Saturday, June 21, 2008

Teamwork (You Scratch My Back, I'll Give You Sorbet)

For the first few days of summer every year, I stall. For some reason, the weeks and weeks of freedom that lay in front of me keep me from doing all the things that I want to do. So much to do: where should I start?

Thank goodness my birthday rolls around soon after school ends each year and shakes me out of my lethargy. Last year, my birthday very effectively motivated me; ECG and I got engaged that day. Doing so created a whole list of things we needed to complete in the upcoming months. This year though, I'm not planning for a wedding. Instead, I have a whole marriage ahead of me, and that means ECG and I have a long list of items to complete together. Some of them are set for an undetermined future: visiting his extended family in Argentina, completing an long-term volunteering assignment together, raising chickens. Some of the items are for our more immediate future: finding homes for all that junk we keep behind the carved wood screen, organizing all of our financial information into Quicken, and going to Portugal. Early next month, ECG has a conference in Lisbon, and I get to tag along. Lucky for me, international conferences appear to be one of the perks of being married to an incredibly talented scientist.

I don't know if it is because the birthday signifies a shortening life (and thereby less time to do all that I want to do—geez, that is depressing), or simply because it is usually such a celebratory time that any summer doldrums disappear (I like that possibility better), but my birthday always snaps me into active mode. And this year, I've made a list of goals I want to achieve this summer. Here are a few with which I need your help.

In the garden:
  • I want to figure out the mysteries of peppers. Last year, the few sweet peppers I had were sunburned and unhappy, and the hot peppers were productive, but not very hot. This year, I've started by taking more control over the plants and growing them from seed. (Several varieties never germinated for me, even though I was patient. I'll try different seed sources next year for the varieties that never sprouted.) For sweet peppers, I have Red Ruffled, Buran, and Bull Nose. So far, Red Ruffled is leading the group by far and is lushly full and beginning to flower. The other varieties look healthy but still small. In the hot pepper department, I have Fish Pepper, Bonnie's Hot, and a few slow-growing Chapeu de Frade seedlings. I expect the Chapeu de Frade to be slow, and it should be a perennial here in Southern California, so if I don't get fruit from it this year, that is okay. However, I really want healthy crops from my other plants. All my peppers are in full sun, receive a good soaking from the soaker hose once a week, and are mulched with compost to fertilize and retain water in the soil. What suggestions do you all have for big, flavorful pepper crops?
  • Last summer was the summer where I first delved into the splendor of melons (an adventure which I am continuing this summer, by the way), but this summer I'm growing winter squash for the first time. I have one hill of maxima, Uncle David's Dakota Dessert, and one of moschata, good old Waltham Butternut, and I would love your input. Once again, the plants are in full sun and are mulched with compost. I'm training the vines up towers I built from concrete reinforcement wire. Last year, I battled powdery mildew with my melon vines. I've read that a simple spray made from diluted milk works wonders preventing powdery mildew. Has anyone tried that? Does anyone have any other suggestions to combat powdery mildew or increase production on the squash vines? Keep in mind that I garden organically. Here's the latest picture of my mascot:

In the kitchen:
  • One of my favorite condiments in the world is chili-garlic paste, the salty, garlicky, spicy goodness that is usually fire-engine red with ample chunks of ivory garlic. This condiment often appears with Korean and Chinese food, and frequently with Christina food. As I'm planning on the bountiful crop of hot peppers, I really want to learn to make this myself, especially since every brand that I find in the stores has all sorts of stabilizers and other ingredients that I don't recognize as food. If you know a good recipe for chili-garlic paste, please direct me towards it. I will be eternally grateful. Just imagine, the recipe that you lead me towards will have a permanent place in my kitchen. Wouldn't that make you feel great?
  • Although I have tried on several occasions, I have not yet defeated the pasta monster. I have the pasta maker, I have the recipes from the experts, but I do not yet have the "feel" or instinct for the texture and moisture levels I need to be aiming for. This summer, I will conquer homemade pasta (and twirl it with the goodies from the plot.) Does anyone have any suggestions to help me on the way towards silken sheets of pasta perfection?
In return for any and all help you send my way, please take this recipe, a recipe that has proven to be a lifesaver to ECG and me in this very hot week. Seriously, this is the antidote to humidity, the cure to exhaustion, and the best salve for no air-conditioning. It may seem simple, but in this case, simple is exactly what works best. If you have an uncle with plenty of grapefruit to spare (or a neighbor, or a friend, or even some person you've never met but who has a box of grapefruit out in front of his yard that says "FREE GRAPEFRUIT," as I saw today) it is a moral imperative for you to make this sorbet. For the rest of you all, it is optional, but highly recommended.

