Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Season Later

I always try to be good to my future self.  I wash the dishes at night so that I won't have to deal with them in the morning.  I wash my clothes today so that I will have a clean work shirt on Saturday.  I plant and weed and water the garden so that I will have fresh greens over the next couple of months.  I save money so that I will not have financial woes, pay my bills on time so I will have good credit, and leave jobs as graciously as possible so that I will have good references.  Basically, I walk the line for this future self of mine.

The only problem with this system is that I never get to be the future self.  I work for her, I plan for her, and, most of all, I worry about her, but she is always a minute or a day or a lifetime ahead of me.  Every once in a while I have to take a break from the future self, to spend some time appreciating what the past self has done for the present self, or otherwise this future-oriented system gets too exhausting.  So, today, with one year ending and another year, with all its associated goals and plans and worries, about to begin, I'm pausing to reflect on what my past self built in the fall of 2010.

Here is the before picture, taken on the first day of fall:

Front yard on September 23, 2010

On the first day of fall, which still felt like the middle of summer, I went into the front yard with a shovel and a yard-waste bag and thought I would make a morning of it.  Two and a half weeks later, I was finally done turning that section of yard into a dirt patch.  I got a serious farmer's tan in those two weeks, with tan lines not only where my t-shirt sleeves and neck ended, but also unevenly across my face, with darker freckles on the right side of my face, the side that was usually oriented to the south as I dug up the yard, working from the sidewalk on the east toward the front porch on the west.  I had also gotten to know the grubs that live in the soil and made friends with the grub-eating birds that hang out on the power lines above the street.

Front yard on October 10, 2010

I know that once the yard was dug up, I was anxious to turn my dirt patch into a garden.  I wanted to plant!  Even so, I am amazed to look back and realize that I built three retaining walls in two days.  Apparently the late summer heat had gotten to my head.  Each wall was composed of 33 bricks, each of which weighed 22 pounds, and each of which I moved from the pallet at the store to a cart, then from the cart to the bed of Lee's truck, then from the truck to the wall in the front yard.  At the end of the second day of wall building, my back was sore and my uneven tan was deepened, but I felt hugely satisfied to see three level walls crossing my new garden space.  I finished preparing the garden by digging compost and peat moss into each of the beds.  Finally, I raked the amended soil into level beds, mulched the pathways between the beds, and went to find my seed packets. 

Front yard garden on October 14, 2010

I planted seeds on October 15, in the middle of Austin's fall-planting window for lettuces, spinach, kale, and other cold-loving greens.  Germination was quick – within a few days for the Brassica clan – and high yielding.  Within a week I had dense rows of seedlings from all but the slow parsley seeds.  Within two weeks, the seedlings were growing their second and third sets of leaves and, in doing so, taking on individual personalities.  At the same time, weeds began to germinate in the open spaces, and the neighborhood cats and dogs were loving the new green space. 

Front yard garden on November 1, 2010

With the intense first weeks of seedling-germination behind me, I was able to water less frequently and take time to pull the weeds from between the rows of greens seedlings, which were quickly growing into baby greens.  About a month after planting, I was harvesting baby greens for salads, enjoying the mix of baby spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, Asian greens, herbs, and lettuces.  The greens continued to grow quickly, graduating from packed to crowded to should have been thinned a long time ago in a matter of weeks.

Front yard garden on November 15, 2010

In mid-November, the work of gardening shifted from the garden to the kitchen, where I was spending hours trimming and washing greens to make into salads or cook into meals.  When the freeze-season began, I mulched between the rows of greens with leaves from the backyard, which further reduced my watering schedule.  Now, at the beginning of "winter," the garden is entering the quiet month of slower growth and periodic overnight freezes.  Hopefully in this slower time I can catch up on the work of harvesting, washing, and eating all those greens.

