Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tasting the Arroyo

I am not a natural athlete. I love to move, to find a running rhythm, to succeed at physical challenges, but I lack a very important aspect of the natural athlete: muscle memory. This summer, as I do every summer, I set out to begin running again, and it feels good. Indiana trots along beside me, and when he's not distracted by another dog, a bird, a squirrel, a place to pee, or something completely invisible to me, he's a great running partner. (Me: Step step breathe-breathe in, step step breathe-breathe out. Indiana: clickety clickety huff-huff, clickety clickety huff-huff.) I have been in and out of running since I ran cross country in high school, so it doesn't take long for me to get back in the groove. My run isn't pretty, though. And I could never learn more complicated moves in other sports, like the butterfly stroke or how to pitch a ball well. E has wasted many hours trying to teach me to effectively shoot pool and deliver a good tennis pitch. When I bowl the perfect strike or shoot a nuthin'-but-net three-pointer, both things which have happened, it is an absolute, irreproducible fluke.

I've ridden horses my entire life, or what seems like my entire life, almost as long as I can remember. I'm comfortable around horses. I think they're funny animals. I can sit through a buck without freaking out and know how to read ears. But, I'll never be the best rider because, from one ride to the next, I forget a little something I learned. I relearn it in the next ride, but then something else is forgotten. I can't picture where every part of my body is and where it should be at every moment. On my weekly date with Dude-the-horse at my barn this past Friday, as I asked Dude for a canter my trainer yelled at me for the thousandth time, "Get your right calf off him! He can't move into the right lead when you're holding him back with your calf!" My brain has registered this command as many times as she's told it to me, but I'm having the hardest time making my body remember what my brain knows. Yes, I do learn and improve, but for a muscle-memory-less person like myself, improving at a physical skill is a life-long slog. In other words, I'll always be learning to ride a horse.

However, though I do not have muscle memory, I do have taste memory. I can taste foods in my head without having them in front of me. Someone can tell me what is in something that they like to make, and I have a pretty good idea what it tastes like. And, I can imagine combination of flavors and be confident in whether or not the combination will work before I even get to cooking. That happened to me this week, when I went on a hike with Indiana after garden-chicken-dog-sitting at a friend's house with an overloaded grapefruit tree. On our hike, we brushed past a late-blooming elder tree in the shade of the canyon, and when I smelled its muscat-y sweetness, and knew exactly what I needed to do.


Grapefruit and Elderflower Marmalade
The basic strategy of boiling the whole fruit to soften and prepare the bitter grapefruit comes from Nigella Lawson's oft-cited red grapefruit marmalade recipe (found online here at the bottom of the page) in How to be a Domestic Goddess. Her recipe, however, relies on milder red grapefruit, and what I have available to me is quite bitter, so I mitigated that bitterness with a smidge of salt—salt is a great neutralizer to bitter flavors, and it doesn't take much, hardly enough to taste. As well, I prefer a nice soft set, pieces of tender candied peel floating in a tasty jelly, so I upped the liquid a bit by adding the orange juice. And, what makes this a really special marmalade, something that is evocative of a warm canyon breeze, is the addition of elderflowers, amped up with St. Germain. If you live in an elderflower-free zone, you can make this with just the liqueur and have a hint at what the arroyo smells like in the morning. It won't be nearly as elderflower-y, but you'll get the start of an idea. And once you've got that idea, maybe your taste imagination can get you the rest of the way.

You will need:
2 large or 3 small grapefruit (the fruit should weigh 1 3/4 pounds)
2 1/4 pounds sugar
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 fresh elderflower heads
3 ounces St. Germain liqueur

To make the marmalade:
Scrub the grapefruit really well to get any grime off; I use a small brush to remove dust and bug residue.  Place the grapefruit in a very large pot and pour lots of water in the pot, enough that they float easily. Place the pot over high heat, and boil for two hours until the fruit is soft. Remove from heat and drain off and discard the cooking water. Allow the grapefruit to cool completely.

Once the grapefruit is cool, use a sharp knife to cut them across their bellies. Slice each half into six or so long wedges, then chop the fruit as fine or as coarse as you like across the fruit wedges, not lengthwise. Remove any seeds you find, but other than the seeds, you're using the whole fruit for this recipe.

Dump the chopped fruit and any juices that collected while you were chopping the grapefruit into the large pot you've been using. Add the sugar, orange juice, salt, and elderflower heads to the pot and stir so that the juices moisten all the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook the mixture until it reaches 221 degrees, or until it sets; there many different ways of testing this (a cold saucer, a drip test, recognizing the change of the bubbles' appearance). Since the whole fruit is so high in pectin, it shouldn't take too long to reach the setting point. It took about 18-20 minutes for me.

Remove from heat and use a fork to fish out the elderflower heads. Discard them. Stir in the shot of St. Germain.

