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Christmas Gift 100 Years in the Making

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In 2019, on Christmas day , I received a gift 100 years in the making. Surprisingly, the treat presented itself within an email inquiry and subsequent exchanges; and embraced me with a warming joy best described in the redemptive words of one changed Scrooge, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.”  Darn tootin’ Ebenezer, my dimples were on overtime after this surprise; I couldn’t stop smiling. And to be delivered on Christmas day, well, that was the holly sprig in the figgy pudding. (Have I used enough Christmas metaphors? Nah, I’m just starting!) But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me parcel the details as they happened, and as I’m want to do by reliving the delight again, word by word, smile by smile.

On December 22, last year, I received notice for a comment awaiting approval on my blog post: A Century Ago, My Farm Was for Sale. The comment from Gary read,

“I have some original pictures of your house from a Danner family scrapbook circa 1900’s to about 1918. I think I could take a picture and email you a couple photos of the farmhouse.”

I reread it a couple times and chuckled, “Yes, yes, absolutely yes!” Of course I had a litany of questions, and responded,

“Gary that would be so awesome. I would LOVE to see any and all photos of the house you have. Do you live on Vashon? How did you come to acquire the scrapbook. I love a good mystery. Thanks for checking in!”

I received a thorough and throroughly-wonderful response from Gary. Here are some excerpts:

“…I bought the photo album at an estate sale for William Danner who passed in September of 2009, he donated all his belongings to the Boy Scouts and they hired a company that specialized in liquidating estates to have the sale. I went because there were some military items, which is my area of interest. I was able to grab (it’s a real scramble at a sale like this) all of Delbert Danners World War I items, uniforms etc., which included the album because it has pictures of his training at Camp Lewis and shots around the house with his fancy new US Army outfit.


“The album is quite interesting and shows lots of island shots…the steamboat Daring (an early ferry I think), early cars including the Danners’ 1914 Metz, a kit car they had shipped to the island. There are lots of porch shots of your house with little kids, couples, and some full family shots…if you have spirits in your house (we do) these would be them. There are a few full house shots from the front and a really good one of the side back area…Some of the photos are long shots and may be of your property, there is an interior shot of a Christmas tree decorated and with presents underneath and one of an old woman by a parlor stove. Anyway I ran into your site here about a year ago and had sent an email on another page of yours that probably didn’t work out…but I will get right on these pictures and get a couple sent your way.”

I was so glad that Gary tried contacting me a year after his first attempt. I’m not sure why I never received the first message (likely email filters), but I know I’m grateful for his persistence and generosity in sharing the photos with me. And if you wonder how he found me in the first place, his valiant effort started with a search for “Danner” and “Vashon Island” which returned my blog post about said subjects, and references to the farm’s for-sale pamphlet from 1917.

A few days later on Christmas day, I rose early, trundled downstairs in the dark, dancing around dog toys, beloved bones and wayward shoes (Thank you, Buddy). My trek to the ground floor a success, Christmas lights turned on, I was eager to brew a pot o’ joe, settle in, check emails, open gifts, and figure out my holiday phone calls and times, all while trying not to dispatch an entire tin of Russian tea cakes before my second cup of coffee. (Based on the powdered sugar coverage on keyboard, fingers, face and dog, resistance was futile.)

The first email I saw and opened that Christmas morning was adorned with the subject line: Pictures for my new friend Tom Conway. I clapped like a toddler in a high chair eyeing a sippy cup and a bowl of elbow macaroni.

Gary wrote:

Hi Tom, here’s a few photos from the album, I am sending mostly shots of the house but in the album there are shots of outbuildings, crops, a barn looking structure, pigs and lots of pictures of the Danner family. I think there are 355 photos in the book with early shots of the island, showing beaches, people swimming and what must be downtown. There is a very cool professional aerial view of what must be your land and a small tower keeps popping up in several of the people shots I’m not sure what it is. Merry Christmas from Gary and Dolly. We hope this little pile of lost information will brighten your day.

And like the twelve days of Christmas, there were twelve photos to discover. I even thought, maybe I’ll open one each day. That notion lasted two seconds after downloading the first photo.

I wrote back:

Dear Dolly and Gary, Brighten my day? Oh you two sent me a solar flare! You are my Christmas angels delivering the sweetest missive of joy this very morning. You brought me to tears, truly. Who could have imagined I would be downloading 100-year-old images from the house where they were taken. What treasures, both the images and you two. Thank you so much for contacting me in the first place and being so generous to share this history of the Danner house with me…

We’ve been in contact to meet in person, but schedules and COVID-19 put a halt to that for now. Until that day, I will relish these photographs and re-imagine the early days of the farm and family who brought the island outpost to life a century ago, and cherish my new friends Gary and Dolly who shared these visions and their passion for history that Christmas day. Thank you Gary and Dolly for the best gift basket of all: new friends, history, stories and fond memories. One day we shall meet I hope, and together write another chapter in the story of this beloved house.

