Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Z is for zucchini

I'm hopeless at them.

I always read with amusement the "how to get rid of zucchini" posts every summer. In the past decade, with zucchini planted maybe 4 of those years, I think I have managed, maybe... 3?

That's right-- three zucchinis. Not three plants. Three. Zucchinis.

It's one of the untold stories of the gardening world--the things that experienced, knowledgeable gardeners are bad at. I am hopeless at eggplant, beets, spinach, zucchini, and onions. No amount of reading, training, class-taking, soil-amending, researching, wintersowing, direct sowing, indoor sowing--you name it I've tried it, seems to be able to get consistent harvests from me on these plants.

Notoriously difficult plants like pumpkins and leeks, corn, cabbage, rosemary? No problem. They do just fine.

Mind you, the eggplant seedlings that I grew are in gardens all over Chicago, yielding dozens of fruits per plant. Mine have managed fewer than one each--6 aubergine plants, 5 fruits so far. I did manage to get 80 onions this year, after the 3rd planting finally took. Beets, though. I've planted 4 entire seed packets. I have 6 beets out there, and they're of the "baby" sort. If I ran a fancy restaurant, the type where a dish=one bite, and I only made enough for the first 3 diners, I'd be golden.

And then there's zucchini. I love zucchini. I can cook a LOT of zucchini. Stir fry, lasagna, bread, salads, pickles. And yet I just don't seem to be able to grow it.

Next time you walk into someone's gorgeous garden, think about what you don't see. Everyone can't grow something.

And finally--thank you so much Suzy Morris, for this very challenging challenge. I think I managed every letter, if not every day. Who's with me for the next challenge-- a No Buy October!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Y is for Yellow

From the garden, spring through fall.

Monday, August 29, 2011

X is for Xan

I have this funny idea, that people don't remember me. When I encounter someone I've met only a few times, I always put out my hand and state my name, just in case.

Which is really rather funny, as I'm probably one of the more memorable people you'll meet. From my mixed-race family, to my outsized personality, to my pink hair, to my funny name I'm fairly out of the ordinary.

Or make that eXtraordinary.

As are we all.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

W is for Work

In retrospect, it would have been a nice pairing to make V for Vacation as, despite the posts that opened my Alphabet in August, I never take one.

As a freelancer and part timer, not to mention a gardener, "vacation" at one job is usually used for special projects at another. If one job goes on hiatus (for instance, the ice rink closes, as it does 4 times a year, for 1 to 2 weeks at a time), rather than being able to take vacation, one of my other jobs probably just has a big job due.

Sometimes I take vacation time at one job to do the big task at another.

But in some ways that's okay. Work is one of my favorite things to do on vacation--work in the garden, or a week spent working at my art, or doing a rehab project in the house. I like to "work" at my writing. I don't think I could take one of those vacations where you lie around on a beach or a hammock all day, doing nothing. It would drive me insane. Maybe a day, maybe two. But two weeks?

Give me something to work on!

Friday, August 26, 2011

V is for Victory Garden

I'll let my good friend LaManda Joy handle this one:

A Victory Gardens primer

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

T is for Tomato and U is for Update

T is also for twofer, and for thank god because this is really exhausting.

I'm participating in two tomato growing projects this year:
  • I'm saving 3 kinds of tomato seeds for the Populuxe seed bank- Bramki (a very meaty slicing tomato), Ferris Wheel (slicers) and Blondkopfchen (a golden cherry)
  • I'm growing German Pink tomatoes for the One Heirloom Project
I also work on adapting tomatoes to my own backyard. I've got my stalwart Black Krim (on its 10th year now and looking great); on their 3rd year- Stupice, and in just their second two new varieties- Goldman's Italian American, and San Marzanos (from seedlings developed by Chicago Botanic Garden), plus I'm trying to decide if I want to keep going with the Heirlooms Golds (don't know the variety). They had a tough year.

Bramki: A real keeper, as I've said before. I've got a good start on seed saving, but would like one more good looking fruit before I call it a day. These got a little stressed from the horrible Blondkopfchen next door (see next), but it's a killer tomato-big, juicy, delicious and also very beautiful.

