Thursday, July 28, 2011

...the spice of life

Variety has been a luxury I have been blessed with for the majority of my culinary life. That which I could dream of having I have been able to access. That which I could not even think of dreaming of has been available for me to experience. Like a kid in the candy store my eyes go wide and glaze over when I see a farmer’s market filled with fruits and vegetables I have yet to access. I proceed to buy everything and anything I have never had before – why choice the beefsteak tomato when a plethora of heirloom varieties are being produced.

If I need mint and there is lemon balm or chocolate mint my choice is clear, both.

Adding an array of foods and textures into your diet is the best way to have fun in the kitchen. I also become obsessive with a genre of foods and try to find very possible incarnation Mother Nature have created. Why eat only smooth, shinny, skinned zucchini when there are bumpy yellow, crooked necked, scalloped, ribbed all with slightly different mouth feels and unique moments in the kitchen.

I am passionate about spicy foods, and chili peppers to be more exact. This year I have jalapeno, habanero, scotch bonnet and banana yellow in the garden. Along with the gentle poblano and sweet bell – life requires balance. Come next year I will definitely up the ante, now that I know their behaviors a bit better and will have to add Thai, cascabel, shishito and pardon to name a few. Then there are chocolate habanero, Anaheim, Hawaiian, and paprika that call to me. Perhaps I have a chili farm in my future, or I just need to establish a chili only plot in the yard. For now, I am happy and excited with the progress of the six different peppers that are well entrenched this year.

Just be warned once they start going you will be on fire be prepared to squirrel some away for when the cool of the autumn solstice curtails their output.

Jalapeno Sauce – yields approx 2 quarts
1-cup cider vinegar
1-head garlic – peeled and roughly chopped
21-jalapeno – roughly chopped
2-green bell peppers – seeds discarded; then roughly chopped
1/2-cup Texas tarragon
1/2-cup packed basil leaves
1/4-cup oregano leaves
1/4-cup kosher salt

Place the vinegar, garlic, jalapeno and bell peppers in a blender, and process until smooth. Then add in the Texas tarragon, bail, oregano and salt. Continue to blend until smooth and thoroughly combined.

Store in a sterilized glass jar in the refrigerator for a minimum of one month before using.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The heat is on

As much of the nation sweats under warming of summer’s down comforter dungarees adhere to the legs of its wearer; perspiration runs from sideburns moistening our collars; children holler as they dash in and out of oscillating sprinkler heads thrilled by the relief. Ah, the hallmarks of the dog days of summer. The birds that have regularly visited the feeder at all hours of the day – from tweeting first light to last – have concentrated their skittish visits to the fringe hours.

I have even accepted the switching on of the air conditioner by mid-afternoon, which I otherwise try to keep off because in reality I need a de-humidifier because I only complain about the cold.

Not all things are suffering from the wilting exposure rather they are thriving and reveling in this intensity. My jalapeno do not seem to be happier, sending out flowers and the fruits that have spent time dangling from their branches seem grow in front of my eyes. For me the glee is trapped within – with their increasing potency. A few weeks ago they were more like bonsai bell peppers but as of today, I can feel the burn. Not everything that is responding to is matching its heat intensity. Mother Nature is also offering moments that are prefect coolants. There are watermelons galore swelling and crowding out anything that is in its way. Clearly, the hotter and sunny it is the more watermelon take-up residence in the garden. The basil is growing tall and bushy, and is requiring a daily deadheading in order not to start seed collecting too early. I have had to take to offering gifts if basil bouquets to anyone who shows to least amount of interest. I have learned a thing or two about cucumbers as well this year. Never be taken in by its innocence as a seedling. It trellises out and about bowling over anything in it way creating a carpet of broad pointed leaves hiding quickly enlarging fruits. And, prolific is an understatement for my batch.

Given me about two good rains a week to help replenish the well, otherwise let it shine.

Cucumber Granita – yields approx. 1-1/2 quarts
3-pound cucumber – peeled and seeds discarded
1-cup raw, organic sugar
1/4-cup fresh lemon juice
1/4-cup lemon balm leaves

Roughly chop the cucumbers.

In a 1-quart saucepan place the cucumbers, sugar and one-cup of water,
and bring to the boil. Shut off the heat and allow it to cool.