The photos sent…

vintage christmas tree farmhouse
Then: Adorned in popcorn pearls and homemade ornaments, the Christmas tree reigns joyfully over the front parlor.
Tall Clover Farm house vintage
The front porch is the place to hang out, one-hundred years ago as well as today. The porch railings are now absent, but will return anew some day soon I hope. (Project 342). The walkway is now lawn grass, and the porch corbels, windows and front door remain original to the house.
Danner house farm Vashon
I’m particularly fond of this photo for its overview of the property looking south west (from left to right), showing the house, the machine shop, and the long-gone water tower and milking barn behind it.
Danners porch vashon island
Porch-side portrait: The black locust tree on the left, is now a stalwart stump refusing to rot 100 years later. The beautiful shiplap siding remains but has been covered by a protective, albeit less atheistically-appealing siding that I hope to remove one day. The small singular window on the far right peeks into the cold pantry, which is still wonderfully functional today. Upstairs, the four open window bays served as sleeping porches for seasonal farm workers. Today the bays form two separate rooms protected from weather by large picture windows.
Vintage dogs tall clover farm
Buddy was delighted to see that the first residents of the house included this handsome posse of pooches.
delbert danner and girlfriend
Delbert Danner and Imogene Breed strike a pose in front of their 1914 Metz kit car.
Cove road house vashon
This house, and home to Imogene Breed, is northwest of mine about 3 miles away and still stands off Cove Road on Vashon Island.
Vashon high school girls vintage
The only thing I know about this photo is it’s lovely.
delbert danner friends high school vashon
Sunday best: assuming Delbert Danner is in this group photo.
danner house vashon girl dolls
On the front porch: Fear not, the figures flanking the little girl are dolls.
vashon farm house
The east side of the house, not much has changed, thankfully.
danner farmhouse vashon island
The north side of the house: the porch on the far right is now enclosed. The original structure (left of the tree) was built in 1888, while the addition right of the tree came about in 1892. Not sure what crops are growing in the foreground.
The day after solstice 2020, the skies opened up and shared a little sunshine before the next round of Pacific storms. I love that this lovely wood-framed Vashon pioneer still stands and marks a prominent place on the island and in my heart.

Over the years I’ve whittled down the celebration of Christmas to what’s important to me in family, friends, places, and moments. If I never have to step into a shopping mall for the remainder of my days, I will consider this an appreciable outcome for a life well lived. The fewer the holiday assumptions I have, the fuller my seasonal celebration. I like to give Christmas a chance to find me, not the other way around. Sure there’s wonder in a Snowflake Lane or Zoo Lights, but don’t dismiss the everyday kindness and generosity that speak more eloquently to the season. I’d trade the aforementioned activities for the giggles and smiles of the neighbor kids delivering homemade cookies to my door, nary one absent of candy sprinkles (both cookies and kids), or the sheer delight of a kind soul reaching out to share a beautiful history that touches me on this day and everyday.

And thank you for joining me on this journey of discovering my farm’s past and the joys of everyday.

And so, as Tiny Tim said, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”

Buddy, seeks warmth on all levels, and sends his love and seasons greetings, too.

Thanksgiving 2020: Gratitude Is on the Menu

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Darkness surrounds me right now, but I know light will prevail if I just wait patiently. My rooster Rufus reminds me of this notion, along with the solo song of wheels to wet pavement a country lane away. Buddy concurs with each snore, grumble and snort; just be patient.

Buddy the bulldog reads
Buddy taking a break from his book club…

I’m at my kitchen table (aka Tall Clover Farm World Headquarters) and I’m thinking about the last nine months and the ups and the downs that riddle my days, and I try to resolve what this pandemic has taught me. For one thing, it’s slapped me across the face like a gangster’s moll in a bad B movie, awakening me to the fact that I’m a very social person. (Insert, “Duh” here.) My friends, laugh over my reluctance to admit what everybody else already knows; I’m a talker and a listener, a hugger and a storyteller and a man who is by no means an island. I live out loud. (You get the picture).

Aptly-named Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin destined for today’s dessert.
Pie preferences run deep; for some it’s pumpkin, others pecan, or my favorite, both. I was shocked to learn of a vocal splinter group: those who like neither. 😉

If I didn’t have contact with Buddy and enjoy a few masking-wearing moments of chitchat, I think I would be rocking in the fetal position on my front porch. At times, even Buddy seems bored with me, gazing upward with a face that seems to say, “Do you ever stop talking? Oh yeah, and when’s dinner?” His coat is like a finely woven cashmere sweater because I brush him daily (heck, make that hourly), and check in often to make sure his every need is met. He knows I am assuredly his man servant. Well, not much change there, I suppose.

Forelle pears: delicious autumn harvest and beauty

These last few months, I have never been more thankful for what is now absent in my life: family, friends, connections, simple hellos, handshakes, and hugs. I have enjoyed a life of plenty, a life of love, a life of kindness, a life of learning, and a life of being embraced by the beauty and generosity of this world and its citizens. I have it good, and it took the isolation dictated by a pandemic to correct my vision about just how truly fortunate I am. I knew, for the most part, but now I really, really, really know.

So on this Thanksgiving Day I wish you all the best this life has to offer from beloved family and friends to the hugs, to the smiles, to the shared dinners that feed us in every conceivable way. We will get through this, and we will celebrate with the effervescence of popped Champagne. And for that day, I just can’t wait, but I must. And for that I’m most grateful, for my view of life will never be the same.

Apparently, I’m in Buddy’s spot…

Stay safe, stay mighty, act in love, inspire kindness, call your mom, be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Finding light among the shadows…

Buddy the Bulldog: Reluctant Muse

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As I’ve mention before, Buddy (my bulldog) pretty much runs my life. My stocky master and commander lets me know when he’s ready to eat, ready to nap, ready for a butt-rub, ready to play, and ready to ignore me. Indeed, I serve at the pleasure of my four-legged friend, and not begrudgingly; we are family after all.

That said, I fear I may have tried Buddy’s final nerve during social lockdown by enlisting him as my in-house muse. With time on my hands and the Internet looming, I discovered art challenges inspired by the the Getty Museum, the Rijksmuseum and art collections around the world. I was smitten with the concept. Buddy never saw what was coming: Buddy the bulldog muse.

