Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Mistletoe Moon

It's the last full moon of 2012. Winter has still been unusually warm and dry. We've had a few mild freezes, but still plenty of days where I could wear short sleeves in the afternoon. We also noticed our water bill went up, probably because I've had to water the garden so much. I really wish it would rain. We have a chance of rain on Monday, so I hope it doesn't turn out to be another disappointment.

The kale and collards are still getting badly eaten up by cabbage worms. It just hasn't gotten cold enough to kill the bugs. It's also too dry for them to grow very quickly to make up for the leaves that get eaten. I'm going to have to buy collards for the traditional New Year's Eve black-eyed pea, collard, and cornbread dinner.
The Red Giant mustard and arugula are still getting eaten but not as badly. I've actually been able to harvest some. I guess this really shows that spicier greens are better defended against caterpillars.

I just planted the celery, which had been in pots. I've never grown celery before, but so far it's doing well. I've heard that celery needs a lot of water, though, so we'd better get some rain soon now that they're out in the garden.

The shallots seem to be doing fine. That's another thing I haven't grown before, so I hope they turn out to be easier to grow than onions, which I've never had much luck with.

The beets are struggling along due to lack of water. Chioggia is still doing the best, but that could be because it's right in the middle of the patch, while Bull's Blood is doing the worst, but it's on the edge. This is why it's better to have multiple repeats of any experiment.

The peppers are finally starting to look wilted after that last freeze. They were going along fine for the first few freezes, but that last one might have been a bit too much for them.

The luffa gourds aren't looking too good either. I was trying to give them as much time as possible to ripen the gourds they have, but they're still green. I doubt I'll get ripe gourds from them.

In the garage I've got my baby nightshades under lights. In the cellpack to the left I've got potato seedlings. I tried to grow some potatoes from seed last year, but they didn't make it once I transplanted. I'm trying again with the rest of the seeds, though I'll probably also buy some tubers. On the right I've got the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. They'll all go in their own individual pots once they get bigger.

Next I need to figure out what my 2013 Garden New Year's Resolutions will be!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cinnamon Basil Pumpkin Pie

For Thanksgiving this year I wanted to make another pumpkin pie (using more of that cushaw squash puree from 2010), but I was running low on ground cinnamon, so I thought this would be a good chance to try using some of that cinnamon basil I had growing.

I got the idea from this recipe I found on the internet, but it makes a deep dish pie, and I only have regular pie pans. I decided to use the pumpkin pie recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and just substitute cinnamon basil for the ground cinnamon. I also used Alton Brown's pie crust recipe from I'm Just Here for More Food, which is great because it has lard in it!

Overall the pie was good. It set up well, and had a nice smooth texture, but I ran into a couple of problems. I think 400 degrees for 30 minutes is too hot an oven for too short a time. The edges of my pie were starting to get overcooked before the middle was done. Custards need to cook low and slow, so next time I'm trying 350 degrees for a longer period of time.

The pie tasted good, but the ribbons of green basil in it just seemed weird. It took some explaining to my fellow guests for why there were green things in the pumpkin pie, and then why I would put BASIL in the pie. I think from now on I'll stick to ground cinnamon in my pumpkin pie and save the cinnamon basil for other things.

Cinnamon basil doesn't smell exactly like cinnamon. It's not as hot and spicy. I think it would do well paired with fruit of some kind, like apples. Maybe it wouldn't be as weird in an apple pie.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

First Frost

Last night we finally had our first frost, though it looks like it was fairly mild. The tomato plants aren't looking so good, but the pepper plants look fine.

Here are the mushy tomato plants in the foreground, with beets and carrots in the background. It doesn't look like they froze all the way down to the roots, but I went ahead and picked all the green tomatoes off them anyway. It's supposed to get below freezing again tonight, so that might finish them off.

I ended up with about 5 pounds of green tomatoes, along with lots of lots more peppers, especially Lemon Drop peppers, but also some more bell peppers, negro peppers, and Cayenne peppers. Even though the peppers seem to have made it through the freeze I thought it best to relieve them of their burden of ripe fruits anyway.

So what to do with this final bounty of 2012? The bigger tomatoes would be good made into Fried Green Tomatoes, but I also have lots and lots of little ones that wouldn't be worth the trouble. I think I'll make those into Green Tomato Relish from the Ball Book of Home Preserving. Maybe growing fall tomatoes is worth it after all.

