Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Three's the charm

I saw three starlings flying up out of my tomato plants yesterday. I discovered three surprises on a church buffet Sunday. And this is the third start for this post (hopefully the last).

The need to begin the post once and then again yesterday was due to interruptions taking my day and my thoughts in entirely new directions. If I don't finish a post before I leave the computer, it sometimes happens that when I get back to the post it doesn't speak to me any longer. And if it doesn't speak to me, I surely won't share it with you...

So, deep cleansing breath, and let me begin again.

I picked up Tecolote Farms basket number 13 yesterday and it was another beauty.In our baskets this week we have more okra as promised, a couple more acorn squash, New Mexico chilies, red potatoes, more sorrel (!!!), two types of cucumbers, a tomato, some basil, and a red onion that we are told packs some oniony "punch".

We also got a couple of paragraphs detailing more of Tecolote Farm's water woes. More on that in another post soon.

Not that I am unsympathetic to what is happening on the farm. Far from it. I have been watching carefully in the newsletters for word on how their tomatoes are doing because mine are still struggling. Apparently, so are theirs.

In our newsletter this week we read: "One or two tomatoes. The plants are so big and healthy, but the early heat and no cool nights has made fruit setting a painfully slow process. It's so sad not to have ample amounts of tasty tomatoes as we usually have in June."

So sad indeed. And if they with their years of experience are having problems, then I know there is little I can do out here in my own garden other than watch, and wait. Which I have been doing, with some small glimpses of hope.Somehow, in my imagination, a measure of how good a gardener I am is tied up with how many tomatoes I can grow. I can't quantify for you precisely how many constitutes a successful year. I guess ideally, my plants would yield so many tomatoes that I could not use them all myself and would "have to" share them with my friends and family.

My plants are finally setting a few tomatoes here and there. But it is the time of year when I am programmed to not only want, but expect fresh home grown type tomatoes in abundance.

Just like the crisply cold delights of a cucumber sandwich signals summertime, the wonders of a plate filled with sliced tomatoes speaks to a sense of summer comfort and hospitality that bears no substitutions.

You see, I don't just WANT me some tomatoes. I NEED them.

On top of that, Sunday while visiting the little Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in beautiful downtown Wimberly Texas, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting up with my new favorite home cook, Pepita.Pepita, actually her nickname but used so routinely it was on her preprinted church name tag, is a transplant from the Andalusian region at the southernmost part of Spain, and she was standing there in the fellowship hall of this little Lutheran church serving up the most amazing gazpacho imaginable. Better yet, she was serving the gazpacho because her recipe for it was one of many featured in a congregational cookbook they had for sale, that very Sunday.

You might not understand the deep significance here. Lutheran Church. Sunday Morning. Cookbook Sale. Check, check and double check. But, gazpacho???

Not only was it against all odds that anything would be served other than an outright cookie, cookie "bar", or sweet pastry at the least, but the statistical likelihood anything savory rather than sweet would make an appearance at all on a Sunday morning Lutheran coffee hour buffet is so small as to defy numbering. NASA ignores system failure numbers larger than that.

Taking this the logical step further as we most certainly must do, out of the teensiest tiniest chance that anything savory would be served at all on a Sunday morning in a Lutheran church, the further likelihood that it would be anything other than some form of cheese ball is nearly nonexistent.

Sidebar - there were in fact, not one but two cheese balls on the table. For a little congregation, these were some pretty gutsy folk according to Lutheran coffee hour standards.

So, to find a savory, non-cheese ball pitcher filled with delicious gazpacho sitting out on a Sunday morning coffee hour buffet in a Lutheran Fellowship Hall in a tiny town in central Texas was surprising to an extent just short of what I might have experienced at finding them also featuring somebody over to one side of the table turning wine into coffee.

