Cottonwood Coffin

One learns, over time, that upon entering a prairie roadhouse or tavern, a stranger will typically face an awkward moment of silence and over-the-shoulder stares. A way of handling that awkwardness is to simply walk in as if you was wearing blinders, take a seat on a stool or at an empty table, and cheerfully order a beer.

Which I did recently when entering a micro brewery some 90 miles from home. After a couple of refreshing sips a waitress tapped my shoulder and asked my name. “A man over there says he knows you.”

Many years have passed since we’d last talked, yet there was a sense of recognition despite the softening of middle age and a change in  hair style and color. Somehow I was able to pull off his name and was invited to join him at his table. “Have some,” he smiled, pointing to a plate of onion rings.

So began a late afternoon “happy hour” conversation. We caught each other up on the changes in our lives, of our sons, and if he was still growing his multiple rows of hot peppers in his country garden. Kayaking the Hawk came up, and we reminisced about this hidden treasure of the white water prairie river. Then, after a brief lull in the conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the farm accident that had killed a neighboring farmer we both knew.

I hadn’t, and images of the man flashed through mentally. There was that instant sense of sadness, for the farmer was a good person. At one point the farmer and his brothers were running a wide stretch of acres across the top of the county. Like the others in his generation of family, he was an outgoing man with a genuine smile, and was generally friendly and engaging even when realizing he was on a opposite side of the table on issues. One of the last of those table defining issues involved the clearing of miles upon miles of tall, stately cottonwoods that skirted a drainage ditch on his and neighboring farms.

“Have you ever farmed around cottonwoods?” the farmer had asked me at the courthouse when I was interviewing him for a story that was dividing not only members of his church and friends in nearby communities, but certainly many of his neighbors … my friend among them. “They’re dirty trees,” the farmer continued.

He didn’t need to define “dirty.” Cottonwoods join a litany of tree species some consider “dirty,” meaning limbs, leaves and sometimes bark interfere with various human endeavors. Then he did: “The limbs break off, fall and crush your crops. They get in the way of your planter, or clog up a combine. Besides, they’re clogging the flow of water and are making that ditch totally inefficient. They’re just a constant nuisance.”

He and his brothers were quite influential, and much of the 20 plus miles of the drainage ditch they were petitioning the ditch authority to have cleaned snaked through their land. Enough of it wasn’t. The trees were noticeable for miles around, for the cottonwoods the farmer wanted cut, dug out and burned stood defiantly tall. A prairie landmark south of the main highway. One could suggest many of the cottonwoods were at least 50 years old, maybe older. Hunters and nature lovers loved the “wildness” they offered, but the neighboring land owners who shared the ditch … including my friend and his father on different quarter sections … had a far different concern. They would be assessed to pay for a cleanup they simply didn’t want or felt was necessary.

Those landowners and nature lovers joined forces for the second hearing by the ditch authority … the first official notice was mostly unheeded, as most published agate-sized notices in the country weeklies generally are by those who are not directly involved. At many such meetings, the county commissioners — each of three counties had representatives on the ditch authority — seemingly lend a deaf ear to those protesting. Among those seas of faces are anti-growth, NIMBY’s, they say. Indeed, the farmer had eventually lost out on an earlier effort to push through a joint farrow to finish factory pork operation when township residents stood up to the county commissioner-spiked planning and zoning commission, and later the county board itself, by pushing through a moratorium that provided the township a window of time to develop its own more strict zoning and land use plan. So the farmer was nervous seeing a large enough crowd that the ditch clean up meeting was moved into the assembly room of the courthouse.

Few were surprised that the ditch authority’s recommendation to the county commissioners was in favor of the ditch “improvement.” Later that month the commissioners in the affected county used that recommendation as reason to approve the clean out of the trees by a split, majority vote. It was not a popular decision at the county seat, in the nearby communities, nor with many of the farmers and neighbors in the northern part of the county.

Even when the dozers and sawyers came tension surrounded the project. When I stopped to take pictures two pickups parked nearby  to watch me. Moments later the farmer himself drove up, jumped from the pickup and extended an outstretched hand with a smile and friendly greeting. As we stood on the culvert on the gravel road I asked of his plans for the ditch since the trees certainly fell within the vegetative definition of a buffer strip. “Oh,” he promised as the distant dozer groaned to the resistance of a stubborn trunk of tree, “there’ll definitely be a buffer planted on both sides of the ditch.”

