Friday, August 27, 2010

Thai Green Curry

I almost didn't manage to snap a picture of this before it was all eaten! But it just seems like a food blog post is incomplete without a picture.

I used up a zucchini I had from the Farmer's Market to make a batch of Thai Green Curry. I based it off of this recipe from Tigers and Strawberries. Apparently I have trouble making recipes exactly to the letter, so I'm not sure if my version counts as the same recipe or not. Either way, I give Barbara the credit for teaching me how to make Thai curries through her blog.

It's really quite easy to make once you have the green curry paste. You can buy Thai curry pastes in jars, but I made a big batch of my own using Barbara's recipe when I had a lot of basil, cilantro, scallions, jalapenos, and lemongrass in my CSA bag (I mean, really, with these ingredients, it's like Fate is just begging you to make Thai curry). I made only a few adjustments to the original recipe. I left out the green Thai chiles since I didn't have any and used more jalapeno instead (which probably made the curry paste less hot, but that's ok). The only galangal I could find was dried galangal powder from Penzey's, so I used that. I also didn't have any shallots, so I used onion instead.

I also don't have a fancy Sumeet grinder, so I made it in my food processor. Barbara seems to insist that the curry paste must be perfectly smooth, but I admit that I skipped smoothing it out in a mortar and pestle and just ground the dry spices in my spice grinder (really a coffee grinder that's been designated as a spice grinder), ground the wet stuff in my food processor, mixed it all together, and left it like that. It ended up looking a bit like pesto. I figure it still tastes the same, right?

The last time I made Thai green curry paste, I made a triple batch and froze it. That was months ago. I honestly don't remember when I made it. (I also made an extra big batch of Thai Red Curry Paste and did the same thing.) I was afraid that by now it wouldn't be good anymore since its been living in the freezer so long.

Well, it turned out just fine, so if making your own curry paste sounds daunting, set aside an afternoon to make a big batch and freeze it. Then you'll have curry paste for months.

Once you have the curry paste, whether homemade or store bought, making the actual curry is very easy. I scaled down Barbara's recipe a little since it was just me and Daniel, and used one can of Goya brand coconut milk. I skimmed off the cream and put it in the pan, and then added two tablespoons of thawed curry paste. After that was bubbling a bit and making the house smell wonderful, I added the rest of the coconut milk and two lime leaves I plucked off my lime tree (it's not a Kaffir lime, but a Key lime, so I have no idea if that's "allowed", but it hasn't killed me yet), about a tablespoon of honey, and a few good squirts of fish sauce. Then I simmered that for 15 minutes to let it thicken while I cooked up some Jasmine rice (Jasmine rice has a wonderful sweet flavor that I was surprised boring old rice could have at all).

Basically, the Thai curry making procedure is to make a sauce of coconut milk and curry paste, and then throw in whatever other stuff you want in your curry. You then cook that stuff in the sauce until it's done, adjust to taste with sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. At the end you can garnish with cilantro, basil, and mint, and there you have it. It's really easy and is that fun sort of "add a dash of this, taste, add a sprinkle of that, taste," kind of cooking. If your curry paste is already made, which is the hardest part of the recipe, then the rest makes a fine weekday dinner to just throw together. Not only that, but it will make your house smell WONDERFUL. Daniel caught me inhaling the rich, coconut-lime-spicy-herbal perfume and said, "are you getting high off curry?" Maybe I was.

What "other stuff" do you put in green curry? Well, Barbara put in chicken breast, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, onion, green beans, and pea pods. Any of those are great, but my curries don't usually have that many ingredients because I don't usually have that many different vegetables on hand. It really depends on what I end up with from the garden, CSA, or Farmer's Market. This time I made it with one zucchini, four mushrooms, half an onion, and a chicken breast (again, this is cooking for just two people, so I scaled it down compared to Barbara's version). I've used eggplant, pea pods, and green beans before, and they were good too. I bet cauliflower or broccoli would be good as well.

You can also change up your protein. In addition to chicken, I've made green curry before with shrimp, tofu, and salmon. This time around I used one chicken breast that I cut off the chicken myself. I think from now on I'm going to be cutting up my own chickens, especially since I buy free-range chickens, and free range boneless skinless chicken breasts cost about $11 a pound. A whole chicken, on the other hand, costs around $3.50 - $4 a pound.

