Monday, December 21, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
This morning, standing in front of the yet-to-be-built kitchen backplash area, I made this to-do list:
- outline the final chapter for my novel
- finish designing a new writing workshop I'll be giving in January
- catch up on laundry
- clear out dead plants from the garden
- wrap Christmas gifts
- buy Christmas gifts
In addition, I'll be on call as assistant construction monkey while my husband builds our new kitchen backsplash today.
What I've done so far:
- outline my chapter
- one load of laundry
- breakfast with my husband
- chat on the phone
- stand in my garden and daydream about the spring planting
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
The busy day left me too tired to cook. Widget man was in no mood either, so it was melon for supper and then some soaking in the solar tub.
But there was energy for thinking and planning. I'm thinking the best idea is to freeze all or most of those tomatoes. Really, it's just crazy to heat up the house right now.
I'm happy to hear that spagetti squash last a good while without needing additional preservation. For now, they'll just live in a basket on my counter in the kitchen. Through a combination of obsessive opening and closing of windows, a series of solar screens, heat chimneys, and ceiling fans, as well as running the AC a few hours a day, we keep the house right around 80 degrees, which I'm told is a good temperature to store these thick-skinned squash.
As for the eggplant, well, let's just hope preserving them is something I get to worry about. As of this evening, some insect is enjoying gnawing on their leaves very, very much.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
We usually try to make just enough of a tomato, onion, cucumber salad for one meal, because we know by the next day, any leftovers will be a little soggy. Not these crunchy things though. And the slices look like pretty little flowers.
Monday, July 13, 2009
We're breaking heat records that stood for as long as anyone's been counting, for numbers of days in a row of 100+ degree weather, for high temperatures of 105+. Coupled with record low rainfall, and record low humidity, plants just don't stand a chance. It's been so dry that our lake is losing a foot a month of water just to evaporation.
It's been nine days since we lost access to our water for the garden, but about 2/3 of the garden is still going strong. I would not have predicted this. I give credit to Steve Solomon, and his fantastically useful book, Gardening When It Counts. He outlines some strategies for dry farming and for suddenly losing a water supply. I had already implemented a few of them before we hit our water crisis.
- Space plants widely so they can spread their roots to the largest possible area.
- Start with vigorous, home-sprouted seedlings (as opposed to nursery seedlings), raised in your own garden soil (as opposed to commercial potting soil).
- Use drought tolerant varieties.
Solomon doesn't think mulch does much to reduce moisture loss, since plant transpiration is the greatest source of water use, but I mulched earlier in the season anyway. I added some green mulch, in the form of weeds and sacrificial garden plants, piled high around the roots of the remaining plants. I hope they'll add just a tiny wisp of moisture to the ground as they dry up, but who knows if that will make a difference.
Earlier this year, I built a small series of berms and swales, so if we do get a few drops of rain, my garden will be there to take advantage of it and soak up every last bit.
Meanwhile, I'm just so happy that in this, my first season of gardening on anything but the tiniest of patio-sized lots, and in any ambitious way at all, the garden has thrived. It's been a strange year to start a new endeavor like this -- spring came really late, we had oddball hail storms, tornadoes, and late-season freezes. And now we have this drought and heat. Despite all that, the freezer is crammed with veggies, the cupboards overflow with canned tomatoes, salsa, and pickled everything. The dehydrator runs twenty four hours a day.
Widget Man is hard at work designing our barn and rainwater collection system for the garden while I harvest what I can, as fast as I can, until the fall veggies give up. I'll start a very small fall garden near our house, where we can water a small bit. We'll just grow a few things in the mini-garden -- a couple of tomato plants, some greens, some herbs. These are the kinds of things that are nice to have fresh and we're lucky to be able to grow them during most of the winter in our area.
Friday, July 10, 2009
But not these babies. They're Armenian cucumbers, and I've never seen or eaten them before. Earlier in the summer, they just kind of sat there, taking up space, so I more or less ignored them.
Then the 100+ heat wave came, and the Armenian cucumbers took off. The vines, festooned with pretty yellow flowers, seemed like they grew a couple of feet a day. I still pretty much ignored them because there was so much to do, and I was sure they'd never set fruit in this heat.
But they have set fruit, and with a crazy heat-living vigor. They're delicious too -- sweet, not too seedy, and very firm. The texture is closer to a young carrot than the cucumbers I'm familiar with. And I think they have a slight celery flavor as well.
This may be just the cucumber for central Texas and other hot summer places.
Migas are a traditional Mexican dish, and a fine way to use up leftover corn tortillas. They are, in the simplest form, simply torn or cut corn tortillas, cooked in a little oil, and then scrambled with eggs. Common variations include adding cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, salsa, or chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage).