Blondkopfchen. Never. Again. Hideously blight-prone, leggy, slow. Flavor nice, but nothing to replace a good Sungold. I saved seeds, but I'm loathe to add them to the seed bank because I don't want anyone to grow these. I finally took it out because it was infecting the nearby Bramkis which I don't want to lose. Unfortunately, I also had to take out the sungold, not because it was blighty, but it just stopped setting flowers, so I had all this leggy growth and no fruit. Weird.

Ferris Wheel: Nice, but not great flavor, tendency to very large, easily bruised fruit. Reasonably prolific considering it's not adapted to local conditions. But I don't think I'll be able to devote space to this guy again.

The German Pink is still trying to keep up, and has finally managed to set a fruit. Just one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

S is for Shortcut

So there you are.

Two hundred and twenty tomatoes, all ripe at once.

And a giant project due at work.

As much as you would like to, you can't spend all day seeding, peeling and rendering tomatoes, but they're going to go bad. But you can make a quick sauce-- a little messier, a little off-the cuff, but way faster than those jars of perfect paste you've been dreaming of.

Ready? Don't tell Martha.

Quick tomato sauce
per serving:
1 pound of whole tomatoes, roughly cut
1/4 cup fresh or 1 T dried oregano and parsley
salt, pepper to taste
If it's going to be around for a while, add about 1 teaspoon rice vinegar or lemon juice per serving

A blender.

Grind away folks. You can use it right away, or freeze it. You can take it out later to make a proper paste as you normally would, and then can it. (You'll have to run it through a food mill because it will have the seeds and skins in it.) I've used this as is to do sauteed chicken and chops, on spaghetti, and in lasagna.

Monday, August 22, 2011

R is for Radio

For someone who has the tv on a lot, I don't really watch a lot of tv. In fact, I mostly sleep to tv.

But I'm a radio junkie. I like it because you can DO things while listening to the radio. TV, TiVo, Netflix, movies-you have to sit and watch. But I get a lot done while listening to the radio-gardening, cooking, cleaning, writing.

As I write this I'm listening to the Mike Nowak Show on WCPT (Chicago Progressive Talk) my single venture into AM radio. Mike's a lot of fun, and I learn a lot, and he tweets, allowing me to pretend I know a celebrity (if you define celebrity as "my mother would be impressed", since Mike's a pretty regular guy). I've put in a lot of gardens, and made a lot of pickles, while listening to Mike.

The rest of the time, pretty much, being a knee-jerk liberal, I listen to NPR, which stays in the background while tapping the consciousness every now and then with fascinating insights and info.

And my guilty pleasure? Mainstream country music alone in the car on late night drives.

Here's what I made while listening to Mike this morning.

Cucumber-plum honey pickles
Cukes & yellow plums, about 3 plums for every medium cucumber. (I used 7 cukes and a quart of plums, yielding about 8 cups of cut fruit)
Mildly hot peppers (to taste)

For 1 quart of pickling juice:
juice of 2 lemons
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/2 -2 cups water
1/4 cup kosher or pickling salt

Bring the juice to a boil, simmer for about 10 minutes. While it is simmering, peel, seed and slice the cukes, pit the plums and cut them into bite-size pieces (I actually use a scissor for this). Pour the hot liquid over the fruit, and refrigerate overnight. Pack into jars, with the fruit just covered with liquid, and put in a hot water bath to seal (35 minutes fully submersed at a rolling boil). Properly canned, these should be shelf-stable, although I refrigerate anyway, just to be safe.

If you have any leftover juice, save it for the next batch!

This makes a mild sweet-and-sour pickle, with a lovely peachy color.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Q is for questions

I'm always asking them. Today's question is "why have I never cooked anything that starts with Q?"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

P is for Preserving

I've always been pretty good, considering my demographic, about feeding my family whole, fresh foods, although I was terrible about the junk food when the kids were growing up. Ten hour day and 90 minute commute? McDonald's sounded pretty good to me.

But my kids will confirm that I Cooked Dinner. And once I got the garden in, when they were in grade school, I started, as many gardeners do, to have more than we could consume, especially tomatoes. So I learned how to make tomato paste.

At first I would just stick it in the freezer--no need for heat canning, or worrying about pH levels, but lately the freezer isn't big enough. Twenty-five tomato plants yields a lot of paste.

