Monday, December 5, 2011

Birds after the Weather Changes

December has started with drops of hope.  Three days of near-continuous, slow, gentle rain totaling over 2.5 inches and temperatures have dropped to highs in the 40's.

Today is cool, 42º at 1:00pm.  No freeze yet but do have at least two predicted for this week.  There are still a few tomatoes and peppers in the garden to be picked.  Lettuce and spinach have sprouted with the rains so perhaps we will have fresh greens in the coming months.

Feeder Line
Today, the doves and cardinals have found the corn and the smaller fellows are lining up for the feeder.

White-Winged Doves on a chilly Texas day

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fall Tomato Pest

There were almost no tomato worms during the summer, I blamed the heat and drought.

To my surprise, I found a huge tomato worm on one of the rather pitiful fall tomato plants.    He waited patiently while I went back inside for the camera and then posed very still while I took the shots.  Appreciated but his mistake.

Note the dropping on the branch behind the worm.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

First Freeze Warning - Fall 2011

The first freeze warning of the season is predicted for tonight.  It should only be a light freeze or more likely just near freezing.  

Regardless, it was time to move the potted plants.  The most tender came inside the house but most remained outside in a protected location on the back porch.

The back porch faces east and gets sun until early afternoon so it is the warmest place outside the house.  A good thing in the winter but so not a good thing in the summer.  Normally, the west side would be warmest but here the west side is shaded by large oak trees so without direct sun it is not as warm.

The pepper plants are still loaded with peppers so  I picked what was ready and left the immature peppers to their fate.  If they freeze, oh well, I guessed wrong.

The sweet peppers, I can deal with but there were just too many hot peppers for us.  The Jalapeno peppers and New Mexico Big Jim peppers have both done very well in the heat and drought.

A quick phone call to the chef at one of the local restaurants, Rolling in Thyme & Dough, and the peppers were an ingredient in Bistro night Pepper Stew.  It's refreshing to discover that the barter system can still be used Drippin'.  We haven't outgrown that country practice, yet.

Too many hot peppers =
Lunch for 2 at my favorite local restaurant.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween = Pumpkins

Enjoying a cool morning after a walk.
On Oct 8th and 9th, 3 inches of glorious, much needed rain fell on Dripping Springs.   A few days later, the rain flowers popped out in celebration of the moisture.  The long range forecast, however, indicates that the drought will continue at least through the winter.

Our temperatures cooled from the brutal summer highs but we are still having frequent days in the upper 80°F.    The AC was turned off for several days but has been turned back on when the daytime temperatures rose and the humidity returned.

Most of the pumpkins are harvested.   When I cut the first pumpkin for cooking, I discovered that just because the pumpkin is orange, it isn't necessarily ripe.  So, I adopted the practice of letting them cure/ripen on the counter in the kitchen for 7-10 days before cooking.

There is a steady supply of Pumpkin bread and I discovered a Pumpkin Gingerbread Cake recipe that is yummy.  Also, I cooked and froze 4 cups of pumpkin pulp for Thanksgiving pies.

The garden struggles on with supplemental watering.  I question the wisdom of using the water but so far haven't stopped.

The peppers, both sweet and hot, are still covered with fruit.

I planted green onions in the garden and cilantro in pots.  Soon, I must decide whether to plant lettuce.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Another Chair DONE

Finally, two years later, another chair has been refinished and caned.   2 down, 4 more to go. 

Caning took 3 weeks to complete but I didn't work on it everyday.  There were are number of days during the last 3 weeks spent waiting at a surgical clinic, doctor's or therapist's office due to my husband's bicycle crash.   He is on the mend and looking forward to riding again.....yeah me too.

Left - Ready for caning
Center Top - Work in Progress
Center Bottom - Finished
Right - Me with Finished Chair

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hints that fall is coming

Finally, summer seems to be releasing it's grip on central Texas.  The temperatures have backed off the records and we even had a little rain last week.  Our rain gauge measured 3/4 inch over 3 days; no drought breaking downpours but measurable rain!