Around here, this dish is ubiquitous and you don't need to go to a Mexican restaurant to have it served up for breakfast. It's as commonly as bacon and eggs or pancakes. And it's a favorite Sunday brunch item.
My favorite variation includes zucchini, especially at this time of year when those green squash are coming out of the garden in truckloads, and if you're not careful, the size of baseball bats.
Spicy Migas with Zucchini
2 medium zucchini, cubed
4 corn tortillas, cut evenly into strips or squares
3 eggs, beaten
dried ancho chile powder
dried chipotle chile powder
shredded Oaxacan string cheese
1. Saute cubed zucchini in a very hot skillet, with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, comino, and chile powders. I usually use about a tsp of comino and ancho and just a pinch of chipotle. Chipotle is the hottest of the two chiles, so adjust according to taste. You want the zucchini to end up slightly crisp on the outside, lightly coated with the spices, and creamy on the inside, so don't toss too much while it's cooking. Allow the squash to brown instead.
2. When the squash is brown, add tortilla pieces. There are two schools of thought about how tortillas should be cooked for migas -- some like them crisp, like a chip; others like them soft and chewy. I'm from the soft and chewy school myself.
3. Add eggs and scramble lightly.
4. Top with shredded cheese. Take pan off the heat and allow the residual heat of the dish to melt the cheese.
5. Serve drizzled with your favorite salsa.
A word about the spices: Comino is the most important spice in many Mexican dishes. Ancho and Chipotle just happen to be two of my favorites and are always at hand. By all means, adjust the spices to your taste and to what you have available.
Also posted at Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays!
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Here is one of my favorite fast, easy ways to make a quick salsa cruda (a salsa made with raw ingredients). It combines the hot spiciness of raw serrano chiles with the cool, sweet smoothness of cucumber, avocado, mango, and of course, fresh-from the garden tomatoes.
Hot and Cool Summer Salsa
2 or 3 fresh serrano chiles
5 or 6 ripe tomatoes
1 large avocado
1 small mango
1 small sharp onion
1 large cucumber
a splash of olive oil
juice from 1 lime
salt to taste
Chop first 6 ingredients; toss together with olive oil, lime juice, and salt to taste. That's it! Of course, you can use a milder or hotter chile, according to your taste. You can even use a canned, picked chile for an even milder salsa. And by all means, remove the seeds and white membranes of the chile's to take some of the bite out. I don't have an extremely high tolerance for heat, so that's what I do. And the sweet, cool tomatoes, avocado, and mango seem to take some of the bite out of the chiles. Also delicious with fish and chicken.
On a related note: It might seem counter-intuitive, but hot spicy food is perfect for hot weather. It provides a strangely cooling, almost euphoric experience. All the finest world cuisines from hot climates are hot and spicy, after all.
This post part of Real Food Wednesday.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Monday, July 6, 2009
Our little lake cove has eight houses, and we're the only ones who live here full time. The rest come in from Houston, El Paso, and Austin, on weekends and holidays. We all share a well. It's not much of a well, really, sunk shallow, built on the cheap, without a water holding tank. The decision to build a well on the cheap was made long before we moved out here and we didn't realize how much this was going to effect our lives. Most of the time, it's just fine, but when the weekend people come, they bring guests. Lots of guests. Who are heavy water users, not used to water conservation.
This weekend, with the cove packed with weekenders and their guests, the water situation came to a head. We had hardly any water pressure, and the well pump was really struggling to keep up. While we worried and tried to conserve, our sometime-neighbors stewed over my use of water to irrigate our little patch of garden.
The truth of it is, I have no rights to irrigate with our well water. The well belongs to our neighborhood, and my annual dues pay for household water, and specifically exclude any outside watering. The truth of it also is, if we were watering a patch of lawn or some ornamentals, no one would blink -- they all do it. But this neighborhood has always been uncomfortable with my veggie garden. They feel it brings down property values. It's just too...rural.
So I have some choices now. We could sink our own well, and do it right this time. Nothing in our neighborhood bylaws precludes us from doing this. But I don't want to. Another well would stress our already-drought-stressed water tables, and possibly further deplete the neighborhood's water situation.
We have been planning to build a water collection system for the garden, drawing and re-drawing plans for a barn, from which we'd collect the water. Rainwater catchement is the perfect solution for our area, where we get plenty of water in the winter, and often in the spring too. But that's going to take some time -- a lot of time. And I need an immediate solution.
So here are my choices to get through the next few months, until the rainy season, and until we build a water catchment system:
1. Buy a water tank for the garden now and have a commercial bulk water supplier fill it. Use this water to get through the next few months.
