Summer Check-In: 650 Blackberry Mojito

August 8, 2014 § 4 Comments

According to the calendar, summer is just about half over — which means that there’s still six weeks left to enjoy! (Officially, summer started on June 21 and ends on September 22 this year.) Sure, if the kids are heading back to school in a few weeks, or work starts getting busy again right after Labor Day, it might feel like summer is coming to an end. But don’t call it just yet — especially if you live in the Bay Area! You know that our sunny, warm weather will last well into October. That means you still have time to grow a garden, have a barbecue, or take a road trip. So far, I’ve managed to check two of those three items off my Summer Bucket List, but August has slowed me down a bit.

There’s a certain lull to August that I like. Maybe it’s the calm before the storm of Labor Day weekend — that (supposed) last hurrah of summer. Maybe it’s the long, hot and humid days and warm nights that remind me of growing up in the Midwest (sadly, minus the fireflies). Maybe it’s the sounds of my neighbors’ kids playing along the street in the evening, yelling and laughing and riding bikes until the sun sets over the western hills and their parents call them inside. Somehow, everything just seems slower, more relaxed.

What about you? How’s your summer going? Has it been rush-rush to take trips, get the kids to camp, manage those meaning-to-get-aroundtoit house projects? Have you taken time to just watch a sunset, enjoy music in the park, admire your garden, or get out on the road with Led Zeppelin/Beastie Boys/Kings of Leon blasting and the windows down? With six weeks of summer left, what would you like to do?

Way back on June 1, I decided that I wanted to make the most of my summer this year, hence the Summer Bucket List. I didn’t want another year to go by in which my answer to “What did you do this summer?” was “WORK,” followed by a long list of things I meant to do. I wasn’t looking to do anything big, like climb Mt. Everest or swim the English Channel. I just wanted to recapture the feeling I had as a kid: that summer meant weeks of possibility laid out before me. Did I want to read books (yes, actual books) in the evening until sunset forced me to turn on lamp? Yes! Did I want to get in the car and just go anywhere with the radio blaring? Yes! Did I want to turn my kitchen into a lab for recipe development and experimentation? Yes! All that, and more.

So, how has it gone? Well, this weekend, it’s time to get organized and check in with my Summer Bucket List. What can I check off, and what do I still want to do or try or see before fall starts and the holidays come rushing up? Preserving herbs and vegetables from my garden are at the top of the list, but so is that road trip I’ve been craving for months. Choices, choices! But first, I think I’ll mix up a garden-inspired cocktail, grab my notebook and head to a cozy spot the backyard to think about the possibilities of the rest of the summer.

Recipe: 650 Blackberry Mojito
Yield: 1 cocktail

Local fruits and garden herbs have provided tons of inspiration for summer cocktails this year! I created this recipe with mint from my garden and blackberry syrup made with u-pick blackberries from local Webb Ranch. While the u-picks have come to an end, you might still be able to find regional berries at farmers’ markets, smaller grocery stores, or green markets, such as Sigona’s in Redwood City or Los Altos.

Webb Ranch berries, 650Food mint, lime, simple syrup and a muddler

Webb Ranch berries, 650Food mint, lime, simple syrup and a muddler

You’ll need a double old-fashioned or highball glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, a muddler, a long-handled spoon, and ice.

Ingredients:
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 ounces = 4 tablespoons, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons, ½ ounce = 1 tablespoon

12 large mint leaves (I used “Best Mint” spearmint from my garden)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 – 1½ ounces simple syrup (heat equal amounts of sugar and water to a simmer, stir until sugar is completely dissolved, then cool)
1 ounce blackberry syrup
2 ounces white rum
4 – 6 ounces sparkling water

How To:

  1. Add the mint leaves, simple syrup, and lime juice to the glass and muddle.
    I use a press-and-turn motion with the muddler to crush the leaves without shredding them. You’re working to release the mint essence from the leaves and combine it with the simple syrup and lime. Want to know if it’s working? Put your nose in the glass and take a sniff. You should be able to smell a combination of mint and citrus.

