Friday, July 29, 2011

In the Garden

It's Friday so we're having another garden party, hosted by Tiffany at No Ordinary Homestead.

Here's one corner of the garden; the picture was taken this morning.

NE corner of the plot
Let's see... there are beans on the trellises, rattlesnakes to the left, struggling Chinese Yard Long beans in the foreground (they don't like much water... oops). In the rows behind the beans, right to left and parallel to the rattlesnake green beans, are basil and drought tolerant Sioux tomatoes in one row and okra in the next. Just fyi, the poles you see are about 6'6" tall.

Yep, those are Chinese long beans ...which reminds me of small town moment we had recently. We were sitting at the bar for a wine tasting event and started chatting with the older woman next to us. After a while I just had to ask, "Do you have a garden this year?" The answer was no, but she had had them in the past and a lot of her friends gardened and were having a hard year, too; what had we planted? In my mind's eye I started in the patio pots and went on to the main garden, naming things from my mental image..."Japanese eggplant, tomatillos, basil, Chinese long beans, shishito peppers..." She interrupted me, "No wonder you're having a hard time, those aren't American plants! This is Smallish Small City, not some foreign country." I assured her that we also had all-American vegetables like okra and black-eyed peas (tee hee*) and changed the subject. When I run into her again I'll have to let her know that the international garden is doing well and the 'un-American' plants just took a little time to assimilate...I mean acclimatize.

Looking a little more closely at what's in the garden, there are still lots of blossoms...

Chinese long bean blossom

But they are slow to produce.

rattlesnake green beans
tangle of rattlesnake green bean vines

Happily, there's plenty of Swiss chard this year. I've found chard to be one of the most versatile culinary greens there is, it's easy to grow and it over-winters in our region.
prolific, tasty, good-for-you chard

chard thinnings went on top of a stir-fry in early June
Yum! It's even a World's Healthiest Food. The really tender small leaves can be eaten raw (recently M's lunch box held grilled oryx sandwiches with fresh chard and homemade aioli on hard rolls). Now that I think about it we don't use any recipes for chard but it is consumed in lots of ways... chopped and sauteed in eggs, quesadillas, with garlic and lemon juice, with sausage and pasta; baked with mushrooms, cheese and bread crumbs; in soups & stews.... If you're not familiar with this green buy some at your local farmers market or grocery store and use your Google-fu to find a recipe that appeals to you. If you aren't growing it already, I bet you'll make space for it in next year's garden.

*That's right, Intrepid Reader, okra and black-eyed peas have African origins but she didn't know that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Insect, step away from the squash."

Despite our best efforts at biological controls, we are at  DEFCON 1 and contemplating chemical warfare.

"Who me?... *burp*"
squash bug nymphs taking a break from sucking the life out of a plant

Although they are not as dangerous to established plants as they are to the younger ones, I'm not ready to cede the squash beds to the bugs. I don't mind sharing a little but you know these guys, give 'em an inch...

cute?!?! check out the piercing-sucking mouthparts

And over in the okra...more bugs that suck.


Thankfully this seems to be a one-plant infestation so this evening I'm relocating ladybugs to the best buffet in the garden. There will even be a show for them: Anasa tristis-ageddon premieres tonight.

Yes, intrepid reader, there were enough ladybugs for a football field-sized garden, wish I still had some in the 'fridge.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In the Garden

No Ordinary Homestead, an American ex-pat in Germany, has started hosting a Friday link-up, "Garden Life." This time of year is all about the vegetable garden: tending, picking, eating, canning & freezing... so today we join the celebration. Here's a true 'overview' of the garden to-date.

view from the roof
This has been a tough year for this brand new garden. At first I just thought it was something we had done wrong (soil amendments, etc.) but after talking to all sorts of local gardeners* I realized everyone was having similar problems. Turns out that the combination of a lack of moisture and high temperatures puts the kabosh on the sex lives of plants (too). Lots of plants put on male flowers - again and again - but the production of female flowers was delayed until conditions were more favorable. That's why it looked to me like nothing would 'set,' all those flowers and not a tiny fruit anywhere. While the arrival of the 'monsoons' is still overdue, the overcast afternoons cool off everyone and everything, and the occasional soaking rains have created a better climate for the production of pollen and the pollinators who help out.

