Disaster Recovery

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Deep breaths, aaaaaand begin again. I rolled around in my thoughts for a full 24 hours. I was really anxious because this was supposed to be cheap, and now it would cost money. I finally settled on an entirety different approach. I was trying to put something together fast and cheap until I could build the tractor I really want. But I really want to stick to the principle of working with what I already have, so I decided to convert an area in the big barn…which is a mess.

Old cheese boxes, skis, bird nests, homemade creations, giant wooden spools, safety gasses, building materials, farming equipment that hasn’t occurred to you before, owl pellets, soup dispensers, tools, adopted stray cats, and vast quantities of petrified poop. A variable treasure trove of trinkets reflecting life from the very founding of our nation (this home was build by a Revolutionary War veteran) to this day. Fascinating. Now they will hold chickens again.

I chose a stall that was used to hold grain. It is covered in flour. Task number one is to empty the things people have been flinging in it over the years and clean it out. It was one of those jobs that once you complete, you tip toe straight to the laundry room to strip down, throw your clothes directly into the washer, and then march directly to the shower. I strategically completed this during the small one’s nap time, so it was ready for construction the next day.

The plan is to convert the entire north end of the ground level in phases. Phase one:

The construction of a wall with a door to enclose the inner stall

The rehabilitation of an aluminum storm door that was laying around in another barn

The installation of a cheap vinyl floor for easy clean-up

The running of hose through the floor to the spring spout

The construction of a shelf of bucket nest boxes

The installation of roosts

Phase two:

The removal of bees from the wall of the outside stall

The installation of a real window in the barn wall

Second verse same as the first to expand chicken housing down the road

Phase three:

The conversation of the space directly in front of these coops into an organized garden shed. I don’t have steps for this yet.

All I need to start with is phase one. While this will not be done in the leisurely pace I had imagined when I first started throwing the busted up outdoor coop together, I am well on my way to having it completed by the time the chickens are large enough to move out of the brooder. I’m happy with this outcome and even pleased that it’s given me a reason to get started on the large barn and get my gardening tools out of the basement.

I’ve also managed to get some compost bins together this week, which has been bugging me for months. I simply nail several pallets together in a stall formation and rotate their use. This is compost system number one – I’ll get into it more once the big gardens are in.

The only other thing I’ve have time to do this week is get started on the leftover weeds in the tomato patch. This is not an exciting job, but they can’t all be as glamorous as decomposing kitchen waste and cleaning poop out of a barn.

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Disaster Strikes

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Continuing on through the week…

On Tuesday I did battle with the gnats. I’ve never had to deal with these before. I don’t know what it is about this place but I can’t get rid of them. Their purpose in life is to drive me bananas, by hiding all year, and then stealthily making their way to the dining room to lay their eggs in my plants. Once their so-called “babies” emerge, they eat the tender roots of my seedlings. Their favorite is apparently onion. Last year they wiped out my entire onion crop before it ever had a chance. So this is a thing. Expecting them this year, I covered my seed cells with a layer of vermiculite, thus making the usually soft inviting seed mix sharpe and uncomfortable. While this didn’t stop the dog from taking a big mouthful, it did hold the bugs off until just now, when suddenly there was a population explosion, and I had to get rid of at least a dozen tomato plants. There is no feeling bad about this considering the number of tomato plants I have, however, they all represent my time and a portion of dirt, fertilizer and space which cannot be ignored. The gnats have to go. I will begin by spraying them with soapy water & need oil. While this is acceptable for organic gardening, it is an indoor solution only for me, as it is dangerous to bees. I’ll have to stop before it’s time to transplant. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Heard peroxide worked? I feel like I’m just managing this problem without solving it.

But oh, the gnats are nothing compared to Wednesday’s wind storm. It’s often very windy up on this hill. We jokingly call it Hoth all the time. We’re used to it and we even like it – makes you feel cozy inside the warm house in the winter. But yesterday was I think, the strongest wind we’ve ever had. 40mph the weather channel said, and I have no frame of reference for that other than that it was legitimately difficult to walk ( Kingsley couldn’t manage it at all ).

I witnessed the whole thing from the dining room window. Said gale lifted my chicken coop like the wizard of oz, carried it 20 feet towards the hill and then smashed it into the ground. Like a cartoon. Le sigh. The open frame with a roof, heavy as it was, was picked up like a kite.

The worst part about this, is that it was going to be a free chicken coop. That is no longer the case. Having used every 2×4 left in the barn, the most suitable materials are mainly smashed to tiny bits. This is a significant setback in the egg department as I have mentioned before, making money on organic eggs isn’t really a thing. Additionally, time is now of the essence. With the weather report looking as if this cold won’t really break until the end of next week, it’ll be well into April before much can be accomplished. Which means I’m going to have to haul ass the last couple weeks of April. Oh boy.

In case you were wondering, there is also nothing left of the fava beans. This experiment will have to be re-tried another spring.

On the up side, several buckets have blown into my yard. Buckets are always useful.

