Thursday, April 29, 2010

Full Egg Moon

The English name for the full moon of April is the Egg Moon. I guess that's because Easter is usually in April. I haven't been getting a lot of eggs in my CSA bag lately. The Native American name is the Pink Moon, referring to pink flowers, but there aren't a lot of pink flowers blooming around here (except for pink evening primrose), so I'll go with Egg Moon.

The bluebonnets are starting to fade and drop their blossoms, replacing them with seed pods that will eventually burst and throw pebble-looking seeds everywhere. Replacing them are Indian Blanket, a very cool looking daisy-like flower with a dark red center and yellow rim.

I like these full moon posts even if nobody else reads them, because I was able to go back and look at my previous ones and see how much progress the garden has made. A lot can happen in a month!

I've made more progress laying out paths and beds in the garden, but as you can see, the Bermuda grass is catching up with me. I'm still using RoundUp to carefully spot-treat it when it comes up in cracks, and digging up and burning as much as I can. I hate how when you try to pull it up, it just breaks off in your hand.

The Scarlet Runner beans have started flowering. The butterflies seem to enjoy them. They also seem like something a hummingbird would like, but I haven't seen a lot of hummingbirds yet, even though the nectar is disappearing from our hummingbird feeder. Maybe they just get up earlier than I do.

I gave up on the old lima bean seeds and started planting regular pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) instead. These are Kentucky Wonder, and I'm probably going to plant some Blue Coco as well.

Their legume brethren, the Tall Telephone peas, have been putting out plenty of pods lately. Looks like this is a good variety after all. Both the fall-planted and spring-planted plants are doing well, though the fall-planted ones are much bigger. I'm trying to save the peas up to cook a dish with them, but it's hard to not just eat them all right in the garden. Fresh peas straight from the pod are another one of those wonderful things you can't get anywhere else but a garden.

This is where my lettuce used to be. It's gone now. It had started to bolt and got infested with some sort of green caterpillars, so I pulled it up. The beets are still doing fine, and I interplanted them with some bush beans to fill in the gaps. I like to have my plants close together to crowd out weeds and also shade the surface of the soil to conserve moisture. Bush beans are a good plant to fill in any gaps between plants before weeds do. I just stick them in here and there wherever I can. An added bonus is they do that nitrogen-fixing legume thing.

The collard greens are working on some seed pods now. I wonder how long it will take to get mature seeds from them. The chard, on the other hand, is more heat tolerant than I thought. While the collards and lettuce have already bolted, it shows no sign of switching from leaf to seed production. Poor Daniel may still have another couple months of me trying to get him to eat chard mixed into everything.

The garlic is still green. I made the mistake of pulling one up, and it hardly had a bulb yet at all. I asked online when is the usual time for garlic to be ready in my area, and was told I've still got ANOTHER MONTH! Ugh, that's a long time.

The Rio Grande Russet potatoes are also flowering, though disappointingly the flowers tend to drop off without a fruit in sight. The other two potato varieties aren't flowering at all. Not all potato varieties do, since domesticated potatoes have become used to not having sex, but sometimes if they do flower, they will make a little fruit that has actual seeds in it. These seeds can be planted with interesting results. Or so I was told. I was hoping I could try that out for myself, but now it looks like they might not quite make it to the fruit stage.

Some other nightshades are more sexy. The tomatillos have a lot of flowers on them. No fruit set yet, but I know they will eventually. Same thing with the tomatoes. I'm really looking forward to them. Strangely, blogger's spellchecker doesn't recognise "tomatillos". It wants me to change it to "tomatoes". That's not the same thing!

The peppers and eggplants are still puny. This is one of the bigger specimens. I really should have planted them earlier, or maybe given them a heat pad during the winter. They grow really slowly when they're not warm enough. I went ahead and planted them, and a few of them died because it's been dry and warm for a while and they were so small that they dried out fast. That's a shame.

The dry weather has also affected the okra. We had a rainy spell that coaxed the seeds to sprout, but that was followed by a dry, hot spell that killed at least half of them. Tiny little seedlings just dry out so quickly! It's like one day they seem fine and the next day they're fried to a crisp. I planted more okra seeds than I needed, but enough died that I might go ahead and plant more to fill in the gaps. On the one hand, okra is very prolific, so I might not need many plants, but on the other hand not only is it a staple of Southern American and Indian cuisine (two of my favorites), but it pickles and freezes well too. I should be sure to grow plenty.

