Thursday, January 31, 2013

Too Simple to be a Recipe

In late winter, fennel fronds frizz out in the humidity, rising like green clouds from the deep roots of the plants. A friend from Italy told me what to do with them.

Harvest a big bunch and rinse it off in the kitchen. Toss the greens in a pot of boiling water and boil them until the thicker stems are tender. Dump them into a colander to drain, rinse out the pot, refill it, and set it to boil for the pasta. Once the water boils, add the pasta to cook.

In the meantime, once the greens have cooled enough to handle, squeeze out the excess liquid and chop them finely. In a frying pan, heat a glug of olive oil and add a few anchovies, minced garlic, and chilies. Add as many anchovies, garlic, and chilies as you think will fit your tastes. "Melt" the anchovies in the olive oil, and after a minute or so, add the chopped fennel fronds to fry in the fragrant pan. Cook the mixture for a couple minutes for the flavors to mingle.

After the pasta has finished cooking, drain it, then dump it into the pan with the fennel mixture and toss the pile together.

To gild the lily, serve with a sprinkle of bread crumbs toasted in olive oil, and if you want to intensify the fennel flavor, a shake of ground fennelseed or dried fennel blossoms (aka "fennel pollen").

I can't stop eating the stuff.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Lady Williams

The third, and youngest, of my trio of historic apples along the walk to the front door is Lady Williams. It is a truly delicious apple, and grows remarkably well in our warm climate. I planted it in the early part of 2011 as a benchgraft, a single bud grafted onto a root stock that I purchased from Kuffel Creek, and this year already, it gave me its first harvest, six very deep red, round apples.

Each of my apples ripens at different times: the Wickson in mid-October, the Golden Russet in mid-November, and Lady Williams, right now in mid-January, when my Desert Delight nectarine is just beginning to bloom. And after the long, hot summer, and the dusty fall, the week of frosts followed by a week of warm weather, the fruit are amazing, very juicy with a snappy skin, and an exploding, cidery tang. This is not a shy apple in any way, not for those who don't want the tart to go with the sweet. Yet for those who seek out such complex flavors, this apple is a treasure.

The tree originated in Australia, near a small town called Donnybrook, in the Boxer's jowls of southwestern Australia. This area has a climate very similar to our own in Southern California, as pointed out on Cloudforest Gardener's wiki, which reads:
Lady Williams originated in a Mediterranean climate at 33″S similar to the inland valleys of Los Angeles, CA (34″N), suggesting Lady Williams is ideal in those areas. The average Winter low for Donnybrook is 42F, with an average high of 62F in the Winter, climbing to 87F at the peak of Summer, with the bulk of the precipitation falling in the Winter.
According to Bob Williams (link to interview), the son of the farmer who discovered the seedling growing next to his water tank in 1935, Lady Williams almost didn't make it. His brother hacked the young seedling down once, but his mother propped the broken tree back up and nursed it to health. Then, Bob himself, as a destructive youngster, yanked at it, nearly pulling the whole tree out except for one root. His mother, frustrated and protective of the young tree, once again propped it up and nursed it back. Soon after, it fruited; and after revealing its very special secret, it was safe. Naturally, the name comes from its savior, Bob's mother, who neighbors called "Lady Williams." A seedling with unknown parentage—some speculate Granny Smith, others Jonathan—it is the parent of two well-known apples, Sundowner and Pink Lady (aka Cripp's Pink).

It is nearly impossible in the United States to get scionwood for Lady Williams, and the only place in this country that I know sells grafted trees of it is Kuffel Creek. I hope, as the tree gains some size, to be able to share scionwood not only through CRFG, but also through Seed Savers' Exchange, because this is an apple worth protecting and nurturing. Lady Williams, at least in our country, once again could use some more propping up.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Year's Peas

Some people eat black-eyed peas to celebrate New Year's. We eat cardamom bread, and let our peas stay outside, blooming, sweetening up the yard.

I'm talking not about real peas here, but the vining succulent that hangs from my crepe myrtle, a String-of-Pearls or Rosary Plant, Selecio rowleyanus. It is extremely toxic so I don't recommend having it for a New Year's meal, but don't the fleshy leaves look just like peas hanging on green embroidery thread?

Each "pea" has a vertical transparent section, a window that allows sunlight inside the leaf, so photosynthesis can happen from both the outside and the inside. Because of its round shape, each leaf has the smallest possible surface area to the largest possible volume, geometry in nature. The limited surface area reduces the transpiration possible of the leaf, thereby saving its water. Each leaf is a perfect illustration of the Intelligence of evolution: a sphere allowing the most food production with the least water loss. 

And as if that were not enough, the fuzzy little white and pink-curled flowers smell like cloves, like the inside of a spice cabinet, like the best of wintertime smells.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Beans of 2012

I set out in 2012 to grow a lot of beans, including lots of dry beans. I did this for a couple reasons. 1) Beans are gorgeous and varieties are often followed by fascinating histories. 2) If you're going to try to grow a balanced diet on a little piece of land, beans, especially dry, are a good choice as they feed both the soil as nitrogen fixers and our bodies as good sources of vegetable protein. (I wrote earlier about the bean varieties' growth here.)

As far as snap beans went, I had plentiful crops and enjoyed Blue Coco and Goldmarie, both regular attenders in my summer gardens, immensely. I ate copious quantities of them fresh and blanched and froze plenty of both, too. They both freeze nicely. I did not, however, like the new addition to snap beans Jeminez. It is a beautiful, highly-blushed, romano-shaped snap bean, and a very productive grower, but I didn't like the texture of the pods. Even with just a flash steaming, they seemed mushy to me. Despite their productivity and beauty, I won't grow them again. As for long beans, the garden favorite Red Noodle made me happy once again. The long pods are such a pretty maroon color, they're so long and floppy, taste so good dry fried with chile and garlic, and the plants grow so well in the heat once the snap beans slow down; there isn't anything not to like about them.