Sempre avanti!

This Week on the Homestead

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This cold spring is no fun. The fact that the sun hasn’t been out long enough to dry anything up means I can’t dig my new garden without getting the tractor stuck. There is more cold in the forecast later this week, so I dare not try to pry the wall back on my barn bees. In fact the bee shipment has been delayed due to the cold anyway. I’ve been building a chicken house in one hour increments because that’s how long my fingers can go without gloves on the nicer days. So this week I’m going to try my best not to get depressed, but to focus on parts of my plans that can be accomplished on the edge of spring. So this blog may not be terribly interesting, sorry, it’s more for my own benefit to help keep me motivated.

Side Note on Barn Demolition – over the one nice Saturday we had a barn razing. To the north of the house there is a small barn that actually pre-dates the house. The cool thing is the history of it, the down side is that it’s right in the view. Since the roof of this barn is beyond repair, and over the years other owners have covered it’s sides with sheet metal, and the groundhogs have completely undermined its foundation, we’ve decided to take it down and salvage the nicer wood. The beams are beautiful, and the main sliding door is perfect for a loft apartment somewhere. Most of the siding that hasn’t been destroyed is very thin, too thin to plain. We’ll save what we can for some wood shop projects. More on that later.

So here we go! It’s Monday and it’s freezing, but the sun is out so Im working on the chicken coop. I finished putting the metal on my chicken house roof. Since making money on eggs isn’t really a thing, I’m not investing much in this structure. I’ve spent a little on hardware, but mainly it’s constructed from a hodgepodge of materials the previous homeowner left behind in the barn.

Fava Experiment – at some point over the winter I read someone else’s method of starting fava beans indoors if you weren’t able to sow them direct the season before. I decided that I would give it a try but not take it too seriously. I used some older seeds and sure, they popped up healthy, but even a fava bean won’t like this weather and I left them in the tray longer than I knew to be good for them. They are tall, spindly and root bound, but I’ve hardened them off over the last few days and now the brief reprieve of sunshine gives me the opportunity to put them in the warm-ish ground, stake them up and drape them with a row cover. I’m not expecting much, but I’ll report back on that later.

My cabbages are ready to plant now, but I don’t have a place for them! I had plans to expand my kitchen garden anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and get started on that and use it to save my seedlings instead of waiting to plant herbs in it. The cabbage will be finished early enough to successively put herbs in. I can also use the tomato patch location for this. I’d rather use an alternate tomato location than lose the cabbage. So I’m going to go ahead and start hardening these plants off today. The snow is finally gone, so we can FINALLY start digging out the new garden this week.

Tomorrow, it’s supposed to be 38, rainy and super windy. Yuck. I’ll take care of the seedlings, start a few vines indoors and maybe give the dog a haircut.

Planting Tomatoes – Seed to Garden

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Now that I have more space for gardening, it really isn’t economical to purchase transplants – especially if you enjoy heritage varieties like I do. If you happen to have a tomato obsession, it’s especially costly. I plant a flat of 72 tomatoes for about $20 bucks. You can find ways to make this more expensive obviously, but if I purchased 72 plants from a greenhouse I’d be pushing $250.00 pretty easily, so doing it myself not only makes financial sense, it gives you a little therapeutic boost in the doldrums of February to take care of your baby plants. The only condition I hold myself to is that I wait until after the first week of February. After that, any day I feel crappy could turn into tomato day. If hypothetically, you were more disciplined than I, you might count backwards 5 weeks from your last frost date to schedule step #4, and backwards 5 more weeks to start your seeds.

There is still time to do this here on Hoth, but if you’re going to try, don’t delay any longer, it’s time to get moving. Our last frost date in the Finger Lakes is May 1 – so we aim to have plants mature enough to be set outside by then. People have lots of ideas and preferences when it comes to seed starting, so let me just preface these “instructions” by saying there are many right ways. I’ll tell you what I do, and you can make your own adjustments.

1. What kind of tomatoes? Here are some things so consider:

– Do you mainly put cherry tomatoes on your salad? Like to make sauce? Slice them for sandwiches?

– What zone am I in? Different varieties become ripe at different rates. If you have a long growing season, this is less of an issue. Up here in zone 5, I can grow just about any kind here but it’s nice to have some earlier cool hardy varieties. If you don’t know your zone or last frost date, visit the Old Farmer’s Almanac online, they will hook you up with a quickness.

– How much space? There are determinate and indeterminate tomatoes – determinate, as the name implies, produces all of its fruit at once in a large crop and then dies off. Most are what you’d imagine as average in size. This is great for making tomato sauce, not great if you’re hoping to pop outside and grab a tomato to add to your salad all summer. An indeterminate plant will keep producing fruit all season until it’s finally too cold for it to survive. This means that it will also keep growing all season and some of these plants can become truly massive, so read the descriptions of each type before tossing that packet into your cart. If you have a small garden, consider a dwarf variety, or a variety that can be trellised vertically. This is a large beefsteak type beside a dwarf type.A large beefsteak type beside a dwarf typeThis doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, I like to plant the Italian Tree tomato next to my porch stairs – it needs only a small space to go into the ground but grows to about 10 feet in length by October and I just keep tying it to the railing all summer long. I easily took over 50 tomatoes off of this one plant last year.