My first batch of Lemon Drop Hot Pepper Sauce didn't turn out very good. Way too vinegary. All I could taste is vinegar and capsaicin, and none of the nice citrus fruitiness of the peppers. I think a good Lemon Drop Hot Pepper Sauce should be fruity and hot, with just enough acid to preserve it, but not to overwhelm the flavor (if that's possible). I've seen sauce recipes around that used pureed fruit such as peaches, apricot, pineapple, etc., usually with habanero peppers, which are also reputed to have a fruity flavor (I've never been brave enough to try!), so maybe something similar with lemon drops would work out.

I guess the good news is lemon drops are so prolific I've got plenty more peppers to experiment with! Though next time I'll start with a smaller batch just in case.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Winter Coming Late

For the last month or so, it seems like the deciduous trees just don't know what to do. We had a little cold weather, but then it's been in the 70's and even 80's for a while and very dry. Most of the trees usually turn in October, but some still seem confused and are turning color late, or some of their leaves are falling while some are still green.

Here are the Western Soapberry trees growing along the side of the old garden shed. Usually these turn a lovely golden color, but as you can see here, some of their leaves are still green, while others are already falling off.

The Flameleaf Sumac was also late in changing color to brilliant red. Usually it does that in October and would be leafless by now, but mine still has about half it's leaves left.

Other trees in the area, like the Cedar Elms, Red Oaks, and Pecans also seem confused, with some green leaves still hanging on even though it's December already!

Meanwhile, the Yaupon Hollies have plenty of berries and have for a while. It's kind of weird seeing them, a tree associated with winter and Christmas because of their winter berries, all loaded up with berries while it's 85 degrees outside.

The good news is we're supposed to get a good cold front tonight! It's supposed to get down to freezing every night for the next few days. I'm looking forward to it. Sure, it means I need to go out there today and pick all the rest of the peppers and tomatoes, and they probably won't survive, but it's just felt so wrong to be listening to Christmas carols and putting up lights when it's this warm. It's about time for it to be winter already.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Topaz Moon

Wednesday was the full moon of November, named after the state gem of Texas and birthstone of November. This November we've had very strange weather. It's been unusually warm, with highs pushing into the low 80's. It's also been very dry. San Marcos got about 0.1" of rain a few days ago, but in Austin they didn't get a drop, which is the first time they've had a completely dry November for over 100 years.

Usually mid to late November is when we have our first freeze, but we haven't even gotten close. Deciduous trees that usually would have lost their leaves by now are still in the process of turning color.

Out in the garden the warm-weather crops are still doing well, or at least if I water them, they are. All the peppers are working on a fall crop.

From top to bottom we have Chile Negro, red mystery pepper, Lemon Drops, and the bells my in-laws gave me. The only one that's not really doing much is Emerald Giant.

Most of the tomatoes have green fruits on them. I guess we'll see if they manage to ripen any before we finally get a freeze. There's no freeze in the forecast so far.

The Luffa gourds way up in the trees are starting to ripen and turn brown. Still not sure how we're going to get them down.
The warm weather has been less kind to some plants. My Tuscan kale is getting all eaten up by caterpillars. Usually I don't have this problem in November, but it hasn't been cold enough lately to kill the bugs. Might have to resort to spraying with Bt or neem oil or something.
They haven't gotten to all the kale yet. Here are some others I have between the rows of different garlic varieties.
The spicier brassicas are not getting quite as munched as the kale and collards. The arugula is doing very well.
The Red Giant mustard has some holes, but not that many. It's turned nice and purple on top, but green on the bottom.
I still have red lettuce, dill, parsley, and celery waiting to be planted out, but I don't really have room. I thought by now my summer crops would have been dead, leaving room for no winter crops, but not so far. They just keep waiting. I also would like to plant some pea and fava bean seeds, but haven't done that so far either.

Wonder if it's at least going to get cold by Christmas.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pear Butter

About a month ago my husband's boss gave us a big sack of pears off his trees, about 10 or 12 pounds worth. They sat for quite a while in the garage fridge waiting for me to figure out what to do with them.

I decided to use up some of them to make pear butter.

I used the recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. They have a recipe for peach butter, with a pear butter variation in the footnotes. They also have a variation that uses amaretto liqueur, which sounds delicious, but I decided to go with regular pear butter for my first time.

The recipe called for "7 lbs. of pears, peeled, cored, and chopped." What annoys me about these sorts of recipes is that they don't tell you if it's 7 lbs. before or after you peel and core them! I'd much prefer if they told me how much to have after they are peeled and cored. Much more precise that way. I mean, how do they know how much peel or core you're removing?