It really makes me re-think the humble chicken breast seeing how little breast meat my whole chickens yield. Chicken breast is considered to be a pretty cheap source of protein at the grocery store, but after cutting up this chicken, those two little boneless, skinless chicken breast halves looked so small and delicate compared to the rest of the chicken, especially the meaty legs. I wonder if industrial chickens are like industrial turkeys - bred to have unnaturally huge breasts to the point the birds can hardly walk. I suppose it would also be reasonable to believe that chicken legs off free range birds, which actually got a chance to run around and use their legs, would be meatier in comparison.

I suppose the solution would be for me to learn how to de-bone chicken thighs! I actually prefer chicken thighs to breast meat for Chinese stir-frys, because I think they take the high heat better. In the meantime, the chicken breast now seems like a luxury cut of meat to me, like the tenderloin of pork or beef, and I think the wonderful, perfumed sauce of Thai green curry is the perfect vehicle for such a delicate meat. All you do is simmer it gently in the curry sauce for a few minutes until it is just cooked, and has absorbed all that wonderful flavor.

Thai Green Curry seems exotic and gourmet while at the same time being surprisingly quick and easy to make if you already have the curry paste. I'm glad I have that good supply of Thai curry paste in the freezer. I still haven't used up all my green curry paste, and I also have that red curry paste. Red Curry is made the same basic way as Green Curry, though of course it tastes different because of the different ingredients in the curry paste, and I suppose there are some vegetables and meats that taste better in one than in the other. Barbara put carrots and sweet potatoes in her red curry, which I did too when I made it, using chicken as the meat again, though I would like to try it with a red meat like beef or pork. I'm not sure why matching colors works so well with cooking, since you'd think that color should have nothing to do with flavor, but it often does. Like have you ever noticed how red wine goes with food and white wine goes with white food? So Thai curries might be the same way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Full Grain Moon

August's full moon is called the Grain Moon, Sturgeon Moon, Red Moon, Green Corn Moon, Lightening Moon, and Dog Moon, but I don't really like any of those traditional names, so I was thinking it should be called the Hot Moon. After all, there's already a Cold Moon In December, so why not a Hot Moon in August? It is super hot right now! It's been at least the high 90's every day this month, and it shows in the garden. There's not much left surviving out there.

My fall tomatoes are just barely hanging on. I ended up with four plants. I think I planted the seeds too late. Next year I should try starting the seeds in May or June to get larger plants to set out, that take longer to dry out in the heat. I also planted four tomatillos, but only one is still alive.

The okra still looks happy, but the heat has made the pods turn tough much faster. I've decided to let those pods mature and go to seed. I've still got lots of frozen okra. Maybe once things cool down I can start harvesting tender pods for eating again.

The jalapeno peppers are doing well too. I've been letting them ripen and saving the seeds. I'm not sure if that's going to work since I got these plants at Home Depot, so I hope they're not some kind of hybrid. It didn't say they are on the tag, but I don't know how much I can trust that. I then take the fruits and marinate them in a solution of liquid smoke and then dry them in my food dehydrator to make fake chipotle powder. Real chipotles are smoke-dried over a fire, but I don't feel like firing up the smoker for just a few peppers at a time, so this seems to be working out fine. My homemade chipotle powder sure smells authentic anyway.

The sweet potatoes also look fine, besides the grass growing up among them. I fed them some bone meal, which will hopefully encourage root growth. Whenever I grew sweet potatoes before, I've always been disappointed once it came time to dig them up, so I hope these work.

The cushaw squash has been disappointing as well. Of the six squashes it managed to grow this summer, five of them have been composted because they were rotten. I'm not sure exactly what goes wrong, but the squash will turn yellow (which should signal ripeness), I pick up the squash and it feels oddly light for a squash its size. Then I find the hole, with rotten squash good oozing out, and probably ants going in and out as well. I have a feeling it's the Squash Vine Borers. I'm STILL seeing those moths around, even though I thought they should be done by now, this late in the year. They don't only bore into squash vines, but the fruits as well. Even though cushaws are supposed to be borer-resistant, since they've now killed all the other squash species I had, this is all they have left. I think what happens is they bore into the squash fruit, and then the wound lets in ants (which probably love the moisture in this weather), and the insect damage leaves the fruit open to decay.

I've only got one fruit left, hidden in some grass where the vines rambled outside the garden. It's just starting to turn yellow, but so far it still feels solid. Maybe it will make it. I was planning to save seeds from this variety, but I don't think one fruit is enough genetic diversity. I do have 8 seeds left to try again next year, and I just found out about a better way to organically control SVB, neem oil. It seems too good to be true! A systemic organic insecticide that only kills chewing insects and is harmless to everything else? I really need to try that next year! It seems too late for this year, though my cushaw squash vines are putting on some new growth, so I hope they'll have time to make a few more fruits before frost. It would be so great if this was not only the first, but the LAST year I have to battle those moths for my squash.

