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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

Wasted in Travis County

[Update: Photo Credit: Thanks to the Pitres of Tecolote Farms for sharing great photos of the park and their farm for this piece./Correction: It is the FM 969 growth corridor, not "696" Corridor as previously posted. Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who caught and helped correct that error.]

Officials for Travis County often take a somewhat hard line with small potatoes like family farms or individuals.

Our county commissioners are elected officials. Numbers, and potential political campaign contribution fund sources are the real numbers we are talking about here more than individual votes -those numbers, need to be BIG to capture a Travis County politician's interest the way their County wells have already captured so much of the available aquifer in eastern Travis County.

Somehow, sitting in their offices at their desks they might be missing the big picture along with the big numbers participating in a transformation that is happening all around us. According to an article in the New York Times recently, the seed supply and nursery folk have already seen this phenomenon all around the country.

With the economy tanking, people are focusing on growing their own food to save money. This has led to a tripling of seed sales in some areas. People who have never raised food crops before are putting in gardens, and large numbers of people who are already gardening are increasing the areas of their property given over to raising food.

My husband and I count ourselves in that number. We have methodically eradicated areas formerly dedicated to St Augustine lawn and replaced that monoculture with what we intend to become self sustaining diverse garden areas filled with plants that will feed the soil, the local flora/fauna, and ourselves, not necessarily in that order. Here are glimpses of what we have replaced our lawn with.
We've even seriously considered a move in our future, going out to a more rural area to try our own hands at raising and providing healthy local food to Austin area markets. And we are not alone there, either.

In an article running this weekend, the Times documents another trend, that of folks leaving high pressure corporate careers to enter into a second career, responsibly raising food as a small source supplier for other locals interested in knowing where - and who - their food is coming from.

As the Tomato Salmonella Scandal enters it's third month, now involving 38 states and claiming at least 887 victims, it becomes increasingly clear that the trust previously placed in large chains and agribusiness concerns to watch our food for us is not only misplaced, it is unfounded. Neither our governmental agencies or the huge agribusiness concerns can - or will - be able to tell us what is being done to our food before we eat it, much less where it came from originally.

All these health risk alerts in concert with more folks raising our own food inevitably leads to an increased awareness of what others who raise food locally are facing. It's just human nature. We always pay more attention to people who are doing whatever we are trying to do.

And once we start paying attention, we will begin to hear about problems small family farms, including Travis County's own organic CSA purveyor, Tecolote Farm, are facing, again. Many people are going to be shocked by what they see and hear.

If you are thinking this seems to be a resurgence of the situation that originally created the need for Willie Nelson and friends' Farm Aid some 21 years ago, you'd be right. Only this go-round, the players are not nameless family farmers in the Midwest, most of whom were driven out of business years ago. Nope, this go-round we are playing the home version of the "Who Can Afford to Farm" game, right here in Travis County.

A lot of folks are going to try and break this out into bumper sticker slogan sized sound bites. County Park Bad:Farmers Good. But this is more complicated than that. A simple good/bad split won't hold water any more than some of the struggling wells in eastern Travis County.

The new park in eastern Travis County is not just a water guzzling enterprise, is it also a hard fought victory for folks who were more typically finding their new neighbors to be cement production outfits or landfill operations. Other than this park, those were the types of enterprises more routinely approved for this out flung area by the NIMBYcentric commissioner's Court.

It is a sad fact that the politicians, along with their more populous and affluent constituents in the western and central regions of the county, have typically treated the eastern sections of Travis county like most of us homeowners do that section behind the fence. Out of sight, out of mind, if I don't see it it doesn't really matter...

