Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Update on Ramona

Hooray! She's growing again. It's not as vigorously as the early Spring, but there are a few small blossoms on the vines now and a number of buds indicating there will be more.

Unfortunately, there are no pics once again. I tore my cornea yesterday and my eyes are about useless at the moment. But I'll take some reference photos as soon as I can.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ups and Downs

The last couple days have been rough ones. So, today the remedy seemed to be a more ambitious lunch than I'm used to having. I had some leftover chicken that I was looking forward to and a sole volunteer chard plant in the garden that could never feed more than one anyway.
Chard and Stupice

The chicken was from slow smoking on the gas grill suggested by Dr. Biggles of MeatHenge and it was super TWICE! Still moist and juicy after 2 hours on the grill and another 2 days in the fridge! The chard was probably getting ready to bolt so I sliced the stems quite thin and sautéed them for several minutes on their own before putting a few pecan pieces in the pan and then the more tender leaves. When they were on the plate I drizzled them with a finish of balsamic. The tomatoes are among my first Stupices. The flavor was excellent even for tomatoes that come a month before more conventional varieties. Because they're the first fresh ones I didn't think they needed a thing more than some sea salt.

It all improved my humor considerably.

I confess to absolute ignorance of good balsamic. When I cruise the shelves of the local Whole Foods it seems to me that very little information is provided on the bottles' labels. There's more than enough hyperbole but very little in the way of actual information. What there is is an enormous variation in price. What's a girl to do? Choose one that comes in a box? An attractive bottle? Top end? Or everyday price? Well, I choose an affordable one for salad dressings and to cook with. But here is the one I choose for finishing.
See the Vinegar Sheet
I hope you can see how beautifully it "sheets" down the neck of the bottle. This may or may not signify a thing but in the realm of dark glass bottles and expensive runny vinegars, this is the thick syrupy one that stood out and gave me the confidence to spend more for it the first time around. Now I really like it. Perhaps someone will have some tips on identifying high-quality balsamics short of ordering the certifiably insanely priced 30 and 50 year old ones from Dean & DeLuca or some such place.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

More Over Abundance

From one kind of over abundance to another. Some people are always whining about something...

Bones of the Bouganvilla
This used to be a perfectly lovely bougainvillea. If you like bougainvillea (I, personally, DON'T but I'd still rather have a healthy, upright plant than one that's collapsed under the weight of a broken trellis). I took this picture after I'd cleaned it up and lightened it as much as I dared. I took off well more than 2/3 of the foliage. That's, of course, a major no-no but what could I do?

I should have been attending to the fact that it had become over grown and was badly in need of a trim. It's a vigorous grower and almost ALWAYS needs a trim. I suppose I should have known there are things I can ignore and things I ignore at my own stoopid peril!

Here's a pic of what I trimmed off in preparation for getting a heavier duty trellis and remounting what remains of the vine.
Trimmed Half of Bouganvilla
I'm not sure there's anything in that photo to give a sense of proportion, but that pile is about 4 feet high!

And here's The Great Beast and its Terrible Maw that will break that down into mulch for my compost.
The Great Beast
It seems to fit into the Officially Ugly Part of my backyard, no? But then, sooner or later I would have had to fess up to the fact that there is an Officially Ugly Part of my backyard. I don't know if I'd be able to get anything done if I didn't alllow myself that area to work (and procrastinate) in.

I'll have to add the pics of resurrecting the bones of the bougainvillea. But first I'll have to pound in seriously heavy duty retaining poles, buy a really durable new trellis and arm myself to deal with the thorns of this ancient relic. I'm hopeful it can be saved which, even if I don't like bougainvillea, is much preferable to trying to plant something large in that narrow bed between the house and the concrete patio.

More to follow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Plums, Plums, Plums

The plums are falling from the branches of my tree. Twice a day I can go out and gather a small armload of them. We've had them fresh until we can't eat another one. We've sent baskets to friends and to my husband's office. I've given almost 5 pounds of them to a local Food Bank (more about that in a separate post) and this weekend I finally got culinary with 'em. Not that I minded walking into the kitchen and smelling them in the air like perfume, mind you. But they have a limited life and I just couldn't keep up.

