Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tales from the Wildlife Refuge of My Backyard (part 1)

We may live in the middle of a small town, surrounded by other homes, an apartment building, a church, asphalt streets, and all the power lines and other accoutrements that we all believe we need for the city life, but I seem to have a wildlife refuge in my backyard. There aren't monkeys and lions and tigers and bears, but there might as well be.

The large, towering cottonwood had always housed one or more families of squirrels during our residence here. The bushy-tailed critters have stolen my strawberries, chattered at all of our pups, and basically been another part of our family. This past spring, I was surprised to see 7 (SEVEN!) baby squirrels running up and down the tree and jumping from branch to branch. That seems like a huge litter for one tiny mama squirrel, so I can only assume the our backyard tree housed a commune of squirrels. Those babies quickly caught Jenn's attention, and many days were spent with her holding point on the trees. She was extremely disappointed when they seemed to abandon our tree in early summer.

However, the hollow of the tree wasn't vacant for long. A swarm of bees buzzed in and started building a hive...just mere feet from my backdoor. I plan to blog soon about this experience, but needless to say, regardless of what the status is for honey bees in North America, I was extremely relieved when they moved on.

Shortly after the bee adventure, I was at the kitchen counter one evening starting dinner preparations when I glanced out the windows overlooking the backyard. There at the far back of the lots was a paint turtle creeping along the railroad ties lining the fence. It should be noted that it is a chain-link fence and it wouldn't exactly be easy for a turtle to gain access. We have tightened every spot that the girls could possibly stick their noses through in an attempt to rein in escape episodes. Still, that determined turtle thought our lush yard with green grass, gardens, flowers, and usually a sprinkler or soaker hose in action was the place to be. I let the girls play with her for awhile before turning her loose outside of the confines of our fence.

Fences have never been an issue for the garter snakes that call our backyard home. I suspect the old cistern and the nooks and crannies between the railroad tie borders for my planting beds are great habitat for them. Flourishing herbs and garden plants create abundant shade in the damp of the beds. Usually, there are multiples slithering around and eating the bugs, and we have an unspoken agreement. I leave them alone, and they do the same for me. Of course, I am startled when one glides away while I am picking strawberries, but at least they are moving away.  Until a week or so ago...

A week or so ago, I went out to pick strawberries and discovered that I had lost just as many half-eaten red berries to the birds as I was able to pick. In frustration, I quickly draped netting over the plants to help ward off the birds' advances. A day or so later, I leisurely strolled to the strawberry beds to check on the success of the netting only to find a garter snake had wound his way back and forth through the crumpled up net at the base of the bed. He was stuck much like those images of the birds and fish caught in the plastic 6-pack rings on the beach.

Snakes don't make me scream, but I wanted to. Knowing that Hubs was in the hay field and hours away from returning home, I watched anxiously for one of our manly neighbors to return and save me and the snake. It wasn't happening. I had to do it myself. I had to cut the snake out of the netting.

Garden shears in hand, I pulled the netting away from the plants and tried my best to keep the snake at full arms length away from me. At one point, I did have to touch him to pull some of the imbedded net out of his skin as I clipped. He also kept trying to slither back into the net as I released him. Finally, I found a way to keep his head buried in the strawberry plants as I pulled and clipped his way to freedom. I don't know if it was the "head in the sand" effect of him not being face to face with me or if it was me hissing, "Knock it off; I am trying to help you." that calmed him and made my job a little easier. Ultimately, he was free to slide into the recesses of the railroad ties and my netting had been clipped to the point that the birds had several points of easy access to the ripe strawberries.

I must have been in shock throughout this garter snake ordeal. I didn't take any pics. No before. No after. Certainly no during. My snap happy habit with my cell phone was totally forgotten. The only evidence of the trauma and drama is my clipped to pieces netting. You are probably glad. Nobody wants to see snake photos on a food blog. You are welcome.
We do like to see strawberry photos on a food blog, though, and I have a lot. I made this Strawberry Almond Tart on a gray day this spring with some of the first berries available at the market.

It was much easier than I anticipated, and I wish that I would have snapped some photos with the tart tin removed, as the crust was a gorgeous match for the crown of berries that topped the creamy, almond filling.

I am hoping for another strawberry harvest from the garden (snake-free, please) to make this again with my own berries. Strawberry Almond Tart is a deliciously civilized refuge from the wildlife that surrounds me.

(adapted from Cooking Light)

9 sheets honey graham crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
4 teaspoons water
5 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
6 cups strawberries, hulled (divided)
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 350F.
For crust, process graham crackers in a food processor until crumbly.
Add 2 tablespoons sugar, butter and water.
Pulse just until moist.
Press crust mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a greased 9-inch tart pan.
Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.
Cool completely.
For filling, combine cream cheese, 1/4 cup sugar, and extracts until smooth.
Spread evenly over the cooled crust.
For topping, place 2 cups of strawberries in food processor and process until smooth.
Combine puree with 2/3 cup sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan over medium heat.
Bring to a boil, whisking constantly.
Reduce heat to low; cook 1 minute.
Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Toss the remaining 4 cups of strawberries with lemon juice to coat. 
Arrange berries over filling.
Spoon half of the glaze evenly over the berries. (Save remaining glaze for use over ice cream or in strawberry shakes.)
Sprinkle nuts around the edge of tart.
Chill 3 hours. (Serves 10)

1 comment:

  1. That looks really delicious. Sorry about your snake adventure. We had turkeys at our house the other week - not really squeal-worthy, but still a surprise.


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