Ladle the marmalade into clean jars. Follow the USDA guidelines for home canning that you can find here to seal and preserve the marmalade.


This recipe makes approximately 3 1/2 pints.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Year of Meat

The phone rang while I was driving last week, and I pulled over to talk, because I thought it was E. It wasn't. Instead, it was Hottinger's, calling me to tell my the animals had arrived and to ask how I wanted them cut. I had been waiting for this call.


Last year was the first year I bought meat animals from the Covina FFA program. I bought a lamb and a 1/4 pig, and shared the meat order among friends. The quality of both impressed us. Unfortunately, we split the lamb between too many people, so we ended up with part of a leg, some incredibly rich stew meat, a few tasty steaks, and the wonderful, juicy, remarkably flavorful meat was gone in no time. We had a similar problem with the pig, but worsened by the fact that the woman who was in charge of the order of the whole pig gave me the parts that she didn't want: I got ears, feet, all the lard (30 pounds!) from the animal, stew meat, and a few chops and some bacon. Once I split up the order with the people who had gone in on it, I was left almost solely with lard.

This year, I was not going to let that happen again, so E and I decided to keep almost all of the lamb—this year, it was only 59 pounds of meat total from the animal, and quite a bit of that is bone. The 179 pounds of pork we divided up among many friends. I tried to make sure that my friends understood that they'd receive a balance of premium cuts with more economical ones, and some "flavor meat" as well: lard, feet, neck bones, etc. It is the whole pig—we've got to eat all of it and every part has value. I bought the animals from the students who raised them, covering the cost of the animals, the animals' insurance and organic feed, the cost of the processor who takes them to butcher, plus a profit for the work of raising them kindly and well. At the butcher, I paid for the cutting of the meat to my order. After everything, the lamb cost $6.41/lb and the pig $3.50/lb.

Saturday, E and I loaded coolers into the back of Roberta, the 1968 Ford pickup that E has rehabilitated, and we drove out to Hottinger's Family Meats, the butcher with whom the school works, out in Chino. Going to Hottinger's is a special event, with the fresh cases and freezers stocked with not only pork, beef, lamb, and chicken, but also bison, elk, rabbit, and game birds. One freezer case is full of housemade sausages with recipes from the world over. We picked up our meat, some special sausages, mesquite for the grill, and two beef femurs for Indiana-the-dog.





I'm dreamy about the possibilities with the meat this year. Last year, with meat from another source, a friend and I made Italian sausage that was so good, we wanted to eat it every week, so we did, and it disappeared quickly. Yes, that is on the list this year. Also on the list: lamb merguez. Tamales made with with homegrown corn and this luscious lard. Milk-brined pork chops, lovely roasts, gorgeous stocks. Warming stews. I'm going to try may hand at smoking the pork belly for homemade bacon. It is going to be a good year of meat.

Monday, June 18, 2012

37

On my 16th birthday, after spending most of the party in the basement for a tornado warning, a boy I liked broke a water balloon over my hair, which I had spent hours trying to make look as if it had it had large, soft, natural curls. The curls melted. I laughed and laughed.

On my 21st birthday proper, my roommate and I legally ordered a beer at The Brickskellar. A few days later, we had a full-fledged portable party, beginning at the bars at Dupont Circle, walking to bars in Adams Morgan, then over to Georgetown where we knew we could get post-bar bread and coffee at Au Pied de Cochon. In the course of the night, we crisscrossed the whole Northwest quarter of the city. Finally, we found ourselves on the steps of the Lincoln Monument as the sun rose. I was an adult in a city I loved.

On my 22nd birthday, I was no longer in the city I loved, but in a new place, hot and dry and uncomfortable, surrounded by people I had known for less than two weeks. They got me a funny card. The friendship of one of these people has supported me even beyond graduate school, beyond singlehood, and twice, we've chosen the same town in which to live.

My parents threw me a party in northern New Mexico for my 30th. Friends flew in, and we spent a day rafting the Rio Grande on historically high waters. The trip was beautiful and terrifying. In our float down through the deep canyon, we saw ancient bridges, wildflowers, and where a jet had flown into the canyon wall; the whitewater violently tossed our guide and she lost her paddle, our guide screamed orders and curse words at my father who couldn't hear them through the helmet and high water, and at the end of the trip, we hit unpredictable rapids that left me hanging onto the boat by only the toes of one foot and the grip of my mother's fingernails in my ankle. We all survived. Later that summer I met the man who would become my husband.

On a walk on my 32nd birthday, E and I decided we'd marry each other, and my 33rd birthday was my first married to my favorite person.

I love excuses for parties, so I'll never bash birthdays; however, they don't carry much real meaning other than being marked days. I rarely remember years later what I may be doing on the 17th of June, but I always remember the 18th. So many times, my family and friends have made this unremarkable day incredibly remarkable, and for that, I'm very thankful.