Grapefruit Sorbet
You will need:
3 cups freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (strain to remove the seeds but try to leave some pulp, as it add an interesting, explosive texture in your mouth as the frozen cells explode under your teeth)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon limoncello (tiny amounts of booze help keep sorbets from freezing as rock-hard)

To make the sorbet:
Chill the juice. Mix the sugar and water together in a saucepan and heat on medium high, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted completely into the water. Remove the pot from heat and let it come to room temperature.

Once the sugar syrup has cooled to room temperature, combine it with the chilled juice. Stir in the tablespoon of limoncello. Pour the mixture into a lidded container and let it chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Follow the directions of your ice cream maker to complete the sorbet.

You are welcome.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

J-U-N-E spells Relief

It was a busy spring semester: prepping kids for the AP exam, getting married, catching up after honeymooning. It was a long last month of school: getting the seniors to raise their grades in order to graduate, contacting lots of parents of kids who weren't making the grade, and many, many meetings. It was a hard last week: finishing up grades and all the tying-up-loose-ends of the schoolyear, a long day ending in graduation, and clearing out the entire classroom.

But now, all of that is done. Whew.

Every year, I finish the year running primarily on caffeine and the fear of not completing everything I need to complete by the time grades are due. It seems like the year starts slowly rolling along, a gradual movement towards learning and skill growth, but by the end, it careens madly and I can barely keep the paperwork, meetings, and grading in check. But, somehow I do, and I survive each year. Mid-June rolls around, the seniors graduate, and everything stops.

Except this year, the seniors weren't the only ones to graduate. This week, two friends graduated from very different, but both very vigorous masters programs. So Friday night, the night I usually cry with the relief of everything finally being done, E celebrated her graduation with a bowling party. The next day, I attended RWWs graduation during the day and his early-evening-into-the-early-morning barbecue.

Saturday night was a warm night, and the Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia) heralded RWWs graduation with its sweet melody of perfume.

Behind the Angel's Trumpet, we sat around a picnic table, and ate the marinated lamb skewers and grilled vegetables that RWW had prepared. We topped everything with cucumbers, garlic, tomatoes, and yogurt all mixed together with a swirl of olive oil and sea salt. We smeared hummus on fresh pita, and we drank wine. Everything was wonderful, but what was beyond wonderful, beyond the heady sweetness of the Brugmansia and the buzz of the good wine, but just shy of the joy of finally completing school (for the summer for me, perhaps forever for RWW), were the chickpeas and chard.

Did I just say chickpeas? And chard? Oh yes, I certainly did. RWW's chickpeas and chard are amazing, made from the last of the chard from his garden and alliums collected from his own yard; he's taken this simple recipe and made it simpler, more his own.

Roasted Chickpeas and Chard
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Almost meaty in its savory combination of chewy and tender, this is a side-dish (or main-dish, if you prefer) for people, like the graduates you know, who have earned a very good meal. The addition of fennel seed adds an essential sweetness and cuts the richness of the olive-oil-doused, earthy greens and beans.

For the beans:
2 15.5 ounce cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed OR 3 cups of garbanzo beans you've cooked yourself
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2 large shallots
3 bay leaves, preferably fresh (or 1 1/2 torn California bay leaves collected from a local canyon)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the chard:
2 bunches Swiss chard, washed well and still wet, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the side dish:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the first five ingredients in a 8x8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with the olive oil. Roast the mixture until the garlic is tender, about 45 minutes.

Just before the beans finish up, begin the chard half of the dish. In a large dutch oven or other large pot, dump the damp Swiss chard. Cover the pot and cook on medium high until the chard is tender, about 10 minutes. (You should have enough residual water left on the leaves to cook them, but if you're in doubt, you may want to add a splash of water to prevent scorching. You need just enough to steam the greens, but you don't want it to be at all soupy.)

