Friday, April 18, 2014

The Grackle Moon

I missed the Bluebonnet Moon, so here's an update on my garden to show how it's been coming along in the two months since I last posted. A lot happens this time of year.

I just started harvesting Tall Telephone peas. They didn't do so well this year because of the strange weather and they're not in a very good spot, but I'm still getting a decent amount of peas.

I also just started harvesting fava beans and haven't eaten any yet. I planted to varieties from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to compare: Aquadulce and Broad Windsor.

They are pretty close, but I think it turns out I like Aquadulce better. It seems to have longer pods with more beans per pod, which makes shelling easier. The Broad Windsor has more pods, but several that only have 1 or 2 beans each. Aquadulce is from Spain, and Broad Windsor is from England, so I wonder if Aquadulce does better in warmer temperatures. On the other hand, I'm not sure yet if I will end up getting more beans total from BW than Aquadulce since they're still producing.

Broad Windsor is by far the most common fava variety. In many catalogs it's the only fava they have. Carol Deppe suggests that when doing a trial of a standard variety vs. a rarer variety, if they come out pretty equal, or even if the standard is only slightly better than the rare variety, you should grow the rare variety to preserve more genetic diversity. So in this case I think I will order more Aquadulce next year. There really is only a slight difference between the two varieties.

I also planted a bunch of beans around bamboo teepees in the back garden that are now sprouting: Calico Lima Beans, Chinese Red Noodle Yardlong Beans, Rattlesnake Pole Beans, and Purple Podded Pole Beans.

This is the mess where my broccoli and cauliflower plants used to be. They never got very big and ended up bolting, and are being overgrown by weeds. I'm going to till it up and plant squash there.

I have four Moon and Stars watermelon plants next to the beans now. The M&S watermelon seeds I got in a GardenWeb trade had really lousy germination last year, so I planted all the rest this year, and this is what I got. They didn't do well last year, so I don't have very high hopes for them, but we'll see.

In the front garden, the garlic is looking really good. The Elephant garlic is starting to put up scapes. I hope this means I'll get a good garlic harvest this year.

The potatoes I planted later are doing well too, while the ones I planted earlier are almost all dead. So I guess that shows that it's better to wait until at least January to plant potatoes around here. In the foreground are the multiplier leeks that are also doing well. The biggest ones are putting up scapes. Can you eat leek scapes? I don't see why not.

I need to start harvesting this Swiss Chard. This is a perpetual spinach type variety that's doing really well. I've never had luck growing spinach, so I use chard as a substitute, but I've only grown Fordhook Giant and Rhubarb chard before. This chard is specially bred to be more like spinach.

The tomatillos are mostly doing well and are flowering a lot. I lost one when I had to leave when my dad was dying and they didn't get watered enough while we were gone, and another one is hanging on but doesn't look very good. But the other ones look fine.

The tomatoes have a lot of leaf curl going on. I'm not sure what's causing that, but I think it's because of a few really cold nights we've had where temperatures got all the way down into the upper 30's. That's not enough to kill tomatoes, but they don't like it.

The eggplants have just been planted and are doing well. The peppers are not doing as well. I think starting my pepper seeds in the fall was a good idea after all. My pepper plants are still really tiny and dry out fast.

My artichoke plant has an artichoke on it! That was fast. I think I'm going to let this one bloom, since what's the point of having only one artichoke? Maybe after that it will make more buds and I can get several at a time.

Still waiting to be planted are squash, okra, cucumbers, and cantaloupes. I planted them in pots while I figured out where to put them. The okra plants are getting pretty big and need to be set out soon. I think they'll go in the front garden since they're pretty.

I also started an assortment of basils. I went ahead and planted some of all the different varieties I have, but some of them germinated much better than others. I have a lot of Ms. Burns Lemon Basil, for instance. That stuff grows like crazy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Dad: July 3, 1949 - March 27, 2014

My dad lost his battle with cancer last week, which is why I missed posting a garden update for the last full moon and the spring equinox. That was around when he took a turn for the worse and was hospitalized, and he only lived a few more days after that. I was able to travel up to the DFW area to be with him when he died, so I'm grateful for that.

While all this was happening, the irises my mother-in-law gave me about two years ago finally bloomed, and the bluebonnets are out in full force. As you can see from the picture, the irises are so heavy with flowers we had to stake them up. It seems strange for him to die in the midst of all this new spring life. The spring equinox is usually one of my favorite times of year.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Homegrown Tomato Soup

It's getting close to our average last frost date of March 5, but even though Saturday was 85 degrees, on Sunday another Arctic cold front came down and plunged us back into the mid-20's last night. I'm worried about some of my plants that were starting to grow back new leaves for spring that just got frozen out there.

