Friday, February 19, 2010

660 Curries

One of my Yuletide gifts this year was 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer. I am woefully deficient in cookbooks, having gotten in the habit of getting most of my recipes online from sites like All Recipes and RecipeZaar and various food blogs. Online databases are convenient, but a good cookbook has a lot of value too, especially one like this, where it’s not only a collection of recipes, but practically a guide to India’s rich and varied culture seen through the lens of its rich and varied cuisine. Westerners have a woefully narrow view of Indian cuisine. The first thing they think of is probably some kind of yellow chicken curry with bottled pre-made curry powder. I know people who claim they can’t stand “curry”, but that’s really unfair since “curry” is not just one dish, but more like a style of cooking. Saying you don’t like curry is like saying you don’t like stir fry or you don’t like casserole.

With 660 recipes in this book, there’s got to be something here that anyone would like! Besides, Iyer seems to take liberty with the definition of “curry” (a vague term already), so really this book is full book on Indian cuisine, with chutneys, raitas, soups, breads, biryanis (something I had never heard before but seems to be the Indian version of “casserole”), appetizers, and fusion dishes. It’s got every Indian dish I’ve ever heard of plus a few hundred more. It’s quite a hefty book with few pictures, just some color plates here and there. The book has gotten some criticism for that, but more pictures would have made the tome even more massive. Besides, I don’t think curries are the most photogenic foods out there. The real beauty is in the aromas of all those spices.

I appreciate the authentic feel of the book. Each recipe has both an English and a Hindi name. The author grew up in India and then immigrated to the United States, so he turns out to be an excellent "interpreter". The recipes look like a nice balance, not too exotic as to be intimidating to a westerner, but not dumbed down either. This is stuff people actually eat in India! Most of the ingredients can be found in grocery stores here. Some things he suggests good substitutes for (like yellow squash instead of bottle gourd or brown sugar instead of jaggery), and there are a few he admits there really is no substitute for (I apparently need to hunt down some curry leaves, though I’m glad I finally found some tamarind). He even made up some recipes with ingredients they don't have in India, but are plentiful in America, like broccoli or salmon, and if Indians did have them, that's probably what they'd do with them.

This book will be very helpful with my goal of eating less meat, since it has a long chapter on legume curries, another on vegetable curries, and a short chapter on paneer curries (which is Indian cheese he says is similar to feta cheese or tofu, and is also easy to make yourself since vinegar is used to curdle the milk). This reflects the large population of vegetarians in India for either religious or financial reasons. I’m also impressed by how many different vegetables are represented. There’s at least one curry for pretty much every vegetable I’ve ever grown. This will come in very handy the next time I have a bumper crop of something from the garden, and is already helping with the tons of mustard greens I keep getting in my CSA delivery every week. However, this book is also an omnivore’s delight with a chapter on poultry curries, another on red meat, and another on seafood. The chicken curries are especially varied and yummy sounding, as chicken is the most popular meat in India. Pick an ingredient and there’s probably a curry for it in this book.

I would like to eventually try all the recipes in this book, though it may take years. I’ve been scribbling notes in the margins on the recipes I have tried so I can keep track. I’m sure if I didn’t do that it would be nearly impossible to remember which ones I’ve tried or not and which one’s I’ve liked or not. It seems like so far I’ve liked most of them. What’s more remarkable is my partner, Daniel, has also liked most of them, and he’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy who doesn’t like his food too fancy. Or so he claims.

Here are the ones I’ve tried so far.

Murghi Ni Curry (ginger chicken with peanuts and coconut): It says this is a Parsi recipe from Mumbai. The Parsis are descended from Zoroastrians who fled from Iran to India to escape religious persecution. See, this is the kind of stuff you learn from the recipes in this book! This curry had an interesting sauce made by blending tomatoes together with toasted unsweetened coconut and peanuts. I should have paid better attention to the warning, “The longer the ingredients sit in the hot skillet, the more they will burn, making them unpalatable,” because I think I burned my peanuts a little while I was toasting them in the skillet. I ended up with black flecks all over the curry. Daniel said it was fine, but I’d better be more careful next time. It was still tasty. It was very nutty and would probably be good with brown rice to accentuate the nuttiness.

