T Is for Tomatoes

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Who doesn’t love tomatoes?

Chris:

Tomatoes are my favorite food, so growing them when I started my garden was an obvious choice. Almost every gardener I know grows tomatoes, and when gardeners meet it’s like a ritual to ask, “How are your tomatoes this year?” It’s part of the ritual to answer something like, “Well, it was so cool early in the season, I thought the Brandywines would never take off, but I can’t stop ’em now. But the Cherokee Purples were a disappointment. Lots of foliage, but not much fruit!” And the other person responds, “I’ve had good luck with the Juliets, but the real surprise has been the Celebrities this year. We can’t give them all away, there are so many. But don’t get me started on the San Marzanos. Not much to show, and they’re usually so reliable.”

So Many Varieties–What to Try This Year?

Because so many gardeners grow tomatoes, the number of varieties in the nurseries, or even in the garden sections of home stores, is wonderful. When you have a small garden like mine–maybe eight plants a year–you could go for several years just trying out varieties that are new to you. I’ve had as many as five different types in a given year, with no more than two of any type, and every year there are at least two or three new types for me. I’ll always have a couple that I think I can rely on from previous years, just in case the newbies don’t pan out. As much as I like to experiment, I always want to be able to take comfort in something that I’m pretty sure will produce.

Besides balancing the new with the tried and true, I also like to balance the larger varieties with the little cherry and grape tomato varieties. I’ve found the grape and cherry tomatoes to be overall more reliable and prolific. They start ripening early, in May, and they often keep producing into late September, with minimal watering and feeding. On the other hand, there’s nothing to match the pleasure in watching a bigger variety grow day by day from a tiny green beebee to a round ripe red beauty plump for slicing into a sandwich.

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Celebrity tomatoes with lavender roses July 2017

The Season

In our climate, the ground is usually warm enough to start planting spring and summer vegetables in early or mid April, when the temps rise to the high 70s-low 80s. That includes tomatoes in all varieties. I’ve never had a tomato plant fail to thrive because of planting too early. I almost always plant from store-bought seedlings, when the plants are at least six inches high and leafing our nicely.

I plant them in various places in the back garden, and I like to experiment with different spots–which vary in the amount of sunlight they receive, because of the surrounding trees. I always plant at least two, and sometimes more, in the two raised beds I have, and I always use the beds for the larger varieties.  That’s just a choice, not a necessity. This year, 2017, I planted just two medium-size plants, both Celebrities, in one of the beds, as I used the other bed for three pepper plants (see P Is for Peppers). I planted an Ace tomato in a new spot for me, a quite shady spot almost under the peach tree, just to see what would happen. I planted the fourth medium-sized variety, an unnamed plant that I’d gotten at a plant fair, in another new spot, a very sunny patch between two rose bushes–again, just to see what would happen.

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An early crop–Roma tomatoes ripening in 2011

A Special Spot. The other two plants, two grape tomatoes, I planted in what has turned out to be the best patch in the garden, a ten-square-feet area next to one of the raised beds.  What makes this patch so special is that I rotate the tomatoes here with arugula in the winter. The arugula grows thick and tall in this spot for five months, then I pull it out after it flowers in late March-early April–and in go the tomatoes. In the two years that I have been growing arugula in that patch in the winter, the tomatoes the next season have been the most productive plants and the longest lasting. In early October this year, I was still harvesting from our two grape tomato plants as many as four dozen in a day.

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A cluster of grape tomatoes, Sept. 2017

This is a real win-win, because not only does the arugula make the soil rich, but it is tasty and hearty throughout the winter months in our salads (see G Is for Greens).

 

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Arugula, Jan. 2017, growing in the same patch where I plant tomatoes in April

Watering and Soil

When I first planted the raised beds about six years ago, I layered bark mulch, compost, and top soil. Every spring,  I replenish some of each. In addition, when I dig the little hole for each seedling, I put in a little Miracle Gro garden soil as a starter, plus some organic tomato food. During the long growing season, from April to early October, I’ll add some tomato food every two-to-three weeks, no more than a handful at each feeding.

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Unknown variety, from plant fair, early June 2017–a pleasant surprise

For the tomato plants outside the raised beds, I rely on the arugula (see above) to prep the soil for the grape and cherry tomatoes, but put in a bit of Miracle Gro garden soil and tomato food when I plant them, as well as some compost from the compost bin. I also feed these some of the organic food every few weeks during the growing season, a handful per plant.

For the tomato plants elsewhere in the garden, the soil is richly organic from leaf mulch, and I add compost from the bin, a bit of Miracle Gro garden soil (a few handfuls), and a handful of tomato food at planting, then a handful of food every few weeks.

Watering of tomatoes happens every other day, by hand, even during the hottest part of the summer. I water from the garden hose, about fifteen seconds per plant. This is not a lot, and, in fact, each year since I’ve started gardening, my watering has declined some each year.

Overall, I feed and water just enough to keep the plants green and supple, but I tend not to get a thick profusion of leaves, and I’m sure this spartan treatment keeps down the number of fruit on the larger varieties. But there are always enough of the larger tomatoes to meet our usual needs, and the amazingly prolific grape and cherry tomato plants give us enough fruit for five months of daily snacking and the occasional sauce for pastas and stews.

Tomatoes in the Kitchen

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Sauce of grape tomatoes, green peppers, goat cheese, and herbs

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The same sauce on angel hair pasta with garnish of basil and parmesan

No big surprises here. Just good eating. Tomatoes are versatile–whether as the basis for a hearty soup or sauce, as in the photos just above, or chopped into a salad, or sliced for sandwiches or for little bruschettas. We’ve cooked them down into enough marinara sauce for several jars to refrigerate or freeze, or we’ve blanched them to get the skins off, so Jean can puree them into the base for a variety of gazpachos.

Bowls of grape tomatoes, like the one pictured below, keep amazingly well, two weeks or so, out on a counter, so I can snack on them as I pass by, or either of us can grab a handful to toss into scrambled eggs or chop in half for grilled cheese sandwiches. In mid to late summer, the harvest of these little guys is sometimes so good that I’ll bring in a dozen or two dozen a day to replenish the bowl.

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Still life with roses, tomatoes, green peppers, and shishitos, Oct. 2017

So overall...

It’s six years and counting since I started growing tomatoes, and I’m learning every day, because every day I keep an eye on them and give them a few minutes of  care. They really don’t require much, and they give back so much more than they need from me. The snails don’t attack them, nor do the birds–who like to perch on the cages I use to keep the vines from stretching everywhere. The tomatoes taste great, and they are so versatile in the kitchen. So what’s not to love? And there are still so many new varieties for me to try.

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S Is for Soups and Stews

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Jean:

Cooking without Recipes?

Soups and stews are right up my alley because they are perfect for recipe-less cooking.  That’s not to say I don’t get inspiration from recipes, but I rarely stop there.  If we have some vegetables, herbs, or even fruits from the garden that I think would work, they are going in–like into the apricot chili you see above. If the recipe calls for something I don’t have or don’t like, it can stay out or get substituted with something from my pantry.  In this way, every soup I make is different and I am in a pickle if someone asks me to recreate their favorite.

I should note that I realize that cooking without a recipe doesn’t work for everyone.  My sister, for example, has done things like making pumpkin pie without sugar because she didn’t have any sugar.  That was not my favorite, although I do use less sugar in baked goods these days than most recipes call for.  The last time I visited my sister, she sent my nephew to pick me up at the airport.  As we drove to her house, he assured me (I was hungry, as usual) that she had made beef stew for lunch.  Sounded great.

As I settled down with my bowl of steaming “stew” a little later, I was chagrined to discover it looked and tasted like hot water with a little shoe leather floating in it.  Prison stew.  More gulag than goulash. No flavor to the broth, no savory vegetables, herbs, or starches.  The meat was impossible to chew.  I guess I deserved it because the last time I served her one of my soups, she asked how to make soup in general, and I was short with her.  I said that if she had wanted to make good soups, she would already be doing it.  It sounds terrible of me, but in the past she had begged many of my recipes, changed them in less tasty ways, and passed them off on people as my recipes.  Revenge is a dish best served hot perhaps, like prison stew, and ultimately she served me what she thought I deserved for not teaching her.  I just remember my mother trying to give her cooking lessons.  She said my sister’s cooking would improve for a little while after a lesson, but would soon slide back to what it had been before.  Perhaps if I had written the tips below years ago, her results might have been better…

Not Recipes, but a Few Tips

Anyway, I hope you get the point, dear reader.  I believe anyone can make great soups if they really care to keep trying to develop flavors and textures appropriately.  That can happen fairly quickly with some types of soups, but can take some time and care with others.  There are some ingredients I always keep on hand in my pantry to help me get started on a soup or a stew, or even just  sauce.  One is boxes of broth, whatever type you like–beef, chicken, vegetable, low salt, free range.  Buy the best you can get.  Stocks have more depth of flavor than broth because the meaty elements are cooked with savory vegetables and herbs to make stock, while broth is just water that the main ingredient has been cooked in.  Of course if you have time to make your own stock, the flavor will be even richer.  I love to take turkey bones after Thanksgiving or use the bones of a rotisserie chicken to make stock at home.