Mirabile Gazpacho! I took two sips and was sold. I not only bought a cookbook, I had Pepita autograph my copy right by her recipe. Having cemented our warm acquaintanceship that way she then confided in me of her struggles with the women who had put the book together.Apparently the good ladies of the cookbook committee decided Pepita's English was to fault for putting what they were convinced had to be a mistaken quantity in her recipe. She told me they fought with her on three separate occasions over the correct way to designate how much garlic to put in her amazing gazpacho. She told me all this in perfect English by the way, with only the slightest hint of an accent remaining.

The truth was, the cookbook committee ladies were the ones who needed to study a little harder. They were making an all too common mistake I used to make myself, confusing the difference between a bulb of garlic and a clove.Just for the record? One little section of garlic is a CLOVE. The entire shooting match, many many cloves all held together by a root section and divvied up with those persistent little paper wrappers? THAT is a bulb. It gets confusing because each clove will start a new garlic plant (just like a bulb for an iris or a caladium).

So when Pepita called for a bulb of garlic in her recipe, she meant just that - an entire bulb. The cookbook committee switched it to a clove. Pepita switched it back in my personally edited version. Sometimes, going to the source is essential.

Vampires, beware! Lucky mortals, be sure to have your breath mints at the ready.

Pepita's soup recipe yielded the richest, sturdiest, most garlicky delicious gazpacho I have ever tasted and I hastened to tell her so. She explained to me her own mother had taught her to make it just that way.

She recounted for me how while she was still just a little girl, her mother had told her, "Gazpacho,", which they made and fed to their field hands in the hotter summer months in Spain, "needs to meet only two criteria. It must be garlicky to satisfy the hunger and icy cold to satisfy the thirst."

I told Pepita I thought her mother was a gazpacho genius. Lacking tomatoes of my own (sigh), I stopped at the store and bought tomatoes on my way home from church just so I could make a batch of my own gazpacho to enjoy. And when I say "my own"? I mean just that. All mine. My sweet husband loves tomatoes and he enjoys garlic and cucumbers separately, but we have established beyond any shadow of a doubt that no matter what it tastes like, when it comes to chilled soups he is not a fan.

So this pitcher of tomato/garlic/cucumber goodness was truly for me. For my lunch that day and for all lunches to follow until it was gone.And because I believe in sharing, especially when there are small miracles involved - here is Pepita's Mother's Gazpacho Recipe for you to try on your own.
From Andalusia, Spain, this can also be served as a really refreshing drink in hot weather. There is no one correct recipe for gazpacho. Even in Andalusia, there are several different recipes.

3-4 ripe tomatoes
1 onion
1 green pepper
1 cucumber
1 bulb garlic
salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 cup cold water

2 slices dried bread (french bread or hard rolls/bolillos)

Cut the cucumbers in half. Cut one half into chunks for the blender. Cut the other half in slices to serve with the soup. In a blender, mix the rest of the ingredients except for the bread. Refrigerate until very cold. If necessary, add ice. Add the slices of cucumber. If serving as a soup, serve with small bowls of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onion and toasted bread on the side.
Gazpacho! Fun to say and even more fun to have on hand. Yet another reason I have been sweating it out about my tomato plants and their non-productive ways this year. As I mentioned previously, there is hope, however.

I do have those few green tomatoes peeking out on at least two of my three plants out back. I have been reading up on tomatoes, trying to determine what I can do to optimize my chances for a good yield. One source stated as soon as the bottom of a piece of fruit is clearly pink, that tomato, rather than being left outside on the plant to the run the risk of predation from insects or animals, can be picked and allowed to ripen more fully in the windowsill.

After having problems last summer with at least one tomato loving squirrel who managed to harvest several of my larger tomatoes just before they reached the point where I would have considered them ripe enough to pick and eat, I had been checking my larger tomatoes daily to watch for telltale signs of ripening with every intention of trying the early picking method out for myself.

So yesterday afternoon when my coming outside resulted in three starlings exploding up into flight out of the tomato plants, I remember thinking to myself that I would want to check later to see if there was some sort of bug infestation in that part of the garden.

