Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

On finals week, my department at work has a potluck Christmas party, and I usually bring some type of dessert. This year our Meyer lemon tree was doing so well, that I thought about bringing a lemon meringue pie, but after reading about how meringue pies can be a bit tricky to make, I ended up going with a chess pie instead.

Chess pie is basically a custard pie with cornmeal in it, which gives it an interesting texture. Plain chess pie is extremely sweet, but lemon chess pie sounded good because the tartness should balance the sweetness. The problem was that when I searched for recipes, I found a lot of recipes that varied widely. Recipes varied between using only 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice all the way up to a quarter cup, a quarter cup of buttermilk to a full cup, 1 Tbsp. of cornmeal to 3 Tbsp, 4 or 5 eggs, 1 and a half cups of sugar or maybe two whole cups, half a stick of butter or maybe two sticks. I had no idea which one to choose. They even varied on how long you bake it, at what temperature, and whether you pre-bake the crust or not.

I finally printed out four different recipes and decided to combine them into my very own recipe! It was risky, but I think I've made enough other custard-type pies that I had a general idea how they work.

Turns out it worked great! It's a good thing I cut myself a sliver right away at the potluck, because when I came back later to collect my pie plate, it was CLEAN. My coworkers completely devoured it and didn't leave anything leftover for me to take home to my husband.

Glad I wrote everything down so I can make it again!

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

  • Pastry for a single-crust pie
  • Juice of 2 Meyer lemons (about 1/4 cup of juice)
  • Zest from 2 Meyer lemons
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cornmeal
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 stick of butter, melted
  • 1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, cornmeal, eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and salt together until smooth. Place pastry into regular pie plate (not deep dish) and trim. Pour in filling.

Lay some aluminum foil over the top and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack, and then chill in fridge before serving.

This pie had the gooey texture of a pecan pie, and a nice sweet-tart flavor. I used homemade pie crust with butter and lard, but you can use whatever your favorite pie dough recipe is, or store-bought. Regular milk might work instead of buttermilk, but I had buttermilk in the fridge already, and I think it's more traditional for chess pie. Regular lemon juice would work if you don't have Meyer lemons, but you might want to increase the sugar to 2 cups and/or use regular milk instead of buttermilk, because Meyer lemons are not as sour as regular lemons.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sweet Potato Pie

I'm the pie maker for our family's Thanksgiving at my in-law's house. Each year I bring two pies. This year I made an apple pie, and a sweet potato pie from homegrown sweet potatoes.

It was a good opportunity to use up the Garnet sweet potatoes that had split (like the one in the picture) or been damaged during harvest (a few of them got broken in half or stabbed with the digging fork). The damaged sweet potatoes weren't going to last very long in storage and needed to be used up soon. I ended up having enough damaged Garnets to get the 2 cups mashed sweet potato needed for the pie. I considered using the Molokai purple sweet potatoes, but decided to save those for something else. I wasn't sure how a purple sweet potato pie would look.

One of my sweet potatoes was a bit confused about whether it was an orange or purple sweet potato, but once I had them cooked and mashed up, the purple streaks didn't show. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the microwave and then mashed them with a fork.

Sweet potato pie is similar to pumpkin pie, but not exactly. Sweet potatoes have a denser texture than pumpkin, with more starch. I used a recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens red and white checkered cookbook, so I'm not sure if it's legal for me to reprint it here.

One difference from a pumpkin pie is it used a prebaked pie crust, which I made myself. With pumpkin pies, you use a raw crust, and the crust and filling cook together. It also needed 3 eggs, while a pumpkin pie needs 4 (maybe because sweet potatoes are denser) and a cup of buttermilk. The buttermilk seemed weird, but it gave the pie a nice tangy flavor. The spices were allspice and nutmeg. No cinnamon or ginger like pumpkin pie.

The recipe also called for only half a cup of sugar. It probably depends on how sweet your sweet potatoes are to begin with, and I was afraid mine weren't sweet enough, so I increased the sugar to 3/4 a cup. I'm glad I did too, because the pie still ended up being not especially sweet and probably could have been OK with a full cup of sugar. It was fine the way it was, though, and probably healthier than a sweeter dessert. Next time I think I'll use brown sugar instead of white.

And here is the finished pie. A lot of the time my pumpkin pies end up too soft and the slices don't stay together, but we had no problem with this pie holding together because of the density of the sweet potatoes. It looked like a pumpkin pie but had a distinctly different flavor because of the different spices and buttermilk.

