Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feelin' a Little Snaucy

This past weekend I canned a batch of marinara sauce with my mom. The recipe has been handed down from my grandma on my mom's side - a canning aficionado if ever there was one. I have to admit I made a few alterations to accommodate my love of a spicy, garlicky, robust sauce. Even still, it can't get much simpler:
  • fresh tomatoes (from grandma's garden)
  • onion
  • garlic
  • jalapeno, red pepper and cayenne pepper
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • sugar
  • olive oil

This sauce is very versatile - you can use it on anything from spaghetti to pizza, to dipping. Our batch made exactly 8 pints, so that's a little less that one pint per month until next summer, right? I'll see if we can ration it out and make it last.

This was my second adventure into the world of canning and I feel pretty confident in my own ability to "put up" something unsupervised. My grandma's garden is going to have a lot more tomatoes before the season ends, so I'm giving serious thought to picking a half bushel or so and canning some whole tomatoes. I always feel guilty buying canned tomatoes at the store when I know that they could be so much better if I just made a little effort.

My radish that I planted this past Saturday are already up, and it's only been 3 days! I've never seen a seed germinate so fast. The onion are still growing well and I'll be damned if I don't think we're going to have more eggplant on the way.

My fingers are crossed for rain tonight, and I'm sure the garden is crossing its leaves. Things are starting to look a little crispy around here...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Little Fall Planting

I finally did it - I've been sulking and putting it off - I pulled my cukes, squash, and zucchini plants today. They were done, shot, crispy, ready to throw in the towel. I would say that all three were a success for a first time grower, but it was time to make room for some fall planting.

So, having freed up some nice space, I decided to revisit some of my favorite seeds from the spring. I was really pleased with everything I tried, but the beets and radish stuck out in my mind the most. Firstly I sowed my French Breakfast radish seeds in the container that the cucumber used to be in. Next I sowed my Cylindra beet seeds in the container that used to hold the zucchini and squash. I love seeing each nubby seed nestled in his new bed in the soft, warm soil.

The other weekend when I pulled the pea and dill plants, I had planted some more green onion seeds, which are now up and looking quite plucky, to my great delight. I was rather disappointed with them this spring, but I attributed that to various reasons that I've rectified this time around. I'm very sensitive to how much water I give them, as I think I was over-watering before. The plants seem to get fairly strong if I can just keep the seedlings from dampening-off.

After planting, I did some general pruning, cleaning, and fertilizing. Lastly I decided to mix things up a bit and rearrange the containers on the balcony. The herbs have always been in the middle in a cluster - that didn't change.

I did move the tomatoes to the left side so they could chill with the peppers and eggplant, which is still hanging on and blooming like a fool.

This then freed up the right side for the "seed nursery" - beet, radish, and onion.

It's like rearranging the furniture in your house every now and then; a new perspective on something you see every day can make it feel like a brand new garden.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Fall, Just Around the Corner

I feel like I've been neglecting the garden lately - a weekend out of town, house-sitting for the inlaws - it's been a busy past couple of weeks.

My eggplant, zucchini, and squash plants have been looking a little crispy lately - I'm not sure if it's overwatering, the container's I'm growing them in, or just the end of their productive season, but it's slightly depressing. I think I'm going to hold-off on watering for a little bit and see if things turn around. The main problem is that they've been dropping a lot of leaves. They're all still blooming, though. Hey, I said this year was going to be a learning year, right?

On a good note, though, my pepper plants have been producing an overabundance of red and green peppers. I've deliberately left a few jalapeno and banana peppers on the vine to turn red.

Tonight I harvested a nice mix of green and red peppers and made some cheese quesadillas with fresh salsa and guacamole. I layered the quesadillas with cheddar, monterey jack, diced jalapeno/banana peppers, and some cilantro. The salsa was a quick slurry of garden tomatoes, diced vidalia onion, diced jalapeno/banana peppers, a clove of garlic, and more cilantro. The guacamole was a mash of avocado (duh), lime juice, more vidalia onion, another clove of garlic (gotta love that garlic), and salt and pepper. I have to say, it was a YUMMY dinner. Salsa made from scratch is so much better than the jarred mushy stuff you buy in the store. If it's summer, make your own damn salsa!

