Thursday, December 15, 2011

Worthy of Broccoli

Broccoli is just too easy – easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to harvest, and immediately ready to chop up and cook.  Broccoli straight out of the garden is always delicious, a once-a-year treat, yet I always fell a little bit sad after I cut the head off a broccoli plant, leaving the plant decapitated and empty-looking, because, aside from a few tiny side heads that may or may not ripen, that is it for that plant.  Harvesting greens is an ongoing process of continual thinning, and harvesting summer fruits, like tomatoes, peppers, and okra, is a season lasting a few weeks to a few months, but harvesting broccoli is a one-time gig.  I look forward to it, and then it is over.

Usually, it is the wait for broccoli that, at least psychologically, extends the season, but my broccoli grew so quickly this year that I didn't get a chance to anticipate the upcoming harvest.  And this was despite the fact that I planted broccoli transplants a few weeks later than usual this year, on October 11.  I planted the baby broccoli into the raised bed along the south side of the house, where the hot sun of October (technically, a summer month in 2011) created greenhouse-like conditions.  The baby plants struggled with the heat for about a week, and then they began growing in earnest.  Within two weeks of planting, they had doubled in size, and by early November, having already grown together into a mass of greenery, they were growing so fast that I every day they seemed bigger than they had been the day before.

The day after planting (October 12)

Established and growing (October 27)

Bigger every day (November 6)

By mid November, the plants were so gigantic that I began joking that I wouldn't be surprised if a baby t-rex crawled out from under their leaves.  Then we had some good rain and I came down with my second head cold of the month and spent my free time sleeping, blowing my nose, and studying the color of my mucus.  Every other day I decided that I had a sinus infection and would call the doctor first thing tomorrow, and every other day I decided that, actually, I was getting better.  Eventually I was back to my just-a-slight-mold-allergy-because-I-live-in-Austin self and realized that I ought to walk around the house and check on those huge broccoli plants.

Full-grown broccoli plants (November 26)

Given their late planting date, I wasn't expecting ripe broccoli until January.  But there they were, at the end of November, forming huge flower heads.  The first broccoli to ripen was the Packman Broccoli, which produced a medium-sized, dark-green head with uniformly large flower buds.  I harvested the Packman on November 28, which was 48 days after transplanting.   Immediately after harvesting, I washed, chopped, and sautéed the broccoli in olive oil.  Eaten with just a sprinkling of nutritional yeast, salt, and pepper, the broccoli was tender and delicious.  Lee also noticed that it was sweeter tasting than store-bought broccoli, lacking the aftertaste of broccoli that has been refrigerated.

Packman Broccoli

The next broccoli in the queue to be harvested was obviously the Blue Wind Broccoli, which was forming a huge, dense head of broccoli flowers.  The weather cooled down – I finally turned our heat on due to consistently cooler nights – so I had a few days to watch the huge broccoli head before harvesting.  And, though the Packman broccoli had been delicious, I was feeling disappointed, as I am prone to being with broccoli, about how quickly it was gone.  So as I watched the Blue Wind grow bigger, I thought about how I could make more of an event of its harvest, how I could cook it into something worthy of such a huge, beautiful, one-time-and-then-gone broccoli head.

I harvested the Blue Wind Broccoli on December 6, which was 56 days after transplanting.  The broccoli head that it produced was enormous, with a dense center of smaller, lighter flower buds.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a picture that really documented how big this head of broccoli was.  Lee and I tried to get Benji to sit next to the broccoli but she loudly reminded us that kitties don't do wet and quickly fled the scene.  I also tried to get a picture of the head of broccoli with a ruler nearby for scale, but the angles just weren't right.  I'll just say this:  it was the biggest head of broccoli that I've ever grown, easily the equivalent of a rubber-banded bunch of broccoli from the grocery store.

Blue Wind Broccoli

I baked the huge broccoli into a Broccoli Cheese Pie because that seemed like the greatest honor that I could bestow upon a vegetable, to make it into several memorable, looking-forward-to-it meals.  I didn't have a recipe so I went by what I knew about cooking broccoli and potatoes and cheese sauces and poured it all into a pie crust.  My recipe is below, and the pie was delicious, but I will warn that it was also soupy when warm.  This is a problem that I have with savory pies, and I've come to the conclusion that this is why savory pies are usually made and sold in the single-serving "pot pie" size, so that the soupy, saucy insides are contained.  My fruit pies, aided by natural pectins and a bit of flour, usually solidify enough after baking (and cooling a bit) that I can cut out a slice without the filling from the adjoining pieces running out, but with this Broccoli Cheese Pie, once one slice was removed, the cheesy filling from the rest of the pie pooled in that empty space.  Maybe that is just the way it is with savory pies, or maybe I used too much sauce or not enough flour to thicken the sauce.  In any case, the pie was, as Lee put it, so good that he wanted to crawl inside of it.  We split the last third of the pie on a cold evening with a strong imperial stout, with Benji curled up in my lap.  In our family of three, there is no greater event in which a vegetable can hope to play a starring role.

Broccoli Cheese Pie

For the crust:
3 cups flour
12 tablespoons cold butter, unsalted
1 teaspoon salt (omit if butter is salted)
approx. 1/2 cup (+ 2 to 4 tablespoons) cold water

For the filling:
4 medium-sized organic potatoes
1 huge head of broccoli (or one bunch from the store)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced

For the sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup vegetable stock
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 cup milk + 1/2 cup half & half)
10 oz sharp cheddar, grated
fresh cracked back pepper

Preheat the oven to 375˚ F.

The pie crust recipe that I use for all pies, sweet or savory, is from The New Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.  It's a simple recipe that makes plenty of dough and rarely gives me any trouble.  I also think it's delicious.  But, obviously, if you have a preferred pie crust recipe, you can use that.  You will need to make enough for a double crust, bottom and top.

To make the dough, measure the flour and salt into a medium bowl and stir.  Cut the butter into chunks and add to the flour.  Using a pastry cutter or two forks, mix the butter into the flour until the butter chunks are no bigger than small pebbles.  (You can do this step in a food processor in a few pulses, which saves time and work, though then you have to clean the food processor parts.)  Add the cold water to the flour and butter mixture a little at a time, mixing the dough well with your hands after each addition.  Keep adding cold water until the dough is able to hold together.  In my experience, this usually takes 2 to 4 tablespoons of cold water in addition to the half cup in the recipe, but the exact amount of water needed each time I make crust depends on the ambient humidity (seriously!), so I have to go by feel.  Press the dough into one big ball.   Cut the dough in half using a knife.  Press each half of dough into a round, flat circle (about 6 inches in diameter by 1/2 inch deep) and wrap each round in saran wrap.  Place the dough rounds in the refrigerator.

Scrub the potatoes and chop into chunks.  Steam or boil the potatoes until they are tender, which takes about 20 minutes.  Drain the potatoes and set aside in a large bowl.

Wash the broccoli.  Discard any tough parts of the stem and slice tender parts of the stem.  Cut the head of the broccoli into bite-size florets.  Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and sauté, stirring periodically, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two, stirring frequently.  Add the chopped broccoli, stir, and cover the skillet so that the broccoli will steam.  As the broccoli cooks, stir occasionally and add water as needed to keep the onion-garlic-broccoli mixture from burning.  When the broccoli is bright green and tender, remove from the heat, season with black pepper, and add the mixture to the bowl with the potatoes.

In a medium pot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter.  Whisk 4 tablespoons of flour into the butter until it is a uniform paste.  Add the vegetable stock.  If it is hot (I use the liquid from steaming the potatoes to make the stock), the stock will thicken immediately.  Add the milk and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens.  Turn down the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time.  Turn off the heat and season with black pepper.  Pour the cheese sauce over the potato-broccoli-onion mixture and stir to combine.  The pie filling is now ready.

Flour your counter.  Retrieve one dough circle from the refrigerator and unwrap it.  Lightly flour each side of the dough circle and lightly flour the rolling pin.  Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough into a pie crust.  Keep rolling until the dough is an inch or two bigger than you pie pan.  Carefully fold the crust in half and lift it into the pie pan.  Unfold the crust and loosely fit it to the pie pan.  Retrieve the other dough circle from the refrigerator and repeat the process of making a second pie crust.  Carefully fold the second crust in half and cut small vent holes into the crust.  Pour the pie filling into the bottom crust and level it out.  Place the top crust over the filling, unfold it, and pinch the two crusts together around the edges of the pie.