Even though it's blazing hot, it's time to start planning for the fall and winter garden. I tried starting broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage seeds in the garage in early August, but it's so hot and stuffy in there that they just rotted. I'm going to have to wait until the garage isn't 100 degrees and try again.

As I noted in my last post, I did start my potatoes. I gave them a good sprinkling, so I hope they're not baking down there.

I also have two plots all ready to be planted with garlic, but I might wait on that a bit. I just read somewhere that the best time to plant garlic is around the fall equinox, after the days are shorter than the nights. I'm going to have trouble waiting that long since my garlic did so well this year, but I was told that it will just sit there anyway until things cool down.

As I was taking these pictures yesterday evening, there were some promising-looking clouds above.

Plenty of sunlight still peeking through, so I was afraid they weren't going to amount to much. There were "isolated thunderstorms" in the forecast, which can be a big tease, since when they say "isolated" they really mean it! It can be raining a few blocks away and not here.

But then my prayers were answered!

About five minutes later, I took this picture out my back door. That's one of my anti-mosquito torches in the foreground, and then the compost pile with my poor rotten cushaws, and then the garden in the back getting pummeled by a downpour!

And then my internet was out, so I had to wait until today to post this. Sadly, right now it's sunny again. Looks like that was it for the rain here for a while. Fall can't come fast enough!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Planting Fall Potatoes

In my climate, I can plant two crops of potatoes a year, one at the beginning of the year and one at the end, but the fall crop is iffy. Potatoes prefer to start out cold and then warm up, not start out warm and then cool down like they will planted in late summer.

I decided to just replant the small potatoes left over from the spring crop. They probably won't last in storage until January potato planting time anyway. I don't have a root cellar or any other good potato-storage system besides a paper bag in the kitchen. As you may remember, my spring potato crop was very disappointing. I hardly got more out of the ground than I put in. This time I'm trying the trench method, despite it being 100 degrees outside and the huge amount of work it was to dig trenches into my rocky soil.

I replanted my two best performing varieties, the Rio Grande Russets, and the Purple Vikings. Three rows of 10 potatoes each ended up fitting nicely into two of my 4 by 8 foot beds. I covered the potatoes over with soil and put the rest of the soil over my compost pile. As the potatoes grow, I will fill in the trenches with soil, compost, or grass clippings depending on what I have.

I found out that potato plants only grow new tubers above the level of the original "seed" potato. That may explain why I didn't get good yields in the spring. I didn't do trenches and just tried to pile mulch on top of the plants. You probably need A LOT of mulch to pile it up high enough to give the potatoes enough room to grow lots of tubers.

So now I'm all sore and my hands are blistered from digging rocks out of trenches, but the potatoes are in. I hope they don't just bake in the soil out in this heat! I'm going to put the soaker hose on them and give them a good soaking with rain barrel water overnight.

We've only had one good rainstorm in August so far, and other than that it's been at least 100 degrees every day and only gets down to the high 70's at night. It seems like it will never be cold outside again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Watermelon Update

Here is the smaller of my two watermelons when I cut it open. Look! It worked! It's a real watermelon! This melon was nice and sweet, but with lots of small seeds (I guess mini melons also make mini seeds) in meandering, irregular rows (most watermelons have their seeds in neat, regular rows). Oh well, at least it was edible. I will assume the larger, prettier one is even better. Alas, as you can see from the picture, the rind is so thin as to be pretty much useless for pickling.

Speaking of pickles, I also tried one of my watermelon rind pickles, from the not-quite-full-enough jar that ended up in the fridge instead of being canned. It was good too! So much for having to wait until Christmas for decent flavor. And to my relief, it wasn't apple pie filling-like at all. The pickle was nice and crisp (from now on I'm always using Pickle Crunch for my pickles!) and tasted like a bread and butter pickle, maybe a little sweeter, but had a definite vinegar tang. I could see it easily working as a culinary stand-in for bread and butter cucumber pickles. Gosh, I LOVED bread and butter pickles when I was a kid. Ah, memories.

I'm still in the market for a better watermelon variety, though. Blacktail Mountain seems too "modern", with it's thin rind and miniature size and 76 day maturation time. I'm thinking I could do fine growing an old fashioned, great big watermelon with big, fat, spittable seeds and a thick rind for pickle-making. Blacktail Mountain's place seems to be more for Northern growers who need a fast-maturing melon that tolerates chilly nights (after all, it was developed in Idaho). Not my problem here in Texas. Two small melons and vines that died as soon as the weather got hot just didn't impress me. But that's the great thing about heirloom and open-pollinated fruit and vegetable varieties, they are NOT one size fits all.