“He did plant the buffers,” said my friend as we chatted at the brewery. “But, already, within a few years, they had to bring in the dragline to clean out the sediment. Guess where they placed it? Right on top of one of the buffers. Another issue was in the burning of the logs and refuge during the clean out. There were piles in all of our fields, and both my dad and I have our land in CRP. It was in the fall when they set those piles on fire. I came home from work after dark and you could still see the red embers, and sparks were flying in the air out into the prairie. Remember, prairie grasses are browned and very dry this time of year. So I called the county sheriff, and when the deputy arrived he surveyed the situation before calling in the fire department.”

Fires, though, were the least of his angst with the project, an issue that still haunts him. “That clean up has cost me and my father, and many other farmers along the ditch, a lot of money in assessments and added property taxes … all for a project none of us wanted. But, the farmer had the name and the influence …” He let the sentence die as he sipped from his glass.

He looked up and asked: “You know what would be fitting?”

I waited.

Then, with more irony than anger, he added, “That he be buried in a cottonwood coffin.”

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In Search of Color and Life

Storm clouds above the prairie ... likely a scene from the distant past.

Storm clouds above the prairie … likely a scene from the distant past.

My what a dreary morning. Our deck was a darker than the usual weathered drab gray, a color that was seemingly adopted by a sky filled with various levels of stormy looking clouds. A cold wind stirred what few leaves remained in the yard. All were signs of a winter foretold.

The rain from yesterday had discouraged the men working to erect our multi-purpose, timber frame garage, and any likelihood they would arrive this morning was nil. Too much wind, and too much dampness to attract those in the construction arts to don a tool belt. With exception of the howl of the wind through the trees in the grove, this would be a quiet day.
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When the owner of the local grocery, Bonnies in Clinton, asked for one of my new calendars, this was just the excuse necessary for heading into town and jumping on a treadmill. Our gravel road is much too rough on my knees to encourage walking, and the stand-me-up wind offered more resistance than I needed.

Driving the 12 miles round trip provided enough fodder for negative thoughts even with 45 minutes of exercising. On this, my first full day after my milestone birthday — believe me, at my age every birthday is a milestone — the last thing I needed was to have my mood affected by the drab grayness of the day. Which made me curious. Was there even a possibility of finding color and life out on the nearby remnants of prairie?

Thousands of birds form a murmuration just down the road from the farm.

Thousands of birds form a murmuration just down the road from the farm.

Regardless, it was worthy of a try. Grabbing the camera, with just enough life left in the battery for a trip through paradise, the trip began. Despite the chill and dampness of the winds, which were seemingly celebrated by the willowy grasses common to native prairie, life and color was out there. My hope of finding deer and wild turkey down by Meadowbrook was quickly dashed, although I did drive upon a huge murmuration just around the corner from there. Have you every heard the sounds of a murmuration? Thousands upon thousands of birds, clamoring all at once, sounds that were actually overshadowed by the collective feathered flight.
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Then it was off to the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge where the grasses danced, the ducks too flight, and mushrooms peeked from the wooded old river bed.

I won’t write too much this morning. Instead I will provide some of what was found between Listening Stones Farm and the refuge.

Levels of color, even on a dreary day, are there for the finding.

Levels of color, even on a dreary day, are there for the finding.

Between the treadmill and the bounties found with the old camera, a sense of energy and excitement is now sourcing through my soul. It isn’t too much to ask even on a damp, dark and dreary day.

It’s Up!

First to arrive this morning was a surprise. Brad Fernholz, who last I heard could not put weight on a broken ankle, arrived chipper and smiling, which he seems to have a fine history of doing, and ready to work. Dale Pederson arrived next with Elmo Volstad and Mike Jacobs about 20 minutes later.

Timber frame and bent wood artist, Dale Pederson, designed the building.

Timber frame and bent wood artist, Dale Pederson, designed the building.

