Thursday, September 27, 2012


I have been passing the same wild grape vine on my regular running route for years. Up here in the hills there isn't much passing that grape vine besides me other than a few cars and various wild animals. Every year around this time the vine is laden with beautiful green grapes - beautiful, but hard as little green rocks and terribly sour. It is one of my favorite parts of the route because that grape vine just doesn't seem to belong there and it piques my imagination. How did it get there? Did somebody plant it there? Why would someone plant a random grape vine along the side of a windy country road far from any houses or other form of civilization other the a barbed wire fence? I wonder if the wild animals wait for the grapes to get ripe, if they look forward to that day when they turn from sour pellets to juicy sweet grapes. Maybe that is why I have never seen the vine bearing ripe fruit - one day it is covered in unripe grapes, the next time I see it the grapes are gone because the animals have harvested the grapes between one jog and the next.

Today, though, as I passed the vine, the grapes looked a little more plump than usual, and I bravely picked one off as I jogged past and popped it into my mouth. Now, I haven't been able to eat fruit for over a year due to some health issues, so I might be a little bit skewed in my perception of this grape, but to me it tasted like the best thing EVER grown on the side of the road in the entire world. I kept jogging along enjoying my grape, thinking that today must be the day the bunnies and birds and wild boar and deer would discover that their grape crop was ready to be harvested. Then I remembered that the bunnies and birds and deer and wild boar have been stealing the melons and corn and sunflowers and lettuce and kale and tomatoes from our garden. And I stopped jogging, turned around, and picked those grapes FOR MYSELF. And yes, I jogged home carrying them in my hands, leaving a little trail of evidence behind me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Another zucchini recipe

Around here we are enjoying a second round of zucchini madness. It isn't anything like the desperate leaving-zucchini-on-your-neighbor's-doorstep-in-the-middle-of-the-night madness of mid summer, but after a good shot of fish emulsion, the zucchini plants have perked up for a bit more production. Of course, zucchini bread is in order, but I found this amazing recipe for Squashamole on Rachel Ray's website. I've already made this twice, the first time requiring me to "fire up the grill" for the first time ever in all my 31 years. (My husband got a pretty good laugh when I told him I tried lighting the charcoal briquettes without using lighter fluid. Imagine the stupidity. He said the fact that I did this should be a blog post in itself, but I assured him that the only people who would find the incident as funny as he did are off reading hunting and motorcycle blogs rather than this one. Anywho, I digress.) What I'm trying to say is this: if you have some zucchini, you must try this recipe. It is delicious. The end.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ever had one of those days when you thought you were going to get a lot of stuff done but ended up doing nothing? Me too.

He might be too sick to go to school, but he certainly isn't too sick to hang out with the chickens. He made me promise that "chickens can't get germs" before picking up his girlfriend; such a considerate boy.

(The sheep is fine, by the way. Turns out she's found a new shady spot to hang out in away from pesky flies. She was happy to see me. Good ol' Chloe.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Jackpot and a lesson about eggs

Both my dad and husband are out of town on business trips, so the kids and I are holding down the fort. It is actually a lot more work to water my dad's huge garden and take care of all his chickens in addition to ours. We don't mind it, though, and there always seems to be an adventure waiting for us when it's just the three of us. Take today, for example.

Titus and I decided to wander out to the hay barn - though the door is kept bolted shut, the window is broken and occasionally chickens will fly in through the hole to lay eggs. (The breaking of the hay barn window is a story in itself. Maybe one day I'll be short on current stories and have to tell you that one...) It took a bit of convincing on my part - Titus is terrified of Chloe the sheep and rarely dares walk through this particular pasture to the hay barn because of the possibility of a chance encounter with her. Today Chloe was nowhere to be seen (note to self: check on the sheep), so we made it to the hay barn without incident.