black-eyed pea flower

rattlesnake greenbean flowers
okra flower (edible pod to the left)
Some of my favorite memories of growing up were my Granma Cassie's fig preserves. Canned in heavy syrup, they were served every morning on bread that was fried in butter to a perfect golden-brown. My Dad carries on the tradition with figs from the same shrub that fed his great-great-grandmother. When we heard figs would thrive here and over-winter without much problem, I bought four varieties from three different sources. Of the six shrubs we planted, five remain and three of them are bearing fruit this year. There aren't enough to can so we're enjoying them with blue cheese, water crackers and a glass of wine.

blossom end of a fig

Besides the figs, we've been eating eggplant, zucchini, black-eyed peas and chard from the garden. These are some of the offerings that aren't quite ready...

golden midget watermelon

this is a Chinese long bean, what's wrong with this picture?

rattlesnake green bean

All the happy activity in the garden has attracted a few visitors. This week it's a juvenile or female Flame Skimmer Dragonfly (not a pollinator but a friendly predator in the garden). Embiggen at your own risk; management is not responsible for nightmares (no really, do it: it is so cool).

I'm going back out to pull weeds but if you've got the time, buzz around here to see what else is going on in the garden and then head over to Garden Life to continue the international celebration of vegetable gardens.

*You might not know this about me... I will strike up a conversation with almost anyone, anywhere, about anything. So if I was within hearing distance of another adult human being -- standing in the checkout line, buying straw, banding birds, wine tasting, etc., -- I asked, "Do you have a vegetable garden this year?" 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Capturing Summertime

This week's You Capture theme is summertime. 

Go ahead and hum along with Ella, you know you want to..."Summertime...and the living is easy...."

Except around here the garden is gearing up.

 first figs of the year

black-eyed peas (folks around these parts call 'em cowpeas)

shelled black-eyed peas

sandcherries about to meet their jelly maker

thinly sliced zucchini being cooked down a la Fearnley-Whittingstall

tomatillos bound for a Rick Bayless recipe, adapted here

Tired of all those vegetables and fruit? Here, I'll toss you a bone...

mouth-watering ribs, read about them here

Ah, summer. The livin' is busy and the eatin' is good.

You Capture is a photo project designed to motivate you to get out and use your camera(s). There are pros and beginners alike who share their captures; extend your summertime fun with more photos at: I Should Be Folding Laundry.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Today's Mail

It's really raining here -- finally! After no measurable precipitation since September, it's really coming down. Rah! Considering the 100+ degree days of late and how hot our west-facing kitchen is, this cool, overcast afternoon means one thing: it's time to bake. I was just getting ready to clear the kitchen table when this mess caught my eye; I had to laugh.

If only Martha hunted...

After my beginner's luck of drawing a once-in-a-lifetime oryx hunt two years ago, we've had scare opportunities for big game. This year we drew deer (yay!) but no elk or antelope. Since we're down to the last few butcher paper-wrapped packages in the freezer we're talking about heading to a northern state for elk this fall. As a result, at the end of the month I'll be sitting for 16 hours with 15 young men (and hopefully a few young women) to meet the hunter education requirements for our neighboring state. I'm actually excited and looking forward to the class... I just hope I don't start getting those forgot-I-had-a-test or why-am-I-naked-in-gym-class anxiety dreams.

Lucky me. I'm going to go dance in the rain, then do my homework at the kitchen table while the cookies bake. Wish you were here, too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mushroom Monday

"Green-winged teal, 3; 1 cinnamon teal, another green wing, 5 gadwall; mallard hen with brood of 5; 6 blue-winged teal ..."

It's 100 degrees in the truck, I'm frantically trying to write down this rapid-fire list for my first-ever bird count and my mind keeps wandering... 'ummmm, ducks...we need some for gumbo next year... check your waders for leaks... you really need to shoot; join the local skeet or trap club and get out there... where are my calls and that CD?... yes, yes, I really will practice before this season... swing, swing, swing..."  Yes, it's mid-summer and -- naturally -- a girl's thoughts turn to duck hunting.

Oh, wait... it's Mushroom Monday, isn't this a little off track? Nope.

Dinner last night.

