Monday, November 28, 2011

Capsicum fantasticum

Peppers, to me, exude tropical heritage. Those tiny fleshy flowers and deep shiny green leaves shout, "I'm from a warm, wet forest!" I am no expert on peppers, not like my blog-friend Michelle, but I've learned a lot in the past few years I've been saving seed. Since it is important to not only know the variety one is growing when saving seed, but also the species in order to prevent cross-pollination, I picked up a few tricks to identify the four most commonly grown species. I hope someone else may find this information helpful.

Capsicum annuum: C. annuum holds most of the peppers with which we're most familiar. Our sweet bell peppers fall in this species, as do Anaheims and jalapenos, serranos and pasillas. Many people never grow anything other than annuums in their gardens. Annuums have white flowers with yellow or blue stamens and foliage that is usually smooth, though can occasionally be softly downy. The foliage is typically dark green, but there are variegated varieties; in fact, if a plant is variegated, it is likely a C. annuum. There is a huge variety in flavor within this species, from completely sweet to searingly hot. This year, I grew Fish, Chile Rayado, Big Jim, Sweet Cherry, Pimento, Lipstick, and a couple other annuums that weren't as successful as these reliable varieties.

Capsicum baccatum: I am biased. Capsicum baccatum is my favorite pepper species. The plants reliably overwinter for me, get huge (tree-like, folks!), and have bright green leaves and pretty, yellow- or greenish-brown-dotted flowers. I gave a coworker some seeds for Capeau de Frade, she planted one of her seedlings in our school garden, and the plant is three years old now and four feet tall. The three varieties I have growing are all on the milder side, though if you pop the whole thing in your mouth as I have done occasionally while working in the garden, you might find yourself sweating on a cold day. I enjoy the tropical fruit flavor of the baccatums as well as their excellent crunch factor. I have Capeau de Frade, Dedo de Moca, and some kind of orange-form Aji Panca (mislabeled seeds? a happy accident because I love this plant) that are each three years old and still growing mightily in a large pot. I cut them back in late winter so they'll send up nice growth with a dose of sunshine, spring warmth, and liquid seaweed. I am very interested in learning more about this species and exploring more varieties within it.

Capsicum chinense: C. chinense is home to the world's hottest peppers. Ghost pepper, Bhut Jolokia, all the habaneros, and others are C. chinenses. But they're not all hot. Cheiro de Recife and the like have the same citrusy, perfumy flavor without the heat (or at least not as much of it), and are gorgeous fruits, shiny and bright colored. The flowers are small and white, pale yellow, or pale green with blue stamens. The leaves tend to be bright green and slightly savoyed. These peppers are what give Caribbean food its kick. I have a harder time getting this species growing healthily than other other species, but I always grow a couple because the fragrance is impossible to beat. This year, I am growing Roberto's Cuban Seasoning and Cheiro de Recife.

Capsicum pubescens: This is the first year I have grown C. pubescens and I have not yet tasted it. However, despite my lack of familiarity with it, I'd have an easy time identifying it anywhere. Not only does its hairyness live up to its Latin name, but unlike any other species, it has large-ish purple flowers. Purple flowers! And the fruit is thick-fleshed like a mini-bell pepper, but very hot. Also unique to this species are the dark brown to black seeds. I don't know if there is much difference between varieties within this species, but the variety I'm growing is called Red Rocoto.

I'd love to hear about others' favorite peppers. Or, do you have a favorite species I haven't covered here? Spread the spicy knowledge, my friends.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sweet Tater Tasting Notes

I am graced with friends who put up with my dorkiness. Wednesday night, with a couple of friends over for dinner, I held a sweet potato tasting. Yup, not a wine tasting, but a sweet potato tasting. I learned several things at this tasting: 1) I am not very good at describing flavors, and 2) Tasting is more fun with friends.

Red Wine Velvet at harvest

Violetta at harvest

Old Kentucky at harvest

Golden Sweet at harvest

Jen, my summer garden intern, holding a very naughty-looking Red Wine Velvet
When I told E, my husband, that I'd like to have a sweet potato tasting just so I could compare my impressions with those of someone else—I do want to be able to write about these yummy critters, after all—he worried that it would be pretentious. Perhaps our discussion would sound a little too much like this: I detect a certain appealing skunkiness . . . maybe a soupcon of delightfully damp newspaper . . . wait a minute, is that a bracing edge of burnt rubber? Don't get me wrong. I love wine. On occasion, I have been known to love wine a little too much, but we all know how ridiculous talking about it can sound. Yet, here I was, really wanting to hold a similar event, just so I could explain the awesomeness of homegrown sweet potatoes.

E played along in the way E will. You will see by his upcoming notes.

I roasted four very small sweet potatoes in their skins for the pre-dinner sweet potato tasting. After roasting, I cut them in quarters, sprinkled them with salt, and placed them in identical order on small plates with a pat of butter. I gave each person a card and we numbered the pieces by their placement on on the plates. I didn't tell the names of the varieties until we finished the tasting.

