Wednesday, July 15, 2009

End of the Spring Garden Whirlwind

After a day spent in town, running errands and teaching a class, I got home with just a few hours of daylight left. It was enough to harvest a surprising number of lemon cucumbers, along with another two or three gallons of tomatoes and assorted squash as well as a few ears of corn. Poor, poor peppers are looking pretty wilted, so it won't be much of a harvest, I suspect.

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

More on Heat Resistant Armenian Cucumbers

Not only are Armenian cucumbers heat tolerant, drought resistant, tender-skinned, and non-seedy, they have the additional virtue of staying crisp for a day or so after they're sliced and drizzled with vinegrette.

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

In a Drought, Abundance

This is what my kitchen table has been looking like lately. I'm canning, freezing, and dehydrating as fast as I can.

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.
Once we lost our water for the garden, I implemented another Solomon strategy, and for this I had to gird my loins: I took a sharp hoe to every second or third plant and removed it. This instantly reduced moisture consumption while providing double the capillary moisture to the remaining plants. I chose carefully, picking plants that were the weakest, or that had almost finished making fruit. For example, most of the cucumbers were barely hanging on anyway, and probably would have produced only a few pounds of fruit before they died. But the tomatoes and tomatillos are still going strong so I'm hoping they'll make it a bit longer.

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

Heat Tolerant Cucumbers

Not too long ago, most of the cucumbers gave up the battle against the summer sun. Even the lemon cucumbers, which had continued setting fruit long after the picklers stopped, were finally ready to cry uncle.

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.

Recipe for a Zucchini Explosion: Spicy Migas with Zucchini

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
olive oil
comino (cumin)
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

Hot and Cool Summer Salsa

When my good friend came back from a trip to El Paso and brought with her some amazing homemade tamales, I knew we needed a side dish worthy of their deliciousness. Just the ticket is something light -- the best homemade tamales are filling, dense, and intense.

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

Solar Powered Outdoor Bathing and Soaking Grotto

I learned to love outdoor bathing during the year Widget Man and I spent in Mexico. For a month we lived on an isolated beach in the Yucatan, in a bamboo palapa with an outdoor shower. There was something so amazing about washing my hair every morning in the middle of a white sand beach, watching waves break on the coral reefs.

When we go camping, we try to reproduce the experience with a Sun Shower, which is just a plastic bladder with a show nozzle attached, that we hitch up to a tree limb. It holds five gallons of water and heats up amazingly fast if there's any sun around. What really amazes me is that we can both shower with a shared five gallons of water, once we learned not to dilly-dally.

We have low-flow showers in our house, but I can guarantee we use far more than two and half gallons of water, even when we try to move fast. I also love soaking in a hot tub of water at the end of the day. I hate to even think about how many gallons of water that uses.

So even though we don't live in a palapa anymore, and we don't have a white sand beach or an ocean to gaze at, we are setting up an outdoor bathing and soaking space, in the interests of water conservation and for the pure pleasure of bathing outside, in nature, under the sky.

It's solar heated and pumped, with a UV filter. If there's anything we have plenty of in Texas, it's sun, so the water gets as hot as we want it to. The barrel is from Snorkel Tubs and the solar pump and various components are from a dozen different solar power vendors.

Our plan is to add an outdoor shower, also with hot water from the solar panels, so that we can have a Japanese-style bathing and soaking grotto.

The tub is surrounded by grape vines, cedar, oaks, and a huge fig tree, on a terrace below our house, so it's completely private.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Water Rights, Water Choices

We never really intended to live out here. We bought this place as a weekend escape and somehow, fell in love.

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:

Advantages to the Existing Garden:

  • Open field with plenty of sunshine.
  • Fenced.
  • 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.

Disadvantages to the Existing Garden
  • 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.

Advantages to the New Garden Spot
  • 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.
Well? What would you do?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Local Foods and Happy Fourth of July

A mostly local foods Fourth of July at our house:
-- 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

More Questions Than Answers, or: How to Preserve a Harvest

This morning's garden haul yielded five spaghetti squash, five zucchini, five yellow squash, a few cucumbers, one watermelon, and about fifteen pounds of tomatoes. I ran out of time before I could make it to the peppers and tomatillos but the plants are hanging heavy with fruit. The yellow, zucchini, and French varietal squash are at the end of their cycles, the slicer cucumbers and cantaloupe plants have given up the ghost but the lemon cucumbers have surprised me by putting out a whole new generation of babies.

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.

For example

-- 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

Mouthwatering Black Bean Chocolate Cake. Yes, Really.

A friend of mine, who grew up in China, shudders at the way we eat beans here -- salted, with bacon, in chili con carne. In short, we eat beans as a savory dish. To her, they are a dessert. She likes them made sweet, in puddings, cakes, and as a pastry filling.

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.

Mouthwatering Black Bean Chocolate Cake

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**