Saturday, June 26, 2010

Niblets of Garden Drama

I have been spending a great deal of my "garden" time the past few days researching flowers and other types of non food related plants. While the veggie garden is well tended, the rest of our yard is in a bit of disarray. Neither I nor my hubby know much about yard work or plants other than veggies. I don't know what to prune, when to prune, what's a weed, what to plant, etc. When I say I'm a beginner, I mean it!  So we have a lot of landscaping work that needs to get done - quickly. Its starting to get a little embarassing. I've been developing some concept boards for our back yard renovation, but I'll save that for another post when its much more developed. :)

Despite the recent floral fixation, I do have a few updates from the veggie garden!  The tomato plants are thriving. I recently watched a video posted by EG over at the blog "Our Engineered Garden" about pulling off tomato 'suckers' and rooting them - to grow more tomato plants. I had no idea this was possible!  If you're curious, check out his video about it.  I'm up to my eyeballs in tomatoes, as you can see from the photo - but I cut some suckers off and gave them to a friend to try and root. I'm excited to see if it works.

We harvested 48 more green beans, bringing the grand total up to 128 for the season so far. These things are growing at an alarming rate!  Some of the beans went into home made chicken pot pie, still more went to friends. I'm really proud of these guys. Had a little drama while harvesting the second batch.  Our garden is enclosed by some wire "fencing" - i use the term loosely.  Its pretty high and I caught my foot on the top of it while trying to hop over into the garden. I took a dive right into my bean plants!!!! Not to mention stomping on my 1 living onion in the process. Did a little clean up and I don't think too much was lost. The bean plants will survive, minus a few limbs. The onion on the other hand - may not.

I've had a tough time with onions, this first go round. I've researched and learned some things, but that's for another post. :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Great Green Bean Harvest!

This weekend, a dream of mine finally came true. To my husband's great dismay, I am the owner of a hard workin' little garden gnome. I have named him David Tiberius Frack - Frack being the only hint I'll give you as its my last name. :) 

I think he has already brought a great deal of luck to the garden, as I came home today to find 80 fresh little green beans ready for the pickin'!  Its the first true harvest from the garden, and I couldn't be more proud.  I have successfully grown something edible. While my strawberries may fail, my onions may fail, my potatoes may fail - its pretty safe to say I grew me some beans. 80 to be exact, and many more on the vine not ready for harvesting.

A few are slated for some home made chicken pot pie tomorrow.  Must find some good green bean recipes. Anyone have some? :)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back to Basics: Fresh Basil & Garlic Tomato Sauce

With all of the tomato plants in my little garden reminding me that I will soon be up to my eyeballs in little roma tomatoes, I keep thinking about the super simple sauce recipe I stumbled across recently, and I thought I would share it!

I can't take any credit for it, myself. I stumbled across it while watching Anthony Bourdaine's techniques episode. Its not as much a recipe as it is a method; a way to coax those fresh little fruits into something of the past, something returned to again and again. Its all at once simple, bursting with flavor and heart warming... and you know exactly what's in it. Maybe I'm getting a little melodramatic about tomato sauce - but it really is that good. Just ask my hubby. He has to watch me eat the stuff.

It all begins with a pretty big pile of Roma tomatoes (or other sauce tomatoes of your choice). You'll need more than you think you do - I always use at least 15 and end up with slightly over a standard jar of sauce.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then quickly blanche the tomatoes by placing them in the boiling water for about 30 seconds - accuracy is not mandatory. Blanching the tomatoes is going to loosen the skin, making the much easier to peel. You'll want to look for the skin to start splitting on some of the tomatoes. Then you'll know they're ready to come out of the water.

Peeling will be quick work. The skin should be more or less falling off at this point. Peel all of the tomatoes and, with a knife, cut around the nubbin end that was attached to the plant. Then gently squeeze out any excess juice. Don't squeeze hard - you're not looking to turn them into tomato paste. Just try to eliminate the excess juice that is hanging out in the center of the tomato. I find that some have a lot while others don't have much at all. Place all of your tomatoes in a large pot on the stove. You want enough room to work in without making a mess, so don't skimp on pot size.  Discard the skins and excess juice.

Now is the time to mush. The first time I made this sauce, I used my potato masher and crushed by hand. It took quite a while, and by the end of it my arms were pretty tired.  The second time around, I got wise and pulled out my immersion blender. I highly recommend this option if you have one!  The blending is done in under a minute, and they're incredibly easy to clean.  If you don't have an immersion blender, an potato masher will work. Try coarsely chopping the tomatoes while you put them in the pot to get a head start on the squishing.

 If you've used the immersion blender, you will be left with a frothy tomato slurry. No worries. It will start to resemble something appetizing again soon. I promise. :)  Add a very liberal pinch of kosher salt, and turn the stove on to medium low heat. Let this simmer uncovered for at least 40 minutes. Again, accuracy is not required. If you'd like a thicker sauce, let it simmer for longer.