What was new in 2012 was my focus on dry beans. Here is a snapshot of each of the beans grown for the seed rather than the pod.

1) Blue Shackamaxon:

This variety is traditional to the Lenape tribe, who carried it along as colonization and violence pushed the Lenape further and further west. The variety is first recorded as appearing in communities near Philadelphia.

The seeds I received from a Seed Saver's member were gorgeous, a deep shiny black. A few of the plants, as they grew, displayed signs of mosaic bean virus, so I rogued them out, but the rest grew very well and set pods in unbelievable quantities. I've never seen a plant grow so many pods. As the small pods matured, they changed color from green to deep maroon, then finally to dark purple as they dried completely. Upon harvesting the beans from the shells, the younger not-quite-dried beans were a shocking cobalt blue, and the drier ones a deep indigo. Once completely dried, they ranged from blue-black to black. I saved a good bit for seed stock, but we've already eaten the rest, cooked slowly then mashed with some pork fat to be the best refried beans ever. This is a winner and will be in my garden again.

2) Lynch Collection Butterbeans:

I received this seed from a fellow Seed Saver's member.

I have a hard time tracking down the history on this bean, but it appears to be a landrace, a looser collection of genetic material than a single variety. The diversity is just beautiful: each plant produces a slightly different color pattern on its beans. Though slow to get going, once Lynch Collection began flowering, it flowered and set beans until the first frost a couple weeks ago, and a couple of the vines are still trying to grow. The beans are small limas, flat, quick-cooking. I didn't try them as a shelly, but they're quite tasty dried. It was fun to try my hand at limas, and the fact that this variety produced in the heat once my other beans (with the exception of the long beans) slowed down made it a valuable addition to the bean party. I'll grow it again.

3) Blue Coco:

Blue Coco is a French heirloom that is first recorded in the 18th Century.

I know I just sang the praises of Blue Coco as a snap bean, but it is also an amazingly creamy dry bean. It doesn't hold its shape well as it cooks as a dry bean, which is part of the reason I love it. It almost dissolves into a creamy mess of goodness. Cook these with garlic and drizzle them with truffle oil and you will think you're eating the most luxurious, dairy-laden bowl ever.

4) Flagg:

Flagg is an Iroquois heirloom grown frequently in Vermont. 

Flagg struggled in my yard and had a hard time spitting out pods. I am not sure why, but I think it may just prefer a cooler climate than what my yard can provide. The pods it did produce were large and romano-shaped. The early, not-quite-dry beans were mottled cobalt blue and white, and as they have dried, they've turned blue-black and white. They're really beautiful beans. I haven't cooked any of the dry beans yet, so I cannot speak to their texture or flavor. I'll decide whether or not I'll grow these again after I've tried eating them. Because of their lack of productivity, they may not be worth the garden space.

5) Hidatsa Shield Figure Bean:

The Hidatsa of North Dakota cultivated this bean along the Missouri River Valley. It is listed in Slow Food's Ark of Taste

Hidatsa Shield Figure did not get a fair shake in my garden. I received the beans through Bean Buddies, an awesome Rancho Gordo home-test-drive program for their beans, but many of them were crushed in the mail service, even after a second try. (Side note to anyone who saves seeds or participates in seed exchanges:  Please always mail seeds in bubble mailers or wrap seed packets in bubble wrap before placing in an envelope. The mail rollers crush seeds and make them nonviable.) I ended up with only six viable seeds, and I planted them in April, much later than I usually plant seeds in my climate. I ended up with only about a half-cup of dry beans total. Since my genetic population was so small, I was not able to save seed for seed stock, either.

Despite all that, these are absolutely beautiful beans, with round bird-like bellies and vibrant orange and rust markings. I haven't eaten them yet, but if I enjoy them as an eating bean, I'll make sure to buy them from another source.

6) Tarahumara Dark Purple

This bean originates from the Tarahumara peoples of Chihuahua, Mexico. I have grown it for several years now, and originally bought the seed from Native Seed Search.

As a half-runner, the bean grows well on a short trellis. This year, however, I discovered that it is more productive when allowed to sprawl. I had some vines growing on trellises, but I also had a few volunteers from last year's beans that I allowed to sprawl over the edges of the veggie bed, twisting among sweet potatoes and chiles. The volunteers produced madly with lots and lots of beans. The trellised plants produced well, but not as furiously, though they were easier to harvest.

The beans are purple, ranging from mid-purple to nearly black. They're very good cooked, with a natural pleasing sweetness and a tendency to hold their shape. 

7) Jeminez:

Jeminez is a former-commercial variety that is now offered only through various seed-saving organizations.

I bashed Jeminez above as a snap bean. Since I didn't enjoy the green beans, I let most of the pods dry. Though I have yet to taste it, I have read that it makes a good dry bean. We'll see. It certainly is productive. Even if it makes a good dry bean, its history isn't interesting enough for me to keep it around when I could be growing other tasty dry beans with stories that are more compelling to me. I won't be growing it again.

Winners in beauty:
Lynch Collection Butterbean
Hidatsa Shield Figure

Winners in productivity:
Blue Shackamaxon
Tarahumara Dark Purple

Winners (so far) in taste:
Blue Shackamaxon
Blue Coco
Tarahumara Dark Purple

Last Note: 
I didn't grow Rattlesnake this year, because I thought Jeminez and Rattlesnake were just too similar, and I had read such good things about Jeminez, I wanted to give it a try. Rattlesnake, I'm sorry I ignored you this year. Next year, you'll be back in my yard, you massively productive, tasty bean-making machine, you.