Bake the pie at 375˚ F  for 45 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned and the filling is bubbling.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Falling Back

It started with something small:  I missed brushy trash pickup last week.  I had my reasons, like that the week before I was recovering from a head cold, sleeping away my outside-of-work hours.  Also, that the brushy trash in question was still standing, as dead shrubs at the southeast corner of the house that were killed by the brutal summer, so removing them represented a bigger project than just hauling already fallen branches to the curb.  Brushy trash day is usually a big day for me, though, so I felt bad about missing it.  Which led my to look at my weekly to-do list and wonder why I never seem to get half of it done.  And, next thing I knew, I was thinking about everything, from the garden projects to the home renovations, that have been on my all-inclusive, back-of-the-mind, someday to-do list seemingly forever, and I decided that I needed to get a handle on my time.

When the to-do lists fail, I get out the grid.  The grid is a spreadsheet of all the available hours in the week, with each cell (square) representing a half hour.  Though the grid is a computer file that I can type into, I prefer to print the empty grid and fill it in by hand.  I love charts and graphs, so a blank grid of all of my time is always appealing, and some part of me is just sure that I'm going to find the hidden half an hour that solves all my time-management problems.

I found a stack of blank copies of my time grid at the bottom of a drawer, but they were dated, representing the schedule I was on as a teacher.  To be useful now, I needed to modify the spreadsheet to reflect my swing-shift reality, with days starting at 10 or 11 AM, and with my weeks starting on Monday, not Sunday.  (If it were up to me, I would print calendars with Mondays in the far-left column and Sundays in the far-right.)  And I almost did modify my time grid and print out an updated copy to begin mapping my week into.

Then I remembered the first time that I ever made a grid of all the hours in my day and put myself on a strict program of recording how I used each half an hour.  I was in ninth grade and I was feeling out of control and hoping that, if I could just locate all the wasted time in my day, I could make myself more productive.  I hand-drew the grid onto notebook paper and made a key of symbols to draw in each square indicating how I used the time.  I probably enjoyed making the grid, just as I enjoy the idea of mapping my week onto a blank spreadsheet now.  But it makes me a little sad now to think of my fourteen-year-old self, a girl who was getting all A's in school and spent her out-of-school hours riding and caring for horses, helping her mom with yard work, reading, taking walks down the gravel road, and eating meals and watching movies with her family, trying to force herself to be more productive.

And, as I remembered that grid and the determination I had towards wanting to feel in control, I remembered the other component of my ninth-grade self-improvement campaign:  Project X.  The goal of Project X, which was so named so that I could write it on my to-do list without fears of being found out, was to quit masturbating.  Of course, despite repeated attempts to really quit this time, I always failed to complete Project X, until eventually I became old enough to realize that quitting masturbating simply wasn't an option and, besides, why would I want to?

In contrast, I did manage to make myself more productive starting in ninth grade.  As high school progressed I added more and more to my schedule, starting with track, then cross country, then college-prep courses, then drama and an expanded group of friends, then driving to school, to my sister's school, to my friends' houses, to almost-weekly sports events, and to the stables, then honor society, and then, finally, I filled out all that I was doing on my college applications.  By my senior year I wasn't sleeping enough but, despite that or maybe in part because of that, I finally felt good about myself.  At least, I did when I wasn't crying my way through a rare but telling I-can't-do-this-anymore breakdown.

Over twenty years later, I not only understand why Project X was doomed to failure, but I also recognize the underlying fears that led me to put Project X at the top of my to-do list so many times – fear of being out of control in my own body, fear that I was dirty or bad or gross, and, worse of all, fear that my peers or family would find out that shameful truth about me.  And I can appreciate how beneficial failing at Project X was for me.  By failing to control my natural desires, I learned that out-of-control can feel awfully good, and I got to spend the first years of my sexuality with myself, finding out what feels good to me.  I can't know what that alternative universe where I succeeded at Project X is like, but I'm quite sure that I prefer this one, where I have a lighter, more accepting view of my sexuality rather than one of shame.

Yet, when it comes to trying to get a handle on my time, here I am, just as many years later, still pulling out the schedule grid when my to-do list stagnates.  While there is nothing wrong with time management or using to-do lists or charts or grids (and, seriously, I do love to build a spreadsheet), I know that the reason why I associate my time grids of today with the one that I made in ninth grade is because the underlying feeling is the same.  That feeling goes something like, I am not good enough because I do not do enough.  And that feeling is neither light nor accepting, but instead weighs heavily over my life, constantly pressuring and judging how I use every minute.  I'm living in universe where did I succeed to get my use of time under control, or, more accurately, where I have succeeded in believing that, if I could just get a handle on my time, then I could finish my to-do list and finally relax a bit.  Instead the list just seems to get longer with every year that I grow older, and I can't help but wonder just how much I could gain by finally failing to have control over my time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

In Pursuit of the Proper Cold Front

September 5 & 15.  The first two cold fronts of the season didn't do shit.  Pardon the attitude and the language, but, after months of blinding hot temperatures, highs in the 90's with no chance of rain felt more like a distant memory of summers past, or a reminder of how we defined hot as balls back before 2011, than of any real reprieve from the ongoing hottest and longest summer on record.  You have to be in Austin, in September, having spent the summer here, to understand how anyone could refer to 95˚ F as a "cold front," and this year I just wasn't buying it.  Cold front, my ass.

Being surrounded by plant death didn't help my state of mind.  My gardens were abandoned, emptied of even the drought-hardy pepper plants, the ones that I had expected to survive through the summer and until the first freeze, shortly after the Stage 2 Water Restrictions notice arrived in the mail.  Only two of the perennial herbs that I planted in the spring, the rosemary and the sage, still grew in the front-yard garden, while the thyme, oregano, and tarragon plants had turned brown and crispy about the same time I gave up on the okra.  In the strip next to the driveway, about a third of the drought-hardy perennials, "water-wise" plants specifically selected for their ability to withstand oven-like summer conditions, had been lost to the heat of July and August, while their remaining neighbors were hanging on for their lives, barely any bigger in size than when I planted them in the spring.  Around my house and my neighbors' houses, long-established shrubs – those anonymous boxy ones that have been there forever, surviving countless Austin summers without care or watering or anyone's second thought – were also turning unhealthy shades of yellow and brown, killed by this summer.  And all around town, trees of all ages were dropping their leaves early, turning unhealthy shades of fall early, or simply dying where they had grown for so many years.

By the last week in September, when the high temperatures had climbed, yet again, back into the 105˚ F range, my mood as a gardener had sunk from, This is my month off, to, I don't know if I can start again.  I was depressed.  I knew that, according to the calender, it was time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage transplants, but I couldn't imagine planting anything young and green into such a cruel world.  I also knew that, in just a couple of weeks, it would be time to plant seeds, for lettuces, fall greens, and winter herbs.  It was my favorite time of the year, time to prepare my garden beds for fresh new rows of seeds and to get lost in the seed section of the plant store.  But instead of feeling the delicious anticipation of the cooler growing season, I was stuck in the inertia of the never-ending summer.

September 30.  The third cold front of the season knocked the temperatures out of the triple-digit range for good.  I woke early (for me) on the second morning in October and headed out for a walk.  As I walked down the street, I was struck by how quiet the neighborhood was in the late morning.  So quiet that I could hear my own footsteps crunching through the dry grass of the greenbelt.  I looked back at my neighborhood and realized that, for the first time in months, all of our air-conditioning units were silent at once.  I didn't appreciate how loud all those engines were until they were finally silent and, relieved by the absence of that constant humming, my shoulders dropped a few millimeters away from my ears.

The next day I began watering my gardens and compost pile.  To garden again, to trust the universe of central Texas to provide life-sustaining conditions once again, still seemed like a foolish idea.   Yet I was beginning to grasp the fact that, while the heat would eventually break and give way to the cool season, we weren't necessarily going to get the ground-soaking rains that my garden needed to start growing again.  So I began hand-watering the beds that I planned to plant, hoping that some of the moisture would soak through the thick layers of summer mulch and bring the soil back to life.  I was also hoping that the water would loosen the soil enough to be worked.  Later that week, I dug the remaining taproots of okra, eggplant, and fennel plants out of the garden beds and, in doing so, discovered that beautiful, dark, crumbly garden soil was still there, hiding under layers of leaf and alfalfa mulch.

