Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Eating Seasonally versus Growing Your Own Food

You would think that growing your own food would force you to eat seasonally. Of course, it's a great idea to eat seasonally even if you don't grow your own food. Eating strawberries and asparagus in spring, peaches in summer, and winter squash and apples in fall makes sense because if you eat things out of season, where is that food coming from? If you buy strawberries in winter, that probably means they've been shipped from a long way away where the temperatures are warm enough to grow strawberries at that time, maybe even all the way from the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite ours. That long distance shipping results in higher prices, higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and less freshness since it's been sitting in a truck, boat, or train for a longer time.

Since it used to be that you didn't even have the option of getting food out of season, a lot of our food traditions evolved around this reality. After all, you eat pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving, and strawberry shortcake around Easter, not the other way around, right?


Well, not if your winter squash and sweet potatoes are still hanging around come Easter!

These are the sweet potatoes I have left in the garage. To the left are some Nancy Halls, in the middle are some Vardamans, and to the right are White Yams. The first two varieties are starting to sprout. I think that was triggered by some warm temperatures we've had. I have more potatoes that I've been keeping in the house to sprout on purpose, so I might not need more. I wonder if I can still eat these sprouted ones.

By the way, I intended to do some sort of review of the flavors of the different sweet potato varieties I grew once they cured, but never got around to it. I'll just tell you what I've been able to figure out so far. The first thing I cooked them in was a dish of Bourbon Sweet Potatoes for Christmas dinner. Oh man, they were yummy! My family was a little confused because I mixed the different colors together, so at first they thought I had mixed sweet potatoes and regular potatoes together. They didn't know that white sweet potatoes existed, and it became a "teaching moment". Even though all my varieties were mixed together, I did notice some flavor and texture differences between them. The one that standed out the most was White Yam. It cooked up much firmer and drier than the other sweet potatoes. I made a big dish of these, and ended up with leftovers, which I froze for later use. We'll get to those later.

With the knowledge that White Yam was unusually dry for a sweet potato, and being bright white in color, I used some more of them to make sweet potato fries (to go with some delicious grass fed beef burgers). Sweet potato fries seem to be a popular food trend, and I've eaten them in restaurants and made them myself with store bought sweet potatoes. However, I have had trouble with homemade sweet potato fries being too soft and mushy compared to regular potato fries. Still tasty, but it's hard to get them to crisp up at home where I don't have the luxury of a commercial deep fryer and am doing them in a cast iron skillet.

White Yam makes excellent fries! Just as I thought, the dry texture held up much better and resulted in crispy, golden fries that looked just like fries made from a Russet. They still tasted a bit sweet, though. I'd like to find some more dry, white sweet potato cultivars that are less sweet and do even better as a Russet substitute. Not that there's anything wrong with Russets, but sweet potatoes grow much better in my climate.

Now, back to my frozen Bourbon Sweet Potatoes from Christmas. This is the cake that I made for the Spring Equinox. I got the idea that I could make a sweet potato cake using a recipe for carrot cake but with sweet potatoes instead of carrots. I thawed and then mashed up the Christmas sweet potatoes and used those. Yes, sweet potatoes for spring!

I would say the sweet potato cake needs some tweaking, though. I subsituted 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes for 2 cups of shredded carrots in the recipe, baked it the same, but also tried to make a layer cake rather than baking it in a 9 x 13 pan. Even after passing the toothpick test, when we cut the cake it had a very dense, almost pudding-like texture (like an English baked pudding, not a Jell-O pudding), and it was VERY heavy carrying it in and out of the fridge. My fiance, Daniel, loved it, and would scarf down huge slices and make himself sick on it. I thought it was tasty too, but I think I would like a lighter texture. Carrot cake is supposed to be dense anyway, more like a muffin than a cake, but this was a little too far. I think it might be because 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes does NOT equal 2 cups of shredded carrots in texture or density. Maybe next time cut it down to only 1 or 1 1/2 cups?

I think I did do well to reduce the amount of sugar in the original recipe by half a cup to make up for the leftover sweet potatoes already having sugar in them. Plus, even before when I made this recipe with carrots, it was still a bit too sweet for my tastes.

Also, for purely aesthetic reasons, this cake would have done better in a 9 x 13 inch pan. The cream cheese frosting from the original recipe was not enough to cover a layer cake, and would have to have been doubled. It probably would have been enough to just cover the top of a rectangular cake left in the pan. Also, wrangling such a dense, moist cake was difficult, another reason to just leave it in the pan. I tore it up a bit trying to unmold it and stack it. I did put some Easter-themed sprinkles on top to try to make it at least a little pretty!

Overall, a worthy baking experiment, but not a total success. The flavor was good, but the texture needs work.
I've also still got a LOT of cushaw squash left! I almost made yet another pumpkin pie for Ostara instead of the sweet potato cake, but I make three or four pumpkin pies last fall and winter and am still kind of sick of them. Here you see two of the squashes I still have, plus a couple of jars of seeds I've also been collecting. Each squash has 1-2 cups of seeds in it. I've set a few aside for replanting (a few each from the nicest squashes), but that still leaves an amount of seeds that I could never replant again in my lifetime!

