Lopez Lamb, Wool, and Goat Festival

For several weeks in early spring, the fields around my kitchen garden are home to a flock of sheep.  They are a mixed group, some raised for meat that the farmer sells locally and to Seattle restaurants and others raised for their fleece that the farmer’s wife and other spinners, weavers and knitters value.  The sheep stay a week or two until they’ve nibbled down the newly sprouted grasses in our fields, and then the farmer and his dogs move them on to neighbors’ fields.  In other pastures around the island, baby lambs stay close to their mothers or jump and frolic across the grass.  And in barns and farmyards, freshly shorn Romney, Coopworth, Icelandic and Navajo Churro sheep look around uncertainly, just released from the shearer and the fleece that coated them all winter, lovely fleece destined for yarn, rugs, blankets and all kinds of clothing.

The bounty and beauty of Lopez lamb and wool is something I’ve admired each spring, feeling fortunate to have friends and neighbors who put such effort into raising sheep for meat and gorgeous fleece and for keeping agriculture vibrant on the island.  Who knew these hard working farmers and fiber artists also had the energy to organize their labors into a festival so others can enjoy what I see each spring!  But last year they did, offering the first Lopez Lamb and Wool Festival, complete with a sheep drive into the village, sheep dogs, baby lambs to pat, shearing, spinning and weaving demonstrations and a lamb dinner.  The day was such a success that they are doing it again this year.   And they’ve invited goats!

This year, fiber and diary goats, and even pack goats, will join the sheep for a day at the Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.  There will be demonstrations and hands-on instruction on spinning and weaving, and vendors will offer lamb and wool related items.  Orcas Island chef Christina Orchid will prepare the lamb dinner this year using Lopez lamb and local organic produce and offering side dishes for vegetarians.  There will be an auction of Lopez grown and made woolen items and as was the case last year, all proceeds from the dinner and auction will benefit the Lopez Farm-to-School program to encourage future generations of farmers.  This year’s festival sponsors are Island Fibers (http://www.islandfibers.com/), Saddleback Sheep Ranch, and the Agricultural Resources Committee of San Juan County (ARC).

Check out this poster for more details and come if you can.  It will be great!

And to read more about Lopez Island sheep farmers and fiber artists, go to:https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/navajo-churro-sheep-on-lopez/, https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/dawn-ritchie’s-beautiful-sheep/ and https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/island-fibers-a-slow-fiber-experience/

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Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors this time of year provides many of the same pleasures that outdoor planting will provide in another month or so, the feel and smell of damp soil, the size and shape of seeds, the act of pressing a seed into soil, lightly covering it and pressing again, and then the daily excitement of checking to see what sprouts are shouldering their way through the soil to the light.

The little room where I start seeds is the perfect place to go when the desire to experience these pleasures is strong but it’s still cold and blustery outside.  The light-filled space warms quickly on sunny days, creating the illusion of springtime. The windows that form the south wall of this room enclose a nine-by-three foot low shelf and a slightly narrower upper shelf, both perfect for flats of growing plants.

Though the windows let in a lot of light, I’ve found that I still need to supplement the light this time of year to keep plants from getting leggy. I’ve hung four-foot shop lights fitted with one cool white and one warm white fluorescent bulb two inches from the growing plants and have a twenty-four hour timer set to keep the lights on for fourteen hours.  See Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (6th edition, p. 202-203) for the advice that guided me.

On half of the lower shelf, there is a heating mat for starting seeds.  Once plants are up and growing, I move them to other shelves.  I also have an oscillating fan on the wall opposite these shelves and keep it on low all the time.  The little bit of motion the moving air causes in the growing plants makes them stronger.

In the northeast corner of this room there is a counter where I plant seeds and pot up seedlings.  For years, I mixed my own potting soil but several years ago, during an especially busy time, I tried Black Gold organic potting soil.  It’s great and I’ve kept using it.

I have a collection of one-inch and two-inch cell packs, four-inch pots and trays that I reuse year after year.  Masking tape stuck to packs and pots and labeled with permanent marker pen works well to identify plants. For watering, there’s a coiled hose that stretches out to the length of the counters and makes watering very easy.  All these manipulations of light, heat, air, soil and water are benefits of starting seeds inside and more than make up for being inside instead of outside.

