Category: Gardening

Quick Pickling

August 19th, 2013 — 9:03pm
Quick Pickled Vegetables

Pickled Vegetables

As the summer season for vegetables reaches its peak it becomes harder and harder to find recipes for the wave of tomatoes, followed by zucchini, and then followed by eggplant. In some cases you forget to look closely under the plants and over night a cute little zucchini morphs into a gigantic relatively flavorless squash. And with all your hard composting, planting and mulching at stake you really do not have the heart to give up and toss the freakish excesses of the vegetable garden into the compost pile.

This year not wanting to turn on the oven or cook over the stove I have also given over to the uses of kitchen chemistry to salvage the larger versions of the vegetables. Kitchen chemistry of course involves the use of pickling, although not with the intention of saving food for the winter, but with the intention of creating something edible out of something relatively tasteless. It involves thinly slicing vegetables and then soaking them in a pickling solution for a brief period of time before serving them as a side dish or condiment.

The key to success is the correct ratio of vinegar to sugar, and the selection of the pickling spices. I find the spices labeled “Pickling Spices” in the grocery store can work their magic over a long period of time. But in the short span of a few hours they can be downright overwhelming, and, too pickle-like. After all we are not using cucumbers necessarily but things that you would be more accustomed to sauté, or use in a red sauce. So the “Quick Pickle” requires something a bit more subtle. In my case I found a bit of caraway seed and fennel seed work just perfectly. As to what you choose to pickle I have come to the conclusion that necessity is greater than the influence of taste. Eggplant and zucchini work just as well as cucumber or carrot. Incredibly thin slices are important with the heartier zucchini and eggplant than with the cucumber or onion. You may want to invest in a mandolin or lose the tops of your fingers. So I offer my recipe for general purposes. What you choose to include is up to you. You really cannot go wrong.

1 comment » | Gardening, Recipes

Lemony Preservation

April 28th, 2013 — 11:43am
Preserved Meyer Lemons

Preserved Meyer Lemons

As with most things in our garden we either get nothing (like our paltry tomato crop) or you get so much all at one time you either start eating the crop three meals per day or you end up composting the rest. Our Meyer lemon tree burst forth with fruit last year, most of it ripening within two weeks. I love lemons, but 40 in two weeks is a bit much to handle. A bit of quick research led to the idea of preserving lemons.

Unbeknownst to me preserved lemons are apparently an important part of Moroccan cuisine. I guess they have the same issues we had: too many lemons and not enough time to use them up before they go bad. Although the Moroccans do not use Meyer lemons I figured the sweeter Meyer lemons could be preserved just as well.

The process is very simple. It does require some waiting before you use the preserved lemons. Since you use the whole lemon, the rind has to soften first in the liquid. The result is a taste that is surprisingly subtle. You would think the use of the whole lemon would overwhelm a dish. The preserving process, which is essentially a brining process, takes the lemon notes to a very low level. It really produces some unique results in flavor that are hard to describe.

So first the recipe for brining. We will follow up with a couple of recipes, one borrowed from Moroccan cuisine and another of pure, delicious invention.

1 comment » | Gardening, Recipes

Back to the Blogging Front

April 23rd, 2013 — 4:28pm
Pickled Peppers

Pickled Peppers

The silence on the blogging front does not mean that nothing meaningful has been going on at the Busy Gourmand.  The hiatus was a means of going back to basics and included a period of experimentation in the garden and in the kitchen.  There have been plenty of new recipes developed.  We have figured out better ways to get more out of the garden. And we have even been able to figure out improvements in the ways to use herbs and spices along with producing our own spices.

Preserved Meyer Lemons

Preserved Meyer Lemons

The new recipes will dribble out slowly as we are sure they have been perfected.  And the gardening tips and techniques will be shared so you too can have the freshest of herbs and spices in your kitchen.  As with life the journey from idea to recipe is often more interesting than the outcome.  We will include more narrative so you can figure out what the heck has been going on here in North Texas.