So I started peeling and coring and chopping them, weighing them as I went, until I got to about 5 lbs., which started to make my pot look quite full. I decided they probably meant weight before peeling and coring, so I stopped there.

I still have plenty of pears to use for other things.

First the pears are cooked in half a cup of water, and the juice and zest of one lemon. Instead of water I used apple cider. Thought it would make it tastier that way.

Once they are soft, you're supposed to puree them. After trying to puree hot soup in a blender before and getting a nasty surprise, I decided to use the stick blender this time. This actually turned out to be harder than I thought. I think stick blenders work well on more liquidy stuff, but it was a pain getting all the chunks worked out of these pears.

After pureeing, I added the 4 cups of sugar, juice and zest of 1 orange, and 1 tsp. (approximately, since I grate it myself) of nutmeg. Then comes the part where you cook it and cook it and cook it until it thickens. Same as with the pumpkin butter, this took a really really long time. I actually ran out of time, had to stop, put it in the fridge, and finish it off on another day.

Finally, it was done, at least to my satisfaction. You can see here it got much darker in color, I'm guessing due to caramelization. Next I loaded it up into sterilized jars and canned it in my steam canner.

As usual, it seems every time I can things, I end up with extra jars. I managed to fill 10 jelly jars instead of 8 like the recipe said. I always sterilize an extra two jars because of this. I really don't know why it always ends up that way.

Here is the finished product. I sent one jar back with my husband to give to his boss in return for giving us the pears. As with the pumpkin butter, my favorite thing to do with this stuff is mix it into oatmeal. It has a nice flavor with the citrus peels and nutmeg. Next time I get a huge load of pears, I'll try the amaretto variation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Roadside Diner for Butterflies

Hey migrating monarchs! Eat at Amanda's! I've got the most delicious Esparanza flowers for you!

Now that cold weather is setting in it's time to fuel up for that long flight down to Mexico. Be sure to stop by and fuel up. Here are some pictures of one of my satisfied customers from Saturday.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New Fruit Trees and a New Butterfly

A couple of weeks ago we started planting fruit trees in the ground here at our new house. Fall and winter is a good time to plant fruit trees here in Texas, and really any perennials. Since summer is our most stressful season for plants, it gives them the maximum amount of time to establish a good root system before the heat sets in.

I'm still not sure about all the fruit trees I'll end up planting. I have dreams of homegrown oranges, apples, pears, peaches, and plums, but our space is limited. There are few places on our property where fruit trees could grow without the competition from our numerous live oaks, and in a contest against a mighty oak, a puny dwarf fruit tree doesn't have much of a chance.

I already had a Meyer Lemon and Key Lime in a pot, then my father-in-law gave us a fig tree he grew from a cutting from the fig tree in his own yard. Then my husband bought us a small pomegranate tree from a local nursery.

We finally decided to plant them in the front yard, right along the street. The front yard has a mott of live oaks, but they're nearer the house, leaving a sunny strip right up front. And fruit trees are attractive, right? They should make fine front-yard plants!

I think we should cut back the oaks limbs a little bit. A couple of them stretch over very close to the fruit trees, but cutting them off shouldn't hurt the oak trees too much. A little bit of shade might actually be beneficial in this climate, but for the most part they're in the sun. There should be plenty of sun coming in from the street side (which is where I was standing when I took this picture).

Here's the pomegranate with a tomato cage around it to protect it from deer. It's a Wonderful, which is the variety they commonly sell in stores. I considered looking for a more unusual variety, but that was the only kind the nursery had. We paid $7 for it, and considering that pomegranates cost $3 or $4 each at the store, I think it was a good investment.

Here's the fig tree, without a cage, which turned out to be a bad idea, because I just checked on it this morning, and it looks like the deer might have sampled it. I thought fig leaves would have some kind of latex substance (like other members of the genus Ficus) that would deter deer, but it's only got two leaves left now. However, the leaves that got torn off are laying on the ground, so either I'm wrong and it wasn't deer after all, or they spit the leaves out. I'm sure it will grow back, but in the meantime, I should get a cage for it too.

The last tree we planted is the Meyer Lemon tree. We haven't planted the Key Lime yet, but plan to. No cage, because I'm sure deer wouldn't like the strong-smelling citrus leaves. Except, as I was watering the tree here, I noticed someone who does!

On one of the leaves I saw what at first glance looked like a great big bird poop, but upon closer inspection...