I've been thinking about my plans for the fall garden. Some things are obviously going to remain in their containers until frost, such as the herbs, peppers, and tomatoes. The things that will be replaced include the peas, dill, cucumbers, and probably the eggplant, zucchini, and squash (if they don't shape up in the very near future).

Tonight I went ahead and pulled the pea and dill plants as they were brown and clearly dead. Just for the hell of it, since I didn't give them a fair shot this spring, I planted some green onions in both pots. I'll see if I can't get a better return this time around now that the onions won't be competing with lettuce for sunlight.

As much as I'd like to order some fun new seeds for this fall, I'm going to hold off until next spring to do more experimenting in the garden. My theme for next spring is going to be "heirloom." More on that later. So what that means for this fall is that I'll be sticking with the seeds that produced well earlier this spring, like the beets, radish, and possibly lettuce or carrots.

I finally got some time at home to just putter (as much as you can putter on a small balcony) in the garden and do some cleaning up. As much as I'd like to just chuck the brown leaves and branches over the railing, it really doesn't look that nice in the yard and I'm sure the neighbors wouldn't appreciate it - I ended up with a nice sack full of clippings and dead leaves.
There's something about "making the rounds" and tidying things up that make you feel calm and at one with the earth. My brain may be racing and dizzyingly anxious with my first step outside, but I quickly find that after losing myself in the first 10 or 15 minutes of patient tending, my mind has become remarkably clear and quiet. It's like losing yourself in a great book - 2 hours can go by and it may only feel like 10 minutes. Zen, no?

I am really starting to feel fall just around the corner. Something in the air, something in the way the insects sound at night, something in the sunrise and sunset. The approach of this fall is carrying mixed feelings for me. While fall is my most favorite season, it was last fall, last Labor Day, that I has my first episode with panic and anxiety.

For some reason I very closely associate memories with the time of year that they occurred. Specifically, events that occurred at this time last year are most fresh in my mind. I'm not necessarily scared to face those memories, but they're not something that I am particularly nostalgic about.

I can most painfully remember the walks I would take last fall at my old job. My mind would be so dizzied, so stunned by anxiety and worry; my stomach would be in knots; my vision would be bleary; my heart would beat to a terrifying rhythm; it felt like a 50lb weight was pressing down on my chest...I felt like crawling out of my skin. Knowing that I couldn't just leave, my last desperate resort would be taking a walk at Hauck Gardens, a small urban park sandwiched in the middle of Clifton. The juxtaposition of huge, centuries old trees and greenery with the nauseating, panicked feeling in my heart is something that I will never forget.

I'm grateful for where I am now with my life - it's miles away from last year. I'm grateful that I'm not stuck in my house, scared to drive and be around people. I'm grateful that I had the strength to get a new job and leave my old comfortable, yet unhealthy job behind. I'm grateful that I am surrounded by a small yet amazing group of people who care about me and love me unconditionally. As scary as last fall was, this "anniversary" of sorts will be proof to myself that I have the strength to overcome and learn from almost anything.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Canning 101

Last weekend I spent the day canning pickled beets with my mom.

As far back as I can remember my family has canned and frozen produce from the garden every summer. Everything from tomatoes, green beans, peas, lima beans, corn, beets, relish, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries - I could go on an on. No wonder I have to wipe away the drool whenever I get near a homegrown fruit or veggie.

While we always used to help my mom with the canning and freezing, I've never actually had a "lesson" into the finer details. My mom and I both agreed that it's been long overdue, and what better time to learn than with a freshly pulled batch of Detroit Reds?

We used the "hot pack" canning method. The pickle was simple, taken directly from the Ball Blue Book - cider vinegar, water, sugar, cinnamon sticks, and allspice berries. What is it that's so satisfying about sliding the skins off of warm beets? It's a little unsettling, though, when you have a bowl full of skinned beets - they glisten like some sort of organ - a kidney or heart. Not very appetizing, I know, the end product is deLISH. My beet hoard in the pantry has just grown by 10 more jars. I'm stocked for the next year!

Next up on the canning list is tomatoes in three weeks. The tomato plants in my Grandma's garden are just starting to turn like crazy, so we'll be stocked with fresh 'maters for the rest of the summer. I think we're going to do up a batch of her great pizza sauce...I can smell some of my husband's homemade pizzas now....baby, are you reading this? (hint hint)