Plum Kuchen 3
So I made a plum kuchen and then I did plum butter. The kuchen is already a memory, but the plum butter will remind us of Summer when the weather turns cold and not so much is coming from the garden. And this is the story — just a trifle Little Red Hen — of just how that's possible.

Here they are on the tree several weeks ago only beginning to ripen. Only a single one at the top left is developing its ripe purple color.
A Branchful of Plums
And here's a basket full of ripe ones. At least they were ripe enough to fall from the tree. They're best after they've had 24 to 48 hours for all the sugar to develop. They'll turn dark, that lovely haze will disappear and the aroma will be sweet and seductive. These are Santa Rosa Plums.
Basket of Plums

The kuchen was easy. It was a simple lightly sweetened biscuit dough onto which I placed slices of plums.

The plum butter wasn't hard either. It just took more time and had quite a few more steps but, in case you've never done any canning before, they're not nearly so intimidating as you might think. AND they DO make possible that whole thing of having the flavor of fruit when Summer's long gone.

The first step is to get your batterie de cuisine ready because when it's done it all happen fast and you want to have this all at the ready. There is a funnel to keep things flowing. A jar lifter so you don't have to touch the very, very hot water. A ladle and a silicone spoon. And the sterilized jars and lids. Prepare more jars and lids than you think you need because you don't want to have to go back and sterilize another jar when the fruit is all done and needs to stay hot. I thought I was only going to get two jars. I needed all three of the full-sized ones but I didn't use the little teeny one I put there for "just a taste" of what wouldn't fit in a jar.
Batterie de Cuisine

The ingredients were very simple: 2 pounds of plums (about 6 cups sliced), a cup and a half of sugar, a quarter of a cup of fresh lemon juice, a chili de arbol pod for zip and vanilla seeds (I used that new vanilla paste) to balance out the sharpness. No need for pectin because plums have a lot of natural pectin.
Simple Ingredients

Everything (even the skins!) goes in a pot to boil for 5 minutes or so until the fruit pulp is very soft. The color still has some resemblance to the amber of the fresh fruit but some of that plumy purple from the skins is in evidence too. The chili pod is right there on the surface between 9 o'clock and noon. You can see from the bubbles how thin the liquid still is but below them there's a lot of pulp.
First Boil

At this point, it's time to strain it through a food mill. I didn't have a mechanical one and I think it's the first time in my life I've ever wished I did. It would have been much faster than mine. And I wouldn't have had to put the final stubborn bits through my potato ricer. Whatever. It separated the juice from the remaining peels and let me mash through the softened pulp. There was very little in the way of intact skin left. Don't forget to take that chili pod out before you start forcing anything through the mill!
Straining through Food Mill

Now it boils a second time to reduce it to a thick butter. I cooked mine for about an hour and a quarter stirring, especially the bottom, frequently. That's hot sugar and we all know how quickly that can burn!
At the End of Cooking

There are lots of ways to decide when it's cooked enough. I did it based on the viscosity. If you compare it to the photo of the first boil you can see how much it's reduced in volume and how much larger and more organized the bubbles are. Besides, I was tired of wiping up pretty pinky purple polka dots from the stovetop and all of the counters for 2 feet around the pot!

Now, while the fruit is hot and the jars are as well (that's important because if the jars have cooled the hot liquid may break them and you DON'T want to have to clean up that mess!), it goes into the jars. Be sure to leave a quarter inch of headspace and wipe the rims clean. Put on the tops. Yours may have the rubber compound on the lid and rings that hold it in place. I just love the pretty German jars I use. They have glass lids with rubber sealing rings that let me see the vacuum being created and they have a very graceful shape that's lovely to look at in the pantry for the next several months.

