August 1, 2014 § 1 Comment
Time for the monthly update on my little back yard garden! As we’re coming into August, nightshades are just about ready for harvest, the sage has taken over the herb box, and I have a garden thief!
First up: that garden thief. Or maybe I should say garden thieves. It all started with chewed-up chives a few weeks ago, and was followed by half-eaten tomatoes, and more recently: brand-new baby lettuce plants chewed down to the roots!
After mentioning the chive thievery during my recent chat with Webb Ranch farmer Deano Lovecchio, I learned that cats like chives — and it’s likely that one of my neighbors’ cats was probably helping itself to my garden. (And I love cats, but DAMN!)
As for the tomatoes and lettuce, I suspect the squirrels. More than once I was excited to pick a pretty, just-ripe tomato from the bush, only to find that, while the front was gorgeous, the back half was gone. So disappointing! What this all means is that between now and next month’s update, I will be getting a pellet gun learning how to install a fence around my garden. (Good thing I’m a DIY kinda girl!) Stay tuned… In the meantime, here’s the rest of the update.
Purple Jalapeños Peppers
This plant has been the star of my garden since Day 1; it’s been flowering regularly, and the peppers are sturdy and ripening on schedule.
If you read the post on Spicy Cucumber Margaritas, then you know that these peppers turn red when mature. The mature peppers have a milder jalapeno heat, combined with a touch of red bell-pepper sweetness. To date I’ve only harvested two mature peppers, which I used to make pepper-infused tequila last month for said margaritas. If you’re looking to upgrade your margarita or tequila-drinking experience, give the recipe a try!
Just this week, half a dozen peppers on the lower half of the plant are starting to change color from black-purple to dark scarlet-red. Because the color is so dark, even through half of the transition, it’s hard to tell that the peppers are maturing until there’s a sudden pop of red amongst the green and purple.
Last month I wrote that “the regular green jalapeños haven’t done as well” and “[h]opefully I’ll be able to report a bounty of green jalapeños in a few weeks.” Well, guess what? Yes, I can! During the past four weeks, this plant has gone gangbusters with fruit!
A major flowering happened at the beginning of July, and yet lots of blossoms dropped, so I wasn’t sure I’d end up with more than a couple of peppers this summer. My, how things have changed. The plant is just full of big, beautiful peppers, that range from 3 – 4 inches long. While the peppers aren’t quite ready for harvest yet, I see a lot of salsas (and maybe another bottle of pepper-infused tequila) in my future!
Ancho Chile Peppers
My other rock star pepper plant! These babies are large (6 – 8 inches long), shiny green, and bee-yoo-tee-ful! As they’ve matured, they’ve grown longer, and the color has gone from a darker to a lighter green.
While many of the blossoms from the last flowering didn’t stick around, the peppers that were already on the plant are fast reaching maturity. I think our random weather — which has ranged from sunny, 90+-degrees to cloudy, 70-something days has delayed the maturity date.
The first two peppers, which started growing back in May, reached maturity, and then started to turn red before I could harvest them. I decided to go ahead and let them turn completely red by leaving them on a sunny windowsill. Eh, I have a few to spare, so let’s see what happens! Yep, I’m “making” dried ancho chiles!
I could string them up, but they get the most sun right on the windowsill. I turn them daily so that the drying process is pretty even.
Sweet Red Peppers
I don’t know what to make the red bell pepper plant. While it really started to flower and produce fruit once I ran a couple of drip lines to it during the first week of July, the growth has been minimal in the past month. In fact, I’m not sure it’s grown at all — unlike the hotter pepper plants, which are about four feet tall. The fruit on this plant is starting to ripen — especially the first (and largest pepper) — but some of the others are looking a bit anemic.
I suspect that this plant needs consistent hot and sunny weather to thrive. With the long maturity time (90 days or so), it looks like a small harvest this year.
Indigo Apple Tomatoes
Despite the loss of my first few ripe tomatoes to the local wildlife (ugh, suburban squirrels… so spoiled!), the plant is doing well. I think.
