The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Return of Bean Friday! Chickpea, Pasta and Tomato Soup

This is the soup at day two, when the pasta started to fall apart. It was prettier day one, with all the pasta whole and springy. But you get the idea.

This one is a keeper. I had to share. We forget how good chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) can be. They get relegated to hummus duty and not much else. This is a mistake. When cooked right, chickpeas take on a sweet creaminess that ought to make them the queen of beans.

This recipe highlights chickpeas, using them both whole and pureed to make a rich, surprisingly creamy soup flavored with tomato and the faint perfume of rosemary. It also is a very simple recipe, requiring only 3 major ingredients, no stock, and not much in the way of prep. It does take a while to cook, but very little of your time is spent in the kitchen.

I found this recipe in the very useful The Silver Spoon cookbook, where it’s called Pasta e Ceci alla Toscana. The quantity made by the recipe was pretty small, and when I make soup, I make a lot, so I doubled their quantities. This is my interpretation.

————

Allow three hours of cooking time

You need:

2 cups dried chickpeas. Please don’t use canned beans for this recipe–I don’t think it will work. I also doubt other types of beans would work quite as well.
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh or home canned, chopped to spoon size if necessary.
8 oz. (approx.) of dried penne pasta, or any other shape pasta you prefer.
4 garlic cloves, peeled (and chopped if you don’t have a garlic press)
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Fresh Parmesan for topping, optional

The recipe called for not only an overnight soak for the beans, but also for three hours of cooking time. That seemed like overkill. What I ended up doing was letting my two cups of dried beans soak on the counter for 2 or 3 hours, by which time they’d doubled in size.  I’m not sure if pre-soaking is necessary at all, really. The long cooking time may be necessary to get the beans silky enough. This will all be the subject of future experiments.

Put your (maybe) soaked beans in a big pot and cover them with about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. At that point, scoop out about 2 cups of the beans (about half of the total) and a little of their liquid and puree them until smooth. Return the puree to the pot. (This step is the secret to the soup’s creaminess) Cover again, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours.

In the last half hour or so of cooking time, heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet. Using a garlic press, squeeze the garlic cloves into the oil (or added chopped garlic) and add the chopped herbs. Immediately add all of the tomatoes to the pan, including their juices. In my case, I just dumped in a 28 oz can of chopped tomatoes. Simmer this mix for about 15 minutes.

Add the cooked tomato mixture to the soup pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to a simmer.

Finally, add the dried pasta (the original recipe called for fresh tagliatelle, just fyi). I added about 8 oz. of penne pasta, because I thought the penne would look nice with the whole garbanzos. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 15 more minutes.

Add more water at any time during the process if it’s starting to look too thick. This soup can be as thin or thick as you like it, really. 

When the pasta is ready, do any final adjustments with S & P. It’s amazing how little seasoning this soup needs.

Pour into bowls and dress with lots of fresh grated Parmesan, fresh ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. The cheese makes it extra rich and tasty, but you can also serve it vegan style.

——

I’d classify this soup as kid friendly, vegan friendly, and husband friendly. Erik really liked it, and he is often suspicious of soup–he just doesn’t think soup is real food. (I know! He a lunatic.) But the pasta in it fooled him into thinking it was more of a pasta dish than a measly bowl of soup. Win-win!

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.

Announcement: Process Media/Feral House Party this Thursday in Los Angeles

Thursday, December 9, 6-9 
La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 
4633 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. 
Free. 
(323) 666-7667

Attention Angelinos (and folks nearby):

Our incredibly groovy publishers, Process Media, and their sister company, Feral House, are throwing a holiday party this Thursday. We’ll be there, just hanging out. If you don’t know Wacko/La Luz de Jesus, it’s a combo art gallery, book store and novelty shop. You could get a lot of Christmas shopping done there while you’re visiting us. Of course Process will be selling our book there, as well as their other wonderful offerings.

You can also meet:  Deborah Eden Tull (“The Natural Kitchen”), Mel Gordon (“Voluptuous Panic”),  Cletus Nelson (“Depression 2.0″) and Louis Sahagun (“Master of the Mysteries”) and Mr. Adam Parfrey, publisher.

Attention Everyone:

Online Book Sale



As part of the celebration, they’re offering a great sale on books: Buy any two Process or Feral House books online and get the third for free. Order here:

http://processmediainc.com/

http://feralhouse.com/



Ramshackle Solid is on Etsy

Photo by Ramshackle Solid

Those of you who follow the goings on at Ramshackle Solid know they have a really simple, graceful way with crafts, and with making new and making do around their place. Now they’re selling some of their stuff. Their debut offering is a line of these super cute bamboo flatware caddies that you can take with you to school or the office or on a picnic. Say goodbye to nasty plastic utensils, and hello to good living.

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Check out the Ramshackle Solid Store at Etsy.

Appletastic Apple Cake

Here’s something easy and delicious for you to make this weekend. You might even have all the ingredients on hand.

It’s a light, flavorful, not-too-sweet cake which is comprised mostly of apples held together by an egg batter. I suppose you could think of it as an apple quiche. It’s very pleasing, and versitile, too–it would be a good addition to brunch, or an afternoon snack, or, if dressed up with ice cream or whipped cream, it would be a fine dessert. This morning, I ate the leftovers for breakfast.

The recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells, which I’ve mentioned before.

The key to this recipe is good apples. The better the apple, the better the cake. Wells prefers acidic cooking apples for this recipe, recommending Cortland, Gala or Gravenstein. But she says sweeter cooking apples, like Jonagold, are good too. I used Fujis because that’s what I had on hand.

You’ll need:

Equipment:

A 9 inch springform baking pan. (These are pans with sides which open up and disengage from the bottom.)  If you don’t have one, you could make it in a regular round cake pan, or even a square one. It’s just that the final product is a little sticky, and the springform helps with a clean release. You’ll lose points for presentation if you have to dig it out of a regular pan, but it will still taste mighty good.

The cake batter:

1/2 cup flour
1/3 sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup whole milk

Apples, about 2 pounds worth. Wells says that’s about 4. I found it took 5 Fujis to add up to 2 lbs.

Peel and core the apples, cut them in half and slice the halves into thin slices.

The topping:

1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons melted butter

Put it together:

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F.

Butter the pan heavily and set it aside.

In a big bowl, combine the batter ingredients in the order listed. The dry come first in the list. Fork or whisk them around to blend them before you add the liquids. I cleared a well in the dry ingredients,  added all the liquid ingredients (vanilla, eggs, oil, milk) into the well, then used the whisk to draw the  dry stuff into the liquid, bit by bit, until I had a nice smooth batter.  But really, this isn’t fussy cooking so I suspect you could just dump it all together at once and stir it up.

When the batter is smooth, add in the apple slices and toss until they’re coated.

Pour the this apple batter mix into the greased pan and sort of jiggle it around until the apples are all lying more or less flat.

Put it on the center rack of the 400 degree oven. Bake this until the top turns golden, and the batter doesn’t look liquid anymore. You should be able to touch the surface and not encounter wet batter. Wells calls this “fairly firm.”  She says this should take 25 minutes.  For me, it took 35 minutes, but my oven may not have been sufficiently preheated.

While you’re waiting for it to bake, mix together the topping ingredients in a small bowl and have that standing by.

After 25 minutes or so, when the cake reaches this dryish, fairly firm state described above, take it out of the oven and pour the topping over the surface, then put it back into the oven to finish.

Finishing takes about 10 minutes. What you’re waiting for is for the surface to turn a yummy deep golden brown, perhaps a little dark on the high points (like a well cooked quiche), and again, for the surface to dry and firm up.  When it’s not quite done you’ll still be able to see liquid bubbly stuff broiling away at top. When it’s ready, it will mostly dry up, and the cake will feel firm when pressed.

(Edit: Comments have helped me remember that while 10 minutes was the recipe’s rec’d time, it took longer for it to brown–more like 15. Don’t pay as much attention to the clock as to color, and the dryness of the surface.)

Take the cake out, let it cool for at least 10 minutes, then ease a knife all around the sides. The browned sides of this thing are my favorite part, so be careful to keep that crusty stuff intact. It also looks nice. After you finish loosening the edges, release the springform.

This cake is meant to be served at room temperature. Wells specified that it should be served in thin slices, but we didn’t really follow that advice. It’s more like we each took half.




What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Ask Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown

The yodeling around here is non-stop. Photo by Elon Shoenholz

Hey Kids!

We thought it would be fun to find out what’s on your mind.

If you’ve got a question you’d like some advice on, this the place to ask. We’re best at answering questions about things like chickens, gardening, pickling and fixing bicycles. We’re not so great with questions regarding physics, Sanskrit translations or intellectual property law, but you’re welcome to ask nonetheless. If you have questions about us, our house, our garden, etc., we’d be happy to answer those, too.

Mr. Homegrown likes the widgets, so he’s putting one below that allows you to leave a voice message on the blog instead of a comment. I’m not really sure what the point of that is, but if you do it, you’ll make his day.

Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I fell into temptation and bought Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast at the Theodore Payne Foundation this week. I should know by now not to look around that book store. Like Ulysses, I should tie myself to the mast–pay for my native plants and get out. Somehow it never works.

Seaweed, Salmon is a pretty little book. Paperback, thin, but coffee table worthy, because it’s so interesting and at the same time, skimmable. A good gift book. It’s a loose collection of folklore, personal narrative, recipes and preparation tips for wild foods, well-illustrated with color photos. (It is not, however, a plant identification book.)

Yes, I’m on the California Indian/native plant train again (see my recent recommendations) but the wild foods discussed in this book are not exclusively Californian. It covers all sorts of common wild foods, like acorns, elderberries, and rosehips, as well as wild game. They discuss coastal foods like oysters and seaweed, as well as Southwest-specific foods, like yucca, agave, and our ever-prolific friend, the prickly pear.

What I like best about it are the personal stories, and after our turkey business last week, I’m drawn to the stories about hunting. There’s one arresting reminicence of how this man’s mother went into the woods alone with a gun, took down a big buck, dressed it and hauled half of it up a tree, carried the other half back to her camp, and treed that, too…and woke the next morning to find a mountain lion stalking the campsite. And I complain about picking pinfeathers out of turkey carcasses!

It’s worth a look. I just checked and found that it’s in the LA library system (doh!), so if you’re not in a spending mood, maybe you’ll find it at your library, too.