yule dinner honour them, in my own way. Crispy potato pancakes for both my Slavic and Sephardic ancestry, topped with gravlax or roe for the Swedish and Dane bloodline. Pan-fried Brussels sprouts, pickled beets, and roasted chestnuts usually make an appearance, and since I’ve been living in Quebec for the past five years, my own version of tourtière is served as the main dish. The genii loci seem to nod their approval, at least, even if I skip the cloves and cinnamon in favour of summer savory and thyme.

sprouts

Not normally a dessert person, I tend to serve the roasted chestnuts an hour or two after the main meal has been eaten, accompanied by local cheese and whatever fruit I can get my hands on, out here in the wild. This year I’ll also bake a small lemon and poppyseed drizzle cake, both because I crave lemons in wintertime, and because MK was kind enough to give me a Meyer lemon and so help me I am going to use it for something special.

Unlike the formal dinners of my youth, this is a very human, gentle meal that’s eaten where all are most comfortable. Sometimes this has been at the dining table, other times it’s been like a picnic, sprawled by the fireside in a nest of blankets. When it’s -30C outside, hearthside is a rather glorious place to eat, believe me. There will be candles, a plate set aside to honour those not present, and appreciation for the fact that the light will soon return.

meat pie

Catherine’s Not-Quite-Tourtière

 

Pie Crust

I use Anna Olson’s gluten-free pie crust recipe and just omit the sugar:

2 cups brown rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chilled cream cheese
1 cup chilled unsalted butter
2 egg whites

pie shell

Preheat your oven to 375F.

In a large bowl, combine the rice flour, tapioca starch, and salt. Cut the cream cheese and butter into half-inch pieces, and use a pair of knives or forks to cut them into the dry ingredients until a crumbly texture starts to form. In another bowl, beat the eggwhites until they’re frothy, then add to the dough, mixing well until a softer, more homogenous dough forms. Split this into two balls, flatten them into discs, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and freeze for 40 minutes or so.

Once chilled, take one disc out of the freezer, and roll out between a couple of sheets of parchment or waxed paper until it’s about 12 inches in diameter. Flip this onto a greased 10- or 11-inch pie plate, and remove any paper from it.
Fill it with pie crust weights or dry beans, and bake for 8-10 minutes to firm it up. Remove from the oven, pour out the beans or weights, and set aside to cool for another 10 minutes or so.

Root veg

Filling

This is a perfect opportunity to use some of the root vegetables that have been in storage since the last harvest.

2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 medium turnip, peeled and diced
1/2 rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 small sweet potato, peeled and diced
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
1 pound mixed organic ground meat (I use a combination of beef, chicken, and pork)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried summer savoury
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons flour (I use gluten-free)
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas

Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium heat, then add half the onions. Stir frequently until they start to go translucent, then add all the root vegetables and chopped garlic. Sprinkle half the salt, pepper, garlic powder, and herbs over them, toss them well, and sautee the lot until the vegetables begin to brown and soften. Remove from heat.

In another pan, repeat the process with the remaining onion, and when it softens, add the ground meat mix and the remaining herbs and spices. Stir well, and continue to cook the meat until it’s almost cooked through. Drain the juices into a smaller saucepan, then combine the meat and vegetables in a large bowl. Add the peas and corn, and mix well.

Take the saucepan with the juices in it, add in the butter, and melt that on medium-low heat until the butter melts. Stir the flour in bit by bit, stirring it gently until it browns and cooks through, then whisk in the chicken stock. Keep whisking this thoroughly until it thickens into a wonderful gravy, making sure to get rid of all lumpy bits, then pour it over the meat and veg mixture in the large bowl, and stir it all together well.

slice

Transfer this mixture into the pre-baked pie crust bottom, and use a spatula to spread it around evenly. Then remove the other pie pastry from the freezer and repeat the rolling-out process. Once flattened nicely, cover the meaty mixture with it, pressing firmly around the edges to create a good seal. If this pastry is large enough, you can even fold it over the edges.
Then, use a knife to cut a few holes in the pastry top to allow steam to escape.

Brush the top of the pie with a bit of beaten egg or melted butter, pop it into the oven, and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the pastry is a lovely golden colour. Remove, and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so before serving.