P Is for Peppers

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Chris:

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.

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 yellow, 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.

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

J Is for January

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Chard, meyer lemon, Bibb lettuce, and new shoots of iris in the January garden

Usually our coldest month and often our rainiest, January in the Northern California garden seems sleepy, but offers a lot of life and new growth to charm gardeners and keep them busy. January 2017 brought extreme rains to our area that challenged home gardeners, including this one.

In the 6th consecutive year of drought in the state, January’s rains–more than 16 inches as measured at our closest airport–were great enough to have the state weather experts declare Northern California no longer in a drought condition, at least temporarily. Not only the rains along the coast and in the Sacramento Valley, but, more crucial, the 20- and 30-foot snows in the Sierra brought this confidence to the weather analysts. To us, the steady and often pounding rains caused the spontaneous pond on our back terrace to creep within a few feet of our sliding doors, even as nearby roads were closed by flooding and venerable trees crashed throughout the area. The wide floodplain of the Sacramento River, known as the Yolo Bypass, looks today like a vast lake stretching many miles, as authorities opened the floodgates, known as weirs, to ease the huge muddy burden  on the river itself.

Our most dramatic event occurred on the night of the 18th, when the strongest winds we’d felt in our ten years in California (60 mph) pummeled our walls and windows. The next morning we looked out to see that our back fence had blown down and lay in our neighbor’s yard.

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Well, the fence did last twenty years…

Fortunately, a year and a half ago, in response to some heavy Fall rains two years earlier, we had had a local landscaper regrade our side and front gardens to forestall flooding near the house. We had also added downspouts and improved our guttering. Hence, we have had so far no pools form by the house.

Trimming

January is usually the month when I cut back the 17 rosebushes that partially ring our back garden and that hug our side and front windows. That job is only partly done this year because of the lack of sunny days, but I have managed to  trim back almost to the ground the five fountain grasses and the five Mexican bush sage plants that annually grow wide, high, and luxuriant in the front and side gardens. The January cold turns the feathery pinkish-tan and green fountain grasses to straw-like shoots, while the deep purples and greens of the bush sages have grown dull. But once the temps begin to warm later in February, the trimmed-back grasses begin to take on color and the new shoots begin their steady return to grandeur. Meanwhile, the rose trimming will get done over the next month, and so the spring and summer will see the booming, multi-hued blooms that our well-soaked soil has promised.

New Plantings in January–and the Steady Regulars

Even in our coldest month, with many mornings just below freezing, we start a few new plants outdoors, while our winter vegetables keep growing and producing. Meanwhile, the citrus trees–the navel orange and the meyer lemon–whose bountiful fruit grew ripe in early December, continue to keep the fruit supple and fresh despite the slightly frosty conditions.

The steady, heavy rains and wind did bring down more oranges and lemons than in previous winters, and the heavy water on the ground meant that those that fell would more quickly turn to mush, if I wasn’t on the spot to gather them. But I continue to marvel at how the trees, and the fruits on them, withstand the onslaught and stay virtually perfect in their stately silence. Every day I am thankful for the opportunity to behold these environmental miracles, for that is what they are, day by day, morning and night, through all kinds of weather.

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Navel orange tree stays strong through January rains and winds

Our newest planting this month is culinary garlic, shown below. We have flowering garlic in our front garden (the bright pink flowers are subtly garlicky when tasted), but when Jean, who was making a stew, handed me three store-bought cloves that had just started sending out tiny green shoots while in a dark ceramic container, I took it as an opportunity to try growing the culinary kind. The web sources on growing garlic recommend planting the cloves two inches deep in well-drained, composted soil, with the cloves spaced eight inches apart. They also recommend a slight covering with mulch to maintain moisture. Garlic hates sitting in swampy soil, so there’s no need to water a lot.

garden-culinary-garlic-new-shoots-1

As you see in the above photo, taken a week after planting, it takes little time for the buried cloves to extend those green shoots into the sunlight and air. As the shoots grow higher, they can also be snipped and eaten; but, of course, letting the shoots grow will ensure that the real treasure, the buried clove, will multiply and form the large bulb that you are familiar with from the grocery store. I can’t wait to see that happen in my own garden!

