Hoppin’ Who?

This Southern tradition is a delicious way to guarantee prosperity in the new year

Hoppin’ Who? as published in Carolina Country, January 2014

hoppin' johnIf you’re celebrating the New Year anywhere near the South, you’re probably going to be enjoying black-eyed peas in some form. If you don’t already know, you’re taking part in a tradition dating back to Civil War days. Once considered only suitable for livestock fodder and food for slaves, fields of black-eyed peas were fortunately ignored by General Sherman’s troops as they stormed the South, and became a food staple for surviving Confederates.

Since then, the humble black-eyed pea has been lovingly considered good luck in the coming year. Served as Hoppin’ John with heaping bowls of hot greens and sweet cornbread, you set the stage for a year of prosperity. Traditionally, black-eyed peas represent coins, the greens are dollars, and the cornbread, gold. Black-eyed peas eaten with stewed tomatoes represent wealth and health.

Adding a shiny penny or dime to the pot just before serving is believed to bestow an extra portion of luck to the finder. Just don’t swallow the coin or your luck may take a bad turn.

I usually serve my Hoppin’ John as a side with pulled pork and collards. A feast like that, and a few reasonably achievable New Year’s resolutions, are sure to guarantee success in the year to come.


There are many variations of the traditional Hoppin’ John, but here are my personal black-eyed pea favorites. Spread the luck around by enjoying this Southern tradition surrounded by the joy of family.

Traditional Hoppin’ John

½ pound pork sausage
1 T. vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ green bell pepper, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ tsp. paprika
1 tsp. chili powder
1 15-ounce can black-eyed peas (undrained)
3 c. cooked white rice
1 T. lemon juice

In a large, heavy skillet, brown sausage in vegetable oil. Add onions, peppers, and garlic to the pan with the sausage and cook on low heat until vegetables are transparent. Pour off the grease or drain all on paper towels. Return the sausage and vegetables to the pan and add peas, rice, paprika, chili powder. and lemon juice. Simmer on low 10 minutes more; should be moist. Serves 4.

Hoppin’ John Salad

1 15-ounce canned black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1/3 c. chopped onion
6 T. distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 c. cooked brown rice
2 T. water
10-oz pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 T. bacon bits or crisply fried bacon (optional)

In a large bowl, toss the black-eyed peas, rice, spinach, and onion until completely combined. In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar, water, and pepper. Pour over the salad and toss. Chill for at least two hours to let flavors blend. Sprinkle on the bacon, toss again, and serve. Serves 4.

Texas Caviar Appetizer

2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 15-ounce can black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can white hominy, rinsed and drained
1 8-ounce jar medium picante sauce
½ c. chopped fresh cilantro
3 T. lime juice
½ tsp. salt

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Cover and chill overnight, stirring occasionally. Serve with tortilla chips. Makes 6 cups.

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Generate Your Own Power

Don’t wait until the power goes out to say, “I wish we had a generator.”

As published in Urban Farm Magazine, January/February 2014

With extreme weather becoming a year-round issue, people who live in rural areas, and now many urban areas, are finding out that having an emergency plan that includes a home generator is the best way to weather the storm. Before you invest in a shiny red unit, find out how much power and what features you need. Whole house types with automatic transfer to backup power have some advantages, but if your outages occur infrequently for short periods, you should be able to power everything you need with a portable, versatile, and less expensive unit.

Use an easy online load calculator to determine approximately what you will need for your comfort and safety. If you rely on a well pump, for example, you will need about 700 watts to deliver your water. Your furnace, even if it runs on gas, needs about 400 watts of electricity to fan the air into your living space. The total wattage you need should be less than the output rating of the generator.


A portable generator should never be connected directly to your home’s wiring without a transfer switch, as backfeed along power lines can injure neighbors and utility workers. Hire a master electrician to install the transfer switch to prevent dangerous backfeeding and supply proper grounding.

Depending on the type you buy, generators can burn gasoline, diesel fuel, propane, or natural gas. If you plan to use an existing gas or propane source, contact your provider to install the connection.


No matter what fuel they use, all generators need both maintenance and regular testing. If you’re not using your generator often, either run your gas tank dry or follow the instruction manual for directions on adding gasoline stabilizers to prevent condensation.


Carbon monoxide poisoning is the first risk that comes to mind with any type of fuel-burning engine. Never operate your generator in an enclosed space such as a garage or basement or where the exhaust can blow back into the house. Since carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, invest in several CO detectors and keep them in good working order.

