Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fire Roasted Tomatoes

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.

Here's how:

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

Water, Weed, Harvest, Preserve

We're in survival mode here. Not the kind of survival mode that comes from not having enough,

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

How to Weather a Storm Sustainably

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

What's for Dinner?

Here's tonight's dinner. We're having a tomato, cucumber, onion, and basil salad and a zucchini frittata. We'll use all of those zucchini. All six of them. And we'll use all the tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers. And we'll eat all of it. Just the two of us.

Because we're crazy about fresh spring vegetables. So is this dinner healthy or greedy?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When to Harvest Melons

Am I wrong or do garden fruits become ready for harvest according to the size of the fruits? Here's the order I noted: cucumbers, round French squash, Roma and Italian paste tomatoes, large slicer tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini. And finally.....

The Queen and King of all Garden Fruit: Cantaloupe and Watermelon!

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:

How To Know When Melons Are Ripe

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.

Hot Pink Salad

For some reason, no one I knew ate beets when I was growing up. I think the first time I saw a beet was a pickled version at a Wendy's salad bar during the happily short-lived salad bar craze of the 80's. (Mmm...wilted lettuce and mayonnaise salad.)

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

Our Kind of Normal

The plant you're seeing is a chile pequine. It grows wild around here, although this is one I planted in a xeriscape garden about ten yards from my house. I love it because it's pretty, it's perenial, the little bitty chiles are tasty, though hot, and it needs absolutely no care or water. Last night I noticed three different cottontail rabbits loving it too, munching away in a nervous bunny frenzy. A few hours later I saw a deer doing the same. This morning one of my dogs started barking madly and I saw a bunny fleeing for its life.

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

A Drought and Deer Proof Vegetable? Maybe.

Where I live, the small, green, hilly bit of land on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, right in the middle of the state, is an extremely pleasant place in so many ways. We have a long, long growing season that stretches almost the entire year. We have mild winters and a gorgeous spring and fall. (I won't discuss the months of July and August because I'm trying to be complimentary.) We have lakes and rivers and creeks.

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 NiƱo 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

Do Sentimental Gardeners Finish Last?

Garden Inventory
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

The Tomatoes Your Garden Chooses

This year I grew tomatoes from seed. Not just any seed, but some very fine and exotic heirloom varieties. I lavished them with attention, time, perfect soil, heat, and light. They were, I believe the very best tomato starts ever grown anytime, anywhere, in all of tomato history. They had stout bodies, emerald green leaves, juicy, strong roots. They were the Platonic idea of noble tomatoe-ness. They shone with pure tomato essence.

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

Recipe for a Garden Surpise

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

Easy Roasted Veggies

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.

The Quatrosquash

I don't know what to call this mutant yellow squash. Weird? Disturbing? Yummy?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Watermelons Make Me Weep

Watermelon is one of those sentimental fruits for me. My dad used to bring them home as Sunday treats. Mom cut them up just like my grandfather taught her -- a thick layer of newspaper on the kitchen table to absorb the juices, a huge knife, half-moon slices, heavy, heart-red, and sweet as summer.

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

Composting Bucket for a Bad Permaculturist

Permaculture people are familiar with the idea of zones used to conceptually divide a human habitat. The zone closest to where you live is 1, and it's where you should keep things like the compost heap for kitchen scraps. For a million reasons, I haven't figured out how to keep a compost pile in Zone 1. Mine is closer to Zone 3, where my garden is, about 200 yards from my house.

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.