I also had a duh moment about jam. I never made it, because I didn't grow the ingredients. It literally never occurred to me to buy the fruit when it was in season, and make jam out of someone else's bounty. I really only ever thought about preserving what I grew myself, like there was some sort of law against preserving bought bounty.

Undoubtedly a consequence of my misspent youth.

Here are some of the jams
I've made since I figured it out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

N is for Not Enough Time

I was planning to spend the day at the Independent Garden Center show looking for things that start with N (I was going to say "N-words" but that sounds so wrong).

Unfortunately, I have ended up sick in bed annoying everyone with too much tweeting, and writing/scheduling blog posts to take me through 2018.

So N becomes Not Enough Time, which is how I felt in the 2 or so hours I had to walk the floor yesterday. I think there were more than 1,000 vendors, and the place is brimming with cool stuff, boring stuff, wtf-stuff and lots and lots of people to meet.

I stopped by Clesen Wholesalers, one of those places where one of my lives (skating--Dawn Clesen was my daughter's first serious coach), meets the other, namely gardening. I went by the Ethel's booth to see if there really is an Ethel, and to brag that I know Suzy Morris (aka Chiots Run, and Ethel's official blogger!). Alas, no Ethel, but wowie zowie I got to meet Renee of Renee's Garden. Some people are impressed by R. Kelly. Me? I like the seed ladies.

One of the vendors had lovely handmade soaps in various scents, including a "garden dirt" one, haha. Which, yes, I will buy this. I complain a lot about our toxic, extractive, consumerist culture, but I'm pretty much a sucker for a cute product.

Oh, and I told Corona Tools I'd find an "N" tool that I like. so here it is: catalog Number FS4350, Thinning Shears, forged blade.

Is that cheating?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

M is for Media

As in, I've got a Media pass to the Independent Garden Center show in Chicago this week.

M is also for Meet up, wherein all the bloggers and social media types with these passes get fed lunch, and I get to meet face to face a lot of the people I've befriended on Twitter and through the blogs. I'm not all that connected, as in no smart phone, so tweeting will be a little one-sided (I can tweet out, but not receive), but I'll let you know about the best products I see. I will make a special effort to look for "Ns" (Wednesday), and "Os" (Thursday)!

Anyway, follow me on Twitter @NotDabblingXan; we'll see how I do as a "real" media person.

And just because you really should be doing this, here's Little Blue Hen's wonderful recipe for easy (easy easy) homemade mayonnaise. I actually double the recipe below and I use cold eggs; I find that the oil emulsifies more reliably if you do that.

Anyway, stop buying mayonnaise in the store. I mean it.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Adapted from The Perfect Pantry via Little Blue Hen
Makes about 1 1/2- 2 cups

2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons room-temp water
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cup light, unflavored oil (canola, safflower, or grapeseed. The flavored oils, like nut or olive) will give your mayo a distinct taste of the oils)
1 teaspoon salt
juice of 1/4 lemon

Put egg yolk, water, and mustard in the bowl of a 3-cup food processor. Run the blade to make sure it catches the mixture, dribble in a bit more water if needed or stir up the yolk to get it to catch. Run the food processor until the mixture is pale yellow (about 30 seconds or so).

The oil must be added very slowly to ensure that the mixture emulsifies. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in a narrow (pencil tip width) steady stream. You can tell the emulsion is working because you'll start to hear slapping sounds as the food processor runs. Some recipes recommend stopping when about 1/3 of the oil has been added, and then continue to add by teaspoonfuls, but I've found it works fine to just keep the steady stream going. Stop the motor and check the mayonnaise to make sure it is emulsifying. If so, continue adding the oil slowly until it is all combined.

When all the oil has been added, add the salt and lemon juice. The lemon juice will help increase its shelf life. I've had this mayo last 3 months in the fridge.

It took me about 3 tries to get my rhythm on homemade mayo, but it is so superior to even the best store bought that once you get the hang of it, you'll never buy mayo again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

L is for Lefovers

I almost used this one for the 4th-- 'C'-- but leftovers seems more apt, and the celery is more likely to be ready to pick late in the month.