Chairs Before and After
With the cooler temperatures, I have resumed the much delayed task of refinishing and caning the dining table chairs.  I found the dining room set on craigslist and was delighted to discover a uniquely carved oak set with 6 chairs.  We got the set home and I started the project promptly but that was two years ago and only 1 of the chairs has been refinished and caned.   My excuse is that I wasn't sure the cane seat would survive use so let's call it a testing period.   Seriously, I did worry that the cane would split or break but, after 2 years, the one finished chair is intact so the project can go on!

The chairs need the blackened lacquer removed first and then new lacquer applied.  Furniture refinishing, while messy and smelly, is not difficult.    Some patience required and acceptance that the furniture is old therefore scratches, cracks and color differences are part of the appeal.

Ready for caning
The really slow part of this process is caning the seat.   Caning was completely new to me so I purchased a book The Caner's Handbook by Bruce W. Miller and Jim Widess.  It provides step-by-step instructions with pictures on the different styles of caning and I recommend it to anyone who wants to undertake a caning project.  All the supplies needed to cane a chair can be purchased online.    

Caning this sort of chair seat is a 7 step process.  The first 3 steps are easy and relatively quick.  The remaining steps get progressively more difficult as the tension on the cane continues to tighten as each layer is added.  
Caning Step 4
I have completed refinishing on two more chairs and started caning one seat.  My goal is to have the seats caned before Thanksgiving (this Thanksgiving, 2011).   I'll keep you posted.

1st pumpkin 2011
Oh, the garden?

I did keep the a garden alive through the record breaking summer and have a few pumpkins as well as both sweet and hot peppers to show for the water bill.  The fall tomatoes are blooming but haven't set any fruit yet.

Hopefully this tiny pumpkin will be sufficient for a loaf of pumpkin bread. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In pursuit of good Mozzarella

With fresh tomatoes from the garden and no source of really good mozzarella cheese, I decided to try my hand at making cheese.

Recipe: Compliments of Condé Nast Digital and for the story behind the recipe.
Ingredients:  Required a trip to Central Market (ok, twist my arm) for rennet and citric acid.   No source for buffalo milk so settled for organic cow's milk.

There are lots of recipes for Mozzarella cheese, some claiming that you can have a finished product in less than 2 hours but I chose the one that discusses failed attempts and purporting to have the answers.  It was not a 2 hour process, closer to 7 hours. As I  worked my way through the detailed, meticulous steps, I realized this recipe was the perfect example of "cooking for engineers";  the complete opposite of my usual style in the kitchen.  What recipe calls for 1 1/8 teaspoon of anything?  But cheese making is completely new to me, so with no sense of appropriate or right, the detail was helpful.

Mozzarella Draining
Aside from a good recipe, the key to the process appears to be your ability to keep milk within a 4 degree temperature range for hours on end.  Not hard, just painfully demanding of your attention.

Initially the milk did not curdle to the "soft pudding" consistency.   After some research,  I discovered that Junket rennet, the brand available from Central Market, is not recommended for cheese making.   So, based on the recipes in the Junket package, I increased the rennet to 1/2 tablet of Junket and waited another 30 minutes.   The process then continued as described in the recipe.  Cutting the curds, allowing them to sit undisturbed for increasingly long periods of time, straining the curds into cheesecloth and allowing to drain.    The final steps of pouring hot water over small portion of curds and working with your hands appears to require precise temperature control and practice but I did get it to reach a sort of elastic state.  It was not completely smooth but I deemed it passable after the hours spent on the process.

Fresh Mozzarella

After cooling and serving with fresh tomatoes, my verdict is -- way too much trouble for result.  It was good, but no better than mozzarella that I can buy at the store.  

I would try again if raw cows (or water buffalo) milk was available but processed milk seems to lack the fat content and flavor to produce a good mozzarella.

