Happy Berm Day

A year ago the city installed a sidewalk on our street (March 28, 2016, to be exact), and we asked them to not spread the dirt and lay sod after the work was done. We wanted to keep the “berm” created by the displaced soil. At first it was a lot of work to remove big rocks and create a somewhat uniform mound, so we wondered if we made the right decision. And it continues to take effort to (attempt to) fend off the bermuda and crab grasses. Would we do it again? Unequivocally, yes. If entertainment value alone were the only metric: yes, yes, yes. The berm has given us so much:

  • Food for humans and other animals: culinary and medicinal herbs, eggplant, okra, winter peas, sunflower seeds, nectar, and more to come.
  • Community: We are playing or working out there often, so we get to wave to drivers or chat with walkers. The berm is a conversation piece. Some people clearly are baffled and others are inspired. Either way, we eagerly share our experiences, challenges, and future plans. Also, we were flush with cowpeas and now winter peas, so we share with our neighbors.
  • Activity: The berm hums with life. The berm provides opportunities for wonderment and movement with purpose — both are a joy to share with our daughter.
  • Beauty: Flowers! See photos and plant varieties below. I sought out advice for seeds that might have a fighting chance against the invasive grasses. The best performer was cowpeas: They thrived all summer and fall and they’re pretty, edible nitrogen fixers.
  • Buffer: Our house is situated on a curve and the berm gives me a sense of security when we’re playing in the front yard and a car takes the bend too fast. I feel less exposed in general, but even more so when the mammoth sunflowers are up and we have a “living fence.”
What we planted in the spring:
“bee feed” mix*
Oriental scarlet poppy
assorted sunflowers
brown cottonseeds
Heliopsis helianthoides
anise hyssop
calendula mix*
red marietta marigold*
Michels cowpea*
butterfly weed
purple prairie clover
What we planted in the fall:
Austrian winterpeas*
golden sweetpeas
Windsor fava beans
crimson clover

*Most successful

To save money, we planted a lot of seeds and just a few transplants (eggplant, sage, rosemary, hibiscus). We’re hoping that many plants will readily re-seed this spring and we’ll plant seeds I saved at the end of the season.

Here’s the Shrub

The last couple of summers, I have been lucky enough to be invited out to Rose Ranch to pick wild blackberries. Last summer was no different. Well — it was different, in a big way, because Rose Ranch had just lost Don Rose. As I headed out toward the brambles, there was a muffled quiet like when you navigate a crowded space while wearing ear plugs. It was as though the ranch was observing silence at the loss of its caretaker. I pondered what Vicki might be going through and quietly, meditatively picked the berries from the thorny vines that snagged my shirt and jeans. I felt grateful for the opportunity to be in Don’s domain while mourning his absence. We miss you, Don.

I picked several pounds of blackberries. I ate more than my share of raw berries, froze some for a future crisp, and decided to experiment with blackberry-infused vinegar to make a drinking vinegar, known as a “shrub.” The color and flavor of the berries leached into the white vinegar as it sat in the cupboard for almost one month. To the strained vinegar, I added sugar and simmered it to make a syrup, which is used to flavor carbonated water. Refreshing! Bracing! Add some spirits, if you wish.

Fermented Okra

Let’s just get this out of the way: The fermented okra turned out pretty slimy.* But if you have no strong aversion to okra goo, then you’ll love it! (Reassuring, no?) The process is amazing in its simplicity, as it turns crisp okra pods into a tangy, tender snack that will keep for months in the refrigerator. It tastes similar to okra pickled with vinegar, but wins the preservation contest (if there were one) because it’s easier to make and imparts all the beneficial bacteria inherent in fermentation.
fermented okrafermented okra
My go-to fermenting resources (Wild Fermentation and Nourishing Traditions) offered no guidance on okra in particular, but I figured the Nourishing Traditions recipe for pickled cucumbers would work just as well. Luckily Brittany has fermented everything, so I turned to her on day 2 when there was none of the telltale bubbly activity. My guess is the viscous brine inhibits the bubbling.

I started with a brine of salt (1/4 cup), water (2 cups) and whey (1/2 cup) , to which I added two seeded jalapenos, several garlic cloves, and about two tablespoons of mustard seed. (If you don’t have whey, just make a saltier brine. Want to know more? I explain this a bit more in depth in the post about fermented beets.) I made sure the pods were submerged to prevent mold and covered the crock with a tea towel. I tasted the pods each day, and on day 3 I decided they were tasty, although the flavors continue to evolve in the refrigerator.

Not sold on fermenting okra? Here’s some other things to do with it: recipes, decorating, and another recipe.

*Edited to add: It’s been three days since I transferred the okra to the refrigerator, and I feel like my characterization of “slimy okra” might have been off-putting and not really fair. I’m snacking on it and noticed it’s not slimy at all. It’s the brine that is slightly slimy, and you don’t have to drink the brine, thankfully.

The Infusion Incident, or How I Wasted A Lot of Garlic and Olive Oil

garlic-herb oil
For weeks I admired these bottles, only to find out the contents are potentially lethal.

A month or so ago, Shauna gave me several heads of garlic from her harvest. After last year’s success with pistou, I knew that I wanted to make garlic-infused olive oil.

Loosely following the guidance in Preserving Foods Without Canning or Freezing, I stuffed garlic cloves, rosemary and oregano into bottles and filled them with olive oil. For weeks I doted on the suspended herbs and the way the bottles would glow in the afternoon sunlight.