Saag Murghi (stewed chicken in a mustard greens-spinach sauce): I figured out that saag means greens and murghi means chicken. He says that this dish is traditionally made with just spinach, but he likes mustard greens so he uses half of each. I’ve been getting big batches of mustard greens from my CSA, so I made it with all mustard greens and no spinach. The sauce for this chicken is mustard greens, spices, and yogurt pureed into a bright green sauce. It’s certainly nothing like what Americans would think of when they think of curry. He recommends eating this with naan to dip in the green sauce. Daniel and I both liked it.

Kadhai Tamatar Murghi (wok-seared chicken breasts with fennel-tomato sauce): The book informs me a kadhai is like an Indian wok. I used my beloved carbon steel Chinese wok instead, even though he says the kadhai is a slightly different shape and usually made of cast iron. In this curry, boneless chicken chunks are seared in a wok and then covered with a rich tomato sauce. It calls for fenugreek leaves and I substituted powdered fenugreek seeds. It was still tasty but that change may have significantly altered the intended flavor of the dish, I’m not sure. Several curries in this book call for fenugreek leaves. I just planted some fenugreek seeds, so maybe by summer I can see what the leaves taste like. The ground seeds are a component in many commercial curry powders, but given how coriander seeds taste a lot different from the leaves, it’s possible that may be the case with fenugreek. Anyway, even with the seeds instead of leaves, this curry was good. We ate it with naan and a potato curry on the side as he suggested.

Bittarai Kirihodi (Sri Lankan style hard-cooked eggs with coconut milk): This was the first curry I made that I didn’t like. I used some leftover hard-cooked eggs that were a little overcooked, which might have made things worse. I was hoping the spicy sauce would cover up the sulfur. The tumeric-yellow, thin coconut milk sauce the eggs floated in was very bland. It calls for mostly whole spices like cinnamon sticks, but you only simmer them in the sauce for a few minutes, so I’m not sure if that’s enough time to get the flavors out. There’s two more egg curries in here I’ll try before I give this one another chance.

Goan Gosht Curry (curried beef stew with potatoes, shallots, and malt vinegar): The description says this is a good gateway curry for people who don’t like curries because it’s basically a beef and potato stew with some Indian spices. He was right. I think this was Daniel’s favorite so far. The Goans are Christian Indians famous for vindaloo, and like vindaloo this curry has a bit of vinegar in it, which tenderizes the meat but keeps the potatoes from falling apart. I didn’t have shallots so I used onion. Whole cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and bay leaves simmer in the stew along with coconut milk and tomato. Yum! We ate it with naan and it’s a definite make-again.

Tamatar Jhinga (beginner almond shrimp with tomatoes): This was last night’s dinner and was a delicious dish of shrimp in a creamy tomato sauce served over rice. It reminded me of shrimp alfredo. True to the description, it was a cinch to make too. Not all curries have to simmer for hours. This one took 20 minutes, and that’s because that’s how long the rice took to cook.

Chana Masala (chickpeas with a spicy tomato sauce): Chana masala (chana is the word for chickpeas) is a pretty standard curry that most westerners have heard of (at least those who are into Indian food). The description says this is as pervasive as macaroni and cheese is in America. With already cooked chickpeas it’s super quick and easy to make. I thought it was good and filling (especially for a vegan dish), but kind of boring compared to the other curries in this book. But maybe good old chana masala isn’t supposed to be exciting, just something quick to throw together on a weeknight. I look forward to trying some of the other chana recipes in the book to see if they’re more interesting.

Gatte Saag Ki Subzi (chickpea flour dumplings with spinach): Gatte are chickpea flour dumplings, and saag are greens. Wow, I’m learning Hindi! I used Swiss chard from my garden instead of spinach. The chickpea flour was Bob’s Red Mill brand from the health food section of the grocery store. Now I’m not sure what to do with the rest of the little bag of chickpea flour since this curry was merely ok. There are a couple of other recipes in here that use the same dumplings in different sauces, and some that use the flour for other things, so I should try those. The dumplings were very filling for a vegetarian dish, but also very dense and kind of gummy. Maybe I made them wrong. The greens were good, but greens are always good.

