Archive for December, 2011

Downy Woodpecker Roosting Spot Discovered!

Safe for the night

Safe for the night

It was nearly dusk as I entered the garden to dig up some parsnips for dinner.  I could hear the birds making soft calls to each other as they settled down to roost for the night.   As I dug, a soft woosh went by my head and I looked up to see a downy woodpecker dive into the nestbox I have on one of the garden posts.  The wrens use this box all summer, raising their young and helping me out with garden pest control by eating lots of insects.  They migrated months ago and I removed the metal guard from the hole so larger birds could use it for winter cover.  I never knew if anyone did use it but suspected they did as I would occasionally find a feather inside.  Here now was proof!

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Stolen Chili Recipe

Introductory note from the person who gave it to me:   “I don’t know the up-comins of this chili recipe.  It is NOT some old family favorite passed down through the ages.  We came upon it at the World’s Largest Chili Cook-off in Terlingua, Texas (Big Bend County).  The chuckwagon chef fell prey to a diversion (the sexy kind) and we made off with his pride and joy.”

Meat:  5 pounds boneless sirloin tip roast or sirloin steak [I have used    low-fat content ground beef with success]


  • 6- 12 oz. beers, 5 to drink and 1 for the chili [feel free to ignore the directions to drink the five beers!]
  • 1- 8 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1- 12 oz. can tomatoes [I use a pint, home canned from the garden]
  • 1 C. water
  • 2 C. beef stock


  • 1 large red onion
  • 1 large white onion
  • 6 large garlic cloves mashed in oil to form a paste [I just mince them]
  • 12 oz. dried kidney beans, preferably cooked yourself in bacon fat stock and water [a 28 oz. can works well]
  • 12 oz. dried black beans, preferably cooked yourself in bacon fat stock and water [a 28 oz. can works well]
  • 12 oz. dried pinto beans, preferably cooked yourself in bacon fat stock and water [a 28 oz. can works well]


  • 10 Tbsp chili powder [or to taste]
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp paprika
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp cumin
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. oregano
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. cayenne pepper [ to taste.  You may not need any if you used hot paprika rather than sweet.]

For extra heat add ground chili arbol or ground habenero pepper.  Start at 1/4 tsp. and remember it gets hotter the longer it simmers or sets.


  1. Brown the meat and  put it and any juices in a large pot.
  2. Saute onions in kidney fat (or oil) and add to pot.
  3. Add one 12 oz. beer, tomato paste, water, stock and canned tomatoes plus mashed garlic and 1 tsp each of the salt and pepper.
  4. Drink 5 beers (or let the chili simmer, covered, for two hours)  Don’t forget to stir.
  5. Add chili powder, cumin, 1 Tbsp. paprika, oregano, remaining 1 tsp each of salt and pepper and beans.
  6. Clean up your mess or let it simmer another two hours.
  7. Gather up an ample water supply and ladle up a bowl of goodness.


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My Christmas Bird Count

My participation in the 114th annual Christmas Bird Count begins at 5:00 a.m. when we meet to search for owls.  It’s the coldest day of the season so far at 20º with a chilly wind.  There are six of us this year.  We pile into two cars and go to locations where owls have been seen recently, to play a recording of their calls and listen for responses.  As we get out, two of our number see a shooting star (not me) and we cheer this good omen.  We locate six owls, 4 screech, 1 barred and 1 great horned owl.  At dawn we take a break for breakfast at a nearby diner (same table and waitress every year).

Intrepid Birders, Binoculars Up

  After filling up, we’re out to search for songbirds, waterfowl, hawks, eagles and any other birds we can find.  We have a designated search area, part of a 30 mile circle known as the Westport/Weston count area.  The sun is up and we are brimming with enthusiasm.  We gradually add to our list of birds; Hooded Megansers, Buffleheads, Robins… with the highlight for us being an adult Northern Goshawk floating ghostlike, just over our heads.  We bird until late afternoon, a great day with good friends and locate about 42 species.  This total is lower than other years when we have found an average closer to 60 species but this is the first very cold day of the season and we hypothesize that the birds are laying low, out of the wind.

I bring chili to the potluck dinner which is held at Connecticut Audubon’s Birdcraft Museum.  Here all participants are invited to share the day’s experiences and the official tally for our entire count circle is recorded.  We have tallied 107 species in all with my group contributing about 42 of them.   I’ll give the chili recipe in my next post.

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Johan’s Mother’s Kale & Potatoes

We used to get our Thanksgiving turkey from a local Dutch farmer named Johan.  That was when he raised them himself on his farm and we could come pick ours up on the day he slaughtered them.  Those days are gone now.  Johan is older and family members who used to help have moved away.  One of the side benefits of visiting Johan was that he also sold his garden vegetables on a table by the door.  I didn’t need his vegetables but he gave me a kale recipe that he got from his mother which he had included in his bags of kale.  I was always looking for ways to use this most nutritious offering of my fall garden and the recipe has become a staple.  I have added my own touches and use my curly kale for this (Winterbor).  It lasts longer into the winter and retains more body after cooking than the Red Russian.  You can make this into a one dish meal by adding cooked sausages or kielbasa.