2. Abandon the garden until we build a water catchment system.
There is also a third option that I'm trying to think through. Our house perches on a steep hillside overlooking the lake. To get to the lake we have a wooden stairway, in three flights of about fifty stairs each. At each flight, there's a landing, and along each landing is a naturally terraced strip of land. The second terrace might be a suitable place for a garden.
When I think about having a lovely, secret garden, away from dissaproving stares, I get pretty excited. I'd love to just make the tension go away. But I need to think this through logically -- building a brand new garden is a lot of work. So here are the advantages and disadvantages to each site:
- Open field with plenty of sunshine.
- Reasonably good soil.
- Garden beds already constructed.
- Plenty of room to add more garden beds, orchards, or even to have animals like chickens or goats.
- In full view of my neighbors. They drive by frowning and muttering and I hate that it makes them so unhappy. I also hesitate to do other things that I know would drive them crazy, like have big piles of compost, dirt, and manure. Or get chickens. Or try making biochar.
- No trees for windbreak, which is very rough on young plants.
- Far enough from the house that I can't see what's going on -- like a deer or raccoon invasion.
- Open field make it less pretty, and more simply utilitarian, despite my efforts to plant vines on the fence and flowers in the beds.
- No easy water source.
- Will be very expensive to build a water collection system here. Since it's uphill and across a private road from our house, we need to build a barn for water collection. The barn will have to be approved by the neighborhood architectural committee.
- Very pretty place to garden, with a view of the lake, across the cove to unspoiled land.
- Shade trees nearby.
- Trees provide a windbreak.
- Will be very easy to create a waterwise irrigation system. I can hook up to our existing lake-water pump, and/or build a simple, gravity-fed rainwater system, fed by the house above.
- It's private, with no possibility that the neighbors will be disturbed by it (unless they sit on my dock below and stare up at us with binoculars.) I'd be more experimental without their frowning stares.
- The land is very rocky. I'd need to either bring in new soil or try to find a way to move the soil from my existing beds.
- It's located two levels down from my house. Every trip to the garden means descending two flights of outdoor stairs. It's impossible to get a tiller down there and pretty difficult to move soil, manure, etc.
- It's slightly smaller than my existing garden.
- I'd need to build a new fence.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
-- Hot dogs from Bryan, Texas
-- Buns made in San Antonio, who knows where the flour came from
-- Grilled tomatoes and onions, from the garden
-- The first of the Mexican Sweet Green corn, from the garden, seeds from my sister
-- baked beans, cooked in my kitchen, who knows where the white beans were grown.
Don't look at the beer. I could have easily bought a local brew but forgot all about it because well, Pacifico is fabulous in the summer heat.
Happy Fourth of July, all!
Thursday, July 2, 2009
I watch amazed as the single spaghetti squash hill I planted on impulse, from some carelessly saved seed gathered from a grocery store squash, puts out dozens of fruits. The eggplant that I planted right before a gullywasher of a storm came through and washed away half the seed grows all over my garden -- in the hills where I planted them, next to the grape vines, among the corn and squash, and even unprotected in the neighboring, unfenced, unirrigated field. At least fifty funny slipper-shaped fruits are starting to darken and I hope that they'll mature before whatever is chewing so vigorously on the leaves kills the plants.
Herbs are wild and huge, corn and sweet potatoes are almost ready, calabaza and pumpkin will mature soon, chard and French sorrel never seem to stop, artichokes keep on coming, and half the red potatoes are still in the ground.
Soon it will time to start the seeds for the fall garden.
This was my first full-on spring garden out here in the hills of Central Texas and every day has been a surprise -- things that I thought would grow didn't; things that I didn't think would grow took off in some kind of vegetable explosion.
I've learned a few things, I guess, but mostly I'm amazed at how much is out of my hands, how much depends on the weather, birds, insects, raccoons, and anyone else who likes my veggies as much as I do.
Now I'm trying to find the time to preserve as much as I can, and I have even more to wonder about.
-- How long do spaghetti squash last? Will I need to parboil and freeze or can I just store them, a least for a while, like a winter squash.
-- Can you really freeze tomatoes? I keep reading that some people do, but I find it hard to believe that a lot is not lost, in terms of flavor and texture.
-- My Ball canning book says to add citric acid to tomatoes when canning. Do I really have to do this? I never have before and I know my mom never did. Have I been playing tomato-botulism-Russian-roulette all this time?
-- What's the best way to preserve eggplant?
How do you keep up with your harvests? What shortcuts have you found? I'd love to hear anything anyone knows about preserving.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
When you think about, beans really are a neutral tasting vegetable, and depend a lot on how we season them. So when I was looking for a way to make a gluten free cake, I wondered about beans as a flour substitute. Beans have a few distinct advantages over white flour:
-- they're a high protein, whole food.