For me, nothing is more motivating than turning, and smelling and feeling, a shovelful of fertile soil.  Within hours I had a garden plan and a list for the nursery and I was ready to begin again.  Rain was predicted for the weekend and, though I wasn't expecting the universe to pull though with an actual rainstorm, I figured that it was time to buy those broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage transplants.  At the garden center, I found trays of leggy baby plants, grown to be ready for planting a few weeks earlier.  I carefully selected fifteen plants – 5 broccoli, 4 cauliflower, 3 cabbages, 2 collards, and 1 Brussels sprout – of fifteen varieties, plus a few herbs to replace those that I had lost, plus a handful of seed packets.  As soon as the next front arrived, I was ready to plant.

October 8 & 9.  The fourth cold front brought ground-soaking rains.  Finally.  I wish I could say that I enjoyed the rainstorm, because I do love a thunderstorm, but I spent most of it indoors, without windows, at work.  And I was grumpy that weekend because I knew that I was scheduled to work ten of the next eleven days, at exactly the time that it was finally time to plant my fall garden.  So, to my coworkers, I apologize, because I simply didn't have the patience to deal with another pallet of unexpected, unordered cereal in the midst of the usual backstore chaos, knowing that on the other side of the back doors, outside, it was finally raining.

After the storm passed, I transplanted the baby broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, and Brussels sprout into the garden along the south wall of the house.  Almost immediately, temperatures rebounded into the high 80's, which felt downright summer-like along that south wall.  My baby plants wilted in the midday sun and the smallest of the cabbages, the one with only two sturdy leaves, threatened to perish in the heat.  I hand watered the transplants every day and told them to hang on for cooler days.

The fourth front might not have brought much cooler temperatures but the fact that it did arrive in the midst of a ground-soaking rain was a huge relief.  Without rain, fall planting feels calender-driven and robotic: I will plant now because it is time.  With rain, it feels like time to plant, which may not seem like much of a difference except that, for me, gardening is most rewarding when I am working with the plants and the seasons: put the right plant in the right place at the right time.  So, after a summer of fighting against heat and drought, a good fall rain was like hitting the reset button for me.  The ground was soft, the rain lilies were blooming, and it was time to plant.  I transplanted the baby collards and herb plants, a thyme, an oregano, and a horehound plant, into the front-yard garden.  Then I dug compost into each bed and carved rows for planting seeds – lettuces, Asian greens, mustard, two varieties of kale, fenugreek, carrots, cilantro, and parsley.

Inside the house, the cold front triggered the fall-cleaning urge in Lee, who spent most of the following week moving everything out of his jam room, cleaning and resealing the floor, and rearranging his furniture.  I am usually the one to disrupt the household with my projects, but this time it was Benji (the cat) and I who tiptoed around musical equipment, giving each other distressed looks (and she did some yelling), before finding a safe place to curl up on the front-room couch.  It was interesting to be on the observing end of a clean-out, feeling that manic energy instead of generating it.  I understand better now why Benji and Lee scurry to the back of the house with anxious looks in their eyes when I decide that it's way past time to scrub the kitchen floor.  By the weekend, the clean-out energy, and various clutter that we didn't need anymore, had reached the sidewalk in time for our area's Bulk Trash pickup.  The clean-out vibe quickly spread down the street, and, within hours, every household on the block seemed to be getting rid of its least-comfortable chair.  After dark, Bulk Trash pickup turned into a your-trash-is-my-treasure swap, so that most of the piles of discarded stuff disappeared before pickup even began.

October 18.  The fifth cold front of the season was windy and dry.  It brought the cooler days needed for my broccoli-family transplants to establish and begin growing in earnest in their protected, south-facing garden.  In a matter of days they seemed to double in size, growing from spindly transplants into wide- and many-leaved plants whose leaves were almost touching.  In the front-yard, windy conditions dried the top of the soil where I had just planted so many rows of seeds and I feared that I would have lower germination rates as a result.  But I kept watering every day and soon thick rows of seedlings began to break through the soil.  The Asian greens and mustards were the first to germinate, of course, followed by the kales, fenugreek, and lettuces.

Later that week, I planted seeds in the shady backyard garden.  This year I only planted seeds of plants that were able to tolerate the shady conditions last year, red-leaved lettuces, chard, beet greens, and spinach.  It was a risk, planting my favorites of all the fall greens, the beet greens, chard, and spinach, in the less-than-ideal, shady conditions of the backyard.  But it may give me a later, spring season of greens to harvest from the backyard long after the fast-growing mustard-family greens have gone to seed in the front yard.

On Saturday Lee and I dusted off our state park pass and headed to McKinney Falls for a hike around the Onion Creek loop trail.  The creek was low, barely flowing over the falls, but actually held far more water than I expected.  And the trail was lined with the new, green leaves and round, pink flowers of Wood-Sorrel, a fall wildflower that had been encouraged out of dormancy by the rains two weekends earlier.  Slowly but surely, the lives that went on hold back in May, hidden inside our houses or waiting in dormancy underground, were starting up again.

Wood-Sorrel (Oxalis drummondii)

October 27.  With the sixth front of the season, the hot season has finally given way to the cool season.  Not that we won't see warm temperatures again soon – the cool season in Austin is defined by change, not by cold weather, which is always temporary here.  But the north wind tonight is actually cold, and standing outside in it made me cold, as in uncomfortably cold, a state that I haven't experienced in months.  The truth is, I don't like being cold.  And that is when I know that the seasons have changed in Austin, that we are officially in the cool season, when I feel cold enough to remember how much I don't like being cold and to just as quickly realize that, given how much I have been complaining about the heat all summer, I'd better get ready to embrace the season of change.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Secretariat Finish

I've been calling it the Secretariat finish.  When Secretariat ran the Belmont Stakes, he set a fast early pace and never slowed down, running the race in record time and clocking the fastest 1.5 miles run by a horse on any dirt racetrack, a record that still stands.  What was particularly amazing about the race, the reason the race became legend, was the way that Secretariat didn't just maintain his fast pace through the end of the race but actually found, in the final stretch of the long race, yet another level of speed.  People who saw the race in 1973, like my dad who watched the race on TV, say that Secretariat won the race then, with the other horses out of the picture, found his own stride.  My dad gets a certain look on his face when he tells this story, a look that's a combination of disbelief, after all these years, and of reverence, for the horse, and for the opportunity to watch as Secretariat galloped away from the other horses in the race, horses that, by all other standards, were also running a fast race.  Secretariat didn't just win the Belmont, and didn't just set a course record, but continued to charge ahead for the full length of the long race, widening the gap between himself and the other horses, finishing the race a record 31 lengths in front of the second place horse.

So when Austin set the record for number of days over 100˚ F in late August, a tough record that we came one day from reaching in 2009, that most-recent brutal summer, and the long-term forecast continued to hold nothing but triple-digits, I started comparing this summer to Secretariat's Belmont finish.  Like the horse, this hot season started early, kept on without a break through the summer months, and broke the official record by the end of August.  And, then, like Secretariat in the last 1/2 mile of the Belmont, this summer didn't quit but continued on, producing a few of the hottest days on record (August 27, 28, and 29 were 110˚, 112˚, and 109˚ F, respectively) and racking up another 20 days of triple-digit heat, after the record was already broken.

Number of Days Over 100˚ F 
Austin, Texas
  1. 2011 – 90 days
  2. 1925 – 69 days
  3. 2009 – 68 days
  4. 1923 – 66 days
  5. 2008 – 50 days
  6. 2000 – 42 days

 Another 20 days.  Recall the summer of 2009.  It was hot, really hot.  We all complained about it and thought of it as the hottest summer ever, which, at the time, it was.  But one day before we were going to tie with the record for the number of days over 100˚ F, the heat broke.  This year, 2011, is once again the hottest summer on record, and this time we broke that 1925 record, with 70 days of temperatures over 100˚ F.  That record 70th day was on August 24, right around the time that the weather broke in 2009.  Now, I'm not suggesting that the hot season in Austin is ever over by September, but cold fronts usually start to have some cumulative effect, so that each time the heat returns after a cold front, it is slightly less hot, with high temperatures edging down into the tolerable 90's and, later in the month, into the almost-comfortable low 90's.  But this year, the September cold fronts came and went, and those high temperatures just kept bouncing back into the 100's, all the way into the last week of the month, when we had five days in a row over 100˚ F.  The last of those days, September 29, was the 90th day of triple-digit heat this summer.