Winter Veggies in the January Cold and Rain

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This winter’s other new veggie for me has been broccoli (photos just above). It will become an annual winter favorite, along with the invincible chard and arugula, and one or more lettuces. (See “G Is for Greens” for more on these favorites.) When I planted the three broccoli plants in October, the leaves were initially attacked by cabbage leaf worm, a typical pest for them. Rejecting sprays, I occasionally treated the leaves with a fine coating of cayenne pepper, which helped ward off the critters. But what really worked was that the weather got colder, and as it did the plants flourished. Three months after planting, all three had produced large heads, shown above, ready for harvesting. Next year, I’ll plant more, as the tasty florets and stems go so well with many dishes, like Jean’s crabcakes and her hearty broccoli and potato soup, both shown below.

kitchen-crabcakes-with-garden-broccoli-1kitchen-broccoli-and-potato-soup-1

Epilogue: On to February

A new storm is on its way in two days, but then that will be February. A new fence is going up to replace the one that blew down mid-month. The broccoli has been picked, but the chard and arugula go on and on, as do the lettuces and the citrus trees. Before we know it, the fuzzy baby apricots will begin to appear. How high will the garlic shoots have grown in another month from now?

I Is for Indoors

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Back garden with meyer lemons early December

Chris:

This is the time of year, late November through December,  when I devote the least time to the garden. Oh, I’m outside at least a few minutes every day to check on the lettuces, the broccoli, the beets, the onions, the arugula, the chard, and the couple of herbs (marjoram and parsley) I recently planted. And since the oranges and meyer lemons are just about reaching their peak of ripeness, I check the trees for fallen fruit and bring in those that are in good shape. Continue reading

H Is for Herbs

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Chives in bloom April

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Greek oregano

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Russian sage

 Chris:

When I first planted our garden nine years ago, herbs were among the first plants I tried, and they have been a delight ever since. Jean uses them in her cooking (see “Cooking with Herbs” below), and I like to try growing new ones occasionally and enjoy seeing how they differ in their needs for sunlight and moisture.

Some of my herbs, such as the rosemary, the lavenders, two types of sage, and mint, grow in the open ground and spread out. Some I’ve been happy to grow in pots on the pergola-covered veranda just outside our kitchen door or in the sun-filled garden: the basil, parsley, two other sages, tarragon, thyme, chives, Greek oregano, and lemon verbena are in the potted category. More about different sun requirements below.

Why pots or why not? Herbs are great in pots, for a few reasons.

(1) Pots are movable, especially smaller ones. I can shift them around the garden to take advantage of more or less sun, as the health of the plant seems to indicate. For example, I’ve had the best luck with thyme when I keep it out of the full summer sun, and indeed in pretty deep shade. The same is true to some extent with parsley, which can take more sun, but not as much as the basil or those sages that like full sun most of the day. Potting lets me keep plants on the veranda near the kitchen door, in Jean’s easy reach for cooking.

(2) Pots discourage snails and slugs. They don’t like to climb the shiny ceramic or plastic containers I use.

(3) Pots add even more color to the garden.

(4) They keep plants easily manageable. Besides being movable in the sun and shade, pots allow easy water management for each plant, allow distinction of environment from one plant to another, keep size manageable, and make weeding a breeze. Most herbs don’t need a large root system, so pots are perfect for allowing herbs to flourish without taking over a large section of the garden.

 

I don’t use pots when I want the plants to spread, and when snails and slugs will not be a potential problem. The rosemary was in the ground when we bought the house, and it’s spreading its wonderful fragrance as the plant has grown. It’s the same with the varieties of lavender we’ve planted, as well as with the mint and those types of sage–particularly Mexican bush and red fire–that have taken off in profusion in the side garden and that provide us beauty, as well as ground cover for birds and other small animals.

Growing cycle: I also treat the herbs differently in terms of the growing cycle. Most of the herbs I regard as perennials, mostly because they have kept coming back every year. But one, the Italian basil, I plant anew each spring, mainly because I like to rotate the spring-summer-early-fall basil with the onions I grow in the same pot each winter. There is no necessity for this pattern, and I may keep the basil in the pot this winter, just to see how it revives in the spring. Again, our Sacramento Valley climate gives us very few days of freezing temps, and none below the high twenties, so almost all of our plants have a good chance of staying alive through the winter.