Here is the after picture, taken on the second day of winter:

Front yard garden on December 22, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Saag Saga

If the fall growing season was a race, then the mustards would surely win.  The mustards are always the first to germinate, the first to put on their first true set of leaves, and the first to claim root and shoot space in a crowded garden row.  I have found that if I plant a mesclun mix of salad greens, a mix of seeds that includes multiple types of lettuces, arugula, chard, beets, Asian greens, and a just a few mustard seeds in the mix for spiciness, I always end up with a row that is dominated by Mizuna, a particularly vigorous, feathery variety of mustard, and red-leaved mustard, both of which are varieties of Brassica juncea.  This season, wise to the genetic advantage of the B. juncea clan, I planted the mustards separately from the lettuces, beets, chards, kale, and bok choy.

The mustard-containing seed mix that I planted this year was a Pan-Pacific Stir-Fry Mix, which contained equal parts of Red Mustard, Mizspoona, Pac Choi, and Asian Red Kale.  Red Mustard (Brassica juncea) is actually a type of brown mustard, meaning that it produces brown seeds, that has purple-tinted leaves.  Mizspoona (also Brassica juncea) is a new variety on the greens market that is a cross between Mizuna, the vigoruous, feathery mustard that dominates mesclun mixes, and Tatsoi, a relative of bok choy that grows in a tight rosette of dark-green, spoon-shaped leaves.  Pac Choi (Brassica rapa) is a variety of bok choy, and Asian Red Kale (Brassica oleracea) looks a lot like Red Russian Kale.

Mizspoona must have inherited the vigor of its momma mustard, Mizuna, because it has won the battle for space in my stir-fry greens row.  I recently thinned that row and discovered a good mix of all four plants, but the biggest plants by far, and the ones that were shading out the others, were the Mizspoona.  And, once the row was thinned, I realized that, in thinning around the largest, most-vigorous plants, I had inadvertently turned my stir-fry row into a Mizspoona row.  Discouraging this plant is simply not an option.  Instead, I am going to have to learn how to cook with it.

Saag comes from the Hindi word sãg, which does not have an exact English equivalent, but means, approximately, green leafy vegetable.  Saag can refer to spinach, mustard, bathua (a type of greens grown in Punjab), fenugreek leaves, or it may refer to the gravy that is produced by simmering green leafy vegetables in ghee and spices.  Saag dishes originate from the state of Punjab in northern India, where brown mustard (Brassica juncea) is a staple crop grown for its leaves, seeds, and oils.  In the Punjabi region, mustard is planted in the fall, its leaves are harvested through the winter, and its seeds are harvested in the spring.  Because mustard plants grow quickly and are hardy to insects, temperature fluctuations, and under-watering, mustard is an important source of food for the villagers of the region.  Sarson ka saag, a traditional Punjabi dish, is a gravy prepared by cooking mustard greens in mustard oil.

In the west, the greens used to make saag dishes vary.  Some recipes call for half mustard and half spinach, or any combination of leafy greens, while many recipes simply use spinach.  While I enjoy the flavor of just-spinach dishes such as Palak Paneer (spinach and cheese curry) and Palak Aloo (spinach and potatoes), I think that the flavor of saag dishes in enhanced by spicy greens.  I made Saag Paneer (greens and cheese curry) with the combination of red kale, Mizspoona, mustard, and bok choy leaves thinned from my Asian stir-fry row, and the resulting dish was tangy, spicy, satisfying, and full of greens power.

Saag Paneer

2 cups fresh paneer
1 pound spicy greens (mustard, kale, and/or Asian greens)
1 pound mild greens (spinach, chard, and/or beet greens)
1/4 - 1/2 cup ghee
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 onion, coursely chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup water
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup cream

Make the fresh paneer about six hours before cooking the rest of the dish, so that the paneer has time to be pressed.  Or buy fresh paneer cheese at an Indian grocery store.  Once the paneer is set, chop it into half-inch pieces.