It's actually a caterpillar! A caterpillar trying to look like bird poop! Turns out it's a Giant Swallowtail caterpillar, one of the most impressive butterfly species around here. Very appropriate during the Butterfly Moon. Their host species are any members of the Citrus family, including some native trees that are common around here, like Wafer Ash and Tickle-tongue, but obviously they like the domesticated Citrus species as well. I decided to leave the caterpillar be. My lemon tree is very healthy, and can probably spare a few leaves for such a cool butterfly. It's funny how something so beautiful can grow from something that looks like poop!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Key Lime Pie with Homegrown Limes

Key Lime Pie doesn't exactly scream Autumn to me, but since my potted key lime tree has had a bumper crop this year, when facing a decision on what pie to bring to a recent Samhain potluck, I decided it was a good opportunity to use up these limes and make something I haven't made before.

Here are the limes I picked off my tree. The limes most Americans are used to are Persian Limes, the big green ones. Key Limes are also known as Mexican Limes, and are golf-ball sized with more aromatic flavor. They also turn yellow if you let them fully ripen on the tree! I've had my tree in a pot for several years, but I'll probably plant it in the ground soon, so it can get even bigger.

I ended up getting almost enough juice for a whole pie, only needing to top it off with less than a quarter cup of store bought lime juice. Squeezing all those little limes was a bit of a pain, though.

I based my recipe off a recipe for Easy Key Lime Pie I got off, but with some tweaks suggested by the comments, using two cans of milk instead of one, four egg yolks instead of five, and a full cup of lime juice. I was pressed for time, so I didn't make my own crust and used a store-bought one.

Key lime pie is an amazingly simple recipe, using only three ingredients in the filling: lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk. It was invented in Florida before refrigeration was common, hence using canned milk, eggs that were presumably freshly laid by the backyard chickens, and freshly picked limes off the local trees, all things that don't need to be refrigerated! Originally it wasn't even baked. The acid from the lime juice made the eggs set up. Today it's baked, but only for a short amount of time.

Here is the finished pie. I only made one mistake, and that was to throw in the zest of my limes along with the juice. That made it have little chunks in it, and I think I would have liked it better if the filling was completely smooth. Next time I'll leave out the lime zest, but other than that it was very good. The filling set up perfectly, and it was nice and tart. It's the kind of dessert for people who like things like Sweet Tarts and Sour Patch Kids.

Key Lime Pie
  • 1 deep dish graham cracker crust (either homemade or store-bought)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 (14 ounce cans) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup key lime juice
Whisk the egg yolks, milk, and lime juice together until smooth. Pour into prepared crust. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Chill completely before serving. Garnish with whipped cream if desired. Easy as pie!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Don't let the zombie flamingos get you!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Butterfly Moon

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is making landfall in New Jersey, which seems to be an unusually northern location for a hurricane. It's also worse because of it being on the full moon, making high tide even higher. Take care up there!

Here in Texas, it's finally feeling like fall. We haven't had a frost here in San Marcos yet, but further out in places like Johnson City and Fredricksburg it's at least been getting close. The plants out in the garden that are not freeze-tolerant are running out of time. By next full moon, we will probably have had our first freeze.

And yes, I have been seeing the migrating monarch butterflies, along with lots of snout butterflies, and some others. Lots of migrating animals, not just butterflies, but bats and birds also ride the cold fronts this time of year to get to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

Most of the peppers are doing a good job putting on a second crop before frost. Too bad I can't say as much about the tomatoes. They have a few blooms but that's about it.

Speaking of blooms, I gave up on trying to save basil seed this time because I just couldn't keep up with pinching off the blossoms to prevent the basil I wanted to save from cross-pollinating with other varieties. Every time I got out there, there are more blossoms, and more bees mixing pollen all around.

The luffa gourds now have several fruits the size of large cucumbers. Problem is most of them are way up in the tree. Not sure how I'll get them down.
Most of the garlic seems to be sprouted by now, mixed in with all those rain lilies. The garlic appears to be lighter in color than the lilies, but the only way to tell for sure is by smell.

Fall crops like the arugula are also doing well, and almost big enough to start harvesting from.

The beets are mostly doing well too, though some varieties are germinating better than others, Bull's Blood being the worst. I seem to have this problem with Baker Creek's seeds fairly often. I'll buy several different varieties of seeds from them, and one or two will have really low germination. I wonder if they don't store them under very good conditions or something.

The Red Giant mustard is also doing well. It's turned out to be purple on the top of the leaves and green underneath. It's going better than my other Brassicas, but all of them are getting eaten up by caterpillars. I'm not sure if I'll spray them with Bt or wait for a freeze to take care of the bugs for me.

So that's how things are doing in the garden now. I love this time of year!