Sometimes you can find packaged specialty broths like pork or seafood, but you can make a lovely one with roasted pork bones or shrimp shells.  I am likely to use both if I have something to make stock with, but also a packaged broth to add.  I like to cover all my bases.  In some cases I might even add a can of prepared or condensed soup to add a flavor or texture that would be time-consuming to develop, such as a can of cream of tomato, mushroom, or roasted garlic soup.  Of course fresh mushrooms and freshly roasted garlic would be best; I’m just saying I’m not that much of a purist.

Getting the Flavor in

I’ll get flavor in there any way I can, given what I can get my hands on and what I have time to do under the circumstances.  Roasting almost any of your ingredients, including the vegetables, can add that extra layer of flavor.

Depending on the type of soup, there may be a variety of savory vegetables that are either part of the stock and strained out, pureed after cooking to make a thicker base, or added later for a little more texture and visual appeal.    These typically might include onions, leeks, celery, carrots, corn, potatoes, and/or tomatoes.  You might want to make a soup that features one vegetable and color, such as a pea, broccoli, or asparagus soup.  A soup might be spicy or it might be creamy.  I get hungry just thinking about them all.

Soups by the Season

Of course, you can respond to the seasons in terms of the temperature and style of your soups as well as the ingredients.  I always think of soups in the winter, when it’s the easiest thing to rewarm and dish up after coming in from the cold.  Or perhaps you started one in your crockpot early in the day and find it waiting and ready at the end of the day. when you’re too tired to fix anything else.  A hearty bowl of soup is often enough for our supper.

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Herbs and veggies fresh from the garden are great additions of flavor to soups.

In the summer, though, soups can be just as inviting, as a way to use some of the freshest produce from your garden or the market.  We love cold soups as well as hot ones.   A favorite summer soup is watermelon gazpacho, perhaps with the addition of cucumber and fresh mint.  Since this is a fresh, uncooked soup, it would even work in the Paleo diet:

A Favorite Summer Soup: Watermelon Gazpacho

For five servings, blend in large blender:

  • 3 c. cubed, seeded watermelon
  • 1/2 to 1 whole cucumber, chopped (seeded if necessary)
  • 1 or 2 peeled, seeded tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 T. minced shallot or red onion
  • 1/2 to one jalapeno pepper if desired for heat
  • 2 T. red wine vinegar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. chopped herbs–dill, basil, parsley, and/or mint
  • salt and pepper to taste

As always, taste everything and adjust the proportions accordingly.  Use only the best-tasting ingredients you can.  I made the mistake in one batch of chopping in a cucumber without tasting it.  It was quite bitter and ruined the whole batch.  Taste first, last, and all throughout!  You could try adjusting the sweet/sour taste balance, depending on how sweet the ingredients are, with a little lemon juice and/or honey if something seems a little “off” or flat.  I recommend leaving the fibrous matter in the soup after blending, but you can also strain that out, leaving only a very flavorful, colorful but clear liquid.

A “Soup-erbowl” Party?

One of my favorite ways to entertain is with a “soup party.”  I have done this with particular success as an informal holiday party or something later in the winter like a “Soup-erbowl” party.  You need several crockpots and Dutch ovens to keep the soups warm without burning them.  Then think of an assortment of soups so that one or more of them will appeal to everyone in the group and you don’t have too much overlap.  You have to have a vegetarian option, which might be a minestrone without any bacon, pancetta, or sausage.  That could also be your Italian and tomato-based choice.  Or, you could do a creamed cauliflower, broccoli, or corn soup as vegetarian options.

To contrast with that, you could have a very meaty soup like a chili, white or red (discussed further below).  This would be your Mexican or Southwest flavor profile.  If that’s not your favorite, try Greek chicken-orzo or lamb stew, or perhaps a West African peanut stew.  Use whatever you know about the tastes, dietary restrictions, travel history, and so on of your guests to come up with a variety of pleasing options.

Even the simplest soups can be incredibly satisfying and savory, like the creamy cauliflower soup pictured below.  Some recipes don’t use a lot of cream, if you want to avoid the fat.  Most recipes derive a lot of flavor from the addition of other typical soup veggies like carrots and celery, plus herbs, such as these recipes: http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/rees-creamy-cauliflower-soup-0204577

Here’s the lower fat version.  Even if you think you don’t like cauliflower, it’s creamy and delicious: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/creamy-cauliflower-soup

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And for dessert…

Here is a dessert tower I put together to top off one of my soups-and-stews parties.  I always want to give lots of choices, and none of these were hard to make:  mocha cupcakes, lemon bars topped with lemon curd, apricot pistachio bars, key lime tarts, and mini-blueberry cheesecakes.

 

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Chilis and Stews

Even more than soups, we love stews, which are total one-pot meals, not just appetizers or lunch portions.   We consider chili a type of stew, and it is probably our favorite type.  I don’t really have a recipe, because I make so many different ones, depending on what meat, beans, or vegetables I have on hand.  I particularly love a white chili, made with ground turkey, chicken broth, white or pink beans, and green tomatillo salsa.  Chris loves these–but he also loves red chilis, such as the one pictured below, since he loves tomatoes.

The chili below was not made with ground beef but with some small steak bits that were on sale, cut for “stir fry.”  They were initially quite tough, but softened nicely under the prolonged cooking I gave the chili while working on the flavors, plus leaving it overnight and serving it the next day.

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Spice it up…but how much?

The real issue with chilis is how much spice to use, and I sometimes overdo it and have to put in more beans and broth to try to bring the heat down.  I have seen recipes or made up my own that use several different forms of chili peppers–fresh, canned, smoked, powdered and dried.  The combination of flavors is unbeatable, but when we get a burn in the back of the mouth that just won’t die, I wish I knew which of them I should have left out.  The answer is to take your time, putting in one of these at a time and tasting the results.  Give it a while, to make sure you are getting the full effect, before trying to add another. Chili peppers like the red hot Thai minis below need to be added carefully.  Chris finely chopped just one of these for the whole crockpot of the chili shown above, and it was enough, when mixed into the broth with the other spices I used.

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Still want deeper flavor?

Another way to deepen the flavor of chili is to add some deeper flavors to the broth, like some leftover brewed coffee, some dark chocolate, or dark beer.  Chris thought my last chili tasted slightly bitter when I added coffee…but by the next day it had mellowed just perfectly!

So whether you like to start with recipes or prefer to make up your own, don’t be afraid to experiment with good ingredients as you go along.

R Is for Roses

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Peace roses after rain back garden May 2017

Chris:

Though this blog mostly features the fruits and veggies I grow, and the dishes Jean makes, our roses could be the focus of the blog–if I were as interested in nurturing them and experimenting with them as I am with the food plants. Of course, to say that I’m not as interested in them would be to ignore the fact that they actually take more of my time and regard than most of the other plants do.

After all, one can’t have a rose garden without spending time with the roses pretty much every day.

In our climate, the roses grow year-round. Oh, they’ll bloom little in December and  January; in the the July heat the brilliant flowers will fade more quickly–but there is never a time during the year when at least a few of the bushes won’t have buds and some blooms. So it’s not as if the plants will die if I neglect them.

In fact, to show their heartiness, I tried my best a month ago to pull out a bush in a corner of the back garden that was in pretty deep shade and had never bloomed much over ten years. Besides, its thorniness made it almost impossible for me to get at the wisteria and the Western lilac in order to trim back their lusty growth.

So I trimmed off all the branches, and I chopped off as much of the roots as I could reach, almost a foot below the surface. That was that, I thought. Then, two days ago, what did I see but a little six-inch shoot staring up at me.