Nope. The new park is a great idea. Who wouldn't be in favor of wide expanses of grass being in parks set aside for free public use rather than the more typical grassy areas sitting unused and unavailable all around people's suburban homes?However. While developing a park area is a great idea, that park requires water, and having that park does not in any way justify the egregious wasting of that water. Watering in the heat of the afternoon, letting water run across a parking lot, that all wastes water. Creating large open unshaded stocked fishing ponds that will lose significantly to evaporation, for that matter trying to get any fields established at all in the hottest driest part of the year, these are all practices that don't so much use water as they lose water. Lots of water. Water that is lost in ways that cannot be recaptured and takes it away permanently from others who need it for their livelihood.

Water lost for no good reason that could be used in other ways. Water lost that further depletes the aquifer and eventually will affect all the wells in the area including the ones providing drinking water for most of the folks who will ostensibly benefit the most from having that gorgeous park in their part of the county.

Our economic woes are only beginning. We all need water. We all will have to make tough choices. The county is supposed to be a role model - showing us how to use water properly, especially in hot dry times when the aquifer is not recharged.

As we individual consumers are routinely told by our water providers, when the aquifer falls and temperatures rise, priorities shift. Car washing and lawn watering has to be curtailed. That applies to eastern Travis County and the water used for the public park no less than anybody or anywhere else.

Look at these beautiful vegetables.You tell me how a family is supposed to be able to raise these to sell to hungry folks in other families when they are spending hours hiking up a creek to try and dislodge jams preventing water from reaching their property? Having to haul in expensive water to purify to prepare their crops for market? Or worse yet, spending countless other hours inside meeting rooms trying to determine how to fairly handle the water crisis developing along with the other growth along the FM 969 corridor?

How wounding must it be to have to try and convince others that your farm, and along with your farm, your family, has the right to be allowed to survive?

Find out who your County Commissioner is. Call their offices today and politely let them know you are concerned about the water problems in eastern Travis County.

Let them know you are concerned about the future of Travis County if all the land suitable for food production loses the water support it needs for irrigation and greenhouse watering. Explain to them how you are concerned about food prices and sustainability and you want to know what they are going to do about the wasteful water practices in their parks, especially the Eastern Metropolitan park in the photos shown above.

Then give them a listen and hear what they have to say. They are your elected representatives. This is your county, they are your parks. It's your water, and pretty soon, it will be your wallet that will be opened to pay the price for the water wasted and the food crops lost. Right here in Travis County.

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.
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Gazpacho
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.
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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.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

We Who Are About to Fry....

...SALUTE you!

[*Spoon Biscuit updated added at end 6/25/08 by Austin Agrodolce]

I admitted it already, heresy that it may be. I saw okra in my CSA basket and knew immediately that I would be frying it up for dinner this week.This past Sunday a friend of mine at church spotted my grande-sized workhorse of a summer bag with relief as she handed over a full jar of the pickled squash she makes for her family and friends. She told me they often have it with a particular meal featuring ham and lima beans. She finds the slightly sweet character of the pickled squash just right against the saltiness of those dishes.This got me thinking. I had a large gorgeous tomato from my basket which would tolerate nothing more than slicing and serving with salt and pepper. I had okra I was ready to fry. I had the pickled squash and I had all those roasted carrots sitting around. I had purplehull peas from Poteet Texas in the refrigerator.Clearly it was time for a Southern Blowout of a dinner. I checked and made sure I had buttermilk on hand, got some peanut oil for the frying and a few small smoked pork chops for the meat slot on our wheel of southern deliciousness. I was set.

Our menu was as follows:
Grilled Smoked Pork Chops
Purplehull Peas
Fried Okra
Sliced Heritage Tomato
Savory Spoon Biscuits
Pickled Squash Relish
Sliced Texas Nectarines

I'd seen a great recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits on Serious Eats that I figured would work just fine with the slightly more savory roasted carrots. I processed the carrrots/onions/herbs all together and substituted them in for the cup of mashed sweet potato called for in the original recipe and came up with these Savory Spoon Biscuits instead.Next batch of these I will make more biscuits of a smaller size to keep them from spreading quite so much. As you can see in the photo to follow, after baking, the results look a little bit more like peanut butter cookies on steroids than biscuits.