This is not to say that all the herbs stay green over the winter and therefore fresh for cooking year-round. The rosemary is an evergreen, and most of the rest keep some of their leaves year-round, but most don’t produce significant new growth after October and until things warm up in March. Almost none brown out or drop all their leaves. One that appears to “die” is the mint, with just leafless tendrils in the winter months. But every spring its fragrant leaves return and the vines have spread to more of the garden, unless I cut it back.

The Greek oregano, which I’ve had in the same pot for eight years, appears to die out to just dead sticks each winter. But every March, it comes a-greening, with new shoots and leaves covering the soil and then sprouting higher each week. Its leaves last through October, and its spicy, meaty pungency is a delight in soups, stews, and sauces.

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Italian basil in pot in full sun

Sun and water requirements:

The tags on most herb plants one buys at a nursery will indicate “full sun,” regardless of the variety. “Full sun” means at least 6 hours a day of unrestricted sunlight. In a hot, dry summer climate like ours, “full sun” can really mean ten or more hours a day in bright 92-105 degree temps from June to September. Some herbs will thrive in that environment, such as the basil, culinary sages, lavenders, and oregano in our garden, while others, such as thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro, and chives can thrive on much less direct sunlight. As noted above, I’ve had the best luck with thyme during the summer when I keep its pot in deep shade under the orange tree.

The best advice is to watch your plants and be ready to adjust sun exposure as the plant indicates. If leaves start to yellow, brown, droop,  or drop off, it may be time for a change in sun exposure.

The other main variable is moisture. Most plants prefer well-drained soil, which means that you don’t want to water too often or too much, and you should use containers (if you don’t put your plants in the ground) that have unclogged holes for drainage. (Holes may clog over time from roots or hardened soil, so check drainage from time to time.)

Again, through observing your plants over several weeks or months, you can tell what works for each plant. For example, in our hot-dry summer climate, the basil flourishes in full sun in a medium pot with about a quart of water every two days, whereas the parsley has flourished in a smaller pot in a partly-covered space with about a cup of water every other day.

If your plant pot has a base that holds water, be sure that it doesn’t hold so much that the soil in the pot becomes a swamp. Don’t add further water to a pot that still has water in the base, and don’t be afraid to empty the base if water tends to stand in it for days. If you are unsure about the need for water in a plant, stick a finger in the soil to see how far down you need to go to touch moisture. Soil that looks dry on the surface will often be moist an inch or two down. (See “D Is for Dirt” for more on this question.)

Cooking with Herbs

 Jean:

When I was young and learning to cook from my mother, I don’t think we used many herbs, except a lot of dried ground sage at Thanksgiving, and no fresh herbs that I can recall.  So I have had to continue to learn and experiment with herbs.  As on many other matters, much of this new knowledge has come from the Food Network, but I try to maintain my own perspective.  I don’t always agree with their accepted doctrines.  I notice all the chefs say “I like it this way” (whatever the point may be) but when they all say they like that thing exactly the same way, you know there is some authority telling them how they should like it.

Case in point, all TV chefs claim they prefer Italian flat-leaf parsley to the curly parsley we often saw as a garnish on the side of our plates years ago.  I do find the flat-leaf parsley (pictured earlier in this entry) easier to chop into nice little ribbons, but I’ve heard the chefs (if you want to call a home cook such as Ina Garten, for instance, a “chef”) say it has “much more flavor” than curly parsley.  The problem is, I always ate the curly parsley when I was a girl and found it delicious.  I still think it has better flavor than Italian parsley.  I’m just saying it’s okay to be a little skeptical, try different things, and judge them for yourself.  Then work them into your own style of cooking with flavors that you and your family love.  And know that if you only have curly parsley available, you don’t need to throw it out just because it doesn’t have a European name or origin.   I think Ina is way too much of an elitist in that regard.

Another point of disagreement concerns the issue of fresh versus dried herbs.  Ina, for example, often says that one of the only dried herbs she will use is oregano because fresh oregano is “too strong.”  The fresh herb does have a rather strong, spicy flavor if you hold it in your mouth a while, but so do the dried herbs, I find.  The real test is in the sauce, and I often find the fresh herb taste gets lost in a sauce, whereas the dried herbs hold up and continue to release their flavors.