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The Come-back Kid, July 2017

“Please, sir,” it said, ” don’t try to kill me again. You’d just be wasting your time.* So, like the soft heart I am, I’ll follow my usual pattern, and just see what happens. Two days later, it’s a foot tall and leafing generously. I guess I can let it grow for a while and then cut it back, after it blooms (if it does). But I won’t let it get between me and my wisteria trimming! I promise, plant: you hear me? “Thank you, sir. That’s all I ask.”

Our Roses: A Little History and Geography

Almost all of our rose bushes, about fourteen of them, were here when we moved in a decade ago. I’ve planted only two or three. Indeed, one of the plants that was here, a cute little pink variety by the back fence, the former owner took with him, because it had been a favorite of his mother, who had passed on. I still think of that when I see the space where it grew, currently the home of a tomato plant on which fruit is ripening.

When we moved in, I was already in love with the roses: their variety of color and size, their heartiness, their often prodigious growth. Because the design of the former owners’ property was to have a lawn surrounded by fruit trees and roses, I was able to keep all the roses where they were, as I gradually eliminated lawn in order to plant veggies.

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Rose bushes along the back fence, April 2017

Therefore, some of the rose bushes were along the back and side fences, while others hugged the house walls under windows. We didn’t think to ask at the time, but we’ve thought that part of this design would ensure that anyone who wanted to break into our home through some of our windows would have to contend with thickets of rose thorns.

But a pleasanter thought is that when we look out these windows, we have the splendor of seeing rose blooms most of the year.

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A thicket of blooms and thorns, May 2017

Rose Care: What I Don’t (or maybe once in a while will)

If you’re looking for detailed tips on insecticides or blight sprays or fertilizing schedules, you won’t find them here. After we first moved in, I did some spraying for black spot and aphids, but I always worried about what else I was killing, and I wasn’t even too keen on killing the aphids, especially when I saw ladybugs appearing and the aphids soon disappearing. So I’ve not applied any spray for about nine years on any of the plants. None of the plants has died yet, and the photos can tell you how well they are doing.

I will occasionally give some rose food to the plants that appear to need a boost, but a schedule? No. I may put down some rose food about once a year for some plants, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

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Two visitors to two white roses, May 2017

What I Do for the Roses

I make sure they are regularly watered during the dry months (May-September). Most are on a drip system; some I hand water. During the hottest months, the drip goes for 15 minutes twice a week. From mid-October to early May, the wet months, the roses get only what falls from the sky.

The most consistent work I do is dead-heading (trimming off the spent blooms). Because the plants are so many and so prolific, this is a weekly chore for me. Any given plant may need tending once or twice a month. Don’t hold me to a schedule. I do it as needed, by eye-balling the plant.

The dramatic work is trimming the vines. Now every plant is somewhat different in this regard, depending on how fast it grows and on what I want it to look like. For example, the massive yellow rose bushes (below left) I let grow early in the year until their first explosion of blooms rises to more than midway above the window sill. When the blooms fade after a few weeks, I deadhead the bushes, then I trim back the vines so that they are just above three feet high.  New buds appear soon and the cycle goes on.

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Yellow rose burst May 2017

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Pinks by side gate, May 2017

 

In contrast, the pinks by the side gate (right, above) live in a shade cast by the ceonothus (Western lilac) and so the plant regularly puts out a mix of buds not far from the stem, plus long, sun-seeking vines that often never bud. I cut off the long runners and let the buds bloom.

In further contrast, the thicket of tiny white-pink roses and large salmon roses (three panels above) is made up of five bushes that I let expand up and out in the large space next to the nopales (see N Is for Nopales). The salmon bushes can get up to 7 feet high before some blooms open, and that’s fine with me. But once the blooms are done, I chop them back to about four feet and the cycle starts again.

Meanwhile, when the clusters of white-pinks are done blooming, I chop back those bushes, and that cycle goes on….until January. In January, the big trim takes place. I chop all five bushes, both little white-pinks and big salmon, back to no more than one or two feet high, so I can clean out the space–and get it set for the big spring push. In January 2017 (see J Is for January), we had so much rain that the big trim was put off until early February. But no problem. With all that rain, the roses came back stronger than ever, with even (as you can see in the photo) the red root-stock roses blooming.

Why deadheading and trimming back?

Roses grow fast, and, in the years I’ve been tending roses, I’ve seen that the ones I have grow in a couple of ways, depending to some extent on the variety. One way is to send out new long shoots from the ground. The other is to send more shoots out from existing shoots. In either case, buds often don’t appear until the new shoot is several feet or more from where it started. This means that the plant rapidly expands in shoots, but this means there may be no new blooms except far out from the center of the plant. Only by trimming back the shoots once the blooms have finished can you keep the plant of manageable size–and keep new blooms coming out fairly close together.  The rose bushes you see brimming with close-together blooms in professional gardens only stay that way with lots of regular trimming back–and lots of tender loving care.

More TLC, alas, than my idiosyncratic methods allow. But I’ve been gloriously happy with how the roses have given us so much joy, fragrance, and color all year round. Enjoy the display below. (If there’s no caption, let your cursor rest on the image until a short explanation appears.)

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Multi-rose display, kitchen, April 2017

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Corner display, Oct. 2015

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White rose cluster, side garden, Oct. 2015

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Buds, bee, and yellow rose bloom, Oct. 2015

 

 

Q Is for Quiet

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Chris:

Boom! The North wall and upper floor of our house shook for a moment, as something large crashed–and startled us in mid conversation. Not knowing the source of the sound, and fearing that something upstairs had fallen or broken, I raced upstairs and found…nothing disturbed. Jean, meanwhile, had opened the patio doors and rushed around to the North wall, and found…that a massive fruit-laden branch of our neighbor’s peach tree had broken off high above and had crashed to the ground against our chimney. Dozens of unripe peaches still clung tightly to the many small branches that sprang from the large limb that had cracked off. But dozens more peaches lay along the path and by the fence between our houses. The limb itself had not broken the fence in its fall–a miracle, given the sound.

I write about this now because I’ve been thinking about the quiet of the garden. Right now I’m listening to the summer breeze gently percuss the green leaves of that same peach tree outside my window. I watch the branches play hide-and-seek with the afternoon sun. This is a quiet breeze today, the kind that makes me feel cool, as if I were outside in the shade of the tree and feeling the soothing touch of the wind on this 90+ degree July day.

Quiet in a garden does not mean without sound.

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt absolute silence in our garden. Would I want that? I don’t think so. No, the quiet of a garden is that mix of soft sounds that together bring quiet of the mind.  The gentle waves of wind in the trees, bumble bees in the lupines, honeybees in the roses and orange blossoms, the tick-tick of the hummingbirds and the whirr as they scoot past, the three-note cooing of the collared doves, the constantly changing soprano arias of the morning mockers and warblers, even the skree of the grumpy rock jays, and even the crunch-crunch of the mulch and leaves beneath my shoes.

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We do not live in a quiet place, even though it is quiet-ER by some standards. The interstate is only a mile away, and its waves of rushing sound never disappear, night or day. The street right outside too often serves as a fantasy strip for motorcyclists and teenagers in over-powered pickups or old coupes. Freight and commuter trains come through our town hourly night and day, and their engineers conscientiously blast their symphonic horns at every intersection. On weekends, some of my fellow DIYers use table or chain saws as their tools of choice, while gas-powered trimmers and leaf-blowers are also always popular.

I’ve lived in louder places and quieter places, city apartment buildings vs. suburban cul de sacs far from freeways, factories, and freight rail. In the two places in my life where I have been fortunate to have a wooded, green space, I have relished the soft concerts of birdsong and breezes in the trees. Only in my current space, so late in my life, have I had the luxury to build a garden, to watch it change day by day, year by year; to attract the skilled musicians who can put a morning concert together extempore and make it always fresh, always soothing–despite the surrounding noise.

The garden is not silent, but it is quiet–garden-quiet, a kind of quiet not like anything else. A quiet that can even include the winds that blow down fences in January (see J Is for January) and even the occasional crashing branch of a peach. On summer mornings like today’s, it sounds pretty much like the following. Give a listen.

