Garden Snapshot 11.18.14

It was 75 degrees outside yesterday.  Tonight it will get down to 24, then swing wildly back upwards to 70 later in the week.  Which seems about right, for a North Carolina winter.

Though we had a freeze, technically, a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t really a hard freeze: the peppers and eggplant survived, the dahlia still blossomed.  Most of the tomatoes were okay.  But I realized this past weekend, that I was so over them—tired of the tomatoes that stubbornly refused to redden; the bell peppers that failed to grow larger than the size of an olive (a large olive, but still: hardly worth it).

The cowpeas and okra have been shedding their leaves for weeks: these guys know when to give up the ghost.  And so, I’ve been actually looking forward to a killing frost: the tomatoes were less than stellar this year, so it’s time to move on, to regroup: I need better soil.

For Christmas, I’ve decided, I’ll be asking for a load of mulch.  This winter I’ll be spreading compost liberally, and in early spring amending the beds with blood and bonemeal.  I’ve cast about a cover crop of red clover seed into one sad, sandy bed, and other areas of the lawn where I don’t want grass anymore; hopefully they’ll grow this winter, enrich the soil, smother the grass, and die back in summer. That’s the plan, anyway.  I haven’t told Andy yet; last time I told him I wanted to expand the garden more, he told me, “Leave the lawn alone!” But it’s a pretty pitiful lawn, what with no irrigation, and a soil consisting mainly of sand.

This past weekend I pulled out most of the remaining summer veggies—the ones, at least, that were dead already or not going to produce anything before the first hard freeze.  It felt cleansing.  I pulled up—surprisingly—a handful of sweet potatoes, too.  Some of them were not worth eating, and some of them had been eaten already—by the damned mole that plagues my yard.

In the meantime I’m tending to the cold-hardy veggies.  I’ve seeded a bed with kale, and set out transplants in others.  I have a whole flat of onions to plant, and the volunteer arugulas are holding steady at a stout three inches tall.

I made a potato barrel of sorts: a leftover black plastic pot, filled partially with broken twigs (hugelkultur: google it), dead leaves, and soil.  So far they’ve done well, nestled in an L on the south side of the brick porch (thermal mass!).  Tonight it’s covered with a couple layers of old towels to try to keep the potato tops from frostbite.

So long, flip-flop season.  Happy fall gardening, from this corner of the earth!

What Works

Ever since I started baking bread, I had wanted to learn how to make baguettes—those lovely long loaves with crackly crusts and pillowy middles, perfect foils for soups or cheeses or satisfying as-is: a soft, steaming interior with softened butter, or without.

I had thought that baguettes were something you had to come to like a Zen-secret: years of study and intuition, a meditation on the feel of flour and the heft of dough.  I had thought they would be difficult.

Well!  I’m here to tell you that they’re not—not really—as long as you don’t mind a bit of planning ahead the night before to get your starter started.

The other thing, I think, that helped me succeed was that I had baguette pans (thanks, wedding registry!) which help support/shape the loaves (in addition to giving them nicely dimpled little bottoms). I can’t speak to how they turn out without using special pans, but I’m sure they would be mostly fine.

The original recipe calls for misting the loaves with water while baking them, but if you have ever tried this, you may have realized that when you repeatedly open your oven for lengths of time to spray water over the dough, you kind of let all the heat out of the oven, and you don’t even create enough steam (steam=crispy crust) to make it worthwhile.

Another technique calls for pouring boiling water into pans placed on the floor of the oven; I haven’t had much success in creating steam with this method, either.

The method I employ instead is to simply fill a juice glass about half full of water, and, as soon as the baguettes go into the oven I kind of just toss the glass of water sort-of onto the baguettes, but also sort-of (mostly) onto the floor of the oven.  It sizzles and steams in a very gratifying and immediate manner.

The only difficulty with this method of making steam, I’ve discovered, is making sure your husband is not in the room when you do this, otherwise he is going to say, “Oh my god, what are you doing, you’re going to burn out the element.”

Well, the jokes on him, because, while I do understand what the oven element is, I fail to grasp the nature of how, exactly, it works, beyond: It heats up.  So!  I blissfully continue to throw glassfuls of water into the oven since, not knowing the physics of how it works, I also do not know the physics of how it breaks.  This is a win-win situation, as far as ignorance and baguettes are concerned.

I have yet to burn out the element, for the record.*

*This is not meant to be taken as legal assurance that you, also, will not burn out the element.

The dough-making is a bit of a process.  The first few times I made this recipe I did it on a weekend so I could be sure I was doing the whole mixing-rising-forming-baking within the recommended time frames; nowadays, the bread is made around what works for my schedule, which means that I often make them on weeknights because I can.  It goes like this: the night before, mix up the starter.  In the morning, add the rest of the dough ingredients and stir.  As soon as you get home from work, shape the dough into loaves.  Let them rise for about an hour while you walk the dog/prep dinner/pay bills/do dishes/fix lunch for tomorrow/etc. Then bake, then eat!

