Friday, July 31, 2009

Wes Not Wes

Summer days mean lots of not much. Lots of hiking, reading, thinking, running, gardening, canning, repairing, and lots and lots of puttering. It's great.

Here are a few of the recent not muches:

1) The birds are growing. Biggie really looks like a hen now, and Smalls isn't far behind. Harriet, on the other hand, looks like nothing but herself.

Here's Smalls checking out the camera. If I didn't move away quickly, she would have pecked at me. She's not too friendly with people, but she and Biggie are in love with each other.


Check out the size differential between Biggie and Harriet.


2) Cannas. Desert Birds of Paradise. Flowers still happen in the heat.



3) I run. When I can, I run in funny shirts. It makes me feel faster.


4) Plants are growing. My banana trees stretch and the figs begin to wink.



5) And, the tomatoes throw some surprises at me. This spring, excited by the prospect of meaty red hearts, and plenty of them, I grew Wes from seed I acquired in a trade. The seedlings sprung up happily and I planted two of them in my tomato bed. They grew heartily and begin to set fruit, fruit which strangely enough was not heart shaped. And, when they ripened, they weren't red.


They're not Wes, but what are they? I have no clue. Each fruit is huge, very irregularly shaped, and very meaty. They contain very few seeds and are quite dense. They're not subacid, like many yellows, but have a full tomato flavor, though not too sweet. They're great canners, as well as good in salads and sandwiches.


Like I said, very irregularly shaped.


If you know what this Not Wes is, drop me a line.

Right now, I've gotta run. I've got to get back to doing not much.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tomato Red

I have lots of tomato plants in various stages of setting and giving fruit. Right now, four varieties are giving me bucketloads.

1) Japanese Black Trifele


This guy sets fruit as if his life is on the line. The fruit hangs in clumps, larger to smaller, each pear-shaped and beautiful. The fruit have the characteristic rich-salty-smoky-sweet flavor of the best black tomatoes, and they have few flaws other than green shoulders. Great slicers, I think they'll can pretty well too.

2) Teton de Venus


I couldn't pass up a tomato named Venus Titty. C'mon. Could you? But, even more than it's evocative name, this plant spits out tons of very flavorful, medium sized tomatoes that are short on seeds and heavy on beauty. It's an oxheart variety, and I do love my oxhearts because they're so multipurpose. Great for eating fresh. Great for sauces and canning.

3) Eva's Purple Ball


Once again, great name, but in this case, the only thing true about the name is the ball part. They're not purple, but instead a clear pinkish, almost translucent color. They taste great, wonderful slicers, but I don't think the plant can put up with the heat my climate demands. They set fruit early and stopped setting any fruit the second the June gloom went away. I probably won't grow these again.

4) Opalka


This big bugger is just beginning to ripen up now, and provides huge, pound-plus fruit that are almost seed-free and great for canning. They're not dry and mushy, like other paste tomato types, but instead have a nice firm texture and a great acid-sweet flavor balance. The plant seems to deal well with the heat, set fruit well into July, and still appears healthy. I can't wait to get canning these guys.

Yesterday morning, I picked about 20 pounds of tomatoes. Many of them I have in a low oven now, turning into the luscious homemade tomato paste that I can't get enough of during the winter. Many of them I've given away. But lots ended up in yesterday's soup. SWW and I spent the day yesterday telling stories and sipping gazpacho and pink sangria. A better day to wile away a sweaty summer afternoon I couldn't imagine.

Gazpacho Sevillano
Adapted ever-so-slightly from The New Spanish Table (an insanely inspiring cookbook) by Anya von Bremzen.

You will need:
2 cups cubed day old bread
2 garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon of toasted cumin seeds
coarse sea salt
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, the seeds haphazardly scooped out
2 small cucumbers, peeled and roughly chopped
1 sweet red pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 mildly-warm red pepper, like an Alma or something similar, seeded and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
1/2 cup good olive oil
3 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar
water as needed

To make the soup:
Place the bread in a bowl, drizzle with a little cold water, and toss the bread around to soak up the water for a few minutes. Drain the bread and squeeze out the excess water.

In a mortar and pestle, pound together the cumin seeds, garlic cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mash the ingredients into a paste.

Toss the bread, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onion, and garlic paste together in a large bowl and let stand for 15 minutes to let the flavors begin to meld. A small batch at a time, puree the mixture in a food processor until very smooth. Collect the small batches in a large bowl, and whisk in the oil and the vinegar until thoroughly incorporated. Taste. You'll probably need salt and you may—depending on how dense your tomatoes are— need to add a splash of water to thin the soup. You may even need a shot more vinegar.