Buddy’s naturally smokey eye, alluring look, and knitted cowl screamed, Tamara de Lempicka’s 1930 painting, “Green Turban.”
Buddy wanted to honor his country life and outdoorsy nature by reimagining Robert Tewes self-portrait from 1906, plus Buddy always likes a good straw hat (to chew on or wear depending on mood).
Buddy’s annoyed. He keeps reminding me that this painting is not entitled “Whistler’s Mother” but rather, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.” Duly noted, Buddy, duly noted.
Buddy requested a recreation with no props, no costuming; he wanted to draw from his own inner strength to portray Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s emotional tour de force “Study of a Young Man.” Nailed it, Buddy, nailed it!
Buddy thought this composition was a bit of a stretch, but when I said all you have to do is sit on a chair and “pretend” to nap, he was in.
Buddy would only agree to recreating Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” if it didn’t include me or the kiss. (Ouch, Buddy)
Buddy has always fancied the turban. It acts as both head gear and pull toy. In addition, he feels the furry folds on his face are the perfect foil for the fabric folds on his head. Yes, quite distinguished, Buddy.
While Buddy is secure in his masculinity, he feels this recreation of such a flirty ingenue is a bit of a hard-sell, considering his beefcake build and manly ways.
Buddy thinks Christina needs a dog in her world.
A Picasso fan since he was a pup, Buddy lived his interpretation of the artist’s distorted-depictions period for the challenging pose of “Le Reve.”

Buddy the Bulldog as Art

My friend Deborah Taylor of https://www.dtaylorgraphic.com/ is a masterful artist/printer and captured Buddy beautifully, as he warmed up on the heating duct, his favorite morning spot should I turn on the heat.
Vashon artist and friend Lynanne of Ravensong Farm https://www.ravensong.info/ honored Buddy and me with the most wonderful etching of my big guy perched on the porch.
Fellow bulldog lover and friend, as well as remarkable baker, artist and blogger, Eileen Troxel https://www.livingtastefully.com/passions-to-pastry-blog painted Buddy in his element, the cafe society of Vashon Island, where everybody knows his name. Manifique, Eileen, manifique!

Buddy’s Bonus Booty pic

Sure Buddy’s an art lover, but this hunk-a-hunk-of-burning-love is also one styling dog. Yep, he’s been wearing Carhartts his entire life.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Buddy’s Musings and Art Tour. We’ll try to post more farm and life shenanigans on a regular basis; it’s just an odd time when days go by, then months, and then I find myself asking, “Where did the time go?”

Be well my friends, take your health seriously, wear a mask, and visit again.

Warmest regards, Tom and Buddy

Tommy Want a Cracker…Recipe

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The art of baking has risen to new heights (har, har) thanks to the idle hands and stir-crazy minds of the homebound during this global pandemic. And in the process, flour now rivals the rarity of toilet paper (and civility) at Costco. Just last week, I found myself in the parking lot of our little island’s darkened movie theater bagging up bulk flour, courtesy of a friend who’s a restaurant owner. I found myself going all gangster, channeling my inner-Sopranos, “Yo, you got the stuff?” Several gallon-ziplock bags later, I was on my way home; the all-purpose white-stuff riding shotgun, Buddy atop the console, and not a cop in sight. Bwah-ha-ha! Take that empty grocery-store shelves!

Since then, I’ve made pies a plenty and bread to boot, but my latest baking revelation came when my friend Kassana dropped off (in a socially-distant way) some of her sourdough crackers. Sweet shingles of crispy goodness, oh Lordy! They were game-changers of what a cracker could be. Their freshness wowed me; flakiness floored me; and flavor delighted me. So I set out to recreate “Kassana’s Kracker” or at least my version of it.

Sourdough starter is a lot like a blog; you’re always having to feed it. The good part is if you keep a sourdough starter, crackers are the perfect solution for using up starter before it consumes you, your kitchen, your house and eventually your neighborhood.

Kassana also makes a killer sourdough bread, but my current interest and attention-span won’t allow me to explore that recipe or process. Using sourdough as a leavening agent takes a sustained effort and dedicated process, and I’m just not ready to commit. I can barely focus on my breakfast plate these days. But crackers, well crackers are different: easy and quick to make, show-stopping in their own way, and substantially better than anything that comes out of a box. And they’ve never met a savory or sweet spreadable they didn’t like.

Let me walk you through this recipe through pics and quips, but note it’s a King Arthur Flour recipe, which is found in the link below.

Sourdough Starter Crackers

Let me begin by sharing the simple and delicious recipe from King Arthur flour: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-crackers-recipe. I love their recipes and flours. (This is no paid endorsement, just my appreciation for great products and my love of baking.)

Four basic ingredients: 1 Cup sourdough starter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 Cup all-purpose flour and 4 tablespoons butter. (Add chopped herbs optional)
Mix in a bowl using a pastry cutter or fork or heavy spoon until all ingredients come together.
Form dough into a disk and chill for at least an hour before rolling out, but I wait a day.
Divide disk into three sections, and roll each one thinly.
Cut into preferred shapes and sizes. Here I’m using a pasta cutter/pasta bicycle (affiliate link) to make cracker shapes.
Place cutouts on baking sheet, spaced. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly golden. Crackers will crisp up when cool.

No Sourdough Starter?

Try Flatbread Crackers

Not everyone has sourdough starter sitting around, so here’s an easy cracker recipe from Epicurious.com that doesn’t use it: Crisp Rosemary Flatbread Crackers.