To prevent electrocution and electrical shock injuries, install a ground fault circuit interrupter. If you must use an extension cord, make sure to use the heavy-duty type free of cut or worn insulation. Surge protectors can protect delicate equipment such as computers.

Remove combustible materials such as dry leaves from around the immediate area, and never refuel while the unit is running or hot.

A generator that is properly installed, well maintained, and protected from the weather should serve you for many years without letting you down when you need it.

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Gluten-free and Loving It

Published in Back Home Magazine, Nov/Dec 2013

With so many new products on the market, you can live deliciously gluten-free

Imagine what your life would be like if a simple fast-food sandwich or a plate of pasta caused your digestive system to fly into a rage. You would not be alone.

Millions in the United States cope daily with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, an autoimmune condition that prevents them from digesting gluten, a protein naturally found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. The intestinal inflammation can cause weight loss, stomach pain, and diarrhea. It can also prevent absorption of key nutrients that can damage the nervous system and vital organs. In children, it may affect growth and development.

Living gluten-free is not for sissies. It requires a working knowledge of product ingredients and food preparation, a considerable amount of detective work at the grocery store, and a creative approach to substituting gluten-free ingredients in traditional treats.

To the delight of Americans with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, manufacturers are catching on to a growing market. Creative cooks are preparing delicious gluten-free products with flours made of almonds, beans, corn, rice, millet, teff,  quinoa, and sorghum.

For home cooks, several companies offer all-purpose gluten-free flour blends that measure cup-for-cup to wheat flour including xantham gum. Many are now available at supermarkets, natural foods store or online. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago when ingredients for cooking gluten-free were extremely limited and ready-to-eat foods were practically non-existent.

Diagnosed with celiac disease and food allergies, Kim Koeller, author, public speaker, global consultant, and blogger at http://www.GlutenFreeBlog.com, has been successfully eating 100% gluten and allergy-free for 10 years.

When traveling across the globe, some of her favorite snacks are KinniToos, a sandwich cream cookie from Kinnikinnick Foods, Justin’s chocolate peanut or hazelnut butter, Snyder’s of Hanover gluten-free pretzels, Pamela’s chocolate chip mini cookies, and Glutino apple cinnamon toaster pastries. She says Udi’s white sandwich bread or dinner rolls make delicious turkey sandwiches, and she uses King Arthur’s gluten-free muffin mix for her lemon-blueberry muffins. All are available at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or online. Today, even more traditional grocery stores offer a wide variety of gluten-free products.

For the tech-savvy, Koeller recommends iEatOut Gluten and Allergy Free for Apple devices and Allergy Free Restaurant Foods for Android devices. Based on her award winning Let’s Eat Out! series of books and ebooks, the apps offer expert advice for both home cooking and dining out around the world. They allow individuals who need to avoid gluten, wheat, dairy, egg, corn, soy, peanut, tree nuts, and other food allergens to eat safely and confidently. The apps are available at  http://www.glutenfreepassport.com.

Carol Fenster, cookbook author and expert consultant on gluten-free living, was raised on, of all places, a Nebraska wheat farm. In 1988 when she discovered that the breads and desserts she loved were making her sick, it seemed that doctors and the public had never heard of gluten.

“There were perhaps one or two brands of bread on the shelves and one brand of pasta,” says Fenster. “Neither the bread nor the pasta was very good, but that’s all we had, forcing most of us to learn how to bake gluten-free goods in our own kitchens.”

She revised her entire repertoire of recipes to exclude gluten. As she met others with gluten sensitivity, the idea of a cookbook was born. Her first, Wheat-Free Recipes & Menus, has been followed by nine award-winning others. Her blog, www.carolfenstercooks.com, is dedicated to gluten-free, dairy-free cooking.

“Today, the vast array of new ingredients and the availability is astonishing,” she says. And even though she enjoys the taste and convenience of ready-made foods such as pizza crusts, pie crusts, breads, bagels, and tortillas, she thinks homemade still tastes best.

“With all the new and delicious products available in today’s market, gluten sensitivity should not keep you from enjoying great baked goods.”


Who doesn’t love splurging on cakes and cookies during the holidays? If you’re gluten-intolerant, the holidays can be especially challenging. As part of your celebration, why not add these 100% gluten-free, dairy-free treats to your table, or bake them as healthy gifts for your friends?

