It's a first in our six years in Texas, and probably I shouldn't jinx it by bragging. But we have the most beautiful zucchini plants this year, producing like crazy and unmarred (so far) by the dreaded squash beetles that have ravaged our plants in previous seasons. It seems like dumb luck, as little in our methods has changed. So while it lasts I'm enjoying the grilled zucchini skewers, zucchini fries, zucchini bread, even an attempted zucchini burger.
Blogging falls down the priority list when there are paying gigs to attend to, and there have been some interesting ones this month. I had a travel story on Fairhope, Alabama and the nearby Grand Resort run in the newspaper on Sunday. This is an area very dear to my heart, so it was a pleasure to get to write about it, and especially a pleasure to have a first-person assignment where I could wear my vegetarianism on my sleeve. I’ve also been helping out Indulge magazine (published by the Star-Telegram) with its restaurant and food news column, Good Tastes. In doing research for the May issue, I found out that the new menu at Lili’s Bistro on Magnolia will have a couple more things for vegetarians, because people have been asking (the new lunch menu has already debuted, the new dinner menu is coming soon). I have long thought that if we could just make our preferences gently known, restaurateurs would step up. It’s inevitable, and it’s happening, which is awesome.
Indulge also sent me on assignment to cover the redo of a downtown condo for next month’s issue, and with my penchant for all things home dec, I couldn’t say no, even knowing that I would have to dash from the shoot to pick up my daughter from preschool in a scarily slim window of time. I was amazed at how quickly I went from that gorgeous great room overlooking downtown back onto the west side of Fort Worth. No wonder people love downtown living. It’s all about access.
But my garden is one thing keeping me in a conventional house in an outlying neighborhood. While I’ve documented some pretty big gardening fails since trying to adjust to life in Texas, I haven’t given up. Over the weekend we got a second rain barrel (because if it ever rains again, we know how quickly that first one will fill). And because I just could not wait for this slow-growing basil-from-seed to fully emerge (can you see that little sprout on the right?), I bought a bunch of the “living” basil from Sprouts last night, and planted it after I’d snipped off what I needed for dinner. I’ve done this before with shamefully good results. This particular bunch was so incredibly, intoxicatingly, wildly fragrant (really) that the lady in the checkout lane next to me kept asking her cashier what on earth smelled so good. Who was it? What was it? “Sandalwood?” she wondered aloud. No, it was my $2.50 bunch of basil, soon to be basil bush. This one is going to make some amazing pesto.
The rain barrel is full. The trashcan we use as rain barrel overflow is full. The wheelbarrow is full. And so is any child’s watering can or wagon, empty planter or bucket—any container that’s been left outdoors in the deluge of the last week or so. In this weather, the thought of collecting rainwater doesn’t seem very urgent. But you can bet that we’ll need it; here in Fort Worth, we always do. If you haven’t yet started collecting rainwater for use on your landscaping or vegetable garden, now’s a good time to think about doing so: It’ll save you about 50 gallons of water every time it rains. We got our rain barrel at Marshall Grain more than a year ago. The thing that surprises just about everyone who’s new to rainwater harvesting is how quickly your proud new 50-gallon barrel will fill up. When hooked up to a gutter downspout, a good hard rain will fill it in an unceremonious five minutes flat. And you, like so many others before you, will start thinking about investing in a second barrel the very first time you watch your new barrel in action. I recently wrote an article for the September 2009 issue of Fort Worth, Texas magazine about small ways to go green, and met water expert Dotty Woodson, who conducts workshops in the DFW area to teach locals how to make their own rain barrels. Check it out to learn more about Dotty and other inspiring Cowtown characters who are leading by example, making life in Fort Worth a little greener.
Today marks the release of Ned’s New Home (Tricycle Press, 2009), a children’s book aimed at the preschool set from artist and author Kevin Tseng. The story follows the journey of New Worm as he searches for a place to live after his apple begins to rot. Ned’s New Home is the best sort of children’s book—it’s whimsical without being too precious, it’s a simple story yet layered enough that you’ll notice new things on subsequent reads, and it has its teaching moment without being obvious. My kids, who love to help out in the garden, are partial to the inside-the-cover illustrations that tell the apple’s life cycle story visually. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that such a thoughtful effort comes from an artist who happens to be a vegan.