Well, it is a good thing we went out there, because there were more than a few eggs in there sitting around getting old. Half of the eggs were turquoise, answering the question of where in the heck the Araucana has been laying. It was the next best thing to discovering a real chest of buried treasure in the yard - kind of like a surprise Easter Egg hunt. First we found this gross area of eggs in an old hay-filled barrel, where chickens seemed to be sitting on and breaking each other's eggs in order to lay their own... we saved what we could.

Then there was the Araucana nest - I wish this picture had turned out better so you could see how pretty those turquoise eggs are. Over on the other side of the barn were two huge clutches of white eggs.

All in all, just over two dozen eggs. But our work wasn't done, of course. Not only were the eggs filthy, but they could have been a month old and rotten for all we knew. The only solution: float them. This is an easy way to tell if eggs are fresh, and we do it pretty frequently since chickens around here are always hiding their eggs. Whenever we happen upon a new hiding spot, we have to do the float test to see if the eggs are suitable to eat.

Here's the idea: egg shells have tiny microscopic pores in them that allow the wet inside of the egg to slowly evaporate out over time. Think about the last egg you hard-boiled. Remember the small dent in the cooked egg, kind of like there was an air pocket in the egg before you cooked it? That is due to the amount of egg that had evaporated out of the egg over time (and is an indication that your egg wasn't laid very recently). The fresher the egg, the heavier it is because none of the inside has evaporated out. SO, fresh eggs placed in a deep bowl of water sink straight to the bottom and lay flat like a stone. Eggs that are a little bit older will stand up straight on their tip. Old eggs float.

All together we had three floaters. Those got chucked. Of the remaining eggs, about half of them were fresh and the other half stood up straight. I usually try to use the straight-standing eggs within the next few days, either in baked goods or I hard boil them and we eat egg salad sandwiches for lunch. The fresh ones are for eating for breakfast, and for selling to friends. Egg floating is a pretty fun activity to do with kids - think of how educational you can make it! I'm off to peel hard-boiled eggs!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Through the eyes of a three year old

Sometimes all one needs is a perspective shift. I have taken plenty of pictures of this old weathered tree in the front pasture, but it never looked beautiful until my 3 year old got his hands on the camera. Would you like to see what our morning looked like? He's done a pretty nice job documenting things...

Picking plums and pears from the orchard and feeding all the yucky ones to the obliging dog...

Getting the mail... This shot took a particular amount of skill, especially when you learn that he was holding two pears in his non-camera hand.

Checking ALL the secret egg hiding spots...

Hauling all our loot home to be washed and distributed to friends...

Enjoying a beautiful day together, mommy, son, and good ol' dog. Happy Friday!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's happening...

That thing I've been fantasizing about since I first planted a garden 11 years ago, that thing that I've been jealously watching happen to my gardening friends is finally happening to me: THE TOMATOES ARE GOING NUTS! I am so excited! I have had many tomato problems: the problem of tomatoes not ripening, the problem of tomato plants freezing, the problem of chickens eating the green tomatoes, the problem of NO TOMATOES, but as of yet I have never had to deal with the blissful problem of too many tomatoes. Part of this is due to my stubborn refusal to buy tomato plants at a nursery. I start all my tomatoes from seed around late January/early February, where they grow into spindly little wisps of plants on the few windowsills of my house. Then I begin calculating when I should plant them out into the garden - is it too cold still? Even though it is warm, will we have an unexpected frost? Who knows; every year is a gamble. After spending a couple weeks hardening off the precious seedlings, I plant them in the garden. And they sit there. Doing nothing. Well, probably they are growing roots or something, or maybe it takes them a long time to recover from the shock of being transplanted, but every year my friends begin talking about their first tomato blossoms while my tomato plants are skinny stems with two leaves each, just hanging out in the garden taking up space. Every year about this time I despair - I must have started them too late, put them out too late, not planted the proper types for my region, etc. It is all very dramatic. And every year I get about four not-so-good tomatoes around November. Not so this year! Every day I go outside to water my garden, and every day I come back in with a small bowl full of juicy, sweet, ripe tomatoes. Sungold Cherry, Persimmon, Black Krim, Prudens Purple, Principe Borghese... and more to come. I see salsa and marinara sauce in my future! I really don't know what is different about this, my ELEVENTH try at growing tomatoes from seed, and may not ever be able to duplicate my success, but I plan on enjoying this year's haul to the fullest.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fall Garden Progress