Aloo Aur Sarson Ka Saag (potatoes and mustard greens with ginger and garlic): As suggested in the book, this was served as a side dish to Kadhai Tamatar Murghi, and was good with that, and would probably be good with any meat curries that need some vegetable accompaniment. Having both potatoes (aloo) and greens (saag) gives you both a green vegetable and a starch in one dish. This was another way to use up all the mustard greens I’m getting from my CSA. This might even go well alongside a legume curry for a vegetarian meal. The author admits he’s mad about potatoes and eats some of the potato curries by themselves, deficient in protein it may be. I think he and I would get along well, because potatoes, and potato curries, are yummy. The potatoes soak up the spicy sauce nicely.

Makkai Ki Roti (griddle cooked corn bread with chiles): This is in the last chapter of the book, “Curry Cohorts”, which has things like raitas, relishes, chutneys, rice dishes, and breads. These were good, but were indistinguishable to me from any other homemade corn tortilla. It’s made of masa harina, salt, ginger, and chiles with water to make the dough, then pressed flat and grilled on a cast-iron skillet. So yeah, besides the added spices in the dough, it’s a corn tortilla. Not that that’s bad or anything! Homemade corn tortillas are delicious and different than store bought corn tortillas. But I think in the future I’ll just make a batch of regular corn tortillas from the recipe on the masa harina bag. There’s also a recipe for regular rotis in here that seem to be the Indian version of whole wheat tortillas. He even says that you can use whole wheat tortillas instead. I’m surprised he doesn’t say the same thing about the corn rotis being just like corn tortillas. Anyway, tortillas are in abundance here in Texas, so I probably won’t make my own rotis and just use whole wheat tortillas, which I can get in large packages, freshly made from the grocery store bakery.

Naan (salt-crusted grilled flatbread with ghee): Now, here’s an Indian bread that I think would be worth making. The grocery store sells naan, but it comes only two to a package, one for me and one for Daniel, and is not freshly made in the store. I got the idea I should make myself a big batch and freeze it, since it’s become my favorite starch accompaniment to curries and I was tired of buying more of those little packages of naan all the time. However, I tried Iyer’s recipe, and it was a disaster! Part of it was my fault. I think I made the naan too thin, so when I grilled it, it actually got hard and crunchy in the thinner spots. That’s not supposed to happen. If rotis are Indian tortillas, then naan is Indian pita bread. It’s supposed to be thick and chewy. Except the other weird thing is that I always thought naan was supposed to be a yeast bread. Iyer’s recipe has no yeast, just baking powder and buttermilk to leaven it. I think next time I will try Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe that does use yeast, so the dough is kneaded until stretchy and will probably have some resistance when I roll it out so I won’t end up with crackers. I think it’s supposed to be more like a pizza crust when you roll it out.

Ok, so I’ve made nine curries so far (plus two breads). That means I only have 651 curries to go!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Growing Onions

The genus Allium is one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts to cooks all around the world. I hardly ever cook a savory dish that doesn’t contain onion, garlic, or both. Unfortunately, I’ve found alliums to be a challenge to grow. Perhaps it’s my climate. They like cool weather, but they’re also day length sensitive, so it’s not a simple matter of growing them in the winter instead, like with brassicas. You have to get the timing right so that they grow enough leaves to give themselves energy to grow a big enough bulb, and to keep them from bolting before you’ve got a good bulb.

When I was a kid, my mom used to buy onion sets and plant them all over the garden. This was mostly to repel insect pests on our other crops, because we never got a good crop of onions from these and kind of accepted that. We’d plant them at the same time as everything else, the tomatoes and green beans and squash, some time around Easter. Once the weather would start getting really warm around May or June they’d bolt, that is, send up a flower stalk. If pulled at this time we’d have a golf ball sized onion to eat. If left in the garden, they’d go to seed and die without growing any bigger.