– To heirloom or not to heirloom? There’s a lot of hype about heirloom tomatoes these days. I personally prefer them, I find them to be more flavorful, more disease resistant and generally more interesting. I’m not going to take the time here to discuss what makes an heirloom an heirloom because frankly, some of them walk the line. If this is the first time you’re starting seeds, I honestly wouldn’t worry about it much, time is of the essence. But if you are, you must, and you do, these are my favorite places to look for tomato seeds online in order of preference:

http://www.fruitionseeds.com (by far my fav)

http://www.hudsonvalleyseed.com

http://www.rareseeds.com

http://www.wildboarfarms.com

http://www.neseed.com

2. Collect your materials (all are available inexpensively on amazon, slightly more expensively at your local gardening store). You will need:

– A seed starter tray that holds water…I also retire my old cookie sheets to this position.

– Small planting cells of some kind – I use plastic 6 pack cells, but egg cartons or dixy cups work too. I reuse mine and take them from other people who would throw them out but if you do this, please wash them or soak them briefly in a 10:1 bleach solution – mold and fungus off all kinds can live on these for a long time and last year’s mildew or critter eggs can kill this year’s tomato baby.

– Seed starter soil mix of some sort – there are fancy varieties available, but I find that the cheapest kind actually works the best, so I get the organic jiffy seed starter from Lowe’s or Home Depot (it is usually several dollars cheaper at these large stores). I do not use my own garden soil for the same reason that I wash my used cells.

– Pitcher of water

– Something to mix dirt in…a bucket, a large bowl, a storage tote, whatever you think is a convenient size.

– Optional but recommended – Espoma Tomato Tone or Garden Tone. My gardens are organic, so this is what I use. If that is not important to you, many greenhouses use Jacks 20-20-20 to get their seeds started. Both are commonly available at your local gardening store. I have also used nothing, and waited to fertilize my plants until they were large enough for a second pot (more on that later), and although the plants managed, I won’t do this again. I also keep a liquid fertilizer on hand in case there is some sort of emergency in which my plants need help faster than the solid crumble will break down.

– Optional – seed starter heat mat. The application of heat greatly speeds germination in tomatoes (which is useful at this eleventh hour), but if you can’t find one quick or on the cheap, the top of your refrigerator works in a pinch. Avoid any ideas involving your home’s radiators or forced air vents…better to wait longer for your seeds to sprout than cook or dehydrate them.

– Labels! Unless you are growing only a couple of plants, you’d be surprised how easily and at how many different points you have the opportunity to mix them up. Anything – popsicle sticks, masking tape, those white things you get at the garden store. Note that even sharpie will quickly wear off outdoors if you use the white things (I use a label maker).

3. Mix up the dirt (I know, I know, it drives proper gardeners crazy when you don’t say “soil”). I must admit that my method of seed starting fertilization is a less than exact science. Disclaimer – fertilizer companies pretty much never advise using your bare hands to apply their products, organic or not. I will also not advise you to do so. This is what I do:

– For every bag of jiffy, I add what might be considered 1/3 – 1/2 cup of Espoma. I fold that into the jiffy to keep the dust down immediately. I then add water and mix until I’ve got something resembling the saturation of wet sand. This allows you to see the true volume of what you’re working with. Since we’re obviously not using our hands here, a little trowel or even a kitchen spoon is nice to have on hand.

– I fill my cells with this mixture up to about 1/4 inch from the top and then tamp it down without smooshing. I put only one seed in the center of each cell. Many people plant 2 or more and then cut away the least viable seedlings after they emerge. This is not a bad idea if you want to try starting seeds now. In a tray of 72 cells, 5 or 6 won’t germinate – if you’re only trying to grow 3 tomato plants, that’s a tomato roulette. The older the seeds are the less viable they become. In general however, tomato seeds are awesome in that they last several years. I get the most out of my seed packets by planting only one in each, waiting for them to emerge and then immediately replanting in the cells that had a bum seed. When you start your seeds in February, there is time to do this once or even twice. I top the cells off with more dirt, arrange them in the tray and then water again from the bottom (so I don’t displace the tiny seeds) – 1/4 inch will be fine. If you purchased one of those seed trays that has a little greenhouse top, do use it. As a general rule, heat to germinate and light to grow – so if what you have for heat is a refrigerator, no prob, they don’t need light yet, they have no leaves. Check the tray daily to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

– Once they emerge with 2 little leaves the temperature can be reduced and they’ll need a sunny window or a grow light. The roots are very shallow at this point and it’s important to continue to keep the tray moist like that original wet sand mixture. At this point you will see the plant’s seed leaves. These are not “true” tomato plant leaves. Eventually a new set of leaves will emerge that actually have that distinct tomato shape.