So after all these months of mushy deadlines, after the pouring of the slab in July and the arrival of the trailer-load of timbers last week, all cut to shape and diminsion at Dale’s Stoney Run studio over the summer, the group was finally here at Listening Stones Farm to erect the first, and perhaps the only, brand new building of my lifetime. Oh, we’ve had various options to consider. Personally knowing two house moving companies, there is no doubt we could have found a less expensive option. Thein Moving in Clara City, and Marcus Moving in Raymond, almost always have garages available to move in to erect on a foundation. We wanted something more than a “moved in” garage.

Our farm came with two outbuildings when we bought it. Without paying a whole lot of attention, since the exterior was sealed with metal siding, I thought a little turn of the century granary might serve us. Upon closer inspection it was a damned mess. There simply wasn’t any way it could be salvaged, so last year we had the granary and an iconic old pig barn razed, burned and buried beneath what became our orchard.

Last week the crew came to piece together the four sections.

Last week the crew came to piece together the four sections.

I suppose the muse came near the Summer Solstice the summer before last when we drove to Estilline, SD, to visit Rebecca’s old friend, Professor Karl Schmidt’s small permaculture layout, where I simply fell in love with his garage. Althought I had asked for plans, Karl and I could never quite get together on them. Last winter, as cold, snowy winter evenings go, I started playing around on the internet with a dream. That’s where I found a Nebraska firm that specialized in post and beam, timberframe buildings. They mailed a thick envelope full of materials, including a beautiful calendar, and eventually a friendly — aren’t they usually? — sales rep who lived near Sioux Falls, and who promised to stop on his way to his son’s hockey games in Bemidji. That never happened. That’s when I remembered that Dale Pederson had plenty of experience in post and beam construction, and even taught at cultural art schools in both Grand Marais and Milan.

The crane is ready to start lifting the four sections.

The crane is ready to start lifting the four sections.

We met for dinner to present our idea. Dale and his wife, Jo, are long time friends, starting with their hosting of a couple for foreign exchange students from my area program. Later I would buy several pieces of their bent wood furniture, and even took a couple of trellis classes from Jo. In short, Dale was interested, and after I laid down some earnest cash, he carried through with a design. When he presented the pencil drawings I might as well have been reading Russian. Give the man credit for being patient, and for helping find ways to maximize our costs in creating the building. He was also proud that his design would be framed for less money than what was listed in the slick brochures from Nebraska. We liked it because a dear friend could and would deliver what we wanted … and, it was money spent “locally.”

The first section was lifted with the crane early in the morning.

The first section was lifted with the crane early in the morning.

Rebecca and my original intent was to erect a combination garage, summer kitchen, workshop and studio, with the possibility of adding a passive solar greenhouse in a year or two. Initially we aimed to erect the building by June. That was pushed back to July, thanks to a South Dakota art show. July didn’t happen, so we tried to find a way around the trip to the BWCA come August. Nope, August was out, so September was targeted. Then it had to be wrapped around the Meander. “Let’s aim to have it up before Thanksgiving,” I told Dale at one of our last meetings. I was hoping this was a joke, since Elmo and Dale had poured the concrete in July.

Up goes the last section.

Up goes the last section.

Over this time many trips were made to Dale’s studio in Wegdahl where positive proof that progress was being made. In those several planning meetings Dale explained different ideas and options, and even drove to Cottonwood for a tour of the insulated panel factory. What was amazing was that he created the entire building off site and transported them to the farm to piece them together. “Like Lincoln Logs,” is how Elmo explained it to me while we watched another piece fit perfectly in place.

A view of the completed frame looking toward the house.

A view of the completed frame looking toward the house.

That is what happened on this day in October. Last week Dale came with the parts, and he, Elmo and Mike pieced together four separate frame sections. And everything fit together almost perfectly. This morning, not long after they arrived, the crane followed. And up it went, section by section with the crossbeams seemingly dropping perfectly into place. Much of my time was spent on the ground watching, for these fellows have erected several timberframe buildings over the years and work as a team, scrambling up ladders and scaffolding like human ants. My fear of being in the way along with a bum knee kept me on the sidelines most of the day. As we watched another of the connecting crossbeams fall perfectly in place without a touch of the mallot, Elmo smiled and said, “It’s magic!”