About 20 minutes before the sauce is done, you'll begin to make the basil & garlic infused olive oil. Grab some fresh basil and garlic. Be sure to have a guard cat on duty to watch out for basil thieves. Coarsely chop the basil and a hand full of garlic cloves. Again, season to your taste. It is very hard to go wrong with this, except to use too little!

Place a small sauce pan on the stove and fill with some olive oil. I use appx 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup for about 15 tomatoes. Place on VERY LOW heat, and add the garlic and basil. Add some freshly ground black pepper. Let this steep until you feel the sauce is ready. Its very important to keep the heat low - the garlic & basil will burn easily in this oil! This will infuse the olive oil with the flavors of the garlic and basil. You will be surprised how much of the flavor comes through in the final product.

When you feel your sauce is ready, its time to strain the olive oil into the sauce. I use a pretty low budget method and place a paper towel inside a colander. Pour the olive oil into the colander to strain out all of the basil & garlic bits. This method also makes clean up easy - just toss the paper towel.

Mix the oil into the sauce thoroughly - I use a whisk to get it all incorporated. Taste and see if the sauce needs any more salt (I usually do).

If you have old spaghetti jars, set them to wash in the dishwasher when you start cooking your sauce on the stove, and by the time the sauce is finished the jars will be ready to go. Pull them out of the dishwasher piping hot, and immediately fill with sauce - leaving a small amount of room at the top of the jar for air. Close tightly with the lid. If done correctly, the jar will seal and your tomato sauce will store for quite some time without going bad. The trick is to have very hot, sterile jars and lids, and to fill the jars while they are still hot. The cooling process is what causes the jars to seal.

And that, as they say, is that.  The process is very simple and yields such delicious results! Give it a try, and let me know what you think. :)

Side note: The cheese in the photo taken above is a delicious new cheese substitute my husband found at Whole Foods. Its called Daiya and is absolutely delicious. I have an allergy to cow's milk, so finding a decent cheese substitute has been a long and tasteless journey. For a long time I have used soy cheese, but find most of it contains the allergens in cow's milk I'm trying to stay away from in the first place!  Also, soy cheese leaves much to be desired in the texture department. If you're looking for a cheese alternative, give Daiya a try. It stretches, melts and tastes remarkably like cheese with no funky beany aftertaste! ... can I get a spokesperson's contract? ;)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Garden: Supporting cast

 Although I am a novice at gardening, I have a few local friends who know a lot. I've managed to collect a random bunch of flowers & herbs from these generous friends, and threw them into pots. My motto for gardening this year is "throw it all in and see what happens", so I didn't turn down anything.  A short break down of what I have growing in pots:

- Basil
- Sunflowers
- A random evergreen
- Cilantro
- Parsley
- Mustard
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbana
- Strawberries
- Chocolate Mint
- Spearmint
- Peppermint
- Garlic Chives
- Strawberries

I'm sure I have forgotten a bunch, but that's the gist of it. The potted plants have taught me my first big lesson of the year: Maybe you want to water things occasionally. We've had some pretty consistent rain - once or twice a week, so I have been doing little to no watering throughout this spring. I had placed all of my potted plants in the dorect sunlight, and treated them like the rest of my vegetable garden. I nearly lost all of them!  They had turned brown, dried up and sickly within a matter of a week, until it dawned on me that they were probably not getting enough water (since the potting soil is so light and airy compared to my dirt).

The Lemon Verbana is probably the hardest hit. Its a crispy little twig, but in the past week it has sprung back to life. There are little green sprouts coming back. Its not dead yet, but its definitely in the ICU.

The basil was bought at a grocery store on a whim. I walked by and couldn't resist the smell. Surprising how different it smells than dried basil - which I don't like at all. It was also pretty fried by the sun (and previously frostbitten by one weird night in May). Its been through a lot, but it has also regained a little life. The leaves are somewhat shriveled from their original state - but I see promise in this one. I stuck an aqua globe in it for a little extra watery security. I would really like to see this guy live for my own selfish reasons - I want that basil for my homemade tomato sauce!!!  Herbs seem to be a little more sensitive to temperature and water fluctuations than other plants. Basil seems to be one of the more sensitive herbs...or maybe I've just man handled it. :)

Sunflowers and mint in these 2 pots. I'm really excited about the sunflowers. I don't know what variety they are. They are another plant I obtained from a friend as a little sprout. I'm amazed at how straight their stems are. Growing straight up with no help from me. I'll probably have to transfer them soon. I assume sooner or later they're going to get a little top heavy. Hrm.

Potted plants: Lesson learned. Water frequently. Keep out of scorching sunlight. Got it.  No casualties yet this year, but oh sooo close.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Introducing the Garden

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm pretty new to many of the things I want to try out in this blog. I'm perhaps the biggest novice at gardening. This is the first year I've attempted growing anything, and I decided to start with a vegetable garden.