Think about 90 days versus 70 days.  Ninety days over 100˚ F is three months of insanity.  And 21 full days over the record of 69 days, a tough record that hadn't been beaten since 1925.  We beat the record then we galloped on for another full month, accumulating 20 more days – that's a full third of the record itself – of triple-digit temperatures.  That's why I have been saying that this summer broke the records the way that Secretariat won the Belmont: early, fast, and relentless, with unexpected power in the finish.  Now we can only hope that this summer proves to be as rare as Secretariat, and that the records of this summer, like the records of Secretariat, remain unbroken.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In Search of Water

This summer just won't end.  For weeks, since the calender said that fall was approaching (hah!), we've been waiting for an opportunity to get outside for a hike, preferably not in the triple-digit heat.  Finally, last week, with a shared weekday off for our anniversary, Lee and I decided that, running water or not, hot summer day or not, we were just going to have to get out in it.

We went to the Hamilton Pool Preserve, a Travis county park where Hamilton Creek, a tributary of the Pedernales River, flows over a ledge, as a waterfall, into a pool in a limestone grotto below, creating a natural swimming hole.  As one of the last places with running water and reliable swimming in dry summers, Hamilton Pool is very popular on weekend days in the summer and regularly fills to capacity.  Arriving late on a Monday morning, we were looking to miss the crowds and have the trail to ourselves.  We were also hoping that the spring-fed creek would be flowing.

Hamilton Creek was running, though barely so.  A trickle of water fell from the top part of the creek into the pool, which was open for swimming, though the water was a murky green.  We walked around the pool, enjoying the cool air along the back side of the grotto, where rock walls out of reach of the midday sun still held, even at noon, the cool of the evening, then we headed out on the trail to the river.

This was the restorative part of the journey, walking beneath healthy cypress trees with their roots in the creek below.  The creek wasn't running quickly, but it was a couple feet deep in places, with cool water that was still supporting fish and turtles and baby cypress trees.  The presence of water made all the difference, cooling and humidifying, in a pleasant way, the air in the canyon along the creek.  For that short stretch of creek we left the drought that has so defined this summer, the extreme and lasting heat, the dry winds, and the lack of rainfall, in the uplands above.  In this way, the preserve is doing its job, providing a refuge for plants and animals through the roughest months of the year.  And providing me a place to breathe fresh, tree-made oxygen and gaze up into the branches of cypress, Spanish oak, and elm trees still holding onto their green leaves.

Along the trail at ground level, the pink-purple flowers of Simple-Leaf Tick Clover caught my eye.  I knew immediately that the flowers belonged to the Pea Family, but it took me a bit of looking to locate the species.  Tick clovers make attractive pink-purple flowers from May through October but are more commonly known for their annoying seed pods that stick to socks and pant legs in the fall and winter, which is why they are also called Beggar's Ticks.  The Simple-Leaf Tick Clover (Desmodium psilophyllum) is the only species of tick clover in this area that has simple leaves rather than the trifoliate (composed of three leaflets) leaves of other tick clovers.

Simple-Leaf Tick Clover (Desmodium psilophyllum)

Blue Mist-Flower also bloomed along the creek.  Blue Mist-Flower (Eupatorium coelestinum) is a late-summer to fall blooming perennial that is common in moist, shady habitats in central Texas.

Blue Mist-Flower (Eupatorium coelestinum)

As Hamilton Creek and the trail neared the Pedernales River, the canyon widened and the trail climbed away from the creek.  The water of the creek disappeared beneath the sandy creek bed into groundwater, so the creek, though running in the section beneath the pool, did not flow into the Pedernales River.  The river itself was also dried up, with rolling mounds of hot sand left where the river usually flowed.  Lee and I walked along the riverbed, hoping to spot a flowing portion of the river around the next bend, but we didn't get far before the course, sharp grains of sand accumulating between our feet and our Tevas motivated us to step into the warm pools of water, all that remained of the Pedernales river.  As far as we could see in both directions, the river was reduced to intermittent pools, and some of the cypress trees along the river were responding to the drought by turning orange-red, getting ready to drop their leaves two months early.

In a few low spots, the sand was still moist, indicating that the river may have flowed, or at least held more discontinuous pools of water, very recently.  Heat-hardy wildflowers were blooming along the riverbank, making the most of the receding water supply.  Small, pink blooms of Prairie Agalinis hid in a tangle of greenery alongside a tall stand of bright-yellow Tatalencho.  Farther down the bank, a colony of White Boneset bloomed.  White Boneset (Eupatorium serotium), a perennial in the sunflower family, prefers the moist soil along streams, where it blooms from August through October.

White Boneset (Eupatorium serotium)

Clammyweed, a sticky plant in the same family as the plants that produce caper berries and peppercorns, has distinctive flowers with pink to purple stamens that are much longer that the white petals.  Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra) is common in dry creek beds, along low-flowing creeks, and on roadsides, blooming May through October.

Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra)

The showiest and most abundant flowers along the river bed were the orange-highlighted yellow flowers of the Rattlebush.  Rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii) is a woody shrub that is common along waterways and in dry stream beds in central and east Texas.  The leaves of Rattlebush, like those of many heat-tolerant shrubs in the Pea Family, are compound, composed of many (20 to 50) small leaflets.  The seedpods of Rattlebush, which are are flattened around each seed, remain on the plant into the winter, long after the leaves have fallen from the plant.  The mature seeds are loose in the pods and rattle when shaken by the winds of winter cold fronts, giving the plant its name.  The seeds of Rattlebush are poisonous.

Rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii)

Wanting to escape the bright sun of midday and the sharp sand of the river bed, Lee and I returned, high-stepping to kick sand from our Tevas with every step, to the trail along the creek.  Usually I prefer a loop trail, and the chance to walk down a new section of trail for an entire hike, but this time I was glad to return back along the same short trail, to get another dose of what has been almost entirely missing from my life this summer, walking in the woods along running water.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tomato Review

The tomato season is long past, and it was quick this year.  Before the weather cools and my thoughts turn to fall greens, I want to record how each of my tomato plants did this year.  I grew seven tomato plants this summer.  I bought all of them as baby plants in four-inch pots at the Natural Gardener on March 17, 2011, and planted them the next day.  They established immediately and grew quickly, doubling in size in a week and growing into full-size plants by the first of May.  I began picking ripe grape tomatoes on May 14, though it was another couple of weeks before the full-sized tomatoes began to turn yellow or red.  At the peak of this year's tomato harvest, around the time of the summer solstice (June 21), tomatoes of all sizes filled the kitchen table.  At the end of June, tomato production slowed as quickly as it had accelerated at the beginning of the month, so that by the second week in July, I was only picking a few, small tomatoes every day or two.  I stopped watering the plants in mid July and pulled them out on July 25.

Peak tomato harvest, June 21, 2011

Which all sounds very precise, with specific dates, thanks to the date stamps within all those digital photos.  While the dates will help me plan for tomato seasons to come, the reality of my tomato garden was far from precise or scientific, so, before I proceed with observations on how each tomato plant fared this year, I should make a few disclaimers.

First, this was my first summer to grow tomatoes in the raised-bed garden along the south wall of the house.  I built the retaining wall to make the garden this spring, amended the existing rocky soil with mulch, compost, and manure, and immediately planted.  The soil was very young and non-uniform, with intermixed patches of existing soil, composted organic matter, and raw or partially-decomposed organic matter.  Which was fairly normal for one of my gardens, especially in the first season or two, and it seemed to be fine for the young tomato plants, given how quickly they grew.  In addition to soil differences, each tomato plant had a different location along the south-wall garden, which was built to level out the slope along the side of the house.  As a result, the tomatoes at the west end of the garden grew in the deeper part of the raised bed than those in the east end.  The two tomatoes on the end of the row had fewer neighbors than the others and had better access to light but also had to deal with drier conditions on the edges of the garden.  Altogether, each tomato plant had its own microclimate in terms of soil depth, soil composition, light access, competition, and water retention.  All of which is, again, completely normal in any garden, but means that my results are simply that, my results, observations from my garden this year, not scientific conclusions about the performance of these tomatoes.

Next, I should mention that something ate my tomatoes this year.  Tomato loss is an expected part of growing tomatoes in Austin, where birds snack on the tomatoes, ruining whole fruit with a single peck, and healthy populations of fruit-eating mammals, including mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, skunks, and raccoons, have learned where all the best gardens are.  But, when I say that something ate my tomatoes this year, I mean that something ate my tomato plants, as in the tops of the green vines, which is something that I had never seen before and had never heard of.  I mean, who eats tomato plants?  My best theory was that the very fat green caterpillar that I found snacking on a green tomato was the culprit, or one of them.  I don't know where the caterpillar came from or what it would have turned into, had it lived long enough to metamorphosize into its adult form.  I moved it to my compost pile to fatten up a bit more before it was surely eaten by one of the animals – the fat lizard, the birds, the squirrels, or the roof rats – that frequent the compost pile.  In any case, the tomato-plant eating didn't seem to affect the tomato harvest, as it mostly happened after the plants had set fruit.