So I'm going to eat them! Most people know about roasting the seeds out of your Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins, which I have done, but I think I want to further explore the culinary possibilities of pumpkin/squash seeds. They're popular in Mexican cuisine, even more popular than the flesh of the squash itself. They have some squash varieties (also in the cushaw species) that are grown just for the seeds alone, which are called "pepitas" in Spanish. Pepitas are ground up to make a delicious green sauce called pipian. It's not that well known north of the border, but I've had it before in some nicer Mexican restaurants and would love to try making my own. It goes well with chicken.

You can also use pumpkins seeds as a substitute for nuts or sunflower seeds in many recipes. Alton Brown's pumpkin bread recipe uses pumpkins seeds instead of the walnuts found in many other recipes, and I seem to remember him mentioning on one of his shows that you can make pumpkin seed brittle instead of peanut brittle, which sounds great.

The main obstacle I can see here is that the pumpkin seeds are supposed to be shelled. You can snack on pumpkin seeds with the shells on and either bite them off one by one, or eat them shell and all, but I don't think that would work with making pipian or any sweet confections. The shells are very fiborous. I've heard that they used to be used as a cure for intestinal parasites! All that fiber scrapes your insides clean!

After much Googling, the only method I can find is to put the seeds in a bag and pound them with a rolling pin. This is supposed to crack the shells. Then you put them in a bowl of water, and the shells are supposed to float while the kernels sink. Except all the references I've found for this method seem to be from people who just heard that somewhere and haven't tried it themselves. I hope it really does work. I'm afraid the shells might not seprate as easily as they're supposed to, and that the kernels inside might be pulverized to bits. I guess I'll find out, but I'm not shelling my seeds until right before I want to cook with them. The shells keep them fresh longer. I'll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I've still got 12 squashes left in the garage. They still seem perfectly fine, and I wonder how long they will last until they finally rot. They will rot eventually, right? The garage is still cool now, but by summer it gets very hot in there, into the high 90's. It may work as a vegetable storage area for now but not forever, so I've been working on roasting, pureeing, and freezing the rest of my squashes. I can only fit two in the oven at a time, so that's why I'm getting started now. I guess I could keep one around and see how long it takes to rot, but I'm probably too chicken to. The thought of one of these large squashes going rotten in the garage does not seem pleasent.
Here's the squash puree I've already done. I've been putting it in these reusable plastic containers that some brands of lunchmeat come in. I like being able to buy that brand and then reusing the packaging. They work great for freezing things in. I get around three of these containers per squash. That is a LOT of squash puree. I am never growing nine cushaw vines in one year ever again!

Actually, it may be a while before I grow cushaw squash at all again, with how much squash I'm going to have in the freezer. This year I plan on only growing summer squash and maybe butternuts. Summer squash is a completely different food, and butternuts are more useful in different recipes than cushaws. Cushaws are very sweet but very stringy, so they're good for things that need pureed squash, like pies and muffins. Butternuts are not very sweet, but have a nice smooth texture, so they're better in savory dishes where the squash is left in chunks.

Yeah, I think I'm good on squash puree for another year, if not for a few more years!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More Signs of Spring

Last year at this time I did a blog post with pictures of all the bluebonnets and other flowers in bloom, but this year they seem much less impressive. I wonder if it's because of how dry it's been. I actually planted some bluebonnet seeds in the front, but only a few came up, and they didn't make it. At least, I can't even find them right now, so I think they dried up and died. The neighbors across the street only have a couple blooming in their yard so far this year. I also had a lot more spiderwort and dayflowers blooming in my yard last year, but this year I've only seen a couple of puny ones.

There are a few spring-like things I have noticed. In the plant world, at least the trees are doing their things. The elm and ash trees in my yard are putting out nice, fresh green leaves. The live oak trees are losing their leaves and growing new ones, like they do each spring (live oaks are called live oaks because they keep their leaves through the winter, then lose them and immediately grow a new set in spring). The mountain laurels have also started blooming, with their large, sweet, purple blossoms. I don't have any in my yard, sadly. When I get my own place, I certainly want to plant a few.

There are also some new birds at the feeders that haven't been there before. Just about every day a flock of Chipping Sparrows has been hitting the seed feeder. There can be up to a dozen there at a time, with some of them on the feeder, and others underneath getting the seeds that fall on the ground. They're really cute, very small sparrows with a rusty-red cap on their heads.

This is one of the few times I've actually been able to identify any native sparrows, which have got to be some of the hardest birds for birders to identify. There are several species of sparrows that live around here, and all of them are streaky brown birds that usually like to stay on the ground in tall grass, where they blend in very well. Usually the only sign of them I get is hearing their "seet" calls, which sounds like some kind of insect (in fact, one of our sparrows is called a Grasshopper Sparrow because it sounds so much like a grasshopper). They make those calls to keep track of the rest of the flock while they're in the tall grass and can't see each other. If I hadn't been told those were birds I would have kept thinking they were insects. Then if they're flushed, well, then I just see a flock of little brown birds in a blur and never get a chance to get a good look at them. My ornithology professor was able to identify the species just by their "seet" calls, saying that some of them sounded more like "seet" and others sound more like "zeet", but I could never tell the difference. Usually the best I can do is just know there's some kind of sparrow out there in the grass and that's it.
The House Finches are have also started showing up at the feeder. I used to have a lot more of these on the feeder at my old apartment complex, but here on the edge of town they seem to be less numerous. Maybe they like more urban areas better and that's why they call them house finches. In the picture, the male is on the top, and the female is on the bottom. the females are more streaky brownish-grey birds and would be hard to identify if they weren't usually accompanied by their mates, who look like females that have been airbrushed with a bit of rosy red.