Mix together 1 3/4 Cups of All-Purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 cup of water, and 1/3 olive oil, 1 tablespoon of chopped rosemary or herbs de Provence. I found extra virgin olive too strong for my liking, so I now use neutral oil, like plain olive oil or vegetable oil.
The dough comes right together; it’s not sticky as much as wet. No need to chill an oil dough.
Divide dough into three equal parts and roll out cracker dough on counter or marble. Roll thinner than a pie crust (1/16″) and place on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet. For this batch, I added cracked pepper, no herbs.
These flatbread crackers are veritable vehicles for preferred flavors. Experiment and try adding different herbs, or spices, or cheeses to the dough before baking. For my next batch I’ll add about a half cup of parmesan or pecorino and see how that tastes. Awesome, no doubt!

Stay healthy my friends, make crackers, share the love and we’ll get through this, maybe ten pounds heavier, but we’ll get through this together. Now off to the greenhouse to tackle the brambles and limited attention span.

No Man (or Dog) is an Island

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I wake up early these days, even earlier than past habits would insist, around 4 am. The world is dark, but not the mind. My thoughts tend to ricochet in my head like the steely orbs in a pinball machine with continuous play. Most concerns center around friends and family, then encompass financial worries, and inevitably my own mortality. Heady stuff before one’s first cup of coffee, I’d say.

In bed, Buddy, my bulldog, finds comfort in sidling up next to me. I am his personal human radiator where he can lay his head on my back, and find the fit and stability of a cup to a saucer. When my legs go numb, we get up. Well, I get up.

Down in the kitchen nook, Buddy is an unwavering companion and eager listener when I discuss the tenets of isolation with him (especially if it precedes his meal time). He’s all for for it, basically a poster child for sheltering at home: eat, nap, whine, sit on a sunny porch, rub butt on door jamb, repeat. I’ve tried all of his protocols and have to say they’re quite effective as temporary curatives and distractions. Thank you, Buddy. Wise dog, grasshopper.

Buddy thinking, “Has it come to this: dressing up the dog?”

As for the rest of the day, you’d think I’d get more done. They say idle hands are the tools of the devil, but nah, that would take too much energy and focus right now. For me, idle hands are only that: idle hands. I feel like my Mo has broken up with my Jo. I walk around and look at things, as running subtitles follow me around the farm. I appear to be in some sort of wait-and-watch mode sanctioned by my own inaction.

“I really need to fertilize the orchard.”

“The pasture isn’t going to mow itself.”

“Time to harvest dahlia bulbs.”

“I really should finish venting the greenhouse.”

“The peach trees will die if I don’t get them in the ground.”

“It’s time to clean out the chicken coop.”

On the bright side, I am doing one thing (no, not bathing or doing dishes): keeping in touch with family and friends. I’ve never communicated with so many people on a daily basis. Phone calls, texting, emailing, facebooking, instagramming have all made my “house arrest” bearable.

And if I need a dose of realness, from a distance of course, I rely on my egg customers to check in from the back porch stoop with me behind the kitchen window. We chat, catch up, and in some unscripted way, wish each other good health and a return to normalcy.

When kindness pays a visit, the favor is returned in every goodbye and socially-distant wave. Some friends drop by with veggie scraps for the chickens. They too need a diversion, (both friend and chicken) and what better free entertainment than watching the social intricacies and shenanigans of a large flock of chickens fighting over leaves of wilted arugula and stale ciabatta. (Yep, gourmet friends.)

The streets of Seattle are abandoned, Vashon roads scenically (and eerily) empty. Yet, frog choruses cheer the woods. Daffodils dot sleepy pastures. Hens scratch, Roosters court. Tree moss turns green as a garden hose, and bees flee the hive like kids on spring break. Perhaps, the gift of isolation is just that. We have time to notice the world around us, to observe, and to reacquaint us with ourselves. (Nice to meet you, Tom.)

I may live on an island, but even in isolation, I am not alone. The world finds me in surprising ways, perhaps not in a hug or handshake as before, but instead in quiet moments of reflection and beauty. Fiddlehead ferns still unfurl. Buddy is still the handsomest chap in the house. Glorious spring sunsets still paint the sky. The fountain still welcomes a soiree of song birds, and I can still feel love.

Please, be well, practice safe health standards, listen to the experts, love your peeps, hug your dog (or cat, though a little more dicey) and don’t worry about what you didn’t do today, instead smile over who and what you loved today.

Here’s a gallery of images from around the farm, should you need a little field trip:

  • Vashon farm house

Buddy’s Little Sleepover

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I have served at the pleasure of each and every one of my Bulldogs: Maggie, Gracie, Buddy and Boz. I am neither proud of nor bothered by this role; it’s just the way it is. Those who chide me for my milquetoast approach have never bunked with bulldogs. The breed’s good-natured personality casts a spell; it’s like having a a four-legged Frodo underfoot.

For example, Buddy goes out one door, only to require me to get up to let him in another. If I fail to remember his after-dinner treat, he blocks my path and whines with the conviction of an Oscar-winning performance. If that approach still leaves him treat-less on the farm, he ditches the whimper, and ramps up his best baritone bark. When I cave in and feed him his treat, I assure him it has nothing to do with his vocal demands (of course, Buddy knows otherwise).

Unflappable, adorable Gus, the three-legged wonder, and welcomed house guest

Recently, my friend Margo needed a dog-sitter, and I was happy to oblige. Buddy agreed to the sleepover, too — his languid nod and wet snort surely the bulldog equivalent of a “yes.” Gus, a huggable muppet of undeniable charm, was already one of Buddy’s best pals, so I knew Gus would be a delightful addition to the farm for a few nights.