So now it’s framed, and we have the floor joists to install. On Friday the insulated panels come. Once those go up, then the windows, electricity, roofing and siding are scheduled. We’re not there yet, but watching the frame go up … one so well planned and constructed … was heartwaming. Having a heated floor for the garage will make winter more tolerable, and having a place for us to do our artwork, canning, and eventually, a winter greenhouse will be heavenly.

The crew included, from left, Mike Jacobs, Brad Fernholz, Jerry Parker, Dale Pederson and Elmo Volsted.

The crew included, from left, Mike Jacobs, Brad Fernholz, Jerry Parker, Dale Pederson and Elmo Volsted.

This is my first new building of my lifetime. While I can’t wait, I can also feel quite humbled. Frankly, I don’t have any idea of what to say or do. We love our home, and our new building will make a greater place to live. It will tie many of our hopes and dreams together, just as Dale had promised.

Sumac Chronicles

An explosion of autumn color!

An explosion of autumn color!

From what I’m told, and from evidence on the ridges around here and at a few of the nearby state parks, sumac is considered an invasive species. At Glacial Lakes and areas of Big Stone State Parks, the hills are rife with the reddish leaves and seed clusters, or drupes among scientists. For we laypeople, the clusters are more commonly called “bobs.”

All that color, from the bright reds and yellows of fall to the purplish bobs, attracts the eye of a photographer, especially this one. Recently at a visit to Glacial Lakes, the sumac in the late afternoon sun was reminiscent of a wild fire ravishing the hills of native grasses. A vivid bright red hugged the brown prairie grasses like a grandmother’s quilt in the low and late afternoon sun. Even around here, growing up the nearby hills along Big Stone Lake, patches of sumac are as common as deer and wild turkey. Sumac is found from the town of Ortonville all along the lower hillsides to Browns Valley, and are particularly prominent in the Bonanza area of Big Stone State Park.

The hills at Glacial Lakes State Park are rife with the fall color of sumac.

The hills at Glacial Lakes State Park are rife with the fall color of sumac.

Taken while lying on my back, the red leaves look stark against the blue of the sky.

Taken while lying on my back, the red leaves look stark against the blue of the sky.

Along the highway spindly stalks rise from the ground, gnarly and poetically. Most common to Minnesota is the staghorn, which is rather appropriate considering the shapes of the trunks. The stalks reach skyward from the shorter outside plants to those quite tall in the midst of a cluster. The tallest can reach as high as 30 feet, although I doubt if I’ve seen them more than 12 feet in height. The huge leaves, spirally arranged and usually pinnately compound, bring a crimson to purple celebration to a prairie autumn, and come winter, the purplish bobs collect snow and hungry, overwintering birds.

In many parts of the country, sumac is sold as an ornamental. In areas of New England the plant is sold as a rival to the beauty of the larger maple species, bringing the same lush color to the autumn scene.

A study in contrast from the shaded sumac to those in the bright sun.

A study in contrast from the shaded sumac to those in the bright sun.

You may blame the birds, in part, for the invasiveness, for their droppings provide an instant fertility for the seeds. Once sprouted, though, sumac becomes entrenched, spreading by runner-roots or rhizomes. If you should wish to witness the richness of rhizome colonies, a visit to Glacial Lakes is the place to go … especially in the autumn.

A background of sumac and prairie grasses give this image almost a stained glass effect.

A background of sumac and prairie grasses give this image almost a stained glass effect.

What I didn’t know is that in areas of the Mideast the bobs are ground into a spice or served in a tea. The spice, which is also sold by Penzy’s and other spice companies, has a tart, lemony taste. When I bought this up with Rebecca, she remembered that as a child in Vermont that they one time collected and ground the seeds. “It’s easier to just find a lemon,” she said, smiling at the memory.

Bobs against the brown of the Bonanza prairie grasses.

Bobs against the brown of the Bonanza prairie grasses.

Perhaps she won’t be convinced to try it again here at Listening Stones Farm. “I remember it being hard to find seeds good enough to grind. I remember that there wasn’t a lot of good, solid seeds.”

A cluster of staghorn sumac near us in an earlier, early-morning fog shows off the gnarly, deer-antler like shapes.

A cluster of staghorn sumac near us in an earlier, early-morning fog shows off the gnarly, deer-antler like shapes.

All of which makes me want to revisit the writing of Euell Gibbons, who I met not long after he published his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It would be interesting to see if Gibbons wrote about sumac, and if so, what his impression might have been.