Basic Piecrust (Double Crust)

Reprinted with permission from Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy Gluten-Free Cooking by Carol Fenster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Gluten-free piecrusts may seem challenging to beginners, but they are not impossible. This one rolls out beautifully and is very pliable. If you only need a single crust, freeze the remaining half (tightly wrapped) for another pie. This basic crust works very well for pies, but also for savory dishes such as Quiche Lorraine.

Makes 1 (9-inch) pie (6 slices)

1 cup Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see below)

3/4 cup tapioca flour

½ cup sweet rice flour

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

3/4 teaspoon guar gum

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup shortening

2 tablespoons butter or buttery spread, at room temperature

½ cup milk of choice

1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

[1] Place the dry ingredients (flour blend through salt), shortening, and butter in a food processor. Process until the mixture resembles large peas. With the motor running, add the milk and process until the dough forms a ball (or large clumps). Remove the lid, break up the clumps with a spatula, and process until a ball forms again.

[2] Flatten the dough to two 1-inch disks, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour so the liquids are well distributed throughout the dough. When ready to bake, arrange oven racks in the bottom and middle positions of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

[3] Massage one of the disks of dough between your hands until it feels the same temperature as your skin and is pliable, which makes it easier to handle. (Keep remaining dough wrapped tightly to avoid drying out.) Roll the dough to a 10-inch circle between two pieces of heavy-duty plastic wrap. (Use a damp paper towel between the countertop and the plastic wrap to prevent slipping.) Be sure to move the rolling pin from the center of the dough toward the outer edge, moving around the circle in a clockwise fashion, to ensure uniform thickness of the piecrust.

[4] Remove the top plastic wrap and invert the crust, centering it over a 9-inch deep-dish nonstick (gray, not black) pie pan. Remove the remaining plastic wrap and press the dough into place. If the dough is hard to handle or breaks, press the entire bottom crust in place with your fingers, leaving a 1-inch overhang of dough all the way around the pie pan. For a single crust pie, proceed to Step 5. For a double-crust pie, add the filling and proceed to Step 6.

[5] For a single-crust pie with a no-bake filling: Crimp the edges of the dough decoratively. Use fork tines to gently prick a few holes in the bottom of the crust so it bakes evenly. Bake for 15 minutes on the lower oven rack so the bottom crust browns. Move the pie to the next highest oven rack and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned. Cover the crust loosely with aluminum foil if the edges brown too much. Cool the crust completely on a wire rack before adding the filling.

[6] For a double-crust pie with a baked filling: Massage the remaining disk of dough between your hands until it feels the same temperature as your skin and is pliable.Roll the remaining dough disk out as directly in Step 3. Invert and center the dough on the filled bottom crust. Don’t remove the top plastic wrap until the piecrust is centered. Shape a decorative edge around the rim of the pie plate. Brush the crust with beaten egg for a glossier crust. Prick the top crust several times with a knife to allow steam to escape. Sprinkle with sugar. Place on a nonstick baking sheet.

[7] Bake for 15 minutes on the lower oven rack so the bottom crust browns. Move the pie to the next highest oven rack and bake for another 25 to 35 minutes––or until the crust is nicely browned and the filling is bubbling. Cover the pie loosely with aluminum foil if the edges brown too much. Cool the pie completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Per slice of basic pie crust, no filling: 390 calories; 3g protein; 22g total fat; 2g fiber; 48g carbohydrates; 26mg cholesterol; 226mg sodium

Gluten-Free Flour Blend

1 ½ cups sorghum flour (or brown rice flour)

1 ½ cups potato starch

1 cup tapioca flour

Whisk together until well blended and then store, tightly covered, in a dark, dry place.

Chocolate Brownies

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Reprinted with permission from Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy, Gluten-Free Cooking by Carol Fenster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

These are wickedly decadent—fudgy and chewy. Serve them plain, with a dusting of powdered sugar, dressed up with a fudgy frosting, or as sundaes. Top each brownie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup, crowed with a maraschino cherry.  

Makes 16 brownies

1 cup Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see below)

½ cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/3 cup butter or buttery spread, melted and cooled slightly

½ cup sugar

½ cup packed brown sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ cup warm (110ºF) water

[1] Place a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously grease an 8-inch square nonstick (gray, not black) baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour blend, cocoa, baking powder, salt, and xanthan gum until well blended.

[2] In a large bowl, beat the butter and both sugars with an electric mixer on low speed until well combined. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well combined. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the flour blend mixture and then the warm water, beating until smooth. Spread the batter evenly in the pan.

[3] Bake for 20 minutes. Do not overbake, or the brownies won’t be fudgy. Cool the brownies in the pan on a wire rack completely before cutting.