It was an interesting experiment.  Anyone need rennet tablets?  I have lots.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Blooming Sage

Silverado Texas Sage
Luck did not deliver rain on July 1st or 2nd either.

It was 99° at 1:00pm in Austin today, too hot.

But the sage is blooming, bright pink clusters almost obscuring the more familiar silver foliage.
Local folklore maintains that blooming sage is a reliable rain forecast.
Let's hope that folklore is right this time rather than the old-timer who told me that the plant is also known as the "Lyin' bush".

Time will tell.

Friday, July 1, 2011

July 1 Note

Ignored the garden for one day yesterday to pick peaches in Fredericksburg and came back to wilted tomato plants and a zucchini that should have been picked yesterday.  There is a 30% chance of rain today, perhaps we will get lucky.....

Image for today is a swallow update.  4 chicks (is that the appropriate term for swallow hatchlings?) are keeping the parents busy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Other sightings

The barn swallows built their nest in a new location this year and the little ones have hatched.

Noisy bunch.

Mom and Dad are both pretty protective but I was able to get a few pictures before they got too close to my head on the fly-by.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Heat and Bugs and No Rain, OH MY!

Heat / drought stressed garden - June 2011

What a spring 2011 has delivered!  As I write this at 4PM, it is 103° and it is not even summer yet.  OH MY, indeed.

With sufficient watering (don't ask about the water bill), the garden is still alive.  Production has slowed but, remarkably, some of the heirloom tomatoes (Cherokee Purple and Homestead) are still blooming and setting new fruit even in 100°+ days.

Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis)
All manner of crawling and flying pests have descended on the garden.  Birds and bugs abound.   Nets have been placed on the tomatoes but they still manage to peck holes in some and I pick off as many bugs as I have the patience to find.  The grasshoppers, however, I have no defense for. The grasshoppers are currently still small but it's a race:  the heat, drought or grasshoppers.
The anoles have not abandoned the garden and help keep the bugs down, at least the small bugs.  I am not sure why this one was still brown as they do change to bright green.  Could the heat slow down that mechanism, as well?

Things still producing at this time:
  • tomatoes
  • jalapenos
  • cucumbers
  • eggplant
  • squash (yellow and zucchini)
  • an occasional green bean
Lots of fresh salsa made here this year.
Enjoying lemon cucumbers and fresh tomatoes.   Searching for another recipe for squash and eggplant.

The garden only gets my attention in the mornings before about 10AM.  After that hour, the heat has driven me inside to the artificially cool house to work on such productive tasks as writing this blog.

When does fall arrive?


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bruschetta or Blue Jay for Dinner?

Just about now, I start into the hate stage of my love:hate relationship with the birds.  I have several bird feeders and faithfully provide seed and water so we can watch the birds as the seasons and populations change.  But then they start messing with my tomatoes and I question any feelings of fondness.

They generally don't completely destroy any given tomato, just peck a hole in them when they are still orange, (not really ripe by my standards).  I have tried picking them earlier but the birds seem to adjust as well and just start pecking on less ripe tomatoes.  I put up netting to reduce the damage but it's never completely secure or the wind blows it open, you get the idea.  

So you have to pick the damaged fruit and try to salvage it.  Sometimes, I cut out the damaged area and freeze the remaining portion for use in soups when cold weather arrives.    But tonight, the damaged fruit was destined for Bruschetta.  A wonderful way to use fresh tomatoes, even blemished ones, and basil from the garden.  It makes a fresh, light appetizer or side dish on hot summer days but should be made with ripe flavorful tomatoes for the best results.

1/2 baguette
several small tomatoes (1 1/2 cups of chopped tomatoes)
2 minced garlic cloves
4-8 large basil leaves chopped
1 T. olive oil
balsamic vinegar to taste
kosher salt to taste
fresh ground black pepper

Thick slice baguette and toast.
Chop tomatoes coarsely.  If you want to fully assembly the bruschetta on top of bread, then remove the seeds and only use flesh so the bread doesn't get soggy.  I do not remove the seeds and serve separately  to be assembled as eaten.
Mix tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. 
Serve with toasted bread. 

