Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Permanent Addition

Do you remember these little babies?

Those are our apple trees when they were just sprouts. This photo is probably from early winter 2008 (there's snow out the window in the background), and the seedlings barely had their first true leaves.  Links to our previous posts about the apples are at the end of this post, but I'll recap:

In the fall of 2008, we got a gigantic apple from Len's Wisconsin cousins, and we saved its seeds to plant. We later found out from the cousins that it was a Wolf River apple, and we did get to see the "mother tree" on their farm last September. (Will our trees produce apples similar to their parent variety? Hopefully, time will tell.)

Our research showed we should refrigerate the seeds in a damp paper towel to germinate them.  After weeks in the fridge, our seeds looked the same as ever, so we just put them into some soil in a six-inch pot. The photo above is what happened soon after.  Six of the seeds had sprouted. Whether the refrigeration helped that along or not, we just don't know. They seemed to grow rather slowly over the next several weeks, but then we separated them, and after that, they grew a little faster. By April 2009, the tallest of the six was eight inches high.

We kept them in the house until late spring or early summer and then put the pots outside to enjoy direct sunlight, summer heat, and fresh air. Sometime over the summer, or just before, we lost one of the six trees. The other five continued to grow, and we re-potted them—the smallest two into only slightly large pots (10-inch, probably), and the other three into much larger containers. And they continued to grow. For the winter of 2009, they would all stay outside but would be protected in some way: In November, as the young trees began to shed their leaves, we buried the smaller two (in their pots, most of the stems/trunks still exposed) in the mulch in our front garden bed, and we brought the larger three into the garage, where we wrapped their pots in layers of newspaper and blankets—to insulate the roots against freezing through.

All five trees made it through the winter! In March 2010, the trees were waking up from their winter nap, so we brought the large trees out from the garage back to the sunny (but still snowy) front yard. We kept the small ones buried a while longer since their roots were more vulnerable in those small containers to the unpredictable nighttime temperatures of early spring. Rabbits had nibbled down the stems of those two buried outside, but they bounced back and sprouted as many leaves as their stubby little stems could hold.

I believe it was in the summer of 2010 that we gave our smallest two trees to Len's aunt, and they are steadily growing in her backyard. Then we re-potted our three remaining trees one more time into even larger containers (but containers still small enough to carry into the garage for the winter again).

Once again, when the winter temperatures led the trees to dormancy, we moved them into the garage and wrapped them in newspaper and blankets. Once again, the trees overwintered successfully, and  we moved them in their giant pots out to the front porch again in the spring. We knew they couldn't stay in their pots forever, and that even in the pots they would eventually become too large to keep moving back and forth, but what were we supposed to do?

Our small and shady backyard already had a tree. Could we get away with digging it out and replacing it with one of these apple saplings? Not likely. Not very practical, either. Our front yard was even smaller than the back, but it did have enough space for planting small trees. In fact, each of our next-door neighbors had a tree in their front yard. Those trees were part of our neighborhood's very tidy pattern for trees in the front yard—every other house. Would our homeowners' association let us break the pattern with our apple trees? Also not likely, but it was our best shot.

Late in the summer of 2011, Len submitted the paperwork, and against all odds, the association approved our request! Next hurdle: call the utility hotline to see where we could safely dig. Eesh, it was tight. And maybe that's what the association was counting on; maybe they approved our request to seem accommodating, figuring we'd discover there was no place to plant the trees anyway. Ha! We squeezed two trees in, one at each corner of our big front porch. I should say, Len squeezed the two trees in. He did all of the digging to plant those suckers—holes nearly twice as big as the large pots they were in—and that is no easy feat when the earth here is mostly heavy clay and chock full of rocks.

Now only one tree remains in a pot, and it spent its third winter in the garage. It is back on the front porch now, enjoying the southern exposure with its siblings. Those two spent the winter outside in their new, permanent locations. They are looking healthily bushy this spring, so I think we'll do our first pruning in the fall. And, now we wait to see if the trees will flower in the springs to come.

In the meantime, we need to find a home for that last potted tree.