Buddy: “You still love me the most, right?

Buddy doesn’t gush over visiting dogs, he plays it cool with a head-nod and quick sniff, seemingly canine cred for “hey, whazzup?” Oh, and did I mention Gus is a rescue dog (like Buddy) and canine-capable with three legs? The first evening, I carried Gus up the stairs thinking the two flights of stairs would be an obstacle or unnecessary challenge for him. When Buddy barked at the bottom of the stairs, Gus flew down to investigate the commotion. Seems he did not need my help, which is good because when I picked up Gus, he shift-shaped into a doggie blob with the tensile strength of an under-filled water ballon, but not before rolling over to expose his underside and cue the belly rub.

Buddy and Gus: Sofa Surfin’ USA…
Buddy finds my knee a suitable headrest, while Gus prefers the belly mattress.

Buddy and Gus enjoyed some quality time napping on the sofa and napping on me. Dinner time was a bit of comedy sketch, each dog would prefer what was in the other’s bowl and swap places only to find disappointment was on the menu. When they wouldn’t eat, and stared right back at me like “This is what we waited for?” I grated a little pecorino cheese over the chow and the hounds were at the trough. Yep, discerning little gourmands needed a soupçon of umami goodness.

Houston we have a problem: Gus fits through the dog door, Buddy does not.

Yes, we had a fine time. During the day, I kept Gus by my side as he’s a wanderer. Buddy took command of the porches, following the sun and staking his claim. Treats were aplenty and the dandy duo knew how to work me. At night, Buddy took the foot of the bed, while Gus wedged himself between me and the pillows, worming his way under the covers. Buddy decided he was missing out, and rooted his way under the duvet to join his scruffy pal. I think I had a full eleven inches of bed width to call my own.

Gus, always up for a belly rub and a little lovin’.

Gus was a wonderful, compatible houseguest, but he did have one propensity not shared by Buddy; his need to chase chickens. Gus meant no harm. If he chased them, they would run, always run, which in his mind was play, play on demand. Buddy would stay put on the porch and watch his antics, with resolute disinterest. Naps and tug-a-war are his form of play.

napping bulldog
Buddy: napping and feigning interest…

Vegan and Dairy-Free: A Tale of Two Chocolate Mousses

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Happy Valentines Day, my little snookie-wookies, lamby-kins, and kitten-cakes! If overly-sweet pet names aren’t your thing, let’s head to the kitchen and temper the love-fest with a balanced approach to the day’s favorite confection: Chocolate.

Mousse with egg whites on the left, and a firmer set mousse on the right made with silken tofu.

I’ve always felt Valentine’s Day should be about gestures that fill the heart, not a square, and for me, cooking is where I share the love. But recently, I was told that my kitchen crush needs to include more dietary concerns and choices. That’s the trouble with growing up in a full-tilt dairy household; I never knew less could really be more. So I offer up two easy, albeit decadent recipes for my favorite chocolate pudding pots: one vegan, one dairy-free; and neither classic in preparation, as each is born in a blender. And remember, the better the chocolate used, the better the mousse eaten.

As a dedicated devotee of all things dairy, I embrace this Vegan Chocolate Mousse recipe with the enthusiasm of a sixth-grader winning a spelling bee. It’ so rich, delicious and velvety that your vegan Valentine will swoon in disbelief and ask to see the recipe for verification of ingredients. It’s that good. And for a little twist, add cinnamon and chili powder to it for a hot time in the old town tonight.

1. tofu + chocolate 2. tofu + chocolate + hot water + sugar 3. Blend for 1-2 minutes

Velvety Vegan Chocolate Mousse

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cups water
  • 1lb silken tofu (firm tofu works but makes for a grainier texture)
  • 1.5 cups semi-sweet chocolate (or dark chocolate)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Step 1
In a small sauce pan, add water and sugar and bring to a boil until sugar dissolves.
Step 2
In a blender add tofu and chocolate and slowly pour hot sugar water over it and blend on high for 2 minutes. Scrap down sides if necessary. Add vanilla, pulse a few more times.
Step 3
Pour mousse into 4-6 small cups, chill for at least an hour before serving.

This easy dairy-free chocolate mousse combines simple syrup, chocolate and un-whipped egg whites into a froth of airy cocoa goodness. Say hello to Cloud 9 where the silver lining is chocolate. Within five minutes on prep, and an hour of chill time, you’ve set the stage for romance or at least, undying devotion!

Easy, Creamy, Dairy-Free Chocolate Mousse

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups Dark Chocolate chips (semi-sweet or >64% cocoa)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee or instant espresso
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla
  • 3 eggs (use egg whites only)

Directions

Step 1
Place chocolate in the blender.
Step 2
In a sauce pan, heat water, sugar, and coffee until solution boils.
Step 3
Slowly pour heated solution into blender, and pulse until chocolate melts and the mixture is creamy.
Step 4
Add three egg whites and blend the mixture on high for 1-2 minutes. Add vanilla and pulse a few times.
Step 5
Pour into 4-6 dessert cups and chill for at least two hours before serving.

Moles, Holes, and Flower Bulbs

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As a child, I watched a cartoon where a beatnik cat named Jinx would spend his days chasing two irascible rodents, Pixie and Dixie, while spouting “I hate meeces to pieces!” And much like other carton rivalries (e.g. Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner) never the twain would meet—always close, but only within arms (or falling anvil’s) reach.