Per brownie: 175 calories; 3 g protein; 5g total fat; 2 g fiber; 19g carbohydrates; 22mg cholesterol; 128mg sodium

French Bread

Reprinted with permission from Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy, Gluten-Free Cooking by Carol Fenster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

This is the bread I make most often for dinner guests. I love taking it out of the oven just before they arrive; the aroma of baking bread and the sight of a freshly baked loaf are an excellent prelude to a wonderful evening. Use a pan specially designed for French bread―one with two indentations that hold the bread in a French loaf shape. These pans are available at kitchen stores. The dough is too soft to hold its shape free-form on a regular baking sheet. Use the nonfat dry milk powder found in natural food stores; the granulated variety sold in grocery stores doesn’t work as well.

Makes 2 French loaves or 3 French baguettes: Serves 10 (2 slices each)

2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

1 ¼ cups warm (110°F) water

2 cups Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see below)

1 cup potato starch

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon guar gum

¼ cup nonfat dry milk powder or Better Than Milk soy powder

1 ¼ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon butter or buttery spread, at room temperature

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

1 egg white, beaten to a foam for egg wash

1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)

[1] Dissolve the  yeast and sugar in the warm water. Set aside to let the yeast foam for about 5 minutes.

[2] Grease a French bread pan or line with parchment paper. If the pans are perforated, they must be lined with parchment paper or the dough will fall through the perforations.

[3] In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, combine the yeast mixture and the flour blend, potato starch, xanthan gum, guar gum, dry milk powder, salt, butter, egg whites, and vinegar. Beat on low speed (using regular beaters, not dough hooks) just until blended. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 1 minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. The dough will be soft.

[4] Divide the dough evenly between the two indentations in the pan. Smooth each half into a 12-inch log with a wet spatula, making the ends blunt rather than tapered for more even baking. Brush with the egg wash and let rise at room temperature (75 ºF to 85ºF) until doubled in height.

[5] Place a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Just before baking, make 3 diagonal slashes (⅛ inch deep) in each loaf so steam can escape during baking. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, if desired.

[6] Bake until nicely browned and an instant-read thermometer registers 200ºF to 205ºF when inserted in the center of the loaf, 30 to 35 minutes. Tent with aluminum foil after 20 minutes of baking to prevent overbrowning. Remove the bread from the pan; cool completely on a wire rack before slicing with a serrated knife or an electric knife.

Per 2 slices: 125 calories; 4g protein; 2g total fat; 2g fiber; 26g carbohydrates; 3mg cholesterol; 306mg sodium

French Baguettes

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Prepare the dough as directed for French Bread, but use a French baguette pan. It has three indentations rather than two, but because you are using the same amount of dough as French Bread, the loaves are narrower. Follow the baking directions in Step 5, but bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Per 3 slices: 85 calories; 3g protein; 1 g total fat; 1 g fiber; 17 carbohydrates; 2 mg cholesterol; 204 mg sodium

Gluten-Free Flour Blend

1 ½ cups sorghum flour (or brown rice flour)

1 ½ cups potato starch

1 cup tapioca flour

Whisk together until well blended and then store, tightly covered, in a dark, dry place.

Ginger-Molasses Cookies

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Gluten-Free 101, by Carol Fenster. Photography by Jason Wyche. Copyright 2013.

Reprinted with permission from 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes by Carol Fenster (Avery/Penguin Group, 2011)

Moist and very flavorful, these cookies are perfect for dessert. Or, process them into crumbs in a food processor for a pie crust

(about 1 ½ cups for a 9-inch piecrust). Adding the optional black pepper turns them into Pfeffernüsse, a traditional German treat served during Christmas holidays.

½ cup butter or buttery spread

¼ cup molasses (not blackstrap)

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

1 cup sorghum flour

½ cup garbanzo (chickpea) flour

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon xanthan gum

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (optional)

2 tablespoons evaporated cane juice or sanding sugar, for rolling

[1] Place a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a 9×13-inch metal baking sheet (not nonstick) with parchment paper.

[2] In a medium mixing bowl, beat the butter, molasses, brown sugar, and vanilla with an electric mixer on low speed until well blended. Add the sorghum flour, garbanzo flour, ginger, cinnamon, xanthan gum, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, salt, and black pepper (if using) and beat until well blended.

[3] With a #50 (1¼ tablespoon-size) metal ice cream scoop, shape 9 balls, roll each into a smooth ball with your hands, and roll each in the evaporated cane juice. Place them at least two inches apart on the sheet.