The Thai apple salad (for the Peterson Garden Project Cookbook, and yes, it's delicious, and yes you're going to have to buy the cookbook to get that recipe), left me with leftover apples, apple skins, and bits and pieces of celery. So I invented these two recipes, both of which are delicious. I need Chiot's Run to come over here and take a mouth watering picture of the iced tea.

Celery-apple pesto
Leaves from one bunch of celery, stalks removed (about 2 cups; hold onto those stalks!)
1/2 cup apple, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
2 T grated Parmagiano
salt to taste

Stick it in the food processor, grind away. I think you're supposed to do pesto in delicate stages so you don't bruise the leaves or something, but this blog is supposedly about the way people actually prepare food. (Sorry, foodies)

Celery-apple green iced tea
Any leftover apple peels
Any leftover celery stalks (reserve a leafy one for a garnish)
6 bags green tea
1+ T agave syrup (depending on how sweet you like your tea)
4 cups water
2 additional cups water

Put the apple and celery in the first four cups of water and bring to a hard boil. Leaving them in the water, add the teabags and sweetener and steep until the water is cool. Strain into a pitcher and add the additional water, plus 1-2 trays of ice cubes.

Serve with a leafy celery stalk.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

K is for Kitchen

I spend a lot of time in here.

I've always been a cook, of the I-like-home-cooking variety (never a "chef" or "foodie," g*d forbid), but I got into it in a big way about 3 years ago when I got downsized, which was both depressing and gave me a lot of free time.

So I learned to do preserving, and started blogging all our family recipes, and then starting making shit up, and putting those in here too.

Last year we finally put in an island, so I more or less moved my office (aka the laptop) in here so I could cook and "work" at the same time (hahahaha). Seriously, I can sit here and bake or set up preserves while writing for my clients. I look out the back door at my garden. It makes up for the iniquity of being downsized; I like to joke that it beats the heck out of working for a living.

Friday, August 12, 2011

J is for Just make it up

My community garden is putting together a cook book. I've got a cooking blog, so I think I'm kind of expected to contribute, but the thing is, the contribution form wants to know things like "prep time" and "cooking time" and "number of servings" and, um, ah, "measurements."

As you can see from the recipe below, measurements is a somewhat amorphous concept around here. And serving size? Um, how much can I eat without looking like a total pig? Does that count as a serving size?

It's J, so I suppose I should have made jam. Oh well.

Heirloom potato salad with carmelized onions and hot peppers
4-5 good handfuls of multi-colored fingerling potatoes (have to go to a farmers' market for these, you're not going to find them at the Safeway)
1-2 cups of thinly sliced onions
1-2 large jalapeno (ha- J!) or hot banana peppers, also thinly sliced

oil & vinegar dressing, about 3 tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon ginger, if to taste (in the dressing)

Cut the larger potatoes into bite size pieces, place in a large saucepan filled with water and cook until just done. Immediately drain and refill the pot with cold water (even add some ice cubes) and put the potatoes back in.

Carmelize the onions and peppers in 2 tablespoons of butter, sauteeing on very low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the potatoes and mix all ingredients together in a decorative bowl (for pretty).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

H is for Historical Reenactment

I'm back home from our brief and delightful vacation, with just one more vacation post.

We spent one day in the town of Elizabeth. You'd be surprised how much time you can spend, and enjoy, in a tiny place like this. It's got a cool little historical downtown, just one block long. It's surrounded by farms, including many homesteaders like Joyful Acres, Holloway Farms, and the Galena Log Cabin Getaway, which despite the name mostly exists to raise alpaca.

Elizabeth is the site of Blackhawk War, another dreadful blot on American history, in which, as usual, European and East Coast settlers helped themselves to Native lands, ignored entreaties to negotiate an equitable settlement and then murdered women and children when the native peoples objected. I learned about Black Hawk as one of the great villains of American history, callously attacking peaceful settlers; I'm happy to report that the history now taught, as written out in the local history museum, seems much more balanced and fair to the native peoples.

Anyway, we were there on a reenactment day, and one of the things they reenacted was a funeral, including a walk to the local graveyard, where the two white victims of the Black Hawk War are buried. No one knew where the 700 Indian victims are.

