Monday, November 26, 2012

Persimmon Chutney

I set out in my first batch to try to create a Major Gray-style chutney, but with persimmons, rather than mangoes, because they're what I have loads of, fruit from my mystery persimmon tree. There aren't many recipes other than salads for non-astringent persimmons; I did, however, find a few old recipes for chutneys that either weren't meant to be canned for shelf-storage, or were much less complex than the flavors I hoped to put together. So I riffed on Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook courgette chutney and was pleased with my results, so much so that I've made this two more times already. The acid from the vinegar works to counteract the mildness of the persimmons, and the lime zest adds another acidic, tropical note. Looking for a snack the other day, I dolloped spoonfuls of it on slices of sheep's milk cheese and the combination of flavors was wonderful.

Tangential, but still connected, I buy my black pepper in handy grinders at Trader Joe's. I don't know that TJ's black pepper is any better or worse than any other vendor's, but I love those grinders. After they're empty of pepper, I wash them, remove the label, and fill them with another spice. I have grinders full of coriander and fennelseed from the garden, but the grinder that is most special to me is the one full of cardamom seed. Freshly ground cardamom seed is a completely different beast than pre-ground cardamom; I am tempted to wear it as perfume. The cardamom is what makes this recipe sing.

Persimmon Chutney
You will need:
2 pounds peeled and diced non-astringent, firm-ripe persimmons
1 pound peeled, cored, and diced apples
1/2 pound peeled and diced onion
3-4 ounces raisins
3/4 pound brown sugar
2 finely diced chiles
the finely grated peel and juice of two limes
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed
5-6 grindings of freshly ground cardamom (I don't know exactly what the equivalent of cardamom to use if it isn't freshly ground. My best guess would be a 1/2 teaspoon.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar

To make the chutney:
Stir all the ingredients except the vinegar together in a large, non-reactive pot. Cover and leave in a cool place (in the garage if the weather is right, or in the refrigerator, if not) overnight. Doing this macerates the fruit so it keeps texture rather than cooking down into a soup. The texture is very nice in a chutney; it keeps this from becoming a fruit butter or sauce.

The next day, stir in the vinegar, and place the pan over mid-high heat. Cook for forty minutes or so, stirring every few minutes, until the liquid has cooked down to a thick syrup and the mixture is dark and thick.

Ladle the mixture into sterilized jars, carefully pressing it in to eliminate as many air bubbles as possible, lid, and process in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes.

This recipe makes about two and a half pints.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Way it Falls

Late autumn around here is all about light and color and scent. Even on warm dry days, the nights cool sharply and we wake up to diamond dew. It is a good time to plant. It is a good time to make changes. And, both—planting and changing—have happened to the landscape here at our ranchito.

I hate mowing lawns. I don't like watering them either, and I feel a definite responsibility to limit water use in whatever ways possible, but my hatred of mowing is more motivating than any environmental ethos. Thus, while the back yard design has come to a (temporary) halt, the front yard, especially its last bit of lawn, has received all my re-design efforts and energy. I talked to my friend Russell Wightman, aka LA Farm Hands, about how to turn it into a low-water, low-maintenance puddle of green. He presented several ideas and also lent me a book, Greenlee's The American Meadow Garden. Inspired by many of the drool-worthy meadows the book showed as exemplars, I considered collecting a variety of sedges and low-water grasses to build texture and color variation; after further consideration, however, I realized it isn't a large space, and too much variety might seem too busy. I needed a meadow that was a calming spot in the middle of all the other things that happen in the front (an orchard, a rose garden, iris beds, perennials, and someday, a water-feature). Led by Russ's recommendations and lots of gorgeous pictures of the stuff, we decided to install a meadow of Carex praegracilis. C. praegracilis is a drought tolerant rhizomatous sedge that can be mowed once a month during peak growth if I ever want a traditional lawn again, or mowed only once a year to encourage fresh long and graceful growth to play in wind and tickle the leaves of the crepe myrtle that will fall on it. (See this picture, the third image—with a man holding a microphone—for a further imagination spark.) I'm certain you know what my intention is.

Another note of inspiration: A few years ago, when E and I were in Argentina, curling up the Andes on the winding road to Tafi del Valle, after we passed through the rain forest but before the high-elevation grassland, we passed through a brief area of scrub. Along the edges of the road, hanging like silken fairy-hair, some kind of Carex look-alike danced and swayed. It fell over hillsides like silk, over stones like green waves, and we wanted to reach out of the car windows and run our hands through it. E said, "I want grass like that." That is what we're trying to make happen.