 

 

P Is for Peppers

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Chris:

((NOTE: See July, August, and October updates, at end of entry))

The great thing about hot peppers is that a little goes a long way. Which has been fortunate for me, as I’ve not found some peppers to be especially easy to grow in profusion.  This may be less true of the hot varieties, because we now have bags of Serranos and Red Chilis keeping their heat dormant in the freezer. But I’m not pleased about the lack of volume in the mild peppers that I’ve tried to grow each summer for the past few years. (But see our August and October 2017 updates!)

As the photo above shows, every year we have a fine display of red hots in roomy pots, and we’ve put them to use in chili dishes, frittatas, soups, sauces, and stews. Some of these little fellas are so potent that Jean needs only one or two per quart or two of the dish to give us a nice warm mouthfeel per spoonful. We chop the rascals up into bits to spread in the dish, or sometimes she will put them whole into the slow cooker to spread the heat gradually. Pictured below are Chris’s tomato and green veggie sauce with serranos for spice, and Jean’s tomato, zucchini, and herbs stir fry, spiced by red chilis. Almost all ingredients come from our summer garden.

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Tomato and green veggies sauce

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Tomato, zucchini, herb stir fry

We both like a good number of dishes to have a forceful kick, but neither of us is into competing for a fire-eating prize, so we don’t try to up the ante by throwing in more chilis.

To save the rest for later use, Jean’s favorite method is to bag them for the freezer, It’s been remarkable how they keep their potency even over several years. Part of last year’s crop of inch-long red chilis I couldn’t resist displaying like this:

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They loved showing off, and didn’t mind being bagged for the freezer:

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We promised them they’d be liberated eventually so they could do their picante thing, and we’ve kept our promise, chili by chili.

I promised Jean this year that I’d not add to the freezer population by growing more hot peppers. But, alas, I like the look of them so much in the summer garden that I snuck in one more plant, a Thai variety. Here it is in late June, next to a mild purple variety. Both are popping out white blooms, and should be producing green fruit in another week or two.

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In Ground or in Pots?

Meanwhile, I’m experimenting this year with growing three pepper plants in the ground in one of the raised beds, Whereas the hot varieties have done great in the pots for several years, I’ve been less happy with the performance of the mild varieties in the same medium. I’ll typically get about six green, yellow, or purple milds per plant over a summer, but they tend to be much smaller than the large beauties you can get in the store. I figure the pots–which are valuable for keeping away the snails and for their portability–restrict the growth areas for the plants, and so I’m hoping the in-ground plants will grow taller and wider, and produce more and larger fruit. We’ll see.

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Right now, in late June, here (above)  is the trio–(R to L) one shishito, one medium-size green, and one “Big Bertha” green. The “Big Bertha,” which I planted earliest, in mid-April, is already much larger than any of my pepper plants in earlier years, and has three green fruit heading toward decent size (see below). The shishito, planted in mid-May, has four small fruit in process. Equally good news: no sign of snails.

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I’ll keep this entry updated as the summer proceeds. As with all the other residents and visitors in our garden, every day brings its changes to the peppers. Here is a shot of two pot-grown pepper plants, a serrano and a mild green, from October 2015, to show something of what may emerge, as summer moves into fall.

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July 2017 Update

As promised. It’s only three weeks since I posted the entry, but there have been peppery developments. It’s been a hot July, with many days over 100 and none below 90. I’ve been trying to stick to my regimen of every-other-day watering of the veggies, despite the scorching heat, with mostly positive results. The Big Bertha green pepper plant has been a steady producer of large fruit, and the shishito (below) is brimming with fruit. The potted Thai is thick with tiny green firecrackers, a couple of which have turned red. All in all, a successful experiment, with lots left of summer.

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The Big Bertha and the shishito contributed to my latest stir fry (below). along with some of the grape and cherry tomatoes that have been getting red by the dozens each day in the garden. I toss in several of the varied herbs that have also been thriving in pots (thyme, marjoram, chives, Greek oregano, purple and green basil, sage), and we’re ready to go.

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August 2017 Update

This summer has been my best ever for peppers so far–with a good month or more still to go. The in-ground experiment has paid off, with all three plants producing beyond expectations. Meanwhile, the Thai chili may be my most productive hot chili ever (see just below). More freezer bags to be filled!

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All four mild plants have been steady producers, with late July to now in late August showing their increasing productivity, even as the temps have slightly fallen (now high 80s to low 90s) and the daylight hours have diminished.  Moreover, no slugs or snails or other pests have appeared.  The Big Bertha green is giving us the largest peppers we’ve had from one mild plant, and it keeps generating new fruit, over a dozen in total so far. (Below.)

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The shishito (the first of these I’ve grown) began producing mature fruit in July and has more than ten at a time growing on the plant (below).

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Meanwhile, the most pleasant surprise of the summer has been the potted purple pepper, which did not produce mature fruit until late July, but which now steadily is giving us gorgeous-hued medium-size peppers that start out sherbet-lemon in color and then turn royal (as shown below). By the way, these are delicious when roasted.

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October 2017 Update

The temps are now in the high 70s and low 80s, so the peppers have slowed, but not yet stopped producing. The Big Bertha still has four little ones growing, but they may not mature as the weather cools. The in-ground plant was going strong through mid September, though, as the temps stayed in the 90s. The shishito still has many white flowers and several fruit still on the bush. We’ll see how they fare in the coming autumn days and nights.

The medium green and the royal purple have a few white buds, but no fruit. And the miraculous Thai red hot gave me its bounty of at least 100 little zingers, and they are ensconced in their snug baggie in the freezer.

What a summer for peppers! The best in our garden so far. The experiment with in-ground plants worked, and the pots came through in stellar fashion.

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Thai mini red hots produced like no potted pepper plant I’d ever tried.

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Shishitos, greens, and royal purple peppers share space with the season’s last eggplants and almost-last tomatoes

O Is for Oranges

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Bowl of lemons and oranges January 2017

Chris:

While I was wary of the nopales when we moved here a decade ago (see N Is for Nopales), I was really looking forward to having an orange tree. What could be more California than fresh oranges from your garden? Well, if I’ve come to be a friend of the nopales over the years, I’m even more in love with the orange than I was at first sight.

Unlike the Meyer lemon that I grew from a seedling seven years ago, the orange tree was here when we arrived, and with a few late season oranges still on the branches.  The variety is the most popular in California, the Washington navel, which derives from a mutation of the Selecta orange that occurred between 1810 and 1820 in Bahia, Brazil. Cuttings from the mutation were brought to the US in the 19th century, specifically to Washington, DC, hence the name. The Washington navel came to California in 1870, to Riverside, where the California orange industry was born.

What makes navel oranges special is that they are seedless, as you probably know. By being seedless, the tree is sterile, and new trees come about only by grafting onto rootstock. That means that all navel orange trees are clones from the original tree in Brazil.

The “navel” of the navel orange is actually a small second orange attached to the larger orange. The stem attaches to this navel, which in some oranges can make up to a third of the entire orange, as you can tell by slicing the orange in half and observing. In other navel oranges, the navel makes up just a tiny portion inside the orange.

A Year-round Season

As with so many of my plants, our orange tree has taught me much. Among the most amazing features is that the season for each orange may last more than a year, with the new buds appearing while some of the previous year’s oranges are still ripe and luscious on the tree, as the photo below shows, taken in March 2016.

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New buds, with “old” oranges still on the tree, March 2016

The oranges move from bud to blossom to tiny green fruit over about a month–from March to April in our region–then enlarge through the summer and into the fall, staying a deep green.

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Honeybee in orange blossom, April 2016

Into the fall, the color changes from green to yellow and finally to the orange we know so well, by early December.

The early December orange oranges are edible–more tangy than sweet–but I’ve learned that the delectable sweetness of these navels gets more and more intense through the Northern California winter, so that by February they are at their peak of flavor.

But miraculous to me is that the oranges left on the tree into March and even April can maintain their sweetness and juiciness–even as the buds for the next year’s crop are popping forth all over the tree. I love to contemplate the silent, complex chemistry of each brilliant globe, which, even as the months grow warmer, can keep the juice and sinews inside supple and cool and steady. (See the three pictures below for the stages of the fruit).

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New green fruit, April 2016

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Green orange with peaches in background July 2016

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Laden orange tree with nopales early December 2016

And then there’s the two-year cycle…

Early on in our life in California, I attended some classes on caring for orange trees, and I learned, among other things, that oranges will not grow on the same spot on the tree two years in a row–in effect, each area of the tree has a two-year cycle, one year on, one off. Which means that a bumper crop one year will be followed by a meager crop the next. In 2014-15, for example, we had a very large crop–two hundred oranges or more–despite our having had a very poor rain season that year. In 2015-16, with a better rainy season, we nevertheless had far fewer oranges–fewer than 100–and elsewhere on the tree than in the previous year.