That's marinated & grilled duck, last year's (??) mushroom, duck stock with an Asian flair, and fresh noodles from the big city: Duck and Mushroom Faux-Pho. (Living here we make do with what we have so we're missing a few key ingredients for a real Vietnamese taste, but it's close.)  Lots of mushrooms could go into pho and you can't tell anything by the picture so what might this be?

This week's mushrooms grow at the base of conifers (especially pines) in the Western U.S. (another variety grows in the Eastern U.S.). They can be large (up to 24") and range in color from whitish-beige to a light-ish orange/brown.

100# Chesapeake Bay Retriever for a perspective on size

Described as looking like and Elizabethan ruff, a bouquet of egg noodles or a certain Brassiciaceae family member, they are quite distinctive on the forest floor and have no poisonous lookalikes. The fruiting bodies have stalks that reach down to the dead or dying tree roots so when you harvest these mushrooms, cut them even with the ground and make sure to leave some for posterity's sake and for the other critters who eat them. You will be rewarded: these delectable mushrooms tend to grow in the same spot year after year. Yeah, that was easy...

Their slightly spicy taste and ability to keep their texture (like a perfectly al dente noodle) for hours in braises and stews are a few of the reasons these are considered by Arora and so many others to be "edible and exceptional." I concur! They have a slightly bright citrus note when fresh and a lovely, deep earthiness after they've been frozen. They can be difficult to clean but they are well worth it. 

For our first taste of cauliflower mushrooms we tried a salad from Fischer and Bessette's Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide.  The lemon enhanced the brightness of the mushroom and the slightly bitter toasted walnuts added balance and texture to the dish. Delish! What we couldn't eat immediately we vacuum sealed and froze. They turned out beautifully, as we thought they might based on the ground work done by foodie/forager blogger Langdon at Fat of the Land

Faux-pho with grilled duck and cauliflower mushrooms is something to add to our recipe files. Now the trick is to stock up on both those ingredients; our duck hunting and mushroom foraging have moved southward from our familiar haunts, presenting some fun challenges. Finding cauliflower mushrooms in the local mountains might be the hardest task because I think I know where we can find some ducks*...shhhhhh.

*It's okay -- I'm no scofflaw -- one can hunt legally in designated areas of the refuge. However, locals say the ducks know that better than anyone: they relocate to the protected ponds from daylight to 1pm, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays during the season. Smart ducks, we'll have to look elsewhere.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Livin' the Wildlife

While we live here my employment opportunities are limited. Although I have data to crunch and publish, a big garden to take care of, boxes to unpack, and lots of other house-y things to do, lately I find myself 'goin' tharn' when I raise my eyes above the computer monitor or view finder. I've failed to conjure my inner Martha Stewart for more than an afternoon at a time and even my inner Alice Waters is unusually quiet.

Then it came to me:  I'm most happy when actively engaged with caring people doing something that is intellectually challenging, fun, and makes a difference in the world. For almost 20 years, working as research scientist in an academic environment fulfilled most of that for me. Now I'm an over-educated female interloper in a tight-knit, conservative, agriculture and oil & gas dominated small what's a girl to do? 

Yep, volunteer to help someone else. In this case, it's something else; here's what's keeping me connected, challenged, and busy these days:
The new 'work' site;

part of the office, July 2011

Some of the residents at my new gig;
Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets

Checkered Whiptail Lizard
 Why did the Scaled Quail cross the road?
Western Meadowlark

Maybe s/he didn't like the view on the other side.

You might have guessed already;
the new 'boss'
There's an entire system of these across the US; I feel lucky to have been accepted to be a volunteer at one nearby. Already I've helped net and band birds, recorded for the bi-weekly bird count, and met some incredibly thoughtful, bright and enthusiastic folks. Talk about a learning curve... until a few days ago I didn't know a stilt from a plover or a Western Kingbird from a Brown-headed Cowbird. Five more days to the next banding; six before the next count: I better hit the books (Peterson's Western Birds for now; maybe there's a Sibley in my future).

That's right: caring people, an intellectual challenge, fun, and it does make a difference. I am happier, now if only those boxes would unpack themselves...

(No, I didn't get that academic administrative position that had me in a transdisciplinary cloud. Thanks for asking, though.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jammin' Apricots Part 2

"When I was growing up, canning was for old folks and cranky separatists -- oh, and for my parents..." 