For me, fresh thyme is also lost in cooking.  I love using dried thyme leaves and ground thyme.  I had one dinner guest who proclaimed herself a foodie and announced that she would never eat a dish with dried thyme in it.  However, she brought a jello salad as her contribution to the meal, so I decided to take her comments with a grain of salt.

I’m not sure whether this was an attempt to fool guests such as that one, or solely a result of my own experimentation, but I have been using a double-whammy approach with many herbs.  I may use dried oregano, basil, and or thyme in a dish or sauce that has to be cooked a while because I think it would be a waste to put fresh herbs in there.  (I have recently found a semi-dried parsley that is better for this purpose than the dusty old dried parsley used to be).  The finished dish, however, can be topped with fresh herbs for that pop of flavor and freshness that awakens your cooked dishes.

Generally, the only fresh herb I use in cooking (as opposed to making a fresh salad or pesto or garnishing a cooked dish) is rosemary.  It is a lot more flavorful fresh than dried, and the tougher texture benefits from cooking.  It doesn’t simply melt and disappear into the dish.

When fresh herbs are best: Despite these reservations about the use of fresh herbs, it’s hard to express how amazing they can be when added fresh to a salad, to top pasta or pizza, as ingredients in a frittata (as shown above) or to finish a chicken in wine sauce, for example.  Like many of my cooking preferences, I don’t necessarily follow recipes strictly in this regard, sometimes being surprised by the combined flavors of whichever ones look best or are available in the most abundance at the time we gather them, such as those in this photo from our garden:

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(L-R) Greek oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme, culinary sage, chives

On the question of keeping dried herbs, you may hear that they should be thrown out every six months to a year.  I am nowhere near that dogmatic, given the prices of some of these things.  Smell them.  If you don’t smell them, or they clearly seem dusty or faded, then you might want to throw them out, or use them in a brine or marinade for your turkey or other protein this holiday season.  If they aren’t that old but you can’t remember when you bought them, awaken their flavors in one of two ways:  (1) crumble the dried leaves between your fingers to release the oils, or (2) toast them in a skillet, perhaps while sauteeing onions or garlic for the base of your dish.

Like anything else, have fun with herbs.  Experiment, keep an open mind, and develop your own personal style.

G Is for Greens

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Chris:

I’m not an enthusiastic green salad eater, but growing them has become a passion.

I don’t shun a plate of raw veggies the way that some guys do, but I’ll almost never order a salad as a main meal in a restaurant, and when I get a side salad, I usually, mea culpa, cover it with blue cheese dressing. At home, when Jean serves up a heaping bowl of lettuces, spinach, arugula, etc., she’s gotten used to my complaints about volume, and she accommodates my phobia by including the cherry tomatoes, olives, raisins, nuts, or grated cheese, etc., that I love. Since she knows me so well, she’s also gotten used to my steadily devouring the bowl, despite my earlier whining.

Given my semi-aversion to eating large helpings of greens, it might seem ironic that I like growing them. But especially in the fall, once the tomatoes, squashes, and peppers are exhausted from their summer marathon, in go the leafy greens, along with the onions, beets, and (this year) broccoli, so the greenness dominates the raised beds and some of the pots. Though, when I started this garden several years ago, fall veggies were not at all on my mind, they’ve become almost as dear to me as their more colorful, fruit-heavy summer counterparts.

Growing Greens: An Acquired (Visual) Taste?

The problem for us humans with growing greens is that we tend to be attracted to the flashy colors and flavors of flowery and fruity plants, while ignoring the greenery (and the dirt) as just background. But while we are entranced by the flowers that contribute petals of pink, red, orange, yellow, white, blue, lavender, and purple to the garden landscape (see F Is for Flowers), the dominant browns and greens are doing the most basic and continuous of the plant’s important work.

Even in a small garden, the array of greenery is astounding. If you give it water, the greenery will come.

If you just count the plants the gardener puts in “on purpose,” the species variety is impressive enough. (You can get a partial sense of the variety in our garden by reading “F Is for Flowers.”) Just imagine all the green that is a part of each of those plants. But if you add in the many plants that grow up in an organic garden without the gardener’s intent—including the so-called “weeds”—you can begin to appreciate the true abundance of species that spring up green above the soil. For example, see the variety of ground cover plants in the photos below.