Then, in 2016-17, my expectation of a large crop was dwarfed by reality. The size of the crop is indicated by the pictures above, especially by the pic of the new white buds in March 2016. The tree was covered by white in March and then by many hundreds of tiny green fruit in April.

The Rains of January. Then, in late fall of 2016, with hundreds of now orange fruit on the tree, the rains began (as I’ve recorded in the entry “J is for January”), by far the heaviest in our years here, and the highest in the region sine 1982-83 (45 inches for the ’16-’17 season, more than twice the average). By January 2017, our daily effort to bring in ripe oranges was competing each day with rain-pelted oranges falling to the mushy ground, where they would rot with amazing rapidity. Nevertheless, we enjoyed at least 200-250 delicious fruit, as described below.

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Our one-tree orange grove, January 2017

The upshot? Well, following the pattern of year on, year off, the 2017-18 season promises to be a very light one indeed, given the 2016-17 bumper crop. As predicted by the very meager showing of white buds in March, the next year’s crop may be our smallest in the years we’ve been here. One year on, one year off.

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Ripe navel orange clusters in December, 2016

A Tip on Pruning. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that our orange tree grows between the dangerous nopales and the friendly peach tree, with some branches of the orange and peach intermixing. Early on in our California years, the orange tree grew more heavily toward the nopales side (Eastern exposure), so much so that, when laden with fruit, the orange branches on the heavier side hung almost to the ground. I used notched wooden slats to hold up the branches.

By pruning the tree substantially on the nopales side, I was able to coax the tree toward balance between the sides, and I’ve had no need for branch support in the past four or five years–even as the tree has grown larger overall.

Also, during the summer, when the tree puts out new leaves and the branches extend, the gap we need for walking between the orange and the risky nopales narrows. Fortunately, trimming back the new growth on both plants poses no risk to either plant, so the walk can stay open.

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Fresh squeezed March 2017

Oranges in the Kitchen

With oranges and meyer lemons in abundance from December through March, our citrus needs are fully or substantially met, depending on the size of the crop. Our major use of the oranges you can see in the photo above, and there’s nothing tastier than fresh orange juice, fresh lemonade (with sugar added), or the two mixed together.

But oranges just off the tree, sliced in quarters and devoured, are great, too. Besides, what’s more warming than a sunny display of freshly-picked citrus in the winter kitchen?

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N Is for Nopales

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Baby nopales May 1

Chris:

During all our years in the East, would I ever have imagined having a large cactus in my yard? How about two? Yes, I’d grown small succulents in Virginia, like portulaca, and we had a few tiny ornamental cacti indoors, but all I knew of the big guys was from pictures of the Sonoran desert and very infrequent short trips to the Southwest. Arizonan Jean swore to me that saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear were beautiful, but I just had to take her word for it. All I could think of was hot, dry, dusty, and spiky.

So it was with suspicion that I looked at the two large prickly pears that stood menacingly in the back yard of our new home in Northern California a decade ago. Oh, they were just minding their own business, sitting there dull green and thick in the sun. But I was wary of getting too close.  Jean had told me that prickly pears (“nopales” in Spanish) got their Anglo nickname from the many, many tiny, almost invisible hair-like spines that covered the so-called “leaves”–which looked to wary me more like fat, oval, weird branches (sort of). And the tiny. hairy spines, she said, hurt like the dickens when they got into your hands–or onto other body parts should you be dumb enough to brush against them. What was not to like, right?

But I wanted to get down and dirty in this new place, and that meant getting friendly with the nopales–or getting them out all together, if I really couldn’t stand them. In either case, I’d have to get up close and take my chances.

Growing fast, wide, and high. I quickly learned a few more facts about nopales. For one, they could grow fast, especially if they were watered at all. The nopales (each “leaf” or “paddle” is a “nopal”) would fatten with water and put out new “baby” nopales most of the year. Because our nopales were surrounded by plants (including roses and the orange tree) that needed watering in the dry season, our nopales got way more water than they needed to survive. So I soon found myself having to cut off the new growth, unless I wanted the nopales to take over their portions of the garden.

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Nopales amid the roses in May

Trimming (chopping really) new growth. Yes, I quickly became pals with the nopales. I found that my long-bladed hedge trimmers were ideal for trimming off the aggressive new nopales that were making the plant grow higher and wider. To keep from getting impaled by the hairy spines, I deftly developed a technique for pulling our veggie-waste toter right under the area to be trimmed, then chopping off the unwanted growth so that the severed paddles would fall right into the toter. If a severed paddle missed the toter and hit the ground, I turned the hedge trimmer into a sort-of sword, by which I’d stab the paddle and lift it into the toter. Since some of the severed nopales weighed five to ten pounds or more, lifting the paddles took some dexterity, which I’ve developed over the years. Most of the time, I can do all of this without getting close to those nasty spines, but not always. The minimal cost of doing business with nopales.

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Nopales: High, wide, handsome, and prolific

I also learned that nopales can be self-destructive gluttons (we have a lot in common). The more water you give them, the more they’ll take in and just grow and grow. Whereas the roots of many plants will rot with too much water, the roots of the prickly pear/nopales will efficiently take in all the water they can get. But, just as with gluttonous humans, the added weight can make the plant awkward and unwieldy. Three times in my years with nopales, I’ve gone out on a summer morning to discover a large mass of connected, engorged nopales–sometimes fifty or more–lying beside the plant like a major branch of a tree–and silently accusing me of having caused the catastrophe. So I bring out the trusty toter, chop the fallen “branch” into manageable pieces, and vow to give the other plants even less water. So far, this plan has always turned out well. These nopales incidents are one reason why our water usage in summer keeps going down–with no detriment to the plants.

Third, I learned that nopales flower and fruit from early summer on and into the fall. While the Spanish name “nopales” refers to the leaves of the plant, the Anglo name “prickly pear” highlights the fruit, which are juicy and green-to-reddish and known in Spanish as “tuna.” The herald of the coming fruit are the bright yellow flowers that appear any time from early summer (late May here) through September.

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Nopales flower in September, heralding the fruit

Fourth, the nopales themselves, as well as the flowers and fruit, are edible. Such was my ignorance of nopales during my long time in the East that I did not know until my first year with nopales in the California garden that they bore delectable fruit and beautiful flowers. It was not until a few years later that I learned that the prickly nopales themselves are edible and can even be delicious to a narrowly-educated palate, as mine had been before I moved West. What had begun for me as a fear-shrouded suspicion of these cacti when we first arrived here was gradually becoming an appreciation and fascination.

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Tuna (prickly pear fruit) in late May 2017

Cooking and Eating Nopales

In our part of the country, grocery stores routinely carry Mexican food products, and so prepared nopales are frequently found.  The nopales have been prepared by being sliced into strips (called “nopalitos”), then boiled, pickled, and jarred in a light brine. The nopalitos are delicious cold in salads or heated in egg dishes and as part of chili recipes. They are mild, green, and have the taste and texture of pickled al dente green beans, asparagus, or green pepper strips.

If you have nopales and want to try cooking them yourself, there are two main concerns:

(1) avoiding the spines, and

(2) avoiding the viscous fluid (AKA slime) that oozes from the nopales during cooking.

I’ve yet to get the knack of making my own nopalitos, but I will no doubt keep trying…. Here I am trying to cut away the spines from two nopales. Note the gloves, the tongs, the long-sleeved shirt, and the sturdy knife:

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And maybe one day I might convince Jean that making our own nopalitos would be worth her effort, despite the easy availability of the tasty supermercado version! But I won’t ask her until I’ve succeeded. I’m relying on several websites that give step-by-step illustrated instructions, and that you may want to try, also; here are two such sites:

http://chanfles.com/comida/nopalitos/

http://www.mexicoinmykitchen.com/2009/06/how-to-cook-cactus-paddles-nopales-como.html

Preparing and Eating “Tuna”

And here are two sites that show and describe how to prepare and serve the fruit:

https://delishably.com/fruits/How-to-Prepare-and-Eat-Prickly-Pear-Cactus

You’ll note how happily all these cooks talk about the precautions, the work, and the results. Even if you decide that making nopalitos and preparing tuna are not for you, I hope you’ll come to regard the nopales plant as appreciatively as I now do.
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Three lovely tunas in our September garden

M Is for Muffins

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Chris:

There is no “M” in our garden or kitchen so marvelous as the muffins Jean makes. So…

Jean:

Yes, I love making muffins.  Both Chris and I are breakfast people.  Either you are or you aren’t.  My daughters aren’t.  They rush off to work, with coffee for the older one and without for the younger one, but neither wants to bother with breakfast in the morning, at least not during the week.  Chris and I don’t understand this.  If we haven’t eaten something pretty substantial by 9 a.m., such as on mornings when we need to go for a fasting blood test (or colonoscopy?), we get light-headed and can think of nothing but food.