Finally, now that it's gotten warm, I've been rushing to plant my Cucurbitaceae, that is, squash, melons, cucumbers, and gourds. I'm having the same problem with direct-seeding them as I have with the okra, keeping them moist enough during their delicate seedling stage. I seem to have better luck when I plant them in pots first and then transplant them once they've gotten a few true leaves. I can keep the pots sheltered while the seedlings are small. The bigger plants, once put out in the garden, don't seem to dry out as fast. This year I'm planting a few different kinds of squash and melons along with luffa gourds. This is another garden plant family that give you (relatively) instant gratification because they grow really fast.

Daytime temperatures have been pushing the high 80's lately, though it still gets cool at night. Probably by the next full moon we'll be in the 90's. Eek! I hope by then I'll have something else to eat besides chard and peas.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Thai Shrimp Stir-Fry

I originally planned to post a lot more recipes to this blog than I've been doing, so today I'm fixing that somewhat by posting this recipe, especially since it uses FOUR ingredients from my garden (garlic scapes, carrots, cilantro, and multiplier onions).

The inspiration for this dish came from Thai Spicy Basil Shrimp from Tigers and Strawberries, but altered to fit what I had on hand. Stir fries are nice that way. Once you have the basics down you can play with them quite a bit and they'll still come out yummy.

Tigers and Strawberries is where I learned my stir-fry technique. Before that stir-frying was overly complicated because I felt I had to cook each ingredient separately to make sure each was done the right amount. Now I know what order to put the ingredients in so they all cook together harmoniously.
If you want to become a serious stir-fryer, one thing you gotta do is get a REAL wok. DO NOT get one of those non-stick Teflon ones from the nearest bigbox store. You should go to a specialty store and get a CARBON STEEL one (or do like I did and ask for one for Xmas).

You need a wok that can stand up to as much heat as you can pump into it. Hopefully you know that Teflon is not good for high heat cooking. Not only does it break down the Teflon, causing your pan to not last nearly as long, but that hot Teflon also releases toxic chemicals into the air, enough that people with pet birds are always told to not cook with Teflon because the fumes can kill the bird. Now, I'm not a bird, and birds are more sensitive to air pollution than mammals, but if it can kill a bird, I doubt it's good for me.

That said, I do have a set of Teflon pans. I only use them for low-heat cooking, mainly eggs and pancakes. They were a gift, so might as well use them for something.

As you can see, my carbon steel wok is pretty dirty looking. It's supposed to look like that. Carbon steel woks get "seasoned" in a similar way to cast iron pans. I won't go into the details of that now, but if you do go ahead and get a real wok, you'll have to season it. You can look up instructions on how to do this on the Internet. After that, the wok just gets better from use. Mine has been pretty well loved.

My wok also came with a little stand thingy to go on the stove, since the bottom of the actual wok is round. This works just fine for me, but some woks have flat bottoms so you don't need a stand. I think the round bottoms are more traditional, since it makes stirring more easily, but I'm sure the flat bottomed ones work fine too.
When you cook in a wok you should always have the heat at least at medium-high, if not cranked all the way up. You want that wok absolutely SEARING HOT. Food thrown in this wok flash-cooks, preserving nutrients and giving you that authentic wok flavor. Yes, you will need your vent fan on. I do OK cooking on my electric stove cranked all the way up, though gas would be better. The very best wok cooking I have done is outside on my charcoal grill. Once the coals are glowing hot, remove the grate and put the wok directly on the coals. Plus it's outside so you don't have to smoke up the house.
You also should have all your ingredients ready before you begin. With slower cooking methods you can afford to be chopping more veggies while other ingredients are already in the pan, but with stir frying you should have everything chopped up and ready to go before you heat up the wok. Once the wok is hot, things move really fast, so you should be prepared to just dump each ingredient in right away and keep your attention on the wok. It's really easy to burn something if you're not paying attention.
OK, so enough blabbing about wok technique. How about the recipe? Remember, stir fry recipes are just guidelines. Eyeball measurements, use what you have, substitute freely, and adjust to your own tastes.
I only made enough to serve 2, so double if you need to.

