Monday, 16 March 2015

Reaching Toward the Sun

And really, isn't that what we're all doing at this time of the year?
Some of my seeds have germinated! The mustard leaf mix is really taking off, with nearly every planted seed germinating. This means I have way too many seedlings in the container, so in another week or two I will attempt the delicate procedure of transplanting them. (I could just thin and discard, but I always feel so much empathy for these little plants that so clearly want to live! Plus, more seedlings means more lettuce, and we eat a LOT of lettuce 'round these parts.) My other lettuces and leafy greens are coming along too, albeit a bit more slowly. The "bigger" plants have yet to emerge, but that's okay - it's early days for their likes. I can be patient for a few more weeks. It's still far too cold to plant out yet, anyway.

Developments of note:
Mustard leaf mix - pak choi, mizuna, tatsoi, mustards and cress: Germinated 13 March 2015 (5 days after planting)
Lettuce mix - red salad bowl, green salad bowl, lollo bionda, lolla rossa:  Germinated 14 March 2015 (6 days after planting)
Peas: Germinated 15 March 2015 (6 days after planting)
Spinach - bordeaux: Germinated 15 March 2015 (7 days after planting)

Still waiting on:
Spinach - matador
Serrano peppers
Jalapeno peppers

Monday, 9 March 2015

While the Sun Shines

The first proper "Spring-like" day of the season arrived yesterday. And not a moment too soon. After weeks and weeks of blustery, cold, windy, rainy, even snowy weather, a glimpse of the sun was long, long overdue. So when we woke to a morning that looked like this....

View from our front porch - not too shabby
...we knew we had to get out and enjoy it! We ventured into the foothills of the Nephin Beg mountain range, which is just north of our house (only about a five minutes drive), and walked along the back lanes, through gentle, rolling hills and along hedgerows and stone fences. The views back into Newport town and of the imposing Croagh Patrick behind it were inspiring, and as we came over the last little ridge Clew Bay and its many drumlins opened up before us. It was a soul-stirring sight, as it always is, and I regretted not having my camera to hand.

After the walk was over we knew we had to take advantage of the glorious weather, so Sam got to work on his pig-pasture project (full explanation in a future post), and I got the first seeds of the season into the soil! It's still far too chilly to even consider an outdoor planting, and the risk of frost persists for a few more weeks, but I got my window beds ready to go. And, for the first time, I planted some seeds that I hope will be transplanted into their permanent homes, either outside or in the polytunnel (yet to be constructed), once the weather warms up.

I planted the following seeds yesterday (8 March 2015):
(check back in a few weeks' time for a germination and growth update)

Lettuce mix - red salad bowl, green salad bowl, lollo bionda, lolla rossa (3 pots)
Mustard leaf mix - pak choi, mizuna, tatsoi, mustards and cress (1 window box)
Corriander/cilantro (1/2 window box)
Basil (1/2 window box)
Spinach - bordeaux (2 pots)
Spinach - matador (2 pots)
Peas (1 pot)
Serrano peppers (5 starters, for eventual transplant)
Jalapeno peppers (7 starters, for eventual transplant)
Leeks (18 starters, for eventual transplant)
Cumin (6 starters, for eventual transplant)

Now to find room for them all on the window ledges....

I also resuscitated my chives plant, which had been cruelly left outside over-winter and looked soggy past the point of salvage. When I went to clear out the pot, with the intention of starting over from scratch, what did I see but little green signs of life! I divided the root-bound plant into three smaller pots, cleared away the detritus, and am hopeful it will make a full recovery.

Today, it seems that Mother Nature is back to her old tricks, as we woke up to driving rain and sustained 40 mph winds. It makes the memory of yesterday's sunshine, and the lingering scent of freshly dug dirt, that much sweeter.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Yoghurt and Other Culinary Experiments

Ever since we moved to the little cottage on the green hill, I've started making a lot of our weekly consumables from scratch. Well, that's not strictly true. For one, from 'scratch' implies that we produce the raw products - milk, flour, tomatoes - ourselves, which, at least at this point, we don't. For two, I've been playing around with making more complicated food items from simple raw ingredients ever since we lived in Micronesia. There, it was a matter of necessity. Want yoghurt that's not moldy? Make it yourself from a smuggled-in starter and a box of milk. It was the same with a lot of our edibles, although to be fair by the end of it we had figured out all kinds of sneaky ways to get what we wanted/needed from off-island sources. When we moved to Ireland, my cooking and DIY skills in the kitchen really ramped up. For that first year, when I wasn't yet working, I had a lot of time on my hands and, for the first time, really taught myself to cook. Now I make about 90% of what we eat, including soups and stews (sooo many soups and stews), chicken broth, pizza/spaghetti sauce, salsa, many of our bread products, and, of course, the aforementioned yoghurt.