Place the cucumber mixture, lemon juice and lemon balm into a blender. Process until completely smooth.
Transfer the cucumber mixture into a 9x9 pyrex pan and place in the freezer. After about 2 hours remove from the freezer and scrape the mixture with a fork, loosening the frozen edges and mixing with the more liquid center.
Continue the process over an 8 hour period.
Serve scraping the granita into individual glasses.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Another Garden Report

I am three months into this journey that is simply a backyard garden for most. For me, it has turned into an obsession. After thirty years of living on concrete set turf the wonder of watching a seed take flight has been awe inspiring, and at times disappointing. Overall, it has been a lesson in nature and a humbling acquiesce to my position on this earth, and what I can and cannot control. Thunderous storms with whipping winds have rendered me helpless as I watched the nascent corn and sunflower tenuously heave and release – producing cries of horror from me and a parental need to shelter and protect. I mounded loam to re-enforce their anchorage to Mother Earth and prayed I did my best to ground them through the turbulence.
I could not be prouder of their determination and fortitude for they now tower over the garden resplendent in their maturity. The eggplant has struggled, so valiant in its commitment to get a foothold in this garden, perhaps due to the dense soil or a nitrogen deficiency of our plot, or even possibly the 12-hours of exposure it endures. After one burst of production last month, and the harvesting of a single Japanese eggplant I can count on at least five more in the coming days, and twice that in blooming stages.

The peppers from the sweet to mild to the incendiary are dangling jewels still blushed verdant but if we choose will be allowed to redden. Cabbage, cucumber, lemon grass, Mexican Mint, pineapple sage and basil are virtually carefree growths. I am most amazed how three miniscule cucumber seedlings have taken over and threaten to mow oever anything and everything in its way – I am continually training the vines around other plantings, though I will soon be at a loss as to where to send them.

As the season evolves so does my dishes as does my admiration. While I am living in my garden in the moment embracing the unfolding daily joy, I am also looking ahead. Jars of pickled green tomatoes, cucumbers and jalapenos support the back wall of the refrigerator. Lavender buds
and Mexican Mint blooms desiccate in sugar and salt. Bottles of wine, packed with woody herb stems, quietly convert to vinegar. Soon freezer bags with cut okra, niblets of corn and perfectly ripe tomatoes will take up winter residence.

Never to forget this summer of ’11 and oh, how I cannot wait to gain on the knowledge garnered today for tomorrow’s garden.

Herbed Vinegar - yields approx. 1-liter

leaves and stems of sage, thyme, oregano
2-750 ml red wine
1/2-cup raw apple cider vinegar

Stuff the herbs into a clean glass jar that is at least 3-quarts large. Pour over the wine and vinegar and secure a piece of cloth of the mouth of the jar.

Let the vinegar sit in a cool, not sunny spot for 3 months. Strain the vinegar and store in a clear jar with a tight fitting lid.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer's Toying

Amazing how a quick a person can get spoiled in just the mere clicking of a month. I am up in New York bopping around, and course, visiting the farmer’s market. I was hoping to catch the tail end of the cherry harvest but alas, this year it was a brief and underwhelming season as reported to me by one of my favorite sources for the first of summer’s stone fruits. Sad for the denizens of the northeast who usually get some intense, juicy cherries, however, I was secretly pleased because I missed nothing.

Quickly on the heels of cherries along will come peaches and plums, and then finally, the last member of the stone fruits -- apricots. In the market here I have been stuffing my face with sugar and shiro plums but I had to pass on the peaches. Having been in the south for much of the summer I have been eating redolent, luscious icons of summer for a while now, and these Yankee -raised cousins are shy and demure – nothing I want in a peach. When I was in Provence, and strolled through the village markets, the peaches sent out an aromatic siren’s call tempting all to its readiness. That trip set a standard that I refuse to compromise. If my eyes were not wandering from table to table surveying the haul of the week, I would have never known the peach had arrived back here in the canyons of New York. Silence is not something I expect or desire in this fruit. I’d say these northern family members need a few more weeks of heat, sun and branch time before this sensitive nose may catch a whiff of its vitality.

Peach-Lavender Cake – yields 9” cake
1-pound ripe peaches – cut into 1/2” slices
1-1/2 cups vanilla low-fat yogurt
1/4-pound unsalted butter – melted
1-teapoon vanilla extract
1/2-cup sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons lavender buds
2-cups all-purpose flour
1/2-teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8-teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.

Lightly butter the 9-inch cake pan, and distribute the sliced peaches on the bottom.