At least, I really hope that was my problem here, and not that I just have a black thumb when it comes to watermelons. This was my first watermelon-growing adventure, after all. I'm just left wondering that if I grew a bigger variety, would I have still ended up with only two fruits, except those fruits would have been 30 or 40 pounds instead of 6? I would be ok with that. Ending up with NO fruits, that would be a problem.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Smoked Chicken

Lammas has come and gone, and I may still not feel like baking, but I do still feel like cooking outside. Over the winter, I oven-roasted a whole chicken almost every week. For the two of us, a whole chicken will end up providing at least two or three meals as I incorporate the leftover cooked chicken into other dishes. Since it's been hot, I haven't been cooking chickens lately, but now that I have a pit smoker, I thought I'd give cooking a chicken in there a shot.

This is my smoker. It's a small version of the horizontal pit smoker with the firebox on the side, a chimney on the other side, and a thermometer. They come much bigger than this, but I didn't think I'd need one of the big ones. I hope I won't end up regretting that. I guess I could always upgrade to a larger one some day.

First, I brined my chicken overnight in a solution of kosher salt and brown sugar, like what I do to the Thanksgiving turkey. Brining does wonders to poultry! I then covered my chicken with the spice rub from the Good Eats episode, "Grillus Domesticus", where Alton Brown claims that you cannot truly barbecue chicken. I'm not sure why. My definition of barbecue is a method of slow-cooking meat with a wood fire, and I guess you also need some kind of spicy rub and/or sauce to make it truly barbecue (since I guess hot smoking is a bit broader than barbecue). All the different regional styles of barbecue fit this definition just fine, from Texas beef briskets to Carolina pulled pork. But I think this cooking method should work on any sort of meat that lends itself well to slow cooking, and whole chickens fit the bill on that just fine. Steaks, burgers, and hot dogs, not so much. Grilling is different. It's a quick cooking method over high heat. I may be a Texan that doesn't mind some Carolina pulled pork every now and then, but I do draw the line somewhere!

Besides, barbecue originated as poverty food. The different regional styles arose from the different meats that were cheaply available in that area, which is why Texans do brisket (a cheap, tough cut of beef here in cattle country) while further east they do pork shoulder and ribs (cheap, tough cuts of pork since pork was the cheapest meat there). Well, I have several free range roaster chickens in my freezer, so I was just using what I have. I figure that's in the proper spirit of barbecue. I always buy roasters from the free-range meat guy rather than broiler/fryers because roasters are cheaper. They're older, tougher birds, but seem to do fine with the cooking methods I use on them.

Also in the spirit of using what you have, the different woods used for barbecue reflects what trees are around in that region that yield good smoke. One should never use the wood of conifers such as pine or juniper, because the resins in them give the meat a bitter taste. Apple, cherry, hickory, and oak are all popular for smoking. I think in general any fruit or nut bearing tree works well, giving the meat different flavors. Around here we've got oak and pecan, but this time I went with what might be Texas's favorite wood for smoking: mesquite! Daniel got a hold of some oak and mesquite logs, and since the mesquite logs are slightly rotten, we decided they'd make better smoking wood than something else, like carving. Mesquite is actually a very beautiful wood. Look at the nice rosy color of that piece in my smoke box. Daniel has done some woodworking with some pieces of mesquite he obtained that were in better shape, and it's quite lovely.

Mesquite trees have been vilified over how they're involved in woody encroachment on rangelands, similar to Ashe juniper, only on different soils. Personally, I don't see it as being the trees' fault that it can survive on overgrazed pasture where no other plants can. Mesquites are legumes, so they fix nitrogen and can tolerate very poor soils, and their beans are good food for wildlife, cattle, and humans. A major part of the diets of southwestern Native American tribes was mesquite beans, and it's thought that one of the reasons mesquite is so "invasive" is because cattle love to eat the pods and spread the seeds in their droppings. I've eaten the pods of Honey Mesquite before, and I can see how the tree got its name. The pod was honey-sweet, though very fibrous, but the natives would grind the pods up and cook them before eating them, which I'm sure made them very palatable.

