In the garden: February

It’s fun to go to a garden center in spring to pick out baby plants to transplant into your garden. If you are looking for unusual or particular varieties of plants to grow in your garden, you might enjoy starting your own seeds instead. It’s a little more fuss than buying seedlings and takes a little space, but seed starting is a great option if you are looking to start your gardening fun while it’s still winter!

It’s a bit soon to start seeds in the upper Midwest because the plants won’t be able to get in the ground until the middle or end of May in most cases. I have a new LED grow light set-up so I started some arugula and salad mix a couple weeks ago; they will be ready to harvest and eat before I need to start seeds for the plants that will go outside.

My set-up has trays with a rack in them, wicking pads on top the rack, and then the trays with the seeds. Water goes in the section with the racks and the wicking pad moves water up to the base of the seedling tray. It’s great because I don’t need to water them daily (even though I admire and sweet-talk them almost daily!). I bought this set-up with the LED lights but a DIY version would be a fun project. Seeds like warm feet so a warm room or plant heating pad really help, as does a good light source. Sadly window light in most houses isn’t enough for starting seeds.

In the garden: January

IMG_0639The garden companies don’t wait until after Christmas any more. Seed catalogs start arriving as early as mid-December, and my garden daydreams surely follow.

This year I’m planning to plant more and a greater variety of vegetables. Gardening teacher Megan Cain, through her excellent books, gets me thinking about planting what we like to eat most; that’s sort of a moving target in our home, but I won’t mind if the list is different each year. I mull over past tomato blights and squash vine borers. Somehow in January I never think about the weeds. Ever. Until this year, because I don’t want to complain again about them in the summer (my readers breathe a sigh of relief). So more mulching in the raised beds and containers is the plan, along with an earlier attack on the weeds where the non-edibles grow.

It’s been maybe 5 years since we’ve started our own seeds. After that, I donated our long fluorescent grow light to the neighborhood school, hoping to get something LED and a little smaller if I ever tried again. My new seed-starting gear is on the way, and I’m super excited. It’s definitely less fuss to buy seedlings, but this way I can try all the vegetable varieties I want and start some dye plants as well! Stay tuned.

Thinking about starting your own seeds? Here are a few questions to help you be more successful:
What zone do you live in?
How much space do you need for the things you want to grow? Using wide rows, square foot gardening, or other methods, you can pack a lot of productivity into small spaces.
How much of each crop do you want at one time, and will you do succession planting to spread your harvest out over a longer period?
What do you need to simplify the care of your garden? By this, I’m meaning ways to water, mulch, maybe some trellises or stakes.
And if you’ve gardened in the past, what didn’t work? Too little light, bad drainage in parts of the garden? Maybe you can rearrange where you grow things or substitute other veggies or varieties.

January Pantry Challenge

January is when I give myself the challenge of cooking as much as possible out of the freezers and pantry. It feels cheaper to eat food that’s already paid for and gets the stuff out of the back of the cupboards and deep in the freezer, so I cook with it instead of waste it. Thankfully most items last a long time in the chest freezer and several months in the freezer atop the fridge, provided the food is well-wrapped.

I like to use the allrecipes ingredient search when I’m not sure what recipe I had in mind when originally buying an ingredient (oops). One of my friends recommends Supercook. Any cookbook that indexes by ingredient or is organized by ingredient type (for example, berries, roots, greens, etc.) is very useful for this challenge. Do you have any favorite recipe resources for a pantry challenge? Let us know in the comments. If you join me, even if you do a more gradual challenge, you can still have an empty freezer and pantry before spring! Make room for fresh jam in the cupboards and a new season of farmers’ market bounty in the freezer.

January fiber arts tip: 2-color long tail cast-on

Brr, it’s been the perfect weather to play with yarn! Here’s a quick tip for casting on with two colors when your knitting project is stripey or otherwise needs two colors from the very beginning.

First, make a slip knot with both colors. Set up for the long tail cast-on but don’t make a long tail; about 4 inches is fine. Use the two colors instead of the tail and the ball yarn of one color. The strand you run around your thumb will be the base of the cast-on, and the strand around your finger will form the stitches on your needle.IMG_4794


Don’t count the slip knot as a stitch. Here are 5 stitches on the needle. My example yarns aren’t the same thickness, so that’s why the base looks so puffy. If you don’t want extra texture, stick with yarns that are the same type. Work the first row as specified in your pattern, and drop the slip knot off the end when you get to it. Very handy for patterns such as the Parallelogram Scarf or stranded colorwork that starts right at the edge!


A Christmas Eve of cooking misadventures

Happy Holidays, readers! At the Yarnstead, we celebrate Winter Solstice and Christmas but consider the holidays to start with Thanksgiving (what I like to think of as a day-long festival of gratitude, served with pie and stuffing). Yesterday we hosted the larger side of the family for a big Christmas Eve day party. My plan was to make roasted sweet potatoes, polenta, hot turkey sandwiches, chicken wings, and pie; the rest of the meal was brought by our guests, and it was delicious.

It was not, however, the meal I had planned because half of my contributions went awry. Not the pie, thank goodness. That was made easier by cooking my pumpkin in the Instant Pot I received from some dear friends as a congratulatory gift on my new job. Here’s how I did it:

  • Cut pumpkin in half and scoop out seeds and stringy pulp
  • Put rack, pumpkin halves, and 1 cup water in IP
  • Close lid, set to Sealing, and pressure cook on High for 10 minutes
  • When done, turn off warming cycle and release pressure. Steam-proof oven mitts strongly recommended! The cooked pumpkin falls right off the rind

The chicken wings were also winners, baking cooperatively in the background while the rest of the drama was happening.

