Monday, March 28, 2011

Seed starters

There's a lamp on 15 hours a day on my three season back porch again.  Didn't it just seem like yesterday that I had fuzzy chicks on my back porch, cheeping away under a heat lamp and growing exponentially every day?  These days the girls are all grown up and have taken to each laying one egg a day, giving us endless delight in the form of surplus protein.  If you haven't gotten eggs yet from us, ask.  Last I counted, we had 4 days last week where we found 3 eggs in our little nest, compared with all winter where we'd maybe find 1.

This time around the growing things under our heat lamp aren't chirping, they're just growing steadily, quietly, faithfully under a serene piece of plastic.  Seeds.  Beautiful heirloom vegetables and herbs are getting their start a little early this year.  Over on Gapers Block, I recommended to Chicago that they get moving on their seeds for the season and promptly heeded my own advice.  I hauled myself up to Brew & Grow and, after getting a bit distracted in their beer kits and picking up a Belgian Tripel kit for next weekend, I was persuaded by B&G's knowledgeable staff to pick up starter plugs (last years peat pots and starter mix failed miserably), a one piece lighting system (that actually doesn't produce heat, rather economically efficient wavelength light for growing), and a little indoor watering pot.  We picked up a few brewing freebies too-- a taste of the alt beer they had on tap and a half gallon of their house made compost tea.

On that drizzly Monday night, Melanie and I plopped ourselves down in the middle of our kitchen floor, scattered seed packets in logical planting order, readied Melanie's handmade grid and began to plant.  We had 98 spots, 17 packets of seeds and felt ready to make some tough decisions.  How many chive plants do we really need?  And will we have room for 5 different kinds of tomato plants if we want to grow 4 of each variety?  We're going to need some serious yardage.  Last time I checked, little to nothing grows in my back yard (save chickens) but luckily, I snagged a spot at a newly established community garden plot just a few blocks away.  Check out our grid below--I made it extra big for your reading ease.  I know, we got a bit over zealous on the tomatoes but is there anything better than a tomato straight out of the garden?  I could swoon just thinking about it.

Plugs are brilliant.  You drop the seeds into their little pot, and voila!  You're done. No mucky soil under your nails, no soil all over my kitchen floor, just seeds and plugs all neatly tucked in their little tray.  I am really really hoping that these plugs prove to be the brilliant hydroponic miracle plugs that they claim.  So far, things are looking fantastic.

I turn on the light on at 6 am when I leave for work and then off again just before bed to give the seeds their full 16 hours of daylight, plus keeping their plugs moist with some organic grower feed.  For all the work, I'm delighted that spring has come early in my little apartment.  I like having projects working quietly at home as I work and if there is anything I can do to lengthen the uber-short growing season in Chicago, I'll do it.  Thus far the cucumber is winning by a long shot, followed by beets and carrots.  I'm not quite sure what to do once these guys outgrow their plugs but aren't quite ready for the cold Chicago outdoors but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.  Actually, let's be honest.  I'll probably run up to Brew & Grow and ask them what to do, and pick up another beer making kit, have another little sampler and be inspired to keep growing.  That's what we should be feeling inspired to do come springtime.  Keep growing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Precious burgers in March

It was a long, hard February.  Our mega blizzard kicked off a bout of me being down for the count for two and a half weeks and only just lately have I felt myself again.  Luckily, it was a short month and with the change in the calendar I decided I would just put the whole month behind me.  I'm done, I'm breathing, let's move on.

My sister from Anchorage came to visit and brought her brand new little 2 month old baby along for the ride.  When driving from O'Hare out to the western suburbs my sister says, "ok little Helen, this is Chicago.  It's very flat and grey and ugly here."  To which I responded, "yeah but it's MARCH!  That's hardly fair!"  And I think I'm right.

March is officially the worst month in Chicago.  It's drizzly and cold and dark still and it doesn't feel like it will ever heat up.  So, I decided I would practice a bit of denial.  Sometimes I think denial is a very productive cognitive function. Last Friday night, I was craving a burger.  Our cow arrived some weeks ago and Damon and I have been dying for a good old fashioned, home grilled beef burger.  We already decided that this summer, all of our allotted beef should go towards hamburger experimentation, so why not begin in March?  I shut my eyes really hard and pretended it was May. Bon appetit had this killer burger on the front cover a few months back.  The roll was nice a nice glazed crusty brown, the burger was thick and juicy and spicy looking, lettuce was crisp and vivid green and the tomato was a nice deep straight-off-the-vines red.  It's the kind of burger you can whisper over, "my precious" and not feel like you're overstating the facts.

 Hard to forget, no?

To the task.  Damon is officially on grill duty (I know when to acquiesce) and I was on toppings and buns duty.  I pulled this recipe out of my google cookbook only because I like King Arthur Flour.  Maybe it's just good marketing but I like companies that are 100% employee owned.  And you know what?  They turned out perfectly.  We ate two and froze the rest so I'll let you know how they fare once it is actually grilling season.

Our meat was already 90% lean when the recipe (and most burgers) called for 80-85% lean so we mixed in a bit of compound butter I had from some steak the week before.  May I highly highly recommend it for your next at home burger.  The meat just melted in my mouth.  Plus the DIY chipotle ketchup was a kicky companion to spice up your average burger and we have about a half cup left over for the next round.  Here's my version of the recipe, but cut down just for two people.

1 red onion, cut crosswise into 1/3 inch rounds
olive oil
pinch of kosher salt, pinch of pepper
1 T balsamic vinegar

Chipotle Ketchup
1 c ketchup
1 1/2 t chopped chipotle chilies (from canned chipotle chilis in adobo) plus 2 T adobo sauce from the can
4 t balsamic vinegar (I used much more than the recipe recommended (2 t) but I love the stuff)
1 lb 90% lean ground beef, at room temperature
2- 1/2 inch slices of Wisconsin white cheddar cheese
1 T compound butter, or any butter mixed with fresh herbs, salt, pepper and garlic
4 tomato slices
3/4 c spinach leaves
Prepare your barbecue (medium high heat).  Lay onion rounds out on a cookie sheet, still intact and brush with olive oil, sprinkle with s&p.  Carefully transfer onions to the grill, sear for 3 minutes a side, or until you have nice grill marks.  Move to cooler part of the grill and cook until soft.  Remove and toss with balsamic vinegar. Cover and set aside.
Mix ketchup, chillis, adobo and vinegar in a small bowl.  Season with salt and pepper and add more vinegar, if desired.  Cover and chill.
Form three patties, about 1/2 inch thick and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cook burgers until bottoms darken and juices rise to the surface, about 3 minutes and turn.  Another 3 minutes and you're at medium rare.  Top with cheese, close the lid to let that sucka melt and assemble burger. You know what to do.
Enjoy.  Whisper, "my precious..."

 *makes 3 precious burgers