Deep Dish Pizza

Deep Dish Pizza

The recipes will be as diverse as deep dish pizza and a kind of hummus-like spread.  The new techniques will include smoking meats and peppers as well as the best way to use dried oregano (warning it can be a bit messy). I do not want to spoil all the fun on the front page of the blog.  If you want a syllabus of what is to come you can find out more at the link here.  In the mean time it is great to be back at the keyboard.  I hope our time away will prove fruitful for your cooking ideas as well.

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Garden Surprises

June 8th, 2012 — 9:18am
calabaza and butternut squash hybrid

Exterior Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid

We try to compost and recycle as much as we can. I am not sure we are trying to reduce our “carbon footprint” or we just hate to see anything go to waste. Over the past 10 years we have gone from throwing away two large trash bags of material per week to about one-third of a trash bag per week. Most of this is kitty litter and the very few things we cannot compost or recycle.

Once you start composting your realize that the pile of detritus is an amazing thing. It actually takes on a life of its own. When done correctly it is pleasant smelling, somewhere between earthy and the smell of yogurt. With enough citrus elements it actually smells a lot like a fruit drink. The color changes from greens and browns to a dense chocolate color. And when spread over the garden it yields some incredible plants, intended and unintended.

I am guessing that our compost never gets to a very hot temperature as many of the seeds that end up in the pile will germinate once added to the garden. We have become used to cucumbers growing among the tomatoes and squash sprouting around the basil. This year we have had two very surprising guests in the garden. The first are two tomatillo plants; surprising only because I cannot remember the last time I made tomatillo salsa. The second seems to be a plant that has hybridized from two foods we compost regularly, butternut squash and calabaza squash, a Mexican squash similar to zucchini although a bit fatter and lighter in color.

calabaza and butternut hybrid

Interior Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid

This hybrid squash has the interior texture and color of the butternut squash, with very tiny translucent seeds. The exterior is more like the calabaza, green and readily edible although a bit tougher than its true Mexican cousin. We have prepared it sauteed and baked. It is less sugary than the butternut, but much more flavorful than the calabaza. And since we did not grow either calabaza or butternut squash last year we have no idea how the two species could have crossed unless the compost elves did some of their magic.

We have saved some of the seeds in the hope that it is not a sterile plant like so many other hybrids. If not we may have found a new species of squash. Patent office here we come!

calabaza and butternut on the vine

Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid On The Vine

2 comments » | Gardening, Musings

All Quiet on the Blogging Front

January 31st, 2012 — 9:34am
italian seed packets

Italian Seed Packets

There has not been a lot of blogging as of late. In addition to my rather full plate of things to do I have added another business opportunity. This new opportunity seems to be eating up a lot of time while I climb the learning curve. This does not mean I have not been cooking. I have been making some old favorites while making changes along the way. I reinvented my cassoulet to include many more herbs and lamb. I am not a big fan of lamb but it seemed to give the cassoulet a different flavor dimension.

It looks like we are not going to get much of a winter here in North Texas. So it is time to start thinking about things to plant in the garden before the heat of the summer sets in. I usually just go to the specialty nursery and buy my plants. But I ran across some Italian seeds in beautiful packets. Leave it to the Italians to inspire me to try some seeds this year.

Of course I reached for things that remind me of Italy. San Marzano tomatoes (pomodoro alto San Marzano), bulb fennel (finocchio gigante di Napoli) which is impossible to find here in Texas, the spicy red Calabrese pepper (peperoncino Calabrese), and for good measure some arugula (rucola) and some chicory. The final two have been in the garden before. It is just that the packaging was so inspiring I had to buy them. We of course will add basil and eggplant later on.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. I have heard San Marzano tomatoes are hard to grow and the bulb fennel may not ever turn into a bulb. It never hurts to try new things.