Remove and compost any tough stems, yellowed leaves, or dead leaves from the greens.  If the leaves are large, remove the tough parts of the central vein and chop the leaves into large pieces.  Wash the greens thoroughly - I double soak (soak, drain water and dirt, soak again) greens harvested from my garden to get rid of all the soil, mulch, and bugs that inevitably end up in the harvest bowl - then use a salad spinner or towels to remove excess water from the greens.  At this point, after removing non-edible parts of the greens, there should be about two pounds of greens ready to be cooked.

Heat 1/4 cup of ghee in a large frying pan.  Fry the paneer pieces in the ghee, turning periodically, until the paneer begins to brown.  Be careful not to over-fry the paneer because it can get tough.  Set aside the fried pieces of paneer on a paper-towel-lined plate.  (Frying the paneer is optional.)

Toss the cumin seeds into the heated ghee that remains in the frying pan.  Cook the cumin seeds, stirring continuously, until they begin to brown.  Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring periodically, over medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about five minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two longer, stirring to prevent the garlic from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the turmeric, salt, and 1/2 cup of water, and stir thoroughly.  (The intensely-colored turmeric paste will quickly stain plastic utensils, counter tops, and floors, as well as clothes, so be careful and have a rag ready to immediately clean up spatters.)  Begin adding the greens to the frying pan - as much as will fit - then cover with a lid to steam the greens.  As room becomes available in the pan, continue adding greens until all of the greens have been cooked down.  Add the other 1/2 cup (to cup) of water to the pan as needed to continue steaming the greens.

Transfer the contents of the frying pan into a food processor or blender.  If needed, do this in two or three batches so that the food processor is not overloaded.  Coursely grind the greens.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of ghee in the frying pan.  (This step can be skipped to reduce fat.)

Return the pureed greens mixture to the frying pan and stir to combine with the heated ghee.  Stir in the ground coriander, ground cumin, chili powder, and cayenne.  Cover the pan with a lid and simmer the greens mixture for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Take care when removing the pan's lid and stirring, because the greens mixture may splatter and can burn.

Add the paneer pieces to the greens mixture and stir to distribute.  Simmer the mixture for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the yogurt and cream (optional) and heat through.  Add salt to taste.

Serve hot over steamed basmati rice or with Indian breads such as naan or roti.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Leaf Fall

This fall I made a point of watching for the moment of leaf fall, because every year I seem to miss it.  One day it is bright and warm and the leaves are on the trees and, seemingly, the next day, the leaves are on the ground and I am wearing a jacket.  Despite my intentions, I feel like the same thing has happened again this year.  Once again, the trees are bare and I feel like I missed the process.  Once again, it feels like we skipped from summer to our version of winter.

In my neighborhood, the pecan trees along Boggy Creek represent the majority.  When the pecan trees drop their leaves, my perception shifts from the leaves are still on the trees to the leaves have fallen, no matter that many trees lag behind the precise and timely pecans, who always seem to drop their leaves in mass at the end of November.

Despite my shifted perceptions, though, the live oaks are still green, the junipers are flowering (thus beginning cedar-fever season), and the red oaks, known for their "deciduous but tardily so" habit, have yet to finish their fall color change from green to yellow, orange, red, or burgundy.  Cottonwood trees, common but scattered along Boggy Creek and its tributaries, still hold yellow leaves as well, and their late-season visibility, amongst so many bare-branched neighbors, has me wondering about the original scope of the Boggy Creek watershed, before all the development and flood control.  And the cedar elm in my backyard has been slowly dropping its leaves and samaras for weeks now, giving me plenty of time to adjust to the idea of the leaves falling.

In defense of my feeling that the leaves do indeed drop all at once, I have the evidence of the bald cypress trees at McKinney Falls.  In early November, Lee and I hiked on the Homestead Trail at the park, where the cedar elm woodland, though yellowed by the heat of the extended summer, was still covered in green leaves, and the only orange or red leaves that I saw along the trail were on a poison ivy vine.  Nearer to the falls, along Onion Creek, the bald cypress trees were just starting to turn orange.  The sun was so bright that it was hard to capture a good shot that day, but I am glad that I tried, because I have proof that on November 7th the cypress trees along Onion Creek were still fully covered in green, yellow, and orange needles.