Sumac shines in the early morning sun.

Sumac shines in the early morning sun.

It’s highly doubtful we’ll get around to collecting some bobs for grinding into a spice. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to stalk the wild sumac  with my camera. Perhaps you’ll enjoy what I’ve captured so far.

In winter, the bobs provide food for deer and many bird species.

In winter, the bobs provide food for deer and many bird species.

Being a Bit Windblown

Call it a brief reprieve from the locomotive-like, gush of winds, for a soft breeze rustled the nearby prairie grasses as the “blood” moon rose into the darkened sky. Not far away our local “pack” of coyotes broke into their nightly prairie songs. I couldn’t help but smile. Having a gentle breeze in the relative warmth of the evening, along with the yips and howls of the coyotes, felt immensely meditative.

It's too bad you can hear the prairie songs, and that I didn't have a  tripod or cooperation from the clouds overhead for the recent "blood" moon.

It’s too bad you can hear the prairie songs, and that I didn’t have a tripod or cooperation from the clouds overhead for the recent “blood” moon.

Oddly, my enjoyment of the prairie songs and the symphony of the wind isn’t shared by many. Yes, people speak of a deep hatred of the wind, and certainly the many letters of the settlers give historical credence to such feelings. Even madness, as it was called back then. As for the coyotes, I often hear such comments as “blood curdling” and “frightening” when we bring up our enjoyment of the coyote songs. “Perhaps you haven’t lost anything to them. No chickens or cats,” someone said the other night. It’s true. We haven’t.

Yet, we are wondering if the mashed grasses along the chicken fence along the orchard was matted down by coyotes. Rebecca believes it is certainly some predator seeking entry into the chicken pen. She discovered the trodden grasses the other afternoon when three of her hens and a rooster were squawking madly while parading along the orchard fence. When she walked around the shed into the orchard to investigate, one by one the chickens turned to sprint with their feathery butts aloft, defying soft down, straight through the two fenced pens and into the coop instead of under their normally protective brier bushes. There was no hesitation.

“Everything loves chicken,” is how she explains the situation.

With our heavily insulated walls and new windows, and with our minds solidly geared toward the recent Meander, much of what happened outside in the prairie, coop and garden, along with the seemingly constant gush of the winds, have gone mostly unheeded.

Gull gliding in the morning sun.

Gull gliding in the morning sun.

Ah, the Meander. Our first day back was filled with exhaustion, although by mid-afternoon there was just enough healing to begin putting our house back into a livable order. The next day the two of us carried our large display panels from the house to the shed because of the strong crosswinds. Since, though a sense of normal has since settled in.

While my lunch warmed in the oven on Tuesday, I spent several wind-blown moments in an Adirondack chair on the deck soaking in a bit of sunshine and wind. This was when my neglect of the feathered friends was noticed. No suet. No nuts. No thistle seed for the finches. No sunflower seeds. No colorful flashes of birds flying in for a meal. All the little feeders were swinging like pendulums in the staunch wind.

Windblown grasses.

Windblown grasses in a nearby prairie.

Over the rise, though, ducks and geese have not been daunted, and those squawks of the geese are as normal here as the sounds of the winds. Likewise with the hundreds of gulls gliding over. One afternoon, when winds whipped the treetops and created incredible yet invisible currents high above, dozens upon dozens of gulls glided past, and honestly, you can’t help but believe they were enjoying the ride. Frankly, it was more glide than ride. You could see a bit of wing adjustment up by the wetland, then whoosh, they’d glide by with considerable ease with nary a move.

Beyond the gulls and geese, on Wednesday Rebecca discovered yet another sign of autumn bird life. Seems she was in the chicken pen when a sudden alert was sounded by one of the roosters, immediately inspiring the layers to sprint for cover under those brier bushes. At first Rebecca didn’t know what to make of it, then noticed the shadow easing across the grass. Above her and her chickens, the tell tail white of an eagle showed as it slowly soared, somehow evading the forces of the strong, afternoon wind.

Gulls gliding in the wind.

Gulls gliding in the wind.