Seeing Beyond the Mass of Green

Where the visitor may just see a mass of green, the gardener focuses on—and revels in—the personality and quirks of every plant, and can tell you little histories about each one, unfathomably boring to the guest. But the gardener is off into a reverie, and doesn’t see the guest’s ennui.

Given my lack of enthusiasm for salads, my growing different greens has been a lesson for me. I’m still not a connoisseur among lettuces, for example, but I’ve learned to distinguish among the shapes, colors, textures, and flavors of several varieties and to have fallen in love with green ice lettuce, as well as with the luxuriant greens chard and arugula.

Arugula, Green Ice, and Chard: To Grow Is to Love

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I first grew arugula in fall 2015, and it will be a mainstay in our garden. I knew arugula as the black-peppery ingredient in fresh green salads, but until I grew it myself, I didn’t know how intense and fresh the flavor could be, nor how prolific and hearty the plants would become. (See Jean’s section below on using this versatile green in soups, salads, sandwiches, and pizza.) The photo above shows the 2016 crop after a month in the ground–each started from a two-inch sprout. The photo  below is the 2015 crop in bloom still in May 2016.

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After I pulled out the arugula plants that month, I transplanted into the same space two cherry tomato plants that I’d started in pots, and both of them just took off and produced multiple ripe tomatoes daily until late August. So not only is the arugula hearty and flavorful, but it has a great effect on the soil. Oh yes, the arugula in bloom is also a butterfly and bee magnet, while not being a waterhog.

Green Ice Lettuce

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Green ice lettuce plants in late January

I’ve grown different varieties of red and green leaf lettuces the last few years in the fall, and they’ve all done well, often putting out tasty leaves through the Northern California winter, when it gets down to the low thirties or occasionally the high 20s at night. A great thing about leaf lettuces is that in our climate they are usually putting out edible leaves for small salads after a month or month and a half after I’ve planted the seedlings, and they keep producing. Indeed, they have sometimes put out many more leaves than we can use, but even if we can’t use all they produce, the plants look pretty in the garden and help replenish nutrients in the soil for spring planting of tomatoes.

Green ice (shown above and just below) is a variety I was offered by a fellow gardener across town last fall, and the six seedlings I planted proved especially hearty, prolific, and flavorful. Again, until I planted my own greens, i didn’t know just how fresh and tasty greens could be.  That was certainly true of green ice. I actually didn’t plant it until the winter, and what surprised me the most was that it kept growing larger through early spring, and stayed tasty–fresh and not bitter–until it began flowering in April. Indeed, by that time, the stalks were almost six feet tall and were still covered from top to bottom with bright green leaves. If I hadn’t pulled up the stalks in early May for spring planting of chard and strawberries, they might have lasted into the heat of June.

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Green ice in bloom in early May

Chard, Beautiful Queen of the Edible Garden

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Chard plants in late October

Where the green ice lettuce had grown in our garden from December 2015 to May 2016, six chard plants have burgeoned since May in the same space that had held the green ice, and the chard is still going strong now in late October. They show no signs of slowing down. Indeed, as the Sacramento Valley weather has cooled to the 70s from the 90s and 100s of August into September, the chard leaves are more beautiful and supple than ever, with the orange to bright red stalks and the network of red veins in the deep green leaves pleasing the eye as much as the most exquisite flowers in the garden. We’ll probably still have them at holiday time as the edible garden versions of Christmas foliage.

And the flavor is still as deep in umami as it was in summer, with the firm texture and slight bitterness that makes chard great in salads and equally great in soups, when the leaves cook down. During summer, don’t hesitate to pluck off from the plant the unused leaves and stems that dry out in the heat. The plant will keep producing strong, bright, healthy stems and leaves, and it will remain exquisite to behold.

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Cooking with Greens

Jean:

I can’t say that greens are my favorite foods, either, whether cooked or fresh, but knowing their nutritional value, I’ve accepted the challenge of trying to work more of them into our diets.  We frequently receive greens in our monthly box of farm-fresh organic produce, and that, plus Chris’s expanding garden, has provided an opportunity to try some greens I would otherwise not necessarily have purchased for ourselves.  I’m going to focus here on ideas for eating more greens, rather than offering specific recipes.  If you like following recipes, you can easily find them.