By November 25, less than three weeks after our initial visit, Lee and I returned to McKinney Falls for more hiking.  When we started the loop around the park, it was hot and humid, in fact so humid that I wished I had disregarded my own advice and worn shorts instead of pants.  About halfway around the loop, as the trail turned back to the north, we walked into a cold front, and thus into a different season.  Cold, dry air replaced the humidity and unseasonable warmth so quickly that, within minutes of wishing I had worn shorts, I couldn't wait to get back to the car and to my jacket.  Later, wearing hoodies and hats, Lee and I explored the creek area between the upper and lower falls, where the cypress trees that had still been covered in needles a few weeks earlier were mostly bare.  Their rust-colored needles, now fallen, floated in Onion Creek.

So I guess it's not unreasonable to feel like I miss the leaf fall each year.  It happens very quickly and the wildly changing weather of our cool season amplifies the sense of abruptness.  One minute it is hot and humid, and the next minute it is cold and dry, making it only natural that I am shocked to find myself wearing warmer clothes and noticing that the leaves have fallen off the trees.  Luckily for the trees, it is day length, not temperature, that cues leaf fall, allowing them to quietly get on with the business of preparing for colder temperatures even while I am being fooled into forgetting what time of year it is.  And what a privilege it is, to forget about winter.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Greenbelt in December

The wildflowers of fall, now faded, frozen, and dried, have disappeared into the underbrush along the Greenbelt trail.  Their broken stems and stiff seed heads were barely distinct from the brown grasses and leafless shrubs lining the trail, except that I remembered the dense stands of bright yellow Golden-eye that filled every clearing in October and, in remembering the flowers, was able to find their dried stalks.  My attention did not linger with the dead wildflowers for long, though, because soon I found myself looking up as I walked, turning and gazing and staring across the treetops to the bright red leaves of the oak trees above.

I have to apologize to the oak trees for dismissing them.  A few weeks ago, when I set out to document what I thought was the peak of our fall-color season, I was disappointed to find that the most brightly-colored, stunning examples of fall foliage being displayed in east Austin were on naturalized Chinese tallow trees.  I couldn't help but admire their colors as the Chinese tallow trees in my neighborhood turned from multi-colored, yellow and red and burgundy, to deep scarlet in recent weeks, yet I was also saddened each time I realized that the beautiful ball of red in my neighbor's yard, or down the street, or on the horizon, was being produced by an invasive pest of a tree.  So it was a real treat to find myself staring upward into the bright red leaves of native oak trees.

Two species of red oak trees are native to the Austin area, Spanish Oak and Shumard Oak.  Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) grows throughout the southern United States, from Virginia to north Florida and west to Texas.  The Shumard Oak is at the east end of its range in Texas, and therefore is restricted to streamside or bottomland sites with deep, moist soils.  Shumard Oaks grow to be large (80 to 100 feet) trees that often have buttressing around the base of the trunk.  The leaves on Shumard Oak trees are large (up to 8 inches), with the pointy-lobed pattern characteristic of red oak trees, and turn yellow to scarlet in the fall.

The Spanish Oak (Quercus buckleyi), which is also called the Texas Oak, is endemic to north, central Texas and southern Oklahoma.  Once considered to be variety of the Shumard Oak, Spanish Oak is now recognized as a distinct species by ecologists.  The leaves on a Spanish Oak tree tend to be smaller (up to 6 inches), with narrower lobes than those on the Shumard Oak, and turn yellow to red in the fall.  While most oak trees prefer slightly acidic soils, the Spanish Oak is adapted to the alkaline soils of the Edwards Plateau, where it is often found growing on limestone ridges, slopes, or creek bottoms with live oak and juniper (aka cedar) trees.