Well, I digress, but my point is that mesquite can be a very useful tree. I fired up the charcoal until it was covered in white ash and then put the mesquite on, and kept the fire at a somewhat high temperature to cook the chicken. Chicken doesn't need to be as slow cooked as a brisket or pork shoulder, so around 300 degrees is fine. After about three hours, the chicken looked like this:

The outside got a bit darker than I wanted, where the spice rub ended up burning, and the skin got a bit tough and leathery. I stuffed the cavity with a halved lemon to try to keep things moist, but maybe I should have put a pan of water in the smoker as well to keep the skin from getting so tough. But the meat underneath was moist, tender, smoky, and a slightly pink color, especially the dark meat. Daniel loved it and ate almost half the chicken himself! I would say that made it a success, but I think I need to figure out what to do about the skin. When I oven roast chicken, I end up with a tasty, edible skin, not leather. I wonder if that's even possible in a smoker. I think next time I'll do without the spice rub since I'm not sure how much it contributed to the flavor, especially compared to the smoke and the brine.

I'm tempted to try smoked turkey this Thanksgiving, if I can fit a turkey in my smoker. If I get one of those smaller, free range turkeys, it might fit. Those don't have the freakishly huge breasts since free range turkeys have to be able to actually, you know, walk. If I still can't fit it, maybe I can cut it in half or something. I had smoked turkey for Thanksgiving several years ago and it was awesome.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Watermelon Rind Pickles

As you probably know, my country is currently in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. It’s a different world now, and the tricks people used to survive back then won’t always work today. However, having been hit by The Third Depression myself, I have been trying to live by some of the principles of frugality that helped people back then. They tend to neatly align with this new trendy “green” thing as well. I’ve already mentioned my rain barrel, but my clothesline should also get some credit (not using the dryer saves double energy in the summer, since I’m not using the electricity for the dryer or using extra electricity for the AC to cool down the house because of the hot dryer), and since I have some more time on my hands, I might as well put some more effort into my garden, and into cooking everything from scratch.

One good practice is using up everything you’ve got and letting nothing go to waste. I already make my own chicken stock regularly out of saved chicken bones (from buying whole chickens and cutting them up myself instead of using pre-cut chicken pieces), and I skim the fat off the top and use that as a cooking fat, and then finally the bones, after giving up all they had to give, go in the compost pile where they can give even more.

But now I’ve really outdone myself. It started when I scored a free watermelon at my part time farmer’s market job a couple of weeks ago (which is the only job I’ve managed to land since being let go from my last internship in March). The watermelon farmer didn’t want to drag home his leftovers at the end of the day, so asked the other vendors and employees there to please take some of them. Since my sweetie is watching his carbohydrates, and despite my argument that watermelon is good for you so he should eat some, I ended up having to consume the entire melon myself, and this was a real watermelon, not one of those little seedless things that are becoming more popular. As I feasted on watermelon salad, watermelon smoothies, and of course just plain watermelon for days, instead of throwing the rind into the compost pile, which is where most people would think it should go, I saved it up in the fridge to try out a recipe I saw on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, watermelon rind pickles.

Yes, let us rethink our definitions of what is edible and what is waste, and perhaps find a tasty treat in the process. After all, saving up all my chicken bones has been working out quite well. Why not watermelon rinds? And just like how the “green” trend is mostly rediscovering and updating some very old practices, watermelon rind pickles is a very old recipe that still may be known by a few old southern grandmas somewhere. (I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I never got the chance to have recipes handed down from grandmas, so I’m jealous. I have to start everything from scratch.)

I have been trying some other “alternative” pickles since my cucumber crop didn’t really manifest. I’ve made pickled beets, which were already known to my family, though not the canned version, and then I made “dilly beans” out of a bunch of green beans I got from my farmer, which seem to be a fairly standard dill pickle recipe but using green beans instead of cucumbers. I was going to pickle some okra too, since I always love it when salad bars have pickled okra. They taste like they’re probably using a similar recipe to bread and butter pickles, but with okra. Except then I ended up using my okra in gumbo, and then freezing some pre-breaded okra for quick fried okra in the future. I haven’t gotten around to pickling it yet, and now it’s so hot that my okra plants have slowed production way down. Maybe they will pick up again this fall.

Watermelon rind pickles are quite different from these other pickles, though. While pickled beets, green beans, and okra seem to be the same basic pickle recipes I’m familiar with, substituting a different vegetable for the usual cucumbers, the watermelon rind pickle recipe struck me as being kind of weird. For one thing, while making dilly beans can take an afternoon, these watermelon rind pickles were a multi-day process. True, most of that wasn’t active time, but these pickles needed two different overnight soaks!