-- they're high in a kind of soluble fiber that helps stabilize blood sugars. This is great for everybody but especially for diabetics and pre-diabetics.
-- in my area, they are grown locally, while wheat is not. So since I try to eat locally and in season, I'm trying to cut down, and perhaps eliminate, flour products.
-- they're great for people with gluten intolerance.
I've made this cake three times and even served it to company. It's dense, moist, and rich with no hint of "beaniness" at all. There are no weird, non-food, chemical ingredients -- all simple, whole foods. And it is extremely easy and fast to make.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To prepare the cake pan:
Grease a 9" cake pan with butter, then dust with cocoa powder. Line pan with parchment paper cut to fit bottom of pan.
To prepare the batter:
In a blender, combine 1 and 1 quarter cup rinsed black beans, 3 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla, 1/2 tsp salt, 6 tablespoons cocoa powder, 1 tsp baking powder, and 1/2 tsp baking soda. Blend until there are absolutely no lumps.
In a bowl, whip until smooth, by hand or with electric beater, 1/2 c honey and 7 tablespoons butter. Add 2 eggs and whip until smooth.
Pour butter mixture into blender with bean mixture and blend until incorporated.
At this point, the batter should look glossy and smooth and very much like any traditional chocolate cake batter.
Pour batter into pan. Thump pan on the counter several times to smooth batter and dissipate air bubbles. Bake for about 45 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for ten minutes, invert onto a plate, and then turn over again onto a cooling rack.
Allow the cake to finish cooling completely on the rack -- the longer it cools, the better the texture will be. I usually cool mine overnight.
The cake is great on its own, but I my family likes it best with honey sweetened whipped cream and a sprinkling of pecans. And, I confess, I've also iced it with traditional powdered sugar chocolate icing -- not all that healthy, I know, but company was coming and I panicked.
One more note: I've recently been seeing recipes using beans as a flour substitute all over the internet. Many, if not most, use some form of artificial sweetener instead of honey, and many also use oil instead of butter. Other use no fat at all. I suppose this is an attempt to reduce calories or carbs, but because I'm not crazy about fat free recipes, and because I'm not crazy about artificial sweetener, I haven't tried any of these versions.
**Also posted at Real Food Wednesday**
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
My San Antonio grandmother used to make a fresh batch of salsa for each meal. She'd stab a tomato onto a fork and hold it over the flames of her gas stove until the skin began blackening and curling away from the fruit. Then she mashed it in a mocajete, also called a mortar and pestle, with salt, spices, and chiles, and that would be a meal's worth of salsa.
I don't know anyone anymore who makes fresh salsa for each meal, although I'm sure there are still some who do (note to those who do: when's dinner?). But a quick roast on the grill or under the broiler adds an amazing flavor boost to canned tomatoes, sauces, and salsas.
First wash and remove stems. Then pop tomatoes on the grill or under a very hot broiler. After the tops turn crisp and brown (about 5 or six minutes), turn over and brown the other sides.
Let cool, then remove cores and most of the skin, leaving behind a bit of the browned skin. Now continue with canning or salsa/sauce making.
This batch is going into some canned salsa.
Monday, June 29, 2009
but the kind of survival mode that comes from having more than we'd imagined possible.
It's the second week of over 100 degree weather and our area keeps hitting new records. According to the weather service, this is the hottest June in recorded history in Central Texas. Last week, it was 110 at the airport, but with our pleasant lake breezes, we only made it to 108 at our house.
Couple the record breaking temps with a record breaking drought and you'd think everything on the ground would be brown and dead right now. But this is a tough little land, with a long history of extremes, and though some native plants respond to this type of weather by going dormant, many others stay bright and green, and even bloom like crazy.
But garden veggies aren't tough native plants, so everything ought to stop producing about now, give up, die on the vine. And lots of stuff is slowing down, gasping its last breath, shriveling up in the white hot intensity. But most of the garden is keeping on keeping on, surviving with the sips of water I give them, wide spacing so they can dig their roots in deep, and lots of mulch. The tomatoes look ridiculously showy, the melons are fat as babies, the squash just won't stop, the tomatillos are as big as Volkswagen buses, and the peppers couldn't be happier.
And me? Well, I'm a heat tolerant native too, but I'm barely keeping up with all the harvesting, weeding, watering, and chasing off hungry animals. Most of all, I'm barely keeping up with canning and freezing. I had not predicted that preserving would be such a time consuming part of food independence. Hours and hours of peeling, chopping, brining, pickling, freezing.