Our apple tree history:
April 21, 2009 (seedlings)
November 3, 2009 (winterizing)
March 20, 2010  (after winterizing)
March 4, 2012 (pruning)

Shared at Eat Make Grow 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's New in the Garden

Here's a bird's-eye view of the community garden only a a couple of weeks after it officially opened. By late summer, it will no longer be a picturesque patchwork of neat garden plots but instead a tangled jungle of vegetables and prairie weeds. Let's zoom in on our plot.
Garden plots on left and right, parking lot in center.
Last year we planted a lot of winter squash. Some varieties didn't make it, but if I remember correctly, we harvested several small pumpkins, a few calabaza (downside: it was a humongous plant for a little produce; upside: it seemed the most resistant to powdery mildew and pests), I think seven sweet dumplings, only one delicata, and three butternuts. Not the yield we'd hoped for, but not too bad. Yet after battling powdery mildew and squash bugs almost all season (for the second year in a row), we decided that 2012 would not be a squash year.

I may do the sweet dumpling squash again, because they are light enough to grow on a simple vertical frame, they're small, and they were delicious. But otherwise, we have a lot of space open without those gourds in our 20x30-foot plot. Some new crops will take their place.

The potato patch. Last year we produced a handful of small potatoes—it was a casual experiment. This year, we bought a 5-lb. bag of red seed potatoes and planted them all! This photo was taken after we had cut the seed potatoes into sections (one or two eyes per piece) and were letting them sit out and callus for a few days, following the instructions on the bag. Yes, that is a pizza box they're sitting on. Reuse, right?

Carrots. We were lucky enough to get another gardener's extra carrots last year, and it inspired us to plant three rows of our own.

More beets! I thought I could plant the beets in stages for a longer harvest period. It got too hot too quickly and only my first round of 2011 beets did really well.  This time, I'm just planting them all at once in a bigger area, and we'll just eat a lot of beets while we can. And hopefully pickles some, too. Then maybe I'll plant a fall crop in the bed in our front yard (no time for late plantings in the community garden before it closes for the season).

Trying harder at the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Because I failed at those last year. So far, our tomato seedlings did great under the grow light, and we just transplanted them outside this weekend. But the peppers didn't even sprout. Is it too cold in our house? Our my seeds old? I think we'll have to buy pepper plants instead of growing them from seed. And I have two very tiny eggplant seedlings. I guess it's not too late to plant a few more seeds and hope the warmer weather induces faster sprouting and growth, because I gotta get those babies outside soon!

The other new stuff in our garden isn't over at the community plot, it's here in our yard. We dug out one more evergreen bush from our front yard and expanded the garden bed. It's now about 10x4 feet. I realized too late last year that the soil there was too acidic for most veggies, probably due to all those evergreen needles composting there. Not much would grow. Len and I have added a lot of our own compost as well as some composted manure we bought, as well as peat moss, to hopefully balance out the soil pH. Just this weekend, I planted a bunch of herbs and lettuce and stuff, so we'll see if the seedlings come out better this time.

Also in our front bed is this mammoth brussels sprout plant, which my parents gave us from their garden. Their climate was a little too warm for the sprouts to develop properly, but ours might be perfect. I know the plant looks mangled and droopy, but it's just too big for itself. It is in fact growing little brussels sprouts right now near the top of each stalk. Here's the thing, though: I think brussels sprouts are supposed to be a late fall crop; I hear they taste best if you wait until after a frost to harvest them. So, will these take all summer to grow? Or, are they developing too early because this was already a mature plant (two or three years old, in fact)? Also, can I keep them cabbage moths and caterpillars from destroying them? (Last year, they ravaged our kale.)

Off to the side of the front-yard garden, grapes! Dozens of grape babies—just like this little bunch pictured below—have formed on our vine, and I am so excited! Perhaps our vine has finally matured—I think it's four years old now, possibly five. It has produced grapes only one other time, and that was two very small bunches of very small grapes. Japanese beetles feasted on the grape leaves last summer, so we'll have to watch for signs of them and kill on sight. I wonder if the bird feeder hanging by the grape vine will attract birds who will then go after the beetles? Or, will the birds just eat our grapes instead?