That line sold me on Liana Krissoff's Canning for a New Generation. Of course, there's more: I like her tone (instructive but not pedantic); the book is organized seasonally to take advantage of your garden, local farmers' markets, neighbors' trees, green spaces in town, etc.; you might have to make a trip an ethnic market (in this town, no such thing: Amazon Prime is my friend); and she includes recipes using the canned goods (How 'bout jerk chicken made from your own mango and peach habanero hot sauce?).

We've just begun to explore this book and have had a promising start. Of the 41 pints of apricot-y goodness we produced last weekend, five of them were preserves -- our first recipe from Krissoff.  

pot scrapings, yum

You can see the end product in the photo above: dark orange, nicely gelled (no pectin) with little bits of black...okay, maybe the addition of whole vanilla beans with seeds isn't for everyone. (We're still doing double-takes; you see the preserves next to the jam and think "How did I miss that brown spot..." before the brain registers that it's a vanilla bean in the jar.) The taste is of well-cooked apricots, rich with a strong vanilla flavor; the wine adds a nice sublte floral note (we had a Mosel Riesling open so it was 1/2 cup for the pot, 1/2 cup for the cook). 

promising marriage of apricots, wine, vanilla beans and sugar

This recipe will help so-so apricots in their aspiration to deliciousness but might not be the best for fruit at its flavor peak, when capturing the fresh taste is part why you're canning in the first place. The preserves are a little heavy-tasting for use on toast or biscuits but I bet it will be an awesome ingredient in sauce for duck, or to top ice cream. Oh, the possibilities.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mushroom Monday

Hey, it's the 4th of July!

A little explosive fun for the holiday.

Guaranteed not to start any fires.

And ya know how fireworks fail sometimes

Yep, that was a rock. We laughed so hard we couldn't catch our breath...or it could have had something to do with the ~8000 ft altitude.

Brought to you by the Basidiomycota family...and mine.

More on puffballs after the holiday but if you just can't wait, read all about them here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jammin' Apricots Part 1

A week ago I was out running errands and saw an elderly gentleman scraping smooshed apricots off the sidewalk with a snow shovel. "Ah ha!" I thought, "There's someone with too many apricots on his hands." Sure enough, when I stopped and asked if he had plans for all of those apricots he said no, he'd eaten too many and I was welcome to pick as many as I liked. He told me the lower branches had been picked clean and I would need a ladder... and that I could not hold him liable should I fall off the ladder or hurt myself in any other way while on his property. Got it. The next morning M & I picked about 18 pounds of Queen Anne Cherry-sized apricots, leaving plenty for the next indemnified soul with a ladder.

a sink full of apricots
gift jars of jam
The fruit was tasty but not very juicy at all. We unearthed the canning supplies (we still haven't unpacked all those boxes from the move), grabbed the Ball Blue Book and went to it.

Two days later we had 36 pints of Apricot Jam and 5 pints of preserves.

gear shot
That'll take a little time out of your weekend. It helps that neither of us minds this kind of work and look forward with delight to the end product: rows of little jars filled with apricot-y goodness. When you're doing multiple batches like this you drop into a pleasant rhythm --pit, chop, measure, boil, fill jars, set the timer, clean up, start all over again -- punctuated by the occasional 'plink' as the lids seal on the cooling jars. We'll listen to music and chat, daydreaming out loud about the next Easy Jam Tart, which we think is elevated to sublime by the use of homemade apricot jam. Of course, a little practice together and the right canning gear also make the experience enjoyable.

Gear Notes: Along with the magnetic jar lid wand, a jelly funnel (both in blue here) and a no. 26 Le Creuset round French Oven (also blue, since you asked), an extremely handy *snerk* piece of gear is the Super Glove. It's  great for holding hot jars and you can throw it in the washer when it gets sticky. I really don't use this silicon glove for much else -- steam goes right through it and it's too bulky to pick up cookie sheets (for my small hands, anyway) -- but it has become an indispensable canning tool.

Despite the reliance on a tried-and-true recipe for this round of jam, we have had a few forays beyond the Blue Book. Head over to Sometimes Far Afield to read about our adventures finding tuna (cactus fruit) to make back alley prickly pear jelly and how finding rose hips for jelly became a bit of an obsession.