Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Busy week, lazy weekend

This is not my garden. 
Yes, I know, I didn't update at all last week.  All four people who read this thing are probably very cross with me for this, but I have a good excuse.  I was up at 4:30 a.m. (yes, 4:30 a.m.) for four days last week so I could get ready and get to work extra early.  It wasn't for my job--it's demanding, but it's not out of control and my boss would have my head if she found out I was coming in to get stuff done and never said I was overloaded.  (Well, she wouldn't really have my head.  She's a very sweet and nice person, which makes you want to bust your behind, but I digress. . .)

The place where I work has a community garden.  I was very fortunate to get a huge plot--it's technically two plots but no one wanted either one.  Someone had both plots a couple of years ago, but besides the fence that had been put up around it, it had been neglected since then.  Waist-high weeds, baby trees, raspberry bushes and wild mint creeping in. . .oy.  So I hoed a couple of mornings and lunch breaks (yes, I had to change into my jeans, yes, they were good and ripe by Friday, and by the way did you know that hoing actually works your calves?  Who knew??).  I got rid of a lot of the weeds, and my coworker's friend very kindly rototilled her plot and mine.  He wanted nothing in return--he would not take money.  I got him some local honey from the farm down the street from me. 
I then spent a couple of mornings and lunch breaks planting.  I might have gotten a little over enthusiastic; here's hoping the stuff a) grows and b) is not eaten by resident rabbits.  I do have a fence but you just never know.
Here's what I planted:
  • 15 tomato plants--12 romas, one big boy, and 2 brandywines.  I have two cherry tomato plants my father gave me that I'll probably plant.  I had some extra space I was going to use for zucchini, but I always get that in plentiful supply from my parents, even if they only have one plant. 
  • 6 green pepper plants
  • One red pepper plant
  • 4 eggplant plants
  • 2 cucumber plants
  • 2 rows of bush beans (seeds)
  • 15 basil plants (I have more I'll plant as well.  Look, I'm down to my last bag of pesto cubes.  CRISIS.)
  • 1 rosemary plant
  • 1 thyme plant
  • 1 oregano plant
  • 3 short rows each (seed) of parsley and cilantro
Yeah, I have a lot.  Maybe if I'm feeling really ambitious, I'll plant winter crops after this stuff goes by--things like kale and spinach and collards, before mulching it down for the winter.

I planted so many tomatoes because I wanted to make sure I didn't run out of home canned tomatoes in mid-winter, like I did this year.  Yes, I know I can get canned tomatoes at the supermarket, and they taste good.  But eating a tomato that was canned a few hours after it was picked is just a plateful of heaven.  I am not exaggerating when I say I was really sad to see that last jar of tomatoes go. 

I may try to make spicy pickled string beans and freeze the rest, but I cannot guarantee that I won't inhale thme as I harvest.  Beans, peas, and cherry or grape tomatoes never last long when I pick them.  They're gone and in my belly before I get back to the car.  I don't like canning most vegetables besides tomatoes and beans (of the non-string variety)--I prefer them frozen if I'm going to preserve them.  I will make pickles and jams, and I'll make tomato sauce or pressure can tomatoes on top of any stock that I make.  I find that leafy greens like kale and spinach taste better if frozen than if canned.  The same goes for things like carrots, string beans, and peas.  (Or they would IF THEY LASTED LONG ENOUGH TO BE FROZEN BUT OH NO I MUST EAT THEM RIGHT AWAY NOM NOM NOM NOM).

I figured I'd get a lot done around the house this weekend--I deliberately left it pretty open just for that purpose--but all I wanted to do was nap and read (Jane Austen's Emma, if you would like to know).  I finally cleaned out my second bedroom--it's mostly done--and I'll just do a general housecleaning today.  I've got today and tomorrow off (yay!) and I am very excited to just relax. 

Just because I was feeling snarky, I googled "exhausted farmer" and found this blog.  You should definitely check it out, and stop by the farm if you live outside of Pittsburg, PA.  I don't--I don't live anywhere near Pennsylvania--but it's definitely good reading.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Weird combinations that work

Cabbage of any variety is really tasty if you saute it with either a chopped tart apple (like a grannysmith or macintosh apple) or some fennel.

Stuffing poultry with fruit (an apple, or a citrus fruit) and/or an onion and some herbs keeps it really moist.  Just don't eat the fruit and onion (or herbs).  It does add a nice flavor to the bird. 

It is well worth it to try and forgo processed food if you can just so you can salt your fruit.  A little bit of salt on fruit is just a plate of heaven.  For real.