How is your fall garden coming along? Mine has been a process of planting, waiting, planting again, waiting, planting again... Finally things are germinating and it is looking like we might have at least a few fresh veggies this fall and winter. Would you like the tour? Up above are my baby beets. This is the first time in three years of trying that I've actually gotten beet seeds to germinate. The trick seems to have been keeping the soil moist, which has meant watering sometimes three times per day.

Next we have baby broccoli. Broccoli has worked well for me in this particular raised bed - a cheap-o soil test showed that the pH level is perfect for growing broccoli here. Sure enough, every little seed I plunk in the dirt sprouts right up. So I keep on planting more and more - I have a feeling my family will lose its love for broccoli by winter's end.

The brussels sprouts are starting to develop teeny tiny little sprouts at the base of the leaves. I'm SUPER excited about these; brussels sprouts are my all time favorite vegetable. I just wish I could eat them endlessly without suffering the embarrassing consequences.

And finally we have lettuce, showing evidence of visits from snails. I usually cover my newly-planted beds with bird netting, which keeps out the biggest snails. The little guys can still sneak through, but the netting keeps most sprouts from being bothered. Time to buy some more because I don't want to lose my fall lettuce crop!

I didn't take pictures of my cauliflower sprouts, or the "cursed bed," where I have been unable to grow anything other than salsify and two stunted sunflowers. I have put collard, chard, spinach, lettuce, kale and pumpkin seeds in this bed and nothing happens. I did a soil test, which didn't show anything unusual, so I really can't figure out what is wrong. I think I'm going to gather up all the sheep poop from the pasture, cover the bed with it and let things marinate over the fall and winter. Hopefully the problem will have rectified itself by spring.

I am constantly daydreaming about feeding my family from the bounty of my garden, but it looks like we'll be frequenting the farmer's markets again this fall and winter. There just aren't enough beets, kale, broccoli and lettuce here to sustain us. I have to keep telling myself that this year is better than last year - last fall all I could grow were kale and swiss chard. Gardening seems to be like any other skill - practice makes better, and perfection is pretty much never attained. How is your fall garden going?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chicken Foster Care Update

Baby Cheepy is doing really well in her foster home! I just got this super cute picture from her foster mother, who received 4 baby chicks in the mail a few days ago to keep Cheepy company. Sadly, three of the four chicks died because they were not shipped properly, so Jessica was left with our foster chick and another single traumatized day-old chick. Fortunately, the two birds are getting along really well. This is good; they need each other. Jessica says, "The 2 of them get along well now and seem to appreciate the company. Cheepy has adjusted well, she now follows us around and will lay down on our lap. The baby cries for her when I take Cheepy outside."

I love that Cheepy is in such a fun, hands-on home. While we pay more attention to our chickens than most people, we rely on the flock to keep each other company and couldn't give Cheepy as much love and care as I wanted her to have. Now she is a big sister and is on her way to being a lovely well-behaved hen. Thanks Jessica!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Salsa Verde

It happened! I made and canned my first EVER batch of salsa using my accidentally-home-grown tomatillos. Fortunately, I did a bit of research beforehand and learned that you must use a recipe that is specifically for canning, since some fresh salsa recipes don't contain enough acid (vinegar or lemon / lime juice) to safely preserve the salsa in jars for a long period of time. I'm not sure exactly what will go wrong (I think botulism???) but everything I read contained the words "DANGER" and "DO NOT ADJUST THIS RECIPE" and other scary things that made even a recipe-changer like me walk a very straight line while making this.