4. Transplanting the babies. Around 4-5 weeks, the plants will have developed 4 or 5 true leaves…some of the seed leaves may start to turn brown and fall off. At this time I pull out all of my planting stuff again. These leggy (tall & skinny) little things need a bigger pot to develop their roots. All of the little hairs that line the tomato stem are potential roots. At this point it’s helpful to the plant to mix a little heavier soil than just the fluffy jiffy – I use whatever is around as long as it’s sterile (from a bag at the store) – compost, potting soil, garden soil, a mix, whatever. I add another round of Tomato Tone and water just like the first time, remove the seedlings from their cells as carefully as possible, pinch the seed leaves off if they’re still there, and re-pot them in a larger pot all the way up to the bottom leaves. Again, tamp the soil down without smooshing. Now that the plants are more stable, I water from the top.

– A week later you’ll be saying to yourself “didn’t I bury that whole stem!?” Now I just have to keep them happy for a few more weeks while their roots grow and their stems get stronger.

5. Close to our last frost date, I harden the plants off. This keeps them from becoming damaged by the outdoor conditions they are not used to. All it takes is putting them outside for a few hours each day for a few days to a week. I just keep an eye on them. They can become sunburnt if given too much exposure too fast, or in my case, it’s very windy here and I’m careful to keep them from breaking.

5. Move them to the garden. I shoot to have my tomatoes ready to transplant by the last week in April just in case the weather is especially nice. But it’s important to use your area’s last frost date as your guide and watch the weather report. If it frosts after you plant, it is necessary to go out and put something protective over your plants such as a cardboard box or bushel basket. When I transplant, I use all the same principles as with the transplant. In a full sun location, I add a fertilizer, plant them very deep again and then water heavily (at the base so as not to break the foliage). Then I’m good to go and I can finally reclaim my windowsills.

This is long, I’ll stop there and save staking, pruning and drainage for another time! Thanks for reading, if you have questions I’ll do my best to help. Happy planting!

Spring Fever

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The hibernation is almost over. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. When we first moved here, Matt and I agreed that we’d wait a year before doing anything drastic, so I haven’t made many changes besides putting in a small rock garden with a few currant bushes and a kitchen herb garden. Oh, but that year is up and now it’s on.

This house was built in 1803 by a doctor and his sons after serving in the Revolutionary War. He built it to align with the equinox, which makes one terribly conscious of how fast time goes by – now the sun is moving back across the hills, approaching the place where it lines up with my doors. In the morning when it rises, it pours so intensely through the windows that you feel a natural inclination to just walk outside in your pajamas.

I’ve spent my winter studying (or rather, annoying the crap out of Matt) – permaculture design, pastured poultry, groundwater, organic pest control methods, honeybees, hard cider recipes, ways to preserve green beans, composting systems, tomato varieties, oh my word I’m such a dork. But I’m super stoked for this summers to-do list.

First thing is to prepare new gardens. In order to first address my tomato obsession, we last year tilled a separate patch of ground closer to the house. This will become a little tomato wonderland, including other things commonly found with tomatoes such as garlic, basil, and a place to sit with a glass of wine and smell it all while talking with your hands.

There are honeybees in the barn wall. Many of them. So the plan is to get them out of the wall and start 2 hives. One, by taking some of the bees and introducing them to a new queen which I’ve ordered; the other, by either locating the existing queen and putting her in a new hive, or relocating comb with a queen they might be raising to the second hive. This may end in painful stinging tears since the hive is in a small room, but hopefully we’ll get to them before they’re quite active. I may have to actually vlog that one.

The beginnings of an orchard. There are already “antique” apples all over the place. We haven’t decided which to go with next – vote for peaches or cherries in the comments.

Painting the porch, but that’s not interesting.

Chickens! Yay, gotta have chickens, right? Dante has been helping me build a mobile coop a la Joel Saladin but we are going to wait to start any of that until after vacation with the fam. The plan is to begin both broilers and layers this year with the possibility of leaving the layers off until next. I’m finding it difficult to come up with a plan I like for the layers and I don’t want to rush them just to have them. I know that the first thing most people do is get a few laying hens, which does seem less complicated. But when I crunch the numbers, for a place like this, eggs are more for the pleasure of having them than for saving any money.

A project I’m expecting to be a sort of ongoing drama is my wishful irrigation/drainage system from the spring. There is sooooo much water here. Conveniently, the spring pops out at the top of the hill. I plan to direct it down to the tomato patch, then down to the chickens, then over to the gardens and past the raspberries, then away to the creek. In theory this will help reduce some of the spring sop, but still keep the water at hand if it’s dry. Challenge #1 is to create something that doesn’t make getting over it (mower, tractor, atv, electric poultry fence) terribly annoying. Eventually I’ll incorporate some rain barrels. There is a lot of run-off between the house and the barns.