Finally, this summer was hot and dry.  By some measures, the hottest summer on record.  Given that warm temperatures at night slow down and eventually stop tomato plants from setting fruit, a hot summer means a short tomato season.  In early June, the plants were covered with green tomatoes, but, as those tomatoes ripened, new green tomatoes did not appear in their place, so that by early July, the plants were almost bare of fruit.  By early July, the plants were also weary from lack of water.  I watered the plants deeply twice a week throughout the season, but all my watering couldn't make up for the lack of summer thunderstorms this year.  We only had two thunderstorms in the tomato season, one in mid May and one in mid June.  Every so many years, we have a rainy June with cooler temperatures, and then the tomato season is longer and more productive, favoring later-season tomatoes adapted to humid, milder conditions.  This year was the opposite, a short, fast, hot and dry season favoring early-season tomatoes and those adapted to hotter, drier conditions.

The first tomato to ripen this year was the Cupid Hybrid grape tomato.  I started eating grape tomatoes off the plant in mid May and soon was picking a small handful of tomatoes every day or two.  The plant continued to produce until mid July, though by then the fruits were smaller and infrequent.  We ate most of the grape tomatoes as snacks straight out of the bowl.  The tomatoes were sweet-tart with good texture and a slight pear shape.

Cupid Hybrid Grape Tomatoes

I think of the Porter tomato as the Texas workhorse tomato.  When I was new to gardening in Texas, a veteran gardener suggested that I get a Porter tomato at the upcoming plant sale because, regardless of how hot, or dry, or flooded, the upcoming summer proved to be, the Porter would produce.  She was right, the Porter tomato always produces, whether we're in stage four of the drought or recovering from the 100-year floods, so every year I try to find a Porter tomato plant to grow.  True to form, the Porter tomato won this season's endurance test.  It began making ripe tomatoes just after the grape-tomato plant in May and continued to make tomatoes into July.  In fact, the Porter tomato outlasted me this year – despite the hot temperatures and drought, the Porter was still setting fruit in early July when I decided that the tomato season was over.  When I pulled the plants, the Porter was by far the biggest plant in the row, having taken over its own space and also much of its neighbors' space.

Porter Tomatoes

So, if the Porter tomato is such a reliable workhorse, why grow any other tomato in Texas?  First, Porter tomatoes are small, "plum tomato" size, and therefore are not ideal for cooking because, in order to make a tomato sauce or soup from a batch of Porters, all of them would have to be skinned, which would be tedious.  Given their size, Porters are best eaten fresh, sliced in half or quartered into salads.  The other thing about Porters is that their taste is inconsistent.  I've heard that they are one of those tomatoes that are loved by some and hated by others, but I think the truth may be more that they are sweet and delicious some years but bland and mushy other years.  Porters are like the insurance policy of tomato growing in Texas – if June is rainy and cool, the Porters won't be great but also won't be much needed, but if it's 107˚ F with oven-like high-pressure winds, the Porters will still be producing garden-fresh tomatoes while all those fancy heirlooms fail to thrive.  This year, this brutally hot and dry year, the Porters were sweet and delicious.  For most of June and into July, I packed Porter tomato and basil pasta salads for lunch, then sliced Porters onto crackers to eat with cheddar and beer as a midnight snack when I got home from work.

Of the full-size tomatoes, the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black was the most productive in the early part of the season, in mid June.  JD's Special made lots of round, medium-sized tomatoes with dark-green shoulders on deep red fruits.  The tomatoes were very prone to cracking – most of the fruits had splits running down the tomato from the stem end or all the way around the tomato, circling the stem.  The cracking was worse following the June rainstorm, leading me to think that the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black tomato, specially bred for our central Texas summers (hence the "C-Tex"), is another tomato, like the Porter, meant to keep us in tomatoes even in the drought years.  I tried to minimize the impact of the cracking by harvesting the fruit early, as soon as the bottom part of the tomato was red, before the cracks were big enough to attract ants.  The ripening tomatoes were then prone to shriveling (around the cracks) and softening, even when the tomatoes were still green at the stem end.

JD's Special C-Tex Early Black Tomatoes

Because of the cracking, the JD's Special tomatoes were mainly cooking tomatoes this summer.  They were the tomatoes that I wanted to use first to prevent spoilage, the tomatoes that needed to have parts cut out of them, the tomatoes that became the basis for tomato sauce and tomato soup.  They did not peel easily, both due to the cracks and the under-ripeness of the top parts of many of the fruits at the time of cooking, but the dark red flesh cooked down into wonderful tomato goodness.  I feel a bit unfair defining those tomatoes so strongly on their splits given that the tomatoes themselves were actually quite juicy and delicious.  And given that the tomato sauce that I made from JD's Special tomatoes, along with a mix of other tomatoes from the garden, was one of the highlights of the tomato season.

The Sunmaster hybrid tomato, another tomato that was specifically bred for hot summers, was the most productive plant in the later part of this year's short season, in late June.  When the other tomatoes were slowing down, the Sunmaster had its heyday, producing many shiny, orange-red, medium-sized tomatoes.  In fact, of the tomatoes that I grew this year, the Sunmaster tomatoes were most like those in the produce section at the grocery store:  bright, shiny, red fruits, free of splits or blemishes, and long lasting.  By early July, the rows of to-be-eaten tomatoes on our kitchen table had dwindled down from a colorful mix of red, golden, striped, and dark-fruited tomatoes to just the red tomatoes, just the long-lasting Sunmasters.  The Sunmasters were also easy to peel, making them ideal for cooking or canning.  Compared to the other full-sized tomatoes, though, the Sunmasters had a fairly bland taste, which was not surprising given their uniformity and longevity.  A garden-fresh Sunmaster was still miles better, in flavor and especially in texture, than those grocery-store tomatoes.  Overall, given the productivity of the Sunmaster in the hot summer, its beautiful, long-lasting fruits, and the rich flavor of the tomatoes after being cooked down into sauce or soup or okra masala, I will be looking for a Sunmaster plant next spring.

Sunmaster Hybrid Tomatoes

The Cherokee Purple, an heirloom tomato known for producing delicious, dark-colored tomatoes, was the least productive tomato in my garden this year.  In fact, I only harvested three or four tomatoes from that plant.  They were delicious, with the fluted shape that I associate with the best tomatoes, but apparently Cherokee Purples don't like the oven-like heat of a hot year in central Texas because the plant was by far the smallest in the row.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

The Old German, an heirloom tomato with huge, striped, yellow-orange-red tomatoes, was my favorite tomato of the season.  Sauces and soups and pasta salads aside, the real joy of the tomato season is simple tomato and toast:  toasted, buttered bread with fresh, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, nutritional yeast, and a drizzle of olive or flax oil.  Yum.  It's a snack that I enjoy year-round, even with greenhouse tomatoes, but with fresh tomatoes it is especially good, and with heirloom tomatoes, the kind that have seeds throughout their juicy flesh instead of in compartments like the modern hybrid tomatoes, it is dreamy.  This year, the clear tomato-and-toast winner, the tomato with the sweetest, juiciest flavor, was the Old German.  The easy-to-peel fruits of the Old German were also beautiful in cross-section, with golden, orange, peach, and red flesh that cooked down into a sweet, bright-orange sauce.  The Old German plant was not as productive as JD's Special or the Sunmaster in terms of number of fruits, but each tomato was heavy, so that each time I picked an Old German tomato I carried it carefully into the kitchen with that feeling of gardener pride, look what I grew!  The large fruits, which had splits from the stem end, were prone to molding once they had ripened on the kitchen table, so they needed to be eaten fairly quickly.  But needing to eat the Old German tomatoes was a lovely problem to have for a few weeks and, considering the heat of the summer, I was impressed that the Old German kept making its big tomatoes into the first week of July.