After dinner that included the bruschetta, I am able to forgive the birds, for today. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prize Tomato

Celebrity Tomato picked 5/24/2011
I wanted to share pics of what will surely be the prize tomato of the year. 

The variety is Celebrity and it is quite large, no scale -- so large is as precise as I can get.

Same tomato sliced and ready for dinner.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May Update

Grape Tomatoes
Pear Tomatoes
The heat of April has resulted in a real growth spurt in the garden.  Everything is growing but we still need rain. 

Grape tomatoes have set on in great numbers, as well as the yellow pear tomatoes both pictured at the right.  So far there has been very little tomato worm activity and the birds are not bothering the fruit.

The blackberries have started to turn but the crop will be limited and most individual berries are small.

A few precious figs on the small tree and pears on both trees.

Early May, I started pulling onions, and picking cucumbers, snow peas and spinach. 
First ripe tomato, small cherry type, was picked May 10th.

First 2011 Tomato
Mid month, started to harvest green beans and first white eggplant which were mild and delicious.

Also picked 2 acorn squash.  I know it's the wrong season but they were from a volunteer plant.
Mid May Harvest

Cucumbers continue and tomato harvest is starting to gather momentum.  However, I am having a significant problem with blossom end rot this year.  The problems are mostly in the heirloom varieties but a few of the hybrids are also affected.   In spite of the fruit with blemishes, we are still getting lots of tomatoes.  The "Cherokee Purple" variety is now my favorite, such a nice flavor. 

In the last weeks of May, getting just enough blackberries for breakfast the next morning with yogurt.  Sadly, no cobblers this year.
This appears to be the peak for the green beans.  Eating them often and froze 3 quarts last week.

And finally, a sample of the flowers blooming around the yard and garden in May. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

April showers? Please.


The perennials in the garden are blooming. Berries, thyme and sage have blossoms and the bees are happily working.  The berries are blackberries, an aggressive thorn infested vine that appears intent on taking over any prepared bed in the vicinity of it's designated location.  But, I planted them and continue to tolerate them because the berries are sweet additions to my morning yogurt and make wonderful cobblers.

Blackberry blooms and berries                                       Thyme blooms and bees                                          Sage blooms.                   
Around the house, more flowers.  The Mt. Laurel and Yellow Columbine are blooming and attracting  butterflies.  Mt. Laurel is a slow growing but beautiful small tree that produces fragrant, stunning blooms each spring.   The Yellow Columbine has thrived in a location that receives full morning sun and shade in the late afternoon.  They reseed prolifically but can be managed back into place by pulling / removing young plants.  Beautiful lush green plants with abundant yellow flowers in the spring, they wilt or even die back in the extreme heat of Texas summers, then green back up as the temperatures cool and remain green through most winters.

Mid April
Back to the garden, everything is growing.  Tomatoes are blooming and setting fruit nicely.  Put straw down around the plants to aid in moisture retention.  I will admit to some fear that I am only providing safe haven for harmful pests as well.
Tomatoes on right, 
Green Beans in foreground.
Young tomatoes
Young beans
More Tomatoes, Peppers, Red Cabbage

Late April

Still no rain but with watering the garden continues to progress.  Spinach has grown this spring, so we have lots of fresh salad greens including arugula and the last of the winter lettuce.
Peppers and cucumbers are setting fruit.  Eggplant is blooming.  Onions are growing and I have even pulled a few small ones for cooking.
I pulled a few of the remaining leeks from last year for potato and leek soup.
The asparagus is still producing but slowing.
Because of the lack of moisture, the black berries are small.  This will not be a good year for berries in Central Texas.

Spinach bed

Cucumber, Orient Express II

And finally, a pretty little wildflower that graces the rack for the garden hose every year.   It is a wild morning glory.