I might try these out in a muffin pan the same way I make beer biscuits. Putting the dough into the tin holds them in a form that promotes the proper placement and ratio of melty butter to biscuit mass that I find essential. I have nothing against spoon bread. Nor am I against slathering the butter wherever it has to go. It just all eats a little neater when the biscuit shape is better preserved.The "Southern Fried Okra" recipe was good to go as written. This version states the buttermilk and cayenne are "optional" but I don't agree. There is something about the creamy tang of the buttermilk in tandem with the zip of cayenne in the breading that elevates this dish above "fried fill in the blank vegetable mass" to a legitimate reason to have and use okra precisely this way.

The quick fry in peanut oil just cooks the okra without destroying its flavor. The breading accentuates rather than overwhelming the okra underneath. I may roast in hell for frying that okra but I will defend it done this way with my last gasp even as I descend.

The basic fresh purplehull pea recipes were a no brainer really. Bits of bacon, onion in the rendered fat, add water to cover the fresh peas and cook until tender and most of the liquid is gone. I didn't even salt them.

By the way, using the Pederson Farms bacon is not only a salve to the conscience as they are kinder to their pigs than my kids claim I was to them (on a BAD day anyway. The absence of chemical preservatives gives you a sweeter clearer pork flavor at the end of a long simmer. The bacon was just available there underneath the purplehull pea taste, not muscling it aside or cloying in any way.

Finally the rest of the meal wasn't so much about cooking as it was marking and reheating the chops on the grill, and slicing up the tomato for our plates.

The largest challenge I faced last night was resisting eating everything in the kitchen immediately after it cooked. I "tested" those purplehull peas for doneness and the potential need for re-seasoning about 427 times. Same thing for the okra as it fried - "was this batch done just so?" and the tomato pieces- "Are these as good as they look?" "Ohhhh YES!".

By the time the plates hit the table if I was able to eat a somewhat dainty portion of everything it was only because I had been busily gobbling it all down in the kitchen for a good 18 minutes prior to dinner being announced as "served!". It was a very good thing I was only feeding two people last night. I would have been hard pressed to get three or four servings out of what I had left over after all my sampling.

At least we "only" had sliced nectarines for dessert. Ok, that I even offered anything for dessert was totally unnecessary. I can't defend that, I only report it. I saw, I bought, I sliced, we ate. Guilty as charged.

My husband and I were still smacking our lips over the Southern Blowout Dinner as we rolled out of bed this morning. We agreed we ought not eat that way regularly. We'd both weigh 300 pounds and have to shout (louder) at each other to be heard over the noise of our arteries slapping shut.Nonetheless, last night I felt I was channeling my mother in law Marcella and my beloved Aunt Dot, both of them superb Southern Style cooks with large garden plots at their disposal and an inclination to prepare a feast for each day's end dining experience, heat in the kitchen be damned.

Maybe it was those hours laboring in a sweltering kitchen that kept them from bulking up. I suppose eventually I'd develop the ability to fix all that food without wanting to eat so much of it immediately and personally.

If I had remained true to their form and hopped up last night as the last bite was finished to clean up the aftermath breading and frying and meal prep left in it's swath? I'd certainly have burned off far more calories than I did by falling back into my chair in a caloric coma, moaning a vague promise to my husband that I'd clean it all up "later".

I do not typically embrace the idea of waking up, trying to prepare coffee in the midst of a post-feast apocalyptic mess. Maybe it was the peanut oil talking last night, but I swear to you I heard a Vivien Leigh-like voice softly murmuring into my ear "fiddle dee dee - you can clean all that up tomorrow!". I felt virtuous just waddling the plates back into the kitchen.

Here's to you Marcella and Dot, Southern Cooks Extraordinaire! I don't know how you managed, planning and cooking and then cleaning up after such truly old Testament style feasts night after night. By the same token, I can't say how it was that our forebears survived past the age of 40 eating such epic meals, but they certainly didn't all get fat and they didn't all die young.