Other than that I try to spend as much time as possible submerged in water.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
We really don't live that far from civilization, but sometimes it feels like we do. We're only 3o minutes from Austin, and 10 minutes from a small lakeside town. When we first moved here, I didn't quite realize that because of the way the highways are built, the geography of our immediate area, and the way services are clustered around urban and suburban populations, we would have to learn how to be independent at times.
Our main route to civilization is a small county road that crosses several creeks which tend to flood during storms. So we can be cut off pretty easily, once for almost two weeks. And we tend to be last on our power utility's list to restore services when storms take out transformers.
Last night we had tornadoes in the area as well as hail. The big stuff missed us, but we were without power for about twelve hours. Normally, twelve hours is not a big deal at all, but my eighty year old dad was visiting, who has some mobility difficulties and I didn't want him tripping in the dark, or becoming disoriented in the middle of the night.
Of course we have flashlights and candles, but even better, we have a set of outdoor solar path lights, the kind you stab in the ground. We gathered them up and placed each one in a quart mason jar for stability. We spent a pleasant evening talking and watching the storm roll in and out, with the house lit by a soft solar powered glow. When we were ready for bed, we left a few of them around the house to help orient my dad.
Unlike candles, they pose no fire hazard and unlike flashlights, their batteries weren't going to run out. In the morning we awoke to find our electricity working again. We returned the solar lights to the path outside, to recharge and light our way wherever they are needed, inside the house or out.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Because we're crazy about fresh spring vegetables. So is this dinner healthy or greedy?
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
OK, OK, it's not a perfect system -- some garden fruits are unruly. Cherry tomatoes come after cucumbers and then kind of do what they please for the rest of the summer. Eggplants, okra, and hot peppers need super hot weather and around here, come along when it seems like nothing at all should really be thriving.
But besides idle speculations on garden fruit hierarchy, what's been on my mind ever since I started anxiously watching these babies grow is, how do I know when melons are ready to harvest?
I never had room in my city garden for such ramblers and frankly, half the time I can't even pick a ripe melon out in the grocery store produce section. So I had my sister call her friend Rhonda, a small scale sustainable gardener who knows about all things flora and fauna. Here was her advice:
1. Cantaloupe: ripe when it slips easily from the vine.
2. Watermelon: ripe when the tendrils nearest the fruit dry up, or when it has a happy yellow underbelly.
It's dark outside right now, but I feel tempted to go to the garden with my flashlight. I mean, we are talking melon.
I don't know why we didn't eat beets, especially since it turns out they're so easy to grow here. And beautiful. And delicious.
One of our favorite ways to eat them is a variation of a salad I make with potatoes, which is itself a variation of a dish we tried in Paris.
Ingredients for 2 very generous, main course portions
For the vinaigrette:
Whisk about 3 parts good olive oil to 1 part vinegar, 1 part water, and 1 part Dijon mustard
Add sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
For the salad:
Clean and chop or tear into small pieces about 2 dinner plates worth of mixed greens, some sharp and some sweet or whatever is in the garden at the moment. Basil makes a nice addition too.
For the beets:
Puncture 3-4 large beets and microwave until soft but not mushy. While they're still pretty warm, cut into thick slices and place in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon of flour (I like semolina, which gives a nice nuttiness), plus salt and pepper to taste. Quickly sear in a hot pan with a little olive oil, just until a nice, light crust is formed.
For the finished dish:
Quickly, before the beets get cold, toss lettuce, beets, and vinaigrette. Serve right away.
There's something about the contrast of the warm beets and the cold greens, the sweetness of the beets and the tang of the vinaigrette, that is just right for a summer supper.
And by the way, you may notice that the photo above is of sliced, raw beets, and in this recipe, I cook the beets whole, then slice, then sear. Well, I guess a confession is in order. I made the dish, and we ate it before I remembered to take pictures. The photo above is from several nights ago, when I was slicing beets to add to a mixed veggie roast. So now you know. We were too greedy to wait.
Also posted on Real Food Wednesday.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Now I wouldn't normally be surprised to see rabbits munching of a pepper plant. They do have a taste for strange things. When I first moved out here, I tried to plant an unfenced herb and pepper garden, but would find the plants nibbled away by the bunny population.
But what rabbits and deer don't usually do is loiter about where dogs and humans live.
I guess it's the drought.
When the first German settlers came here it took them awhile to discover what the plants and animals, the native people, and the early Mexican settlers already knew about our weather patterns.
In the first letters they sent home, they compared the sweet little hills and valleys of this area to Germany -- lush, green, plenty of water, but with mild winters and teeming wildlife.