For prairie lovers, this is a blessed time of year. Murmurations of blackbirds, and the flights of the birds are part of it. So is finding yourself in a stand of “dancing” big bluestem. No, it doesn’t have to be the “turkey track” grasses, for most of the prairie grasses are splendid this time of year. Brown, spindly stalks and wispy blades of the grasses are whipped by winds in ways the soaring birds cannot since they’re anchored deeply by their underground forest of roots. Most of the forbs have gone to dry seed heads, and many stand rigid against the same winds that cause neighboring grasses to shimmer and shine. The wind helps spread the seeds that replenish the prairie, all part of the life cycle of the prairie.

Turkey-track bluestem encountering a prairie wind.

Turkey-track bluestem encountering a prairie wind.

Yes, we’ve had our share of wind of late. Big Stone Lake is riled into huge white caps more days than not. When we placed the signs out on the roads early last Friday morning before the Meander, both of us had to hold the signs in place until she was secured them to the rebar. The balloons we hanged lasted less than a minute before being destroyed.

Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed that moment of reprieve, along with the yips and howls of prairie lyrics sang by the coyotes. It is all part of prairie life, and you learn to enjoy all of it. Night and day the big winds have continued, roaring with vengeance. Wind is the thread of prairie fabrics, in the field and sky, and as so, you learn to adjust and accept. You must. As a powerful force of nature, it serves us a bit of evil among the goodness.

One More Tomato

I never want to see another tomato.

By never, of course, I mean not until next July, when I’ll be sneaking down to the garden several times a day to check on ripening progress of my early varieties. But next July is a long, long way off when you’re looking square in the face of a Minnesota winter.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway-- I think I'll start using the other door.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway– I think I’ll start using the other door.

It is my fault for having planted 75 plants of 26 varieties. I’ve culled a few seed packs of types that did not meet my particular standards, so I’m down to twenty-two or twenty-three already. That’d be a start if it wasn’t for my notorious lack of restraint when the seed catalogs come out, and the succulent varietal descriptions cause me to abandon all good sense.

With all the abundance in the tomato patch (and elsewhere in the gardens), we’ve had to get creative, and this year our creativity paid off with a new recipe we’ll be returning to season after season.

Makin' it smooooth with the food mill

Makin’ it smooooth with the food mill

I came home from the Big Stone Lake Farmers Market one Saturday a few weeks ago with fifty or sixty pounds of tomatoes and an equally ridiculous amount of eggplant—some from the market, and some I’d left behind as too ugly to go to town (I know: not a very nice thing to say about a vegetable I raised up from seed). I’d already roasted a few trays of eggplant for the freezer, and I was thinking I’d do the same with these (and then figure out something else with all those !@#$% tomatoes) when I remembered seeing a jar of tomato-based “smoky eggplant pasta sauce” at that upscale kitchen store outside of Waite Park. Hmmm.

John loves smoking meat. Why not try smoking some eggplant? He fired up his contraption, and I prepped the fruits—removing stems and ends and slicing them in half lengthwise, brushing them with just a hint of olive oil to prevent sticking. I pick eggplant when they are still young and tender, so there was no need to peel them.

While the eggplant hung out in the smoker, I processed the tomatoes into sauce and started cooking it down. Added a few onions and some garlic, and then the chopped, smoked eggplant when it was ready. Puréed the whole thing together, added some spices, and hurrah! A smooth, smoky, tomato-y deliciousness we couldn’t wait to eat on just about everything.

 

Simmer down...

Simmer down…

Here’s the recipe:
6-8 quarts tomato purée (already reduced by half or more)
3-4 cups chopped smoked eggplant
1 cup chopped onion
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1-2 small hot peppers (seeds and all) minced

Simmer these ingredients together until all the vegetables are very soft. Then purée them all together in a blender or food processor (or put them through a food mill). Put them back on the stove to simmer some more (you want this sauce to end up thick and smooth).

Then add the following:
Bay leaf
¼-1/2 cup sugar (your taste)
1 TB salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 TB cumin seed
1 tsp oregano leaf
½ tsp ground cinnamon
*optional—add one or two 6oz. cans of tomato paste if the sauce is too smoky and not enough “tomato forward.”

Simmer this (stirring often) until it reaches a lovely, smooth thickness (not paste–but definitely not watery), then taste to correct the seasonings. If it’s a little grainy-looking, you can purée again or use an immersion blender. Voila! You’re done (uh…well, except for processing or freezing).