After growing up and reading a bit, I figured out that we had been doing several things wrong, which has to do with the life cycle of the onion. Onions are biennials. In their natural state, they would spend their first spring and summer growing a lot of leaves, then when the days get shorter and colder they’d transfer that energy from leaf to bulb in order to survive the winter. Then the tops die and the bulb survives underground. Once the weather warms up again, the onion sends up a new top, but this time uses its stored food in the bulb to make as many seeds as it can. Then, like a salmon spawning, the onion dies, and the next generation spend the winter as seed to start the cycle over again next year.

Onion sets sold at the hardware store are small onion bulbs that were grown from seed and harvested previously. Therefore, when planted, as far as the onion is concerned, their time growing leaves and a bulb is over, and now it’s the second year and it’s time to grow seed. The bulb of an onion set may grow a little, but soon it decides it’s too late for that, and it had better go to seed before it dies. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if there’s any way to convince an onion set to go back to its vegetative phase and grow bigger rather than making seeds onces it's spent some time as a dormant bulb. As far as it’s concerned, those days are over and done with.

The first time I had success growing onions was when I found a garden center selling onion plants rather than onion sets. They looked just like bunches of green onions you can get at the grocery store, though a bit dirtier and other colors besides white. They were also being sold much earlier in the year, in January and February, and that’s when you should plant them here, since unlike tomatoes or squash, onions can handle freezes just fine. That's the other trick besides planting plants rather than sets. Plant them as early as possible.

These onions grew much bigger than the sets and by late spring or early summer the tops fell over and died, signaling that it was time to harvest the onions. Not a single one sent up a flower stalk, and when I pulled them up, most of them were around tennis ball size. Still a bit on the small side, but a vast improvement over golf or ping pong ball size and allowed me to go without buying onions for a couple of months.

These onions were successful because they had not yet gone through the first part of their life cycle. They had been grown from seed during the winter and this was their first spring, so they put all their energy into growing a bulb rather than seed. If I had left them in the ground, they would have gone dormant and sat there for a few months and then sent up a flower stalk.

This year I wanted to try growing onions from seed rather than buying plants, since it’s cheaper and even more self-sufficient. Because onions don’t like hot weather, in the south one must plant the seeds really early. I planted mine in November, and I probably should have planted them in October instead. The goal was to grow plants of my own that looked like the ones that are showing up in the garden centers now, but mine are still smaller. I hope they catch up. I just planted about half of them out last weekend, and I need to plant the rest as soon as possible.

Timing is important because onions are day length sensitive. That means they use the length of daylight to time important events in their lives, rather than most vegetables which use other cues such as temperature. Once the day gets long enough, the onion will go dormant no matter how big its bulb is, and that’s it. Doesn’t matter if the bulb is softball or ping pong ball sized, it’s done. That’s also why it’s important to get onion varieties that are appropriate for your area, because the closer to the equator you are, the less variation there is in day length between the seasons. In other words, the days are shorter in the south in the summer than in the north in the summer, and the days are longer in the south in the winter than in the north in the winter. It’s recommended to grow long-day onions in the north and short-day onions in the south. Unfortunately for me, it seems there are a lot more long-day varieties than short-day out there. Oh well. Maybe some day I’ll try a long-day variety just to see what happens.

With how many onions I eat, it would be great if I could grow my own. It’s just taking a steeper learning curve than I took with a lot of other crops. Next year I’m definitely starting them earlier, October at the very latest, and I’m keeping them outside more. I had my baby onions inside the garage under the grow lights most of the time, but they’re supposed to be hardy enough to take all but the hardest freezes, so I was probably being overprotective and depriving them of the much superior natural sunlight. I could probably leave them outside most of the time here, and only bring them in on the few nights we get a very hard freeze where there’s a danger their flats might freeze all the way through.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Giving Up Meat for Lent

I know it’s strange to follow up a post about meat with this, but tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I decided a while ago that I would participate in Lent this year. Even though I’m not Christian, I think the occasional period of asceticism is probably a good idea. If nothing else, it helps you appreciate what you have and not take so much for granted.

A fast in the springtime also makes natural sense because before industrial agriculture, this would be at time when last year’s harvest stores are running low, but new crops have yet to be harvested. And by now we should be well over the excesses of the Yuletide season, and it’s probably time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Now that the days are getting longer and warmer it’s a good idea to do a bit of spring cleaning inside and out.