I'm not really sure why I do it. Some of my efforts, like my weekly loaf of bread, aren't even that good. (I've mastered a lot in the kitchen, but I just can't pull off a soft, flaky-crust, well-risen loaf of bread. But I keep trying, much to Sam's chagrin, as he's the main bread eater in the family.) I guess there's just something I like about the process of taking a few simple ingredients - flour, yeast, salt and a little olive oil - and turning them, like magic, into pitta bread (which, unlike my loaf bread, really is quite delicious). I like the fact that I control the ingredients in my soups and stews, which means they're often quite creative and also means I know exactly what's in there. It is satisfying to know that I have the resources and abilities to whip together something good to eat out of a few basic household staples. And, in many cases, it does save a bit of cash (though never quite as much as those holistic, all-natural sites would have you believe, especially when you figure in labour and fuel costs).

Anyway, I thought I'd share my trusty yoghurt recipe with you all today. I know there are a million yoghurt recipes on the web (I think I stole this one from somewhere myself), but of all that I've tried over the years, this is the best and easiest. It really makes good, thick yoghurt every time, and keeps the time and effort involved to a minimum. Plus, it saves at least two full euros* on every litre of yoghurt we consume (again, not counting time, effort, and fuel). Given that we eat about 3 litres of yoghurt a month, that's a cool 72 euros' savings in a year. It doesn't sound like much, but that adds up to a special meal out, an extra splurge at Christmas, or a bottle of really nice whiskey. Not too shabby for simply heating a pot of milk on the stove every couple of weeks!

* The cheapest yoghurt with live cultures that we can buy in Ireland is about 1.50 for a 500 ml pot if you get it on sale. You can buy cheaper yoghurt for sure, but it doesn't have live cultures, which kind of defeats the point of yoghurt in my opinion. A litre of milk costs somewhere around 1 euro.

Time involved:

30ish minutes of active preparation
9+ hours to let the little beasties in the yoghurt work their magic

Necessary ingredients/tools:

1 litre Milk. Whole milk is best, but it will work with any kind of milk, even UHT (although other sites say it won't, I can tell you that UHT was the only milk we had in Micronesia and it totally works fine.) You can also use more than one litre of milk - that's just all our mini-fridge can handle, and the two of us can't eat much more yoghurt than that in a week.

1/4 cup live culture Plain Whole Milk Yoghurt. Again, this will work any kind of yoghurt, including low fat (I don't know about nonfat yoghurt but you should try it and let me know). It will also work with flavoured yoghurt, although you might get a slight taste of strawberry or whatever in your final product. The main thing is that the yoghurt has live cultures. I assumed that live cultures was what makes yoghurt yoghurt, but there are lots of brands in Ireland that don't have live cultures! So double check. After you've made the yoghurt yourself once, you can save a little container of it to use as a starter the next time, so you really never need to buy yoghurt again after the first time.

Cooking thermometer. There is a way to do this on a wing and a prayer, based on the bubbles forming on the hot milk and the back of the wrist / baby formula test for determining how cool the yoghurt is when you add the culture. I did it this way in Micronesia. But I'm warning you, results may vary (and did!) It's WAY easier with a thermometer.

1 largeish Pot.

1 Whisk or Something Similar to Stir With.

1 empty Milk Jug.

1 Thermos Cooler.

2+ Clean empty Containers for Yoghurt

1 small clean empty Container for next week's starter.


1. Fill an emnpty milk jug half full with boiling water, then top up with cold tap water. Put the milk jug in a cooler and seal tightly. Place in a warm spot. This helps bring the cooler's internal temp up a bit to facilitate the live cultures in the yoghurt, which need a warm place to get it on.

2. Remove yoghurt starter from the fridge to allow to come to room temperature. (My starter here is in the baby food container, left over from a previous yoghurt-making effort.) Remove milk from the fridge.

3. Add milk to a largeish pot and attach thermometer to the side of the pot. Have a whisk or other stirring implement at the ready.

