Thursday, June 30, 2011

Delicious Potager in Full Bloom

I'm cautiously optimistic about the Delicious Potager so far this summer. It looks great. Everything is really green and has lots of blooms. But, I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop, though. I can't remember a time when things didn't look generally dissappointing at this point in the growing season. There's a quote about gardening that I can't find right now that embodies the basic principle that no matter how much work you put into your garden, you still be frustrated with it's output. Or something like that. At any rate, the quote certainly resonated with me (but not enough to cause me to remember it exactly).

But looking at my garden at this point, in all it's greeness and anticipation of what will soon be growing (hopefully), I am reminded how much you really get out of it--besides fresh food. You burn an obscene amount of calories spending 30 mintues weeding your garden. It really is great exercise; one I don't have to "talk myself into doing" like the eliptical machine... And, it's so peaceful just to go out and piddle around in a garden.

Over the past couple years, since we did some landscaping to the backyard, I've been building up a flower bed along both sides of the patio. Not only does it have flowers, but it's also where I have my herbs planted. My favorite thing about the beds is that I haven't bought a single plant. Everything growing there was given to me from someone else's garden. Two of the happiest surprises were plants that a co-worker gave me last summer. It was right about this time last year when she gave them to me--not the greatest time to transplant, but they survived. Since I transplanted them from a very mature overgrown bed beside her house in the middle of the summer last year, I had no idea what they'd look like when they started blooming. But they are fantastic!

Here is echinacea that she gave me growing right in the corner of one of the beds. My dad made the sign for me for as a Christmas gift last year. The small plaque in the center of the sign says "Grow, Damnit!" That pretty much sums it up.

The other plant she gave me, and there were actually two of these, is bee balm, which is absolutely gorgeous. These pictures do not do them justice! They can be pink, red or purple, and I had no idea what colors these plants were until about two weeks ago. Both are bright purple. Both bee balm and echinacea are more than just pretty flowers. They have medicinal purposes, which I think is really cool. Maybe one of these days when I get inspired, I'll figure out how to harvest them for tea.

Here's a shot of my actual garden plot. I really wanted to expand the plot in the ground this spring, but we had one of the wettest springs on record. My little tiller won't chew up the yard to make it bigger, so I need to rent a big tiller to do that. I even tried to pull up some of the moss growing below the garden by hand to see if I could get it started enough to go over it with my little tiller, but this turned out to be harder than I thought. We need to do something about the moss, though. The Hubs doesn't seem to mind it. "It doesn't grow, so I don't have to mow it..." is his philosophy, but I think it looks trashy.

Since we never got enough dry weather to till up more garden, the Hubs actually made me another raised bed, which has worked out wonderfully. I might add another next spring, actually. I had two small ones already, which I made to fit some old windows I bought at ReStore, to make into cold frames. They have lettuce, carrots and radishes planted in them now. I've had lettuce growing in them since November! Talk about an extended growing season. There were times this spring when we had so much lettuce, we couldn't keep up with it. But it has slowed down with the hotter weather. It's still producing enough for the two of us though.

Here's a shot of the lettuce beds. It's mostly black seeded simpson, with some mesclun mix. The carrots should be ready in a few weeks. One of the beds has potting soil and compost, and the other has a potting soil-compost-sand mixture, for the carrots.

On the most established side of the garden plot, I have all cucurbits, which are all plants in the squash/cuccumber family.  I have two hills of summer squash. One is regular yellow crookneck and one is Striata d' Italia, a cousin of the zucchini. It's an old heirloom variety of seed that I ordered from Baker Creek Seeds. I can't remember which hill is which, but they are both full of blooms. I'll have to wait until I get some squash to tell them apart. I also have marketmore cucumbers, a hill of jack o lanters (I think that's what they are... can't remember exactly), and a hill of cantelopes. Did you know cantelopes are also in the cucurbit family? I've never tried to grow them before, so we'll see how they turn out.

In my new bigger raised bed, I have two roma tomato plants, a golden bell pepper plant, an anaheim pepper plant and a hill of patty pans. My father-in-law loves patty pans, and is a big gardener himself. He bought the seeds and gave me some to try. Some of the seeds were for yellow and some were for the white variety. The plants in this raised bed are really growing, probably because of the new potting soil and compost I mixed in. I have french marigolds planted throughout this bed. I bought them after a deer snacked on the vegetable plants. I also planted regular marigolds around the garden plot to keep the critters away. I don't know if it's been working, or the deer just hasn't been back. So far, no more damage, though.