Some of the leaves are yellowing and drying out, which probably means that I need to adjust the watering plan, but the plant continues to flower and new baby tomatoes are popping up every day. Not only do the ripe tomatoes look cool, but they are delish, by the way — sweet with lots of flavor and low acidity. What I love is that the indigo/purple top doesn’t change color — just the lower half of the fruit, which does turn red when ripe.
Lettuces have turned out to be more challenging that I anticipated, mostly due to our weather. The Black-Seeded Simpson went the way of the Little Gems, bolting just a couple of weeks after I planted them. Sure, lettuces are easy to grow and don’t require much more than sun, water, and good soil, but randomly throw in a week or two of 90+-degree temperatures, and they will throw up a stalk and get all bitter in protest!
Fortunately, with 30 – 40 days to maturity, and a long growing season, I can keep trying! This month’s attempt is “Cardinale,” a sweet, mild lettuce that has medium green leaves with a tinge of red.
Apparently it’s popular with cats… or squirrels… or cats and squirrels. (Again, arrgghhh!) The Lettuce Manoa, which I planted last month, has gotten a little crispy around the edges, but is fighting the good fight, so we’ll see how it’s doing next month.
Not much has changed with the herbs in the past four weeks. They’re continuing to grow, seemingly unaffected by the random weather changes. I’m overdue to harvest and start preserving them for the cooler months, although I’m trying to keep the mint population under control by making mojitos regularly. It’s a tough job, but I’m commited to reducing food waste ;-).
Sage is the big winner in the herb box this month, which is to say that I have a crapload of sage — more than I know what to do with at this point. If you have ideas for preserving sage or recipes or, well, anything, please share!
Last but not least, the residents of the northeast corner of my yard are a lot happier since I installed drip lines there. Lemon verbena and lavender, which I’ve been harvesting for flavored simple syrups and my baby lime bush are all thriving! I don’t expect to see any limes until next year, but you never know.
That’s what I’ve got growing! What’s happening in your garden?
July 24, 2014 § 6 Comments
While visiting my parents in the midwest earlier this month, I learned three things:
- The town where I grew up built a new police station directly across the street from my old house. Seriously. Right. Across. The. Street. (Good thing that didn’t happen while I was in high school — just sayin’!)
- I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have long-time, dear friends in my life, some of whom also happen to share my love of tequila. (Coincidence? I think not!)
- Spicy cucumber margaritas are delicious and need to be in my cocktail-making repertoire.
During what’s becoming an annual celebration of belated birthdays, catching up, and plain-ole’ day drinking, one of my dearest friends and I enjoyed a couple of rounds of said margaritas on the 4th of July. They’re refreshing and go down a little too easily, but are perfect for a hot summer day — especially if you’re hanging out with good friends.
As it’s National Tequila Day, I’ve come up with my own version of this sweet-spicy, herbal-fresh margarita. Make up a batch and share them with your nearest and dearest! There are three parts to this recipe, which requires just a bit of advance planning:
- Spicing up your tequila.
- Making the cucumber simple syrup.
- Putting it all together and making the cocktail.
I’ve put the cocktail recipe first, just in case you already have your spicy tequila and simple syrup ready to go. If not, you can find these recipes at the end of the post.
Recipe: Spicy Cucumber Margarita
Yield: 1 cocktail
You’ll need a double old-fashioned or highball glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, and ice.
2 ounces pepper-infused reposado tequila (recipe below)
½ ounce Cointreau
¾ – 1 ounce cucumber simple syrup (recipe below)
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
For the glass:
1 tablespoon Kosher or freshly ground sea salt
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder
1 lime wedge
Thin slices of cucumber
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 oz = 4 tablespoons, ½ oz = 1 tablespoon
- Combine salt and chili powder in a small bowl, then pour on to a saucer. Run a wedge of lime around the rim of the glass, then turn the glass upside down and dip into the spicy salt. (You’re trying to get the salt to adhere to the outer rim of the glass). Set aside.
- Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with four or five cubes of fresh ice.
When I make this cocktail, I use ¾ ounce of the cucumber simple syrup. If you prefer a sweeter cocktail, by all means, increase the amount to your taste.
- Shake 4 – 5 times (not vigorously) to combine and pour into a prepared glass.
- Fill glass with ice and garnish with thin slices of cucumber and a lime wedge.
Recipe: Pepper-Infused Tequila
There’s not much work involved here: pierce or cut a spicy pepper and pop it into a bottle of your favorite tequila for the infusion. Ideally, start this project when you have a designated driver handy or are hanging out at home for a while, as you’ll need to taste the tequila periodically to test for spiciness.
Important: I strongly recommend wearing gloves while handling spicy peppers. Afterwards, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands, cutting board, knife, and any utensils you used. Don’t touch your eyes, mouth, or other, er, sensitive parts immediately after handling spicy peppers — wash your hands first!
1 – 2 jalapeño peppers, depending on your tolerance for hot peppers
1 bottle reposado tequila (my favorite is Tres Agaves, but choose whatever you like)
- Wash and dry the pepper(s).
I used mature Purple Jalapeños from my garden. Want to know more about these peppers? Check out this post about my garden.
- Take a look at the opening of your tequila bottle.
a. If you can fit the whole pepper through the opening, then pierce several holes in the pepper using a skewer or sharp paring knife. Push the pepper through the opening and recap the bottle.
b. If the whole pepper will not fit through the opening, slice the pepper in half vertically. Press the pepper pieces into the bottle and recap it. Some seeds might come away from the pepper. Don’t worry, you can always strain them out later.
- Make sure that the bottle is capped tightly. Holding the bottle upright, give it a quick turn upside down. The pepper (or pieces) should float to the bottom and settle down.
Depending on how spicy/mature your pepper is, the infusion process can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days.
- Grab a shot glass and taste-test the tequila at regular intervals.
I did my first taste test after two hours of infusion, then two hours later. After eight hours I still wasn’t tasting the level of spice I wanted. Turns out my peppers were really mature, and not as hot as I’d anticipated, so I ended up just leaving them in the bottle.
- When your tequila has reached the desired (tolerable?) level of spiciness, remove the pepper and any seeds that might have settled in the bottom of the bottle.
You can strain the tequila into another bottle for storage, or simply fish out the pepper from the original bottle, whatever works best for you. Make sure that you clearly label the bottle containing the spicy tequila. I also put the date of infusion on the label as well.
Recipe: Cucumber Simple Syrup
Yield: About 8 ounces syrup
Refreshing and tasty, you can also use this simple syrup to make an easy summer spritzer.
What you need:
Small container or bowl to hold the strainer
Glass or plastic container with lid for storing the syrup
4 ounces sugar (½ cup)
4 ounces water (½ cup)
½ cup peeled, grated cucumber
- Peel the cucumber and grate it using the large holes on a box grater or food processor attachment.
- Combine the cucumber, sugar, and water in a saucepan and place on the stove top.
- Give the ingredients a stir and heat just until small bubbles appear around the edge of the pan.
- Remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
Give the syrup another stir to make sure that all of the sugar has dissolved.
- Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the cucumber to remove as much liquid as possible.
- Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
July 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Time for the monthly progress report on my little edible garden! (Actually this post should have appeared last week, but the 4th of July holiday delayed things a bit.) We’re about 9 weeks along at this point, for those of you playing the home game. Lots of sunshine and more than a few hot days in June really got the tomatoes and peppers going, but put an end the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix lettuces. Herbs — both sweet and savory — are thriving, which means it’s time for harvest! Read on for more details and photos.
First up, the peppers and tomato plant are definitely rockin’ — check out this photo:
Remember, these babies were about 4 inches tall when they went into the planting boxes. Today, they range from 30-48″ tall, with no signs of slowing down.