In our backyard, blueberries! Last fall I planted a nice-sized Liberty blueberry bush. Apparently, optimal fruit production comes from having more than one variety of blueberry nearby. So this spring, I planted next to it a small Pink Lemonade blueberry bush. Then rabbits nibbled on it and made it even smaller. Rgh. I've since wrapped some fencing around both blueberry bushes to protect them from critters, but I don't think I'll see any awesome dark pink berries from that one this season. The liberty, however, has a few clusters of lovely flowers.

We're now growing four kinds of fruit in our yard: blueberries, grapes, raspberries, and strawberries. It's actually six kinds of fruit if you count two varieties of raspberries, two varieties of blueberries, and the future apples (more on that in another post).

Lastly, from the garden, "Hello" from Mr. Toad.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tamales, by gollies!

Corny title, yes. But tamales are a corny food. The main ingredient is masa harina (a sort of corn flour that is usually white and is much finer ground than corn meal), and then you wrap them up in corn husks.

Anyway, for Cinco de Mayo, I attempted homemade tamales for the first time. Here's a pictorial account.

First, the ingredients list:

Tamale Filling
1 1/4 lbs. pork shoulder
half a large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
a generous sprinkling of your favorite taco seasoning (I used Penzey's Arizona Dreaming)
Water to cover

Tamale Dough
2 cups masa harina
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups water or broth
2/3 cup shortening

about 16 corn husks (I ended up with only 13 tamales but did occasionally double-wrap when the husk wasn't very wide)

Here's the pork shoulder, onion, garlic, and seasoning after cooking all day in the crock pot. Oh yeah.

I shredded the tender pork into smaller pieces and transferred that and all its juices into a little frying pan over medium-high heat so I could boil away most of the water, thickening up the savory liquid and almost caramelizing the meat. In other words, this:

Became this:

While the meat was bubbling away, the corn husks were soaking in warm water. Here, I weighed them down with a plate to keep them submerged, a trick I learned from watching Rick Bayless.

And while the corn husks were soaking while the pork was bubbling, I prepared the tamale dough. First, mix together the masa, baking powder, and salt. By the way, thanks to the large Mexican population of our area, our grocery store carries ingredients such as masa and corn husks in quantities that are not, let's say, novelty size. I have plenty of masa leftover to practice making tamales for a while.

The next step is adding the water to the dry mixture. Use your hands.

Find any little clumps and squish them with your fingers until you have a soft, uniform dough.

In another bowl, beat the shortening until it is fluffy. Then beat in the masa mixture until the dough is spongy. I had the mixer on for less than a minute. I guess the dough seemed spongy.

Drain and rinse the corn husks and lay them out on your work surface. You'll see they naturally curl into little boats. So drop some dough into each boat and spread it about a half-inch thick. I think I had about the right amount of dough in each husk—maybe a little too much in some—but mostly I should have spread it a little wider rather than so thick and right down the center.

Arrange a tablespoon or so of meat down the center of each tamale.

Then roll them up, folding the ends toward the center. I only folded up the bottom (the skinny end of the husk), because I saw on a cooking show that you could steam the tamales with one end open—the top end. And actually, I felt this was easier, because you don't have to worry about finding a way to keep the top edge folded down.

You steam tamales in a tamale steamer, of course. You can use any steamer, really, but we actually have a real tamale steamer. It's the giant pot we use to make our apple butter in the fall. We bought it because it was huge and inexpensive, but it also came with the round, holey insert (appropriately called the steamer insert) you see resting on top of it there. Do you see that indent near the bottom of the pot? Well, that it is where the steamer insert rests inside the pot, and you pour water in to just below that level.

Large as it is, the tamale steamer is meant for the large batches of Christmas or New Year tamales that families often make. My single batch of thirteen tamales didn't even come close to filling all the space in this big pot, but I had to make them stand on end since their tops were open. So I filled the extra space in the pot with something else that can withstand boiling temperature, something we always have around the house.

Now put the pot on the stove, put the lid on the pot and crank up the burner. Steam the tamales for about an hour. To check if they're done, pull one out with tongs and gently unwrap it. If the corn husk pulls easily away from the masa, then the dough is cooked!

Success! As I mentioned earlier, I need to improve my dough-spreading, but the pork I cooked was outstanding (especially the leftover bits Len and I ate right out of the pan while the tamales were steaming), and the tamales held together and turned out pretty tasty. Next time, I might also try the fried chile sauce that traditionally goes with the tamales.