4. Slowly bring the milk up to 185 degrees F. You will want to stir the milk regularly. DO NOT let it boil or burn. This is a good time to do something in the kitchen - dishes, cleaning, reading a book while perched on the counter - so that you don't forget about the milk and end up with a disaster on your hands.

5. Now is choose your own adventure time. You can either maintain the now-hot milk at 185 degrees for 10 minutes, OR you can turn off the heat now and let the milk slowly cool to 110 degrees F. I always keep the milk at 185 degrees for 10 minutes, because I think it makes the end product a bit thicker and smoother. If you do this, it does require careful attention for the whole 10 minutes so the temp doesn't spike or drop off. You should be stirring constantly. This is a great time to catch up on your favourite podcast while you pay close attention to the milk.

6. Slowly let the milk drop in temp to 110 degrees. You don't have to keep too close an eye on it during this time, but don't let it drop below 110.

7. Once the milk gets to 110 degrees, carefully remove the nasty plastic-y skim that's undoubtedly formed on the milk and discard. Then slowly add the 1/4 cup yoghurt with the live cultures to the pot of warm milk. Stir briskly until the yoghurt is fully incorporated and is not at all lumpy.

8. Carefully pour the warm milk into your clean dry containers. Make sure to fill an additional little container to set aside. This will form your starter next time. You can use as many containers as you need/want, bearing in mind that they must all fit in your cooler. Wipe up the inevitable milk spill mess and ring marks you've made on the counter. Ahem.

 9. Place the containers filled with warm milk into the cooler, which should now be toasty warm. Leave the milk jug in there. Close up the cooler tightly and place in a warm spot. I leave mine sitting next to the wood stove, but in your kitchen or near a heat vent would be just fine.

10. Leave the cooler alone for 9+ hours. I wouldn't leave it alone for more than about 12, but overnight is totally fine. 

11. When the time is up, remove your now-solid yoghurt containers from the cooler, and VOILA - you can now marvel at the amazing properties of live bacteria! You have taken ordinary milk and turned it, like magic, into yoghurt! After you're done ooh-ing and aah-ing, place the containers in the fridge. "The experts" would probably tell you to eat it within a week, but we've gone closer to two (or sometimes more, shh, don't tell!) without any problems. Use common sense, of course - if it smells or looks funky, don't eat it! But it will probably look and smell like milky-yoghurty goodness, and you will scarf it all up long before it has time to go bad.

We use yoghurt for all kinds of things. I eat it plain, which I actually really enjoy, but I'm weird. We also add fruit or berries to it, top it with cereal or oats, add honey or sugar for sweetness, cook with it, and use it as a substitute for sour cream in all kinds of recipes. It is super versatile, and, of course, packs a mean probiotic punch. Plus all that calcium and good fat. You really can't go wrong. So eat up, and up, and up!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Just kidding...

I hereby retract my previous blog post. Oh, we have daffodils, alright. That part is true. But any joyous cackling across-the-pond proclamations of an early Spring are hereby withdrawn. Those daffodils are now heartily coated in an thin, icy, layer of snow.

THIS is what we woke up to this morning:

So let's put thoughts of sunshine and budding trees on hold just a little longer, shall we? Sadly, this is also a good reminder to put off my seed-starting dreams for a few more weeks. Although, just because it's March and just because I can, I'm still tempted to start off a few hardy varieties of lettuce, herbs, and maybe some pea shoots on the indoor window ledges and see how they do. (They'll live indoors their whole lives anyway, so their suitability for planting is more a function of daylight hours than outdoor temps.) It would sure be great to be back to eating my own home-grown leafy greens rather than the sad, expensive bags of lettuce on offer at the supermarket! Maybe I'll get started on that project in a couple days, when it's warm enough to go outside and gather my bag of compost and other gardening implements. As for now, me thinks it's a good day to stay huddled up indoors by the fire.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


North Americans often don't realize just how far north we are here in Ireland, perched way up there at 53 degrees N latitude. In the winter we get less than seven hours of daylight a day, and in the summer, well, it seems like the sun hardly sets at all. If we were living at the same latitude, but in Canada, we'd probably be buried up to our eyeballs in snow and/or freezing our huevos right off. (Heck, with the way this winter has been back home, if we were living anywhere north of about 40 degrees we'd probably be up to our eyeballs in snow and frozen solid, but I digress....)