Yes, I am thinking a little bit about my waistline. In fact, I first thought of this idea in the context of New Year’s Resolutions, but instead of jumping on the January crash diet bandwagon, I told myself I’d wait until Lent (besides, my birthday is in January, so that would be no fun). I’m going to do this the traditional way and give up red meat and poultry. Traditionally Sundays don’t count, so I can eat it then. That’s handy because I’m accustomed to cooking a big meal on Sunday anyway, since it’s one of the days when my partner and I are both off from work and can enjoy a nice, sit-down meal together. I know this may not result in weight loss, since I won't be counting calories, but meat is a very concentrate source of calories, so it very well might. If nothing else, it may force me to pay more attention to what I eat, and I’ll probably save a lot of money too.

I also know that fish traditionally doesn’t count as meat for Lent, but I always thought it was kind of lame to call yourself a vegetarian and still eat fish. After all, fish aren’t vegetables. But they are very good for you (as long as they don’t contain toxic levels of mercury pollution, and sadly it looks like more and more of the fish in the world is contaminated), so I think I’ll allow myself a maximum of 2 servings of fish a week, preferably ones approved of by the Seafood Watch list. Unfortunately the only seafood my nearest grocery store seems to regularly carry is pre-cooked cocktail shrimp from who-knows-where and farm raised tilapia from China.

Oddly, from what I’ve read it looks like eggs count as a forbidden item for Lent (seems weird they’d allow fish but not eggs), but taking out eggs completely seems difficult for me because of how many foods they’re in. Also, since I get most of my eggs from a local farmer whose chickens are allowed to run free and are treated almost like pets, I actually feel better about eating those eggs than any other animal product I consume. Dairy will be left in my diet as well, mainly because, like with eggs, it’s a little tricky to substitute it in recipes, and as I understand it, it’s traditionally allowed during Lent.

Besides meats, I could also give up sweets, which seems to be popular among people who observe Lent, but I don’t eat many sweets anyway (and since Valentine’s Day was Sunday, my house still has a lot of chocolates and other treats within; it would be a shame to let those go stale), so that’s not a big sacrifice. I think I’ll just use up what I have and not buy any more until Easter candy time. May as well do the same thing with alcohol and only drink it on Sundays, but really giving up meat is going to be harder on me than giving up sweets or alcohol. I was raised with the knowledge that sweets are bad for you, but meat was still almost always the “main course” with some veggies on the side. Now, at least during the week, I’ll be on a lacto-vegetarian diet. I think I’m up to the challenge, since I have been trying to eat more vegetarian meals to save money, but I haven’t yet done it in any controlled way where I was counting how many times I ate meat during a week. Maybe next year I’ll be harder on myself.

I did consider doing a fast or diet completely on my own, instead of within the cultural context of Lent. I’m not a Christian, after all, so one could say I’m stealing someone else’s holiday, but I somehow feel a little better doing it this way knowing there are lots of other people doing the same thing at the same time. I live in an area with a large Hispanic population which is mostly Catholic, so there is at least an awareness of the season, with grocery stores advertising Lenten sales on fish, for example. It seems like some sort of cultural support, even if it’s people I don’t actually know personally. And, as I said, it makes sense to fast in the springtime, so I might as well do it during some kind of “official” fasting period. But I suppose I could just say I’ve decided to go on a low-meat diet from February 17 to April 3 and leave it at that.

Tonight for Marti Gras I’m cooking sausage jambalaya, but after that I’m all stocked up on beans and tofu and ready to go.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Grass Fed Meat

Like many animal lovers, the issue of whether or not to eat meat is a difficult one for me. On one hand, I do know that animals have feelings and the way the livestock are treated that become the meat you find in your average supermarket is horrible. On the other hand, I like meat, I'm not sure that eating animals is inherently wrong (I don't think animals worry about death the same way we do, but I suppose there's no way to know for sure), and I don't believe much of the rhetoric put forth by the more extreme vegan activists. For example, the idea that if you are vegan, you aren't doing harm to any animals, or that a vegan diet is the best thing you can do for the environment really don't convince me. As an ecologist I am well aware of the ecological damage caused by ploughing up the land and planting a monoculture crop soaked in pesticides, which makes it difficult for me to believe that people who base their diets on grains and soybeans have their hands clean.