There must have been something about the very fresh food and the work that goes into raising it on your own that somehow balanced the bacon fat, the multitude of dishes, the omnipresent bread, butter, and fried offerings. And oh- this longer shot? That glimpse of a container beyond the biscuits was my one feeble stab at a "healthy alternative", offering a non-hydrogenated vegetable spread ("now with Flax oil!") instead of butter.

Tonight I am thinking we will have celery sticks and water for dinner. IF we ever get hungry again. At this point I can't imagine that ever happening.

The kitchen is finally cleaned up with the exception of a cooked on peanut oil slick that has somehow become one with the ceramic cooktop surface. I have made several passes with entry level chemicals at dissolving this unholy alliance without much success so far. I will move on towards "shock and awe" techniques later in the day when I feel a little stronger.

For now, with all remaining evidence of our dietary indiscretions safely in the dishwasher, it is time to think back on that amazing and wonderful meal. With only a short pause to wonder how it was that I seemed to need to use fully 4 different slotted spoons last night, I will hopefully move on to get out into our own garden and do some weeding.

I have the promise from my husband for two new areas to put into garden production next year. Just about enough room to plant some okra, say, and maybe some purplehull peas. Lawdy Miz Scarlett!

Spoon Biscuit Update: Today I tried another batch of the spoon biscuits only this go round I used a baking spray coated muffin tin, and after the biscuits were out of the tin I popped them on a baking sheet and let them sit in the still warm oven for a few minutes to help finish caramelizing the sides. Here are the results - I'll be back to amend this if there are resulting texture issues or if they taste anything but 4+ delicious!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Basket Twelve - Hitting Our Stride

I feel like we are really hitting our stride with the CSA baskets from Tecolote Farms. Summer vegetables, besides being amazingly beautifully colored, are my kind of eats. Probably due mostly to the generosity of my father in law while he was alive and sharing the bounty of his amazing back yard garden, I am already a fan of and comfortably ready with favorite preparations in mind for most any kind of summer produce.

In our CSA basket this week we had some lovely Amira Mediterranean cucumbers and a gorgeous onion. I have dill growing and going to seed in my own garden and I figured it was time to to put it all together into a summertime favorite of mine, cucumber salad. You can read about that here.Also in our baskets this week, we have okra, white and purple eggplant, red pontiac potatoes, acorn squash, a couple of tomatoes, and a new (for the baskets anyway) carrot - "Sugar Snacks".

Looking at the eggplants, I am figuring on another batch of that amazing Eggplant Butter we first tried while staying at a resort in Arizona in January. The chef there shared the recipe and you can find it here if you'd like to try that for yourself. The only way Eggplant Butter could be any better would be if it cleaned up after dinner and/or helped you lose weight. Which it most certainly does NOT. They don't call it "butter" for nothing. We got Spanish padrone peppers, a Hungarian pepper,and to finish, another small bunch of Thai basil with its incredibly beautiful edible purple flowers.

My husband and I love (love LOVE) fried okra. It might assure me a confirmed reservation for a specially vile level of hell to take locally grown organic okra, throw some breading on it and then toss it into hot oil to fry, but that is precisely what I plan on doing with mine. Seriously, my mouth is watering just typing about it.

I had carrots pretty much spilling out of my produce bin in the refrigerator already, so I decided to roast them to make room for the new basket offerings. I cut the two different carrot varieties I already had on hand up into various sized pieces and roasted them with onions from out back, and a few grape tomatoes I had left over that were looking kind of tired and crinkly already.

I tossed them all in a bit of olive oil and seasoned the lot of it with kosher salt, some chopped rosemary and Italian parsley from last week's basket.As the carrots and onions and tomatoes roasted, the aroma was tantalizing. I could barely wait for the them to cool enough to eat a few "just to test how they turned out".