When they tried to build a grain mill, they had a mill stone brought in from Germany and found a likely creek. The next year a flood washed the whole thing away. They rebuilt on a different creek but it went dry the following year. It took them close to ten years to find a river that stayed reasonably constant, that was big enough, that had the kind of banks and followed the kind of course that could absorb our cycles of drought and flood. The settlers were trying to find normal but we don't have that kind of normal here -- just cycles of extremes that we learn to adjust to.
Sort of. During Rural Electrification, which LBJ was prominent in bringing to this area, the Colorado river was damned to create a series of lakes, in part to mediate the effects of extreme weather patterns. I live on one of those lakes now, Lake Travis. It's the largest of these lakes and its size allows it to absorb fierce flooding. During floods, the other lakes drain into it, and the level rise twenty or more feet in a few hours. During droughts, water is released to feed other lakes, municipalities, and the rice farmers below us around Houston. Then, the lake falls to the extent that the deep, clear cove I live on goes muddy or even dry.
Living on a lake like this keeps me aware that our climate is cyclical. I knew this growing up, near farmers, and among people whose wells could go dry. I sort of forgot this from living twenty years in a city, where weather is just background, not a main event. Cites like Austin are trying to remind people about weather cycles, with water conservation programs such as rebates on rainwater collection systems. Most suburban and exurban areas seem unconcerned with weather patterns, and merrily pour water on huge St Augustine lawns. Yet climate scientists tell us that extreme weather patterns are only going to get worse.
I don't have a happy ending for this story, but I sure hope our species can avoid an unhappy ending.
By the way, the last remaining of these old German mills is still working and under the care of a gardening club not too far from me. A friend of mine lends his engineering expertise to keeping it running and every year they grind a batch of corn as a fundraiser.
Monday, June 8, 2009
That's a lot of bounty and all it takes to be able to enjoy it is a tolerance for a few difficult things. Chief among those difficult things right now are drought and deer. We're into year two of a pretty tough drought. It's supposed to end next year when El Niño resumes its regular pattern and allows some moisture to head over our way. In the meanwhile, the deer suffer incredibly. They are driven by thirst and hunger into places they'd rather not go -- like my front yard, where they chew even thorny rosebushes and agave back a few inches each visit. They are not naturally inclined to hang out in places where dogs live -- even fat, spoiled, geriatric dogs like mine -- but they do it out of desperation.
So I was pretty surprised to see this volunteer eggplant growing outside of our deer fence. Yes, outside of the fence, right next to the spot where deer like to hang out and nibble on the cucumber vines I planted inside the fence. (Look closely and you can see cucumber plant nubs on the inside of the fence.) This tough little plant is growing in the middle of foot high and foot deep native grass thatch, and has never been watered. It just wants to grow there. And so far, it appears that the deer do not want to eat it. Stay tuned.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Six catywumpus raised beds, about 20x4
A field of raised berms,
Some fruit trees
A stretch of grape vines
A stretch of cucumber hills,
A stretch of pole beans
All within a quarter acre open field, surrounded by a deer fence.
Before I moved in, this field was already occupied by a dense system of tough native grasses, fierce pig weed, several kinds of stinging nettle, cactus, needle-thorned mesquite, and other
things that hurt very much when encountered by frail human flesh. So I should keep the whole thing mowed down, at the very least.
Here's reason number one reason I don't always do that:
Wildflowers. I just can't resist them, so I let the grasses grow far too high, until I step on a mesquite thorn that goes straight through my gardening boots, and my eyes water as I plan on mowing first thing in the morning.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
After I planted them out, they adjusted like warriors, growing even stronger. Their future looked spectaular. But a freak late season hail storm took out half the plants. Still, half were saved, so I went to a ridiculously overpriced boutique-type nursery in central Austin and bought the very best starts money could buy -- exotic varieties, well cared for, slightly snooty. I planted them next to my warrior tomatoes and they seemed pretty happy to be here, and didn't really look down on their country neighbors too much.
Then another freakishly late freeze + enormous hail storm came and took out every single tomato plant. Every single one. Frozen and broken to a sad little nub, row cover hardly visible beneath pounds of icy marbles.
I was feeling more than a little broke and more than a little broken by this time -- so much money and time spent and so little control. That's just the way it is I guess. Whatever a gardener may have -- the beauty of the garden, the pleasure of delicious food, the satisfaction of co-creating with nature -- she does not ever have control. We gardeners can try to work with nature, rather than in opposition. We can observe natural patterns, and try to flow with them in as productive and painless a manner as possible. But we never have the last word. Or the last laugh.
