Sunday, April 27, 2008

The beginning of canning season

Yesterday we bought a flat of strawberries at the farmer's market. I didn't really realize how much a flat is. I made 8 jars of jam this morning and barely made a dent. I think we're going to have to get creative to use these all up before they go bad. I'm considering making a few pies, and trying to freeze them, and Loris wants to make milkshakes (don't get too excited now, his version doesn't contain ice cream).

Making the jam was interesting, since I haven't done any canning since last summer and I really wasn't ready. First, I forgot how much sugar those jams need! It's really incredible, I can't believe that much sugar will dissolve into that small amount of fruit and juice! Turns out that I had barely enough, so I went ahead. Then I had to go and find my jelly jars, which are all mixed in with my regular jars - I guess I'll need to get a better system for that.

It wasn't until after I got started that I realized that maybe I should check to see if I have new lids. Whew, thank goodness, I did. But where are all my canning supplies? After a frantic search, I found everything, remembered the process, and managed to pull it all together. I can hear the lids popping now as they're cooling on the counter. The jam is beautiful, a translucent deep red color. I can't wait to try it.

Warm-weather plantings

Today I finally planted our warm-weather veggies. It's supposed to cool off a bit this week, but I'm not too worried at this point. I'm so excited to get my first glimpse of what my summer garden will look like.

Yesterday we drove out to Granite Bay for a wedding. I've had no luck in Davis finding 6-packs of the vegetables I want to plant - I guess most people don't garden at that kind of volume. So we stopped at this wonderful nursery in Granite Bay and found an amazing variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and melons, as well as plenty of more standard varieties in 6-packs. I bought 24 roma tomatoes for sauce, and 5 heirlooms - Watermelon beefsteak, cherokee purple, black krim, black prince, and yellow brandywine. We also got 12 yellow bell pepper plants, 6 more green beans to replace the ones that don't look so good after the cold nights we had last week, one hot chili pepper for Loris, and two ambrosia melons. I bought 12 red pepper plants today, too.

Today was a big day, Loris helped me put the tomato stakes into the garden, and I planted all 30 tomato plants, plus all the peppers, melons, green beans, and two eggplants - black beauty and bianca rosa. I also finally got the watering system up and running without too much effort on my part. And what a hot day it was! But luckily, I've really done the majority of the work required to get the summer garden in. Now it's just a lot of maintenance - weeding, watering, and pruning the tomatoes. Until it's time for the garlic to come out, and then I can consider what to put there - another zucchini? Or a winter squash?

A few days ago I planted some more carrots and beets, even though I think it may be too warm for them now. I guess we'll see. I also put in some pickling cucumbers and Italian parsley. And in the backyard, I planted some yellow wax pole beans. I've never grown those before, and I have no idea how it'll work out. It's sort of an experiment.

And finally - we're starting to have peas! I've never grown peas or even eaten fresh peas as far as I know, so I'm a bit nervous and have no idea what I'm doing. I'm sure we won't have enough for them to be a main dish, but I'm excited that at least I'll learn for next year. Even though they're a bush variety and not vining plants, they're putting out little tendrils and trying to attach themselves to other nearby plants. I put one tomato cage on its side between two of the rows, and used a small trellis for the other ones. I tied some of the unruly plants up with string to keep them from clinging to the peppers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The first spring plantings

Yesterday I went to the nursery to buy the first things I would plant for spring. I've actually already planted one zucchini plant and the green beans. It's supposed to be cold for the next few days, but start warming up by the middle of the week, so I want to start purchasing my plants in preparation for planting. I'm bringing them inside at night for the next few days, so the cold doesn't stunt their growth.

I bought an heirloom tomato - costoluto genovese. It's supposed to produce deep red, lobed fruit, although the picture looks like some of them might be tinged a bit orange. I also want to plant an orange variety, a dark red/purple variety, and then we'll see what else. I'm looking to put in 4-6 heirloom varieties. I'm considering putting in some Amish paste in place of some of the romas, as well.

I also bought the same two eggplants that I had luck with last year - black beauty and bianca rosa, one of each. I'll plant a couple more in a few weeks, when I pick more of the winter vegetables.