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Final Harvest

November 4th, 2010 — 9:43am

Pepper Cornucopia

We are supposed to have our first frost this evening. This causes me to go out and harvest every last bit of life off the plants in the backyard. I was struck by the number of peppers we have been enjoying this fall when we hardly had any peppers to eat over the summer. I guess the peppers are sensitive to high temperatures. They do not seem to mind the cooler nights and shorter days. I have been especially surprised by the habanero peppers. We did not harvest one of them until late September. As you can see from the picture we will have enough habaneros to last us for a couple of years. We already have several containers of pickled habaneros from the garden. I suppose it will be a very spicy winter.

We were also excited about an heirloom pepper called a St. Nick. It is a sweet pepper shaped like a pumpkin. While the plants grew to an enormous size, we have only had one or two to enjoy until now. They take a long time to turn the red color that people prize them for in cooking. I guess we will be enjoying some semi-red peppers for the next week or so.

This will also be pesto-making night at our house. All the basil leaves will be stripped off the rather thick branches of the basil. We will turn it into pesto to be enjoyed during the winter months. I have used the same pesto recipe for years, although you skip the cheese part if you are going to freeze the pesto. I like it just fine tossed with a bit of pasta. We did give you some other ideas about using the pesto including chicken and pasta and a lasagna. I also like to mix it with mayonnaise and use it as a salad dressing or as a spread on a sandwich.

We also had a very unusual purple basil this year. Usually I do not buy this variety unless I plan to toss it with salad greens. This particular type of purple basil has an especially strong anise flavor. I think we will try it as a pesto this winter. I am keeping some of the seeds just in case the pesto works out.

And finally our winter/spring salad garden left us some seeds in the ground. This has given us a bit or early arugula and some very tasty mustard greens. We have been using all of this in salads and stir fries. I am not one to argue with a delicious fate.

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Après le Déluge

June 17th, 2010 — 8:00am

Heirloom Tomatoes

Our flood of tomatoes continues unabated. It was great when we were getting about one or two tomatoes per day. Our affinity for salads could keep up. Lately we have been averaging six to eight tomatoes per day. I gave some thought to putting them in my yogurt in the morning. But I think I would miss my granola.

We already explored tomato tarts which use about four tomatoes each. I opted to do a decidedly un-Busy Gourmand kind of thing and make a tomato sauce from scratch. (So much for “good food, little time”) If it did not turn out at least I would have reduced the tomato stockpile by eight tomatoes buying us one more day before they could be replenished.

Once more my internet research yielded some very strange versions of a tomato sauce. Sugar seemed to be a primary ingredient in many of these recipes. I suppose if you are using tomatoes from the grocery store sugar might be needed. But the last thing my tomatoes needed was sugar. So I shut off my computer and went to my old go-to girlfriend Lidia Bastianich. As with most of her recipes I used them as a guideline. While she enjoys singing opera while gently pressing her tomatoes in a food mill, I took the more direct route of the food processor. This method is a little more aggressive but certainly a time saver.

Spaghetti in Fresh Tomato Sauce

The results were delicious. We both sat back and said “just like Italy.” The sweet, mild, freshness of the tomatoes came through immediately. I was a bit generous with the basil which actually seemed to work well. I was worried that half the tomatoes were an heirloom plum variety and half were an heirloom called German stripe. It did not seem to make a big difference. And the color was so different from a canned tomato sauce; more toward the orange spectrum than the red. If you are up for a little bit of extra work the fresh tomato sauce seems to be worth the extra effort.

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Garden Update

June 4th, 2010 — 10:05am

Russet Potatoes

We are getting back into the normal routine after the trip to Buenos Aires.  While we were away it seems like the garden doubled in volume with everything growing like mad in the hot Texas air.  Tomatoes seem to be coming in droves.  We harvested our first cucumber ever.  The squash seem to be coming in at a brisk pace.