On the other half of the garden plot, I have beans and swiss chard. This is the second planting of beans, so they're a bit behind. My granny always said you should have fresh beans by the Fourth of July. Well, not this year. The deer ate the first batch, and ate some of this one, too. I'm not expecting much out of these plants. They are Kentucky wonder. The swiss chard is bright lights. I LOVE swiss chard. The Hubs.. not so much.
I've got several pots around the backyard, also, and even two Topsy Turvies. One has a cherry tomato plant in it, the other has several peppers, all of which I started from seed. They are golden marconi, chocolate bell, and California wonder. I've also got three pots on the patio with tomatoes in them, but they aren't looking too hot. Its probably because the soil in those pots I've used for the past few years. I did add some compost this spring, but not much. And I potted the plants in potting soil in a cow pot, but I guess it just needs a little more. I have one each, Mountain Princess, pineapple tomato, and pink ponderosa. I started all of the tomatoes from seed this year, and all of the peppers, save the ones in my bed with the patty pans.

In a few weeks, I should be getting the first vegeables. Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer + Frozen Treats = Love

This past month, I've been making an effort to clear out the freezer. It's actually right before THAT time of year. And by "that" time of year, I mean, the time of year when I start getting bombarded by fresh produce... Not that I'm complaining. No, ma'am. I love it.

I had a quart of blackberries from last year, that I needed to use, since this year's berries will be ripe approximately next weekend. I've got the date circled on my calendar. Can't wait.

Anywho. Berries. Frozen berries are great in baking, for making jams and mixed into stuff. Not so great for eating plain. They get a little mushy.

Enter this fine gadget.
This fine gadget is actually this:

... which my brother bought me last Christmas. I love it. When I mentioned that I'd like to have one, I envisioned lots and lots of sorbet and frozen goodness made from fresh seasonal fruit. Or frozen fruit you need to use before you fill your freezer up again. Either way.

It was so delicious. Bangin'. Grown woman licking her bowl. Good.

It comes with a recipe booklet with directions to make basic ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet and frozen custard. But the real fun is playing around and being creative. The flavor combinations are endless. I kept some of the tough "meat" of a whole pineapple I bought a while back in the freezer. I don't have enough to make a full-on pineapple frozen treat, but perhaps something flavored with pineapple. Peach pineapple ginger sorbet, perhaps? This blackberry sorbet actually has a little mint steeped in the simple syrup. It's subtle and DELICIOUS.

The great thing about having your own ice cream machine is that you can control the ingredients. I'm not aware of any ice cream at the grocery store that is rBGH-free and all-natural (besides Ben and Jerry's perhaps??). The first time I made ice cream, I used milk and cream from Homestead Creamery that is free of antibiotics and hormones (not to mention delicious), REAL vanilla extract and turbinado sugar. The result was a twist on classic vanilla ice cream with just a touch of the brown sugar flavor.

There were only a couple draw backs to DIY-ing your own frozen treats. The main thing is that you have to plan ahead a bit. It takes a couple cups of cream to make the ice cream, so you have to make sure you have that much on hand. I didn't try to substitute skim milk, since I don't think that would make a very good end product. And, once you make the liquid mixture, regardless of whether you are making sorbet or ice cream, you need to refrigerate it for a few hours. The base to the ice cream machine needs to be fully frozen before you use it, also. I've been storing mine in the freezer, but it does take up a bit of room. Once the process in the ice cream machine is done, the consistency is kinda like soft serve, so you could eat it right away, or you can finish it off in the freezer for an hour or two. The other thing that was a bit tedious about making the sorbet, was straining out all the seeds from the blackberries once you crush them and cook them down a bit. I have a teeny-tiny mesh strainer, so it took forever. But, I'll just use a bigger strainer or jelly bag next time I make berry sorbet. I need to buy both of those things anyway.

In the end, I think it's worth it to make your own. No weird chemical preservatives or ingredients that are hard to spell. I enjoy thinking up new flavors, and and I almost couldn't wait for it to fully freeze to taste it. I plan on putting this ice cream maker on full tilt now that fresh fruit is coming in season here. And I know I'll always have something to do with the frozen fruit once it comes time to start cleaning out the freezer.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A post about steaks.

I found some pics I took a few weeks ago, but failed to blog about the subject. Since they were of noteworthy food that I made, I figured it wouldn't hurt to post them a few weeks late.

The hubs and I have a date night just about every week. Sometimes we go out, sometimes we stay home and chef it up. This is a pic from our date night a few weeks ago; one that we stayed in. The menu was classic steakhouse: wedge salad, sirloin steaks, creamed spinach and a bottle of merlot.