I was tempted to take some kind of shortcut, but then I realized that I really shouldn’t tamper with ancient pickling wisdom, so I followed the recipe to the letter, with two exceptions. On the first soak where the rinds soak in salt water, I also added Pickle Crunch to the brine. It’s supposed to keep pickled veggies firmer, and the directions on it said to soak the veggies overnight in it before pickling, so I combined that with the salt water soak. The last time I made cucumber pickles they were really mushy, so from now on I’m going to be using Pickle Crunch. After the salt water soak, the rinds are then drained, covered with clean water, and boiled for 10 minutes. To remove the salt? I don’t know, but I did that, and while that’s going you make the vinegar/syrup type stuff. Here’s where I diverged from the recipe one more time. I always use apple cider vinegar for pickling instead of distilled white. It has the same % acidity, but with a much nicer flavor. The liquid was half vinegar and half water, and a full NINE CUPS of sugar! Brought that to a boil to dissolve, with six cinnamon sticks, a full tablespoon of cloves, and a sliced lemon. The rinds were drained again, covered with the hot vinegar-sugar mixture, and put back in the refrigerator for another overnight soak.

The next day, the pot was once again pulled out of the fridge, and this time the whole thing was brought to a boil and simmered for a full hour! I don’t know why these watermelon rinds need to be cooked so much, but it sure did make the house smell good. They smell nothing like watermelon, just a mixture of lemon, clove, and cinnamon, and a little apple cider vinegar. The smell was almost Christmas-like, like mincemeat pie or fruitcake. Weird thing to smell when it’s 103 degrees outside.

Then I got to break in my new steam canner! Yes, ancient pickling recipes combined with the latest in pickling technology! Works with anything you use a boiling water canner for, but with a fraction of the water, which saves a lot of energy not having to boil so much water. And steam is actually hotter than boiling water, isn’t it? As you may remember from my post on pickled beets, I’m finally getting some jar breakage, which may be because I haven’t been using a real canner, just a big stockpot where the jars bump around as they process. I decided to invest in an actual canner, and here the jars sit on a rack nice and still and not bumping into each other.

After the rinds got their second cook, I strained them out and put them in pint jars along with one cinnamon stick for each jar, then poured in the syrup. The weirdest thing about these so-called “pickles” is that the juice is not a salty-vinegary concoction, but really is syrup. I ended up with six pints of pickles, and a little extra left, with about a quart of extra syrup. Not sure how that happened. I did weigh out the watermelon rind to make sure I got really close to the six pounds called for by the recipe, and it was darn close. In the spirit of not wasting anything, I saved the extra syrup. No idea what I’ll do with it yet. Any ideas on what to do with a lemon, cinnamon, clove flavored syrup?

I steamed my jars for 10 minutes, and they started popping as soon as I took the lid off the canner. They’re good and sealed, and I don’t have a huge pot of hot water to deal with. I like my steam canner already.

I started looking around on the internet for more information on watermelon rind pickles, like what to do with them once you have them, and found one blog post where someone tried it, ate some of the pickles right away, and said they were disgusting and threw them all out. Someone else commented saying that when their grannies made watermelon rind pickles in the summer, they never ate them until Christmas or at least Thanksgiving. It seems they need to “cure” a bit to reach peak deliciousness.

I might eat my little dab of extra pickles that weren’t enough to fill another jar after they’ve sat in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but the rest are being saved until Christmas. Aren't they pretty in their jars with their cinnamon sticks? They turned out surprisingly yellow. I did taste some of the pickle juice, and it is very sweet. Not anything like pickle juice from dill pickles or bread and butter pickles or even pickled beets. I have a feeling these will turn out more like pie filling than pickles, so I’m not sure what to do with them. Any ideas? Put them on ice cream? Glaze my Yule ham with them?

Weird, but I feel my culinary horizons have been expanded.

In closing, you may be thinking, “Weren’t you growing your own watermelons?” Well, yeah, I tried, but last week when I prodded my largest specimen, the vine fell off. My watermelon vines are dead, and all but two of the fruits were obviously rotted. I took the two non-rotten fruits in the house, worrying they may not have gotten a chance to ripen, but after washing them off and letting them sit on the counter for a while I’m getting more optimistic. Here’s how they look now:

They don’t look too bad, besides being puny. Maybe they did ripen. The one on the right looks the best. The one on the left is smaller, darker, and has some slight ribbing like a pumpkin or something, which is weird. I’m a bit afraid to cut one open, though, afraid I might find something other than juicy, sweet, crimson watermelon goodness. You can see I am perhaps still traumatized by my disgusting rotten squash incidents. Anyway, I think Blacktail Mountain is not the watermelon variety for me. Not a good idea for me to get varieties (of anything) that brag about cold tolerance. Some sort of classic southern heirloom watermelon would probably be the way to go, like Rattlesnake or Moon and Stars. I went ahead and put Blacktail Mountain on my GardenWeb trade list to see if I can find my remaining seeds a better home

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Giant Cicadas are Back

Last year was the first year I heard chicharras grandes, Quesada gigas, the Giant Cicada. It was while taking an evening walk through Purgatory Park with my sweetie when we heard the strange sound, recorded here by one of my professors from TSU.