And of course the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Black-crested Titmice, doves (both White-winged and Inca), wrens (Bewick's and Carolina), and cardinals are still regulars at the feeders. I'm also still seeing a few Golden-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers from time to time on the suet, but not any other warblers. I was hoping I would see some other warblers now that things have warmed up and other species should be migrating through, but no luck yet. I also haven't seen a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a long time, so I think they may have moved on (they're supposed to only spend the winter here and then leave for summer). I've also seen blue jays and mockingbirds pulling up grass for nests and drinking at the birdbath, but they never eat any of the food from the feeders. I guess they're waiting for my tomatoes to ripen, so they can start pecking holes in them and then leaving the rest of the fruit to rot!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Vernal Equinox and Super Full Bluebonnet Moon

Tonight we've got a Super Full Moon and then tomorrow is the Spring equinox, when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal. I'm going to try to spend most of tomorrow celebrating and reflecting on the new beginnings of spring, but first here's another update on the garden, which is also passing into a new season!

The fava beans and snow peas are both in full bloom. The peas are even starting to put out pods, while the favas, shown above, just have a lot of black (?) and white flowers on them. I'm glad they recovered from the February snow storm.

Some of the lettuce has been bolting, which I thought was strange, since it's not THAT hot yet. I guess it has more to do with a change in the temperature than the actual temperature itself. I've been pulling out the bolted lettuce and replacing it with more escarole, which I want to save seeds from. I just started eating some of my mature escarole, in the form of Escarole and Beans, but the escarole is very bitter. Is it supposed to be that way? It's not too bad if the dish has enough other flavors to offset the bitterness, but it wouldn't be very good on its own. (That recipe I linked to is good, but better with some lemon juice and PLENTY of salt to cut the bitterness of the greens.)
These are sweet potatoes! I've started snipping slips off the roots I had planted in pots and then rooting them and planting them. It seems warm enough for that, though it's still very dry, and I have to water frequently. I am not looking forward to the next water bill. The rain barrels have been empty for at least a week.
And tomatoes too! Isn't spring exciting? I've got about two-thirds of my tomatoes planted by now. Haven't gotten to the peppers, eggplants, or tomatillos yet, but they'll come next.
Here are my pole beans coming up nicely along the back fence. I planted three varieties so far: Cherokee Trail of Tears, Blue Coco, and Turkey's Craw. I wanted to plant Rattlesnake too, but I ran out of room. Maybe I can sneak some in once the snow peas are done.
A lot of the stuff I planted right after the freeze didn't make it, but I have been harvesting radishes now. In fact, this morning I had radishes on buttered French bread for breakfast. The carrots, dill, cilantro, beets, and turnips all seem to be doing ok too. The cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower never manifested, though, and something seems to be munching on the chard.

Also we've been using the air conditioning a bit lately, which means winter is definitely over and summer is just around the corner. I basically see the Feast of Ostara as the last chance for comfortable weather before it gets HOT. I just wish it would rain more.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Getting a Soil Test

Finally I'm getting around to doing something I've been wanting to do for a while - getting a soil test done. Being in Texas, I'm using Texas A&M's soil testing lab for this. There's my plastic bag of at least two cups of soil.

I'm doing this mostly out of scientific curiosity, and not because I think there's anything wrong with my soil (though I guess I could be surprised). I just thought it would be kind of interesting to get some sort of baseline, and maybe even later have it tested again to see if I've at all improved it (if I do end up living in this house for much longer).

It doesn't cost all that much. The actual fee for the sample ranges from $10 - $25 depending on how many things you want them to test. I am tempted to go all the way and get the $25 test done, which measures pH, N, P, K, Ca, Mg, Na, S, Zn. Fe, Cu, Mn, conductivity (I'm not sure what that is), and organic matter.

Then this shipping will cost about $5 because soil is heavy. I'm trying to cram it into a Priority Mail small flat rate box. It looks like it will just barely fit.

I didn't quite follow the directions on how to take a soil sample given by A&M. They say to take soil samples from different parts of the area you are testing and mix them up, being sure to get samples from areas of different soil types. I'm more interested in what my baseline soil is before meddling with it, so I was careful to sample an area that I have NOT messed with much yet (by adding compost, fertilizer, etc.), and I also avoided the areas of my garden that have a lot of sand, due to once being under an above-ground swimming pool.

I hope the results are interesting. Texas A&M gives the recommended NPK amounts for various crops, which is interesting in itself to compare different crops (like how regular potatoes apparently need way more nitrogen than sweet potatoes), and should be even more interesting once I get my results.