I'm attempting an experiment of sorts, and putting some climbing yellow wax beans in the backyard, against our back fence. I've grown some vegetables in the backyard with mixed success in the past, and green beans were one of the mild successes. This year our trees have been trimmed quite a bit, and the yard is even sunnier than it has been in the past (which isn't saying much), so I'm hoping they do well.

It's also time to put in the basil. I bought about half as much for the garden this year, since last year I was going crazy trying to use or freeze it all before I needed the space in the garden and had to pull out the plants. The frozen pesto has been a life-saver recently, when we've had less time to cook, but I still have huge bags of frozen, blanched basil leaves that I'm not sure we'll ever use. I'm putting one plant out in the backyard for when we realize that we need basil and don't have time to run to the garden.

And that's it! I've got a few other garden projects to do, like moving one of our stumps, pulling out the overgrown parsley plant, and hopefully fixing the watering system, but those shouldn't be too time-consuming. My biggest goal these days is to find six-packs of sauce tomatoes and bell peppers. Who knew it would be so hard?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Butternut squash ravioli

Yesterday after work, I looked at the butternut squash sitting on my counter, which has been there for a little while. I had a box of them down in our carport closet for the winter, but I never thought about cooking them when I didn't have one in front of me. Out of sight, out of mind. So I have been trying to keep one in the kitchen for inspiration, when we don't have our refrigerator crisper drawers bulging with veggies from the garden. Since I was home about an hour early, I decided to make butternut squash ravioli.

First, I chopped the squash in half, then peeled and diced just half of it and stuck the other half in the fridge, since I tend to end up with too much ravioli filling. I let it boil while I made fresh pasta with two eggs, some unbleached all-purpose flour, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. When the squash was soft, I drained it, mashed it, and added some powdered sage, salt, and pepper (a bit too much pepper, whoops). Then I made my ravioli. I actually ran out of filling, I guess my squash was a bit smaller than I expected.

For sauce, Loris melted some butter that I had just made with my kitchen-aid stand mixer. A couple weeks ago, I used a recipe that I found here to make butter from heavy cream using a quart mason jar, which was fun! But took forever. So I googled "kitchenaid homemade butter" and found that I could make it in just a few minutes with my mixer, and voila! Homemade butter. He added some sage leaves from the backyard, browned everything a bit, and added some of our stash of parmiggiano from Italy. Delicious! I'm enjoying the leftovers right now. Homemade bread and radishes and salad from the garden finished our meal.

I'd really like to find someplace to get real milk and cream, near where we live, although we don't use it all that often. But it would be so nice to know that it was possible.

On a side note, I had a little incident yesterday. I bought a cheap, old road bike to use to run errands around Davis, in the interest of getting in shape, saving on gas money and wear and tear on our car, and helping the environment. Not to mention just avoiding the horror of Davis driving and enjoying the weather more. Anyway, I bought heavy news-paper-delivery style baskets, spent several evenings fighting with my tools and my bike to attach the darn things to the back (and scratched up the paint a lot, too), and then took the bike onto campus yesterday to swim in between making the ravioli and cooking them. When I arrived at the pool, I promptly forgot about the giant metal things attached to the bike right behind me, swung my leg over as usual, and had one of those moments where things happen too fast but you still remember every excruciating moment - I felt my foot get caught on one of the baskets and I fell on my face, in a big tangle of backpack straps, bike parts, and body parts. It was ugly, it was bloody, and it was painful, and a public swimming pool FULL of studly, ten-years-younger-than-me college students in swimsuits didn't seem like the best place to lick my wounds.

So I went home.

But! I swear that won't stop me from using my crappy bike, at least locally.

(P.S. I actually rode my bike to work from Davis to Sacramento this morning, but that was my nice, beautiful, shiny, loving Specialized road bike, which my husband gave me (thank you wonderful husband!), and which has never tried to throw me. I LOVE my bike).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 2008 garden plan

Here's the plan for April - the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are the only things not planted as of today, but they'll be in soon!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

General spring to summer garden plan

Perhaps I am a little anal, but I don't think so.