In comparison, a responsible rancher can mimic the natural state of the prairie with large animals grazing the native grasses and many other native wildlife species living alongside them. Of course, there are irresponsible ranchers who overgraze their land, though it seems to me, just by observing them in person, that overgrazed ranches are still more biologically diverse than cornfields.

This only works, of course, if you eat meat from animals that aren't fed grain themselves. This benefits not only the environment, but the animals themselves, since they get to live more natural lives. Ruminants like cows and sheep are not built to eat grain. It does terrible things to their digestive systems, which are amazingly complicated and specialized grass-fermentation machines. Pigs and chickens are more generalized in their diets, and therefore tolerate a corn diet better than cows, but are still healtheir, and I would argue, happier when allowed to roam free and eat the varied diet they were meant to. Humans, after all, are generalists too, just like pigs, but probably would not enjoy an all-corn diet either.

Therefore, I have chosen to buy only grass fed meat and pastured poultry. I haven't yet extended that rule to eating out, since grass fed meant is almost impossible to find at restaurants, but I don't eat out often anyway. Today I recieved my latest order from Slanker's Grass Fed Meats, which is where I get most of my meat from. The ranch is located in North Texas, and I prefer it over my next best choice, one of the Austin farmer's markets, because I can order it over the internet and have it delivered UPS. This way I know what they have in stock ahead of time and can order in bulk easily. The farmer's market is good, and I would probably go more if I actually lived in Austin, but often once I get there the meat vendors are out of most things, and it would be a pain to haul 100 lbs of meat from there to fill up my chest freezer.

Ordering meat and having it delivered may seem weird, but it comes frozen solid in these insulated boxes that act as a cooler. It seems to work out just fine. In the summer maybe the edges of some of the cuts arrive a little thawed, but that's about it. That meat would stay at least refrigerator-cold for much longer than the three days it takes to get to me.

He always has beef in stock and usually has chicken as well. Occassionally he'll have lamb, pork, bison, and goat meat too. I don't agree with everything he says on his website (I don't think the only thing wrong with CAFO's is that they produce an inferior product, though I understand that he doesn't want to badmouth his fellow cattlemen, and I don't think that meat should form the basis of the human diet, though I do understand that he is out to sell a product here), but doing business with him has always worked out just fine for me. Ordering in bulk makes it cost about the same as buying it from the farmer's market (maybe even slightly cheaper), even with shipping, and much cheaper than buying the organic beef at Whole Foods (and grass fed is actually better than organic, you can feed organic corn to a cow and call it organic beef). Let's see, this last order of 130 lbs of meat, minus the bulk discount, plus shipping, came out to about $4.77 a pound averaged out. Not bad, especially considering I splurged on a bit of lamb. However, this is merely my favorite source of grass fed meat. The farmer's market or some other rancher may be more convenient for you. It really depends on where you live and how far you're willing to drive.

I have nothing against vegetarians (and actually I think it's a pretty good idea), just the ones that think their diets make them automatically morally superior to all omnivores. Mainly I'd like to encourage my fellow omnivores to consider switching to grass fed meat. Yes, it is more expensive. I compensate by eating less meat, which is probably better for me anyway (makes me eat more vegetables). I incorporate a lot of vegetarian meals into my weekly routine and when I do eat meat I try to stretch it out with a lot of vegetables, making the vegetables take center stage with the meat as an accompaniment, rather than the other way around. I also try to buy more of the cheap cuts, the shoulders and shanks and ribs, and braise them in my crockpot until tender. Grass fed meat is much tastier, which helps a little go a long way, but some people say it tastes "gamey" or "fishy" and that it isn't tender. I would say that means they're just too used to the fat, unhealthy, bland tasting corn fed cows. I also think "marbling" is way overrated. Intramuscular fat is considered to be unhealthy for humans, so why want that in a cow? I wonder if it's really a marketing gimmick to make corn-fed cows seem more desirable. Tenderness is achieved more reliably by cooking the meat properly than how much marbling it has.