First misadventure, the sweet potatoes. Since Christmas Eve was on a Sunday this year, I had time on Saturday to make the parts of the meal that could be prepared ahead. Luckily I’m an earlier riser than my teen daughter who had ambitious kitchen plans for food gift-making but neglected to do gift work on the 23rd while off school (and I was at work). Anyway, I had some sweet potatoes in cold storage from the last outdoor farmer’s market. The farmer recommended this light-fleshed variety as mild-flavored, even liked by people who don’t usually like sweet potatoes (not me, I love ’em). Into the oven they went on my favorite Lodge cast iron griddle. And when they came out, I thought they looked … well, let’s just say that no amount of food styling could have made them look appealing. Plus they were very bland tasting. I opted to serve roasted brussel sprouts instead.

Then the turkey fiasco. I cooked three boneless turkey breasts on Saturday. When I cut them on Sunday into manageable size pieces for shredding and reheating, I discovered they were raw in the middle. Ugh. They must have been frozen when I cooked them. I should have checked their temperature and cut them into pieces before cooking them to be sure the middle was done. So 45 minutes before the guests were expected, I slid to HyVee in my minivan to buy cooked and turkey from their hot food counter.

Polenta soup? I decided to use the IP for polenta to free up my hands and attention for other kitchen jobs. Either I mismeasured the amount of liquid or the cookbook was wrong because I got very watery polenta. I bailed out about half of the liquid, since it had risen to the top. It was still very wet but tasty. #sigh

Here’s hoping your culinary adventures all end well and that you have a delicious, warm, and happy 2018!

Eclipse Frittata, an almost recipe

One highlight of the summer was a trip to Door County with friends. Our long weekend overlapped with summer’s big astronomical event, the total solar eclipse that crossed North America. Door County experienced about 70-80% of totality, and we went to the Lake Michigan shore to experience it. We took all the usual beach supplies, plus eclipse glasses, pinhole viewers, and a potluck picnic.

I can’t claim credit for this improv egg dish whipped up by kitchen whiz JL, but I will take credit for the name ;). It’s a great choice for a delicious easy meal that helps with leftovers. This one is really an egg bake since it takes almost an hour in the oven, rather than being started on the stove and finished in the oven, but the word frittata is just too much fun to pass by.


I’m calling it an “almost recipe” since you can vary it and still get yummy results. Just open the fridge and see what ingredients are waiting for you. Put in your favorite cheese and vegetables or greens. Here’s what I used.

Cooked pasta, about 1/2 pound before cooking

Approximately 1/2 cup pinto beans

1 c shredded cheese

9 eggs, beaten 

1/2 cup milk

Garlicky green beans (or other leftover cooked veggies), 1-2 cups

Put into greased 9×13 pan. 

Bake in preheated 350 oven for about 1 hour. Begin checking for doneness at 50 minutes with toothpick. It’s done when toothpick comes out clean or with baked egg crumbs and no liquid. 

Back to basics in the kitchen

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 7.39.15 PMFall is my favorite season, and I have been keen for something resembling order in the kitchen. No, not in the cabinets. I needed to simplify meals so that the planning and cooking would accommodate the busy lives of two teens, large afternoon snacks that pushed supper later, a family mostly wanting quick and familiar meals, and a parent trying to get away from constantly rushing to get food on the table (yep, that last one’s me).
Thankfully, years ago, one of my excellent friends talked about how she had been meal planning in a pattern: one night each week was pasta, another was maybe a rice or potato dish, etc. So, with thanks to RB, we’ve started our new basic meal plan:
  • Monday is pasta night; we can vary the sauces or toppings
  • Taco Tuesday. I may also put together freezer taco kits to make future weeks really easy. Cheater chilaquiles will surely appear as an occasional substitute.
  • Wednesday we have breakfast for dinner (pancakes, waffles, eggs, or maybe even cereal if things get really crazy)
  • Thursday leftovers or bagel sandwiches
  • Friday frozen pizza or something made ahead and frozen
  • Crock pot Saturday
  • Sunday I’m leaving open for whatever I feel like cooking and I’ll try to cook ahead some things for the week’s lunches or suppers

I’m also keeping a list of standard food items (cheese, crackers, baked beans, frozen berries, dried fruit, etc.) we can have around for when the plan goes awry or we just don’t feel like it.

 I still enjoying using Plan to Eat to save recipes, get that shopping list made for me, and fill in those weekends! A number of grocery stores in town will shop for you and either deliver it or have it ready for pick-up at a prearranged time, so using that and the shopping list generated by Plan to Eat gives me some unrushed time in the kitchen. It’s got me wondering about online shopping and home delivery for non-perishable items.  Readers, have you used Amazon or other services for this? Please share your advice in the comments.


Getting local produce from the farmers market is as basic as it gets to me, so we will take full advantage of the remaining few weeks of the outdoor farmers market. If your CSA has a market pick-up location or market share option (prepaid shopping cards for your choice of veggies from the stand), you can stock up on veggies and buy local cheese, meat, syrup, or other items while you are there. Next on my list is to use some of this year’s frozen berries in sauces and recipes and, girl, dye some yarn – there’s too many non-edible plant things in the freezer!