Currently I am ripping the overgrown brush away from an old cattle fence next to my new big garden. This will become something for raspberry bushes to lean on. It is one of the handful of projects I can do while it’s still too wet to keep the tractor from getting stuck.

Whew. Those are the biggies. The seedlings are started, the beekeeping suit is here, the spring fever is in full effect.

Cilantro Lime Chili

3 lbs lean ground beef (do use lean, the bacon has enough fat) 
1 lbs bacon 

28 oz diced tomatoes

14 oz tomato paste

14 oz kidney beans

14 oz black beans

14 oz sweet corn

1 medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Fresh lime juice – 1 or 2 limes

1/4 c chili powder

2 tsp coriander

2 tsp cumin 

1 tsp crushed red pepper

Salt & pepper

Bake your bacon while you make the rest of the chili (use cookie sheets and parchment at 400 until crispy) and chop it to make crunchy bacon bits.
In a large dutch oven, brown the ground beef. Add garlic, peppers & onions & sauté until onions are translucent. 


Rinse the beans and drain corn if using canned, then mix in bacon and all remaining ingredients and adjust spices to taste.

How to Grow Basil

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Who doesn’t love the smell of basil? My garden has 5 different kinds! Everyone notices the smell and involuntarily stops to appreciate it. I have heard a lot of people talk about their attempts at basil, so this blog is for them. If you live around a wegmans, you have probably purchased a hydroponically grown bag of basil with the roots still attached in little blocks and tried to stick it in the ground or a pot. This seems to be about the most difficult way to grow basil and the way most likely to result in woody unusable stalks. This easy way – you will never want to pay for that stuff again.

You need very little earth to grow a lot of basil. You can use a small patch of garden, or a wide pot on your porch. Either way you need – sun, heat and plenty of water. Choose the sunniest place you can and wait until it’s warm – tail end of spring. The soil should be at least 70, basil likes the summer warmth.

Step 1: Buy a basil seed packet or two…or more 

Step 2: prepare a place to plant. This can be in the ground or in a pot, but choose the sunniest place possible. The soil should be anything but clay – if you have very compact soil just add somethings else to break it up – anything really – compost, potting soil, anything that the tiny roots can grab on to and stir it up. 

Step 3: sprinkle seeds evenly over your pot or ground. One seed packet is approximately enough for about a 3-4sf space, so no need to go crazy if you have a pot. Water well – soak it – don’t worry about it being too much – water your seeds every day – it won’t take long until they sprout depending on the temperature. This will grow more than enough basil for most people. You will have enough to put in your pasta, make some pesto, freeze for later and arrange your caprese if you follow these pruning directions… 

Here’s the thing – we buy them in the stores as 8 or 10 inch stalks. That’s not the way to get the most out of them. You can prune a basil and take its leaves over and over again. The simple trick is that you cannot let this plant go to flower. Once you see this pinch it off. This will stimulate the adjacent leafs to grow and keep the plant generally more tender. Once a basil starts to flower, it’s cute, but there’s no more point. The plant’s energy goes into making seeds. Each time you pinch off the center stalk, the two below it will take over.  They will grow large leaves you can pluck and each will also attempt a flower that you’ll have to prune off. In effect, if you prune the basil’s first attempt at flowering it’s leaf production will almost double. 

Once your basil is growing – to a height of 8 inches or so – each week pinch off its potential flowers, then go back through and cut off its largest leaves. If you do this – the same seed packet will keep you busy all summer. You can always add more seeds to the same space at any time if you’d like to grow more. 

So to totally break it down – wait until it’s warm, sprinkle seeds on some dirt, put them in the sun, water them every day, prune them when they’re big. 

Chances are you’ll have more than you can use at the time they need pruning. I like to wash and then freeze or dry it. To freeze it, put a handful in a ziplock bag and flatten it out. When you are wishing for fresh basil for your pasta or Pad Thai in the middle of winter, just break a chunk off. This retains a much stronger flavor than dried basil. To dry it, lay it out on a cookie sheet and put it in a 200 degree over for 15-20 minutes (set a timer – its easy to forget it’s there).

CLASSIC BASIL PESTO 

2 c fresh basil

1/2 c pine nuts, lightly toasted

1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese

3 or 4 cloves of garlic

Good quality olive oil

Salt & pepper

In a food processor pulse to chop basil, add Parmesan and garlic, pulse to incorporate. Add olive oil until you like the consistency. Add pine nuts and pulse to chop – don’t over process or you’ll lose the texture of the nuts. 

Add more oil if necessary and taste it before you add seasoning. Parmesan is very salty, you may not need to add more. Stir in salt & pepper with a spoon to avoid turning the nuts into paste.

I keep this in the freezer for up to a year if I don’t need it all at once.  

Stay tuned for different pesto recipes for your other herbs!