The pantry finally contains ONE set of jars holding something I can eat. And eat it I will - does anyone else eat salsa straight out of the jar with a spoon? I pretty much expect to have heart burn for the entire duration of salsa season. Happy gardening!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicken Foster Care

Look at that cute little face. This little guy (my kids insist that this chick is a girl but for some reason I think it's a boy. We'll find out whenever he starts crowing...) is an orphan. If you've been reading for a while, you'll remember that Crazy White Hen hatched a couple chicks in the barn attic about a month ago. Well, we moved the little family down to ground-level, putting them in a small triangular chicken coop on the lawn. We have to keep baby chicks enclosed because there are so many predators around here, not to mention other full-grown chickens who will happily gang up on babies and kill them. (That's right - chickens can be pretty terrible animals. If you don't believe me now, you will by the end of this post.)

One morning one of the babies was missing from the coop - we can only figure that it squeezed out under a small hole in the bottom of the coop and got gobbled up by something. So the remaining chick was an only child, happily scratching around with its mom.

The time came to move mom and baby to their new home - the baby chick was big enough now to live in one of our larger chicken coops. This area is much bigger so they can take really good dust baths, chase around flies and do all that other good chicken stuff while still enclosed safely away from dangerous outsiders. I usually keep mother and baby chicks together in the larger enclosed coop area until the mother begins acting like she doesn't like her babies any more - the babies are usually fully feathered by that time and don't need their mom any more. Usually I'll notice the mom fighting with her half-grown babies over food and realize it's time to cut her loose. Then the babies stay enclosed for a little while longer until they are old enough to hold their own against the other full-grown chickens. It is a sure thing that the other chickens will bully new chickens, so they need to be old and tough enough to defend themselves and establish their place in the pecking order.

SO, with my husband's help, we went into the tiny coop to pick up mom and baby and transfer them. My husband grabbed Crazy White Hen, who put up a terrible fuss and started screeching like a wild banshee. I crawled in and tried to get the baby, but it FLEW over my head and out the door and was off like a shot. Then, as you can imagine, chaos ensued. The tiny chick was running all over the entire property like a miniature road-runner and the kids, my husband (still holding the shrieking mother hen), and I were all chasing after it. It was small enough to run through the holes in all the chain-link fences, which made cornering it even more difficult. I managed to find an old pool net and added that to the mix, trying to gently net the little baby before it hurt itself or ran across the cat or the other chickens decided to join in the hunt. My husband is the one who finally caught the little guy, and we hurriedly took both frazzled chickens to their new home.

All of this proved to be too much for Crazy White Hen to take. While a more well-adjusted mother might have been able to deal with such a terrible ordeal, this one simply lost her mind. As soon as we put the mother and baby in their new larger home, the mom began attacking her baby. It started as a few well-aimed pecks, the turned into a full fledged emergency situation. Brett snatched the hen up and got her out of there right away, and we were left with a poor little traumatized orphan chick. I still feel terrible about it. If the baby chick hadn't gotten out of the original coop I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened. I've moved Crazy White Hen along with babies many times and she's never rejected them afterwards. From now on I will always move chickens at night when they are more subdued.

I'm no chicken expert, but I'm pretty sure they aren't happy by themselves. It just broke my heart every time we went outside to cuddle our little orphan - there was only so much time we could spend with it and it was obviously in need of companionship. Enter my friend Jessica. Towards the beginning of the year she got five baby chicks of her own and raised them in her house. She and her four kids carried those chicks around and took them outside for supervised dust baths and gave them more attention than any chicken has ever dreamed of. I knew that they would be the perfect foster family for our little orphan. They agreed to raise the chick until it is old enough to be introduced into my own flock. I told them they can keep it if they want to, but she is at her maximum of allowed chicks (she lives in the city and is only allowed 5 backyard birds) and said they will give it back. We'll see how everyone feels by then.