Oh, and of course it was served with plenty of whipped cream.

The only problem I think needs improvement is the pie filling was a little bit lumpy. Next time I'm going to try mashing the sweet potatoes in the food processor or stand mixer to get a perfectly smooth puree.

But overall both pies were a big hit, judging by how we only had one piece leftover from each for us to take home.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Mistletoe Moon

It's been a strange winter so far, if you can even call it a winter. It got down to 30 degrees one night on the week before Thanksgiving, which is when I harvested my sweet potatoes. It hasn't gotten anywhere near freezing again since. Some days it even got into the high 70's during the day.

The light frost we had wasn't even enough to kill the eggplants and tomatoes, and now the eggplants have started to grow new leaves back. They're in for a disappointment once we do get a killing freeze.

The peppers are also still going strong. I've been harvesting a lot of Serranos, which I think I'll make more fermented hot sauce out of.

The garlic and multiplier onions are also doing well. The wire has prevented the chickens from digging in them any more.

The root crops are doing well. I've started harvesting radishes. I've also got carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips growing.

It's gotten cold enough to get rid of the bugs that were eating the greens, but now the deer have found them. They don't like the arugula, but ate the tops off of most of the red lettuce I had mixed in with it.

The kumquats (in the picture above) and Meyer lemons in the front are almost ripe. I'm thinking of making a Meyer lemon meringue pie for Yule, even though it's not that traditional. But they should be ripe by then.

I planted a lot of Tuscan kale in the back to save seed, and it's doing OK but growing very slowly. There's also a lot of weeds coming up back there.

The peas are starting to climb their trellises in the back. I planted two varieties: Tall Telephone and Dwarf Grey Sugar.

And I have some more winter crops in trays to plant later: fennel, cauliflower, and more kale and collards.

I already started my pepper plants for next year. I wonder when I should start my other nightshades. I usually start my tomato seeds around Christmas, but I'm feeling impatient with how warm it's been lately.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sweet Potato Harvest 2014

This past weekend I decided it was time to harvest the sweet potatoes, because it looked like the last weekend we'd have before a freeze. Even without a freeze, as you can see in the picture above, my sweet potatoes thought it was too cold anyway. They're such tropical plants, that even temperatures under 40 degrees F makes them wilt.

My harvest this year was a bit disappointing. Still not as good as what I got in 2010. I'll have enough to eat for the holidays, but not the bumper crop I was hoping for.

I planted slips I grew from three varieties I got last year from Duck Creek Farms: Garnet, Molokai Purple, and Carolina Nugget. I discontinued White Yam because it didn't do well at all.

This year they ranked about the same as last year. Garnet was the best, followed by Molokai Purple, followed by Carolina Nugget.


Again this was my best variety, with a few specimens getting pretty large. Nice bright red skin. I'll keep growing this one unless/until I find a better orange variety.

Molokai Purple

This variety also did well again. Love the color! Now I have enough to actually do a taste comparison between purple and orange sweet potatoes. In 2010 I learned that White Yam was much drier and firmer than orange sweet potatoes. It made excellent sweet potato fries, while orange sweet potatoes can sometimes fall apart when they cook (fine if you're mashing them, but bad for fries). I'm interested to see what purple sweet potatoes are like in flavor and texture.

Carolina Nugget

Again Carolina Nugget was OK but not great. I got a few nice-looking potatoes, but not many. I gave it a second chance, but now I've decided to discontinue it. It's too similar to Garnet, but inferior, so out it goes.

For new varieties to try, I ordered three from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Sweetie Pie, O'Henry, and Violetta. They came in bundles of six plants each, but sadly none of them did well.

Sweetie Pie

This is another ordinary orange variety, but unlike Garnet it has normal leaves instead of ivy leaves. I only got one root that wasn't split (the one at the top right of the picture), but it did get damaged by my digging fork. The rest were badly split all over.

This may not be completely their fault. This variety was right next to a big leak in the soaker hose, so when the sweet potatoes were watered, they got flooded. I didn't realize it would make that big of a difference, but maybe that's what split them.

Still, they went in the compost pile. I'll stick with Garnet for my orange variety for now.


This was my attempt to find another white variety, but as you can see, it turned out to be pretty pathetic.