The final great pleasure of starting seeds inside is being able to look closely at the germinating and growing plants. Onions are one of my favorites to watch.  They emerge from the soil folded, like little green paper clips, before springing open to a single strand.

Peas raise a little bump in the soil before breaking through and growing quickly.  The flat I planted on February 29th germinated in five days and was ready to plant in the garden in two weeks.  After hardening them of outdoors for several days, I set them out in the garden March 13th.

Each seed has its distinctive pattern of emergence and growth.  I’ll watch for more of these patterns when I start planting outside in the garden, but for now I’ll enjoy starting seeds in this warm, sheltered place and wait for spring.

Arugula Pesto

Basil pesto is still many months away but there’s no need to wait for basil to make a pesto sauce. Pesto refers to the process of making the sauce—pounding in a mortar and pestle or pureeing in a food processor—not to the ingredients. Experimenting with other greens than basil and different nuts and cheese than pine nuts and Parmesan results in some tasty sauces.  One of my favorite discoveries is arugula pesto made with arugula, toasted hazelnuts, Pecorino Romano cheese, garlic and olive oil.

Pesto from arugula leaves is an especially good choice right now because the arugula plants that have provided such tasty salads and sandwich greens all winter are now going to seed and the remaining leaves are a little more pungent, perfect for a sauce. Another great winter substitute for basil is kale.

The other night I made a batch of arugula pesto from a final harvest of the arugula that has been growing all winter in the cold frame at the edge of my kitchen garden.  I wanted to clear out the cold frame and replant with lettuce, radishes and spring turnips anyway, so it didn’t feel too destructive to cut a row of arugula plants off at the base and pile them in a basket.

Back in the kitchen, I pulled off all the usable leaves and set the stalks aside for compost.  After washing the leaves and spinning them dry, I had a lot of arugula, about eight cups, loosely packed, enough to make about three cups of pesto.  I grated enough Pecorino Romano to make a cup and a half of cheese, toasted a generous one-third cup of hazelnuts, and peeled three garlic cloves.  Then I processed the garlic in the Cuisinart and added the hazelnuts and processed them briefly.

Next I packed half of the arugula into the Cuisinart bowl, added half a cup of olive oil and processed them briefly.  They quickly turned into a smooth puree.  I added the rest of the arugula and another half a cup of olive oil and processed again.  Finally I added the grated cheese, processed again briefly and I was done.  I didn’t add any salt because the cheese is quite salty.  There was enough pesto for three or four pasta dinners.  The pesto keeps for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

While I was making pesto, Scott rolled out a batch of emmer farro flour fettuccini and started it boiling.  When the pesto hit the just drained pasta, the fragrant blend of arugula, garlic, hazelnuts and cheese filled the air as Scott snapped a photo before we filled our plates.  This bright green, richly flavored pesto was every bit as delicious as basil pesto and a real treat on a chilly March night.

New Growth Greens

As March begins, there are still some tasty roots, leeks and Brussels sprouts in the winter kitchen garden, but instead of harvesting these reliable winter vegetables I’m drawn to the new growth on kale and the delicious salads it offers. These new leaves are a lighter green and have a less coarse texture than the darker leaves that have survived winter cold.  They are perfect for raw kale salads.  Of course, raw kale makes a great salad throughout the winter months, but these new leaves have a tender taste of spring.

I prepare the leaves the same way I prepare a winter kale salad: tearing them into small pieces, rubbing them with olive oil and salt and letting them rest for ten minutes or so before adding more flavors and textures.  Sometimes I’ll add just a little vinegar or lemon juice and enjoy a very simple salad.  Other times, I’ll match kale’s distinctive flavor with other assertive flavors like feta or Pecorino Romano cheese, olives, pickled onions, oranges or grapefruit.  Toasted breadcrumbs or croutons and a pungent Caesar salad dressing take kale salad in yet another delicious direction.

Last night, I made a very simple salad with new growth from all my kale varieties—Red Russian, Lacinato, Rainbow Lacinato and Winterbor—finely snipped new chive spears, grated Pecorino Romano cheese and lemon juice.  It was as much a treat as next month’s spring lettuce salads will be.

We’ll enjoy these new growth kale leaves for another few weeks before broccoli-like seed heads rise above them to provide yet another treat from this versatile winter vegetable.  Check back soon for kale seed head recipes!