Restaurant Review: Upstairs Bistro at the NY Wine and Culinary Center

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Oh man. Just don’t. I know, I know, it’s insane but I have given this place 3 solid chances. To be completely honest, I have waited to write about this because I didn’t want it to be true. I was so excited to have a place like this in our backyard that I couldn’t deal with it’s sad, unsalted reality.

We first tried the Upstairs Bistro at the NY Wine & Culinary Center for a double date with some friends. I don’t think I was being unreasonable for having expectations of a place which calls itself “culinary center” and purports to be an institution of learning in said field; however, while our overall experience that evening was positive, I must say that the food was underwhelming and poorly executed. 

The location is wonderful. They are situated close to the lake with views from the window and a large patio. Outside there is a small garden containing a few NY specialties like grapes and apples. I do not care for the random art decor – I think they could do a better job rolling around in an identity as a wine country staple. On the up side, the interior of the bistro is all wood, the ceiling was not neglected (that is a pet peeve of mine), and the lighting was rather nice and soft. 

We began with drinks – I had a “absinthe minded” which was so good that I had another, so points for that. We then ordered a couple of appetizers to share, one of which was a shockingly flavorless chowder. No salt, no bacon flavor, just creamy starch in a cup. The second was a meat board which was not creative – I mean – it was sausage on a cutting board, but the German guy liked it. 

For the main course I ordered the duck which was oddly paired with spaghetti squash and a succotash. While it all tasted good on an individual basis, nothing did anything to compliment anything else. Also on the table where a pork chop with more of the same pickled cabbage from the sausage plate, a mushroomy steak and a brunch burger. I think the thing that struck me most about this meal was that each and every piece of meat on our table was cooked to the wrong temperature. Everything was overdone except for my duck, which could still be heard quacking above the chatter. Since there is nothing worse than sitting plateless at a table where everyone else is eating, I chose to eat around the raw center and keep up with my party. They did manage a crispy skin. 

I would give our server a solid A-. She moved quickly, understood the specials without reading from her book, recommended drinks and was generally very friendly. She lost points for not calling the cook out on the meat temps. 

This dinner was just good enough to make me want to go back and give it another try. Matt & I went back for our anniversary dinner a couple of months later and much to our disappointment, the menu had been severely cut. I wished for the same martini I’d had last time but it had been removed from the cocktail list so I tried another based on the server’s recommendation. This was so sweet I didn’t finish it and replaced it with a manhattan. Matt is always playing it safe with beer. 

We decided to go tapas style and split a few things. Beginning with the asparagus salad which was delivered without its cheese. No biggie, sent back and corrected. On another note, this salad which is covered in kalamata olive vinegarette could benefit from the addition of kalamata olives. 

But the menu…or rather the lack thereof. I’m sorry, but while you can’t really go wrong offering bacon mac & cheese, it is NOT a main course. Not. This menu was so small that it didn’t even have a chicken dish. Who doesn’t have a chicken dish? I never order chicken in restaurants but that’s besides the point. We continued with a flatbread pizza topped with mushrooms and a few arugula leaves which we both liked, but again I’d note – they did this well – yet there were only 2 flatbread choices on the menu. Why even bother with a flatbread “section?” We finished with the crab cakes which were delicious and actually mostly crab. 

Finally, on a day spent enjoying the weather with my mom and kids, we gave it one last lunch shot. I mentioned before we went, that the menu wasn’t great – but I was hoping inside of my heart that it had expanded once again with the spring. Nope. With literally one other table seated in the restaurant, our total space cadet server took for-e-ver and had zero knowledge of the food she was meant to be serving. 

After seating us and taking our drink order she stood chatting with the hostess rather than getting our drinks. After sitting there for 10 minutes my mom went and asked about her tea. She showed back up with an iced tea – like she had no memory of the hot tea order. She then disappeared for another 10 minutes before returning to take our food order – a split asparagus salad, a sandwich, a flatbread pizza & the bacon mac & cheese. We sat around wondering what took so long to make a salad when a different waitress arrived with all of our food, including the salad once again without cheese on it and this time made of spinach. Turns out that our waitress failed to mention that mom’s sandwich came with a salad, so now we have loads of salad. We examined the alleged bacon mac & cheese dish in front of my son which appeared to have no bacon and be rather small for $14. Waitress number 2 returned again to check on us and we asked where waitress number 1 had gone. She sent her back and we reviewed the mistakes on our table – a cheese-less salad that did not come out first and was made of spinach rather than arugula, a salad that we didn’t know we had coming, a flatbread with spinach rather than arugula on it, and a tiny $14 baconless mac & cheese. (Does someone in the kitchen not know what arugula is, believe that the patrons do not know what arugula is, or feel that it doesn’t warrant explaining that – we’re out of arugula would you mind if we used spinach instead?) This is a lot of mistakes, I said. She scampered off to the kitchen. Returning a few minutes later, she explained that “they” had made the kid menu mac & cheese, and she “didn’t get any answers” about the arugula. No, we will not be needing dessert and yes, please do remove that mac & cheese from the check. This experience took nearly 2 hours. Over the course of this 2 hour period, there were a grand total of 3 tables to be cared for. 