I don't even have a picture for Violetta. I think all the plants for this one died. I couldn't find any. It was supposed to be a variety with purple skin and white flesh. I was curious to find out what a potato like that would taste like (more like a purple or like a white?), but I guess I'll have a try another one next year.


I'm keeping Molokai Purple and Garnet again for next year, but that's it. They didn't give quite the bumper crop I wanted, but still did respectably, especially compared to all the other varieties I tried this year.

The plants I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange weren't quite as good as Duck Creek Farms. DCF's slips were in excellent condition when they arrived, while SESE's slips were in more typical condition for slips that just spent some time packed up in a box. I'm not sure if DCF does something special to help their plants make the journey, or if I was just lucky that time. I'm also not sure if it matters all that much, since the slips I grew in 2010 were from Shumway's, and they looked more like SESE's slips, but ended up growing just fine.

Another problem was DEER! The deer feasted on the sweet potato leaves several times before I discovered I Must Garden Deer Repellent. Even though the plants grew back, I'm sure having to regrow all those leaves diverted a lot of resources away from growing lots of roots.

Finally, Bermudagrass is starting to invade my raised beds. It was especially bad on the side where I planted the new varieties from SESE. I hate that stuff! It's coming in from the surrounding lawn. A project on my to-do list is to put landscape fabric and mulch around all the raised beds so that there isn't grass right next to them.

I'm already wondering which new sweet potato varieties I should try next year. Should I get some other varieties from Duck Creek Farms, since they did so well? Should I try a different place, like Sand Hill Preservation Center? Should I go back to Shumway's and get more White Yam since they did so well in 2010?

In the meantime, I think this year I'll make sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Topaz Moon

October was so busy I missed doing an update for the Butterfly Moon. Now it's November, and the winter garden is planted, while the last remnants of the summer garden are running out of time before our first freeze, which usually occurs around Thanksgiving.

The sweet potatoes look good on top, but I'll see how good they did underground when it's time to harvest them right before the first frost.

The peppers are making a lot of fruit now that it's cooled down. I might have to make another batch of fermented hot sauce this year to use them up.

I'm glad that my artichoke plant is growing back. I was sure it had died over the summer, but as soon as it cooled down in fall, new sprouts appeared around the dead stump.

The eggplants have also starting fruiting again. This variety, Rosa Bianca, just hasn't been doing that well for me. I think it needs too much water, or something. Maybe I'll finally get a few good ones before it freezes, but I don't think I'll grow this variety again.

The Calico lima beans also started making more pods when it cooled down. I hope they also ripen before it freezes. These are the only plants in the back that survived the summer.

Now, on to the newcomers to the garden.

I have a patch of root crops such as radishes, carrots, and turnips in the front. They seem to be doing well, except for a lot of Bermuda grass invading around the edges.

I planed collards and other greens, and as usual, they're getting eaten up a lot by caterpillars and probably won't be safe until a freeze kills the bugs.

The garlic is just starting to sprout. I had to lay wire over them because the neighbor's chickens kept digging in the beds.

The peas are doing well. I planed Tall Telephone and Dwarf Grey Sugar this year.

By the next full moon the garden will have frozen!

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Newly Emerged Rhinoceros Beetle

The post from this blog with the most pageviews of all time is this post about finding all these rhinoceros beetle grubs around the dead English Ivy in the front yard when we first moved into this house. This morning I found a newly emerged adult crawling around on the compost pile. I often find the big white grubs in there when I turn the pile, so I'm sure this is one of those grubs all grown up. He was nice and shiny and new-looking like he just emerged from his pupa. I can tell it's a he because of the horns behind his head (female beetles don't have horns).

If this doesn't prove these beetles are harmless detritivores, I don't know what will. I never find the grubs anywhere except where there is rotting vegetation, such as in the compost pile or under piles of leaves or mulch. I think this one probably matured deeper down in the pile where the compost is more finished, then crawled his way up to the top where I just threw some fresh onion skins, banana peels, etc. I don't think they like to actually eat stuff that's fresh.

I think they're really cute with their club-shaped antennae, and how they slowly crawl along like a little wind-up toy.

Yes, I know I missed the last full moon garden update. Just was too busy, and finally decided it's too late (since it's already the new moon now). I'll try to post something about how my winter garden is coming along some time this weekend.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Welcome to the Texas Toad Spa!

This was the scene the other night at the lid full of water we have on our back porch for critters. (It's actually the lid off one of the barrels we made into rain barrels.) There were six Gulf Coast Toads, but when I came to take the picture, one got spooked and hopped out. To the right there's also a Southern Leopard Frog coming to join them.