But now that it's cold again, it seems like a good time to let  you know what I've been doing with all those paste tomatoes I grew last summer and put into gallon-sized freezer bags in the chest freezer. I was thinking of making pasta sauce or salsa with them, but finally decided they were too good for that. I wanted to put them in something where the tomato is the star, and not something that's a condiment on something else.

So I've been making them into tomato soup, which is very simple and easy to make and wonderful comfort food on a cold day.

Like most of my "recipes" on this blog, this is not very precise. Feel free to tweak it to your own taste.

  • Tomatoes - if you don't have homegrown saved up in the freezer, canned will work
  • Chicken broth - preferably homemade from chicken bones you've also been saving up in the freezer, or vegetable broth if you're vegetarian
  • Onion and garlic
  • Butter - a little bit to cook the onion and garlic in
  • Herbs - optional, but good if you have some, especially basil
  • Heavy cream - if you want the creamy version

Thaw the tomatoes, drain off excess water, and then puree in the blender until as smooth as you can get them.

I've found it's easier to strain the puree if you simmer it a bit first. I think it makes the flesh of the tomato come off the skins more completely or something.

Strain the puree in a food mill. I went for a long time without a food mill, but since I got one for Christmas, I've used it to make tomato soup and hot sauce, and it works great. I'm sure I'll find many more uses for it in the future.

Turn the crank back and forth until you have nothing left but skins and seeds. This is also good upper-body exercise.

Next you will need to cook some onions and/or garlic in some butter until soft and caramelized. This is optional but gives the soup a nice sweetness. You can even run the cooked onions through the blender too, so your finished soup will be perfectly smooth.

Add the strained tomato puree back to the pot and simmer to thicken the soup.

While it's simmering, you add chicken broth. I'd say about an equal amount of tomato puree and chicken broth, but it's all to taste. The broth dilutes the tomato puree a bit, because otherwise it would be like trying to eat a bowl full of marinara sauce. But taste as you go and put in however much broth you want until it tastes good to you. Also add salt, pepper, and herbs to taste.

When it's as thick as you'd like it, it's time to serve. At this point you can also freeze some. This soup is easy to make, but takes some time to simmer it down, so it might be a good idea to make an extra big batch and freeze some in serving-size containers for later.

If you want your soup creamy, add some heavy cream at the last minute when you serve it. Don't add cream if you're going to freeze the soup for later, because it will curdle the cream. Also, once I tried to use half-and-half instead, and it curdled, so now I either use heavy cream, or no dairy at all. I've found that with basil and heavy cream, it comes out very similar to the tomato basil soup served at the La Madeline chain of restaurants, but better because it's with my homegrown tomatoes.

And of course you serve it with some crusty bread, or even better, a grilled cheese like in the picture! That ought to keep you warm until it's 80 degrees again in a couple of days.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Mockingbird Moon

Last week was the Mockingbird Moon, but the blog post is a bit delayed because I was so busy working on the garden, I was too tired to blog about it!

Here's what I was working on.

We got a load of manure compost from Gardenville and topped off the raised beds in the front with it. Next I'd like to work on the pathways between. I plan on putting down landscape fabric and then cedar mulch on top of that. But right now they're ready to plant in, and that's good because I have these...

Pretty soon it will be time to start planting things like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. It hasn't frozen again since we had that little bit of snow. In fact, it's been quite warm, with some days getting into the low 80's. I put all the seedlings outside and they seem to be loving this weather.

I'm afraid the peppers didn't make it through the winter. These peppers survived last winter, but this time they don't have any signs of life, despite my efforts at covering them with a frost blanket during each freeze. I'm going to give them some more time, just in case, but if they don't sprout back after we've had a bit more warm weather like this, I'm afraid it means I won't have any three-year old pepper plants.

The artichoke seems fine, though. I seem to remember that artichokes are supposed to flower during their second year, so that means maybe this year I'll get some buds.

When we got the compost, I went ahead and covered the potatoes over with a layer of it, and they're already poking through again. The ones that I planted later and weren't hurt by the last freeze are doing better than the ones I planted earlier that got frozen back. I'll have to see how that translates into yields once they're ready to harvest.

The multiplier leeks I transplanted are recovering nicely. It looks like almost all of them made it, and they perked right up.

The garlic also looks fine. I put some compost on them too, so they can get some more nutrients from it.

The peas in the back got a little damaged by frost, which surprised me a little. However, they're growing back already, so they should be fine.