Years later, I am wiser, surely older, and more importantly a man who knows grudges get you nowhere, especially where nature is concerned. Simply put, nature always wins. Raccoons will break into chicken yards, deer will dine on trees, coddling moths will riddle apples, and voles will chomp through a tree root like a kid with a licorice whip.

For the most part, I deal with annoying critters through tactics of prevention and acceptance. Basically, since I couldn’t beat them, I have joined them.

For example, measures of prevention and acceptance include:

  • Deer: fencing the orchard.
  • Hawks and Eagles: netting the chicken yard
  • Raccoons: installing electrical wires around the chicken yard.
  • Voles: mowing and weeding regularly around young trees to eliminate cover and tunneling.
  • Weeds: mulching heavily around garden beds.
  • Blackberries: weed-whack the young canes, eat berries, make pies.
  • Birds: Accepting that they will eat half of the cherry crop.

I take exception with moles, those seldom-seen, grub-eating, mountain-makers tunneling under my lawn. They are garden helpers. While vegetarian voles can handily kill a tree by girdling its trunk and roots, moles, the Mr. Magoos of nature, blindly blaze their subterranean trails in search of insects, grubs and worms; and in the process aerate soil and rid the area of damaging insects. Moles are actually good for your garden.

So rather than kill these gentle, unassuming creatures, I enlist them to my advantage as they provide excellent planting sites for naturalizing bulbs like alliums, scilla and daffodils (bulbs ignored by deer and vole). Moles create mini-planting pads for me to use in spreading spring blooming bulbs throughout the lawn and garden, and creating random patterns for natural and uncontrived floral drifts.

Here’s how I turn molehills into no-maintenance lawn gardens.

Step 1: First, I or my trusty lawn scout Buddy identify areas of mole activity. (Well, that was easy.)

Moleholes aside, man do I need to paint my house!

Step 2: Dig one hole for each molehill. I like to use a three-inch diameter bulb auger on my cordless drill.

Step 2, continued: Because the moles have done all the work, the digging is easy.

Step Three: Seek supervisor approval.

Buddy giving me his nod of acceptance. Carry on!

Step 4: Fill the hole with some surrounding soil to create a proper bulb planting depth. Place one bulb in each hole, then cover with soil. Press firmly.

Buddy wishing this bulb was a bone…

Step 5: Once bulb is covered with soil, rake lightly to smooth and flatten lawn surface.

Step 6: Check with supervisor, then move on to next molehill mountain range to plant remaining bulbs.

bulldog flowers
Buddy’s scrutiny: apparently I missed a spot this time.

Step 7: Sit back, relax, and wait for spring and a patch of posies to appear.

naturalizing bulbs
Virtual made-up flowers, if I may project my anticipated results. 😉

Step 8: For spring bulbs, after blooming, let them die back naturally before mowing. Next years flowers will be produced by the energy stored from the leaves in the previous season.

Considerations:

  • Plant deer and vole-proof spring-flowering bulbs: daffodils, alliums, camassia, and frittilaria. Full list here.
  • Plant in fall/winter for spring bloom
  • After blooming season, let leaves die back naturally before mowing lawn.
  • Scatter seeds over lightly-raked soil for summer lawn flowers: yarrows, english daisy, clovers, California poppies, creeping thyme, and alyssum.

Extra Credit: What Varmint Obsessions Can Lead To

Favorite Fruit Trees: Apples, Pluots and Pears, Oh My!

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One of my biggest joys is growing fruit trees. Their roots nurture my roots; their growth heartens my growth; and their bounty is shared bounty. They are part of me and part of the farm, and someday part of someone else’s joy.

I’d like to share my thoughts on the best fruit trees to grow in the Puget Sound region. If you’re thinking of planting and growing a fruit tree, do a little research regarding what you want to grow, and its nature and adaptability in your own backyard. A healthy, productive orchard starts with selecting the best trees for your land and climate. My message? Choose wisely, grasshopper.

For example, I have several figs trees that have let me know they’re not happy here, begrudgingly divvying up one fig per branch. Their message, “We prefer the heat units of California!” In addition, some apple trees renown for vigor and fruit production in other areas sprout contempt, not fruit, in the maritime Northwest, and again prefer a warmer, drier place to set up roots. And then there are apricot trees with a death wish built in when planted west of the Cascades. And don’t get me started on peach trees (oops, too late). I now grow all of my peach trees in the protected and drier conditions of my high tunnel hoop house for more fruitful conditions, with the exception of the Nanaimo peach, a worthy peach-leaf-curl-resistant orchard tree that can take our rainy Northwest fall and winters and still set fruit in the spring.

Before I wax on about my favorite fruit trees, let me say this is by no means a comprehensive list. Think of these exalted trees like you would an Olympic medalist. At one specific time, season or year, these results were the best for my efforts in the Puget Sound area. Next year, the winners’ names may all be different. And because I’m always trying new varieties, it’s likely you’ll see some changeups and new stars in the years to come. So for now, for 2019, these are worthy orchard contenders sporting vigor, fruitfulness, good health and habit.

Orchard Location Vashon Island, Washington :: Weather Profile

Very Good Apples

On my little island in Puget Sound, these are my favorite apple trees for 2019. And to be fair, I also love Spitzenburg, York, Karmijn de Sonnaville, and Jonagold apples, but I had serious snow and vole damage so no fruit this year. Also, I’ve recently planted some new varieties showing a lot of promise: Cosmic Crisp, Palouse, Golden Russet, Ambrosia, and Arkansas Black.

Belle de Boskoop

belle de boskoop apple
Belle de Boskoop never disappoints.