So here's nature's big joke on me. I ended up trudging to the nearest crummy, poorly cared-for nursery in north Austin. This is one sorry nursery, with half dead, rarely watered plants, wierd, soggy, moldy outdoor carpet on the ground, and employees who never met a plant they gave a whoop about. Without much interest I picked out what I could find that was still more or less alive. They were the most common and ordinary hybrids for this area -- Celebrity, Early Girl, Better Boy, Sweet 100. Not exciting but dependable. I put them in the ground, watered, added fish emulsion, composted turkey manure, all the usual suspects, but frankly, I wasn't getting too attached to these tomatoes.
Or so I thought. The truth is, there's no way to tend and care for something like a garden without falling in love, at least not for me. And now that enough tomatoes are ripening for a salad, snacks, an occaisonal ensalada caprese, I can't help but be proud of these plain old, hard-knock tomato plants, heavy with fruit.
Friday, June 5, 2009
I've been boo-hoo-ing all summer because I can't seem to locate seeds for my favorite squash. When I was growing up we called it calabacita, which means "little squash." It's also called tatume, in grocery stores and on seed packs.
Let me sing its praises:
1) It's delicious -- sweet, tender, and meaty. And it won't go bitter in hot weather like zucchini can.
2) It's extremely drought tolerant. Last summer an unplananed event kept us away from home for 3 weeks. When we came back everything was dead except the peppers and calabacita. They were a bit shriveled, but still had fruit, and as soon as I gave them a drink of water they sprang right back, like nothing had ever happened.
3) It's extremely pest and disease resistant. In our area, the squash vine borer is endemic. Almost everyone gets hit by this creature sooner or later and once you've got it, forget about growing yellow squash. I had it in my garden in Austin and would get maybe two squash before the borer appeared. It attacks the vine at its base (by laying eggs that become huge slug-looking things) and kills the whole thing seemingly overnight. I keep hearing rumors of cures but I've never known anyone to be successful. And calabacita? The squash vine borer doesn't seem to like it.
So like I said, lots of moping around here when I couldn't fine any calabacita seed this year. Then, this volunteer appeared in the spot where I had last years compost pile. I ignored it, dragged hoses across it while I was watering other plants, stepped on it occaisonally rather than walk around it, but it persisted in living. Now I see this fruit which looks exactly like a calabacita. I don't know that it actually is my favorite squash; the vine looks different than the one I'm familiar with. But I live in hope.
Meanwhile, if you have access to calabacita seed, especially if you live in a hot, dry climate, you won't be sorry f you plant it. If you have access to the fruit itself, you won't be sorry if you eat it now.
So here's my favorite way to fix it. It's an old San Antonio, home-style, Mexican dish -- easy, quick, fresh, and comforting:
1) Take several bone-in pork chops and cut them into stir-fry size pieces. Leave the bone attached to one of the pieces.
2) Cut calabacita into inch-thick half rounds.
3) Remove corn from cob.
4)Cook pork in a large heavy skillet (a wok is great), at a very high temp (think stir fry temps).
5) When pork is cooked all the way through, add calabacita. Cook until tender. Don't stir too much. You want the outside of the squash to carmelize.
6) When the squash is cooked, add corn. Just cook it long enough to heat it. The corn should remain crisp.
7) Remove from pan, add a little water to the pan to deglaze juices, pour juices over pork, squash, and corn.
The idea is very much like a stir-fry -- food is cooked quickly at high temps and the veggies get a dark, carmelized glaze. The corn adds a sweetness and the squash should be slightly crisp and carmelized on the outside, creamy and soft on the inside. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Some people add comino but I like the pure flavors of the foods themselves.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Now that lettuces are slowing down and getting bitter, salads are no longer the main event at our house. Instead it's vegetables, cooked a thousand ways. Easiest of all is drizzling with a little olive oil, some sea salt, and chopped rosemary. Bake at around 350 until tender.
Here's the catch, though. The oven heats up the house -- precisely what we don't want to do when it's high nineties outside and humid as the tropics.
Fortunately, I have an electric roaster/steamer, bought many years ago when I was under some delusion that I'd be able to make tamales all on my own, like my mom did from time to time. One attempt at lone tamale making was all it took for me to recall that Christmas tamale making always required an army of aunts and cousins as well as my mom and grandmother. How my mom managed to whip up a batch on her own I don't know.
So I'm glad to have a use for the electric roaster, which I put out on the deck while the veggies are roasting. It's already as about as hot as the surface of the sun out there anyway.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Rumor has it that the best place to store them is under the bed and I have a vague memory that my San Antonio grandparents did exactly that. But I don't know, maybe I'm making that up. I do know Grandfather said thunder is the sound of the devil rolling watermelon under his bed.
I planted mine a little early this year, without realizing it, but so far, seem to have gotten away with it. You never know when nature will decide to be forgiving of a gardener's ignorance.