When the garbanzos are finished, drain the beans, reserving the oil. Dump the beans into the large pot where you cooked the chard. Drizzle a couple tablespoons of the reserved oil into the pot as well, and toss everything together until the mixture is evenly combined. Taste the mixture for salt, pepper, and oil—add as much of any of these ingredients as taste buds demand. Serve the mixture hot or at room temperature, whatever the weather requires.

Eat this on a warm night when you have nothing better to do than to enjoy the company of friends and family.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Say Hello to My Little Friends

She had a huge, distended belly and a curious, pinched face. Every move I made, she followed with those huge eyes of hers. I have to admit, I was very happy to have her: she took care of the bad guys and provided constant entertainment, but I never, ever wanted to get in a scuffle with her.

She was the 5" long praying mantis who lived, last summer, in one of my Japanese eggplants. I loved her and she loved eating bugs (all kinds of bugs, but I always hoped she caught more bad ones than good ones), so we had a happy relationship. When I pulled all the plants out of the bed in order to expand it, I left the eggplant in place as long as I could. And, when it came time to till the bed, my friends and I carefully removed the eggplant and put it in a pot away from the mayhem of the plot-remodel. So badly I wanted her to lay eggs. She was so fierce and such a loyal helper, I hoped for her descendants to grace my future. Always curious about her state of being, I checked the eggplant regularly, and she stayed there, usually still, sometimes hunting. She stayed until the landlord's gardeners came. In the morning before their arrival, she was there; in the afternoon, she wasn't. After that, I never saw her again.

I don't know if this is really her offspring or not, but I imagine that the eggsack from which this little one arrived was hers. I'd like to picture that, when the gardeners came that day, she made her last flight up into the black walnut tree, a tree that in every other circumstance has caused me no end of frustration, but in this case provided a home for the eggsack she laid. I imagine that this spring the eggs in the sack hatched, and little praying mantises ran everywhere, eating each other (if they could catch one another) and whatever other living creature they could catch small enough for their little jaws. As the winds came, they fell out of the tree, scattering to all corners of the yard and garden. And today, as I gathered my gear together to leave the garden, this one—no larger than a dime—suddenly fell from above and onto my camera case. Carefully, carefully, I carried him/her/it to the garden and sat the case next to my withering dry beans, where he/she/it made a surprisingly large leap from the case to the vine. The mantis paused there for a moment, looking at me just the way its mother did, and let me take a picture of it before it skittered off and into the green.

I look forward to the day this little critter is as big as the katydids that are already sizable and taking up residence in my oregano.

Next to the oregano is my sprawly mass of cilantro. One of the best decisions I made this spring was to let my cilantro bolt and bloom like mad. The graceful Queen Anne's lace-ish flowers attract many pollinators of all sorts. As well, they have encouraged ladybugs, more than I've ever seen in the yard before, to join the Forces of Good in the plot. They've been making sweet-ladybug-love all over the plants too, "working" to ensure my insect army's growth. The blooming cilantro also seems to be a good friend to moths and butterflies.

This cilantro and especially the neighbor's ferny-leafed lavender have been attracting hummingbirds, so the quiet peace of the garden is often punctuated by the zip of hummingbird wings. One day, I saw a hummingbird drink from the lavender then perch on a tomato cage, a tiny lavender blossom caught around its beak. The hummingbird repeatedly extended its very long tongue to remove the blossom from its beak, but removing the flower proved more difficult than the bird expected. Over and over, out came the spindly extension-tongue. I couldn't help but laugh; the bird seemed so human as it shook its head and stuck its tongue out, exasperated. Finally the blossom fell off and the bird zagged its circuitous route away.

I don't know where our hummingbirds' nests are, but this weekend, at my uncle's new home, in his yard full of fruit trees, grape vines, tomatoes and cantaloupes, I had the opportunity to peek inside another hummingbird's nest. It was the first time I was able to see, incredibly intimately, the handiwork of the miniature beasts.