Although this dinner seems super fancy and upscale, it was surprising easy to make. The creamed spinach was probably the hardest part, and it consisted of sauteing some onions, adding some frozen spinach and melting some boursin and parmesean cheese together. The steaks were from Swift Level Farm via Monroe Farm Market, and were very simply marinated in extra virgin olive oil, syrah and garlic, with some salt and pepper. I used to never marinate steaks because I'm a steak purist and I didn't want anything to interfere with the steaky flavor. (Don't even get me started on A1 sauce or anything else to top steaks with for that matter.). But, out of caution, one of  the first times I grilled grass-fed steaks, I did marinate them based on the ratio I learned on The Worst Cooks In America: 1 part oil plus 1 part acid and add an aromatic. It's that simple. You really don't need to buy fancy marinades they sell at the grocery store, unless you just wanna try something different (and you like processed chemicals...) Everything you need is most likely in your kitchen cabinet already. Extra virgin olive oil is a good choice for steaks that won't be cooked long (me likey rare meat). But if you're going to grill or pan fry something (chicken or perhaps certain pork cuts) for a longer period of time at high heat, you'll want to use an oil that can stand up to the heat better such as canola. You don't get the subtle flavors of EVOO, but you meat will remain juicy and well lubricated, i.e. not sticking. Also, ABSOLUTELY vital is letting your steak rest after it's done grilling for a few minutes. I used to be a skeptic, and think that was just something food snobs said. But try it once, if you don't already do it. The difference is amazing.

Here's another fact to file under my affection for steaks. I'll. Never. Go. Back. To. Conventional. Steaks. When I say "conventional" I mean CAFO beef. Industrial beef. Corn-fed beef. Grocery store beef. And all the above. The main reason is not that "conventional" beef is unsustainable, environmentally damaging, and void of all the tenets of animal husbandry, although those are all true and important to me. It's the TASTE. It's a cliche to say it's the way beef was meant to taste, but it really was the way beef was meant to taste. It tastes and smells so beefy. Like the smell and taste of beef on steroids. (but literally it's quite the opposite). It tastes like a steak, soaked in beef stock, topped with shaved beef, covered in beef gravy, with a little beef on the side.

This was one of my more favorite date nights recently. I really enjoy cooking and staying in for date night, probably more than I do going out, especially if Jeremy helps me in the kitchen. Correction, if I'm helping him in the kitchen. We he cooks for us, it's mostly him running the show and I'm the sous chef. Maybe that's why I enjoy these date nights so well...

But, they also reminded me of two memorable steakhouse dinners we shared in the past year. Last fall, we ate at The Flame Steakhouse in the El Cortez Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Going to this place is like going back in time to 1966 Las Vegas. It is straight up old school. The food was very good actually. Don't be fooled by the tacky appearance of El Cortez. If you're looking for a taste of Vegas in it's heyday, this is about as authentic as it gets--probably because this place hasn't changed much since then. To round out the experience at El Cortez, don't pass up the $3 craps table and 2 for 1 martinis at the bar. Good times.

Back in April, we also ate at La Bonne Vie when we stayed at Mountaineer Racetrack in the Northern Panhandle. The food here is AWESOME. But bring your wallet for sure. Our tab was around $150 (we had a gift card) but worth every cent. At both places, I had a filet. That's what I always get at steakhouses. Filets are always around 4 to 6 ounces, and a very lean cut of meat, so it's probably the least diet-wrecking cut, compared to the other steakhouse standards: ribeye, sirloin, strip and porterhouse. I've seen porterhouses up around 28 ouces. This is insanity. I love steak, but in moderation.

Going out to get a great steak is so nice from time to time, but I stand by the thought that home cookin' is the best any day of the week. Cheaper, too. We are looking at getting a half a cow this fall, when it comes time to ... well, send that beef to it's maker. So, there'll be much more steak-eatin' for date night around our house. (and short ribs, and fajitas, and burgers...) We just bought a shiny new deep freezer that begging to have her shelves filled with fresh beef. Problem is, we need to find someone to take the other half of a cow. They don't sell them by the half apparently. Any takers? Seriously.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Something's already snacking on my garden.

Just yesterday, I was bragging about how much my beans were loving the weather we've been having.

Then, I went to check on my garden yesterday evening. Something ate almost all of my bean plants down to a stem, DANGIT!

I'm not sure if it was a deer or a rabbit. Nothing else was touched. Our neighbor has a couple apple trees, so deer in our yard have never been a problem. But, he recently cut one down and pruned the other way back (I have no idea why???). And, I don't think there are really apples on it yet.

Last year, it was hornworms. This year, deer? It's probably only a matter of time before the rest of my garden ends up a giant salad bar for the local critters. At any rate, I'm going to see if I can find some bean starts tomorrow. And a flat of marigolds.