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eva's Pride Peach Harvest, 2012


Sometimes, a tree feels like a miracle. That is what Eva's Pride is to me. I thinned and thinned the tree this early spring, and it still bore so much fruit its lower branches sagged to the mulch below. Last year, this tree was half its current size and gave me many fruit for its small stature, but now, now I'm swimming in peaches.


If picked early, this peach is unremarkable. It's simply tangy and pretty. But if left to ripen on the tree until it falls off in my hands, Eva's Pride is a fantastic peach. The flesh is so juicy and tender, slicing is an impossibility, so to work with these peaches, I must have my hands over a bowl to collect the slurpy fruit and juices. The skin slides right off the red-mottled flesh without blanching. The flavor has that distinct peach zing that is missing from lots of more recently hybridized peaches: it is not a low-acid peach.

I couldn't tell you how many peaches I've collected from this tree already this year, and there are many more to go. I've eaten peaches with every meal (in salads, on cereal, alongside sandwiches), given some to neighbors, traded them for zucchini and eggs, and I've been preserving them, too.

My in-laws were in town last week; while here, my mother-in-law and I made a batch of soft-set Eva's Pride jam, the color deep rosy-orange, tinted by the blood-streaked flesh. I also started a batch of peach schnapps infusing in the closet.


Yesterday, I tried my hand at making fruit leather from some of the peaches, a venture so successful I wonder why I've never tried it before. I've already got another batch drying, this time a peach-blueberry combination.

 


Before the harvest is done, I hope to make several more batches of jam, perhaps a peach-ginger batch and maybe a peach rhubarb. I don't think this is the best baking peach, as it is so soft-fleshed, but I may try a pie anyway. Some peach ice cream sounds good. However, what I will be doing most of is eating this peach fresh, slightly hunched over to avoid the drips, sometimes over the sink, sometimes over a plate, and quite frequently in the garden, slurping it up and dropping the pit wherever it may fall.

Tree details:
  • Eva's Pride, a Zaiger introduction patented in 1991, has been in the ground at this property since early 2010.
  • It is on Nemaguard rootstock.
  • It is heavily mulched, and, during the warm months, watered twice a week on a drip system.
  • This is its second crop.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Luxury

It means something different to each person, but to me, right now luxury means summer time and summer produce, and now, after a long school year full of transitions and unique challenges, I am rich in both.

Summer is here—just look at what today gave me.

The last potato harvest of the season, mostly my favorite variety, Viking Purple.

The first meal-sized harvest of green beans, Jeminez, Goldmarie, and Blue Coco.

Blueberries! Almost a pint basket in today's harvest.

Eva's Pride peaches. I'm happily swimming in them, and I'll tell you more about them in tomorrow's post.

If you'd like to see what others across the world are harvesting this week, stop by Daphne's Dandelions and check out the garden goods for Harvest Monday.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Arctic Star Nectarine Harvest, 2012

Right now, I'm about half way through my Arctic Star harvest, a harvest that has been nicely spread out over a few weeks and still has time to go. When I was thinking about this tree, I hemmed and hawed, considering this against other varieties. I'm not sure what made me choose Arctic Star over other white nectarines, but I am glad I did. Though the fruit sometimes scald and split, to me, that isn't a problem; the split fruit tend to be even sweeter. The splitting and scalding seem to toughen the skin and sweeten the flesh. The skin is a deep red all over, and some parts of the ripe flesh of a nectarine blush pink. They have a lot of lovely color for a white nectarine.

This tree is on Nemaguard, a rootstock that has very powerfully outperformed the more common Citation rootstock in my garden. The trees on Nemaguard are less precocious, but grow much more aggressively, and deal more effectively with both drought and gopher attack.

On my young tree, I had about four dozen fruit this year. The clingstone fruit are like candy: not sweet and insipid like some other white fleshed peaches and nectarines, but intensely sweet with a bounce of bitter to balance. It seems like bitter would be bad, but in this case it is so, so good, and it isn't much, just enough to keep the fruit very interesting.

This fruit can be eaten while still firm, and it will be sweet and crunchy, but I like them soft ripe and drippy with sugar-juice. I can't imagine a preserve that would maintain the integrity of the special flavor of this fruit, and the fruit is so good, I'm quite happy to eat my harvest fresh. I thought I might share some of these guys this year, but I've been greedy. E and I have been eating all of them except for one, which I gave to a friend while trying to convince him to plant his own Arctic Star.


Tree Details:
  • Arctic Star, a Zaiger introduction patented in 1995, has been in the ground at this property since early 2010.
  • It is on Nemaguard rootstock.
  • It is heavily mulched, and, during the warm months, watered twice a week on a drip system.
  • This is its second crop.