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined

Shrimp Marinade:
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp Thai fish sauce
1 tsp. honey

About 2 tbsp oil or fat with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut, lard, or schmaltz leftover from the last time you made chicken stock (that's what I used). Don't use olive oil. It can't stand the heat.

2 shallots, minced (I used a handful of my multiplier onions)
1 thinly sliced fresh Thai or cayenne chili - OPTIONAL (I left it out, Daniel has bad heartburn)
3 elephant garlic scapes - ended up about a cup cut into bite sized pieces
2 carrots, julienned
*Here you can substitute any vegetable you want. Green beans instead of garlic scapes would be good. Red bell pepper instead of carrots. Maybe some mushrooms. If you don't use garlic scapes, add some minced garlic in with the shallots.

For the sauce, about a tablespoon each of
fish sauce
lime juice
chicken or shrimp stock
*But really, I just squired/splashed some in.

A handful of fresh cilantro (or Thai basil if you have some, or some of both), or frozen if yours has bolted, like mine has (that is, if you had the foresight to freeze some cilantro before that happened).

Mix shrimp with cornstarch, fish sauce, and honey. Let marinade for at least 30 minutes. While you're waiting, cut up all your vegetables and have them ready to go. You can mix the shallots and chile together in the same bowl and the scapes and carrots together in another bowl since they'll be going in the wok at the same time.

When shrimp is done marinading, heat up your wok until it starts to smoke. Add about a tablespoon or two of your oil or fat, and then add your shallots and optional chiles. Stir them around a bit until they've gotten fragrant, and then add the carrots and garlic scapes. If you were stir frying with a less delicate meat, like chicken or beef, you would add that before the veggies, but shrimp cooks very quickly, so you add the veggies before it.

Once the veggies have turned brighter colors and maybe have a few browned spots on them, dump in the shrimp along with all its marinade. Stir fry and cook until the shrimp has curled up and started to turn pink. Next add more fish sauce, some lime juice, and some chicken or shrimp stock to de-glaze the pan and make a sauce. You don't want stuff floating in sauce, just a little bit to coat the food.

Throw in the cilantro, and stir until the liquid has dissolved any browned stuff off the pan and thickened into a nice sauce, and the cilantro has wilted. Dump it into a serving bowl and immediately rinse out your wok while it's still hot (much easier to clean that way).

Serve over rice or rice noodles, unless you're cutting carbs like Daniel is. Sprinkle with Sriracha sauce if it's not already spicy enough for you.

Garlic Scapes are Yummy

I'd heard of garlic scapes before, but never had the pleasure of tasting them until now since I've never (successfully) grown garlic before.

As you can see, my elephant garlic has put up scapes. They're some sort of flower head type thing that hardneck garlic and elephant garlic grow towards the end of their life cycles. None of my hardnecks have put up scapes, at least not yet, which may be because hardnecks don't like warm climates. The elephant garlic, on the other and, has put up some nice big ones.

From what I've read about growing garlic, it is generally advised that you cut them off so that the garlic plant doesn't waste energy on making a flower head instead of making a bulb. The bonus is that garlic scapes are yummy.

I wasn't sure how big I was supposed to let them get before I cut them off, so they ended up being about a foot long. Looking up recipes, it looks like you can make pesto out of them, grill them, or what I thought sounded the best, stir-fry them, so that's what I did.

Turns out they have the texture of green beans with the flavor of garlic. Good because I like both of those. Mine might have been left on the plant too long because they were a bit fibrous and strong tasting (I had garlic breath for a while afterwards), but they were still good, and it was neat to get the chance to try a new vegetable.

If the hardnecks never end up putting up any scapes in this climate, I might just plant extra elephant garlic next year to make sure I get a good supply.

As for harvesting any of the bulbs, the leaves of the garlic are just starting to die. They're supposed to be half to three-quarters dead before they're ready to harvest. Some of the Chet's Italian Red plants look like they're about half dead, so I'm planning on digging one up next time I need some garlic to see how it looks. Worst case, if it's not ready yet and still too "juicy", I'll just have to use up that bulb quickly and give the others a little more time. The other varieties are not as far along as Chet's as far as leaf dying goes. Chet's also has some of the biggest tops of any of the other varieties. I'm surprised how much the tops of the garlic varieties vary in size and number of leaves. If big tops translate to big bulbs, than Chet's is probably going to end up being one of the best garlic varieties for me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Sweet Potatoes Have Arrived

I almost forgot that I ordered sweet potato slips from R. H. Shumway's several weeks ago. It's not exactly my first choice in catalog. Sandhill Preservation Center has a much better variety of sweet potatoes (and that's an understatement), but it turns out they've had a bad crop and wouldn't be able to ship any slips to me until late May at the earliest. That's a bit late for me since things are already good and warm in my neck of the woods.