The last week or so has seen lots of squash and zucchini in our garden—enough that each evening, we’ve had a couple big enough to pick, slice, sauté in olive oil, and sprinkle with kosher salt. Simple enough, but you should see how quickly it goes: the kids literally fight over it. Just as we got on a role, this love affair with summer squash is about to come to a disappointing end: Our enormous squash plants are sporting some sort of rot that’s creeping around the base of each plant and making the budding vegetables look a little weak. Now I remember this from last year, too. Is there a Texas gardener out there who can help?
We should have seen it coming—the carrots in our garden weren’t thinned enough, so those planted too close together had no choice but to fight for space or join forces. These two grew into a tight embrace. Kind of sexy, isn’t it? I almost hate to pull them up, but it’s time to make room for summer vegetables and flowers.
I have complained a lot about the growing conditions here in Cowtown; everything at first seemed so foreign to the green thumb I thought I had developed back in the midwest. But I do have a success story in my garden this year: two rows of mixed lettuces. Last fall, I was down at Marshall Grain & Feed purchasing a rain barrel, and a display of seed packets from a company called Botanical Interests caught my eye. I purchased a packet of Mesclun Farmer’s Market Blend and an Oak Leaf Blend, sprinkled the seeds into a couple rows in early October, and from early November on we’ve had fresh organic baby lettuces pretty consistently. While the packets say to make successive plantings every three weeks from just before the last frost until just after the first frost, that’s not the case in our part of Texas (the seeds come from Colorado). Our lettuce has been going all winter (maybe in part because our garden is protected on two sides). Also, we have never had to make any successive plantings—I’ve been pinching off baby leaves but leaving the roots intact and they just keep producing. We thought the lettuce was done a few times when the temperature dropped and the leaves drooped like they do when you accidentally freeze them in a cold part of the fridge, but still being in the ground, they perked back up as the temperatures rose. Look for Botanical Interests seeds (many of their varieties are organic) locally at Marshall Grain or Elizabeth Anna's.
Our Texas gardening experience the first year and a half here has been one of trial and error. The tomatoes bombed, the basil flourished. The lettuce rocked, the brussels sprouts are still trying to decide what to do. For our kids, the biggest thrill so far was helping to plant carrot seeds—and many, many weeks later, picking the first carrot. And that lead to the biggest garden-based blowout I've ever seen. Yes, my children are fighting over a carrot. Fellow gardeners and vegetarians can appreciate what a perversely proud moment this was.
With overnight temperatures approaching freezing in Cowtown, now’s a good time to pick any basil that’s growing outside and figure out how to make the most of it through the winter. Since I’m not much for dried basil (some fresh herbs just don’t translate to a dried state with any semblance of their former selves), I recently made a big batch of basil pesto, spooned it into ice cube trays, drizzled olive oil over each (to help preserve the color), and froze it overnight. You then dump the pesto cubes into a freezer bag (they won’t come out as easily as ice cubes; you might need to loosen them with a knife) and store them in the freezer so in the coming months you’ll have single-use portions of pesto to toss with freshly cooked pasta, stir into soups, spread on crostini, whisk into salad dressings or dips, use as a sandwich spread, or any other use you can think of. While I’ve often frozen pesto for the winter, this is the first year I’ve done it in ice cube trays for more conveniently sized portions; an Italophile who came over for dinner last Friday reminded me of that trick, her description of frozen pesto cubes proved so inspiring that I was outside later that night with a flashlight and some kitchen shears hacking away at what had become a very ample bush of basil.While this is a bit of a project, with bunches and bunches of basil to sort through and those ice cube trays to scrub out afterwards (my least favorite part of cooking is always the cleaning), it’s a worthy one for the holiday weekend. A salad spinner is helpful for washing and drying the leaves, and the top rack of the dishwasher is okay for most ice cube trays. Pesto is an incredibly versatile condiment to have on hand, and you’ll be glad for its bright flavors through the winter.
Basil Pesto This filled about one and a half ice cube trays; adjust the amounts depending upon how much basil you want to use. A word of caution: Salt is very necessary in pesto, but it’s easy to go overboard; instead of relying on a recipe (mine or anyone else’s), start with less salt than you think you’ll need and add it to taste. Same goes for garlic.
8 to 10 cups washed loosely packed basil leaves 1/2 cup (or more) olive oil 1/2 cup pine nuts 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese 3 to 4 cloves garlic 1/2 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Add all ingredients to food processor; blend until pureed, scraping down sides of bowl. Thin with additional olive oil if desired. Adjust seasoning to taste with additional garlic and salt if desired. Spoon pesto into ice cube trays, drizzle each with olive oil, and freeze overnight. Transfer cubes to freezer bag, loosening with a knife if necessary, and store in the freezer.