We love all kinds of food for breakfast.  For me, the ideal breakfast would be a brunch buffet, attended by a barrista and a bartender (no barristers).  I love to have a selection of both savory and sweet.  However, we try to limit the full hot breakfasts with eggs, meat (bacon for Chris, sausage for Jean), toast and what-have-you for special days once or twice a week.  The rest of the time, we attempt (more or less unsuccessfully) to manage our weight by having only oatmeal or cold cereal with berries and low-fat or almond milk.

There are days when I just want something a little more special than cereal but not as calorie-packed as the full-fat, protein-heavy breakfast.  On these days, I know I can whip up some muffins that will be ready in less than an hour.  Perfect when I am up a little early or suspect Chris will sleep a little late.  I know he will enjoy waking to the smell of muffins baking.   The best thing is that they fill our craving for something a little sweet and special without busting our “diets.”

I love making muffins because they fit my main criteria for enjoyable baking:

(1) the recipe itself isn’t crucial or finicky; I can play with infinite varieties, making it up as I go along and;

(2) I can swap in healthy ingredients for more questionable ones.

That’s the thing about muffins.  Like bagels, they get a bad rap as diet-busters, and they certainly can be.  Some versions have cups of sugar and fat, as well as white flour.  But the great thing is that THAT IS NOT NECESSARY.  Muffins don’t have to be dripping with oil and rolled in white sugar.  We’ll talk about some of my favorite substitutions, but first you need to pay a little attention to the basic structure of a muffin.

The basic structure

Muffins typically require about half as much liquid as dry ingredients by volume, as opposed to pancakes, which are closer to a 1:1 ratio.  Pancake batter is looser, in other words; muffin batter should be thick but fluffy, aerated by the leavening even as you scoop the batter into the muffin cups.  Once you are familiar and comfortable with that texture, you will find you can make any number of changes and turn out muffins that are good every time.

You have to have some sweetness, some fat, some salt, and some leavening, but beyond that, you can play with both the wet and dry ingredients and the add-ins, like fruit or nuts.  Just pay attention to the amount of wetness or dryness that a particular ingredient may add.  Fresh fruit, for example, will add much more liquid than dried fruit does.

Wet ingredients

The moisture in a muffin may come from several sources.  Eggs provide moisture, as does fat, which we’ll talk about later. Some recipes use dairy products–milk, buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt, but dairy is not a required ingredient if you object to it.  Muffins are so flexible that you can find a way to tailor them to your own dietary preferences.  You can also tailor a recipe to what you have on hand.  If the recipe wants a cup of buttermilk or sour cream and you don’t have any or all of the amount requested, add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to fresh milk.  Fresh or canned fruit or even jams can provide enough moisture to substitute for dairy.  Get creative and use vegetables as well–grated carrots or zucchini, pumpkin puree.  These provide lots of moisture, fiber, and nutrients without raising the sugar or fat content of your muffins.

Fat

The traditional bakery muffin may have a lot of oil.  Keep in mind that oil has about 120 calories per tablespoon.   Even butter may have fewer calories.  Starbucks does us the favor of showing the calorie count of its bakery items, which deters me from ordering most of them, which are generally 350-400 calories each.  Let’s look at the blueberry muffin on their website:

https://www.starbucks.com/menu/food/bakery/blueberry-yogurt-muffin-with-honey?foodZone=9999

You can see it is high in total fat (16 grams), high in carbohydrates (53 grams), including 30 grams of sugar, and low in dietary fiber (less than one gram).  I don’t claim to have any magic answers for weight control, but I think we can all agree those numbers are quite discomfiting.

My recommendation is that you use your own sense of what amount and type of fat is acceptable.  Maybe you believe in the benefits of coconut oil.  Use it, but limit it since the calorie load is about the same as most vegetable oils.  The usual problem with low-fat is that trading sugar for fat may not be beneficial in any way.  However, from what I understand, fresh fruit may be the best substitution nutritionally because it doesn’t spike blood sugar as much as processed sugar.  Thus, I believe in the substitution of pureed or mashed fruit for most of the fat and sugar in a muffin recipe.  If the recipe calls for a half cup of oil or butter, use the same amount of applesauce or mashed banana, plus perhaps one tablespoon of your favorite oil for the entire recipe, which typically makes a dozen muffins.

I can’t provide an accurate calorie count for all the substitutions I’m talking about, but most recipes I see online that make even some of these substitutions say they have about half the calories and carbs of the Starbucks muffin we looked at before.  So this is worth doing if you want to eat muffins on a fairly regular basis.

Dry ingredients

A lot of the carb-load in muffins comes from the flour, which is just as guilty as sugar in spiking your blood sugar levels.  I’m not sure that swapping whole wheat flour for all-purpose white flour improves the situation nutritionally.  If you believe, as some are saying, that wheat in any form is the devil, try a variety of other grains, as little processed as possible.  For safety’s sake, I generally keep about a quarter to a half of the white flour in any given recipe and substitute whole wheat, rolled oats, oat bran, gluten-free flour, soy flour, almond flour, or a combination of these for the rest.  The goal is to increase the fiber and protein content of your muffins, and decrease the gluten.  Some substitutes of these may smell funny, or they may change the moisture and structure of your muffin, but generally I have success if I don’t go too far in any one direction.  I keep a number of these on hand and combine them as I see fit on a particular day.

I’m not sure if sugar is considered a dry ingredient because sometimes it is added to the dry ones and in some recipes it is first combined with the oil and eggs.  In any event, and with most any recipe, you can safely reduce the amount of processed sugar called for, particularly if you are adding any form of fruit.  I also keep on hand some form of less processed sugar, like turbinado sugar.  It may look darker or smell stronger, but if used in moderation, you won’t notice this in the finished product.  I don’t believe in artificial sweeteners, so I’m not recommending those, but I’m not stopping you if you like them.  You might want to swap in some Stevia, for example, for part of the sugar.

Also consider the use of spices as part of the dry ingredients.  Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, whatever you like, in addition to vanilla.  These add flavor and may boost metabolism and digestion without adding calories

Experiment.  If  you are more organized than I am, keep track of the amounts of various types of flours you used when you were particularly pleased with the results.

On top

Cut out those sugary streusel toppings.  I know, I love them, too.  But instead, I recommend throwing on a handful of nuts or seeds.  These may raise the fat and calorie count, but they add good oils, protein and other valuable nutrients.  They are also satisfying in a way that may make you less likely to look for other less healthy snacks throughout the morning.   They toast while the muffin bakes if left on top, and the flavor is wonderful.

A Test Case: Applesauce Oatmeal Muffins, Plus…

Want to walk through a test case?  I started this week with this recipe for applesauce oatmeal muffins from Epicurious.com:

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/applesauce-oatmeal-muffins-50047931

First I measured all the wet ingredients in a two-cup measure.  (I dirtied fewer measuring cups and the pour spout made it easy to add the wet to the dry ingredients when I was ready for that step.

I had a little Greek yogurt but not half a cup, so I finished filling the half cup with some 2% milk and some almond milk.

I melted some coconut oil in place of about half the butter.

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For the 1-1/2 cups oatmeal, I used one cup regular rolled oats and half a cup of oat bran.

For 1-1/4 cups flour, I used half a cup of white flour, half a cup of whole wheat, one tablespoon soy flour, one tablespoon Brewer’s yeast, one tablespoon flax meal and one tablespoon Chia seed (okay, these are the types of things I buy when I’m on a particularly healthy kick or just on a whim while shopping at Trader Joe’s; muffins are a terrific opportunity to use some of these)

For sugar, I used one quarter cup of brown sugar and one quarter cup coconut palm sugar.