The beginning of spring

It's wonderful to be out in the garden now. I just spent several days weeding, pulling out old, flowering winter plants, and turning compost into the soil. We still have some beets, carrots, and radishes, as well as chard and spinach.

This week, we sauteed beet greens with chard and last year's garlic. That was delicious. We've also roasted beets a few times as an appetizer, and they're wonderful. Too bad we didn't have enough for a real side dish. We've been eating lots of radishes, but I didn't plant any more than one bunch, so we'll be done with them shortly.

We've had some carrots, they were wonderful too. They smell so strongly of carrot as soon as I lifted them out of the ground. The first one I pulled was stunted and sad-looking. Uh-oh, I thought, after pining over carrots for months, we're not actually going to get enough to eat! Luckily, the next few were nice and big. After pulling off the tops of a few, and snapping a few in half with the bottom half still in the ground, I got the hang of loosening the soil around them before pulling them up. We still have some in the fridge, and some in the garden, too.

We harvested some of the leeks! They're still small, but they're very strongly flavored and delicious. Loris added some to a tomato sauce he made for our butterfish last weekend, and I sliced some up and sauteed them with anchovies to add to a big bowl of pasta, asparagus from the farmer's market, and parmesan cheese straight from Italy. I'm hoping I won't desperately need the space they're using, so I can let them mature a bit more in the ground before digging them all up!

The peas I planted right before leaving for Italy are doing well. The plants aren't huge, but they're thriving and starting to flower, which is great. I just planted about 15 green bean plants and a zucchini. We have some dill that seeded itself from last year growing among the carrots, too.

I think I'm going to move one of my stumps out of the way, dig up the overgrown parsley from last year, and extend my sauce tomato row all the way to the edge of the garden. I just need the space too badly. I have parsley in our backyard, and I'll plant a bit more in the garden, too.

The lettuce is the real problem, with the warm temperatures we're having it's growing faster than we can eat it. I pulled out four of the green heads because they're starting to bolt, but now the red lettuce is looking ready to go and we still have so much green left. It's becoming a challenge to eat it all! I did end up planting a new batch of red lettuce in pots in the backyard, where it tends to be shadier and cooler, better for our warm springs and summers.

The last thing to mention is the garlic. It's huge, again this year. And the shallots look great, too, I'm very excited to harvest all of this. I hope to braid the garlic this year. Last year I hung it all in our gear closet, but the dried leaves are breaking off and getting everywhere. We really could use a better storage method. We also have a ton left from last year - pretty soon we'll have to make roasted garlic and garlic soups just to use it up before this year's crop.

The rest of the spring veggies will be going in soon! We're having some cold weather this weekend, but I'm hoping to get stuff in early next week! Hooray!

Notes for next winter

Here are some notes from my winter garden, to remember for next year:

1. Cabbage - the green cabbage didn't form heads - I think it was planted too late. In any case, we still haven't even finished the 6 red cabbages that I planted, so I don't think I'll need to plant 12 next year.

2. Turnips - I planted these twice, and probably didn't need so many. Next year, select an area and plant half first, then the other half, and then stop! Thin them! It makes such a huge difference.

3. Carrots - Haven't actually eaten any of them yet, but they are looking good. Keep them WELL weeded in the beginning, and they are pretty much no work later on. They probably need to be thinned, too. I only planted one main area and a smaller second area - I can probably plant quite a bit more of them next year.

4. Beets - Plant a lot more next year, and thin them for sure. And of course weed them, too.

5. Cauliflower and broccoli - went well this year. Could probably plant more cauliflower instead of cabbage - it's more useful .

6. Leeks - thin them. Mine are too close together. Might not be worth growing, I don't know b/c we haven't tried them yet. I'm getting curious, so I think we're going to have to try some soon.

7. Spinach - I guess plant more next year. I'm not really sure what to do about it. The chard is finally big enough to eat, and now it's really too big.

8. Garlic and shallots - going well. Probably could have planted them closer together, but overall they look really good.

9. Kale and other greens - need to plant earlier next year.

10. Lettuce - things went great. Lasted all winter, and now I probably will pull them out to make space for tomatoes, and maybe put in a heat-tolerant variety. Maybe I'll put them in pots in the backyard?