So Shumway's it was. I ordered their Sweet Potato Heirloom Collection which has six slips each of five varieties. Hmm, actually their website says it should only be four slips of each. Well, I got six slips each, so that's cool. There's White Yam and Nancy Hall, which are both white sweet potatoes, Porto Rico and Vardaman are orange potatoes with shorter vines than most (and Vardaman's vines are a neat purple color instead of the usual green), and then Beuregard is a regular long-vined orange rooted potato. That should be a good selection to start with. Maybe next year will be better for Sandhill and I can try ordering some other varieties from them.

Sweet potatoes aren't even related to "regular" potatoes. Sweet potatoes are in the species Ipomoea batatas; same genus as morning glories (and the vines look very similar), while "regular" potatoes are Solanum tuberosum in the nightshade family along with tomatoes, eggplants, and chile peppers. Interestingly enough, I think I. batatas were actually the first plant to carry the name "potato" ("batata" became "potato" somewhere along the line), which means sweet potatoes should really be the default potato, and S. tuberosum needs a better name to distinguish it. I don't like "Irish potato" because they aren't from Ireland, but South America, and I don't like "white potato" because some sweet potatoes are white, and not all S. tuberosum potatoes are white. Yams are something entirely different as well, an African native of the genus Dioscorea. I guess that makes "sweet potato" a better common name for I. batatas than "yam".

Now you can see why botanists prefer Latin names.

What is a sweet potato "slip"? Well, it's pretty much a rooted cutting of a sweet potato vine. I got mind wrapped in wax paper with some sphagnum moss in a box with breathing holes labeled "live plants".

There's Porto Rico unwrapped and White Yam next to it still in it's wax paper and rubber band. Now I have a problem. I don't really have anywhere to plant my sweet potatoes in the garden yet! I made the mistake of planting squash in the remaining empty spaces (I told you I forgot about the sweet potatoes on the way), so now I have to wait until some of my cold weather crops, like the garlic or carrots or regular potatoes, are harvested. Some of the garlic looks like it might be done soon, but in the meantime I couldn't leave my sweet potatoes in their little wrappers.
I ended up planting them in pots so they can sit tight and wait until space in the garden opens up. I hope they don't mind. The slips are pretty tall and spindly. When I plant them in the garden I'll put them in good and deep so they'll grow roots (some of which may become big fat sweet potatoes) along the buried stems.

Speaking of freeing up some garden room, I harvested one bunch of my I'itoi's Onions that I got from Native Seeds tonight. They're multiplier onions that are supposed to do better in hot climates than other onions. I got them because the catalog said they have a "shallot-like flavor" and shallots are EXPENSIVE at the grocery store, so I was hoping I had a good substitute with these. I got 10 sets but only 5 survived the brutal summer, and then those expanded into big clumps. Now their tops are dying back, so I thought I'd try digging up a bunch. I was disappointed to find them looking a lot more scallion-like than shallot-like. Maybe this fall I should get some actual shallots and try them out. I'm going to let this clump dry out and "cure" and see how they taste. They sure did multiply a lot! That clump of onions there came from just one little set the size of a garlic clove. Even if they do turn out to be more like scallions they're probably still worth growing for how tough and prolific they are.

I wonder if I can squeeze in some sweet potato plants once I dig up the rest of my multiplier onions.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bermudagrass is Evil

Bermudagrass, Cynodon dactylon, is probably the most popular turfgrass in my area. It is also evil and I hate it.

Strong words?

Perhaps, but there's a reason gardeners call this stuff "Devil's Grass". It's not even FROM Bermuda! It's called Bermudagrass because it's a serious invasive species on Bermuda. That's weird to think about, considering all those sacks of seed at the hardware store with "Bermudagrass" on the label like they're proudly saying, "This stuff has taken over Bermuda and will take over your land too!"

