A Very Berry Weekend

Finally, we have berries. Not that they are the first berries we have picked in the garden, just the first time we were able to pick enough to do something other than put a few over ice cream or such. With that many berries there was only one thing to do – a berry crisp of course.

Maybe four or five years ago, basically at the very start of when the garden went in, my sister and her family brought back a few vines of a wild blackberry they found in a river bottom while hiking. Because the garden was not in yet and because it was only one vine and because I had no idea one berry vine could take over a whole yard at that time, I put it along the back fence. There it grew. Slowly for a couple of years, then last year it took off; not the berry part mind you, just the thorny vine. This isn’t one of those “friendly” blackberry vines with soft thorns you can easily get out of your way. Oh no. It is mean and aggressive and likes to hug you every chance it gets.

Then, this year, it exploded in berries. The energy of the plant did not go into vine production like last year. Last weekend I was able to pick maybe four cups of blackberries, two strawberries, and a half cup or a little more of raspberries. Combine that with two peaches, some sugar and spice, sprinkle a little crumb topping over it, bake, and viola! you have a fabulous summer treat. A little vanilla ice cream over the top does not hurt either.

Below is the basic recipe we used. Feel free to substitute berries, do a rhubarb and strawberry version, or anything you are up for. Our berries were very sweet so we did not need much sugar. If your berries are tart or if you are using rhubarb, you might have to adjust the sugar a bit.

The result was a wonderful crisp. The fresh peaches provided a nice taste contrast to the fresh berries.


WILD BERRY AND PEACH CRISP

Ingredients

    Berry Filling
  • 4 – 5  Cups Berries
  • 2 Ripe Peaches, cubed
  • 1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 1 Teaspoon grated Orange Zest
  • 1 Tablespoon Corn Starch
  • Juice from 1/2 Orange
  • Juice from 1/2 Orange
    Crumb Topping
  • 3/4 Cup All Purpose Gluten Free Flour
  • Heaping 1/4 Cup Light Brown Sugar, lightly packed
  • Heaping 1/4 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
  • 3/4 Cup Quick-Cook Old Fashioned Oatmeal (gluten-free if relevant to you)
  • Heaping 1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 9 Tablespoons Cold Unsalted Butter, cubed

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the berry filling: toss the berries, peaches, granulated sugar and the orange zest together in a large bowl. In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in the orange juice and then mix it into the berries. Pour the mixture into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish and place it on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

For the crumb topping: in a bowl combine the flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and oatmeal. Stir to mix. Add butter and use a pastry cutter to combine ingredients until the dry ingredients are moist and the mixture is in crumbles. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit, covering it completely.

Bake for about 1 hour, until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Serve warm with ice cream.

Enjoy!


Watching and Waiting, and More Waiting

It’s that time of year when the majority of work in the garden is comprised of waiting. Then more waiting. The garden is planted. I can watch the plants grow, the blossoms turn to fruit and vegetables, and, ever so slowly, things ripen. Some of the early vegetables share a glimpse of what is to come, others are more guarded and secretive. Some of the plants were started in February, which makes for a long wait. As long as the weather holds, the irrigation keeps working, and we don’t have a problem with deer or insects, the garden should continue to come into its own and show me what its got. If I’m observant the garden will teach me what I did right and wrong so I can show it what I’ve got next year.

The cherry tomatoes are always the first to ripen. So far we have picked one Fox Cherry tomato. We have a lot of tomatoes on the vines and the vines look healthy. We even have a mystery tomato plant that is starting to look like a paste tomato. If it is a paste tomato and if we get a bumper harvest, I just might have to try making a fermented tomato paste. I have tasted one made by someone else and the flavor was so much deeper than typical store-bought paste that they are almost incomparable.

Over the past week the tomatillos have started forming their lanterns and inside little tomatillos. These will eventually be used in our salsa verde and Colorado Green Chile Pork.

One of the serrano chile peppers I overwintered is quite large and setting lots of fruit. I think we will have an ample serrano supply this summer between that plant and the others in the garden. For now the chilies are small and look like ornaments decorating a tree.

The Shishito peppers at the top, which seem very abundant on our two plants, were simply roasted until charred in a hot pan with a little oil than sprinkled with sea salt.

As I sit and wait, the insects are busy enjoying the the flowers and blossoms. Over the past few years we have made an effort to grow more flowers for bees and butterflies. That effort seems to be working.

 

Let it Rain

The rains have started up by the garden. This was one of the longest dry stretches we have had, lasting about 68 days. Luckily, we did not have the crazy hot weather we had last year. Because of better temperatures, the garden looks much healthier this year – it is greener, fruit has set, and we had fewer plants die. Being a recently converted optimist, I have high hopes for our eventual harvests.

A lot of the tomato plants have tomatoes on them. As usual, the Avamatoes are growing out of control and volunteering additional plants all around the garden. I gave up trying to cage or stake the Avamatoes as that just made harvesting the tiny tomatoes harder. What is scary is we have more blossoms at this time of year than I remember having in the past. The big tomato varieties are slower for now, but I expect that to change.