Purple Jalapeño Peppers
Honestly, I bought this plant for the novelty, figuring if it grew, “fine.” If not, oh well. What a wonderful surprise it’s turned out to be! Healthy and hearty since planting, it’s now about 30 inches tall. The delicate purple flowers are so lovely, and the resulting black-purple fruit is really striking against the green foliage.
A few of the older peppers have matured during the past week, transitioning through a range of intense colors from black-purple to purple-red to magenta, and finally to a deep scarlet. (The fruit actually starts out green with purple shading when small, and then turns completely dark purple as it grows.) I’m thinking about using them for an infused tequila or syrup for cocktails. Gotta plan ahead: National Tequila Day is coming up on July 24!
Unfortunately, the regular green jalapeños haven’t done as well. The plant is growing and spreading — it’s now about 36″ tall — but during the first and second flowerings, most of the blossoms died off. There are a couple of 3-inch peppers near the base of the plant from the first flowering, which are probably ready for harvest. Otherwise, I’ve seen some new baby-thumb-sized green nubbins appearing in the past couple of weeks, but there’s not much to photograph. Hopefully I’ll be able to report a bounty of green jalapeños in a few weeks.
Ancho Chili Peppers
Like the purple jalapeños, the anchos are going gangbusters! This baby really blossoms in heat — literally. After the first round of hot days in early June, the plant was full of creamy white blossoms, and most of those have turned into peppers! I lost one pepper to a bit of mold/rot, but the rest are a luscious, shiny green. The peppers on the lower part of the plant are from the first flowering, and should be ready for harvest later this month. I’m looking forward to an August filled with chiles rellenos!
Sweet Red Peppers
This plant has been slow to start, and like the ancho, really thrives in the hotter temperatures. Oddly enough, the plant itself hasn’t grown much; it’s only about 18 inches tall. Right now it’s filled to capacity with peppers that have just blown up in the past two weeks. With a long maturity time (90 days), I don’t expect to see any red peppers until late August.
Tomato plants can be touchy — my neighbor has already lost a couple this year, despite all of his experience and attention. Fortunately, my friend Jill had some helpful advice that I took to heart for my Indigo Apple plant: lots of water and remember to fertilize. The tallest and widest of my nightshades, that little 4-inch start is now about 4 feet tall!
Like the purple jalapeño, the Indigo Apple tomato starts out green, turns purple (more violet than indigo so far), then red at maturity. Maturity is about 75 days, so the fruit from the first flowering should be ready in August — maybe the end of July, if we have another round of hot days.
Oh, my poor lettuces! Unfortunately, I let the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix stay in the ground too long, and they bolted during the 90-degree days. What’s “bolting”? It’s when the lettuce throws up center stalk, preparing to go to seed. It’s the lettuce’s way of saying: I’m done, outtie, see ya. The leaves become bitter, and all you can do is pull the head and replant.
It was a newbie mistake not to harvest entire heads sooner, but the great thing about lettuce is that the maturity is only about 28 days, so there’s plenty of time for a do-over. I planted three new varieties a couple of weeks ago.
I’m planning to try an early harvest this time around, taking more baby leaves than I did with the Little Gems.
The herbs are doing really well, but admittedly, they’re low maintenance. Water, sunshine, the occasional cutting, and they’re good. The spearmint and lemon verbena are flowering, which means that it’s time to cut some back so that I can get another harvest or two this season. It’s also time to start planning for preserving them for use in the fall and winter.
So, that’s the latest here in the 650! How is your garden growing? Are you preserving yet, or just enjoying the experience of eating garden-to-table?
Want to see how my garden has grown up? Flash back to the post in which I commit to creating my own edible garden and get all the nitty-gritty details of how I did it. Follow the progress of the first month and find out how my 4-inch plant starts fared — plant porn included, of course.
May 30, 2014 § 1 Comment
As we’re heading into the last weekend of May, it’s time for the first update on my attempt to grow food. After just about a month, my little garden is flourishing! To date everything I planted is thriving, and much to my surprise, the lettuce is overflowing the planting boxes.