I got (H is for ) heat stroke.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

G is for Galena

One comes to Galena to be charmed, and Galena does not disappoint. We're in full tourist mode, missing only the fanny packs, but in Galena it hardly matters. I'm pretty sure Galena in August is Paris in August--the only residents in sight are the shop keepers.

They are very very happy.

I'm sitting in the very charming Rendevous Coffee and Tea. Here's a big part of the charm; this is what greeted us as we walked in:
More Galena charm:

Monday, August 8, 2011

F is for Family

Starting out on our journey, we encountered Nora's Place.

Which is out daughter's name, so we had to eat there.

This engendered a discussion about an interesting road trip, based on visiting places with names of the significant people in your life. (What a concept for a blog. Dibs.)

And right in this area are the towns of Nora, Elizabeth, Free[port], and Dubuque, Iowa (named for Julien Dubuque). Covering my daughter, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and son.

F is also for friends, who lent us their beautiful house for the weekend. Their fully stocked kitchen had arborio rice, so we stopped at a local farmstand and picked up the goods to make this wonderful risotto.

Roasted fennel and onion risotto with fresh corn
1 medium fennel bulb with ferns
1 medium red onion
2 ears corn, nibletted
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 cups fennel-onion stock

salt and pepper to taste

Peel the onion, and cut the ferns and stems off the fennel. Reserve the ferns, and put the onion ends and skins and the fennel stems in 4-5 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for ten minutes. Drain in a separate pot and keep it hot. Meantime, quarter the fennel bulb and the onion and roast in a 350/170 oven for 40 minutes, then chop roughly.

To make the rice, heat the pot and cover the bottom of a 2 quart pot with olive oil, add the corn and rice and toast it for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup of the hot stock and stir until it is completely absorbed. Continuing to add stock 1/2 cup at a time, letting it absorb completely each time. After about two cups, add the roasted vegetables, and continue adding stock until it is all absorbed. This can take 30 or more minutes. You may have some liquid left over.

When done, turn off the heat, cover and allow the rice to "rest" for about ten minutes. Serve with freshly grated cheese.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

D is for Daughter

Is there anyone who is not blessed in their daughters?

When she was born, I wanted a daughter so badly (I already had a son) that I refused to allow myself to believe that my wish had come true. When my husband and the doctor told me it was a girl, I actually argued.

I can see in my daughter the long line of women leading into the mists back to Eve; her existence connects me to the womb of the earth that is the dark, precious, secret places anchoring us. I am continually amazed at her faith and courage and humor.

Nga* is a sea of tall grass
With roots tangled anchored
To the earth
And stems that stretch for the golden sun
And wave and reach for
They hide the small and private things of the earth
with sound and movement and mystery

*her Chinese name

Thursday, August 4, 2011

C is for Cheating

As in, I haven't yet managed to come up with a new recipe on the day it is "due." But I'm hoping I can cheat my way through and hold to the plan. (Maybe I should say, instead, that I am clever. Cute, huh?)

At any rate, I know what you've got in your garden, because I've got them too--waaaaay too many of them because every year I think "I'll plant 12 and remove the 9 weakest plants and end up with just enough....


You can thank me later.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A is for Apple Salad

I'm doing Alphabet August with Chiot's Run. Can't promise a recipe every day, but I'm going to try for a word!

The Peterson Garden Project is making a cookbook all about growing and using your own herbs and vegetables. I'm testing four recipes, and recruiting my hapless friends into testing some more. I made three of them for our annual Lammas Fest, and tested them on those same hapless friends. I'll give the bare bones of the ingredients here, but if you want the whole recipe, you've got to buy the cookbook!

Herbed Goat Cheese dip has fresh goat cheese with olive oil and plain yogurt, giving it a lovely lemony taste. Six herbs, all of which I managed to have in my garden!
Thai Apple Salad was the hit of the day--a wonderful fresh combination of unexpected tastes with a secret ingredient!
Pesto Genovese. Oh, pesto. It's a great recipe with the clearest step by step I've seen, but in the way of pesto turned black within seconds. Sigh.

There's a few dozen more recipes in this book! Subscribe to our newsletter at the Peterson Garden Project website to get the updates! So I guess while I'm at it, A is also for Advocate, and Advertise!