Titus was pretty sad when I told him about the foster care arrangement. He loves birds and was pretty fond of this particular chick. His older brother explained to him that the chick will be happier at Jessica's house, and he eventually came to terms with everything. It helped that I let him hold the box when we took the chick to its new home. I hear everything is going well and "Cheepy" is doing great. Thanks Jess!

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Today I come before you with my head hung in gardening shame. Remember my bountiful crop of Chinese Lanterns? Well, yesterday I went out there having made up my mind: though they are pretty, they needed to be pulled out. They were beginning to sprawl all over the place and were choking out my brussels sprouts. I decided to pull up the plants and take the "flowers" inside to dry and use for decoration. I yanked out the first two huge plants without much trouble, then reached down to pick up one of the pretty green flowers that had fallen off during the yanking. To my surprise, I found that inside the "flower" was a golf-ball-sized fruit, nothing like the "Chinese Lantern Berries" I had read about. This looked and felt rather like a hard unripe green tomato... almost exactly like a... TOMATILLO.

Still in dumb-dumb land, I stood there wondering if maybe Chinese Lantern Berries are really really big and somehow in the same family as tomatillos? I picked all the mysterious green, um, things off of the plants I had uprooted (I later discovered that I had harvested 2 pounds of them), took them inside and hit the internet. I believe my search was: Chinese Lanterns or Tomatillos? And what did I discover? Well, first of all, and probably the most obvious flaw in my original and hasty diagnosis is that Chinese Lanterns are ORANGE. Sheesh, how did I miss that? What I had accidentally grown, and then blogged about incorrectly like an idiot, were TOMATILLOS. The only bit of information I found to make me feel less stupid is the fact that Chinese Lanterns and Tomatillos are in the same family, the husks of the tomatillo closely resembling the Chinese lantern in all but color and size.

This actually makes a lot more sense, because I do have tomatillo seeds, which could have easily gotten mixed in with my brussels sprouts seeds. (My seed storage system consists of all seed packets stuffed happily into a gallon-sized ziplock bag and jammed into the linen closet.) I tried sprouting my tomatillo seeds in February, at the same time I started all my tomato seeds. They did not do well. All you need to do, apparently, to grow tomatillos, is toss them in some good dirt around August and wait to see what happens. Now I know.

Possibly the worst part of this whole thing is that I KILLED two tomatillo bushes! I would never in a million years do that on purpose, even if I was worried that they were shading my brussels sprouts. Maybe I could have pruned them back or something. Fortunately, there are still 2 bushes left in the bed, both of which are covered with tomatillos. I think the ones I accidentally harvested are a tad under ripe, but from what I read that won't make too much of a difference in the salsa verde I plan to make with them. The ones left on the bushes to ripen are destined for this Chicken Tomatillo stew, which looks divine. My excitement about having a bumper crop of surprise tomatillos almost overshadows my embarrassment over telling you all they were Chinese Lanterns. I'm sure some of you were suspicious ... you are much too nice. :)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Featured Gardener aka Bronwen's Beer Fridge

If you are anything like me, hearing about other people's gardens is the perfect inspiration to get you out working in your own. SO, I am starting a regular feature of gardeners I find inspirational. I'll start with people I know - most of whom live in the suburbs and are working with regular old back yards like most of you are. I like to call you urban farmers. I am so excited to have our first featured gardener on the General Farmer blog be my friend Bronwen! She is every bit as delightful as she sounds here, and has been wowing me with pictures of her many preserving feats, so I decided it was time to get the full garden story straight from her.

Please tell us a bit about how gardening fits into the history of your life.

