Sunday, September 26, 2010


It's over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit outside today, and I can't even think about writing. Isn't there a theory out there that eating spicy-hot foods actually cools you down? Or, is the heat just making me lose my mind?

Whatever. I can't think well. It's hot. My chiles are ripe and hot. I like hot food and want to eat it all year long, so I made myself this:

Yup, "rooster" sauce, or super-spicy-chile-garlic-sauce. And it's easy. And even though it will heat up your food, it won't heat up your kitchen. And finally, it is the base for another recipe that will soon appear on this here little blog o' mine.

Southeast Asian Chile-Garlic Relish
This comes straight out of Linda Ziedrich's amazing book The Joy of Pickling. It's a quick, easy recipe, and it is infinitely usable. It tastes fantastic in dry-fried green beans and stirred into breakfast eggs. It's hot and tangy and garlicky-delicious. I just made my first quart yesterday so I haven't had experience with how well it ages, but due to the high acidity and salt, Ziedrich writes that it "will keep well for as long as a year" in the refrigerator. To make mine, I used ripe chiles from my two plants of Chile Rallado, an heirloom Mexican jalapeƱo-type chile.

You will need:
1 1/2 pounds ripe hot peppers, stemmed and cut into rough chunks
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
Peeled cloves of 1 small head garlic

To make the sauce:
Pulse the ingredients together in a food processor until minced but not pureed (the seeds should stay whole). Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator or in airtight containers in the freezer.

That's it.


It's hot.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It Comes in Dribbles

My early fall harvest, that is.

The peanut harvest is slow in coming. You can see the nodes reaching down from where the flowers had been on the peanut plants. I planted these in April, and just now they're beginning to send down what will become peanuts. This variety is Carolina Black.

Daily, I bring in collections of four or five tomatoes and a few peppers. However, it looks like in a week or so I'll be slammed with peppers. I can't wait. In this picture you can see a couple Zavory peppers and four Black and Brown Boar tomatoes.

I've now finished my winter squash harvest, and the squash are sitting in the shadiest and coolest part of the shed. Here, you can see some of them. The long-stemmed pumpkins are Winter Luxury Pie, the yellow acorns are Gil's Golden Pippin, the large pumpkin is a renegade Winter Luxury Pie (the sole fruit of one vine, perhaps accounting for its size?), the dark green are Uncle David's Dakota Dessert, and the mottled bells in the back are Seminole.

And this, relaxing in an old desk chair on the back porch, is Titan, the mighty sunflower. This week, I harvested two heads this size.

Also this week, I've harvested bunches and bunches of basil and sweet potato greens. Jars of fennelseed and coriander fill a bit more each time I go outside.

If you would like to see what others are harvesting across the spinning blue, stop by Daphne's Dandelions for Harvest Monday.


Going back to school jolts my consciousness every year, but this year, with two deaths of significant members of the school community within the first few weeks, has been particularly tough. I keep oscillating between reveling in my students and their quirks and sparks, and mourning people who, as a coworker said of them, "loved well." I'm thankful to have known both. Loving well, I'm going to be practicing that as best as I can.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Books and Mantids

My yard serves as the hunting ground for whole fleets of praying mantids. In fact, this time of year, before the smells begin to change for fall, is when they're most obvious. They've reached near-full size now, and they're beginning to think about mating. The females are sitting on their perches with their fannies curled up in the air, letting the whole mantis world see their goods, while the males are usually hanging out just a few feet away from the females, collecting their guts and gear before they approach the females to mate. Although it doesn't happen as frequently as folklore tells us, sometimes the female will eat the male during mating. That usually only happens when the females are hungry. A warning to all the male mantids out there: make sure your mate is well fed and happy before jumping on.

This morning, I went out to check on the couple that has been hanging out in the bananas and gingers against our bedroom wall. Alert and in full hunting mode, the male greeted me by peeking over his leaf perch and looking straight at me.

Praying mantids, similar to several other insects, have compound eyes that create the illusion of pupils watching me as I move. Along with their two large compound eyes, they have three eyes on the front of their face between the compound eyes, and they have the ability to move their heads nearly completely around to see in all directions, giving them remarkable eyesight. This particular male has reached his final molt, clear to me because he now has wings to help him get to where the girls are. The fact that he's reached maturity is what allows me to easily determine that he's a male; he's longer and more slender than a female, and he has full length wings and long antennae. 