I will never return to this place again. I cannot imagine who is responsible for a restaurant like this – that would obviously never survive standing alone without the culinary center – but they should be fired. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were preparing our food in the actual cooking classes.  This Bistro must be the red-headed step child of the culinary center because one look at the tiny, boring menu will tell you that they don’t care about it. There was no seasonal innovation, no attention to detail, insufficient training and in general, given its surrounding resources, an absolute squandering of an opportunity to be amazing. Don’t be tempted by its name. Don’t blow your money here. For a meal you will not be disappointed in, make the drive to Livonia and go to Ember (I’ll write about that later). 

Start Your Own Herb Garden

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If you love to cook, your own herb garden is endlessly useful and money saving. Over the years and various places that I have lived, I’ve always tried to make space to grow some herbs, no matter how small. Even a tiny garden takes a tiny slice out of the industrialized food system, and gives us more independence – but stickin it to the man is just a perk. I digress. A creative home cook can easily go through several bunches of herbs a week, and at $2-3.00 a pop at the grocery store, just putting fresh flavor in your dishes can really add up fast. A tidy little herb garden will pay for itself in a couple of months, give you years worth of food, inspire you to try new things and before you know it, you’ll cringe at the idea of paying for those hydroponic basil bags ever again. Plus, it literally tastes better when you’ve grown it yourself. 

Even if you think you don’t have a green thumb, you may be surprised at how easy it is to keep herbs. If you already know what you’re doing, forgive me if I sound patronizing, this is really meant for people who are just getting started. I hear a lot of people say they kill every plant that comes into their possession. I have the same anxiety about math. The whole thing plants do is grow – they want to grow, even if you try to stop them. Many times even if you give them only a pittance of what is ideal, they find a way to survive. So don’t sweat it, don’t worry about it if something does die, it’s no big deal, just try again. If something looks like it’s wilting away, just google it or leave a message here and find out what it needs. If anything I’ve written isn’t specific enough, do comment and I’ll expand. 

I am beginning a new herb garden next to my kitchen – there are no garden beds at all at our new house, so everything is from scratch around here. Nothing is flat either, so I’m choosing to put some simple terraces in to keep my herbs from sliding down the hill when it rains. I just used materials laying around the farm, I don’t want to spend much money. We have old bricks, tons of rocks and some barn beams that are a little too rotted to salvage but work great for holding back the earth. This bed is also way larger than most people will want. So point #1 – Do start small if you’re just getting started. I grow a lot of things that are superfluous to my kitchen just because I like gardening, and I also allow a substantial amount of room for lettuces. You do not need this much space for your garden to be an effective money saver.  

Plant things that you already use frequently rather than things that sound good – for example, plant mint if you already drink mojitos, don’t plant mint with the idea that you should start drinking mojitos. Even if it’s true that you should. Once you get going and growing, then add new things a little at a time and see if you actually use them. There are so many subtopics within the herb garden topic that it really can’t all go in one post, so let’s talk in general terms and tips to get started for now. 

Plant all summer! One of the things that make an herb garden a great way to get into gardening is that there are no spring deadlines for getting things into the ground. This can be done any time over the summer. I have changed my mind about where to put plants 2 or 3 times in a season,   and add new things all summer long and even sometimes into the early fall. If May comes and goes and you haven’t begun, no worries, you have plenty of time. 

Plant in a very sunny location. Most herbs need full sun, so watch where the morning and afternoon shadows fall before you pick a spot. You want a good 8 hours of direct sun each day. 

Herbs have preferences, but will grow in almost any soil with varying degrees of success. In general, avoid soil that’s too fluffy (100% potting mix is hard for tiny roots to grab on to) and soil that’s too sticky (clay or 100% top soil can suffocate roots). Create a soil bed that’s somewhere in between. It does not have to be perfect to grow stalks with leaves on them. It does have to drain – plant in places or pots that allow water to pass through them rather than pool into dirt soup. This will cause your plants to rot.

Plan and prioritize a little. Again, this is supposed to save you money, not be stressful so I do mean “a little.” Look at the size of your garden bed and consider annuals, perennials and what you use the most of. Annuals, as implied by the name, are plants that must be re-planted every year and perennials are plants that will grow larger, survive the winter and come back year after year. These types will get larger, some of them will get MUCH larger. Read the tags before you buy. Annuals generally take up only the area that you cover with seed. 

I like to plant my perennials together and then leave the rest of my space open for seeds. This just seems to make weeding and keeping track of what I’ve planted easier. Do weed, even if only a couple times a season. Even though herbs will grow in spite of weeds, they rob your plants of water, nutrients and sun.

A few things I recommend starting with here in the northeast: 

The baby plants below are all perennials and are relatively hardy. Once they’re established they don’t need anything but a trim now and then. Most of them are available at any nursery or even Wegmans during the spring, and can all be grown in pots on a patio. You can also satiate your spring fever with these choices since you don’t have to wait for the last frost to plant them, just some weather in the 50s. 