Baguettes are in the rotation so often now that I leave the recipe card on the counter behind the mixer (the only other recipe card to earn this distinction is the one for pizza dough).  We usually use them to make a sort-of Jersey shore sausage/peppers/onions hoagie (or whatever they call it up there) which are sooo delicious, I can’t even tell you, wherein the onions and peppers are cooked so long that they are meltingly tender, but anyway, I’ll give you a recipe for that later, someday.

Baguette Recipe
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
For the starter:
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon yeast
2/3 cup water
Mix together.  Cover and let sit overnight.
Then add:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup water

Mix together until well-blended, 2-3 minutes.  The dough should be slightly sticky and not 100% smooth, but able to sort of form itself into a ball while kneading (if using bread machine or stand mixer—it would probably be too sticky to knead by hand).  Cover and let rest several hours.

Form into 2 baguettes and let rise on floured baguette pans (or other baking pan) about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 500°.

With a sharp knife, quickly cut several slits into the loaves.  Put the pan into the oven and throw in 1/3 to ½ cup water to make steam.

Reduce oven to 475° and bake 20 minutes.

Let cool as much as possible before slicing.

Today is

…election day.

So please join me, today, in voting for the right to not have to accept the ‘I Voted’ sticker thrust upon you by the overzealous Board of Elections worker.  I am no longer four years old, stickers are not my thing, it’s going to end up in the trash can in approximately 2 minutes and in the landfill in approximately 6.5 days.

Let’s vote ‘No Thank You!’ to ‘I Voted’ stickers.  Let’s take back our landfills from ‘I Voted’ waste, let’s demand to know how many of our taxpayer dollars were spent on ‘I Voted’-ness.

For a long time, I voted by absentee ballot.  It was easier than trying to work it into my day, I could do it at my leisure and send it off and think, “Well, I already did my part, and from the comfort of my own home, at that.” I am trying to remember, now, why it was that I stopped absentee-voting.  Was I worried that it just sort of ended up out there, somewhere, unaccounted for?  Stuck to the bottom of the mailman’s bag?  I think, actually, it may have been simple laziness. Absentee voting requires actual foresight and planning and the requesting of a ballot ahead of time, coupled with the fact that you lead an exciting life, and who knows where you might be on a Tuesday, on any Tuesday, it’s possible you may end up in Tahiti on election day! That is how the thinking goes, anyway, when you’re in your twenties and you consider basically all of your income to be ‘disposable.’

Nowadays, of course, election day is like any other Tuesday and odds are slim that I will find myself in Tahiti. Since it’s a Tuesday, I will be doing Tuesday-things, but also trying to remember where my polling place is. And I will no longer be voting while wearing pajamas and eating a bowl of rice chex.

I was just looking over a sample ballot online, and the sight of it reminded me of the feeling I get, inexplicably, when it is finally my turn in line and I am faced with the ballot-touch-screen: the first few choices are simple enough, you start to gain momentum, you think I’ve got this, I know who to choose here, and then you page over to the next screen and Hmm, there are quite a few more people here to choose from, and I haven’t really heard of some of them but I can still handle this, but then, Then! You get to the page for judges and your heart sinks just a little, How could there be so many! and your palms maybe start to sweat a bit, and it feels like you’ve just been given a test you didn’t study for and you start to wonder, Why are they even letting me vote for judges anyway, shouldn’t the law just be the law, why else would they have so many legal books and places called law libraries? And so maybe you start to panic a little bit, because there are so many people standing in line waiting, still, so you’d better hurry up and get through this, and so maybe you just start choosing people at random, it doesn’t really matter, what’s appellate mean, anyway, and then–and then! You go to the next page and there are even.more.judges.  So!Many!Judges!  And who are these people! You have never heard of a single one of them and some of them even–you hate to say it, but–their names sound made up.  And maybe this is a test then, maybe the Board of Elections has slipped some fake names in there just to see if you’ve been paying attention, which you haven’t been, clearly.

And so you decide to vote based on who has the most interesting-sounding name.

Which, incidentally, is also how you choose wine at the grocery store.

And you remember, now, the appeal of the absentee ballot: it was like an open-book test. You could research all the candidates with fake-sounding names, you could google the word ‘appellate’, and not to mention the wearing of the pajamas that was possible while you did all of this! And the lack of stickers thrust upon you!

In 2016, you can be sure I’ll be voting Yes for pajamas.

Shit My Guy Says: The Med School Edition

Me: Hey, how many bumps do you have on your head?

Andy: I dunno, I think four.  Why?