Belle de Boskoop apple: I would have planted this tree merely for its name (pronounced Bell-da-boss-k0e), but lucky for me it’s an all-around great apple with lots of personality. Wonderfully tart, the flavor is unique as if you spritzed lemon juice on it. Belle de Boskoop bakes and cooks well, and is perfect for chunky applesauce, sturdy pies, bubbling crisps, and juicy cobblers. At first, the tree produced fruit biennially, that is bumper crops one year and little to no fruit the following year; but I found if I thinned fruit in spring, I’d have a good crop of apples every year. I’ve nicknamed this apple, “Old Reliable.” My tree is a spreader, growing wider than taller.

Beni Shogun Fuji

Beni Shogun Fuji Apple

Beni Shogun Fuji apple, one of my favorite eating apples, is sweet as can be. Because Fuji needs a long growing season, and I live west of the Cascades where long hot summers rarely prevail, I was in search of a more adaptable sport of Fuji that was better suited for cooler climates. I found Beni Shogun Fuji, and I’m happy to report old Beni is a champ, weathering our cool growing season admirably and ripening about a month earlier than the standard fuji apple. The apples are glowing red and firm as an unripe pear. A few weeks in the fridge and they mellow into juicy little sugar bombs.

Bramley’s Seedling

Bramley’s Seedling apple is hands down one of my favorite baking apples. Such a very heavy producer, Bramley’s Seedling usually requires support stakes to keep the overloaded limbs from breaking. Apples are big, firm, crisp and flavorful–spirited for sure, and perfect for cooking or eating fresh though on the uber-tart side when first picked. My tree has proven to be a biennial producer, but again, if I thin the apples the tree becomes more of an annual producer. Bramley’s Seedling is said to be Great Britain’s favorite cooking apple.

Goldrush

Goldrush apple: disease resistance, great taste and excellent storing capability

Goldrush, the best storage apple in my orchard, remains firm and sweet up until spring, and that’s on my unheated enclosed back porch. According to researchers, “The fruit is characterized by a complex, rich spicy flavor with a high degree of acidity and sweetness. Acidity moderates in cold storage, resulting in exceptional overall quality after two to three months. The apple retains its complex sprightly flavor and crisp, firm texture for at least 7 months at 1 C. The cultivar has been rated consistently as the highest quality apple after storage of all selections or cultivars tested at Purdue University.” Coddling moth and apple maggot tend to ignore it, preferring red-toned apples.

Hudson’s Golden Gem

Hudson’s Golden Gem originally hails from Oregon, a chance discovery in 1931. Purported to be the largest russeted apple, the fruit is everything an apple should be: crunchy, juicy, sweet, and satisfying. The disease-resistant tree is vigorous, and insects seem to stay away from this curry-colored beauty. Because the fruit is so large, I definitely thin the apples on this tree to keep branches from breaking. Hudson’s Gem is one of my favorite eating-fresh apples, reminding me of a crunchy form of Juicy Fruit gum.

Melrose

Melrose apples wonderfully flavored and all purpose

Melrose apple: I planted Melrose apple tree six years ago, and it’s already one of my favorite apples. Dripping with juice and bright flavor, the crisp apples grow large and are perfect for fresh eating and baking. Introduced in 1944 from Ohio State University (and now Ohio’s official state apple), Melrose won kudos for exceptional flavor, but never took off commercially as consumers preferred prettier apples. Big mistake. I don’t spray any pesticides on any of my apple trees, and surprisingly Melrose suffers minimal damage by coddling moths and apple maggots. This is a really great apple (a cross between the Red Delicious and Jonathan), which deserves to be more widely available. Plant one, you won’t regret it.

melrose apple sliced
Melrose great in lunchboxes, great in pies!

Choice Pears

Pears need a publicist, as they are always seem to play second fiddle to the apple. I’m here to spread the word; pears are complex cousins of the apple, saturated in sweet, nuanced juices, and fraught with all-purpose adaptability. Because orchardists and snackers should not live by Bartlett alone, I’ve listed some exceptional pears to capture your hearts and tastebuds, whether eating fresh, sweetening your salad, enhancing your cheese board or crowning your tart.

Arganche

agaranche pear

This dreamy little guy hails from Macedonia and ripens to pear perfection in July, which is quite early for a pear. A creamy texture, juicy body and pronounced sweetness make this pear a must-have for any orchard, though it’s tough to find a nursery source. I found mine at Raintree Nursery, but not sure they still stock it.

Aurora

Funny, I ate all of my Aurora pears before taking any snapshots. This watercolor captures a close resemblance to the Aurora pear.

Aurora: I love this pear, truly a standout. Cummins Nursery writes, “Exceptionally high quality–maybe the world’s best.  This is a dessert pear that has large, regular fruit.  Skin is bright yellow, lightly overlaid with a beautiful russet, frequently blushed.  Keeps well in storage until December.  Flesh is smooth, melting, and juicy, with a sweet aromatic flavor.  The tree is vigorous and spreading.  The only problem with Aurora is its susceptibility to fireblight.”

Bosc

Super firm on the tree, Bosc pears ripen in cold storage.

Bosc is an old reliable winter pear standard, never failing to produce crisp, sugar-laden dynamos for fresh eating or baking, and it’s rarely bothered by pests or diseases (at least in my orchard). Bosc pears also perform admirably in my favorite winter salad of wild greens, pears, blue cheese and candied walnuts. They’re picked firm in October and left to ripen slowly in the fridge, cold storage or chilly back porch.