As a comparison, here’s what they looked like when I planted them four weeks ago. Amazing what good organic soil, sunshine, water, and a little TLC can do!
Just this week I’ve started harvesting the outer leaves for small salads, pulling only what I need from the garden. I hope I can keep this going through the summer — continuing to harvest leaves as I need them, without having to harvest entire heads of lettuce that might go to waste.
I’ve also (cautiously) started snipping the tops of the chives, for the occasional garnish. If they continue to thrive, I might get a bit more aggressive and really give them a haircut. The sage is popping, too, so it might be time to pull some leaves and fry them up. (No, it doesn’t matter what you put them on — fried sage leaves are delicious! Ideas? Try them with sausage and pasta or grilled swordfish with olive oil or roasted veggies with brown rice…)
The peppers and tomato plants are taking their own sweet time, but they do have a longer growth time (75-90 days) compared to the lettuces and herbs (30-60 days). The anchos are the frontrunners right now, with three peppers, while the purple jalapenos are a close second.
If you’re thinking about starting a garden, it’s not too late! Lettuces are much easier to grow than I ever imagined, and they give an abundant return for your time and effort. Peppers are sturdy and do well in containers — but you need some patience because they do take up to three months to really produce. Tomatoes do amazingly well in the 650 — my plant start was four inches tall with no flowers a month ago, and now it’s almost 24″ tall with lots of flowers (which means, if all goes well, fruit will follow!).
You can check out how I put my little garden together here. The post also includes resources for more gardening info.
So what’s this all leading to? Hopefully a summer of creative, simple meals made of local ingredients. Just to give you an idea of how you can “eat local,” at home, here’s a simple meal of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients:
The run-on, menu-style description: Baked west-coast halibut, topped with Nut ‘n Bean Jalapeno Cilantro Cashew Cheese “sauce,” and chives, served with late-spring rainbow salad. The salad brings together lettuces from my garden, carrots and beets from my CSA delivery, a sprinkling of feta from Marin, and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice (yes, from local lemons). With the exception of the fish and the olive oil, every ingredient on this plate comes from within 85 miles of where I live. How cool is that?!
Of course, you can vary the protein based on your budget and diet (chicken or tofu could work, too), and the salad fixin’s based on what’s available in your garden or market. The point here is that it’s so easy it is to create a good, fresh dish from local ingredients. I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time to cook something like that.” Au contraire! Halibut takes 13-14 minutes to bake; other fish or proteins might time a little more or less time. During that time, you can wash, chop, and assemble the salad ingredients. Overall, figure about 30 minutes to prep and assemble a meal like this.
The best way to enjoy a meal like this in the 650? Grab a chilled bottle of wine (or some homemade sangria), your favorite people, and head to the back yard for some nice al fresco dining. What more could you ask for this weekend?
May 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
650Food is six months old today! If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been writing about food — eating, cooking, buying, and growing — in the 650, aka San Francisco’s peninsula neighborhoods. A few weeks ago I wrote, admittedly with a smidge of garden envy, about neighborhood gardens. Well, today my garden envy is gone…over…pfffffttt! While I’ve been encouraging people to “grow local” here (and on Twitter, if you follow me there), I want to tell you that I’m walking the talk. For the first time in many years, I’ve planted a small, edible garden. Hell yeah, I’m excited — I’m growing food! Well, right now they’re just baby plants, but by mid-summer, if all goes well, I’ll have food.
There’s a lot to be said for growing your own food — reconnecting with the outdoors, teaching kids about where food comes from, eating simple, fresh meals — just to name a few reasons. You don’t have to plant an entire farm’s worth of produce, but you can easily get a small kitchen garden going to supplement what you buy weekly at the market. Wondering where to start? Think about the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you love to eat or can’t find on a regular basis. For me, it started with peppermint and lemon verbena.