[4] Bake until the cookies look firm and began to show little cracks on top, about 8 to 10 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then transfer to the wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Makes 18 cookies; per cookie: 130 calories; 2g protein; 6g total fat;  1g fiber;  20g carbohydrates; 14mg cholesterol; 51mg sodium

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The Wings of Winter

As published in Back Home Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2013

Blue jaySpread some cheer outside for a great family activity

Winter gives me the shivers and a strong urge to fly swiftly toward the equator, so it’s only fitting that retirees who flee the frosty northern states in winter are called “snowbirds.”

One of the few upsides of all that cold and ice is the opportunity we have to attract and observe the variety of backyard birds that choose to brave the cold with us. From the warm side of the window, a mug of hot chocolate in hand, even the smallest child can enjoy the color and habits of many types of birds and may even help you cope with the cabin fever and boredom of winter vacation.

For example, children can create special decorations to attract birds, play “I Spy” for different colors and types of birds, start a collection of photos or drawings of your winter visitors, keep a log of the types and numbers of birds you see, or observe and talk about bird behavior. Older children may even want to join in for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an international project co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Kids can record their data and turn it in online or by mail.

Depending on your temperature zone, you can expect to see pairs of northern cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, blue jays, goldfinches, junkos, crows, woodpeckers, and flickers.

Sharon Stiteler writes a popular birding blog and is the author of three books on birding. Her most recent is 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. She says there are three key elements you need to attract a wide variety of backyard birds: food, water, and shelter.

 A bird buffet

“If you choose a commercial mix, make sure you can see what you’re getting,” says Stiteler. “Many blends include fill that some birds simply refuse to eat. Black oil sunflower seeds are clearly the favorite of most birds,” says Stiteler.”

While it’s a little more expensive, creating your own mix can lessen waste and attract more birds for your buck. Nancy Castillo, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs, NY, and author of the Zen Birdfeeder blog, says that the blend you create depends on the type of birds you want to attract.

“Mix seeds in whatever proportions you can afford,” says Castillo. “Black oil sunflower is a good starter. Consider adding other foods like striped sunflower, safflower, millet, shelled sunflower, peanuts, and fruit such as raisins.”

“Peanuts and cracked corn are also popular and nutritious,” says Stiteler, but she doesn’t recommend stale bread, cookies, or potato chips on a regular basis. “These aren’t the healthiest food choices, and they also attract rodents and raccoons.”

Birds will come to your yard if you give them what they need, so don’t become discouraged if they’re a little wary of a new feeder or your homemade decorations. Birds find food by sight, so a little seed sprinkled on the ground will help them get the idea.

Water works

 An open, clean water source is essential, especially when ice and snow can make fresh water harder to find.

Birdbaths are commercially available in many shapes and materials and, depending on your budget, are also available with integrated heating units, says Castillo. Clay, concrete, and glass birdbaths may crack and leak in freezing weather, so don’t work well for winter birding.

You can also make your own simple birdbath out of any shallow basin such as an old serving tray or a disposable aluminum baking pan. Place your birdbath on a stump or garden wall out of reach of predators. Freshen your water every other day, and scrub your birdbath periodically with a stiff-bristled brush. Remember to break the ice during the coldest days.

Brush and cover

Your birds need the protection of nearby trees or bushes, so place your feeder in a location that makes them feel secure. Stiteler suggests using your discarded Christmas tree or piles of brush placed about 10 feet from the feeder for a quick escape from ambushing cats.

Sit back and enjoy

Some great sources for bird identification are Stan Tekiela’s state-by-state bird guides, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site at www.allaboutbirds.org, the Online Guide to North American Birds of the National Audubon Society, the iBird Pro Guide to Birds app available for iPhone and iPod Touch, and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds app.

As you observe all the backyard activity from inside your cozy sanctuary, you can also savor the special satisfaction of creating your own inviting winter haven. You may even find that you want to take it a step further by attracting summer visitors such as hummingbirds.

And it could be that what began as a simple project to pass a chilly afternoon will cultivate a new family interest already shared by millions worldwide.

More birding resources: The Great Backyard Bird Count at www.birdsource.org, http://www.birdchick.com, www.wildbirdsunlimited.typepad.com, www.birds.audubon.org, and http://www.juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.




Here’s a winter craft project that accomplishes three things: it adds interest and decoration to your trees outdoors, provides winter food for birds, and gives children something fun and interesting to do.