At the top of the hour, Golden Sweet; at 3, Old Kentucky; at 4, Violetta; and at 9, Red Wine Velvet.

Our notes
The first sweet potato we tasted was Golden Sweet, a golden-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato. It was not very productive—one potato per plant, but it did have lovely, smooth skin and a nice rounded shape. Upon tasting it, Friend #1 wrote, "Butternut squash, banana, tea, sweet but not too sweet." Friend #2 wrote, "Nutty, something like the aftertaste of salami." I wrote, "Smooth, nutty, sweet, mild." E wrote, "Tater." Though we all liked Golden Sweet, it wasn't the favorite of any of us.

The second sweet potato we tasted was Old Kentucky. Old Kentucky produces ugly, white-skinned, white-fleshed potatoes that discolor quickly; I harvested three tubers from each of my two plants. Friend #1 wrote after tasting it, "Candy, milder, not as distinctive a sweet potato flavor." Friend #2 wrote, "Smoother, almost sweeter." I wrote, "Sweeter than the first, yummy skin, gets caramelly tasting with roasting, more pronounced sweet potato flavor." (Fascinating—Friend #1 and I had very different perceptions on this potato.) E wrote, "Salty tater." We all agreed that this was a stand-out sweet potato, and it was E's favorite of the four.

Red Wine Velvet was the third sweet potato we tasted. For me, each plant produces four or five large, orange-fleshed, maroon-skinned potatoes that are shaped like veiny organs. About it, Friend #1 wrote, "Mild, nutty." Friend #2 wrote, "Smoky, earthy." I wrote, "I can taste the beta carotenes! Awesome, moist, smooth texture." E wrote, "Orange tater." This potato wins in the texture category, and it is mighty-fine tasting as well.

And finally, Violetta was the last sweet potato of the tasting. This variety produces large, violet-skinned and creamy-fleshed potatoes, at least three per plant. This was Friend #1's favorite. She wrote, "Creamy, mild, best aftertaste." Friend #2 wrote, "Walnut." I wrote, "Sweetest of the whites, caramelly." E, who loved Violetta last year, must have gotten a spoiled end, because he wrote, "Tater hairs." Despite E's reaction, the rest of us ranked this high.

The entire harvest this September
So, what does this mean? While I want to add another sweet potato to my collection (a purple-fleshed one, oh yes!), I will also likely drop one. Though homegrown Golden Sweet sweet potatoes are much better than anything one can buy in the store, the others are so good that I would rather use the room Golden Sweet would need to grow more of the other varieties.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mulch Mania

Last fall, my friend Russ, proprietor of LA Farm Hands, helped me eliminate the grass and create a deep layer of mulch under some of my front high-density orchard. Doing so led to more directed watering with less waste, lots of healthy growth on my peaches and nectarine trees, and less work for me—no mowing or weeding! This year, I wanted to complete the process under all of the stone fruit. I documented the process to share how to turn a lawn into a productive orchard.

Here, you can see the side we completed last year and part of what we would work on this year. If you have been following the development of my orchard, you can see the trees have grown very robustly this year; they're just beginning to color for autumn. The line of native stone divides the cleanly mulched side from the patchy, gopher-riddled grass (I just cannot inspire myself to keep up on lawns).

The only materials we needed to buy were drip attachments to convert inefficient sprayers into drip lines. Other than that, everything was free. We had a tree company drop off free mulch in front of our place; tree care companies often offer free mulch because it is cheaper to give it away than pay to dump it in the landfills. Our friend with horses and mules loaded Russ's truck with hot, not composted, manure. Both Russ and I had been collecting cardboard for the last few months in preparation, and the only tools we needed were standard household items: shovels, rakes, pitchforks, a weed-whacker, and a hose with a sprayer attachment.

Before starting to move any material, we began by mowing and in some places weed-whacking the lawn, capping sprinkler heads that we were abandoning, and setting up boxes for the drip lines. We also cut lines in the turf where we planned to create new edges.


We moved stones from the old edges and set them in place where we wanted them. Then, the smelly work began, spreading the hot manure ("One turd thick," according to Russ) all over the grass we wanted to kill.

Once the manure was spread where we wanted it, we sprayed it down with water, encouraging it to heat up and kill the grass underneath it. After the annoyingly tedious job of removing the tape from our collected boxes, we spread the cardboard all over the two areas and sprayed the cardboard down with water to help it begin its own process of breaking down.

Russ and completed the prepping, manuring, and cardboarding the first day. On the second, we brought in a reinforcement, my friend and summer garden intern, Jen. She shoveled mulch all morning long. We moved barrows of it to the orchard and spread it thickly—at least 4 inches thick, thicker in some places. Though it will compress quickly, the thick layer acts like an insulating blanket, holding the water in the soil and the weeds out.