 

Freeze or pressure process!

Freeze or pressure process!

The eggplant in our first batch sat in the smoker for a few hours, and it almost completely overpowered the sauce, so adding tomato paste worked well to bring the tomato flavor forward a bit. The second batch (where the eggplant was in the smoker for less than an hour) didn’t need the tomato paste. Obviously, the tomato flavor will be more pronounced if you cook your initial purée down more. I reduced the first batch of plain tomato sauce by about half before adding any other ingredients—the second batch was reduced even more—slow-simmering overnight in the roaster.

Once the sauce is done, you can either freeze it or process it in a pressure canner (take the bay leaf out). Please do not use a boiling water bath method for canning this recipe—there are too many low acid ingredients to make BWB method safe. If you don’t have a pressure canner (or are uncomfortable with using the one you have–you know who you are!), then tuck it in the freezer.

I processed pint jars for 30 minutes at 10lbs. pressure (that is, I processed as if it were plain eggplant), leaving ½” headroom in the jars. If you want to can in quarts, give it a bit more headroom (¾-1”) and process for 40 minutes at 10lbs pressure.

If you don’t have a smoker, you could try grilling the eggplant over low heat to get some of that good smoky flavor into the flesh–and into the sauce. Either way, smoky eggplant tomato sauce is something new (and awesome) to add to your “I never want to see another tomato” repertoire!

Readying

For the past several weeks, it seems that we have at all times been in preparation for one event or another–meetings, political gatherings, dinners, and the biggie–the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl. It’s amazing how many times the house can be cleaned and somehow need cleaning again. Even between days of the arts Meander last weekend the breakfast or supper dishes needed clearing and the table repeatedly re-purposed as our checkout stand; the first floor bathroom transformed from resident showering facility to public restroom.

The artist at rest in our dining roo...er...gallery

The artist at rest in our dining room…art gallery

Yesterday, it was back to work for me while John took part of the morning to rest and recuperate. We’d already re-claimed a living room out of the art gallery it had become, and soon the rest of the display pieces made their way from dining room to back deck en route to the barn. We ate lunch almost normally with the table placed in its usual spot, though still piled in all the places our soup bowls were not were boxes of cards, calendars, and miscellaneous Meander gear.

While lunch was heating, I went out to pick the lower branches of Honey Gold apples. The Haralsons were picked a couple of weeks ago to limit the depredations of the squirrels, who were making steady work of stripping the dwarf tree, then racing across the lawn, apple in teeth, to the safety of a higher-limbed ash. We’d find the half-eaten cores at the base along with the cobs and husks of Roy’s Calais Flint corn they made off with earlier in the season. With the Haralsons gone, they were starting on the much larger Honey Golds: I’d already surprised a few into dropping their unwieldy prizes as they fled, and I tossed the tooth-marked apples to the chickens.

The lower branches picked, I decided against an attempt at the upper branches with a ladder–the wind came up so hard that rolling clouds of dust engulfed the front yard every time a grain truck passed, and a storm window on the sun porch came unmoored and flapped against its frame.

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

The work day done, I helped John maneuver the canoe trailer into position by the barn and transport a couple of unwieldy display pieces inside for storage. He turned to me and said, “I thought I was just cleaning things up, but I think what we’re really doing is getting ready for winter!”

Funny how a seemingly innocent observation can suddenly change the whole character of the tasks at hand. I went back down to the garden and pulled frost-crisped okra stalks and a few sullen basil plants. The wind died a little, and I set up the ladder to finish picking the Honey Golds–for winter storage this time, and not as much against the squirrels. I set a small pile of damaged fruits by the edge of the grove (I am not entirely opposed to sharing) and brought the rest of the bruised and banged lot to the chicken pen.

The upper gardens in autumn

The upper gardens in autumn

I stood at the gate watching the girls happily pecking away, thinking about winter readiness, when another sign of the impending season-change came with a warning squawk from the roosters, causing the hens to run for cover under the currant bushes. Looking up, the silhouette of our winter resident drifted overhead, glinting white on head and tail. A Bald Eagle, who spends summers fishing by the lake, has returned to the highlands after the weekend’s soybean harvest bared the land of cover for his prey.