It starts off sounding somewhat like an ordinary insect, "chic-chic-chic-chic-chic...", but the sound keeps getting faster and faster until it blends into a loud, whistling cry. At this point, it doesn't really sound like a living creature at all, more like some sort of loud, buzzing machinery. It's been described as sounding like a locomotive whistle, a turbine engine, a toy plane, an electric drill, and a fire alarm.

Now, I'm the sort of person who actually pays attention to the nature around me, to the sounds and sights one is to expect at different times of year in Central Texas, so when I heard something completely new and so distinctive, I had to investigate.

Turns out the reason I hadn't heard them before was because they hadn't been here before!

Blue is its historic range in Texas. Most of the bug books you'd find say the giant cicada is only found in extreme south Texas, along the coast or in the Rio Grande Valley.

Red is where it suddenly showed up in 2006.

Green is where it showed up in 2009.

Or at least that's where it was reported, which means they could be in more places, but no one's told the scientists who's job is to keep track of these things. My county is one of the 2006 ones, but I didn't hear it until 2009. Maybe it was because I wasn't paying attention, maybe it was because before that I lived right by a loud freeway (that's probably the mostly likely explanation), or maybe it's just becoming more and more common and therefore easier to hear.

I heard my first giant cicada of 2010 last week, and now it's something I hear every evening around sundown if I'm outside. I guess they like the very hottest part of summer best. Makes sense for a newcomer from extreme South Texas. One hundred degrees every day must feel just right for them if they're from the Valley.

It's a cool sound, but I'm not sure how I feel about it. The giant cicada is not the only species creeping northwards from the tropics. I'm not as familiar with insects, but I do know that some birds are shifting their ranges northward, so that you can't really trust the range maps in older field guides. Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, and Northern Caracaras, according to these guides, are only found in the Rio Grande Valley and southward, but I see Caracaras all the time, Green Jays show up occasionally in the San Antonio area, and the Kiskadees are getting close. One of my professors from when I was getting my Bachelor's degree at UT was doing most of her research on the northward range shifts of butterflies.

Plants are shifting too, at least temporally, if not geographically. I've heard old timers (gardeners and farmers) remark about how fruit trees are blooming earlier each year and things like that. The point is, it's not just egghead scientists who have noticed it. Pretty much anyone who pays attention to nature's rhythms is noticing the rhythm changing.

It just seems weird to me that climate change is treated as something so... esoteric. Like only people with PhD's sorting through complicated computer models would know anything about it, and nobody who doesn't have extensive statistical knowledge would understand. No, those statistics and models only show that trees blooming earlier, tropical animals showing up farther and farther north, birds migrating at different times than they used to, sea ice forming later and melting earlier, glaciers retreating, hurricanes getting stronger, corals dying because the sea is becoming more acidic, coastlines disappearing underwater, and so on and so on, all these things happening all over the world in all sorts of different natural systems, really are all related to each other, and aren't just some amazing coincidence.

(Or at least we're as sure as we can be that they are related. One thing that frustrates people is that scientists never want to say they're 100% sure of anything. That's treated as an unattainable goal because we're working on the assumption that we can never actually know everything. But being more than 95% sure of something is generally considered to be close enough, and how sure we are about climate change is greater than that.)

Without the scientists, we'd just have people all over the planet, noticing various changes in the natural world, and going, "Huh, that's weird. It never used to be like that before," but unable to put it into a bigger picture. Each individual happening might be just a fluke, if it were just an isolated incident. After all, species shift their ranges all the time. If the giant cicadas were the only ones doing it, or if some species were going away from the equator and others towards it, that would be different. But when you start getting lots of independent things all behaving in a way that is consistent with the Earth getting warmer, that's what makes you go, "hmm, I think something big might be going on here."

(And yes, this past winter was unusually cold. Thanks to the scientists putting together all this data from all over the world, you can also see that things that seem to indicate it's getting colder are greatly outnumbered by things that seem to indicate that it's getting warmer. It's not like it's never going to freeze ever again, but one cold winter doesn't matter when having cold winters is getting increasingly rare in the long run.)