    Minimize the cleanup: muddle the mint, simple syrup, and lime juice in the glass

    Minimize the cleanup: muddle the mint, simple syrup,
    and lime juice in the glass

  2. Add the rum, then the blackberry syrup.
    Stir once or twice to combine.

    Beautiful blackberry syrup added

    Beautiful blackberry syrup added

  3. Add ice to fill the glass about halfway.
  4. Top with sparkling water.
  5. Give a quick stir to combine everything
  6. Garnish with a mint sprig and a fresh blackberry or two.

    Find a sunset and enjoy

    Find a sunset and enjoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow? — Part Trois

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!

Nightshades keep on growin'

Nightshades keep on growin’

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!

Chewed lettuce plants

These were baby lettuce plants. Someone’s been snacking in my garden!

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.

Purple jalapenos

Love my purple jalapenos!

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!

Cut peppers inside the tequila bottle

Cut peppers inside the tequila bottle

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.

Green Jalapeños
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!

Green jalapenos!

Green jalapenos!

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.

Large ancho chiles

Hellooooo, chile rellenos!

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!

Mature ancho chiles drying in the sun

Mature ancho chiles drying in the sun

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.

One pepper starting to mature

One pepper starting to mature

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.

Indigo Apple tomatoes

Indigo Apple tomatoes

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.

Notice the star-shaped imprint from the stem

Notice the star-shaped imprint from the stem and the purple to red coloring

Lettuces
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.

Baby 'Cardinale' lettuce plant

Baby ‘Cardinale’ lettuce plant, with Lettuce Manoa in the background

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.

Herbs
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 ;-).

Mojitos, anyone?!

Mojitos, anyone?! Or maybe I should say “Mojitos for everyone!”

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!

So. Much. Sage.

So. Much. Sage.

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.

Lemon verbena, lavender, and lime

Lemon verbena, lavender, and lime

That’s what I’ve got growing! What’s happening in your garden?

Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow? — Part Deux

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:

Pepper and tomato plants

L to R: Purple jalapeño peppers, Indigo Apple tomatoes, green jalapeño peppers, and ancho chili peppers

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.

Flower on purple jalapeno plant

Flowers on my purple jalapeño plant

Purple jalapeño plant with unripe peppers

Purple jalapeños and a few that have turned red

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!

Purple jalapeños, red at maturity

Mature red jalapeno in the foreground; deep-purple peppers will be ready in a few weeks

Green Jalapeños
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!

Ancho pepper plant with half a dozen or so peppers

Ancho peppers

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.

Nope, those aren't green bell peppers -- they're unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Nope, those aren’t green bell peppers — they’re unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Tomatoes
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!

Indigo Apple tomato plant

Indigo Apple tomato plant

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.

Closeup of unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Lettuces
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.

New baby lettuces

New baby lettuces: Black Seeded Simpson, Lettuce Manoa, and Wildfire Mix

I’m planning to try an early harvest this time around, taking more baby leaves than I did with the Little Gems.

Closeup of new baby lettuces

Closeup of Lettuce Manoa (left) and  Wildfire Mix

Herbs
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.

Spearmint

Spearmint, starting to flower

The flowers are pretty, but it’s time for harvest. (Hello, mojitos. How you doin’?)

Peppermint

Peppermint, overflowing the container

Hmmm, might be time to make mint-chocolate ganache…

Sage

Sage

The sage has reached critical mass; time to harvest and preserve

Chives

Chives

Chives: my go-to herb. They’re going into every savory dish I make.

Lavender

Flowering lavender

Flowering lavender: so pretty, and it’s bringing pollinators to my yard!

Lemon Verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

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.

Grow Local: In Which I Walk the Talk

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.Left to right: Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno

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!).

Raised garden boxes

Cedar boxes 16″ x 16″ x 4″

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.

Pots and plants at Wegmans Nursery

The first load of pots and plants

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.

Dr. Earth Pot o'Gold soil and fertilizers

Dr. Earth Pot o’Gold soil and 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…

Full view of containers and raised beds

From bottom to top: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno, Indigo Apple tomato, jalapeno, Ancho chili

And a few closeups…

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Purple jalapeno

Purple jalapeno — just because, well, it’s a purple jalapeno!

Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.

Lemon verbena

Lemon verbena

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.

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

Baby lime bush next to 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?

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