Orange Baskets

You will need:

6 large oranges

2 cups peanut butter, softened in the microwave

2 cups birdseed

½ cup rolled oats

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds


spoon for scooping out the pulp


yarn or string

Halve each orange and scoop out the pulp. Using a nail or wooden skewer, punch a hole about ½ inch from the top of the orange “basket” and punch another on the opposite side. Using yarn or heavy string, create a handle for your basket. With your hands or a pastry cutter, mix the remaining ingredients and use a spatula to fill each basket. Decorate your trees and bushes at a height of about five feet and watch your birds flock to your offering. Makes 12 ornaments.


A commercial or homemade suet provides energy and warmth and appeals to many types of birds including chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers and flickers.

Try this healthy winter suet recipe field-tested and perfected by the author of The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose. It can be a little messy to make, but birds find it a delicacy.

 New Zick Dough (Gourmet Suet)

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup lard

2 cups chick starter

2 cups quick oats

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup flour

In a microwave, melt peanut butter and lard and mix well. In a larger mixing bowl combine the chick starter, oats, cornmeal and flour. Add the melted peanut butter and lard mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well.  The mixture will resemble granola. Serve on a flat surface such as your deck rail or an old plate, or use a platform-style feeder. Store the mixture at room temperature.

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Taking Care of Irises

As published on the online version of Carolina Gardener, August 28, 2013


Sometimes called the poor man’s orchid, the bearded iris, with its myriad of colors, puts a new box of crayons to shame. These diverse, drought-resistant garden beauties provide an elegant centerpiece for many Southern gardens, with their magnificent spring blooms. But the plants are great in the garden even after the blooms have faded, thanks to their lush green stalks.

While spring is when we usually think of irises, now is actually the time when work needs to be done to ensure a beautiful flowering next season. Shirley Spoon Knox of Lawndale, N.C., is well known for her beautiful irises and loves to share her knowledge, much of it passed along from her mother. Knox recommends dividing irises every four to five years, even if you don’t plan to replant them. July, August and September, when irises are dormant, are the prime months for dividing them to ensure a brilliant spring with multiple blooms. Without regular division, the clump of irises will bloom less and not thrive.

The root of an iris is called a rhizome. From year to year, the primary rhizome grows several increases of younger, fresher rhizomes that encircle the mother rhizome. These are what you will divide and can replant in your own garden or share with friends and neighbors.

The best time to divide is early in the morning before the sun gets fierce. To divide a whole clump, insert a wide garden fork about 6 inches from the perimeter of the circle and lift the clump to the side.

As you trace the rhizome with your finger, you will feel a small indention that indicates the node’s connection to the mother plant. You can easily snap off the rhizomes or use a sharp knife to slice the node from the mother plant and lay it aside. If you use a knife, some experts advise dipping it in a diluted mixture of chlorine bleach: 10 parts water to 1 part bleach. Don’t forget to label your rhizomes, at least by color and height and possibly by cultivar name.

Wash off excess soil and soak the rhizomes for 10 minutes in a 10:1 water-chlorine solution and then rinse in a clear water bath. Air dry for 30 minutes in the shade. Choose the plumpest, healthiest ones for replanting, inspecting them for signs of disease or rot, or damage by borers.

Some gardeners trim the leaf fan and roots so they’re easier to handle and replant. Knox recommends leaving both intact in order to give the new plant a good start in its new setting. She does, however, snip off any brown tips or damaged leaves.

Knox likes to replant her irises the same day in a previously prepared raised bed, 2-3 inches deep and wide enough to accept the roots. Irises prefer morning and midday sun and well-drained soil. To prepare her soil for planting, Knox swears by the soil and fertilizer recipe passed down to her from her mother (see sidebar). She mixes ½ cup into the hole and then waters it in.

“Irises don’t like crowds,” Knox says, which is one reason why they need to be divided. When planting, place them 18-25 inches apart. Place the rhizome straight down, spreading the roots around. The top third of the horizontal part of the rhizome should rise slightly above the soil line. Cover with soil and pack it firmly with your hand. Scratch in another ½ cup of soil mixture around the plant. Water once more and continue to water lightly for the next two weeks if the weather is dry.

Irises should be lightly fertilized twice a year with a 10-10-10 fertilizer. Do this once in March, just before blooming, and again in June, just after blooming has finished. Reblooming iris, which can bloom up to four times a year, should get an extra dose of fertilizer in August, as well as plenty of water.