Having discovered a hitherto unknown and apparently insatiable appetite for carrots roasted with rosemary, I find I will gobble them down in a Goldilocks style three way - too hot, just right warm, or cold. Doesn't matter to me. They taste amazing to me at any temperature. With this batch safely roasted and taking up less space now in the refrigerator, I am planning on trying some of them out in a roasted carrot soup, another batch in some sort of a pureƩ treatment, and then if there are any left over, I will reheat and devour as is.

I also have on hand some leftover grilled chicken from our Father's Day lunch, and a wonderful gift of pickled squash from a friend to try. And, what a delight to have so many delicious summer meal components ready and waiting for our evening meals. I can work in our own garden beds, volunteer, swim if I want to, and simply enjoy the lazier pace of these hot days. At the end of the day I have what I need on hand ready to put together a delicious dinner whenever we are hungry - all without having to heat the kitchen up. It doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Love Summer

Of all the seasons, summer is my favorite. Maybe because I have a summertime birthday, maybe because school lets out, or vacation trips are in the works, relatives plan their visits or swimming becomes part of each day's routine. I can't narrow it to any one of those to explain my preference, but summer is and always has been the best time of year for me.

Besides cucumber sandwiches as a herald of summer time eating, for me another summer staple has to be cucumber salad. Growing up, I used to joyfully choose cucumber salad whenever they served it at the Luby's Cafeteria where my family and I ate lunch after attending Sunday church services.This was part of my Mother's sabbath routine, to skip cooking a "main meal" after church on Sundays, especially in the summer when the heat of cooking dinner made the kitchen an inhospitable place at the end of the day.

On Saturday night we would clean up, Sunday morning we would dress up, worship, pile back into the car after church and race over to "our" Luby's Cafeteria to get there before it got too crowded. If all went according to plan, we beat the lunch rush, loaded up our trays and slid smugly through the line to reassemble and take a seat at "our regular" table.We had "our place" on Sunday which we filled regularly in both settings, and if anybody else happened to be there in our seats when we arrived either place, it was slightly unsettling.

In either instance, the timing of when we left church or where we sat was totally out of my control, so maybe as a counterbalance I developed the habit of eating the same dishes as part of our Luby's lunch.

Sunday in and Sunday out, I got a breaded veal cutlet with cream gravy, a roll, mashed potatoes, cucumber salad, all of which resided inside of or on top of their own individual beige plastic bowl or plate. Eventually my brother and I also developed a drill whereby we would split a piece of chocolate cream pie every week.

Luby's pie slices were luxuriously large affairs and neither my brother or I was able to eat an entire slice solo. I have no active recollection of how we discovered this, but as it turned out, my brother and I each liked a different part of Luby's chocolate pie. He craved the meringue topping with the chocolate sprinkles, and I wanted nothing more than the chocolate pudding and pie crust below.

Once we figured that out we developed a divide and conquer system by turns. My brother started out, cleanly devouring the top off the pie slice, as I waited impatiently to finish off the parts below. Perfection.

Years pass, some things change. If I were to order a piece of pie in a restaurant these days, it wouldn't be chocolate and I'm pretty sure I'd finish it all by myself. And, as I usually attend worship services alone, my family and I rarely go out to eat Sunday lunch.

But one thing hasn't changed. I still love cucumber salad, and was thrilled when I found this simple recipe years ago to address a bit of my nostalgia for that Sunday Luby's experience.
Anytime Cucumber Salad

3-4 large cucumbers, sliced
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dried dill, or 3 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine cucumbers, onions, and dill.
In a saucepan, combine sugar, vinegar, water and salt; bring to a boil. Pour over cucumber mixture.
Cover and chill three hours to overnight. Yield: 6 cups.
After the cucumber/onion mixture has been marinating in the vinaigrette for some time, I like to stir it up and make sure everything gets a chance to be well covered by the liquid. When I store it in a tightly covered container, I just give it a shake.