Juvenile red oak tree in fall

The oak trees turning red along the Greenbelt this month are probably Spanish Oak trees, given their habitat (limestone slopes above the creek), their associates (Ashe Juniper, Cedar Elm, and Plateau Live Oak), and their smaller-tree-with-smaller-leaves appearance.  But I can't be sure whether I was admiring the red leaves of Spanish Oak or Shumard Oak trees for two reasons.  One is simply that red oaks are tricky to identify because they vary greatly in their leaf shape and size.  The second reason is that here, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, where Spanish Oak is at the eastern edge of its range and Shumard Oak is at the western end of its range, trees of the two species hybridize (interbreed).  So the native red oak trees that we have in Austin are not necessarily either Spanish Oak or Shumard Oak but, more likely, are some combination of both.

Since this weekend's trip to the Greenbelt, I am noticing red oaks, displaying leaves of yellow, orange, red, scarlet, and brown, all around Austin.  I wish that I could give each tree a name, rather than simply thinking of it as a "red oak," which is rather vague, given how many species of red oak there are.  But in town, the problem of oak tree identification is further complicated by the fact that oak trees are frequently planted for their beauty, shade, or color.  Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra or Q. borealis) is widely planted in the United States and Europe for its beauty and wood.  Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), two other northern species prized for their foliage, are also sold by nurseries, as are Black Oak (Quercus velutina), Water Oak (Quercus nigra), and Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), three southern species that have ranges into eastern Texas. 

In town, a red oak could be any number of species, or a hybrid of two of those species, and will have to simply be a Red Oak.  East of town, call a botanist and expect a lecture on the phenotypic plasticity within and between individuals and species of red oak trees.  West of town, though, if it wasn't planted by a human, then it is a Spanish Oak tree, a beautiful red oak that is unique to central Texas.  The Spanish Oaks have figured out how to grow in the rocky, limestone hills of central Texas, farther west than any of their east-coast, red-oak relatives and, in doing so, bring us native, red foliage in December. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Week of Greens

I really should have thinned my greens weeks ago.  Yet I am amazed by the sheer quantity of fresh food that I am harvesting from my garden, simply in the process of thinning the overcrowded rows.  It's becoming increasingly difficult to encourage my future self to thin more promptly when I see how productive this season's procrastination has been.  Sure, the remaining plants, many of which have contorted lower stems that twist away from their roots, look a bit shell-shocked and droopy after I remove their less-vigorous neighbors, but they quickly re-anchor themselves and grow into their new space. Meanwhile their less vigorous neighbors, the many of them, are providing the raw materials for many meals.

This is my routine of the past few weeks: thin, trim, rinse, repeat.  At least every other day I find myself in the garden with the intention of picking some greens, maybe enough for a few salads, or maybe just enough to make a sandwich.  No matter my intention, I always end up with more greens than I meant to pick, which is where the trim-rinse-repeat cycle comes into play.  Luckily, having too many greens is a problem that is easily solved by cooking and eating.

For the fortunate gardeners, or overzealous farmer's market shoppers, who have realized that greens have taken over every mixing bowl, storage bag, and refrigerator drawer in the house, I offer a week's worth of solutions from my kitchen.   

Monday: Green Pizza

The greenest part of this pizza was the sauce, a cilantro and parsley pesto that I made from the thinnings of those two rows of baby herbs.  I topped the pizza with sautéed mushrooms and wilted Tat Soi greens, and a mix of feta and mozzarella cheeses.  This pizza could have been taken to the next level with a homemade crust, but, in the interest of time (spent thinning-trimming-rinsing-repeating), I used a store-bought crust.  Which didn't matter much to me because the cilantro pesto was the star of the show, reminding me with each bite that the cilantro season had just begun.  In the next few months, I look forward to perfecting cilantro pesto, parsley pesto, and cilantro-and-parsley pesto recipes.