Me: I was gonna write it down on this note so you can give it to the doctor to make sure she doesn’t miss any.

Andy: Yeah, ’cause I’m sure she didn’t learn how to count in med school.

Shit My Guy Says: The Old Rocker Edition

Andy: Oh my god, they’re so old, Fleetwood Mac.  They’re older than your mom.

Me: I’m putting that on the blog.

Andy: No, don’t, it might not even be true.  We should find out how old they are first. [A few Wikipedia searches later:] Well they are older than your mom.  But you still shouldn’t say it, that’s an insult to your mom.

At least one reason to look forward to daylight savings time

It’s dark in the mornings now, so I guess that’s as good an excuse as any for why I’ve been wearing my underwear inside out all day.

Simply Delicious Fried Eggplant

If and when you first start thumbing through cookbooks (or the internet) for eggplant recipes, you are going to be faced with a question: To Salt, or Not to Salt?

What I mean is: some recipes call for salting your eggplant after you have sliced and/or diced and/or peeled it and letting them sit in a colander for 20-30 minutes to drain off the juices.  The theory being that the salt draws out the bitter juices and/or keeps the eggplant from absorbing too much oil when you cook it.

I used to Not Salt, simply because I had no idea that there was a whole camp of people out there telling you To Salt.  When I found out that I was (maybe) supposed to be salting my eggplant, I was wracked with guilt.  I had been cooking it wrong!  It could have tasted so much more delicious!

I usually continued to Not Salt, however, because I couldn’t be bothered by the extra steps, by the extra planning ahead.  I still cooked it the same as before, only now I got to feel guilty about it!

Did it really make that much of a difference? I wondered.

Well I’m here to tell you: It depends.

I made some fried eggplant the other day, and I salted the sliced rounds because I had the time and because The Victory Garden Cookbook told me to, saying that it would keep the eggplant from soaking up too much oil.

Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but when I fried them they did seem to not soak up as much oil; when we ate them they did seem to taste sweeter.

So I guess the verdict is: if you’re going to fry them, Salt them first (or just don’t add much oil to the pan).  If you’re baking them, don’t bother.

These are good as a side dish to pretty much anything (pasta with marinara especially), or leftover on toast as an open-faced sandwich.  The breading is barely-there; just enough for extra flavor, but not so much that you feel like, “Hey!  I’m eating breading!”

Simple Fried Eggplant Recipe
1 eggplant, sliced into ½” thick rounds
salt
~1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
vegetable oil

Place your eggplant slices into a colander, salting each layer of eggplant well before adding more slices.  Let sit 20-30 minutes, then rinse well and let drain.

Dump your flour out on a plate.  Add plenty of salt and pepper and stir to combine.

Heat about 2 Tablespoons of oil in a large pan over medium heat.

Press each side of sliced eggplant into the flour mixture, making sure each side is evenly coated.  There shouldn’t be any clumps sticking to it.  Shake off any excess flour, and add eggplant to the frying pan, adding as many slices as will fit without crowding.  The oil should be hot enough that the eggplant sizzles lightly when you add it, but not so hot that it crackles or spatters—adjust your heat as needed.

Fry 4-5 minutes, adding more oil if the eggplant seems to be sticking to the pan.  Flip each slice over when golden brown, and fry on the other side until cooked through, adding more oil as you go (just enough to slick the pan).

Place the cooked eggplant on a paper towel-lined plate while you cook the rest of the slices.  Serve while warm, with additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed.

How to Make a Pesto that Doesn’t Turn Brown

For as long as I’ve been making pesto, I’ve always been annoyed by how quickly the pesto turned brown.  The flavor was fine, but as soon as you stirred it into pasta, or left it out in a bowl, it would turn an unappealing, unappetizing shade of brown.

I tried putting saran wrap on top.  That didn’t work.  I tried adding lemon juice; that didn’t work, either.  I tried freezing it immediately; that worked while it was frozen, but as soon as it thawed…back to brown.

But then: I learned that I should blanch the basil first.  And that worked.  My pesto stayed a vibrant, healthy shade of green.

Anyway, this isn’t really a recipe; it’s just to say: blanch your basil before making your pesto.  Dunk it in boiling water for about ten seconds, rinse it in cool water (or dunk it in an ice bath if that doesn’t seem like too much work for what has now become such a small amount of basil) and pat it dry.  Put all the leaves in your food processor, add your garlic, olive oil, pine nuts (or walnuts) and parmesan (optional).  Blitz it all together until well-combined, adding more olive oil if needed to reach desired consistency, and adding salt to taste.

Voila.  Pesto that doesn’t turn brown.

Garden Snapshot 9.29.14

September seems to be the time of year that the garden sighs with ease: after suffering through the heat of August, the plants begin to blossom and set fruit again.  There are several green tomatoes; green beans; tomatillos; peppers; watermelon.