While I decided that I wouldn't mix grasses and sedges to make a more textured meadow, I can't let go of my love of surprise, and inspired by another book, Ogden's informative Garden Bulbs for the South, I had to include another native plant in the little meadow, Zephyranthes, aka rain lily. What little foliage rain lilies have looks enough like the Carex to disappear into the green, but come summer, after the sprinklers run post a period of no water, the flowers will jump up.

With all this in my head, I dug out what was left of the Marathon, St. Augustine, and Bermuda front lawn I inherited. I couldn't quite complete it on my own, so when Russ arrived for the install day, he helped me finish digging. We raked through the soil, sifting for any evil Bermuda stolens that may still remain. Then, we turned some compost into the soil. Russ set urbanite (reused broken concrete) in place to move from the parking spot to the entrance and the rose garden. We planted the Carex plugs on  an eight-inch diagonal grid, tucking the bulbs in (hopefully) natural-looking flushes among the plugs. Spreading compost around the the plants to nurse along the babies and help prevent some of the weeds that are going to want to take hold in the new space, watering in the new plantings, we finished for the day.

It will take six to to nine months for the plugs to grow in, which means it doesn't look like much yet, and I've got lots of weeding ahead of me, but I'm game for it. I've planted a meadow, a meadow!, in my own yard. It will be a soothing, moving pond of emerald dripping upwards. It will ripple and shimmer. It will fall over itself in green.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Autumn Red

When you head east, toward the desert, if you're on a small enough road, you'll pass forlorn abandoned farmsteads. The houses will be crumbling, the yard trees dry sticks, and what palms—mostly date—there are will be tall and unkempt. Perhaps you'll see rusted wire that used to keep animals, already slowed by the heat, easily in check. You might see a midcentury automobile sinking into the gravel. One shocking fountain of bright green will stand out, however, amidst all the drab tan and olive. And depending on the season, that bright bush burning green might also be aflame with scarlet pom-pom flowers or deep red ornament-fruit. It's a beautiful plant. It's a pomegranate.

My favorite landscape use of the pomegranate's special nature is at Lotusland. Instead of grown in the natural fountain-shaped habit (the trees have very nice architecture), several trees are trained into a loose wall of vibrant green, strung with flowers in the spring and fruit in the autumn. A doorway opens in the hedge, leading to a different garden room. Walking up to the hedge, along a decomposed granite path under an olive allée, the vibrant green is a shocking contrast to a pair of blue, octopus-y agave that twist and stretch in front of it. Like the garden itself, it is a scene of contrast but one that seems natural, the type of scene that makes the garden-interested viewer wonder why she had never thought of creating the pairing herself.

Pomegranates are indestructible, unless you try to take care of them. My small tree started as a stick I stuck in pure sand and forgot about for a while until it started to grow. Now it lives happily in a pot of very gravely, very poor soil. Someday, when I have figured out my back yard a little better, it will go in the ground where it won't receive much water, and I won't dump buckets of decomposing horse manure around it as I do the rest of my fruit trees. In those conditions, the arils of the fruit will be small, but that juice will be concentrated, delicious.

A friend gifted me with pomegranates grown in the conditions I just described. One day a couple weeks ago, tired of working at work or on the yard or any other place, I placed a huge bowl of water on the coffee table. Sitting on the couch, I broke the fruit open under water and removed the arils from the white membranes, lots and lots of ruby jewels. It took me a few hours to get through all the fruit I had, and the whole experience left me calm. Pomegranates are a meditative fruit. Finally, I juiced the jewels, and made two things: grenadine and pomegranate jelly.

Pomegranate Jelly
The juice from my friend's pomegranates is incredibly sweet, so much so that with the addition of sugar to allow the pectin to set, the jelly would have been too sweet. So, I added lots of lemon juice and some pomegranate molasses, too, amplifying the fruit flavor. The jelly is a gorgeous clear red. It is the Southern California answer to cranberry sauce: tangy-sweet, exciting, palate-sharpening.

You will need:
3 cups fresh pomegranate juice
1 cup fresh (not jarred) lemon juice
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1 packet powdered pectin
5 cups sugar

To make the jelly:
In a large, heavy pan, stir together the juices, molasses, and the pectin. Bring the mixture to a heavy boil. Stir in the sugar and return the mixture to a full boil. Boil for one minute, then remove from heat and pour into sterilized jars. Lid the jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. (For more information about safe home canning procedures, please review the USDA's home preservation guidelines.)