Weeds are always a problem for gardeners, and you will find them in your irises since weeds like fertilizer too. Knox not only pulls weeds regularly, but she also plants phlox, thrift, herbs and lilies among her irises to keep the beds colorful long after the iris blooms have faded.

“Irises feed the human desire to create, perpetuate and inspire beauty,” Knox says. Caring for them draws us out to the sunshine and fresh air and provides us with the feel of soil and water as well as the healing power of exercise. Sharing them gives us the opportunity to meet with old friends and cultivate new ones. Irises are truly a grounding influence for our souls … no pun intended.


Lilla Spoon’s Fertilizer Recipe

5 gallons of dry sphagnum peat moss
3-4 shovels of Black Cow compost
1 quart powdered dolomitic lime
1 pint wettable sulphur (discourages fungus and insects)
1 ½ quarts Triple Super Phosphate (for blooms)
1 quart 10-10-10 fertilizer


Photos courtesy of Carole Howell

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The pop and a burst of juice make muscadines one of the traditional treats of late summer

As published in Carolina Country, September 2013

Ray Hoffman, my father and muscadine mentor, has been cultivating his passion for muscadines all of his life. Even though arthritis sometimes limits the time he can spend in direct care, he supervises from his modified golf cart and planted two new rows this past spring. (photo by by Carole Howell)

As a boy, my father regularly ignored his sister’s call to supper. Even as she stood calling from the edge of the woods, he was sitting high in the tree branches eating wild muscadines, the hulls littering the ground a dead giveaway to his whereabouts.

For the last eight decades, he has continued loving the fruit and tending many varieties, some 50 years old, on his farm in Lincoln County. In September he sells the fruit by the gallon, and in the fall he makes the wine that he shares with his friends at Christmas.

Although they’ve been cultivated for centuries in the U.S., folks up north don’t often have the pleasure of the pop and sweetness of a southern sun-ripened muscadine.

Muscadines are not only good by the handful and the glass full, you also can freeze them, juice them, make jelly and preserves, bake them in pies, turn them into wine, and make healthy smoothies with them. They’re currently in research for the medicinal value of the seeds and skin, already available as a dietary supplement. Muscadines are high in antioxidants and have been linked to treating cardiovascular disease.

Muscadines scuppernongs
Muscadines are the darker variety, while the bronze-colored grapes are sometimes called scuppernongs. (photos courtesy of Ison’s Nursery & Vineyards)


In North Carolina, the muscadine grape industry has been steadily on the rise since the 1970s. Our soil and climate create prime growing conditions for both commercial production and personal enjoyment, so it’s not surprising that muscadines are the official state fruit.

It’s clear from the September crowds at our small vineyard that muscadines have quite a fan base. Each year more and more of our pickers are also picking my father’s brain for advice on starting their own vines.

Grow your own

Whether you enjoy muscadines fresh, in a wineglass, or spread as jelly on a hot biscuit, you know that they’re a late summer treat that shouldn’t be missed. If you want to make sure never to miss a season, the solution is to grow them yourself.

Whit Jones, retired N.C. Cooperative Extension horticulture agent and now a consultant for Cottle Farms in Duplin County, knows about muscadines. In fact, they’ve been his passion for the past 20 years. He’s worked with grape growers in Duplin County for most of his career.

He also gets lots of questions from amateur growers who would like to plant their own vines.

New vines are placed in the spring, so fall and winter is the prime time for setting your posts and wires. Choose a location that is well drained. “Start with a soil sample to see what nutrients you’re missing,” advises Jones. Testing kits and instructions are available at no cost for North Carolina residents. Get yours from your county’s Extension office.

For support, Jones recommends untreated black locust or metal posts for organic production. Salt-treated, 3-inch to 5-inch diameter posts also work well. Choose an 8-foot-long post, leaving 5½ feet above ground, 20 feet apart with 10 feet to 12 feet between rows.

Two parallel wires, officially known as a Geneva double curtain, is a favorite of small gardeners and actually increases your yield by about 30 percent, says Jones.

“Use a #9 galvanized wire for support,” says Jones. “Anything less will deteriorate over time.” The wire is available at some hardware stores and at stores that sell livestock supplies.

With spring, after the last frost, comes the planting. The type of muscadine you choose depends on your preference and how you plan to use them.

“Supreme, Fry, Tara, and Lane are good fresh market varieties, perfect for snacking just as they are, and are popular in North Carolina,” says Jones. “For making wine, Carlos, Noble, Doreen, and Magnolia are good choices.” He adds that if you choose a female such as Fry or Supreme, you should also add a self-pollinator such as a Nesbitt, Carlos, or Tara to ensure pollination.