After females' final molts, the wings they develop (if they do develop them) are short and ineffective. As well, their abdomens tend to be wider. I think that the other mantis in the ginger is a female, for she has such a wide abdomen and much shorter antennae, but she hasn't reached her final molt yet, so I'm not absolutely sure. When I found her this morning, she was mid-molt, her old skin split across her back and her new body wiggling slowly out of it. I had never watched a mantis molt before. She seemed Zen-like and slow, perhaps not even conscious, completely unresponsive to me sticking the camera right in her face. As she finished, she hung upside down in the sunlight for a while, her new face like a green opal.

Whenever I spend time with praying mantids, I remember the carefully detailed fight scene in Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals. As a child, Durrell filled his room with his discoveries, living and otherwise. One evening, he found Geronimo, the gecko that hunted on his windowsill, and Cecily, his pet praying mantis, engaged in a fight to the death. He reports every blow, every strategic move, every fault in both warriors' fight. Cecily lost. By a tail.

I like the book as a fun read about a young biologist approaching both his family and his surroundings with fascination, but I don't love the book. Luckily for me, this memoir and those that follow it aren't the only types of books Durrell has written. He also wrote a handbook that changed my life.

When I was twelve, my grandmother gave me Gerald and Lee Durell's A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist: What to do in 17 various environments—from your own back yard to beach, meadow, or woods; from feeding an orphan bird to planting a bottle garden, breeding butterflies, and much more. A long title, yes, but it didn't daunt me. I must have read this book twenty times between the year I got it and the year I graduated from high school. When I wasn't reading it, I kept it handy for reference. It followed me from the fields and vegetable gardens of our little ranch in the Central Valley of California to the deciduous woodlands of our hilltop home in Minnesota. I carried the book in my head as I poked in tidal pools and sand dunes on vacations. When my family and I toed our way through the Boundary Waters of the northern reaches of Minnesota, my brother and I found a stand of pitcher plants growing out of a moldering mat of reeds and moss, and because of this book, I had the theory of ecological succession right in the front of my brain.

In college, curious and in love with the possibilities across the disciplines, I took classes in as many fields as I could, leading me eventually to a class called Environmental Geography. The final, focusing on the characteristics of different natural environments, seemed to be lifted straight from the book that had been so important to me in my adolescence. As I took the test, I felt like Val Kilmer's character Chris Knight in Real Genius. I handed in my test with the kind of confidence that if I were more of a bitch would have allowed me scrawl "I aced this" on a scrap of paper and hand it in with the test. I did ace the test. When I got my test back, I could see my professor had written "A+" and "Please see my in my office" across the top. In her office, she told me she had never given an A+ in her teaching career, and though she didn't doubt my honesty, she wanted to know what I did to study. I told her about The Amateur Naturalist, but I'm not sure she understood what that meant. I didn't study in the typical sense. Instead, I'd been studying for that test since I was a kid in every interaction with nature I made.  Every walk to class was an opportunity for me to study for that test. 

So now, I spend a large portions of my free time watching praying mantids molt, hummingbirds catch gnats over the compost pile, monarch caterpillars munch away the milkweed. I devour books, fiction and nonfiction, because I know that each can change the way I approach the small and even the biggest parts of my life. And I am never bored.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Great Tomato Review of 2010

Tomatoes have come in waves around here. One wave hit while we were in Argentina, and our friend Russell was able to harvest and enjoy our tomatoes; we caught the end of that wave upon our return. We've had a steady stream of tomatoes since then, but now we're gearing up for another wallop of ripening tomatoes. Though I've put off canning all summer, I can see that I'll be able to put it off no longer.

It's been a good year with some great tomatoes who stole my heart and my tastebuds. Before I get started, I should say that I took some of these pictures with eggs (courtesy of Blondie and Smalls) so you could have a size reference. Let me introduce you to this year's tomato team, listed in no particular order.

1) Guernsey Island Pink Blush
Here, you can see that Guernsey Island Pink Blush is a small tomato, but larger than many cherry tomatoes. I guess one could categorize it as a "grape" tomato, though better tasting than any grape tomato I've experienced. Slightly elongated, most fruits have a small nipple and are a sexy, deep pink color. They're incredibly sweet with a fantastic eating texture: firm but thin-skinned, balanced perfectly between gel and flesh. The flesh has a slippery, tongue-like texture, which sounds kind of naughty, as if you're French-kissing a tomato when you eat one, but the tomato kisses you back, and who doesn't want such a sweet kiss? The only thing I've done with this tomato so far is pop handfuls of them in my mouth as appetizers or garden snacks, but I'm sure these would be great in salads, topping a fire grilled pizza, or tossed with pasta.

2) Goose Creek
This tomato was a complete disappointment to me. It was way too small for a regular tomato, way too grocery-storish, way too unproductive. Supposedly able to set fruit in heat, it stopped making fruit as soon as it warmed up. It also gets sun burned far too easily for my climate. It was all around lame.