Now I have a freezer to organize.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Baby Heirloom Tomatoes

I'm all done putting my tomato seedlings in individual pots. This year's varieties are:
  • Black Cherry
  • Hawkins Plum
  • Mortgage Lifter
  • Pink Ponderosa
  • Red Brandywine
  • Yellow Pear
I start my seeds very early, around Christmas. This is to make sure I have time to replant in case anything happens. These seeds were all old ones I had left over from back when I had a garden before, so I wasn't sure how viable they were. I wanted them to have plenty of time to germinate and to have time to plant new seeds in case they don't make it. Since germination was iffy, I put the seeds on damp paper towels in plastic food containers first, and when a root poked out I moved them to seedling flats, which are really those clear plastic clamshells berries come in at the grocery store. Once all (or at least most) of them get their true leaves, they get moved to their own pots.

My growlight is set up in the garage. It stays cool in there, so the tomatoes grow very slowly. This makes up for the artificial light a little bit, so the plants still grow short and stocky instead of tall and weak and leggy, but it's another reason why I have to plant early. As long as they don't freeze, they're ok, and since we had record cold this year and the garage didn't freeze (I have a thermometer in there to make sure), I think it's safe to say the garage never freezes.

As for the other nightshades, the tomatillos are in their individual pots now too, but the eggplants, peppers, and ground cherries are lagging behind. For some reason I'm not getting good germination on them and have just put in some more seeds to germinate. February is the time when the experts say you should start nightshades in this climate, so I've still got time, but you can see why I like to start early. I'm glad I'm not just now starting all of my nightshades, only to find out later my eggplants and peppers are taking their time. Gardeners from the north think I'm lucky to have such a long frost-free season, but our summers are so harsh that actually instead of having a long growing season, we have two short ones. The tomatoes need to be out by March in order for us to get a good crop before it gets too hot for them in July or August.

All the tomato varieties I'm growing this year are new to me, so I'm looking forward to trying them out. I've heard especially good things about Black Cherry, Mortgage Lifter, and Red Brandywine.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mockingbird Day

Early Februrary seems like the time to be looking for signs of spring. There's the blooming of the Candlemas snowdrops, the lactation of ewes on Imbolg, and the groundhog waking up from hibernation and seeing his shadow (or not).

The thing is, there aren't any snowdrops, or ewes, or groundhogs around here, so I found my very own sign of spring that does usually happen the first week of February in my own ecosystem. This is about the time when the mockingbirds start singing. They are here all year, and you can hear them doing a little bit of "practice" singing at other times of year, but spring is when they're really serious about it, because that's when they're setting up their nests.

Today while I was planting bluebonnets in the front flower bed, I heard what was unmistakably a male mockingbird earnestly singing his little heart out to win over a mate and to intimidate rivals. His song announced to the world that he had claimed this tree to nest in, and that any female mockingbird would do well to pick him as a mate, seeing as how he's such a good singer and all. I actually did a paper on mockingbird song when I was an undergraduate, and found studies in the scientific literature that suggested the more complicated a male's song is, the sexier he is to the females. Mockingbirds learn new songs throughout their lives, and apparently the girls like the more experienced guys.

Most songbirds are set in their songs to varying degrees. The Caronlina Wren is a good example of a one-hit-wonder bird. He always sings in bouncy triplets, "da-deedle-dee, deedle-dee, deedle-dee..." (most birders write it out as "teakettle, teakettle, teakettle"). About all an individual wren can do to change things up a bit is slow down or speed up that same song.

The Northern Cardinal, on the other hand, doesn't so much have one song as a genre of songs. Their voices are always rich and loud, with multiple songs in their playlist. There's the ever popular, "CHEER! CHEER! Woit, woit, woit, woit, woit..." and then there's "what-CHEER, what-CHEER, cheepcheepcheepcheep CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!" and then there's the more mellow, "pur-dy... purdy purdy purdy..." To identify a cardinal by song you can't just learn one song like with the wren, you have to learn that distinctive cardinal sound, that rich, bouncing whistle, speeding up, slowing down, getting louder, getting softer, with dramatic pauses put in from time to time before they switch to a different song.