After we spread the mulch over both areas, Russ ran the drip lines to exactly where we wanted them to go. As the trees grow more, we'll move the drip line to be right at the edge of the canopy of the trees. In other words, if one was looking down on the tree from above, the drip line should be directly under the circumference of the tree's branches. It should be at the actual "drip line." Once they were in place, we covered them in mulch. We sprayed the entire surface one more time. And with that, we were finished.

Monday, November 07, 2011

All Saints Eve Stories Told Very Late

A friend came over the other day to hang out with E and talk about design and engineering problems that haunt the world and must be solved. Since they are both so inclined to be frustrated with how things—actual things, as in machines—work, and since they are both the type who will spend many hours of unpaid work attempting to solve these problems, they spend a lot of time talking about such things. (Another friend teases my husband with the snack packets one can purchase on long airplane flights: "Why is the cracker a hexagon and the cheese a rectangle? They don't match. How hard is it to make rectangular crackers that fit the cheese? C'mon people.")

Between the solving of one problem and another, E and T took Indiana for a walk. I met them in the front yard when they returned.

Indiana sprawled across E's feet as we talked. Little orange oragami-winged moths flitted over the lantana on the north side of the property.

T pointed to the moths. Then he told me a story.
When I was a kid, we had a whole hedge of lantana across the yard. My brother and I figured out that, if we were gentle and grasped the body carefully, we could catch the orange moths. And because I was curious, I tried placing one of the moths on my tongue. Attracted by the moisture, it stayed there. So I caught more and placed one after the other on my tongue. I closed my mouth.

I found my mom in the kitchen and pulled on her sleeve until she turned around to look at me. I looked at her and yelled, mouth open wide, "MOOOOOOOOOTHS!" As I yelled, they all flew out of my mouth.
He didn't use these words, but I will. He scared the shit out of her.

This year, I tried an experiment. In August, when I started my broccolis, kales, and cabbages from seed in six-pack containers, I also started my rutabagas. In the past, I had always direct seeded rutabagas at the same time I planted out my other brassicas in early October. I would get a good crop, but with the short days of winter, I wouldn't have that crop until early spring. Spring is not when I want rutabagas: deep winter is when I want rutabagas. So far, my new strategy seems to be working. The largest of my rutabagas are already well-swollen and poking their bellies above the soil.

I've read that the first jack-o-lanterns were large, hollowed out turnips and rutabagas. My rutabagas may be growing well, but they're nowhere near jack-o-lantern dimensions yet.

Our first Halloween in Minnesota, it snowed so heavily that our school shut down and sent us home early. I hunkered down in the warm house for the evening, but snow could not hold my brother back. That year, he wore one of my father's old flight suits, a flight helmet, and he tied one of his stunt kites on his back to give himself wings. He strapped on cross-country skis, and took off to trick-or-treat. Needless to say, on a snowy, empty Halloween evening, my brother the determined flying skier, earned his weight in candy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Moments In-Between

My camera is in the closet. It has been there for a while. While I keep thinking that I want to take it out to take pictures of the first Peruvian Apple cactus fruit, of the white shark teeth and tiger claws of the garlic tearing through the earth, and of our beast Indiana-the-dog, it is Indiana himself that keeps the camera in the closet. To him, everything in my hand must be chewed, immediately. So, I haven't been taking pictures, and the gardening I've been doing I've been doing in the dark with a headlamp after the dog has hunkered down for the night in his crate. It's been a busy time, but I'm still trying to fit moments of myself between hours of the dog.

This week, a friend gave me bags of apples and feijoas from her trees. Around here, behind the local Macy's, along the edges of properties, in municipal parking lots, feijoas grow beautifully. They grow in places that pass as hedgerows in our part of the world. This time of year, the feijoa trees drop the dull, pebbly green fruits in piles of egg-shaped beauties under their branches. The fruits release their pineapple-eucalyptus scent even before someone cuts them open to reveal their pear-textured flesh. My mom, who relies heavily on her nose for much of her decision-making, declares these aromatic fruits her favorite.

With piles of the fruit sitting in bags in my house, I set out to find a good way to preserve the fragrance of early autumn in Southern California. Feijoa jam turns out to be perfect; it produces a fruit studded jam that intensifies the fruits' fragrance and tastes fantastic on hot buttered sourdough. It exceeded my expectations.

Thank Indiana for the lack of pictures.

Feijoa Jam
You will need:
2 pounds peeled feijoas, roughly chopped (weigh after peeling!)
A handful of reserved feijoa peels
2 1/2 cups sugar
the finely grated rind of one organic lemon and its juice

To make the jam:
Place the reseved peels in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook for one minute. Remove from heat.

Place the feijoas, sugar, grated lemon peel and juice, and one quarter cup of strained liquid from the peels. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Boil the mixture for approximately ten minutes (it happens quickly with all the pectin from the peels and lemon) and check to see if the mixture has jelled. If it has, remove from heat. If not, continue boiling until jelling point.

Pour the mixture into sterilized jars, place new, warmed lids on the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. If you have any question about how to do this, please spend some time on the USDA home preservation website.