One of my favorite soups to make is butternut squash and apple soup.  Really? I'm starting to think that apples go with anything.

You can pretty much make anything taste good if you throw a dash of garlic or ginger on it.

Sometimes I like a little bit of soy sauce on my scrambled eggs.  (Not a lot.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Things I have that I use all the time

This weekend, I plan on getting rid of a lot of stuff I don't use. I've been doing an inventory and figuring out what I use and what I don't use; there are a lot of things I don't use.  But there are a lot of things that you will have to pry from my cold, dead fingers.  I was kind of surprised by that.  What's not surprising is that they are mainly kitchen implements and tools.  Ha!

My immersion blender.  That thing rocks.  When I make soups or sauces and need to puree them, I can just place it in the pot and not worry about pouring two batches into a blender or food processor. 

My slow cookers.  Yes, that's right, I have two.  I got one for Christmas (at my request), a 6-quart oval one that can fit a roast.  About a year ago, I got a used 4-quart slow cooker--it's round, and it's old (the crockery insert is not removable) but it works.  Yes, actually, I have used them at the same time. If I'm going to be around (or at least back by a decent hour), I'll make chili, soup, or other dishes for dinner and save the leftovers in containers for lunches.  What can I say?  Sometimes, I just don't want a sandwich. 

My knives.  Wow, I sound like a serial killer! Well, they are nice knives.  They were gifts received over the period of two or three years, as I owned really cheap ones beforehand.

My knife sharpener.  It's noisy and kind of annoying, but wow do they make my knives effective.  (There I go, sounding like a serial killer again.)

My cast iron skillet.  That thing is the best.  I get a kick out of putting it in the oven.  (No, my other stuff is not oven safe).

My small non-stick skillet.  I like omelets.   This is ideal for them.

My pressure canner, which a friend gave to me.  I've used the daylights out of that thing.  I plan to use it a lot more.  Especially at the end of the summer, when the tomatoes come in.

Other stuff--like cleaning stuff--I keep pretty basic.  All I need are some rags, some soap, alcohol, and vinegar, and I'm good to go.  Though if I had a robot cleaner I'd be all set.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Making stock

Not taking stock, but making it.

I use stock a lot when I cook.  If I make rice (especially for a skillet meal), I cook it in stock instead of water.  A lot of recipes I use call for stock, and I will often replace water (or water and a bullion cube) with that amount of stock.

I make it quite simply.  I take the carcass (chicken or turkey, or beef bones if I have them) and simmer them for several hours in a large stockpot.  I'll throw in some peppercorns and assorted herbs to add flavor, maybe a teaspoon of salt.  I let it cook a long time because otherwise, it will be weak.  Then I let it reduce if I want very intense flavor.

I cool it off, skim off the fat, and will either pressure can it (it's much easier to use stock that doesn't have to be defrosted) or freeze it (if I have no jars left or if there's only enough for a jar or two). 

I will sometimes freeze it in ice-cube trays and pop the fully frozen stock cubes into a ziploc bag that is clearly marked "chicken stock."  I mean, you don't want those things ending up in your iced tea.  I'm just sayin'.  I like the stock cubes because if you want to add a little water to something--a frozen or leftover soup that got very thick and needs thinning out, for example--they come in quite handy.  One or two are also are good for adding a little bit of extra flavor to things you wouldn't necessarily expect to pick up the flavor--pasta cooking water, for example, or sauces or sautees.

I do the same thing with vegetable stock.  I take the scraps and save them in a container in the freezer.  When it's filled up, I simmer it for several hours, let it cool, strain it, and either can it or freeze it.  I like to keep vegetable stock onhand because I have vegetarian friends, and it's a good replacement for chicken stock.  Also, I like using every bit of something before throwing it away or composting it.

Also, I know what's in the stock I make.  It's not high in sodium, it has no color added, and no weird chemicals or additives with seven syllables.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How my garden grows. I hope.

All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook
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I spent part of the day Saturday planting in the community garden plot I share with the organizer of that fine project.  In this community garden, we're basing it on the square foot gardening method.  We tried the topsy turvey tomato planters last year and they were a bust, so if the three or four people who read my blog were curious about them, take it from me--it's a waste of time. 

My garden partner let me go hog wild, which was rather dangerous.  I planted six roma tomato plants, two big boy tomato plants, five pepper plants, a pea plant, oregano, basil, and rosemary.  There are three spots left, and we'll likely fill them with cherry tomatoes (oh, snack happiness!) cucumbers, and I don't know what for the remaining one.  Eggplant? Broccoli again? Dill? Mint?