Serve the soup in chilled bowls to four hungry but hot people.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Meager Plenty

I returned home from New York to a day of preparing the house for my parents' arrival, then a six day visit with them. I feel like I've talked so much in the last two weeks—catching up with and making new friends in New York, revisiting memories and analyzing our present here with my family—that I don't have a lot of words to throw down for the moment. Or, maybe it is just the heat. It's ridiculously hot.

My garden is surviving the heat though and spitting out tomato after tomato and lots of green beans and Asian long beans. Every night my parents were here we ate huge tomato salads, and most nights we had beans too. Last night I dry-fried a pound of Rattlesnake (green bean) and Red Noodle (Asian Yardlong), and my mama loved them so much, she asked me how to make them. Usually, she's the one telling me how to make something.

Here's how I told my mother to make dry-fried beans.


Dry-Fried Green or Asian Long Beans
Take a big bunch, maybe about a pound, of green beans or Asian long beans or a combination of the two. Rinse them off and cut them in two inch lengths. Pour a glug of vegetable oil into a wok or heavy frying pan over high heat, dump in the beans, and fry them, stirring occasionally until they are blistered and have plenty of brown spots.

While the beans are browning (you might want to put a splatter screen over those buggers), mince a thumb of ginger, a clove or two of garlic (depending on how strong your garlic is), and a shallot. Once the beans are cooked through, dump them onto a plate lined with paper towels to drain the extra oil. If there isn't any oil left in the frying pan, add about a teaspoon of oil, and in it, fry the ginger, garlic, and shallot until fragrant. Add a teaspoon or so of chili paste, depending on how hot you want your beans to be, and stir for another 30 seconds over the high heat. Splash in a couple glugs, maybe about a scant quarter cup, of soy sauce, about a half teaspoon of sugar, and stir the sauce and sugar into the aromatics. Let the sauce cook down a bit to get a touch syrupy, then dump the beans back into the sauce. Stir the whole mixture together, and serve.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Exotic Every Day

A few years ago, my friends the WWs and I took a daytrip through northern San Diego county. We passed the guidebooks among ourselves and took turns deciding where to stop next. One of us, I think it was SWW, suggested we stop at an exotic bird refuge to visit with the animals. Once there, we paid our dollar admission fee, slathered our arms and hands with disinfectant, and entered the aviary. All sorts of bird inhabited the space. Some birds sat in corners, missing lots of feathers, clearly angry and clearly swearing. Others hopped to the edges of branches to be near us visitors; they talked and wagged their heads and let us pet them. One African Gray fell in love with RWW. The bird crawled up his arm and onto his shoulder, happily humming and rubbing against RWW's head. Supremely content, the bird gently took RWW's ear in his beak, pulled on it a little, then released it, stroking it with his beak.

(Slight interjection: When I told this story to my students just after it happened, one student, a student who though intelligent and creative, never looked much like he was paying attention, raised his head at this point in the story and blurted out, "Gives new meaning to the phrase 'exotic bird'!")

This bird loved RWW the whole time we were there. Finally, when it came time to go, SWW reached up to remove the parrot from RWW's shoulder. "No!" the bird shouted. SWW's hands flew back in surprise. She tried again. "NOOOOOO!" even louder, the bird cried.

Before this visit, none of us knew that the birds had words that they could use to really communicate, not just imitate. Here we were just stopping to get our animal-fix, and this small animal so clearly used our language to tell us what it wanted, and in this case, it wanted RWW. We got more than just the cute factor on this visit, but a reminder of how little we understand the creatures that surround us. How much underestimating do we do when we don't understand?

**********

In Santa Barbara for friends' wedding last weekend, ECG and I decided to go a little out of our way up to Goleta, where Norman Beard, a real estate broker, has a private nursery dedicated to tropical fruit trees. He led the two of us on a tour through his hilly 5 acres, where we met a mare and her 2-week old colt (named Hollywood) and lots and lots of fruit trees. Some of the plants he grew I had read could fruit well near the coast, with a more temperate climate. Others I had no idea would grow in Southern California at all.

A black sapote.


A broody-near-black paw paw blossom from below.


An almost-ripe white sapote.


An immature Pineapple Quince.


Immature longan fruit.


I can't remember for the life of me what this plant is.


A small cherimoya.


A heart-shaped young mango.

We asked him about the flavors of his fruits, which ones were his favorites. Clearly a lover of tropical fruits, he firmly declared that he loved all papayas and he couldn't get enough black sapote. He showed us which fruits he eats on his daily cereal due to their prolific bounty, and which he cradles carefully until they are ripe, since he gets so few.

We purchased a Tainang papaya and a Keitt mango from him to grow on our little mini-farm. When he found out we were from Altadena, he declared, "You guys are so lucky; you can grow anything in such an exotic climate."