I wore my "Garden Hoe" t-shirt to my uncle's barbecue. This t-shirt elicits two distinct responses: delighted laughs or downturned corners of the mouth. Sitting on the couch next to a second-cousin-fourteen-times-removed-or-so, a woman who grew up with my mother and one who I hadn't seen since I was an infant, I didn't know what type of reaction I would receive. But she looked at me and laughed. She told me I couldn't help it, that the gardening trait ran so deep in my genetic heritage I couldn't escape it.

I know it sounds Pollyanna of me; it sounds cheesy and overly in-love-with-everything, but I can't help it. Of this green world, I just can't get enough.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Garlicky Beany Goodness

I'm unreasonably proud of these little golden buggers. They're my first few pods of Indian Woman Yellow beans, dried on the vine, and just harvested today. I'll keep these first beans from my shrubby vines to use for seed next year since they are the fruit of flowers that bloomed before any of my other beans. They should be safe from genetic mixing. So what is here in the picture (along with a couple handfuls more of early-harvested beans) will end up growing later in my garden, but most of the rest of dry beans will end up on the stove and on my dinner table.

And many of the dried beans will end up simmering away with plenty of garlic.

I've harvested and cured most of the garlic from my garden plot. I have a lot to say about the different varieties I tried growing, but I'll save that for later. Right now, I just want to dream about the different ways garlic will raise its fragrant head throughout my culinary future.

Smoky Chili
As readers can probably detect by what I'm growing this year, I really like beans. I like them green, pickled, stewed, refried, and just about every way I've ever encountered them. This recipe, however, really plays up to the strength of small beans, like pinquitos (and hopefully Indian Woman Yellow, although I don't know that yet for sure). The size and texture of small beans makes a good counterpoint to the chew and bite of meat, if you choose to make this recipe with meat. While meat may be optional in this recipe, chipotle chile and plenty of garlic are not. The smoky heat of the chipotle brings out the depth of good garlic, and if you choose to use a dark stout for the bean broth, the bittersweet chocolate flavors of the beer make a gorgeous frame for the toothsome beans.

You will need:
1 pound dried pinquito or other small dried bean locally available (rinsed, picked over, and soaked in clean water over night)
1 tablespoon bacon fat or olive oil
1 large red onion, coarsely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground chile molido
1 teaspoon ground chipotle
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups canned tomatoes with their juice
1 cup very dark beer, preferably stout
2 large, leafy stems of oregano
1 pound ground beef (optional, this is very good without meat as well)
salt to taste

If you are making this with meat, you will need two large, heavy pots to make this chili; otherwise, you only need one dutch oven style pot.

To make the chili:
Heat the fat or oil in one of the large pots and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are browned around the edges. Add the garlic and chili powders, stirring until fragrant and the spices are beginning to toast, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and beer immediately. Bring the liquids to a boil.

Add the drained beans to the boiling liquids and stir to mix. Toss the stems of oregano into the pot, and add enough water to the bean mixture to just cover the beans. Bring the mixture to a boil again, then turn down the heat to medium-low, and cover the pot. In order to keep the mixture from drying out and scorching the chili, check occasionally and add water as necessary. Cook for one hour (or possibly longer), until the beans are almost tender.* Keep the beans on a slow simmer.

In the other pot, if you are adding meat, brown the ground beef. Once the meat is browned, add a large ladle-ful of liquid from the bean pot to the meat pot. Swirl the liquid around the meat pot, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom and sides. Pour the meat and liquids from the meat pot into the bean pot, making sure that you have all the good browned bits, and stir all the ingredients together in the bean pot. Cook on low for about 15 minutes, or until the beans are completely tender and the flavors have melded. Add salt to taste; in my experience, the mixture needs about 1 teaspoon of salt.

If you like the traditional fixings, serve with grated cheddar cheese, chopped cilantro, salsa and/or diced avocado, and sour cream. If you're a simplist, serve the chili alone. Either way, it is excellent.

This chili generously warms up the bellies of four bean-loving folks.

*More recently dried beans cook more quickly. Beans often take hours to cook because they've been sitting so long in warehouses or supermarket shelves. In order to get the freshest, best beans, try looking for beans at your farmers' market or other source of locally-grown food. These vendors will be likely to have more recently-harvested beans. At the Pasadena farmers' market, we have several types of wonderful beans available, and the vendors happily provide all sorts of cooking ideas.