With a whisk, beat together the yogurt, eggs, butter,
vanilla,sugar and vanilla to thoroughly mix.

Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

Using a spatula mix the flour into the yogurt mixture to just combined. Pour the batter over the peaches and bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

Let the cake cool completely, and then turn it out with the peaches on top.

Friday, July 8, 2011

OOOppps....Dang it!

So, I took the plunge and snipped the watermelon that has been tormenting for the past three weeks free. I weighed it on the bathroom scale and it came in at exactly 5-pounds even. Sounds good so far – then I cut it open and it was white. Not yellow, orange or red! There was a suspicion of blush around a seed pocket. Thinking maybe it was an albino mutation I was sure I planted a crimson meat sugar baby variety – the size, shape and weight confirmed my expectations for the variety. Then with a bite it clear I jumped the gun it was not sweet. It was under-ripe. I need to find out how judge the ripeness of the fruit for we have others in various states of development. I thought I know how to determine a watermelon’s readiness but clearly I don’t.

It was hollow to the knock, had a good heft and a well formed spot for where it sat on the ground. I am now so curious to find out how long I need to let these thirst-quencher sit and wait.

Life is about making lemonade so all for me was not lost. The watermelon was not inedible just disappointing. I could not waste this long awaited harvest I pureed the prematurely gift from the garden along with lemon cucumbers, basil and lemon verbena. A bit of limejuice and a hint of sugar and we sipped on a rather refreshing afternoon tonic – and one I hope never to make again. I much would prefer to have engaged in a seed-spitting contest.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Weekly Report

It has been a sad week for me, as I had to put down two plants. I am so attached to each and every vining, flowering, fruit-offering organism out there. I had to admit that it was time to take down the sweet peas for they never really took. I got maybe a total of 10 pods off the five seedlings that all season struggled to survive – while those peas were delicious they will go down as the most expense peas I have ever eaten. I bought the plant in New York’s farmer’s market, an heirloom variety that should have done well in the heat. The truth is they went in too late here, and next year I will plant the peas in late March in order for them to establish themselves and hopefully shoot, flower and pod. The only upside was that the rabbits and deer got not even a nibble off the plant. The harder but necessary removal from the garden was the cauliflower -- so sad, so sad. They ended up infested with black little critters that were have a feast on their leaves, turning their nascent flower heads speckled with dark spots and leaving their leaves looking like laces dollies. However, the lavender spray is successful with the aphids that from time to time I find sucking the life from the tomato plants – I have been calling on all ladybugs
to come and assist me. It did not matter have much of my lavender concoction I dosed on them I was going to win this one. It was obvious, even to me, left unchecked that the cauliflower was days from being but a stalk, and I did not want to run the risk of them moving on to the adjacent cabbage or okra. I believe I lost this battle to the emerging Japanese beetle, which has become this month’s nemesis.

Don’t despair for me for it has not been a week of only horticultural woes. In general the ground that I hoped to be able to collect from has been providing generously: more zucchinis then one consume on any given day; copious engorgement of cucumbers, both the more common elongated ones as well the bulbous lemon. Starting life out in the garden as a puny, two-leaf hope the pineapple sage is flourishing and scenting my meals. Jalapenos, poblanos and bell peppers hang heavily on branches. Almost all the corn stalks now have the tassels from cobs
fluttering in the afternoon breeze. That cabbage head that is vying for a spot at the county fair.

And, I am going to beg we harvest that
watermelon this weekend.

The earth is kind and generous, and I am rendered more peaceful as a witness and custodian of some of her miracles.

Latin White Cabbage Slaw
1 head white cabbage
5 scallions – thinly sliced
2 tablespoons oregano leaves - chopped
4 clove garlic – thinly sliced
2 poblano chilies – sliced julienne
1 jalapeno – sliced julienne
1 serrano – sliced julienne
1 white onion – thinly sliced
1 medium carrot – peeled, and sliced julienne
1/2-cup cider vinegar
1/4-cup olive oil
2-teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cut the cabbage in quarters, and cut out the tough core. Then slice the cabbage very thinly. And place in a large, clean work bowl with the scallions and oregano.

In a 2-1/2 quart saucepan place the garlic, chilies, onion, carrot and cider vinegar. Bring to the boil, and then remove from the heat and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Then pour the vinegar mixture over the cabbage. Toss the cabbage along with the oil, salt and pepper. Correct seasoning. Chill.