Here they are in their water bath. Isn't it clever that I can see through the pot lid and the lids on the jars? The water needs to be at least an inch above the lids and it needs to be hot when the jars go in. When it comes to a full, rolling boil, I begin timing and let them be processed for 10 minutes. During that time I can watch a small stream of air bubbles escaping through the rubber rings and creating the vacuum that keeps the fruit fresh.
Water Bath

When they're done you'll really be glad you have that lifter to get them out of the water and place them on an insulating towel! Let them have several hours to cool off before you check for the seal. I think the simplest way to do that is to remove whatever is holding the lid in place (in my case it's two tiny little clips but you may have the threaded rings). Now lift the jar (an inch is enough — just in case) by just the lid. Will it hold the weight of the jar and the fruit? If it does, you're golden! If it doesn't, no prob! Just put the fruit in the fridge and start enjoying it. But let it rest for a couple of days to develop a complex, mellow flavor. It will keep in your fridge for at least a month.

If you're using the two-piece metal lids with the convex tops and IF you're around when the seal is complete, you can hear the little "ping" of the vacuum sucking the lid down into a concave shape. If you're not around when it happens you can feel it. But my gravity test makes it very clear to me just how strong that vacuum is.

Here is my weekend's work. And, look! Even more plums!
Plums, Plums, Plums

Plant a Row

The good people of the Garden Writers Association know that when we plant our gardens, even though everything may not succeed, we get more of some things than we can use. I, personally, choose indeterminate varieties of everything. Even so, I've always got stuff to give away. So, they decided to put gardeners in touch with Food Banks who are distributing food to people in need.

If you've got a garden and you don't know who else to give squash and tomatoes to, they DO! Go to their site Plant a Row for the Hungry and let them provide you with the names, addresses and phone numbers of Food Banks in your area. Then you can pick out a convenient one and make donations. You'll encourage them in their work and make a difference in someone's life and their nutrition.

If you keep track of what you give and the cost of your gardening supplies, you can even take those costs of production as a charitable tax deduction.

No one will make any demands on you. You aren't obligated to regular deliveries and if it isn't a lot, they don't mind. But you might be surprised at what happens. My garden (and my gardening skills) are modest but I've already given 23 pounds of produce — and my tomatoes haven't even begun to ripen yet!

Spread the love!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Alas! No pics because when Ramona was in bloom I wasn't actively blogging but, still, I want to keep the record of what I see happening so I can refer back to it.

I planted my clematis (variety Ramona) 3 or 4 years ago from seedlings around the base of a massive Aleppo pine. They barely limped along for several years. I congratulated myself that I'd gotten them through a single Summer but, still, I was entirely underwhelmed with their performance.

Very early this Spring I got tired of looking out at all the brown detritus surrounding the tree trunk. So I went out to clean it away. Fortunately, I noticed the very tiny, very pale tips of growth points in crotches of the crispy brown vines. I let it be and soon it took off! Within a month (probably April or so) the great tree trunk was a mass of huge purple blossoms. The vine climbed to about 6 feet. I imagined they'd be 10 feet high by the Summer.

As I write in early June, the blossoms are all gone and the vine never made it much beyond 6 feet high. The foliage that's left browns and is replaced by smaller, paler leaves and only the occasional bloom.

I anticipate much more growth next Spring. But there is still a segment of the trunk that remains conspicuously bare. Initially, bringing some life and color to the 30 or so feet of bare Aleppo trunk was my objective. So, I'd like to add another seedling to that portion of the trunk.

There will be a few problems. For one, since all the other (5 or 6) plants are Ramona, I think another Ramona is what I need. I don't know how likely it is, several years after finding the first ones in a nursery, I'll find that variety again. I'll have to do some research on propagating clematis as well as the optimal time for planting it. My next problem is that the area that desperately needs the new seedling is one where the Aleppo roots are massive and the clematis roots need to be planted very deep in our hot climate. I'm sure that's why I didn't put one in there at the time that I planned out that area. In fact, I vaguely remember putting in a couple seedlings that didn't make it. That's probably one of the spots.

Anyway, I'll add some photos when there's something worth photographing. Meanwhile, this will help me keep track of whether and when it will bloom again this year. I hope it does. The blossoms are really quite beautiful.