Old German Tomatoes

Finally, there was that yellow tomato on the end of the row.  This year I was clever and stuck the plant labels in the ground next to each tomato cage so that, in June, when harvesting, I would know what each plant was.  All of the tags survived except for that tomato on the west end of the row, the tomato planted in the biggest tomato cage in the deepest part of the new garden.  I was sure that it was a Celebrity tomato, a solid workhorse of a producer that grows huge, sprawling vines and makes many fruits, until I realized that its fruits were turning golden instead of red.  Then I looked for the tag and it was long gone, probably lost during mulching.  The plant itself was not sprawling but relatively contained considering its spot on the end of the row.  The plant also was the first of the row to wilt, possibly because it was on the west end of the row, with the harshest afternoon sun exposure.  In any case, it wasn't a Celebrity tomato.  Its fruits were medium-sized, heart-shaped, and golden yellow, and I would guess that it was an "early" tomato, given that, among the full-sized tomatoes, it was the first plant to make ripe tomatoes and the first plant, aside from the non-productive Cherokee Purple, to give up production in the name of heat.  The golden fruits were sweet, with the low-acid flavor of yellow tomatoes, very easy to peel, and had beautiful golden flesh.  Given what I observed about the plant, I think it was a Jubilee tomato plant, but I can't be sure that I didn't grow one-of-a-kind, accidental hybrid that snuck into somebody's greenhouse, given how readily tomatoes of unknown parentage sprout from my compost.

Jubilee (?) Tomatoes

Saturday, August 27, 2011

All That Okra

I'm not an okra eater.  At least, prior to this summer I wasn't an okra eater.  I would buy it occasionally in the summer when it was available, but then I would struggle to eat it before it went soft, after which I would decide not to buy any more for the season.  So I was going against the conventional garden wisdom of grow what you will eat when I planted a row of okra in the front-yard garden this spring, taking a risk that the plants would be beautiful but that their fruits would go to waste.  Because a corollary to the grow-what-you-will-eat rule is that the plants that you don't want to eat – the mustards that flower too early and the kales that never make it to tonight's menu – are always the biggest, healthiest, most prolific plants in the garden.

I started down the path of okra growing because the seed packet was appealing.  I'm a fairly controlled spender in most areas of life, but, when it comes to seed packets and the promise of a new season, I tend to get carried away.  So I was quickly won over by the promise of high yields of tender Cajun Delight okra pods to use in "salad, stir-fries, gumbo, or pickled."  The idea of growing okra was also appealing given that I garden in central Texas, where the summer temperatures exceed 100˚ F for weeks at a time (or this year, for months at a time), which severely limits the variety of vegetables in my summer garden.  Okra, originally from west Africa, is adapted to growing in hot, humid conditions, and is grown as a hot-season staple throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.  So it makes more sense to grow okra in the summer here than to struggle to keep, say, tomatoes, with all their water and nutrient needs and wimpy inability to set fruit on hot nights, alive and producing through a summer like this one.

Okra plants in the garden

The thing is, I knew what to do with all those tomatoes, but I had no idea what to do with all that okra.  But I wanted to figure it out.  I wanted to become an okra eater.  And what better way to learn how to cook with okra than to have a continuous supply of it flowing into my kitchen for several weeks?

My okra plants were beautiful, with huge, deeply-lobed leaves and hibiscus-like flowers.  Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is in the Malvaceae, or Mallow Family, also known as the Hibiscus Family, which, back before it got expanded and complicated by the molecular biologists, was characterized by showy, radially-symmetric flowers with long, attractive pistils (below, the stalk in the middle of the flower with the sticky, burgundy tip, which is the female part) decorated with many stamens (the many small, yellow parts along the stalk of the pistil, which are the male parts).  The bottom line of all this flower talk is that, if not for the fact that okra plants modestly hide their flowers beneath their huge leaves, I would expect to see trays of okra seedlings on sale in the ornamental flower section of nurseries in late spring.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) flowers

Okra plants also turned out to be easy to easy to grow, even in the heat of the summer.  They grew, continually producing new leaves and new flowers and new okra pods, week after week, on only two waterings a week, seemingly unfazed by the over-100-degree temperatures and oven-like high-pressure winds that sucked the life out of everything else this summer.  The plants grew so tall that I joked that I was going to need a step ladder to harvest by the end of the summer.  And they continued to make okra pods, day after day after day.

That was the high-maintenance part of growing okra, that the pods needed to be harvested every day, starting in mid May and continuing until I decided to pull the plants due to my own heat exhaustion in mid August.  Picking okra pods was a quick daily chore but not a fun one.  The plants were itchy and sticky, attracting ants and aphids and fluffy, white scale insects.  The okra plants also had spines, tiny, almost-not-visible prickers just like the small spines on prickly pear cactus, that stung my skin and were nearly impossible to locate.  And the consequences for skipping a day of harvesting were immediate – longer, tougher, less-edible okra pods, many of which went straight to the compost pile.  I skipped two days of harvesting only a couple of times and, in just 72 hours, the pods grew to nearly foot long and terrifying in their woodiness.

Totally thrilled to be harvesting okra

Each day's harvest was not very big, just a handful or two of okra pods, which didn't seem like much until the daily handfuls began to accumulate into bagfuls in the refrigerator.  Then came the challenge that I had anticipated, figuring out what to do with all that okra.

First, I made okra pickles, which proved to be the best way to use up a bunch of okra pods at once.  I pickled the okra in an apple cider vinegar brine (2 cups vinegar, 1-1/2 cups water, 3 tablespoons pickling salt, 2 bay leaves).  I added a clove of garlic, halved, a hot pepper, and a teaspoon each of black peppercorns, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds to each pint jar before packing it with whole okra pods.  Over the course of the summer I made three batched of okra pickles, about 20 pints in total.  At first I wasn't sure how often I would want to eat okra pickles, but they are growing on me and seem to be getting better with age.  My new favorite after-work snack is okra pickles with sharp cheddar and a strong IPA.

The only downside to pickling was that it was A Production, and a hot production at that.  It takes my water-bath canning pot nearly an hour to reach a boil, plus the brine has to boil, plus the jars have to be prepped, then more jars have to be prepped when I realize I don't have enough jars for all that okra, plus the okra has to be washed and stemmed, so the whole process takes a couple of hours and turns the kitchen into a steamy, hot pickle factory for the rest of the afternoon, as the thick-bottomed boiling pot slowly releases all that stored heat into the already-hot house.  Perhaps someday I will have this house properly weatherized but, until then, baking, brewing, canning, pickling, and other steam-producing projects are really best saved for the cooler months.  I needed to find some quicker, fresh-eating options for the okra.

Lee carried out the second solution, the tried-and-true southern way of eating okra: breaded and fried.  I washed and trimmed both ends off the okra pods, then chopped them into two or three pieces per pod.  Lee dunked the chopped okra into an egg-milk mixture then breaded it in a seasoned cornmeal and flour mixture then fried it in safflower oil in a hot skillet.  The fried okra was so delicious that we ate a double batch in one sitting.

Finally, I turned to Indian cuisine, which has many uses for the humblest of vegetables, for an okra, or bhindi, recipe.  I found a recipe for Bhindi Masala that looked promising and basically followed that, increasing the amount of okra (I had a lot on hand) and using jalapeño peppers from the garden and the last of the season's tomatoes.  The resulting dish was very tasty, as promised, and, eaten with rice, was dinner for two plus satisfying leftovers for two for the next night.  At the end of the okra season, after I had cut down the plants, I made this dish one more time.  It wasn't quite as amazing with store-bought tomatoes but it was still delicious, providing a reason to look forward to next summer's okra harvest.

In the end, we didn't eat all of that okra.  Some pods grew too long to eat and one batch of pods went soft in a bag in the refrigerator and had to be composted.  But, overall, I made use of most of the okra that I grew this summer.  Plus we have a store of okra pickles for the fall – I hope they last until the porter and stout season – and fond memories of that Okra Masala dish.  Now we are okra eaters.

Bhindi (Okra) Masala
adapted from Charishma's Very Tasty Bhindi Masala

I harvest okra daily, or at least every other day, and place pods in a bag in the refrigerator, accumulating pods until I have enough to cook or pickle.  I compost overly large pods (over four inches) and any pods that begin to soften or develop black spots, which happens after about a week and a half in the refrigerator.  This means that, during okra season, I expect to cook or pickle okra pods about once a week to keep up with the daily harvest.

I use safflower oil as the neutral-flavored, high-heat vegetable oil for this recipe, but canola, grape seed, or vegetable (usually soy) oil will work just as well.  What's important is that the oil is fresh, because stale oil will ruin any dish, regardless of how much spice is used.

1 pound young (2-4 inches) okra pods

2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2-4 jalapeño peppers, minced
1 large onion, chopped

1/4 cup safflower oil
1-1/4 tablespoons coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Wash and rinse the okra pods.  Remove the stem and bottom end from each pod then chop the remaining okra into two or three pieces.  Set aside.