Here’s a peek at the dry ingredients:

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While gently folding the wet ingredients into the dry, I added blueberries and chopped walnuts in the last few turns, and then popped some walnut halves on top.

Here’s how they turned out:

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And what Chris thought: “Delicious, as always! Moist, flavorful, and crunchy from the walnuts. Not too sweet, so all the flavors come through. Just how I like them! And the blueberry inside is a tangy surprise. Great for breakfast or anytime.”

Finally

Remember that muffins freeze very well and are easily brought out and warmed up on another morning when you are either in a rut or in a hurry.  If the recipe makes too many, tuck some away and surprise yourself and your mates by finding them and bringing them out again some other day.

I love muffins.  I bet you do, too.  Make them  your own signature healthy breakfast treat.  Don’t let other people (not even Starbucks) make these decisions for you.  Your waistline will thank  you.  And if anyone else you bake for isn’t thrilled with the results of your experiments, they can slather the finished product with butter and jam and still have a yummy experience (with more fiber and protein than they would get with most muffins).

L Is for Lemons, Lilies, and Lilac (and Lemon Pie)

Chris:

Lilies. We planted the calla lily in the side garden ten years ago, just after we bought the house. I added a second plant in the back garden just three years ago. Each March, after they have drooped, browned out, and shrunk from the heat of summer through the cold of winter, both plants come back bigger and more beautiful than ever.

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Calla lilies early April back garden 2017

Lemons.  I planted the Meyer lemon six years ago, and for three years it stayed tiny and produced no more than three small lemons per year, one year none. It was shaded by a hearty Western redbud that grew more and more dominant (and which was also crowding the peach tree on its Eastern side). So, alas, I took out the redbud. Since then, the Meyer lemon tripled in size each year until 2016, then doubled this past year. And each year since 2014 it has produced  a hundred bright yellow lemons, each about the size of a large egg.

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Meyer lemon bush January 2016

Lilac. I planted the ceanothus (AKA Western lilac) ten years ago, about the same time as the first Calla lily. While that Calla lily may now be the largest of its kind I’ve ever seen, the lilac has become the alpha plant of the side yard, a tree that has spread its boughs upward and outward across the side yard and into the neighbor’s. Its thousands of clusters of tiny lavender blooms each spring make our garden a honeybee haven that thrums with the buzz.

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honeybee on Western lilac April 2015

At the same time as the Western lilac blooms, so does the pale lavender wisteria, and together these prolific bloomers draw honeybees and bumble bees by the hundreds. The numbers who arrive vary from spring to spring. In 2015, the bee festival was small, and I feared the consequences of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). But in 2016, the reunion was the largest I’ve seen. This spring, 2017, the fiesta is again down, but much better than in 2015. Here is a video I took of the party in April 2016.

Lilies. This winter’s prodigious rains (more than 40 inches so far, twice normal) were great for the Calla lilies and the Western lilac, as the water table rose and meant they’d be ready to take off when the temps warmed. Both lily plants were a couple weeks early in showing new growth, and now in early April are richly green, prolific in new shoots, and ripe with those large white vase-like blooms.

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Calla lily and Western lilac side garden April 2017

Lilac. With its branches spreading farther than ever before and festooned with flower clusters, the two-trunked lilac tree is bending in the water-rich soil away from its berth beside the wall of the house. The pale grey-green trunks are slender, though 6 inches thick, and I can bend them back toward the wall. This species usually doesn’t last much beyond ten years, so I worry that my tree may be coming toward the end of its days. Still, it looks bloomingly healthy, and I will soon–after its clusters have fallen petal by petal to form a lavender carpet in the garden–trim away the ends of the long branches. Not only will this bring some sunlight back to the majestic white rose bush that now is covered by the lilac branches, but it will lighten the load on the aging trunks and, I hope, bring them back to their upright, youthful posture.

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Lilac tree and calla lilies, side garden, April 2017

Lemons. Growing food plants has opened my eyes to their life cycles. Did I ever before think of broccoli flowers, or of garlic’s tasty leafy shoots above ground, or of oregano looking like dead sticks in winter only to leaf out in many new stems come spring? Sure, I’d enjoyed orange-blosson honey, but had I ever seen an orange tree covered in fragrant blossoms and the tree aswirl with honeybees? Our amazing Meyer lemon, that took so long to reach its beautiful adolescence, has given up its hundred yellow fruits and now, in April, is covered in red-and-white buds, who are just beginning to open. The tiny fruit beneath each bloom will appear when the blossom falls and will slowly, slowly grow and slowly, slowly ripen through summer and fall, until the yellow suns are ready once more when the weather has grown cold and the rains have come again.

Jean:

For the Lemon Lover: Lemon Meringue Pie

Most families have a lemon-lover.  No matter how many other fruity or chocolatey desserts you prepare, these people secretly (or loudly) still prefer lemon bars or lemon meringue pie.   Chris is a lemon person, so I was not surprised that he requested a lemon meringue pie for his birthday this year.  I admit that I do not make these for him as often as I should.  The main reason is not that this pie is particularly difficult to make, but rather that there are conditions.  We’ve had a wet winter, and the weather is one of the conditions.  You don’t make lemon meringue pie when it’s very humid  or raining because the meringue won’t set up right and will “weep” more.

During a nice dry spell between storms, I decided to revisit this pie.  I started making lemon meringue pies many years ago, living in Arizona, when Sunkist was a leading citrus distributor.   This is what my Sunkist cookbook (1968 ed.) looked like, as available, at least for now, on eBay:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Sunkist-Cook-Book-1968-/262922916823?hash=item3d376d53d7:g:4IgAAOSwuLZY40ka

There are both older and newer versions available from different online sellers.  I recommend any of these, not only for the lemon meringue pie recipe but for other recipes highlighting lemons and other citrus fruits as well.

These days, the Sunkist website has a somewhat modernized version of their traditional recipe, showing a way to prepare and serve individual lemon meringue pies, which helps deal with the problems related to the preparation and serving of the meringue that covers a whole standard pie.  Check this out:

https://www.sunkist.com/recipes/?fwp_search=lemon%20meringue%20pie&fwp_quicklinks=lemon

Baking the Traditional Whole Pie

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Lemon meringue pie for Easter 2012

Assuming you want to make a traditional-looking whole pie, you need to break out the steps and think about each of them before you start, so the whole thing comes together pretty quickly.

The crust

I haven’t set out the recipe because the recipe is pretty simple, and the secret to good lemon meringue pie is not in the recipe but in the manner of preparation.  First, you must bake a single pie crust, and you can do that in any way you like, using grocery store bake-at-home pie dough if you don’t have a favorite pie crust recipe.  The most important thing here is to make sure the sides of the crust stay as high and even as possible, to hold in the filling and provide edges to attach the  meringue to.  It helps if you refrigerate the dough after fitting it into the pie pan and if you use beans or beads to make sure the sides of the crust don’t slip down the sides of the pan.  It’s okay to use high heat to try to set the crust before it gets a chance to warm and melt down the sides.  (I think a well browned crust tastes great, as well as holding together well.)

The filling

While cooking and cooling the pie crust, you can make the lemon pie filling either on top of the stove or in the microwave.  Yes, it’s that easy.  I found this recipe for microwaved lemon curd that should work just as well for a lemon pie filling.

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/70036/microwave-lemon-curd/

The Betty Crocker website provides both classic recipes and techniques and modernized options such as using the microwave.  See

https://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/tipslibrary/baking-tips/perfect-lemon-meringue-pie-from-scratch  and

https://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/classic-lemon-meringue-pie/8f991b88-55b0-4740-b12c-251958d663a6

While lemon meringue pie necessarily involves separating eggs, I like the fact that the filling and meringue between them use all the yolks and whites you separate, so you aren’t left with one or the other to use before they spoil.   Get started on this process while chilling the uncooked pie crust so that the eggs can come to room temperature.

The meringue

The important point here is to be ready to put the filling into the pie crust and the meringue on top of the filling while the filling is still hot, so you must have your egg whites brought to room temperature and ready to beat (or have a helper beating them while you work on the filling, if you are lucky enough to have one).  You can also set the egg whites beating in your stand mixer while you work on the filling, since the beating of the meringue takes a while.  As long as you are aware of this condition starting out, you can figure out how to make it work.  Not overbeating or underbeating the egg whites is another of the “conditions,” and if you lack experience at doing this, you can find a number of tips online.

http://www.marthastewart.com/266449/meringue-guaranteeing-success

http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/techniques/weep-more-lemon-meringue-pie

http://everydaygoodthinking.com/2013/08/15/top-10-tips-for-lemon-meringue-pie/

The other important factor is to make sure the meringue completely covers the filling, sealing it tightly to the pie crust all around the edge of the pie.