Monday, June 1, 2009
I can see why a compost heap should be in Zone 1 -- it would be so much easier to haul my compost bucket out there several times a day. But alas, I do not, so the bucket often looks like this, especially this time of year, when folks in my area are harvesting lots of something every single day.
This is a huge old soup pot that never really worked that well for soup. It's so thin that I believe it possible to burn water in the cavernous interior.
But it works just fine for the heaps of kitchen scraps I collect this time of year.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
By the way, I should say this plant used to be enormous. It's been plucked back, leaf by leaf, every evening, right at dusk.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
But seriously, I think it's easier, most of the time. And I've always considered laundry to be the most tedious of household work. Here's my previous routine:
1. Put a load of laundry in the washer.
2. Switch the load to the dryer, add another load to the washer, go do something else, oops, got distracted and now the clothes in the dryer are wrinkled.
3. Add another load to the washer. Pile wrinkled clothes on the bed, planning to figure out what to do with them later.
4. Come back in a few hours later and discover dogs have decided to nest in clean, wrinkled laundry.
5. Start over at step 1.
The problem is there are so many things to do in a single day that I can't seem to stay close enough to the washer and dryer to make the process efficient. At least one out of two loads of laundry ends up sitting in the bottom of the dryer, wrinkled as a Shar Pei.
But with line drying, here's how it goes.
1. Put a load of laundry in the washer.
2. Hang out laundry.
3. Sometime during the day, remember to pull fresh, unwrinkled laundry from the line, fold right laundry into baskets.
Of course, the other benefits to line drying are pretty obvious. It saves energy, doesn't heat up the house, clothes smell wonderful and are naturally disinfected by sunshine. Additionally, the dryer is pretty hard on fabric. All that lint you take out of the lint trap? That's your clothes, disintegrating.
We don't have an ideal set up for a clothes line. The house is situated on a steep hill, with lots of trees. If I put up a clothes line anywhere around the house, I'd have to tramp down about 100 hillside stairs every single time I wanted to use it. Or, I could hang it near the garden, which is about 200 yards from the house. Instead, Widget Man installed a retractable line on our deck, which get lots of sun and is conveniently located adjacent to our actual house. It looks kind of crazy, I guess, when I've got undies and socks drying on the back deck. But we've gotten used to looking crazy.
Friday, May 29, 2009
In the winter the leaves dropped and the gnarled vines took on a sculptural quality.
We don't have a beer garden but we do have a west-facing deck that gets incredibly hot in the summer. A few years ago we planted some grape vines on the hillside beneath the deck and added some fencing for them to climb. The grapes have finally climbed the twelve feet or so from the ground below and are reaching the deck. Besides the delight of having grapes grow right on our deck, we hope to follow the example of those early Texas settlers and take advantage of the leafy green shade in the summer, once the vines complete their journey up the cedar posts of our deck.
In the winter, when the leaves drop, we'll be happy for the extra warmth and sunshine of our west-facing deck. The gnarly vines will add a little character to an otherwise ordinary-looking deck and remind me of a sweet little old German farmer who played the tuba in an oompah band.
If I had a sunny spot in the beds in front of my house, I'd plant them there.
If I lived in a suburb with an anti-veggie garden property owners association, I'd pull all the bedding plants, all the box wood and red-tipped photinia, all the dull, uniform shrubbiness, right out of those beds, and fill them with artichoke plants. I'd fill them with huge, spikey, architectural artichokes, that need virtually nothing but an occaisonal sip of water, and once a year put on a showstopping, technicolor display.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
And before you break your back digging up the foot-deep, native grasses, enrich the soil with composted turkey manure and build eleventy million cucumber hills, try to recall why you built the fence in the first place.
And during the several hours it takes to run new irrigation tubing, to hook up said tubing to the main water manifold, to pull it all out again and re-rout it for a more efficient path, ask yourself at least once, "Now why did I build that fence?"
Because if you do not remember at least once during the several days of digging, double-digging, spreading manure, running tubing, and planting seed, why you built a deer fence in the first place, you will feel very, very foolish when all those cucumbers become a deer banquet -- when you go out to your garden every day to see the grass trampled on the outside of the fence, to see the leaves on the cucumber plants gnawed back to sad little stumps, and sometimes, to see a couple of extra-bold deer chawing away like they're at a Luby's on Sunday after church.
I'm just saying.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Well, you can get much of the benefit of roasting by a quick toast in a dry, hot pan. What I've got going here, which I'll add to a pot of beans, is a mixture of ancho and cascabel powders. Even a commercial chili con carne chili mix is improved by a quick toast in a pan.
Just start with a heavy, dry pan. When the pan is hot, add the chili powders and stir. Keep the chilis moving so they don't burn. They're ready when they've darkened nicely.