Heat two tablespoons safflower oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Toss in the cumin and mustard seeds and stir.  Once the cumin seeds have become aromatic and the mustard seeds have begun to pop!, add the jalapeño peppers and onion.  Fry slowly, stirring periodically, on medium heat until the onions are browned, about ten minutes.  Set aside.

Heat 1/4 cup safflower oil in a wok over high heat.  Add the chopped okra and stir fry until the okra is bright green and aromatic, about five minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion mixture to the okra, and stir to combine.  Add the coriander, red chili, and turmeric powders, stirring well.  Allow the mixture to cook for about five minutes.  Add the tomatoes, stir to combine, and cover the wok.  Allow the mixture to cook, now covered, for another several minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the tomato juices as they are released.  Uncover the wok, add salt to taste, and mix well.  Cook for a minute or two longer.

Serve hot over basmati rice or with Indian breads.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My History of Maná

How do I begin, in a blog about plants, to write about Maná?  Maná is my favorite band and has been for almost twenty years.  Last month I took Lee to hear Maná in concert in San Antonio.  I expected a good show, which is always dangerous, to have expectations and hopes about a concert in a huge venue like the AT&T Center, but I was blown away anyway by how amazing Maná was en vivo.  I've been in a Maná trance ever since, reliving their albums, blissed out on their beats, even as the awful mix of modern, whiny, white-people music plays at work, and trying to figure out a way to justify writing about Maná here, where I write about my garden and kitchen.

I could find a way to connect Maná to plants or cooking.  I could talk about how the band uses its money and super-group status in Latin America to fund Selva Negra, an organization that oversees conservation, habitat restoration, and social development projects in Mexico.  One such project teaches women in poor communities how to grow fresh vegetables using minimal water; another is dedicated to the reforestation and conservation of a rainforest in Oaxaca.  Or I could talk about Fher's lyrics, about all the images of sea and forest, sun and moon, and butterflies and birds that are in the songs of Maná.  Or I could point out that Maná is, more than likely, what is playing in my kitchen when I am washing greens or making pesto or frying okra, that the opening notes of each Maná album transport me back to one of the kitchens of my adult life.  Or I could just say that, for the past few weeks, as I've sat on a cinder block in the shade of the front porch with my travel clock, waiting to move the garden hose to the next plant, I've been thinking about where I was when I fell in love with each of Maná's albums, and allowing, in the slowness and heat of July, each of those images to develop into a snapshot.

I heard Maná for the first time when I was 18.  It was January of 1993, I was a freshman in college, and winter term had just ended, bringing back to campus all the students who had the fortune to spend that cold month somewhere other than northern Ohio.  Among those returning from the south was my friend Natasha, who had spent the month in Guadalajara and brought back a CD that was huge in Mexico at the time, Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?  I'm not sure if I was hooked on the album from the beginning, or if that came later, once Natasha and I were roommates sophomore year.  I know that at some point I was spending more time with the CD than she was, and would use any cooking excuse, from baking apple pie in the dorm kitchen sophomore year to mixing granola in the Fairchild Co-op kitchen junior year, to borrow and play that CD.  Most of all, I remember the small kitchen in the floor of the house on North Main Street that Sara, Dominic, Natasha, Spike, and I shared senior year, where one Saturday I baked several chocolate layer cakes from scratch for our "special meal" at Third World Co-op.  I had the album on repeat all day and, to this day, whenever I hear the opening beats and Yay oh oh of "De Pies a Cabeza," I remember that day spent drinking coffee, eating chocolate cake batter, and bopping along with Maná.  Soon after that, I finally bought my own copy of Dónde Jugarán Los Niños? and decided that I was Maná's biggest white-girl fan.

Falta Amor came next.  Now, here I have to point out, for historical accuracy, that Falta Amor was actually released two years before Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?  (And, for the real sticklers, there was an even earlier Maná album, self-titled Maná, that was released in 1987.  I have that CD – what kind of biggest white-girl fan would I be if I didn't? – but it is horribly dated and I think I only listened to it a couple of times before filing it away.  Luckily, the band changed labels and found their sound before Falta Amor.)  Falta Amor includes the band's first big hit, "Rayando el Sol," which is a lovely song.  But I have live versions of "Rayando" on other albums so Falta Amor, though important to me in the mid-1990's, is the one Maná album that is not in my regular rotation.  Because of which, it is also the album that is most located in a particular time and place to me, to my bedroom in the house on North Main Street in Oberlin, overlooking the ash tree, reading The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami.  Which sounds fairly magical, to be 21, listening to my new favorite band while discovering a new favorite author, but that moment was a bright spot, or more accurately a peaceful moment, in a spring that was otherwise defined by stress, from drama in the lives of my closest friends, from honors-thesis writing, and from the knowledge that I was about to be graduated from college with no earthly clue what I wanted to do with my life.

The next year, back in Oregon, back living with my parents at age 22, I got a job as a line cook at a café in Salem and a copy of the new Maná album, Cuando Los Ángeles Lloran.  Though I did a lot of baking that year, trying to make whole-grain muffins as good as those from the local Great Harvest, I'd listen to Maná upstairs, in what we called the "Nana room," the addition that had been built onto the house to accommodate my Nana's decline into Alzheimer's.  Nana had died two years earlier, but the memory of her, of what the disease had done to her, and to my mom, and to the family, remained in the house.  My favorites on the album were "El Reloj Cucú" and "Ana," both sad songs with distinctive intros that take me back to that rainy winter spent gazing out over the east-end pasture where the horses were grazing or staring at the river meanders on the inside of the CD cover.  At the time, my mom was getting into Afro-pop music, which provided a window out of her depression, so occasionally we would go to town and search the world music section together.  On one of those trips, I found a CD called Hace Mucho Calor that was a compilation of many Latin artists, including a cover of "Fool in the Rain" by Maná.  I've since lost that CD, but when I think of listening to Cuando Los Ángeles Lloran, I immediately think of Hace Mucho Calor, and of the two songs on it, #4 and #9, that I adored.  I discovered Soraya that year as well – amazingly, I first heard "De Repente" on my way home from work one night on the local AM radio station that usually played accordion-heavy norteño music.  And I've gotten into a few Latin acts since then, including Jaguares, Juanes, and Reik, but it's always been Maná that I come back to, Maná that I want to listen to over and over again.

My parents sent me Sueños Líquidos for Christmas of 1997.  I had moved to Austin that summer and was in the process of moving for the third time within the House of Commons.  House of Commons was, and still is, a vegetarian housing co-op in west campus.  Think big hippie house with 25 housemates, a Zen garden, under-maintained compost piles, lots of bike parking, and a clothing-optional pool.  I was moving from a third-floor double into Room 7, a second floor, L-shaped single overlooking the front garden.  "Lucky Room 7" is what Will, who had lived in the room before me, called it, assuring me that the room would be good for my sex life, and, indeed, within days of moving into Room 7, I had a boyfriend.  Jason, the new boyfriend, had a habit of walking into my room, which would too quickly become our room, when "Robame el Alma," #7 on Sueños Líquidos, was playing, so we called that his song.  Little did I know that, for the next seven years, he would robame el alma.  Note to self, be more careful with 7's.

By the time that Maná MTV Unplugged was released, Jason and I had moved out of House of Commons into an apartment on West 17th Street.  I had started graduate school at UT then dropped out after only a year and was bumming around on savings.  I had a community garden plot and a mountain bike that I painted tractor green.  My routine was to sleep late, go for a run, then make toast-tomato-cheese melts in the toaster oven and listen to Maná before heading to the Sunshine gardens.  The peaceful routine was a cover for my actual emotional state, that of acute anxiety.  I would stand in the front room of that brick-floor, cinder block apartment on West 17th, looking out the front windows past my motley assortment of potted trees and houseplants on the balcony, while trying desperately to become the way that I felt when I heard the line in "Desapariciones" that went por qué no todos somos iguales.  I loved that line, that rhythm, that emotion, and tried, over and over again, to hang onto it.  That was my peace in the otherwise anxious fall of 1999 – my first fall garden and a line in a Maná song.

Revolución de Amor was a revolution.  It didn't come out until 2002, a full five years after Sueños Líquidos.  In between the two, Maná released "Corazón Espinado" on Santana's Supernatural album as well as the Maná MTV Unplugged album, which they toured the US promoting.  There was talk of Maná crossing over into the US market.  With Revolución, that was over.  Maná was back to Maná, back to Mexico, back to its core fan base in Latin America.  Political, unapologetic songs and straight-forward rock beats.  I saw Maná live for the first time on the Revolución de Amor tour.  Jason and I drove to Dallas to see them.  I wish that I remembered the concert better.  I know that I enjoyed the show and that I was impressed with the band, with Fher's voice and stage presence, with Alex's relentlessness on the drums, with Sergio's skill on guitar.  They started exactly on time and played for three hours, and still I didn't want them to stop.  The concert felt like a huge pro-Mexico rally, complete with soccer balls kicked into the crowd, but, even as the tallest, whitest girl in my row, I still felt included because Fher's message was, as it always has been, Todos juntos.