I am always looking for ideas for making a higher or more stable meringue and can’t say that I have found one that works.  I have tried adding powdered egg white powder to the raw egg whites but haven’t noticed that it helps.  Some say that a Swiss or Italian meringue is better than the one we traditionally use, just like they say that Swiss or Italian buttercream icings are better than “American” buttercream, but that hasn’t induced me to make Swiss or Italian icing or meringue.  They involve heat during preparation and seem more like cookies or pavlova than meringue pie toppings.

https://www.cooksillustrated.com/features/8186-whats-the-difference-between-french-swiss-and-italian-meringues

It’s up to you how high you want to swirl and brown the whorls on top of the pie; that’s more decorative than structural.  As you can see from the photo below, mine is rather smooth and evenly browned on top because I think it may weep less that way, but you should feel free to experiment with your own balance of design and practicality.  Keep notes somewhere–in your favorite cookbook, your recipe box or notebook, or in your online blog as to what what worked best for you.

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Eating

The real key to enjoying a good lemon meringue pie?  Let it cool completely (a couple of hours) before trying to slice it, but then eat it fast.  Don’t leave it sitting around (I think it lasts best in the refrigerator if covered) for more than 2-3 days or it will disintegrate, no matter how well you made it.  Who has a problem with eating their LMP quickly?  Not us!

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Lemon meringue pie, March 2017

K Is for Kitchen

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Looking Out on Our Back Garden, Early March

Chris:

Our kitchen looks out on our garden, and for us one is the extension of the other. From the kitchen sink we can peer through a window into the garden, or let the air and birdsong in. Two large glass sliding doors make the boundary of kitchen and garden transparent and open. Many trips per day join these spaces, whether to bring in oranges and lemons, chard and arugula, herbs and roses, or to take out orange and lemon rinds, banana peels, potato peels, and onion skins to the compost bin, or move recyclable packaging and old newspapers out the doors and around the corner from the garden to the blue toter.  Jean can see me puttering in the garden as she makes miracles in the kitchen, and wonders if this time I’ll remember to take off my garden shoes before I step onto the clean floor.

The open design means that most of the indoor space along the back of our house is shared by two concepts: “kitchen” and “family room,” but there is no obvious divider of the two ideas.  One end of the open space is obvious kitchen:  stove and microwave, refrigerator and sink, tiled counters and wooden cupboards. A tiled, cupboarded “island”sits in the middle of the floor at this  end of the space. (As I write this, I can hear Jean cutting veggies on the island, while our cat grumbles for her attention.)

The other end of the space is obvious family room, as that concept has become standard in U.S. house design over the past several decades. A fireplace, with mantel, at the far end, and a built-in niche for a TV and “entertainment center.” Plus room for a couch and a couple of soft chairs. This end, too, has its windows that let in the garden sun and colors.

More Kitchen or More Family Room?

It is in the several feet of luxurious undetermined space between the two ends that we could decide: “more kitchen or more family room?” For us, a no-brainer. Our six-chair kitchen table, which doubles as workspace and eating area, commands the space beyond the island. Two bakers racks, one on either side of the room beyond the sliding garden doors, proclaim “Kitchen!” in what usually might have been part of the family room. One of the racks holds Jean’s cookbook library and extra cups and dishes. The other rack holds serving platters and bowls, plus the coffee and tea mugs we’ve collected over the years–and serves as the blender, mixer. and food processor station. This morning, while I was squeezing oranges and lemons into the juice pitcher on the counter near the sink, kitchen oranges being squeezed - 1she was blending a smoothie of coconut yogurt, almond milk, strawberry jam, banana, and honey for our breakfast. By claiming family room space as kitchen, we manage most of the time to navigate around the room without getting in each others’ way. Most of the time….

In contemplating this space, I realize the irony of its two ends. At one end, the gas oven/cooktop and the electric microwave. At the other, a fireplace. We use the contemporary tools at the one end every day of the year, several times a day. We use the fireplace as “fire place” maybe once or twice a year, to build a crackling, decorative fire for the holidays, from the fallen or trimmed branches we’ve collected from the big sycamore in our front garden. But we would never think of this fireplace as essential for daily living, as long as the gas and electricity stay connected.

The Basic Meaning of a Home

For most of human history, and in many parts of our country and throughout the world today, the “place for fire” has been the heart/hearth of the dwelling. Most homes in the world have been essentially “places for fire” (whether produced by wood, coal, electricity, gas, or some other fuel) surrounded by cramped quarters, often just one room, for people, their food, their few goods, and perhaps their animals. Indeed, what is a home, basically, but a frame that can hold in the warmth generated by the fuel that is needed to cook the food and warm the space?

The central engineering problem for home design over the ages has been how to solve a huge contradiction: to keep the space warm and cook the food, while, amazingly, opening the space (1) to let out the smoke from the fire so that the inhabitants can breathe, and (2) allow in enough air to provide oxygen. The more heat that goes up through the smoke hole (AKA chimney, stovepipe, and so forth), the more fuel we have to burn to get the same amount of heat, and the more smoke we produce.

The Kitchen: the Real Family Room

Is it any wonder that even today, when homes for the affluent contain many more rooms than that which holds the fire, people still find the kitchen the central gathering place? That is where the food is prepared and served–and where the good smells draw people from all over the house. That is certainly true for us. When family visit or guests come for dinner, the kitchen is where we inevitably gather. Fortunate we are that we have the space to make that kitchen as large and useful as we have.

The Kitchen Is My Playground

Jean:

I’d rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else in the house, except for those moments when I am immersed in a good book, a movie or TV show, or a hot bath.  The kitchen is my playground.   Like most playgrounds, it is not especially neat.  Chris gets nervous when it’s messy, but I just need to know where everything is and be able to reach things easily.  There’s a basic order to the way I have stored my bowls, pans, and kitchen gadgets, and I just get upset when I can’t find them where they belong when I need them.

I’ve learned from artists that they love their materials and tools almost as much as the creative process and the end results.  That’s the way I feel about cooking and my kitchen, although I am not an artist.  A good chef loves the look, smell and feel of good ingredients, and respects the amazing things good kitchen implements can do with them.

Cooking, for me, like writing, is about inspiration.  I don’t do well when it’s just a chore.  When I’m on fire with an idea, things usually turn out great.  The idea can come from anywhere–a dish I saw demonstrated on TV, described in a newspaper column, or pictured in a cookbook, or simply from a tool I want to use, like the “spiralizer” for making strands like spaghetti noodles out of vegetables such as zucchini.  Sometimes it’s a single ingredient–an untried vegetable from the farmer’s market, or simply a hunk of meat or fish I got at a good price that week.

Here are two recent dishes, fish and pork, that Chris particularly loved:

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Panko-crusted red snapper and low-country rice for Valentine’s Day

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Pork chop, apples, asparagus, grapes with egg noodles for Chris’s birthday

People who are not good cooks, I find, are suspicious of food, like the woman I know who said “Where do you buy your meat?” in a tone that implied there is something inherently suspicious and harmful about meat so it must be purchased only from the most fastidious of sellers.  I’m not sure I want to put my faith in fastidious sellers.   Sure, I love to get organic, free-range, drug-free meat whenever I can, but I don’t think the other is going to poison us, and I’m not sure all those claims of superiority can be trusted.  My point is merely that people who are so wary of their ingredients can seldom get off the ground with cooking.  In my opinion.  In my experience.  I could be wrong.

Now, this week my inspiration was chicken thighs.  I bought a big package of 12 or so, boneless and skinless, no promises regarding the health of either the chickens or ourselves.  Then I bought a smaller package of organic, free-range chicken thighs, bone-in and skin on.  The extra fat and marrow makes for good eating.  Then I just had to look for recipes.  Here’s one using the chard from our garden:

https://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/10/recipe-of-the-day-chicken-thighs-stuffed-with-chard/?_r=0

In fact, here are enough ideas to last a month.  I can’t get enough.  I’ll try whichever ones I happen to have the ingredients for.

http://www.rachaelraymag.com/recipes/chicken-thigh-recipes