Orcas

Orcas pears appear at harvest time like beefed-up bodybuilders ready to take the podium. Here’s what Green World nursery has to say about them, “Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, this excellent, disease-resistant variety, Orcas Pear, produces good crops of very large and attractive, carmine blushed, yellow pears with smooth, sweet, buttery flesh. Excellent for fresh eating, canning and drying, Orcas Pear is very reliable and productive and ripens in early to mid-September. These beautiful and tasty Pears can weigh of 1 lb. each.” Not great keepers (like most summer pears) Orcas pears ripen quickly on and off the tree.

Ubileen

ubileen pear tree
Ubileen pear, star of the early harvest!

Ubileen pears are bright stars in the great pear constellation. Ripening in July (again, super early for a pear), Ubileen garners even more accolades for its flavor, texture, and disease resistance–a newfound favorite.

Pluots and Plums for the Epicure

Castleton Plum

Castleton plums pop onto the scene with gusto, brandishing fine flavor and multiple uses from fresh eating to baking to drying to exceptional jam-making. As a heavy producer, Castleton plum trees need branch support to avoid breakage. Most Italian prune plums ripen in late summer, but Castleton ripens almost a month earlier than most.

Flavor Grenade Pluot

flavor grenade pluot plum
flavor grenade pluots and flavor queen
Four Flavor Grenade pluots resting upon a sea of Flavor Queen pluots…

Funny name for sure, but the laughs stop there. Flavor Grenade, a firm, flavorful mix of crazy sweet and tart flavors, surprised me in many ways. First of all, I was suspect that anything with part apricot in its DNA would do well here in the Pacific Northwest. Well, Shazam, it did. Outstanding fruit quality characterizes this pluot, including off-the-charts storage capabilities. I picked from the tree during a five-week period starting in August. Three months later, I finished eating the remaining refrigerated pluots. This pluot (plum-apricot cross) is the standout fruit of the year in my orchard.

Flavor Queen Pluot

After picking the main crop, the fruit hangs evenly like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Flavor Queen reins supreme as the most vigorous stone fruit tree in my orchard. Though a more modest producer of fruit, Flavor Queen makes up for the deficit by supplying well-spaced large pluots throughout the tree. I’m a big fan of its sweetness (18 brix) and slight apricot aftertaste. Oh, and it’s quite ornamental when in bloom.

Flavor Queen Pluot in Bloom
Buddy enjoying the view and light scent from the Flavor Queen pluot in bloom.

Mirabelle Plum

Mirabelle Plums

Mirabelle Plums are a perennial favorite of mine. Read all about them here from an earlier post of mine: Mirabelle Plum, Nature’s Little Gumdrop.

Fruit Nurseries

* denotes nurseries where I have purchased plant stock (and also been a happy customer).

Note: I have no paid affiliation with any of these nurseries.

Nursery Reviews and Searches

  • Garden Watch Dog | Great gardener feedback, a site providing customer reviews of recent purchases from online nurseries and other garden retailers.
  • Plant Scout | An amazingly helpful link because it allows you to search for a plant by its common or botanical name and share what other gardeners have to say about it. Even better, the search returns nursery sources for the plant, and reviews of the nursery.

Disappointing Results

Here’s a smattering of fruit trees on my poor-performer list; not keen to do much of anything in the orchard other than grow a little and act ornamental.

Apples

  • Ashmead’s Kernel: still waiting for this esteemed heirloom apple tree to produce a crop of decent apples.
  • Cameo: One of my favorite eating apples, but a non-performer in my orchard.
  • Chestnut Crabapple suffers from fireblight, will remove this winter.

Apricots

  • My warning to keep you from lost-cause-orchard heartbreak: don’t bother planting an apricot tree west of the Cascades (even Puget Gold). If an apricot tree is the Lucy of Peanuts fame, I am its Charlie Brown–always trusting for a better outcome, that well, never comes.
  • Not even Puget Gold has performed well, even the ones protected in my hoop house have struggled.

Peaches

  • I swear I’ve planted every peach leaf curl resistant variety available, and finally I must admit, peach trees are a real challenge better suited to warm, dry places. Here’s are my findings: Peach Tree Summation (Peach Leaf Curl Resistant Varieties)
  • Interspecific hybrid Peacotum, very unhappy and prone to disease both in the orchard and hoop house. I love this fruit so much that I planted five trees. None of them have thrived or produced fruit, so they are coming out this year.

Buddy and Tom: The Movie

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Me and bulldogs, what can I say. I’ve always loved the breed, even as a toddler. My mother shares stories of me sitting for hours with the neighbor’s bulldog Sister, playing, piling, and tugging on the copious folds and flaps of torso and mug on this very sweet and patient bully. Buddy would attest old habits die hard.

I’ve enjoyed the company of some stellar pooches–all rescues, all adorable, all loving, and always underfoot. From Maggie to Gracie to Boz and now Buddy, bulldogs have always held a place in my heart; filling it regularly with laughter, love and companionship.

My friend Julie Sotomura of Furry Friend Films creates films as loving keepsakes, memorializing people and their pets, or more like, pets and their people. Buddy and I were honored that Julie asked us to be the subjects of her latest endeavor. Buddy tells me it’s his favorite film, next Lady and the Tramp, Turner and Hooch, and Lassie Come Home.

Buddy and Tom: The Movie

click image to start video

Julie certainly has a heartfelt and powerful talent here. I want to help her get the word out by sharing some of her films, so seamlessly created to honor the four-legged gifts in our lives. Check out her website at www.FurryFriendFilms.com.

Julie also made this wonderful film about Vashon Island Pet Protectors (VIPP) for their annual fundraiser. Grab the tissues.

Click image to start video