Though, what may frustrate me more about the climate change "debate" than how obvious it seems to me while others act like it's something completely unbelievable and ridiculous, is that the things people should do to fix it are things that are good to do anyway. It reminds me of a political cartoon I saw that said, "But what if we made the world a better place when we didn't have to?" Yes, how horrible it would be if we got ourselves off fossil fuels if the Earth wasn't warming after all! We'd have no more smog, no more oil spills, no more drilling in wildlife refuges, no more mercury in fish, no more coal miners dying horrible deaths in mining accidents, and no more wars over fossil fuel resources. If it turns out that climate change is either not happening, or is not due to anything humans are doing, then all that would all be a big old waste of effort, huh?

See, and I told myself when I started this blog that I wouldn't get political. It's the cicadas' fault. Every evening they make it sound like the Rio Grande Valley here. The Hill Country is hot enough already. If it turns into an ecosystem more like the Valley, then what's the Valley going to be like?

(Of course it's actually not that simple. Things aren't going to warm up evenly over the whole planet. The poles are warming much faster than the tropics. Good for cicadas. Bad for polar bears.)

Ok, I'll get off my soapbox now, but here's some links about the giant cicadas so you can see I'm not just making this all up:

Central Texas getting rare visit from ear-piercing giant cicada
Giant Cicada / Chicharra Grande
Giant Cicadas making quite a racket
Central Texas now home to the calls of giant cicadas: Our area caught in the path as loud, booming insects slowly move north.

I must admit that even though they remind me of the climate change problem (and yes, in case I haven't made it clear, I know it's not certain that this specific thing is due to climate change, it just seems consistent with the overall pattern), the cicadas are still kind of cool. I'm still a huge geek, after all. Weird things happening in nature is cool. It's just tinged with sadness, because I suspect if Texas is gaining some species, it must be losing others, which were probably just as cool. And yeah, that thing about how it's hot enough here already.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Reminder

I'm not sure how many times I'll end up doing this before I learn. Maybe if I post it here it will help me remember, if nothing else than through public humiliation.

When chopping, and especially when de-seeding any sort of hot peppers, DO NOT DO IT WITH YOUR BARE HANDS.

The burn is delayed, so you may think, "Oh, I'll be fine," and then later the pain sets in. And no, it is not just a warm feeling, it is PAIN.

And nothing cures it but time. Not milk or yogurt or sour cream or butter. Not soap or lotion or vegetable oil or rubbing alcohol or minty mouthwash.

Not W4-40 or Goo Gone or even chlorine bleach!

All substances added will, at best, provide temporary relief through mere cooling, and at worst, in the case of the stuff I tried when getting more desperate, will damage your skin and maybe make the burn worse.

All you can do is sit there with cold packs on your hands and grit your teeth and wait until the burn wears off. This takes something like 12 hours. Hope you don't have to be anywhere in the morning because you won't sleep well.

Do not be fooled by the delayed reaction. You WILL pay for it later. Repeat after me: Gloves are worth it. Gloves are worth it. Gloves are worth it.

Capsaicin, you got me this time, but next time I will be prepared. And I do now have a good batch of jalapeno seeds for planting next year, but oh boy, those were hard won.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lammas and the Height of Summer

August 1 is known as the feast of Lammas to the Anglo-Saxons and their cultural descendants, and Lughnasadh to the Celts. Both holidays celebrate the first harvest of grain and berries.

Here in Texas, it's different. You saw what my garden looks like in my last post! The first week of August is statistically the hottest week of the year in Texas. If the Summer Solistice is like the noon of the year, then Lammas is 2 or 3 pm, when the temperature peaks. Sure, the days have been getting shorter ever since the solstice, but the days are still longer than the nights, and will be until late September, so the heat added to the system is still greater than the heat lost, and temperatures continue to rise. This may be something to be celebrated in Northern Europe, but here we're still longing for it to cool down, when we can finally emerge from our air-conditioned cabin fever into a refreshing Texas autumn.

Right now I'm fiddling with seed packets. It's time to get ready for the fall planting season. August and September is when I get to start my cole crops in pots. I've got my broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and collard seeds out. I can plant them in a flat in the shade, or put them under my growlight in the garage, to shelter them from the intense sun for about a month until I can plant them out. They'll grow throughout the winter. Winter is really the best time in Texas for green vegetables. They love the light frosts.

Out in the garden I've put down more clear plastic where the plants have succumbed to the heat. I might as well use the heat to my advantage and kill some more Bermuda grass. Those plots will be turned up in fall, hopefully weed and grass free, ready for the winter crops to take over.

By the way, Lammas is also opposite Candlemas or Imbolg in the wheel of the year, which is when I started this blog, so that means I've been able to keep up with this thing for half a year.