I hate Bermudagrass because once it gets established on your land, it's almost impossible to get rid of, and it's so popular here that pretty much every new garden I've ever had was put where a Bermudagrass turf used to be. I just emptied about 3/4 of a bottle of Roundup in my garden trying to kill all the tufts of Bermudagrass poking up through every single crack and crevice between my limestone rocks lining the beds, the landscape fabric, the cardboard, and whatever else I piled on top of it trying to smother it. If there's even a tiny tear in the landscape fabric, or a crack along the edge of a bed, it will find it, send out runners, and next thing you know the entire garden bed is covered in that ugly, wiry grass.

Usually I stick to organic methods, but when faced with something this invasive, I finally caved and went for the Roundup, even though it's a bit evil itself. I tried solarizing it, smothering it, and dousing it in organic weed killer made of strong vinegar and orange essential oil that I got from the local nursery, but the Bermuda just keeps coming back, and as the weather warms up, it just grows faster and faster.

While I was staring at the Wall of Poison at Home Depot, I was tempted to go with Ortho Grass-b-Gone instead. I had a thought that perhaps a specific grass killer that supposedly doesn't kill other types of plants would be better than a broad-spectrum herbicide like Roundup. However, upon a close reading of the label, I changed my mind when I found that they recommend waiting a whole year after treatment with Grass-b-Gone before planting edible plants, while Roundup said it's safe after 3 days. I knew one of the good things about Roundup is it breaks down very quickly in the soil, but I had no idea it was that big of a difference! Goes to show you how little I know about herbicides.

I feel bad about resorting to this, but I feel the Bermudagrass leaves me no choice. Which of course makes me hate it even more, because without the invading Devil's Grass I could be organic.

If you have a lawn, please don't plant Bermudagrass! Whatever you do, please consider your neighbors and plant something less invasive. Even if Bermuda wasn't already growing here, it spreads by both runners and seeds, so it can always blow in from nearby lawns or creep across property lines.

St. Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum) is probably the second most popular turfgrass around here. This is the grass we always had when I was a kid. My mom prefers it because it's much softer than Bermuda, with broad blades that form a thick, carpet-like lawn that even people like me with sissy, sensitive feet can walk on barefoot. It's also much less invasive, though this is partially because it's less drought tolerant, so it doesn't do well in wild areas where it's not being taken care of. I don't think it makes viable seeds either; it just spreads by runners. When I was a kid taking care of the family vegetable garden, our St. Augustine would send runners into the veggie garden, but they were a hundred times easier to pull out than Bermudagrass runners. I'm not sure why. I guess they have shallower roots and they seemed thicker and easier to grab hold of. They just pulled cleanly out, while Bermuda runners will usually end up just breaking off in your hand, leaving most of the plant behind still in the soil.

However, even though I have a soft spot for St. Augustine, what I think is the absolute best thing to do (besides not having a lawn at all) is plant a native grass! Plant the grass that's supposed to be there! Why get imports from Africa when Mother Nature has been planting perfectly good grass right here for millions of years?

For my area, the native turfgrass of choice is Buffalograss. This company sells a nice native turfgrass mix that's 2/3 Buffalograss and 1/3 Blue Grama. However, if my yard wasn't already grassified, I would probably go with some of their other land coverage options. Maybe some Little Bluestem, which is probably my favorite native grass, with some sort of wildflower mix added in for color and biological diversity. I already planted a mixture of their shade wildflower mix and shade grass mix in the back under the elm trees where hardly anything was growing (Bermudagrass doesn't like shade), which I think is much more interesting than any monoculture lawn. Besides, if you don't have a lawn, there's no need for a lawnmower, and does anybody actually like mowing lawns? No, I didn't think so.

By the way, I don't work for Native American Seed or anything. I just think they have some great products for any native plant enthusiasts. They seem to have the biggest selection of native grass and wildflowers for my area that I've seen. There are some garden centers and nurseries here and there that also sell natives, but I haven't yet found a better internet store.

Now of course, I live in Texas, so the plants that do well here might not be the same as somewhere else. If you live in a completely different climate than me, you might need to look elsewhere for plants native to your area.

But if you live in the southern United States, PLEASE DON'T PLANT BERMUDAGRASS! Almost anything else would be better than that! I beg you. Do it for us poor gardeners who have to dig or pull up every last little bit of that stuff because even the tiniest bit of root grows into more grass, and then we have to burn it because if you put in the compost, it'll grow out and cover it up. Really, this stuff is evil, make it go away!