I come from Wales, a lush green land where it rains pretty constantly. I grew up in houses with big gardens (that’s back yards to you folk!) but we never had veg patches. One house we lived in had nine apple trees and I was pretty much weaned on stewed apple (or apple sauce as you would call it!) and the house my parents still live in has two different apple trees, a Victoria plum tree and a very old quince tree which is in great demand and people reserve my mother’s quinces when they are just buds, as quinces are a dying breed. When we moved in, the previous owners left us with a legacy bed of gooseberry bushes. I don’t know if gooseberries are known over here [in America] but they grow on prickly bushes, look like hairy grapes and are sourer than the devil’s aftershave. The first summer we were there, we picked over 120lbs of gooseberries! We tried in vain to give them away and eventually my father took a machete to the plants and we gave up on our gooseberrying for good! There’s still one wild bush in the hedge but it grows red gooseberries which are not quite as offensive.

My husband’s family has always been gardeners. Many of the crops that grow so easily over here, like tomatoes, require a greenhouse and a lot of luck to grow back home and his father’s greenhouse was usually quite successful. They grew things like broad, runner, French and string beans, peas, courgette (zucchini), marrow, squash, pumpkins, carrots, broccoli, sprouts and cabbage – all things that can cope with the British climate.

And now we'd love to hear about your current gardening and preserving endeavors...

When we moved into our Milpitas [California] home, it came with beautiful old orange, lemon and lime trees. It’s nigh on impossible to grow citrus back home, and I cannot express the joy I get from watching tiny green balls turn into enormous ripe juicy sweet oranges even if I cannot eat them – I am fructose intolerant, which pretty much means no fruit eating. I like to share my Californian adventures with people back home and they cannot believe that I can go into the garden and pick an orange. Oranges come from supermarkets. Everybody knows that!

At the back of the house, we had what we named The World’s Most Boring Bushes. They were green and did nothing so we dug them up and bought a peach tree and an apricot tree because you can’t grow either back home - too much rain, not enough sun. As expected, they did nothing the first year. The second year, my sons and I were back in the UK when my husband harvested all 12 peaches and one apricot, so we didn’t really miss much. This year both trees went BONKERS! The apricots ripened first and there were hundreds! I had never seen so many. My little one adores apricots and worked hard to keep on top of the crop but there were just too many.

I had never jammed before. I made marmalade once. We called it Earthquake Lime marmalade as the first earthquake we experienced over here shook a laden branch of under ripe limes off our tree and I couldn’t bear to waste them. I was going back home that Christmas and managed to smuggle several jars home in my suitcase as Christmas presents! Jam was a new concept though. I sought advice from a friend in Florida who has her own jam business and she was happy to share her knowledge with me. I am not sure I approve of jam making in the summer as it was unbelievably hot in our kitchen and the standing and stirring was nearly my undoing, but the joy of seeing our home grown apricots turned into homemade jam is a feeling I will never tire of.

The only crop we do neglect is our prickly pears. Anyone local is welcome to come and help themselves to the tunas and nopales but they have to provide their own suit of armour and sign a waiver, as we will not be held responsible for the damage that monster cactus will inflict!

And how about vegetables?

We have big gardening plans under way. Our back yard is small and there was no room for a vegetable plot, but there was a long raised bed of money trees running all the way down the side of the house which my husband has chopped down. We are planning on replacing the wall and the earth this autumn so that by next spring we will have a raised veg plot. It gets great sun, is sheltered, and we have a lot of ideas. In the absence of a plot, we’ve done very well at growing tomatoes and carrots in pots and potatoes in black dustbins. Inspired by the happiness brought from growing things that cannot be grown back home, my boys bought a watermelon plant and a cantaloupe plant and we are proud to announce the birth of 4 tiny baby watermelons and 3 little cantaloupes. Their progress is being charted by being photographed with a variety of recognizable items so that people back home can see them grow. After all, watermelons, like oranges come from supermarkets so are never seen smaller than the average head!

Have you had any gardening / urban farming adventures you'd like to share with us?

Just as we finished making the last of the apricot jam, the peach tree went into over drive. I was sitting quietly minding my own business when I heard an eerie cracking noise followed by a soft THUNK, and one of the branches had given way to the weight of the fruit and was lying on my lawn. None of the fruit was ripe and there was no way I was going to let it go to waste, so after a quick Google, the kids and I set to, putting each green peach into a brown paper lunch bag and placed them on the deck in the sunshine.