Soon after Revolución came out, I moved into an apartment off North Loop, into my own space for the first time in my life.  So maybe Revolución spoke so loudly to me because I was undergoing my own quiet revolution.  At work, I was moving up the co-op hierarchy, from Jason I was slowly but steadily separating, and at home I was finally building my own space, in an apartment with almost no furniture and a bedroom painted purple.  The Revolución years were years of rediscovering the Moosewood Cookbook and learning to cook gratins and risottos from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and included the rainy-June summers of 2003 and 2004, when the counter between my small kitchen and living room was covered in ripening tomatoes.  In that apartment I learned to can tomatoes, figured out how to cook eggplant properly, in lots of olive oil, and organized many pizza nights for one.  I remember singing along with "Pobre Juan" and thinking about his disappearance into the borderland deserts of Mexico, as I set out my dinner – a salad, a few slices of a pizza (the other pieces carefully wrapped in foil for lunch tomorrow and the day after), a pint of homebrew beer, and my partially-smoked bowl of weed – on the floor beside the spot where I sat to watch free cable on my free TV.  All carefully timed to be ready just before the opening murder of an old Law & Order rerun or, better yet, an Inspector Lynly mystery. 

Amar Es Combatir came out just after I moved into this house.  I was still so attached to Revolución that I had trouble adjusting to the new album and told my mom that it was, Okay... just starting to grow on me, but soon I was looking forward to a sweet song in the middle called "Bendita Tu Luz."  Not long after that, "Bendita Tu Luz" was my new favorite song and Amar Es Combatir was my new favorite album.  Even now, ask me what one CD that I would take to a desert island, and I would have to say, Amar Es Combatir.  It's that good of an album, from one end to the other, and part of the happiness of Amar is that it transports me back to the early days in the house, before the foundation work and the failed attempts at rat extermination, before the brutally hot summers and equally brutal electric bills, to the early days with Lee, when the so many rooms of this house were not so many rooms to clean or to renovate or to cool but, instead, were so many places to have sex.  Afterwards, when the smell of cooking onion and garlic brought Lee into the kitchen to find me singing along with Maná, we would slow dance to "Bendita Tu Luz" and I would try, with little success, to explain the lyrics in English.  It's prettier in Spanish, I would finally tell him, It's a love song.

Amar Es Combatir has remained my most frequently played CD for the five years since it was released in 2006.  In the years between, Arde el Cielo was released, containing live versions of three songs from Amar and many classics from other albums, all sung to a huge, adoring audience in Puerto Rico, plus two new studio songs.  One of those new songs, "Si No Te Hubieras Ido," is the one that I most strongly associate with those years, when I was commuting to and from Del Valle to teach high school biology.  During the school year I was always working, either at work early to set up a lab, or at work late for tutoring, or grading papers at the kitchen table, or writing tomorrow's lesson at my computer late at night.  On the drive between home and school, when my failing car radio was cooperating, I'd listen to the Pop-en-Español station in hopes of hearing Maná.  One early morning, as I turned onto Airport Road, "Si No Te Hubieras Ido" began playing.  I turned up the radio and savored some Maná in the car.  For the rest of that day, and, really, for the rest of my time as a teacher, I survived with the help from a line from that song, El ritmo de la vida me parece mal.

Drama y Luz is the new Maná album, released this spring.  I listened to it over and over again for weeks, imprinting it on my brain for the concert.  I have favorite parts – the opening of the first song, the pace and chorus of "Mi Reina del Dolor," and the emotion in the No te olvido paloma, me haces falta mi vida lines in "Vuela Libre Paloma" – and I love to get "Latinoamérica" stuck in my head right before leaving for work in the afternoon, so I can sing it in the car.  But it's too early to say what memories will be tied to Drama y Luz because it's still the soundtrack of the present, of working swing shift and planning my weeks around watering days and our meals around mountains of okra, eggplant, and basil.  And the soundtrack of this brutally hot summer is further complicated by the fact that, since the concert, in my Maná trance, I've got the entire CD collection out and have been listening to all of them, but especially to Arde el Cielo, the live album, wanting to hold onto the energy of that night with Maná.

Going to a concert in San Antonio, at the AT&T Center, was a big adventure for Lee and me.  We're normally homebodies and nature people, more inclined to venture out to the Greenbelt during the day than to "go out" in the evening.  When we do go out, we arrive shortly after the doors open for the day at the co-op brewery, or when we do take a road trip, it's rarely to anyplace farther than one of the semi-local state parks, like Pedernales, an hour away, or McKinney Falls, which is practically in our neighborhood.  So the drive to San Antonio was an event for us, and the AT&T Center was immediately overwhelming in its size and crowdedness and layout – how do we get to the upper floor for the balcony seats?  Eventually we found bathrooms and the escalator to the upper level and made our way to our seats, which were high, so high, above the stage on what felt like the side of a steep, crowded mountain.  Then we waited, because I had told Lee that Maná would start on time, for the concert to begin, watching AT&T commercials in Spanish.  But, when the band started, all of that anxiety, of the drive, of the parking, of the huge, crowded venue and the seats on the side of a mountain, and of the wait, was gone within the first few beats of "Lluvia al Corazón."

The Maná concert was epic.  That's Lee's word – epic – but I can think of no better descriptor.  Weeks later, I'm still reliving it, still replaying the music, still in love with the band.  The design of the show was perfect, not that a rock concert is about design, but, in such a large arena, visuals and effects are part of the experience, and too often the screen and technical stuff detract from the music.  But Maná's people are obviously the best, because the video screens were visible but not distracting, so that my focus stayed on the stage, on the band members, while softer visuals floated across curtains on the stage.  More importantly, the visuals and effects, and all of the high-quality planning that obviously went into creating the show, was secondary to the sound.  The sound was the show.  From the first beats of "Lluvia al Corazón" to the final notes of "En el Muelle de San Blas," I was entranced, in it, not caring in the least that my seat was so high up or so far away.  The sound was so good that, at times, I just closed my eyes and existed in the music, soaking in Maná.  So good that I could feel the music, feel the bass drum, yet never reached for my ear plugs.  So good that songs that had never been my favorites on a CD came to life in concert.

Just as the band came alive in concert, with Fher clapping, Arriba, arriba, San Antonio! between songs, with Alex twirling and spinning and crashing down as he held the beat, or beats, even through the pauses and introductions, with Sergio looking especially tanned and fit as he leaned into each guitar solo, while Juan remained, as always, the steady bass player in the shadows.  They played several songs from the new album and many classic hits from past albums, including "Mariposa Traicionera," "Corazón Espinado," "Rayando el Sol," and "Labios Compartidos."  But they especially devoted time to the songs of Dónde Jugarán Los Niños?, which was where the crowd, a mixed-ages group of Latinos, many of whom had grown up listening to Maná or, like me, could describe the arc of their adult life set to Maná, went the most wild.  The energy in that huge space was amazing, with so many people singing along that Fher could simply point his mike to the crowd and the song would be carried.  Over and over again, song after song.  So I guess I can't point to any one thing – the sound or the skill of the band or the right mix of songs or the energy of the crowd – that made the concert so enjoyable.  It was all of those things, all together, merging with so many years of emotions and memories tied to listening to Maná.

I have only one, small complaint about the show, and that is that they did not play "Bendita Tu Luz."  When the lights came back on and the people in our row had started leaving, Lee and I looked at each other and asked, sadly, "Bendita Tu Luz"?  I really wanted to hear that song live, was looking forward to it throughout the concert.  So it was a disappointment to leave without hearing my song, but as we sat in the parking lot surrounded by cars playing every Maná album from Dónde Jugarán Los Niños? to Drama y Luz, I thought about the fact that there were simply so many good Maná songs that not all of them could make it into the show.  Or, perhaps, not playing "Bendita Tu Luz" was Mana's way of making sure that I will see them in concert on their next tour.

Until then, thank you, Maná, for so many years of great music.  Thank you for carrying me from dorm rooms to co-op houses to apartments to a house of my own.  Thank you for the inspiration and the support and the honesty.  But most of all, Gracias por tanto amor.