Even more than cobblers or shortcake or ice cream, cucumber salad is for me, a truly nostalgic taste of summertime. Crisp, cold sweetly vinegary cucumbers mixed in with slightly softened equally vinegary onion bits. Just the antidote for the Texas heat. Do try some!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Simple Summertime Eating:Italian Tuna and Parsley Salad

I have written before how much I enjoy being part of the Tecolote Farm CSA Basket community here in Austin. If I will take the time, if I will allow for the possibilities, each basket offers me deep nurture and sustenance, feeding me in several different ways.

I have been fed spiritually week to week, as I grow in my understanding and appreciation of my relationship to the physical world around me. Every basket is a complex and dazzling display of the myriad ways in which the energy of the sun is transformed into food. There is the old saying that we eat first with our eyes. As I simply sit and look at the vegetables from my basket each week, I am developing a deepening visual appreciation for all the colors, textures, shapes and sizes I encounter there.Tactilely, I am learning which plants invite my touch and which plants are armored in some way - better off handled with care. Some varieties of squash and cucumbers can come with a prickly exterior that quickly reminds a careless cook of the perils of grabbing without looking first.And yes, I am also fed literally - physically. One of the benefits, besides the supply of amazingly fresh, locally organically grown vegetables, is the newsletter and the online support group, both of which provide additional information about the produce, and past that, offer shared favorite ways to prepare meals incorporating the various ingredients we receive week to week.

Because let's face it - these vegetables are not there for us to look at - as gorgeous as they often are. They are ingredients, components, all parts of some future meal.So in the midst of what is an otherwise somewhat hectic week, I was especially tempted by the delightfully simple preparation offered online by one of our basketeers for "Italian Tuna and Parsely Salad". I decided to give in to that temptation and try the proposed dish out for lunch yesterday. I wasn't sorry.

Here is the recipe as offered:
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Italian Tuna and Parsley Salad
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 can tuna
1 small red onion, finely chopped
lemon juice
olive oil
sea salt

Chop the parsley and the onion into small bits. Mix with tuna. Add several spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, as much olive oil as you want, and sea salt. Mix it all together. Chill first or enjoy right away!
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Our baskets offered us Italian flat parsley this week and I had a small red onion left from the week before. I made certain I had a can of tuna packed in olive oil on hand, bought an organic lemon, and I was all set.I also had on hand some non-Salmonella style grape tomatoes, and cucumber from this and past CSA baskets. I had dill umbrels from my garden as well so I decided to make the recipe as directed, taste it, and then add in the additional ingredients to stretch it a bit.

The recipe with it's simple combination of fresh green parsley, lemon, tuna, olive oil, onion, and sea salt is a delicious balance of richness and astringency. Just right for lighter summertime eating. After I added in a few chopped tomatoes, a liberal sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, chopped dill and a bit of chopped cucumber for additional "crunch", I was transported.I ate two thirds of this for lunch yesterday, plated on a bed of baby arugula. Delicious. I offered the last third, split into two mounds, each resting on its own small romaine leaf, as an amuse bouche prior to dinner last night. Again, just a wonderful balance of richness and astringency. With my liberal addition of black pepper, also a welcomed appetite stimulus. In Texas in June, the heat can often get the better of us, especially around dinnertime.

If you are avoiding mayonnaise as some (obviously deeply disturbed) folks are, then this is absolutely your true path to tuna salad happiness. If you love mayonnaise (as I and all completely normal people do), then this variation on tuna salad is simply one more way to enjoy a lighter meal during the summertime months, when, let's face it - most of us (read:ME) could use fewer calories while we bare more of ourselves to the world on a regular basis.

Would this taste any better on a Tuscan hillside than in an air conditioned west Austin home? Maybe. (Ok, probably!) If you are willing to help me personally test that theory I'd be happy to hear from you. Until then, try this wherever you are. And enjoy!