Parsley (curly or flat) is a relative of the carrot, and if you pull up a large parsley plant you’ll find a carrot root structure. Conversely, carrot greens taste similar to parsley (I juice them with the rest of the carrot). So don’t plant a parsley in anything you can’t imagine a carrot fitting in. A parsley planted in the ground can live for years and easily grow to the size of a basketball, so account for this when deciding how much room to leave it. This Italian parsley has been in the ground for 3 weeks. It has established itself, begun to sprout new growth and needs me to cut its older floppy leaves off.

Rosemary is an evergreen but isn’t quite as hardy as its tree relatives. Cover it with a bucket or plastic pot over the hard winter. I put a rock on top to keep them from blowing away. Keep the main center trunk trimmed to make it grow more bush-like than Charlie Brown Christmas tree-like. You will be able to go out in the dead of winter, lift the cover pot and clip off a fresh sprig for your Christmas stuffing. 

Thyme comes in several varieties and grows like a ground cover and will sprout new roots from branches that touch the ground (there are thymes that are specifically for ground cover, that’s not what you want here, they are not the same). This is an English thyme. Cut off the oldest shoots in the fall. Even if you only do this every other year your thyme will keep growing and you’ll be able to clip fresh from this plant half-way into the winter.  

Sage also comes in several varieties and makes a cute little bush that can grow to a couple of feet in diameter if it has room to spread out. It also is happy with the occasional pruning of older branches.

Basil is everyone’s favorite and is easy peasy lemon squeezy. But it’s not time to plant it yet, so buy some seeds and hang on to them for another few weeks. We’ll talk basil when it’s time to plant.

Dill is another one that’s easy to grow from seed, but again, pick up some seeds and sit tight for a few more weeks.

A few things I do not recommend if you’re just getting started:

Tarragon grows at a shockingly rapid pace, and must be well contained or it will literally take over your garden and then proceed to overtake your lawn. If you do grow it, it must be cut before it goes to seed at which point resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. Nobody uses this much tarragon. 

Oregano – I know, I know, it seems like a basic essential but this is also very invasive and difficult to uproot once established. I actually treat it as more of a ground cover. It does make pretty purple flowers if you allow it to go to seed, but again, this will pop up everywhere if you don’t cut it before it seeds. 

Cilantro is a favorite of mine but it is quite persnickety. It can discourage you if you start with it. It’s very particular about its growing conditions and bolts easily leaving you with a bunch of little flowers and no usable leaves. I’ll get into this another time.

We could go on about this for a long time but that’s probably enough to get going with. I’ll update you as I add more things, and as things start to sprout, it will be time for pestos!!! enough by themselves to make it all worthwhile. Can’t wait. 

Mrs. Padmore the Red Viking

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Introducing the newest addition to our family, this super cool Viking stove that I love. Having recently moved away from a kitchen that I dearly loved, and a thermidor that sort of became my side kick, we knew it’d be hard to settle back in to a regular stove. Obviously the kitchen is a huge part of our lives, so we decided that the stove was important enough to go all-out for. After a lot of research, we settled on a 48″ Viking 7 series (converted for propane). I named her Mrs. Padmore. 

It is a pleasure to cook on this stove, there’s no other way to describe it. I am still kinda geeking out over it. I’m all like – omg, look, look, this caramel is bubbling exactly perfectly evenly over the entire surface of the pan! My husband is all – okaaaaay I’m just glad you’re happy. Oh, I am. 

This particular model has two ovens, 6 burners and a griddle. Most importantly, the oven’s heat distribution is wonderful. Lots of cakes and cookies and muffins with no discernible hot spot. The cakes come out perfectly evenly cooked and the muffins were all equally browned, including the ones in the back corners. It does have a broiler and convection option (which I don’t often use but it cuts down on the bacon baking time by a third). The raised burners are amazing – precise heat that doesn’t directly torch your pan and provides perfect distribution of heat (especially with high quality cookware). Mrs. Padmore has 3 front 23,000 BTU burners, 2 rear 15,000 burners and 1 little 8,000 burner. The griddle can be used to fry a burger, or simmer sauce like a French top. The griddle surface slants slightly to allow liquids to run off into a removable well. This stove does not have pilot lights, all of the ignition is electronic and the top grates and griddle are all quite heavy, but once removed the range is very easy to clean. I also really appreciate that you can clean beneath it, and the legs are adjustable (my floor is not level). 

Down sides: this is a serious investment. You certainly get what you pay for in the world of appliances but Vikings are not cheap, even compared to other commercial ranges. The range top is quite thick and takes up a good portion of the oven’s height and thus the oven is very low to the ground. If you have a hard time squatting this configuration may not be the best. I also wish the small oven was just a little bit wider. I’d like to fit a cookie sheet in it sideways. I’ll have to find some smaller cookie sheets to be able to do that. 

Over all? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Completely worth it, and we are back in business.