After about 3 days, we started on a long and serious course of Peach Management whereby we had to check each bag (and there were 120 of them!) daily to see if they were ripe enough for jam. Meanwhile, the peaches on the rest of the branches, now propped up on wooden crutches, were ripening at an alarming pace and it was all we could do to keep up with them! Operation Brown Paper Bag managed to save about 75 peaches and we mixed them in with tree ripened beauties. Along with jam, I learned to can with the help of a lovely blog and now have a specially purchased jam fridge (like a beer fridge but just for jam!) in our garage, stuffed full of treasure!

I don't know about you, but reading that makes me want to get out and plant something! Or make jam... or buy a fridge on Craig's List! Thank you so much for sharing your garden with us Bronwen! (To see and purchase some of Bronwen's other creations, check out her facebook page!) If you'd like to be the next featured gardener, let me know in the comments section. I'm always excited to see what you are growing!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Mystery growth

A few months ago I planted an entire bed of my dad's garden with brussels sprouts. My dad's garden beds are so luxurious - he has installed a drip irrigation system on a timer! That means he doesn't ever have to go out there to water anything. Revolutionary, I know. Anywho, I stuck the seeds in the dirt along with some compost from my compost pile and proceeded to ignore them, taking full advantage of the self-watering feature. When I finally made my way out there to check on things, the brussels sprouts were doing wonderfully. There was also a mysterious other plant growing amongst the sprouts. It was growing much more quickly and blossomed with a bunch of medium-sized yellow and white flowers I had never seen before. It was not like any weed we have ever grown up here, either. For a little while I thought (wistfully) that somehow my okra seeds had gotten mixed in with the brussels sprouts seeds and I was going to have an okra crop after all. My dad was sure they were bell peppers. Well, over the weekend I headed back out there and this is what I saw:

It is Chinese Lantern! Holy exotic accidental cultivation! Never in a million years would I have grown Chinese Lantern on purpose. I DID buy fake Chinese Lantern at Pier 1 and used it to decorate my living room, but grow it??? I guess some of these seeds got accidentally mixed into my brussels sprouts packet, and I am SO glad they did.

I did a little research and it seems that while most people grow Chinese Lantern because of how pretty it is, the "lanterns" eventually develop a Chinese Lantern Berry inside, which can be harvested once the husk dries out. It reportedly tastes like a green tomato and can be used in both savory and sweet preparations. It is very rare to happen upon Chinese Lantern Berries, too, as you can imagine.

So now I am trying to decide if I should let the plants continue to grow and develop their rare berries, or if I should pick these beautiful flowers and try to dry them. Then I could ditch my plastic Chinese Lanterns and decorate with the real thing. Any suggestions?

While admiring my surprise flowers, I also noticed that my brussels sprouts have a terrible infestation of aphids. Aren't they ugly?

I took this picture after I had treated them with insecticidal soap. Sounds sophisticated, but all I did was mix 1 tablespoon of liquid soap with 1 quart of water, put it in a washed-out Windex bottle, and sprayed it everywhere I saw aphids. I read that when it is wet the soap acts as a toxin to the bugs but doesn't harm the plants. The only bad thing about using insecticidal soap is that it kills good bugs as well as the bad ones. So I think I will do one more round of soap spray, then buy a little container of lady bugs at OSH to replenish my good bugs. I'll keep you posted on whether or not it works. I'm determined to keep this garden organic!

P.S. The dog is doing much better, thanks for asking. His wounds are healing nicely, almost as quickly as his pride. He's back to running around the farm with us and getting into trouble.