Unlike other locales, being situated right on the cusp of the warmth-channelling Gulf stream as we are, and washed on all sides by a large, moderating ocean (Hi North Atlantic!), this far-north latitude means relatively mild weather year-round. While we definitely do have seasons here, we rarely get much below freezing, even in the depths of winter, and we rarely get above 70 degrees F, even in the heights of summer. In August, when all I want to do is please-please-so-help-me-God just go outside without a jacket, my feelings on the Irish weather can be expressed in less-than-mild terms. But now, in late February, all this mildness means one thing: an early Spring!

I LOVE daffodils in February!
Love love love....

Now. If someone could just remind me of these gorgeous flowers come August, when I haven't bothered to unpack my summer clothes for the third year in a row, and I'm considering lighting a fire in the stove because it's so dang cold outside, it'd be great, m'kay? Thanks!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Most winter mornings...

Most winter mornings, the first order of business is a trip to the shed to fill up the coal shuttle. We don't have central heating in our little cottage, so our only source of warmth in these cold, windy months comes from the small multi-fuel stove nestled into an awkward corner of our dining room/lounge. It's a very small stove, but then, it's a very small cottage. The original owner cleverly installed an intricate back boiler system, so when the temperature in the stove gets hot enough, a pump clicks on and hot water, heated in coils on the back of the stove, circulates throughout the cottage. There are radiators in every room and soon enough a gentle, warming heat can be felt in every corner of the house. In such circumstances, one little stove is more than enough.

Waiting for the coal to catch...
Although it is really very efficient - especially as compared with the smelly, expensive oil boiler systems that are so common in Ireland - we try not to waste any of our little stove's many offerings. We boil our water for tea and dishes on top of it, we dry our clothes in front of it, we've even been known to cook on it. (Okay, so the cooking doesn't work all that great, but it's possible, is my point.) This is our first winter in the cottage, so we're mostly buying in fuel, but going forward we hope to supply at least half of our own wood from the many, many trees on our land. In the short term, there are the branches and entire trees that we've cleared to open up the view and site the garden. In the longer term, we're scheming to cultivate a coppice on the back half-acre.

Tea kettle at the ready
I have to admit, it's kind of a hassle, when the stove has gone cold overnight as it often does, to shuffle out in the wind and rain to gather fuel, when all you really want is to be warm and dry with a steaming cup of coffee in hand. It's kind of a hassle to build the fire, then wait the half hour for the coal to catch, then for the temperature to rise high enough that the back boiler clicks on. And of course, one has to remember to refuel on a regular basis throughout the day. Already there have been several occasions when "WHO LET THE FIRE DIE DOWN?" has rebounded off our hills. (Um, that would be me, sorry... I forgot!) But despite the frustrations and petty inconveniences, I really love this heating system of ours. For the first time since moving to Ireland, I'm actually warm and comfortable inside my house. (When we moved out of our last rental house, I'm sure I channelled Scarlett O'Hara when I vowed - "As God as my witness, I'll never be freezing again!") We are warmer than we ever have been and we're actually saving money in the process. Truly, at the end of it all, nothing beats the warm, radiating heat of a solid fuel stove.

Sunday, 15 February 2015


Bohreen is an Irish word, meaning little lane or pathway. As the road – if you can call it that – to our cottage is barely wide enough to accommodate a single vehicle and has a strip of grass growing down the centre, it certainly qualifies as such. We live down the bohreen in a tiny cottage on the green hill, on two overgrown acres of land in West Mayo that overlook Croagh Patrick and the drumlin islands of Clew Bay.

I like to think that living down the bohreen is also a mentality – the act of following the path less travelled by to a place where we live by our wits and our forethought and whatever our hands can do for themselves. It’s a place where there’s always peat smoke wafting from the chimney, and something hearty and delicious bubbling on the hob. It’s a place where the garden produces nutritious, sustaining fruit and vegetables year round. Potatoes and cabbages, of course (this is Ireland after all), but also heirloom varieties of leafy greens; peas, melons and squash; and flavourful herbs. It’s a place where we split our own firewood and cut our own peat, to keep us warm in the moment and warm the year round when the fierce winter winds blow off the north Atlantic. It’s a place where laughter, prayer, and a few choice curse words can be heard echoing off the hills between the lowing of the cattle and the clucking of the chickens. We work for a living here, yes, but we also work for a life. A life that is honest and real, bought with faith, sweat, and a few torn blisters.

You’re welcome to visit us at our humble cottage any time you like. It’s just down the bohreen, around past the split, third gate on the right. Bring a good story to share and I’ll put the kettle on.