The kale from last year came back, as did the parsley, thyme, and chives.  The parsley looks great--better than last year.  Really full and lush and just so very tempting.  This may be the summer of gremolata. 

I didn't go crazy with the leafy stuff this year.  I did last year and I learned quickly that in the height of the summer, the leafy stuff wilts.  Also, to make a proper salad, you're either going to have to take a whole head of lettuce, or a little bit from about 20 heads of the stuff.  I tightened my belt a bit this year to join a CSA again, and after last year I know that the leafy stuff is always quite abundant there.  So I'm not too worried about that. 

Tomatoes were my big thing--I'm hoping these plants produce well.  I recently used up the last of the tomatoes I canned last summer, and they were better than any store canned tomato I've had.  They taste like sunshine (as the friend who gave me her canner says).  I would take a jar and cook them in olive oil with some garlic and maybe some basil or oregano for a very light pasta sauce.  I'd make chili with it.  I'd make minestrone soup with it.  I love tomatoes anyway; sometimes, I swear I have a lycopene addiction.

So, I'm crossing my fingers that the garden does well this year.  My workplace also has garden plots and I have got to find out where my plot is this week and get cracking on the planning.  I ususally don't plant until Memorial Day weekend (safe bet there won't be a frost after then), but it may be worth it to start on that plot early as well.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day

I hope everyone out there had a wonderful Mother's Day.  I had my parents over for dinner, which is always fun because I like cooking and I think they rather like not having to cook.  Unfortunately for them, I did sort of put them to work--my mother set the table and my dad carved the chicken.  He also hung up plant hooks on my balcony and will put up my toilet paper roll in my bathroom this week, which means I will owe him big time for Father's Day.

My mother also brought me lilacs from their house.  I mean, here it is Mother's Day, and she's bringing me flowers! They smell lovely. 

Let me tell you something about my mother: she always enjoyed eating vegetables.  When I was a kid, I would willingly eat six things (popcorn, toast, pasta with margarine, chocolate, chicken and hot dogs, in case you were curious).  Everything else would be a battle.  Especially vegetables (and meatloaf, which let's face it, sounds kind of gross to me this day). 

She and my father always maintained a garden--it was pretty huge when I was a kid--and most of the vegetables that were served at mealtimes had come from our garden.  She froze them for winter use, so yes, their garden was pretty productive.  I joke with her all the time now that my childhood was wasted on me.  Now I'd go hog wild all over that produce--my god, they used to grow garlic (I used to hate the stuff).  They grew corn at one point.  They grew a lot of stuff, and a wide variety of stuff.  It wasn't just a few tomato plants like my current attempts.  (Yes, I was okay with raw tomatoes.  No, I did not like tomato sauce for years.  Seriously, I was 20 or 21 before I decided I was okay with tomato sauce.)

They still have a garden--it's much smaller now--and I comandeer some space for basil plants and other herbs.  Although they didn't realize it at the time, despite my pickiness they did rub off on me.  I did eventually come to appreciate good food.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mmmm. . .the smell of hummus in the morning

Ball Complete Book of Home PreservingHa! NO. I did not eat hummus for breakfast. But we have a thing today with our coworkers, and we all said we'd bring something in. So I made hummus (I soak and cook dried beans and then pressure can them, so I have a bunch of garbanzos on hand). It was really easy--just a pint of the beans, a little lemon juice, some tahini, garlic, a little salt and pepper, and I added a dash of paprika for a new taste.

I also made a tapenade using some leftover green olives and pimentos and some capers I had left over from a fish dish I made this past weekend. I added some oregano for taste. 

Those things and some crackers should add some tasty snack happiness to the party.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sometimes I'd like a robot cleaner

Not quite a Stepford Wife, you understand, but a robot that would keep my house clean during the week, and maybe give me the occasional shoulder rub. OK, that does sound kinda Stepfordy. Eeew.

The thing is, I do feel a certain satisfaction when I do this stuff myself. I cleaned off my balcony, scrubbed down the cheapo-plastic chairs on it, and washed the windows. I felt really happy and accomplished when I was done (and yes, I've been sitting out there--shivering--to enjoy it). Problem is, my commute from work gets me home a bit late (and if I have a meeting at night, they run overlong and so forget it, I barely have the wherewithal to brush my teeth correctly). So I don't really have the energy to maintain things properly. Which means I have to scramble to make things look presentable on the weekends.

My kitchen? A big old mess right now. And I have laundry on my drying rack that needs to be put away. And another load that needs to be done.

So. A robot cleaner would be fantastic. As long as it doesn't malfunction and try to polish the cat. She wouldn't take kindly to that.