I did check, and what I found sent me into what will have to pass for a rage in this heat.I investigated further.Starlings, as it turns out, have musculature that works to sharply open their beaks, rather than the arrangement many other birds have to snap their beaks shut. This allows starlings to dig efficient holes, probing into and through grass, weeds and soil, or even say, the flesh of tomatoes, in order to find bugs.

I speculate these starlings are either experienced tomato eaters already, or perhaps these were simply adventurous samplers. Reports on starling populations in the US made it clear that though they eat many agriculturally threatening beetles and pests, they are often themselves, in any great numbers, a threat all their own to food crops.

I can't say if three birds qualifies as "great numbers'. Whether or not it does, these three starlings were certainly qualified to pose a threat to my tomatoes, doing just enough damage to render the fruit useless.

I decided to pick my poor molested tomatoes rather than leave them on the plant where they'd attract bugs to such an easily obtained remaining meal. While I would ordinarily try to salvage the uneaten parts to use in a sauce or something where their extremely tart green taste would work in concert with other flavors, I was so disgusted at the time I simply threw the damaged fruit into a back garden bed.

There are already other rogue tomato volunteers coming up in that bed but no fruit set on the plants there yet, pecked or otherwise. I have no idea if the seeds in the bird holed fruit are mature enough to germinate next year but I wasn't so much in a thoughtful mood when I tossed them into the dirt.

I was FURIOUS. Strike that. I AM furious.

I could not, in all my investigating, find any methodology proposed to prevent the birds from wreaking further havoc with my few remaining ripening tomatoes. According to the "experts", starlings are averse to grape flavoring so using grape flavored smoke would be one approach to deterrence.

Grape flavored smoke? According to my personal observations over the past several years, it is the wild grapes in the tops of the oak trees that seem to have attracted the starlings to our area in the first place. Apparently no real help from expert quarters was to be expected.

After a little thought, what I decided to try in the interim is a bit of creative packaging, using something I already had on hand. This approach will give the fruit plenty of sun, plenty of air, full access to the world around them without granting simultaneous access to sharp little bird beaks.

I am dubbing this the "Martha Stewart Solution":Pretty frickin' festive, eh? My tomato plants may look like they've been attacked by a demented gift wrapper, but I am hopeful their glinty bagginess will at least confuse the birds and squirrels long enough to allow the fruit to ripen some so I can pick them for myself and take them inside to finish up safely on the window sill.

Inside they may still be subject to predation, but I have some small influence on the one remaining potential indoor tomato thief. I feel confident I can make a good enough case to my husband based upon the prospect of a delicious meal ahead, that he will leave sleeping tomatoes lie.So that's how it goes out here in the boonies. You discover a remarkable recipe for gazpacho in an unlikely place on one day just as you discover a new set of tomato defiling birds setting up shop in your own back yard the next. Life goes on.

Do I finally have the solution to my tomato woes in the bag? I'll keep you posted.


Robin said...

Hi Deb, I do so enjoy reading your blogs! Your musings about gazpacho hit home. I studied in Sevilla (in the heart of Andalucia, Spain) for a year and got hooked on gazpacho.

Concerning the great garlic debate... perhaps the Spanish words are more obvious: diente (tooth) and cabeza (head). The tooth is smaller, and cleverly...many teeth make up the head. You can impress your gazpacho guru.

Have a great one!

TexasDeb said...

Ahh - leave it to the Spanish to give us a clear way to differentiate something as crucial as how much garlic a dish might need.

I just finished up the last of the gazpacho today. It is such a wonderfully refreshing meal in this torrid weather. Pepita's mother hit the nail, or the garlic, on the cabeza!

Thanks for your kind words, Robin. I am so happy you are enjoying this site.

Alycia said...

omg! I could not stop laughing about your whole starling issue. That solution, while brilliant, is also soooooo sooooooo FUNNY! love it. thanks for telling us about it.