Knowing Your Ingredients

My approach to using any unfamiliar ingredient is to search online for recipes and make a choice based on a number of factors.  I’m not necessarily looking for the easiest recipe, but I will exclude any that appear unnecessarily complicated.  I compare recipes to see what ingredients are most common, and which seem optional but may make the dish more interesting.  I have to confess that I also look for recipes containing ingredients I already have, especially if I need to use them up.  I am proud to be accused of constantly trying to “clean out” the refrigerator and pantry.  I often end up making something that is not exactly like any of the recipes I viewed, and often when I am begged to “make that again” I actually can’t.  I know this may not be helpful to the novice cook, but it’s an encouragement to be creative, especially with your fresh ingredients, which will probably taste great whatever you do with them.

As a result of my experimentation, I have found that traditional cooked greens recipes have a number of ingredients in common:  lots of sauteed garlic or garlic powder and red pepper flakes or hot sauce, bacon or ham for a rich salty flavor, chicken broth (of course a vegetarian version can be made without the meat and with a vegetable broth), and usually some sort of acid, such as apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar.  Here is Paula Deen’s simple recipe, which I would probably use for my favorite green–green beans.  Note that Paula cooks her collards for nearly an hour, which I would do for most green beans as well.  (I am nostalgic for my mother’s old-style overcooked green beans; I confess I am not partial to “crisp” ones, no matter how much better they may be for you.  Unfortunately, the fat needed for a silky mouth-feel also gives these preparations a bad name.)

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/collard-greens-recipe.html

Chris will eat greens prepared this traditional “southern” way, and apparently enjoy them, but they are so strong-flavored (and textured, even after substantial cooking) that he’s reluctant to eat them too frequently.  If we have leftovers, and we usually do, it can be a struggle to finish them.  It’s easier if I use the chard from our garden because the texture and flavor are lighter and the color brighter than collards, but the same problem of overload may still apply sometimes.  I have thus begun looking for a variety of ways to chop up and sneak these greens into various dishes.

Greens from the Garden Every Day: Soups and Sandwiches

Soups are an obvious choice (I love using pureed greens in my borscht, where the color and flavor of the beets camouflage the greens), but depending on how finely you chop or grind them, greens can be incorporated into lots of dishes, including spaghetti sauce, to get them into kids and those who eat like kids.  If you can’t sell your family on the flavors of greens, camouflage them and sneak them into unexpected dishes Trojan-horse style, I say.

Especially when you are lucky enough to have fresh greens in the garden, try some new ways to use them, a few leaves at a time.  Here are just a few ideas to show the range of greens:

http://www.saveur.com/gallery/Collard-Greens?image=0

The most effective way to use your greens is just to remember you have them and look for ways to invite them to the party on your table every day.  I find most sandwiches taste better with fresh greens.  The after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, for example, needs fresh lettuce and mayo, unless you go the stuffing and cranberry sauce route for filling out that sandwich, and maybe even then.

Greens in Salads: Upping the Interest

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Salads, of course, use more greens than most other dishes, but can get monotonous.  I am not one who can pick up the same salad every day from the deli case, or order the basic “house salad” at a restaurant.  I’d rather use my chewing efforts on something more interesting.  When we find salads completely slipping off our menu, however, I think about what makes salads interesting.  I am delighted to say yes when someone else offers to bring the salad to a dinner because I think an interesting salad contains a lot of ingredients and can take some time to prepare.  An easy way to increase our weekday consumption of salads  is to keep around a few of our favorite ingredients, ready to toss on top of a handful of greens.  It might be cherry tomatoes that I don’t have to chop, grated cheese, or hard-boiled eggs.  It might be berries and nuts with a little goat cheese.  I change it up, and find I am also more successful at getting salads down Chris (and myself) if I prepare individual-sized portions rather than filling a large imposing salad bowl.

And on Pizza?

Finally, greens can be treated like herbs, or combined with herbs, to make pesto.  An arugula pesto, for example, makes a great pizza topping, or you can use whole baby arugula leaves on the pizza without pureeing them.  We’ll be talking more about herbs soon, but here is an example of the kind of pizza topping I am talking about (and made for lunch today):

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ree-drummond/fresh-herb-pizza-recipe.html

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