Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fall is the New Spring

At least in Southern California it is. During this time of year, we prepare to plant all the crops that the heat of summer confuses or fries, crops like lettuce, cilantro, and carrots that bolt impossibly quickly during the summer heat. This is the time that Southern California gardeners plant the crops they miss most during the rest of the year.

And this fall, preparation for planting is more work than ever because the octagon, the cute 8'x8' plot that I've been tending in the back of my friends' duplex, is growing. The neighbors who live on the other side of the duplex are interested in growing a winter garden as well, and since the octagon is cramped for even one (albeit ambitious) gardener, we knew we needed more space to make it work. The result is that even though I'll be splitting a plot, it will still be more space than I currently have.

After school throughout the last week, I have been stopping by the garden each day to cut out sod. If you've never cut out sod before, believe me that this is very difficult work. This is the type of work that makes me want to kiss my diplomas.

Finally, today, with the very generous help of a wonderful friend, I managed to finish removing it all. Although I had slathered myself in sunscreen before heading over to the plot to work, I did not realize that my shirt would ride up with all the bending, so now I have an angry red smile of sunburn across my lower back to prove that I really did work in the sun for a good portion of the day.

My friend helped unscrew the frame that had existed around the previous plot and we lifted it out of the way. I may use pieces of the old frame somehow in the new one, but for the most part it is already decomposed. I plan to build the new frame out of rough cedar, a wood that is more resistant to rotting and will hopefully last me through my tenure at the garden. I don't need to plan a garden frame that will last for forever since ECG and I have a definite plan to, sometime in the not-so-distant future, own a home with a yard.

In the upcoming few days, I'll temporarily pot the herbs and plants I want to keep through the fall and winter, then I will rototill and add compost. Towards the end of the month, after all the hard work, comes the time that every gardener loves: planting time.

It's only a couple weeks away, and I wait for it with bated breath. When it rolls around, I'll post what I planted, where I planted it, and any special tricks I may use. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a perfect Southern California fall recipe.

Fig-Gravenstein Jam
Figs literally drip from the trees around here this time of year. I'm serious, they drip. They overripen and ferment if no one picks them, and they drip from their little belly buttons as they drop off the fragrant trees. My friend RWW and I liberated fruit from one such untended tree recently and were both gifted with more figs than we could possibly eat before they spoiled. Eating jammy-ripe figs every late-summer is a benefit of living in this place, but having the bounty to make jam with them is an even more special blessing. I spent my teenage years in Minnesota, where figs only appeared in Newtons, so I am quite aware that I'm lucky to have this bounty.

This jam tastes like fall. The sharp brightness of the apples and red wine vinegar balance the intense sweetness of the purple fruits, and cinnamon and and lemon peel round out the flavor. It is very good paired with roast pork, on top of vanilla ice cream, or swirled with yogurt for a jumble of sweet and tart, smooth and crunch. It is a soft jam, much softer than other almost caramelly fig jams, and as such, can serve as a very elegant applesauce alternative.

To make 4 1/2 pint jars, with a smidgin' left over to nibble on, you will need:
2 pounds of ripe, rinsed figs
1 pound of gravenstein or other tart baking-type apple
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 1/2 cups sugar
the juice of one lemon
one cinnamon stick
2 2" strips of lemon peel, yellow part only, removed from the fruit with a fruit peeler or sharp knife

To make the jam:
Peel and dice the apples into 1/4" to 1/2" dice. Cut the fig into quarters or eights, depending on the size of the fruit. Mix the fruit and all other ingredients together in a large pot on the stove and turn the heat to medium-high.

Bring the mixture to a boil stirring occasionally to keep from scorching the bottom, and continue to cook, skimming and discarding foam from the mixture if necessary, until a candy thermometer tells you that you've reached 221 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fish out the lemon peel and cinnamon stick with tongs and discard them (or better yet, throw them in your compost pile), and carefully ladle the jam into sterilized jars. Seal according to the USDA's instructions for canning.


Wendy said...

"They drip from their little belly buttons as they drop off the fragrant trees" - love this. :)

I'm impressed by your labours. Sounds like a huge amount of work. The harvest will glorious make up for it though!

My problem just now is that my summer crops are finished and the winter crops I just planted may not survive the frosts that are forecasted for next week... It'll be interesting to see what happens. :)

Lucy said...

Hey, hey, expanding the octagon...excellent news! I suppose that Southern Californian winters must be milder that I first suspected. Similar to ours, methinks.

The jam sounds exquisite.

Sunburn? Poor you. Rub a cut tomato on it or better still some aloe vera, plucked straight from the plant. Boy, do I know about sunburn...

Susan said...

Sodbusting and rototilling, I know them well. But what you will reap! Once you initially toil to prepare the soil, it never is that backbreaking again.

Figs dripping from trees? Sounds like does your jam.

The Passionate Palate said...

I can already envision your fully planted backyard garden. I wish I had that much space to plant. We share our small backyard with our dogs and they need their plot of grass, so most of my plants are in pots. I will live vicariously through your garden planting!

Decadent looking jam!

winedeb said...

Oh how I wish I had anything to till up! I cannot wait to hear what you plant. We are still in the dead of summer down here with nightime temps in the 80's and days 90. The sun is still pretty brutle so I only have a few pepper plants and herbs growing at the moment and those I shuffle around during the day so they do not get scorched. I have a couple of months to go before I can plant again. I am trying to figure out how to get some really BIG containers here. But I am a happy camper as I have seed catalog in hand and WILL figure my container situation. Thanks for posting photos of your "soon to be" garden! Looking forward to seeing your harvest in a few months!

Sarah said...

I guess I forget that figs are not lusciously everwhere. I was in Boston this past weekend and found some figs at Russo's market and brought them to a party. Everyone there exclaimed they had never, ever had fresh figs before. You should have seen their eyes widen when I told them about the fig tree in my daughter's schoolyard... We are so lucky here!

Anonymous said...

Christina--Your amusing comment about wanting to kiss your diplomas reminds me of being on a photo shoot inside a foundry. In August. In St. Louis. It was for a local bank; the foundry was a business client of the bank's. The bank president's son, upon finishing high school, announced that he wanted to take some time off before attending the college where he'd already been accepted--maybe travel, maybe work. His dad sent him to work at the foundry for a few days. The kid was in college that fall.

Christina said...

Wendy: Thanks! I hope your veggies made it through the frost--it's so disappointing when the weather has different plans than we do.

Lucy: The winters are quite warm. It's a subtropical climate, and in fact, many of our non-native species are Australian imports. Thanks for the sunburn advice!

Susan: Thank you. I'm really looking forward to having a larger space and even better soil.

The Passionate Palate: Thanks! I'll try to photograph the garden adequately so that vicarious experience works. Also, pot-gardens can be very effective ways of growing food.

Winedeb: We had been experiencing similar heat to what you describe until the weather broke this month, so most of my summer crops were really done. No more tomatoes, a few scraggly peppers coming in (sunburned, of course), and plenty of dependable eggplant. Aren't seed catalogs so much fun?

Sarah: We are lucky. I've heard that figs can grow as far north as New York City, if they're protected, but I've never met someone who actually did grow them that far north. And, I can't imagine them in Boston. I'm always amazed at the amount of food that just grows along roadsides here.

Terry B.: That's a great story! I think I'm going to have to tell that one with my students. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Have a great day, everybody!

Susan in Italy said...

Hey how great to still be eating fresh figs. They seem to have gone out of season here. I love your idea of making a fig jam with apples, vinegar and cinnamon. I makes me think of a cross between my own fig preserves and an appple chutney. Sounds like it would be good on warm toasty bread.