The greens in the back are not doing as well. I just haven't had luck growing greens for a long time. I don't know if they're not getting enough water or it's too cold or what. They just seem to be growing very slowly, and it won't be much longer before it's warm enough for them to start getting eaten up by bugs again.

The fava beans are the best looking things in the back garden. The warm weather has encouraged them to put out more blooms. I hope this turns into a good harvest of beans.

Next month is March and time to plant warm-weather crops! I've already got what I'm going to plant all picked out.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Riding the February Weather Rollercoaster

Groundhog Day has come and gone, and I'm further reminded of how much sense a seemingly silly holiday would make to someone who has to live off the land. Because if you do the question, "is it spring yet?" is very important. Last Thursday, it looked like this outside:

Tonight it's supposed to freeze again, while tomorrow it's supposed to be in the high 70's.

This is February in Texas, and this year seems to have been particularly bad. Last year we only had one hard freeze where it got down into the 20's. Other than that, maybe only a few times where it dipped slightly below 32.

This year we've had several hard freezes, maybe about five or six, but with warm days in the 60's or 70's sandwiched between. It's hard to get used to such extreme swings in temperature. I'm getting tired of covering plants with frost blankets for a day or two, and then needing to uncover them so they won't bake underneath them when it turns 75 and sunny.

As you can see in the fourth picture above, I forgot to re-cover the potatoes I planted in fall during the last freeze. It killed all their top growth, so I guess I'll just have to see if they can recover. At least I have a second planting of potatoes I did in January that haven't poked up out of the soil yet. Those should be fine.

I'm disappointed by that, but otherwise I must admit it's exciting in a way. We don't get white stuff on the ground that often around these parts.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Fermented Lemon Drop Hot Pepper Sauce

I finished the fermented hot sauce I started back in October in time to give a bottle away as a Yule gift and keep a bottle for myself. When I made my previous post, the peppers were still bubbling in their jars, and I was unsure of how long to wait.

It turned out that about a month after I first mixed up the chopped peppers, wine, and salt in the jar, the bubbling stopped. After waiting a couple of days to make sure it had really stopped, I decided that it must mean the peppers were done.

I drained the peppers, reserving the brine (to use to jump-start my next fermentation), and pureed them in the blender. Then I strained them with my food mill to get out the seeds and skins. I ended up with a nice smooth bright yellow pepper puree. I took a little taste, and the fruity taste of the Lemon Drop peppers had been preserved... along with a LOT of heat that hits you right afterward!

I finished off the sauce with some white wine vinegar, to give a little bit of bright acidity (and it will probably help the shelf life too), and some honey to take a little bit of the edge off. I put in about a quarter cup of vinegar and two tablespoons of honey for a little over a pint of pepper puree.
But these amounts are all "to taste" and I think they might need some tweaking. After refrigerating the sauce for a while (I'm not sure if it's acidic enough to be kept in the pantry, so I'm playing it safe), it got so thick I couldn't get it out of the bottle. It was like ketchup. I ended up adding some of the reserved brine back in, and some more vinegar until it was thin enough to pour out of the bottle, but not so thin that it pours out too fast.
By the way, I'm using reused bottles that held other sauces or vinegars. I just wash them in the dishwasher and peel the labels off. You can buy new hot sauce bottles, but this seems to work fine for the small amounts I've been making so far. Plus it's one of the three R's.
I'm pretty happy with the hot sauce I got, but I'll do some more experimenting with my next hot pepper crop. My Lemon Drop plants are covered in frost blanket, but I'm not sure if that's been enough, since we've had a colder winter this year than last year. They look pretty dead right now, but maybe they'll come back once it warms up out there.
I started some Habanero and Serrano pepper seeds to grow this year. Both should make good hot sauces.
I even found a recipe for making your own fermented Sriracha sauce that I'd like to try some time. You're supposed to use red jalapenos, which are hard to find unless you grow them yourself. I had a couple of jalapeno plants that I'm also trying to overwinter, but just like with the Lemon Drops next to them, I worry this winter was too hard for them.
I wonder if red Serranos or maybe even some other varieties would work too.
I wonder what Sriracha with Lemon Drops would be like.
A lot of fermented hot sauce recipes, including that Sriracha recipe, call for garlic. I didn't put any in my Lemon Drop sauce, but I'd like to try it in a future batch.
I hope my peppers do well in 2014 so I can try some more hot sauce variations!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Farewell, Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger is a personal hero of mine. I found out about him when I was a teenager, and always listened to him when I was feeling down. Something about his voice was so comforting.

He didn't write "The Garden Song", but I felt it was appropriate for this blog.

Out of the songs he did write, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn" seem to be the most famous and popular, but I'm also quite fond of this one...