Will wanted to try potatoes this year.  We had tried to plant them a couple of times before with a very limited harvest.  It is now harvest time as the temperature rises about 90 degrees most days.  First up were the russets.  It was a small harvest of about six potatoes, but that was for one plant.  The good news is that they were delicious.  Very mild in flavor compared to the ones that are stored and then trucked across the country. 

Another observation is that the largest part of the garden was planted with home made compost with about 20% of the garden planted using compost purchased at the garden center.  The plants growing in our home made compost are significantly bigger than the ones planted in the other compost.  The fruiting of the plants in the home made compost seems to be significantly greater than the ones growing in the other compost.  I have also noticed that the areas of the garden using the home made compost have very few weeds.  I think the garden center compost comes full of seeds from sitting out in the open air before bagging. This goes to prove, at least in our case, that composting your own stuff is more productive than buying from the garden center. 

Barrel Composter

And speaking of compost we harvested our first compost from the barrel composter we bought a few weeks back.  This method of composting requires the added step of removing the compost from the barrel and placing it in another compost pen for holding until next spring.  Interesting thing though, the compost was fully broken down and it smelled really nice.  There was none of the sometimes garbage smell you get when composting the kitchen scraps.  I do not  think we will mind the added step.

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Ugly Tomatoes

May 25th, 2010 — 8:56am

The First Tomato

We have just begun the tomato harvest. The first one came off the vine looking more like a deformed basketball than a tomato. But if I have learned anything over the past few years it is that the sweetness of the tomato is proportional to its ugliness. Heirloom tomatoes have become all the rage due in large part to their meaty succulence in spite of their often ugly appearance. And while our first tomato was a beefsteak hybrid, its deformities seemed to indicate something special about its flavor. It turned out to be a very meaty sweet tomato which we paired with some fresh mozzarella and some basil.

Mystery Squash

The rest of the garden is just getting to the point of rapid fruit production. We have had a couple of Japanese eggplants and a couple of summer squash. But there is enough miniature fruit in the process to keep us in vegetables for a few months. We also had some uninvited guests, not of the bug variety, but of the vegetable variety. It seems that some seeds were present in our compost when we spread it on the garden. As a result we have a couple of varieties of squash we cannot identify as well as one variety of cucumber which as of yet is still a mystery as to its species. We have never eaten any squash that looks like these. How they got in the compost we will never know. If you know what they are let me know!

A Hopeful Garden

As for the ugly tomatoes, we will be knee deep in them soon enough. I think our composting yielded enough material for them to thrive this year. After our disaster last year I was a bit leery of even trying them again. But those little bitty plants I showed you several weeks back have turned into a forest of beefsteak, plum, cherry, and grape tomatoes. Looks like some good cooking coming up.

Tomato Jungle

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Gardening Obsession

April 8th, 2010 — 9:40am

Tomato Garden

Now comes the time of the year when I spend most of my waking hours working in and thinking about the garden. I decided to get started early this year. Last year we started a bit late and our harvest of tomatoes was meager and the harvest of many other vegetables was nonexistent. I am hoping with a little bit better planning we will actually get to enjoy more things from the garden.

Last year we also began the process of trying to compost everything from the kitchen and the back yard. It was an ugly process to say the least. However it yielded enough compost to spread a layer a couple of inches deep over the large garden in the backyard. The result I hope will be a much healthier, longer lasting crop of veggies.

Barrel Composter

To make things easier we bought a barrel composter this year. It was nearly impossible to turn the compost in the large, square, ground-based bin. So the plan this year is to largely compost in the barrel composter and store the composted material in the large bin to use next year. It seems like a lot of work. But, I am guessing, we saved over 30 bags of yard waste from going into the landfill. And we put no kitchen waste in the trash for most of the year. It will also give me something else to obsess about during the gardening season

This also gives me the excuse to say that I was so busy getting things done in the garden I did not post any new recipes this week. I’ll get back at it in earnest in the next few days

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