The mockingbird is different than either of those extremes. There is no such thing as a mockingbird song. The mockingbird takes bits of other bird songs and strings them together, and dare I say, does it with style. If you've never heard a mockingbird, you might expect it to be a jumbled confusion of different sounds, but he somehow makes it work. He'll warm you up with a bit of wren, rising into the rich songs of the cardinal, then the excited cries of a killdeer before finishing it off with the mechanical sounds of a grackle. At least, that's what my mockingbird treated me to today. It's fun to try to pick out which songs he's doing, but it's often difficult because he'll take verses from the middle from other birds songs out of context, stick a verse from another bird's song on the end, and I'm just left thinking, "That sounded really familiar, but I just can't place it."

Later in the year the migrants will start showing up with their distinctive songs as well, but that won't be for a while. In the meantime it's the mockingbirds that will be the main performers out there as they claim their nesting spots. Try walking through any park, university campus, or similar environment on a sunny day some time this month and notice how you'll always have a singing mockingbird within earshot, and as you walk and that one fades into the distance, another one will be coming into hearing range. All of Texas is now being carved up into mockingbird territores!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Welcome to my garden!

Well, it's spring, or at least it will be soon, and there is much under construction, including this weblog, which is intended to be the online counterpart to my organic garden, and a chronicle of my attempts at a bit of urban homesteading and living in harmony with nature. We'll see how that goes!
First, let me take you on a tour of the garden...

Here's the garden so far. It takes up most of my backyard. When we moved in this past summer the yard had been completely neglected, and with the drought, all the grass was either dead or dormant. That's ok since I'm not really into lawns anyway. We asked the landlord if we could plant a garden, and he didn't seem to care. It looked like doing anything at all would be an improvement. In the foreground is the fire circle, which now has a lot of Bermuda grass in it. That stuff is so invasive that it's unwise to put it in the compost pile. You have to either put it in the dumpster to be hauled away or burn it.

Speaking of compost piles, we've got ours in a mysterious hole under an elm tree. My sister guessed it was where another tree used to be that died and left a hole there. Since she was right about the reason for the big circle of sand (there used to be an above ground pool there), she's probably right about this as well. I figured it made a good ready-made compost pit. This way I don't have to build anything to contain it, and since it's dry here, being slightly below ground might help keep things moist.

The sand from the pool is probably a good thing, since the native soil here is about 50% black clay, and 50% chunks of limestone. The sand will help lighten up the clay, once it gets mixed in. The limestone, well, I guess digging out rocks every time I stick a shovel in is good exercise.

I'm trying to make good use of my abundant limestone "resource" by using it to line my planting beds. Here's a view of my general garden layout. I'm making a 2 foot border around the whole thing (along the chain link fence on two sides), and then a grid of 4x8 foot beds (there will end up being 15 in total, five by three) with 3 foot paths between. The paths have landscape fabric on them. I'll eventually put some kind of mulch down on top, but I haven't yet decided what kind. Any suggestions? The beds that don't have anything planted in them right now are covered with flattened cardboard boxes to smother any undesirable plants. Since my backyard was originally a lawn with EVIL BERMUDA GRASS, I need to be ever-vigilant about keeping that stuff from gaining a foothold (or roothold) once again. Luckily it's a warm season grass that's dormant in winter, but as soon as it warms up, I'm in trouble.

Here's a view looking back the other way towards the house and the fire pit. You can tell where the pool used to be out there in the middle of the yard because of all the sand. I hope my root crops like that.
I live in a warm climate, so I can have something growing in the garden year round. Right now I've got various cool weather crops going, including...
Carrots planted in that sand.
Some newly planted lettuce. Aren't they cute?

Collard greens and heirloom garlic. The ones with the big leaves are collard greens. The ones with the long thin leaves are garlic. (The rest are weeds.)

These are multiplier onions, similar to shallots. It's an heirloom variety grown by Native Americans in the southwest, and has been growing here since June, which is pretty impressive given that this past summer was one of the hottest and driest on record. Planting southwest native varieties is probably a good idea.

More heirloom garlic and Swiss chard.
Ok, that's probably enough for a first post. Let's see how this ends up looking once it's published. As you can see, I plan on putting up a LOT of pictures. Everyone likes pictures, right?