Toads are quite common in my yard, but the frog is new. The main difference between frogs and toads is that frogs stay around water, while toads live on land and only go to water to breed. I didn't think my yard was wet enough for frogs, so I was pretty surprised when one showed up and started hanging out with the toads. I've seen this particular frog three times now. He's a bit more skiddish than the toads and can leap much farther if you spook him.

Yesterday I saw another leopard frog in the water. This is a definitely a different individual! I can tell because it's quite a bit smaller than the other one. So now we've got at least two frogs.

The only thing I can figure out is they must be coming from my neighbor's yard. She has some kind of a fountain over there. I've heard male toads singing over there, and now I wonder if some leopard frogs have been breeding in there. That would explain the small ones wandering over here. (There have also been quite a few small baby toads, not just big fat ones.)

During the day, the toads retreat to various burrows they have around the yard, while the frogs must go back to my neighbor's fountain. Here's one that's made itself at home under one of the agaves in our xeric garden in the front. All kinds of small critters love to burrow under agaves, cacti, and other spiny plants. It helps protect them from predators.

Next time I see my neighbor, I really must thank her for having this fountain that's turning out to be such a great population source for all these wonderful amphibians!

Speaking of which, we're still working on our own backyard pond. It's still a big hole in the ground, but my husband has ordered the skimmer, and will order the pump next. It's just been too hot to do much work on it out there, but once it cools off I hope we can go ahead and get it done. The frogs and toads should love it!

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Harvest Moon

Monday was the Harvest Moon, which means fall is almost here. Of course it's still been in the high-90's, but today the first big cold front of fall is supposed to arrive, which is forecast to bring the temperature down by about 15 degrees. I can't wait!

There's not much left out in the garden, but what has survived the summer is probably good to go until it freezes in November or December.

I'm still not impressed with these Rosa Bianca eggplants. After producing some small fruits in the summer that went from purple to yellow-brown way too fast, I picked off all the remaining fruits and blossoms, to let the plants just concentrate on surviving the summer. Now that it's cooling down a little, they're starting to make more blossoms. I'm going to give them one more chance to make a nice crop in fall, but I'm thinking this is just not a good variety for me.

My peppers did lousy this year, and now I think it might be best to start the seeds in the fall, keep them in pots over winter, and then plant them in spring. I had a bumper crop the year I did that (somewhat unintentionally). I think they really liked germinating while the weather was still warm, and then seemed to do fine waiting over winter in their 4 inch pots before being planted as large, sturdy plants in spring.

Which means on my to-do list for this weekend is to start next year's peppers!

After I cut my tomatoes down to stumps, the Cherokee Purple tomatoes never grew back, but the cherry tomatoes look like they  might grow back in fall.  Maybe I'll even get a second harvest of them.

I sprayed I Must Garden brand deer repellent on the sweet potatoes, since it was recommended on Central Texas Gardener. It worked much better than I thought! It looks like the deer completely quit eating my sweet potatoes and they've gotten a chance to grow back a bit (though not yet back to how they were before the deer showed up). It smells to me like a mixture of cinnamon, mint, and garlic, which is not exactly the nicest smell, but apparently the deer think it smells much worse. And I only sprayed it once or twice, and that seems to have been enough. I might re-apply if it turns out that we get a heavy rain with this coming cold front.

The only thing left alive in the back garden is some of the Christmas Lima beans. I hope in fall they'll be able to recover a bit and give me a second crop.

I've been having trouble starting the fall crops in these trays. Some of the seedlings have been damping off, but I think birds have been pulling up some of them. I've never actually caught any in the act, but I know for sure birds have been stealing the tags! I've found them strewn around the yard. I got to the point where I couldn't tell some of my plants apart (is this broccoli, collards, or mustard?), but it didn't matter too much because I had to reseed a lot of them anyway. It's just hard having to start fall crops when it's still 100 degrees outside and then try to nurse them along until it finally cools down.

I wonder if it's even worth it to try to start them in August, or if I should just wait until it cools down. So few of them survive it might not be worth the extra month of growing time they get.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Dog Moon

The Dog Moon is named for the Dog Days of Summer, when Sirius the Dog Star is prominent in the night sky, and it's really, really hot. It's not consistently at least 100 degree every day, if not a few degrees over.

The garden plants are looking pretty toasted out there.