Tuesday: Beet Greens Omelet

I love beet greens.  They are my favorite of all of the greens.  The beets themselves are also delicious but the plants rarely live long enough under my care to make large roots.  This year I've tried to plant enough beets, and enough other delicious greens, so that I can refrain from eating all of my beet plants before they make beets.  Beets can't grow thick roots, though, until their row is properly thinned.  Oh, what a chore to thin the beets.  The thinnings, cooked in olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutritional yeast, are rich tasting and remind me of eggs.  Maybe that is why I also like to cook beet greens and sliced onion into eggs, frittata-style, creating an omelet to be filled with cheddar cheese and eaten with toast.

Wednesday: Mixed Greens Salad

The most obvious solution to the too-many-greens problem, and an especially tasty solution if the greens are young and tender, is to eat a few salads.  In a baby greens salad, spicy mustard leaves blend with chewy kale leaves, earthy chard leaves, and sweet lettuce leaves.  It's a combination that only lasts until the the kale, mustards, and Asian greens mature into adult plants, becoming too spicy and too leathery for eating raw.  By then, salads will be limited to lettuces, spinach, and the smaller of the beet and chard leaves.  So, now, while the leaves are still young, and the salad variety is at its peak, is the peak of the salad season.  I mix in alfalfa sprouts, carrot shavings, tomato slices, chopped celery, sliced olives, sliced bell pepper, cracked black pepper, and grated Parmesan cheese, before coating the whole lot of it with flax oil and Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing.

Thursday: Bok Choi Stir Fry

Lee gets credit for the stir fry.  He fried loads of minced garlic and ginger in sesame oil, then added sliced onion and bell pepper, then added, in batches, a whole bucketful of baby Bok Choy.  Lee earned boyfriend points for cooking a stir fry that was ready to eat when I got home from work, and we both earned health points for eating so many baby Bok Choi leaves.  In a video game, our health meters would be maxed out from a week of eating so many greens.  Too bad life is not so simple.

Friday: Shells and Cheddar with Tat Soi

Homemade is best, but sometimes, here in reality, I have thirty minutes to cook and eat and get my butt out the door.  In those moments, washed greens can be melted into just about anything to add some flavor, texture, and nutrition.  I have melted greens into ramen, rice, pasta, scrambled eggs, and soups.  Technically, the greens don't melt but actually wilt as they release water, but the effect is of melting, as a whole pile of greens disappears into an otherwise starchy meal.  One trusty need-to-eat-quickly solution is to cook a box of Shells and Cheddar and melt a bowlful of greens into the mix.  Dark green but mild-tasting spinach or Tat Soi leaves are especially good with the cheese sauce.

Saturday: Chard and Cheese Sandwich

One of my favorite ways to eat a few greens, and also the easiest, is to make a sandwich and add a handful of greens.  Large leaves work best because they can be layered across the bread, but an unruly mix of salad greens also tastes good.  For best results, layer the leaves onto the bread, then drop the "meat" (or cheese, etc.) of the sandwich onto the greens, weighing them down.  I am especially fond of chard leaves, sharp cheddar, and thinly sliced onion on wheat bread.  I have found that, packed the night before or morning of, a chard-and-cheese sandwich travels well and makes a satisfying lunch for work.

Sunday: Kale and Mushroom Lasagna 

I finished thinning the row of Lacinato Kale and picked a few Red Russian Kale plants from the packed row of stir-fry greens that still needs to be thinned.  The next step, of course, was to trim, rinse, and repeat.  I cooked a sliced onion in olive oil, added minced garlic, then wilted the greens into the mixture.  In a separate pan, I cooked a pound of sliced mushrooms until they had released their water and begun to brown.  I built the lasagna in four layers - two of ricotta and mushrooms and two of the kale-onion mixture and mozzarella/cheddar cheese - sandwiched between five layers of noodles and tomato sauce.  I sprinkled Parmesan cheese over the top of the dish.  The lasagna took a couple hours to make, baking time included, but will provide meals for Lee and I well into the upcoming week.