After the recommended steeping, I transferred the bottles to the cupboard where I intended to keep them on-hand for gifts. I reserved a bottle for myself, eagerly drizzling it in gazpacho, on focaccia, and in the skillet for sautéed vegetables.

There have been many kitchen blunders over the years, but none have almost killed me, as far as I know. The oil’s intermittent cloudiness should have been the first clue that something was awry. But even more astonishing is that I dismissed my friend’s declaration that the oil smelled foul. I was sautéing zucchini when Julie distorted her face and exclaimed, “Something smells like dog shit!”

Eventually the doubt started creeping in. I tentatively checked on the reserved bottles only to find questionable residues and murky oil. I finally (finally!) decided to Google “garlic-infused oil.” (This little exercise should have happened much earlier, but you’ve probably already figured that out.)

Apparently garlic-infused oils pose a botulism risk that I possibly could have mitigated. (One suggestion is roasting the garlic first and refrigerating the oil.) This has me wondering about the aforementioned pistou. Why was it delicious? It was almost the same combination of ingredients. Maybe I was just lucky? Please excuse me while I go cry in my festering olive oil.
garlic-herb oil

Have a Heart

I didn’t realize it at the time, but a tradition began in 2010 when I and my then husband, Matt, and our friends, Chelsey and Jeff, shared a beef heart as an experiment and commemoration of Valentine’s Day.

This Valentine’s Day some friends crammed into my house to eat chicken hearts. We got together to share the novel experience, trade seeds, drink lots of wine and catch up on each others’ lives. It was a warm, wonderful evening and I am thankful to have many adventurous (or at least obliging) friends. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Julie finetuning the batter
My friend Julie fine-tuning the batter.
She dredged the hearts in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, paprika and chipotle powder. Then she dipped them in egg and again in the flour mixture. We fried them in lard (from Doug Hill’s pigs) that I rendered the day before. Golden, bite-sized and delicious!
chicken heartchicken hearts frying in lard
the spread
The incredible spread! I hoped the ranch dressing might comfort those that were particularly nervous about eating hearts.

More photos here.

Postscript: If you’re curious, there was a heart party in 2011. I failed to document it, but it was quite memorable. My friend Julie (same Julie! Isn’t she awesome?) and I sautéed strips of lamb heart, which we ate in little sandwiches with aioli and arugula. There was also a potluck and the amazing poetry of Lauren Zuniga.

Heavenly Ham Hock

I pulled a ham hock out of the freezer and read the label: “ham hock.” “Are all ham hocks smoked?” I wondered. I sniffed it, but detected no smoky goodness. Apparently not. I didn’t know what to do with a fresh ham hock. My cookbooks provided no guidance, so I went to the Internet and found a couple of recipes for braised fresh ham hock (also called “pork shank”).

heavenly ham hock
I used this recipe for Chinese braised hocks. The braising liquid calls for dark salted rice wine, which I didn’t have, so I used sherry.

I wanted crispy skin and melty fat, so after it was in the slow cooker for about nine hours, I moved the hock to a 450˚ oven for about 30 minutes. While it was in the oven, I attempted to reduce the braising liquid into a sauce. I didn’t have enough time for it to noticeably reduce, but it still worked fine drizzled on the meat, rice, and greens. (The meal that keeps on giving! Later I made soup by adding  kimchi, bok choy, and rice to the remaining broth.)
heavenly ham hock
Ham hock, sautéed bok choy, and brown rice.
The meat fell off the bone and this former vegetarian wanted to scarf down every bit, along with the skin and fat! However, I had some restraint, but only because I needed leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
heavenly ham hock
The flavor and textures were incredible and comparable to pork belly, except with more meat.
I’ve gone from being unsure about fresh ham hock to actively seeking it so I can cook it again, but in a milder liquid so I can get a better sense of the cut’s flavor.


Monday’s freakishly terrific weather had me pining for sweaty afternoons in the garden, nurturing seedlings and combating Bermuda grass. For the meantime I’ll have to make do with a couple of fermentation projects, mostly beverages (blog posts forthcoming). I haven’t yet progressed past the point where I don’t view my garden as a months-long trial, and these mini science experiments in the kitchen seem to satisfy the same yearning.

About this time last year a friend introduced me to Wild Fermentation. I was familiar with the title, but when he described the book as a life-changing read, I decided to finally check out the library’s copy, which had tattered edges and splattered pages. (I love getting a well-loved library book; it’s an instant bond with other nameless, but like-minded OKC residents.)

After scanning through the first third of the book — the part that explains the history and basic science of fermented foods (many of which are my favorite things: beer, sourdough bread, cheese, yogurt) and the author’s interest in them — I knew I needed my very own copy.

The first recipe I tried was for sauerrüben (like sauerkraut, but with turnips instead of cabbage), since turnips were in season and are pretty cheap. I picked up a couple of pounds from W Bar M at the OSU-OKC farmers’ market.
fermenting shredded turnips, aka Sauerruben
Feb. 20, 2011
Grated turnips and sea salt packed into a crock, covered and weighted.
Evidence of fermentation after three days.
I tasted the sauerrüben every day. I decided the flavor was right on day six, but the fermentation slowly continues in the refrigerator. My palate hasn’t quite adapted to enjoy sauerrüben on its own, but it’s a delicious complement to meats, especially barbecued brisket.