I just harvested one Charentais melon that was about the size of a softball. We haven't eaten it yet, but it smells wonderful. There are two more on the vines, and a forth was doing OK until some type of bug bored into it. But I'm not growing this variety again. The seeds were given to me, but it's struggling in the heat.

The Rosa Bianca eggplants aren't doing too well either, and eggplants are supposed to like heat. The fruits get to be about tennis ball sized and then turn yellow. Aren't they supposed to be a large eggplant? I guess I should start picking them sooner, because eggplants turn bitter when they get yellow.

The mystery yellow cherry tomatoes that were supposed to be Dr. Wyche's Yellow but aren't are the only tomatoes still ripening fruits. And that's fairly typical of cherry tomatoes. They are tougher than large-fruited tomatoes.

I decided the Cherokee Purple tomatoes weren't going to produce any more fruits when it's this hot, so I pruned them back to stumps. That may have been a bit of a drastic move, but I heard that can actually help them survive the summer, and then they regrow in the fall for a second harvest before frost. The plants weren't looking so good anyway, so maybe it will be good for them to get some fresh growth.

I left one pod on each okra plant for seed saving, and now the first two or three are starting to mature and are ready to pick and get the seeds out. They need to be picked before they completely split open and the seeds spill out, but that has to be done wearing gloves because they're covered in irritating spiny hairs. The plants themselves have lost a lot of leaves. Some of them just fell off on their own (maybe because of the heat), but it looks like some got munched by deer, which surprised me.

I forgot to get a picture of the sweet potatoes in front, but they haven't really changed. They still love the heat as long as they get watered enough, and the deer are still eating anything that sticks out beyond the wire. I sprayed some "I Must Garden" brand deer repellant on them last week to see if that helps. Looking at the ingredients list, it's a mixture of rotten eggs, garlic, cinnamon oil, and peppermint oil. The peppermint and cinnamon make it smell nice to humans, but it's supposed to smell nasty to deer. I'll see if it works.

This is what's left of the cucumber vine. I got about three cucumbers off it, but now I'm letting it die. The cucumbers were getting bitter anyway.

The lima beans are the best looking beans. They quit making any more pods, but the plants are still green, which is better than the snap beans or yardlong beans.

The Tatume squash is wilting in the heat but still alive. The Black Futsu squash, on the other hand, looks completely dead. I was afraid a Japanese squash variety couldn't cut it.

Early August may be the hottest time of year, but it's also, ironically, time to start fall crops like broccoli, collards, and mustard greens. I have them right here, and they're already starting to sprout. They're being kept in the shade, and I think this year I'll use a shade cloth out in the garden when I transplant them. I'm still on a learning curve with getting fall crops to do well, because they need to be planted in such hot weather to mature in cool weather. I think the mistake I was making before was keeping them in pots too long, which I think was stunting them. This time I'll set them out earlier under a shade cloth set up over them and plenty of watering.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dog Day Cicadas

During the hottest time of year the afternoons are full of the sound of annual cicadas, also known as Dog Day Cicadas (genus Tibicen), named after the Dog Days of Summer. Their sound is synonymous in my mind with 100 degree heat. The hotter it is, the more they sing. I always thought they sounded like a certain type of sprinkler I think are called "impact sprinklers". You know, the kind that goes around in a circle "tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat" and then goes back around the other way faster "tatatatatatatata". Our cicadas sound like that.

Nymphs spend a few years underground sucking on tree roots, until they emerge on summer nights, leaving nickel-sized holes behind in the yard. Then they climb up a tree, or wall, or car tire to molt, leaving their old exoskeletons behind. By August just about every vertical surface in the yard has cicada shells stuck to it.

Sometimes you see the adults. They're large and green, with big bug-eyes, and long transparent wings. They make a loud buzz when a mockingbird grabs one. They make a louder buzz when a cat brings one in the house and bats it around the living room. But it's rare to see the nymphs since they stay underground and emerge at night.

But the other evening, while Daniel was out watering plants after work, he brought in this to show me.

There it is, a cicada nymph in the flesh, crawling up my husband's arm. You can see its front digging legs clearly. It's a little hard to see in this picture, but he also had a long, straw-like mouth pointing down. Looks just like the shells stuck everywhere, but without the split down the back where the bug crawled out. I always thought those shells were kind of gross, but it seems somewhat less gross this way.

After showing the cicada to me, Daniel put it in a tree to let it do its thing.