Monday, September 3, 2012

West Coast Gumbo

This year I decided to plant okra. Having no room in my raised beds, I had the brilliant idea to use old black plastic 5 gallon pots that were laying around the farm. I love okra but have read that it is difficult to germinate because the seed is so hard. Once you get it to sprout, though, it is supposed to be a fast-growing plant that doesn't need much watering or care other than the occasional shot of organic fertilizer. I followed all the rules - soaking the seeds 24 hours before planting them and making sure they were in a nice sunny location. And ALL SEVENTEEN of my okra plants sprouted! I was elated, then started to get a bit panicky. What on earth was I going to do with 17 bushes worth of okra?

Well, as usual, my daydreams of drowning in unnecessary vegetables were unfounded: the plants grew a few inches, made about three leaves each, then stopped growing. They stayed exactly as they were all summer long: green, beautiful, and tiny. I tried fertilizing, I tried letting the soil dry out between waterings, but nothing I did made them grow. Last week I gave up on them and dumped them out of their black plastic pots. And lo-and-behold, the soil in the bottom of the pots was water-logged. Okra is a tropical plant that likes well-draining soil, and too much water will stunt its growth. Even though the top few inches of soil was drying out, the pots were holding in too much moisture to let the plants grow. Oh well, I guess I can try again next year.

Luckily, the farmer's market is full of stalls selling freshly-picked okra. You must have the fresh stuff - it really doesn't taste like much of anything even two days after it is picked, and goes slimy and gross a few days after that. My favorite way to eat okra is in soup. When it cooks, okra releases a gelatinous slime that makes it pretty unappetizing to eat on its own. In a soup or stew, though, it thickens up the broth perfectly. This summer we bought okra often enough that I came up with my own version of gumbo - I call it west-coast gumbo because I've actually only had "real" gumbo once in my life and am not sure what the requirements are. This is not a soup that you just whip up half an hour before dinner - it definitely takes time to follow all the steps and develop the flavors. But it is worth the work!


Secret Sauce Ingredients
3 dried entero chili pods, stems and seeds removed
1/3 cup sun dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 large shallot, sliced
2 t olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 t sesame oil
1 t cumin
1/2 t thyme

Soup Ingredients
3 T olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 t dry thyme
2 1/2 t smoked paprika
1.5 lbs okra, stems removed and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 C cooked shredded chicken*
1/2 t ground pepper
1 heaping Tbsp. granulated garlic
6 C broth

First you will need to make your secret sauce. This is used to add flavor to the soup and thicken the broth. Do not skip the secret sauce!!!

1.) Place chili pods and sun dried tomatoes in a small sauce pot. Add water till covered by 3-4 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered for up to an hour until the chilis are very tender, adding more water as needed. When the chilis and tomatoes can be easily pierced with a fork, remove from heat, strain out the excess water, and set aside.

2.) Meanwhile, heat 2t olive oil in a pan. Add diced shallot and caramelize over low-med. heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until garlic is fragrant. Add the shallot to the chili mixture.

3.) Stir in remaining ingredients and blend with immersion blender till mostly smooth. It should look something like this at first:

And when it is all mixed up, it should look like this:

Cover your secret sauce and put in the fridge to allow the flavors to marry while you make the rest of the soup.

1.) In large pot heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring, till onion is translucent.

2.) Stir in the thyme and paprika and cook about 1 minute, stirring constantly.

3.) Add the chopped okra and 1 1/2 tsp. salt. Stir to combine everything together. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until okra begins to get tender and slimy.

4.) Add cooked chicken and secret sauce and stir well. Stir in ground pepper and garlic. Allow to heat up, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5.) Add your broth, stirring well. Turn heat to high and bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer until soup is thick and bubbly - the longer the better. You can't really cook this soup for too long - the longer it cooks, the better it seems to taste.

6.) Season with salt and pepper if needed and serve over brown rice.

* When I make this soup I usually use chicken we have left-over from a whole cooked chicken the night before, so the meat is seasoned and ready to go. If you are starting from scratch, I recommend seasoning your meat with a dry rub of equal parts granulated garlic and smoked paprika, and a bit of salt. Cook on the stove top then shred.