We bought our house in September of last year, and inherited a nice little garden from the previous owners. They had tilled up and fenced in a 9 x 7 foot garden, and they were growing a bunch of tomato plants, some zucchini and squash, and lettuce.  The owners before them were novice wine makers and had established a large grape vine that had completely taken over a trellis built to sit against the side of the house and offer shade. Needless to say, I feel a little pressure to keep this long history of good garden juju going.

We don't have much land to speak of, and most of it is driveway. I've kept my garden small this year, only planting in the fenced in area the previous owner established. I planted some transplants from a local hardware store and seeds in the middle of April. Ideally in the future, when I am a genius at all of this gardening stuff, I will be planting heirloom varieties all from seeds that I have saved from the year before. I have a looooong way to go. ;)  A short list of things growing in this little plot of ground:

- Broccoli
- Onions (red and yellow)
- Carrots
- Green Beans (pole)
- Potatoes
- Tomatoes (roma)
- Dill
- Butterfly bush (Transplant from a friend's garden. Threw it there temporarily)

The grape vine is planted in the far corner of this garden, closest to the house.  It has been here for god knows how many years. We don't know anything about the grapes other than they were grown for wine making purposes. This makes me a little wary because I have heard wine grapes are not necessarily the best to snack on.

Regardless of how ignorant I am about caring for this thing, the grapes are growing in the thousands. I will have to research how to care for this, but for now - it seems healthy enough. I trimmed the longest overhanging vines about a week ago. That took a great deal of weight off of the trellis.

The Roma tomatoes (3 transplants from Home Depot) are very easy to take care of. They've been growing at a steady rate and are already sprouting little tomatelets! :)  I made a bit of a boo-boo in the beginning and planted my strawberry plants next to the tomatoes in the garden. After 1 plant withered up and died, and another sat stagnant for 6 weeks, I moved the remaining strawberry plant to a pot. I've now got a nice big empty spot that I'm dying to put 2 more tomato plants into!  I've learned how to make tomato sauce from scratch and it is addictive. We will go through these puppies in no time.

The pole beans are slowly climbing up the bamboo stakes, and are starting to flower. I would like to save some of these seeds for next year and start from my own instead of a seed packet. Check out the spider hanging out for the photo. I didn't even notice it!  I would have ran screaming if I did. I have yet to get used to the bug part of gardening.

Broccoli and carrots. I have heard that if you leave the carrot in the ground, next year it will flower and seed. I think I will leave 1 in, and see how it goes.  The broccoli is planted in the shadiest part of the garden. It doesn't get much direct sunlight, and it hasn't bolted yet. I read up on broccoli after planting. I think I planted it a little later than I should have, and I think the saving grace has been the shade from the grape trellis.

The aforementioned strawberry plant in its new residence. It seems to have perked up, though I don't know if I will get any berries off of it. It was in the ground for 6 weeks, and in this pot for about 1. I have yet to see a single flower. Maybe next year?

And that is a little introduction to MY introduction to gardening. It is entirely a learning experience this year.  I'm just astounded I made things grow...and they're still green!  Thank you, Gardening for Dummies!!!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Starting from Scratch

In the modern day, starting from scratch has become something of an archaic idea. The process of beginning from the most basic ingredients is a time consuming process, and our crazy lives don't favor time wasting! Throughout our long history on earth, we have learned to develop shortcuts. The horse drawn plow, the printing press ... the entire industrial revolution!

Shortcuts aren't bad. The invention of the printing press allowed for books to become a commonplace item, and given how many are lining the walls of our house - we're quite pleased with the invention. :) Mass manufacturing has created a world in which I can head down to my local Walmart and pick up anything I could possibly need. If I want a strawberry in December, I can find it.  If I want a dress worn by some starlet in a movie, I can head down to the mall and find a knock off in any color. Rice-a-roni is always in our pantry, and I have never darned a sock in my life. My life is luxurious by traditional standards, and I like it that way!

Humans have always had a common knowledge, but it has changed over the years. A few hundred years ago that common knowledge consisted of caring for livestock, medicinal herbs, carpentry, handwriting, building a strong fire, etc.  Today it includes basic car maintenance, operating electronics, information filtering, pharmacology and road navigation. Ours is a different skillset - obviously related to that of our ancestors, but more further removed its origins. We know how to use the tools, but not how the tools are made.

What I want to do with this blog is to share my experiments in starting from scratch. I'm 29, and a product of my generation. I wasn't interested in cooking growing up, so I didn't bother learning much. I thought gardening was something best left for retired people. My interest in art for the longest time started and ended with Photoshop and a camera. I've always had a love of history, the obscure, the lost arts, and as I get older I want to bring them back to life.

I want to understand where my food comes from, and imagine metalsmiths in history as I hammer a hunk of copper into shape. I want to know what they knew, and get that rush of accomplishment when my project is done. I want to sit back and marvel at what you can do when you start from scratch!