  • Johan’s Mother’s Kale and Potatoes

    This is Winterbor, a curly leaved kale.

    This is Winterbor, a curly leaved kale.

    (as adapted)

  • 1 large potato and 4 or 5 leaves of kale per person
  • 2 Tbsp. butter per person
  • 1/4 C. 1/2 & 1/2 per person (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil per person
  • Salt, pepper, minced garlic to taste

Boil the potatoes in their skins until they can be pierced with a knife.  Peel and mash with butter salt & pepper and 1/2& 1/2 (if using).  Essentially mash the potatoes as you would do but season them aggressively.  Meanwhile, remove center stems from the kale leaves, blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes (timed from when you put the kale in the water) and drain.  Chop the kale into smallish pieces (no larger than 1″ square) and saute with the minced garlic in the olive oil for about three minutes.  Add kale to potatoes, mix well, test for seasonings and reheat if necessary.

The finished dish.  I like the potatoes mashed coarsely rather than pureed.

The finished dish. I like the potatoes mashed coarsely rather than pureed.

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The Last of our Beets

Beet Salad with Black Walnuts and Toasted Chevre

Beet Salad with Black Walnuts and Toasted Chevre

With colder weather coming this weekend I have decided to pick the rest of our beets.  They don’t tolerate repeated frost so it’s important to get them out before they are ruined.  There aren’t many left but there are enough for me to recreate a salad that I love ordering at our favorite NYC restaurant.  I pick some of our late lettuce as a base.  Restaurants have a way of toasting discs of Chevre so the cheese is warm and soft inside but crunchy outside.  I can’t seem to replicate their outer coating but I find that pressing the discs into Panko crumbs and toasting them in the toaster oven gives a very close approximation.  The other element that gives this salad a little twist are the glazed nuts.  Any nut would probably do but I am using walnuts today.  I heat them slowly in a cast iron skillet and when they are warm, I pour on a dash of maple syrup and remove the pan from the heat.  Toss the nuts until they are coated with syrup and set them aside to cool.  Loosen them as they cool because they stick to the pan.  As an alternative, we use toasted Black Walnuts which we do not glaze.  Chevre can be bought in logs and discs sliced off as you need them.  I slice up the whole log and prepare the discs, then freeze them for future use.

Beet Salad(Serves 2)

  • 3 or 4 small beets (or one large), boiled until tender, peeled and sliced
  • 1/3 C. chopped nuts
  • 1Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 2 discs of Chevre
  • Olive oil
  • 1/4 C. Panko crumbs
  • 2 C. mixed lettuces
  • Balsamic vinaigrette

Prepare the nuts as described above.  Place lettuce in salad bowls, top with sliced beets.  Slice off 2 discs of Chevre about 1/3″ thick.  Brush discs with olive oil, press Panko crumbs into them and place discs on a toaster oven baking sheet or (lacking that) a double sheet of tin foil.  Toast until the crumbs begin to brown (about three minutes in my toaster) meanwhile add the glazed nuts and vinaigrette.  Top the salad with the toasted Chevre and serve immediately.  I also like this salad with pears as a substitute for beets.


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Spring Preparations-Pea Fence

This morning promised to be mild and by early afternoon it was 51º.  I went out to the garden to see if the frost from earlier in the week had melted and flushed a small flock of White-throated Sparrows.  They were eating the seeds of some Calendulas that were in the last throes of the season.  The frost was indeed gone so I got out my spade and turned a short row of earth to prepare for next spring when I will plant my peas.  This was a job I should have done earlier but I put it off and now I am happy that I am able to work the soil this late in the year.  I like to do this early preparation because I plant my peas on St. Patrick’s Day and the earth is often so cold and wet then, it is impossible to work.  If I turn it over now and put up the pea fence, all I need to do in March is poke the pea seeds into the soil with my finger, sit back and wait for the bright green shoots to pop up.  As I left the garden the little flock of sparrows returned to the Calendulas.

This is the fence.  (Perpendicular to the camera, the fence in the background is at the perimeter of the garden.) I use 36″ wire and brace it on either end with a green plastic coated stake.  The peas will climb it in the spring and require little encouragement.  I pulled the leaves back over the earth to keep it from freezing deeply.  It’s an insulating blanket and the soil will be warmer when I plant my peas on St. Patrick’s Day.

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Kale “Waldorf” Salad

Today we were invited to dinner with our Grandchildren and I offered to bring a salad as our contribution.  This celebration followed our five year old Grandson’s appearance in the school Holiday Festival, which the whole family attended.  I adapted the Kale Salad in my previous post to a form more acceptable to five and  three year olds, with some success.  I used the thinly sliced kale and added apples, cored, sliced into eighths and then sliced crosswise into chunks.   I then added raisins and toasted walnuts (using English walnuts, a milder taste for children) and made a simple mayonnaise based dressing of 4 Tbsp. Mayonnaise, 3 Tbsp. cider vinegar and 2+ Tbsp. honey.  You could add chopped celery, if you like it.

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