And yet: it’s a shifting time, too.  I’ve started seedlings for the cool-weather crops (lettuces, kale, carrots, beets and collard greens; this year I’m going to try overwintering onions), and it’s time to start thinking about where in the garden all of them are going to go, time for jockeying space & needs so that the fall veggies can already be in the ground when the summer veggies die back from frost.  The mums are full of buds and about to bloom.

The standout of the garden this year, the winner-winner-chicken-dinner, were the whippoorwill cowpeas.  They grew like crazy and produced endless clusters of pods crammed full of 16-20 peas.  The other day my neighbor called out to me from his car as he drove past: “I can see those beans need pickin’ from all the way out here!”  Which was true; they did need picking.

I’ve gotten nearly a pound of dried beans from just six plants, not to mention the fact that they’ve been adding nitrogen to the soil while they’re at it.  I’ve tried growing shell beans in the past, and every time they have failed, miserably.  Most times I don’t think I even got back as many beans/seeds as I’d planted.

I guess I learned that there’s a reason that cowpeas have always been a staple in the South, and it’s because they not only survive in heat and poor soil–they thrive.  These things grow like damn kudzu. [Cowpeas are also known as field peas, and include black-eyed peas, among other varieties].

The whippoorwill peas are a slightly mottled brown; we’ll be using them this winter as a substitute for pinto & kidney beans in soups and burritos.  They cook up much quicker than other beans would–no soaking, no pressure-cooking, no hours-on-the-stove–I made a pot of them in about 30 minutes.  I’m already planning, next year, to grow also a white cowpea and a black one; I’m envisioning a future where I’ll never have to buy dried (or canned) beans from the store again. Bean self-sufficiency!  I’m working on it.

Anyway, before I wax too rhapsodic about the cowpeas and make you think I’m a bean-lunatic or something, let’s move on.

It hasn’t been all delight and easy-growing in the garden this summer.  Behold, the list of problems (failures? challenges?) I’ve encountered:

  • The cucumbers all came down with (what I think is) mosaic virus, and died.  In the past week or so one of them has started growing back from the root, but I don’t have much hope for it.
  • The melons have had a similar problem (not the watermelons, just the cantaloupe/honeydews)–maybe powdery mildew or something from all the rain?  I’ve lost three different melon vines, two of them just before the fruit was ripe.  It was pretty disappointing.
  • There is a mole (or two? or three?) in the yard/garden.  Most recently he consumed a perfectly lovely coneflower, but previously he has eaten sweet potato plants, celery plants, flower bulbs and I forget what else, but I’m sure there were many others, things I’ve blocked from my memory. Anyway, this was the last straw; I’m off to Harbor Freight to buy some of those solar mole-chasers.  Fingers crossed that they work (online reviews have been mixed).
  • Bugs!  These black-and-orange things have really done a number on whatever cool-weather plants I had left in the garden–cabbage, arugula, brussels sprouts, kale.  At first I thought they were neat-looking, then I realized they were eating everything the hell up and decided to kill them.  The battle is ongoing.

    I'm a horrible person.

One bright spot, though, is the tomatillo.  I’ve tried growing them for several years running, and every time they’ve grown tall and spread-out all over–but.not.one.tomatillo.  This year I actually have some, their papery husks like chinese lanterns, but there still probably won’t be enough to make a salsa.

The sunflowers have all gone to seed, and the birds are delighted.  I sit at my window and watch them flitter around, balancing on the dead flowerhead and snatching seed.

The blackberry vine made its way to our front door, did a U-turn in the siding, and has grown back across the front porch and returned to the yard.  By this time next year, I’m sure it will have reached the street, hopped the bus, and gone across town to see a movie.

Andy and I have been playing the ‘Hot or Not’ game this summer.  How it works is, I harvest a bunch of peppers that I have no idea what they are, hand one to him and say, “Try this.  I don’t know if it’s hot or not.”  Usually he answers ‘not.’  One of the mystery peppers, I recently learned, is a cubanelle (I think.  I may have already forgotten and be making this up completely).  The others, I have no idea.  But they are going gangbusters, especially this purple one.

The garlic I neglected to harvest this summer (what’s new) has sprouted; just a reminder that it’s time for you to start getting yours in the ground now too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’m enjoying it while it lasts, this tapering-off of summer; I’m planting cilantro and making final batches of pesto, letting the season slide.

hashtag Dogs hashtag Great Ideas

Gonna write a book of scary stories for dogs.  It’ll be called: And Then the Vacuum…

Also will include a story titled: The UPS Man Only Knocks Once…Before he Steals Your Soul with his Truck.

In other news, I vacuumed the house today.  And now Snooki has the shakes, pretty sure these two things are unrelated.