While this is not my first edible garden, I’m also not a gardening expert by any means. I definitely did some researching and organizing before I got started. First, I had to figure out where the “full sun” areas are in my yard — those spots that get 6-8 hours of direct sun. Most edibles love full sun — and it’s definitely necessary for fruit, which needs that light and heat to fully develop its sugars. Turns out I don’t have many full-sun spots in my yard, so that limited the garden size and location, right off the bat. (Good thing, too. Because once I got to the nursery to start buying plants, I wanted everything.)
Next I had to decide what I really wanted to grow. Sweet herbs — lavender, lemon verbena, and mint — were at the top of my list. After that I started thinking savory — sage (mmmm, fried sage leaves!) — and spicy, which meant peppers! I love summer salad greens, so if there was room, maybe I would give those a go. And finally, if I could squeeze out one more spot, I wanted just one tomato plant. My neighbor with the tomatoes was already making deals as soon as I mentioned my plans: he’d happily trade his tomatoes and basil for my peppers and mint.
Having picked my spot, I decided that a combination of pots and raised beds would take less time to set up and give me some flexibility in placing what I want to grow. I’m not exactly what you’d call “handy,” so getting pre-made raised beds sounded like a lot more fun than making beds. Fortunately Home Depot had these cedar boxes that just slide together (no tools involved, yay!).
I’d already decided that I wanted my garden to include as many organic components as possible, so here’s where the research really kicked in. I’d waited too long to start plants from seed, so that meant finding a reliable source of quality organic plant starts (baby plants). While the big-box home improvement stores stock a small selection of certified organic plants, you’ll do better to go to a local, independently owned nursery. Typically you’ll find better quality plants and better customer service. (Not to dis the big stores, but sometimes the folks working the garden section don’t know much about gardening. Or they usually work in lumber, or electrical, or plumbing. You get the idea.) A nursery can provide advice on planting, fertilizing, and managing your garden. Two mid-peninsula nurseries that stock organic plants: Wegman’s Nursery in Redwood City and Common Ground in Palo Alto.
Finally, I had to source the soil and fertilizer. This was a tough one, and probably where I spent most of my research time and energy. The large home-improvement stores and small nurseries carry “organic” soil, but you have to read the labels to see what’s really in it. The challenge was finding a brand of organic soil that didn’t contain chicken manure, blood meal, or GMO’s. Unfortunately, most of the companies that use these components can’t or won’t disclose their source, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. For example, is the chicken poop in your soil happy, free-range chicken poop, or over-crowded, full-of-antibiotics, just-ate-the-dead-guy-next-to-me chicken poop? I mean, if I’m growing food in it, I want to know.
I ended up choosing Dr. Earth brand, which you can get from Orchard Supply. Dr. Earth is all about no GMO’s, chicken manure, or sewage sludge (who knew that was even an option in soil mixes??). Keeping it in the family, I also went with the Dr. Earth fertilizers.
So, I had my raised beds, pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. All I had to do was wait for a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-windy day, and I could put it all together. Fortunately Mother Nature cooperated this past weekend, and I was finally able to plant everything (well, almost). Ta-dah! The big reveal…
And a few closeups…
Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.
Finally, yes, with the lime shortage in mind, I picked up a 5-gallon lime bush (no idea how I’m going to plant this thing). It will go in the sunniest corner of the yard, near the lemon tree.
There you have it: my attempt at a kitchen garden! I’ll try to post updates throughout the season, assuming the squirrels and raccoons behave themselves and stay the f— out. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of what I might harvest later this summer!
Need help figuring out how to plant an edible garden? Check out this article from Houzz on growing edibles in 16 square feet. My go-to source for figuring out what plants will and won’t thrive in my area is the Sunset Western Garden Guide. (I received my first copy as a gift 20 years ago, and just finally bought the updated version this year.) For more garden and landscaping ideas and growing info specific to the Bay Area, Sunset.com is a helpful resource.
Have you planted a garden? What are you growing this year?