Exotic? It's hot every day here right now, sunny, dry; it's exotic to him, I guess. His clouds and July-green hills were awe-inspiring to us.

**********

In Mexico, it is cajeta; in Argentina, dulce de leche; and in other places, it goes by many other names. Before I met my Argentine husband, it was an exotic treat that I rarely consumed, but now there is always a jar of it in our house. ECG spreads it on toast in the morning or drizzles it over ice cream. Sometimes I melt a spoon of it in coffee.

Now, there are three ways to get cajeta/dulce de leche. First, you can buy jars of it at the store, which is what we usually do. Most Latin groceries sell it. Second, as we occasionally do, you can boil cans of sweetened condensed milk for an hour or so in a large pot of water and hope the cans don't explode. That gives a decent product, but it is hard to monitor the consistency and color of the caramel. And the third way is to make the whole dang batch from scratch, which I did a few days ago with some of the goats' milk I had received from a member of the produce exchange to which I belong. It takes forever, but requires almost no work, and it is the richest, most caramelly dulce de leche I've ever had. Will I make this every day? No, but it sure won't be unusual in this house.

Cajeta/Dulce de Leche/Whateveryouwannacallit
I found this simple recipe at Vanilla.com. It's worth the time, and it will make a lot, about a pint and a half, so you'll have plenty for a while.

You will need:
2 quarts of goat’s milk, cow’s milk, or a mixture of the two
2 cups sugar
1 large, plump vanilla bean, split open
1/2 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

To make the caramel:
In a large, heavy pot (not iron), combine the milk, sugar, and place over medium heat. Scrape the contents of the vanilla bean out and stir the tiny seeds into the mixture. As well, drop in the vanilla bean pod to further flavor the caramel. Stir regularly until the milk comes to a simmer and sugar is dissolved. Remove the pot from the heat and add dissolved baking soda; it will bubble up at this point, especially with goat’s milk. When the bubbles have subsided, return it to the heat.

Adjust heat so that the mixture is simmering. Simmer for a long time. For me, it took a total of about two hours. Occasionally stir the pot, making sure to swipe all along the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching or sticking. As the mixture begins to thicken and turn a caramel-brown color, you will probably need to stir more frequently.

If you take the pot off the heat and allow the cajeta to cool, it should be a medium-thick sauce. If it’s too thick, add hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the proper consistency. If it is too thin, return to the heat until it thickens.

When the cajeta is cool, remove the vanilla bean, let it cool, then lick off the caramelly goodness. The cajeta tastes great warm on ice cream, but also tastes fantastic cool, eaten off a spoon. Oh now, here I go, making myself hungry again.

**********

I have the ability to travel with or without my husband, in mixed company, dressed however I want. I have the freedom to write whatever I want to write about and publish it freely for whomever wants to read it. And no one could stop me, nor did anyone try, from marrying the man I love. To me, these are every day basic rights. To some, they're exotic.

Have a meaningful 4th of July.

(And, I have an updated version of Cajeta, very similar, but with an important addition, here.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

For the Chard Haters

My husband hates swiss chard (and most things green), but he thinks this, as far as swiss chard goes, is at least edible. I, on the other hand, love swiss chard and think this version of it is vegetable heaven on a plate. So, for the haters and the lovers, here's a new chard dish.

Chard Stroganoff
You will need:
olive oil
1/4 lb crimini mushrooms, sliced thickly
1/2 large onion, sliced thinly
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
salt and fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup cognac or brandy
1/2 cup mushroom broth
1 lb swiss chard (leaves only), cut into large strips
1/4 cup sour cream

To make the dish:
Pour a glug of olive oil into a heavy bottomed pan on high heat. Once the oil is shimmery and hot, toss in the mushrooms and a shake of salt. Sear the sides of the mushrooms until they begin to brown, turn down the heat to medium, and add the sliced onion to the mushrooms and stir occasionally as the onion softens and sweetens to translucency. Stir in the minced garlic and tomato paste, and cook 30 seconds or so, until very fragrant. Turn down the heat to medium-low. Carefully pour in the cognac; it will cook down quickly. Add the mushroom broth and mix the ingredients together while letting the liquid cook down. Let the mixture simmer for 5 or so minutes, until the liquid is syrupy.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot halfway with water and add a couple shakes of salt. Add the chard and bring the pot to boil. Boil the chard for about 3 minutes, or until all of it is bright green and tender. Pour the pot out into a colander over the sink, and let the chard drain completely. Use a wooden spoon to push the chard against the colander to remove most of the water.

Once the mushroom mixture is reduced and syrupy, add the chard to the mixture. As well, add the sour cream and a large twist of ground pepper. Toss the mixture around with a wooden spoon until it is evenly mixed. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary. Remove from heat and serve.

This will serve four chard haters or two chard lovers.