We are experimenting with three new-to-us sweet pepper varieties: Shishito, Cupid, and Carmen. So far they are all growing great and we have had quite a few Shishito peppers to eat.

The blackberry plant decided to put more energy into growing fruit than last year. Last year we had very long vines and little fruit – not really what we were after. This year is just the opposite. It is also the first year we have had raspberries from that vine.

Scents through the Garden

Those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.

Frances Bacon, Of Garden, 1625

As I walk through the garden, running my fingers through the mints and lemon balm, stopping to smell the flowers, crushing thyme between my fingers, smells mingling and combining, a smile comes over my face. Am I smiling because of the scents themselves or because I know what will come from them – teas and rubs, flowers in a vase, something soon to come from the kitchen, miraculously transformed by a little leaf or bud. Does it matter? I think not.

Smelling the herbs is always something we do when the kids are in the garden and I give them a pop quiz – to help them remember, to associate a smell with a visual cue, with a name. Maybe one day they will actually taste one of the herbs. Until then it is fun to hear some of their responses.

When we get to the lemon balm and I rub my fingers through, I smell lemon. I know, not very creative or imaginative. When I ask Ava what she smells, her answer is always “lemon cake!” Much more imaginative and hopeful – hopeful because it is unlikely there is any lemon cake in the kitchen. When Jake smells lemon balm he smells lemonade. The two go so well together on a hot summer evening, especially with a bit of ice cream on top.

For another few weeks most of the plants ready to harvest are herbs, and kale, lots of kale. Most everything is planted and growing, waiting only upon the plants I’ll put in for fall. We have little tomatoes starting on some of the plants, which look much healthier than this time last year because of a better weather pattern. There are Amamatoes popping up all over the garden while the Big Jake’s are nice and orderly – somehow the tomatoes are mimicking the behavior of their namesakes. The peppers are coming on strong, and there will be plenty to try in various recipes; some of the peppers being new to us and others old favorites. Our biggest problems so far have been that something keeps eating the little cucumber starts and a hiccup in the irrigation killed a few sweet potato starts. The cucumbers are well covered now so hopefully they will still be there when I get back up to the garden. The irrigation to the sweet potatoes has been fixed, twice, so hopefully it will keep working.

Limoncello

One of the legends, the one I choose to believe, surrounding the origin of limoncello is that during times of a forgotten era, fisherman along the Italian coast would sip a little of this lemony spirit to ward off the cold before heading out onto the Mediterranean in the morning. Having spent a lot of time fishing off the coast of Maine, through predawn fog and rain, and blustery winter days harvesting and processing shellfish, I appreciateĀ  attempts, especially one as tasty as limoncello, to ward off the cold and damp while heading out onto the unforgiving ocean.

Our foray into limoncello is far less romantic and was not spurred on by warding off cold, damp conditions. One of our largest winter crops is lemons. Not knowing what to do with the 100 or so lemons we would get off the lemon tree every year, and not wanting to waste such a delectable home-grown fruit, we looked into what we could make. Eventually we came across a recipe in the paper for limoncello. That happy happenstance sent us on our journey.

The most basic recipe for limoncello is lemon peel, alcohol, sugar and water. Over the years we have experimented with varying the potency of alcohol we use to steep the lemon peels. We have tried 80 and 100 proof vodka. We have tried pure grain alcohol, and various combinations of all that. We have found we prefer 100 proof vodka. We have also found that any amount of pure grain alcohol will result in a cloudy end product – the more pure grain alcohol used, the cloudier it will be. We have also varied the amount of sugar used. We like ours far less sweet than traditional.


LIMONCELLO

Ingredients

  • 1/2 gallon 100 proof vodka (2 quarts, 1.89 ml)
  • Zest (no pith) from 17 fresh lemons and a few lemon leaves if available
  • 4 cups spring water
  • 2 cups sugar

Zest 17 lemons with as little pith as possible. Put zest and lemon leaves in a container about twice the size as the volume of the vodka. Add vodka. Wait at least three weeks for the lemon oils to be extracted.

Make a simple syrup by combining water and sugar. Heat until sugar is dissolved. Let cool. Add simple syrup to vodka. Wait another three weeks.

Remove zest and leaves, then strain through either a fine strainer or cheese cloth (the latter especially if a rasp zester was used on the peel).

Transfer to a nice jar. Chill and serve.

Enjoy!


The major breakthrough in increased production came a number of years ago. The first few years, when we would only do a batch or two, we would use either a vegetable peeler, a zester, or a rasp grater to peel the lemons. These worked ok for a small number of lemons; however, to get to full utilization of the lemons, and increasingly of friends’ lemons, a new method was needed. That is when I decided to try an old-fashioned apple peeler. We disconnected the coring and slicing part, and, with firm lemons, ran them through. It worked like a charm, taking long segments of the peel that are completely free of the bitter pith. As long as the lemons are fresh and firm, this works great and quickly peels the pile of lemons we go through. If we follow that with a rugged juicer we can make lots of limoncello then juice all those lemons and freeze the juice for use the rest of the year.

We enjoy the limoncello ice-cold as an after-dinner digestif and mixed as part of a potent cocktail. How do you enjoy yours?