Plant one shoot per post about 15 inches away from the post to help support the weight of the main vine and keep the trunk straight.

Training your vines to reach the wire supports is an important part of the care of a new plant. Place a tall stake next to each plant and use a zip tie or string to loosely fasten the young plant. Add ties every two or three weeks as the plants stretch upward. Trim any offshoots from the sides of the plant as it grows, leaving the top two shoots. Once the shoots have reached the wire, continue to tie the vine until it is firmly committed to the wire support.

Spring brings new, fruit-bearing growth from shoots carefully pruned over the winter months. (photo by by Carole Howell)

A little care makes a great harvest

Muscadines are not care free, but a backyard vineyard should not be difficult or overly time-consuming to maintain.

After the vines start breaking buds in the spring, apply fertilizer. Jones recommends using 4 ounces, about a handful, sprinkled lightly about a foot away from young plants. He favors a 6-6-18 tobacco fertilizer. Apply lime as necessary to maintain a 6.2 to 6.4-pH level.

September is for harvesting and enjoying the fruits of your labor. The fruit is ripe when it yields to a gentle squeeze. Pick individual grapes and not bunches. One piece of advice: Bees and wasps like grapes too, so be careful when picking. No one enjoys picking an angry wasp.

January and February are trimming months when the plants are dormant. The younger the vine, the less trimming it will need. With a pair of sharp hand-snippers, cut back any shoots that are toothpick size and snip the larger shoots back, leaving 2–4 buds.

If you need more information, the experts at NCSU Cooperative Extension have all the advice you need to get started and maintain healthy vines. Visit their dedicated website at ces.ncsu.edu/muscadines.

Besides enjoying them directly from the vine, muscadines can be the main attraction for pies and other sweet surprises. Most popular is muscadine pie, and you can find many recipes on the Web. Not as well known is the muscadine roll, served hot with sweet sauce. It’s my father’s favorite muscadine treat. Because you can freeze muscadines, you can enjoy them all year long.

Grandmaw’s Grape Hull Roll Recipe

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Zucchini Mania!

zucchini-21Maybe it’s everywhere in mid-summer, but it’s delicious, nutritious, and versatile

As published in Carolina Country, July 2013

This year I planted only six zucchini seeds, but they grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. Anyone who has invited the bountiful zucchini into their garden knows that this vegetable seems to mature faster than you can harvest it. It’s no wonder that August 8 is celebrated each year as “Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day.”

As I filled my own crisper and freezer, carried them to work in grocery bags, and offered them to every neighbor walking by, I still struggled to find creative ways to use them.

Zucchini is abundant, delicious and nutritious, so it’s a must for any summer garden. Just a few plants will give you plenty to both enjoy and share, and one large zucchini will make several meals.

It’s a good thing that zucchini is so prolific, because it’s so versatile. You can fry it, stuff it, grill it, bake it, add it to soups, spaghetti sauce, and meatloaf. You can make sweet breads, cakes, and cookies with it. You can make salads or simply add it raw to a vegetable tray. You can freeze it and enjoy it all winter long.

It truly is the perfect summer vegetable.

Zucchini Salad
Makes a great light meal all by itself and makes a great side dish. It’s especially good as a side with beans and cornbread.

2 medium zucchini
1 medium red onion
1 cup red bell pepper
½ cup green bell pepper
½ cup roasted unsalted peanuts
3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup cider or balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

Chop the first four ingredients and add peanuts and relish.

Mix and add the remaining ingredients and place all in a gallon-size storage bag. Mix well. Allow the salad to marinate in the refrigerator at least one hour or overnight. Serve with a slotted spoon. Makes six generous servings.

Moist Zucchini Cake
You’d never suspect that a vegetable could make such as tasty treat!

2 cups of finely grated zucchini
1 cup vegetable oil
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
8 oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350º. In a large bowl combine the oil, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, salt, cinnamon and eggs. Add flour slowly and mix well. Add zucchini, drained pineapple, and pecans. Pour into greased 13 x 9 in. baking pan.

Bake at 350º for 45-55 minutes or until dark golden brown and cake springs back when lightly touched. Allow to cool before frosting. Store in refrigerator.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese, softened
½ cup butter, softened
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream butter and cream cheese until well blended. Add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time. Add vanilla flavoring. Spread over cooled cake.