Except for one thing: the tomatoes dried very nicely in one of our heat waves.

Despite this, I will not grow Goose Creek again.

3) Linnie's Oxheart
Oooooooh baby, these are some mothers, some bright red triple Ds of a tomato. On top of their heft, they're delicious. They've got a great, balanced flavor and are just about the meatiest non-paste tomatoes I've ever encountered. Linnie's Oxheart (and Kosovo, below) have solidified my love for oxheart tomatoes. They taste good, they're super-meaty, they're usually large, and they make great sandwiches and canners. That's what I want out of a tomato: everything. Though Linnie's Oxheart and Kosovo are very similar, Linnie's wins by a hair on flavor. To my tongue, Linnie's Oxheart has enough tang to balance the sweet, making the flavor more complex than in Kosovo. The plant has been a steady producer, offering no big glut, but one or two ripe tomatoes at a time, spread out over the season.

Linnie's Oxheart is a winner and will stick around.

4) Kosovo
Kosova wins the blue ribbon this year. The flavor may not be quite as complex as Linnie's, as it sits on the sweeter side of tomatoes, but it is so meaty, so productive, so blemish-free, so early and so late, it has given me nothing to complain about. The first ripe tomato in my garden was not a Guernsey Island Pink Blush; nope, it was a huge, pound-plus Kosovo. And even through the heat, this guy keeps setting fruit. The plant is now easily ten feet high, and it shows no wear-and-tear of disease, heat stress, drought stress, or age that many of the other plants now exhibit. As well, while many oxhearts have wispy leaves that offer too many opportunities for sunburn or bird buffets, Kosovo has regular, sturdy leaves.

The fruits are very deep pink, and the flesh has few seeds. In fact, it has so few seeds that seed saving from this guy is quite a bit of a chore—a very, very worthwhile chore. I'm looking forward to canning a load of Linnie's Oxhearts and Kosovos in the next couple weeks.

5) Black and Brown Boar
Such a pretty tomato, isn't it? I love the way the bronzy-greeny-browny stripes look against the rust red on the flesh. The interior doesn't have the same stripey quality; it looks like a basic "black" tomato on the inside. And the taste? Good. Much better than any grocery store tomato and most farmer's market tomatoes, but it didn't blow my mind. They taste similar to the Japanese Black Trifele that I grew last year, though the flavor of the Japanese Black Trifele didn't fare as well with the heat as Black and Brown Boar's does (by this time year last year, Japanese Black Trifele produced tomatoes that were mushy and way too juicy to enjoy). Black and Brown Boars also fit in a funky middle-ground of size. They're not large enough to use much in meals, and they're too large for cherry/grape tomato uses. I guess I just like my 'maters on the large end or the small end. I have little use for mid-size. Black and Brown Boar, I just want you to swell up for me a bit, okay? If you could do that, I'd grow you again.

6) Brad's Black Heart
By far, this is the best tasting tomato of the year. Daaaaaaaaaaaaang, just thinking about this tomato makes my mouth water. Sweet, smokey, a little salty, meaty . . . hungry yet? I wish this tomato was a better producer. It's semi determinate, but seems to send up new stalks, that, though they get no taller than the small plant, set more fruit. So it didn't stop setting fruit, like a determinate variety, but it did slow way down. I have two of these guys in my garden, and they grow the same way, in spurts and sick-looking. They don't seem to have any real disease, but they've never appeared to thrive either. That won't stop me from growing them again though; this is the tomato to slurp up in simple 'mater salads of garlic, olive oil, basil, salt, and plenty of tomatoes.

7) Green Pineapple
In the picture below, Green Pineapple is in the bottom and Not Wes is on the top.

Green Pineapple has a mostly golden-green skin when ripe, but the flesh is disarmingly green, lime Jell-o green, apple Now And Later green. They're juicy, flattened beefsteaks, and they fit firmly in the sweet end of the tomato flavor spectrum. Despite the expectations their coloring creates, they aren't tangy. They're nice eating in salads, especially with a shot of sherry vinegar to zip them up a bit, and I've enjoyed growing them. While the green-green color is fascinating to add to salsas, and although they're certainly unique, they're not on my must-grow-again list. Of course, I say that now, and who knows? By next year, I may really want to have Green Pineapple again just for the variety.

8) Not Wes
I picked the Not Wes below on the shy end of ripe. They're good that way, but they're great when they turn dark gold. I've written about them before, so I won't beat a dead horse, but I will add that they're a funny tomato in that they seem to love the microclimate of my yard. And who wants to mess with that? I'll keep them around as long as they keep doing they're funky, beautiful thing.