Category Archives: Out of the Dirt

a striped serpent in a sea of cucumbers

I’ve been a very lazy pickler this year. By this time last year I was feeling guilty that I had only made two batches of dill pickles and one of bread and butter pickles. And this summer I still haven’t pickled anything at all! It certainly hasn’t been for lack of ingredients because my cucumbers are coming in way faster than we can eat them. I’m picking at least three and up to ten a day!

Luckily friends keep coming by for fresh produce and I’ve been sending them all home with bags full of cukes (plus squash of course, basil and now corn too). I love feeding my little community but I know I’m going to be lamenting my own lack of pickles in a couple months. Better get to it soon.

I always try to grow several cucumber varieties but this year was the first time I tried the Armenian “striped serpent.” It hasn’t been very prolific but the arm’s-length (and I have long arms!) fruit are spectacular looking!


sorry squirrels

I've written before about the old walnut tree in my yard and how I usually leave all the nuts for the squirrels to enjoy. That was until I discovered a recipe for Nocino, an Italian liqueur made from green (unripe) walnuts on Elise Bauer's blog, "Simply Recipes."

Since I recently bottled my spring batch of limoncello, all my glass canisters were empty and ready to be filled up with a new cooking project. It was either this or a big batch of pickles (which frankly would not have been a bad idea either since I'm drowning in cucumbers.) But of course I never can pass up trying something new.

So this weekend I harvested several buckets of walnuts (I actually did leave quite a few on the upper branches to ripen for the squirrels) and set up a Nocino work station outside on my garden table. I love any opportunity to prepare (or eat!) food outdoors.

In Italy, Nocino is typically made in late June when the nuts are still very soft and easy to cut. But like everything in my garden this year, I seem to be running almost a month behind. My walnuts were starting to develop a bit of a shell inside, but luckily it was thin enough that I could still cut and quarter them with my cleaver. It was actually quite a bit easier than zesting all those lemons for the limoncello!

After they were all cut up I put them into my glass canisters with vodka, sugar and spices. I followed Elise's recipe (which she had originally gotten from David Lebovitz' book Room For Dessert) but varied the spices slightly and added in a little star anise for fun.

Almost immediately the green color started to leach out of the walnut skins and into the vodka. Fun science! Apparently it will continue to get darker and darker over the next six weeks until it's a very dark brown.

When I was researching Nocino I also came across recipes for French green walnut liqueurs, green walnut wine as well as pickled green walnuts. Has anyone tried any of these?

I hope I like the outcome of this experiment because the preparation was unbelievably quick and easy. If it's really good, the squirrels are going to be in big trouble next year!

living in the moment

“Live in the present. Do the things that need to be done. Do all the good you can each day. The future will unfold.”¬† —Peace Pilgrim

Those were the first words I read today and I wanted to pass them along. I’ve mentioned before that I subscribe to a daily inspirational Word for the Day from A¬†Network for Grateful Living. The above was today’s quote. Even if the message is something we all know, it’s amazing how much we (well, at least I) need to be regularly reminded of it. I couldn’t have started the day with better marching orders.

And as for the photo above…after months of effort I’ve finally completed my newest addition to the garden–a small pond. I’ll be writing more about this in days to come, but in the meantime I just wanted to share a moment of the serenity.

stuffed mystery squash

I notice in the winter I tend to write a lot about food and cooking and in the summer more about gardening and the outdoors. Most of the reasons for that are fairly obvious–when it’s cold we stay indoors, around the hearth and our bodies crave more calories. In the summer we’re outdoors, there’s more gardening to do and less time to be fussing over a hot stove.

But that’s not to say my interest in food or cooking wanes in the summer (far from it!) It’s just that I find I have less to say about it. The produce of summer really requires so little culinary intervention in order to be wonderful. A simple sliced tomato with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of good olive oil needs no grand preparation to be sublime.

In the past few weeks I’ve been eating many delicious meals straight from the garden, but most have involved so little actual cooking it seems silly to write about them. But occasionally I have a new insight or twist on something that I want to make a note of.

This past weekend I was trying to get a grip on the squash overload again (it’s gotten to the point where anyone who visits me is not allowed to leave without taking at least one squash home) but didn’t have much time to cook and wanted to whip up something quick and easy with ingredients I had on hand. I’ve been making a lot of stuffed zucchini lately because the kids love them and they are so versatile–great served hot or cold, at a picnic or at the dinner table. So I decided to make a variant on that using my cute round grapefruit-size squash instead.

A digression about these squash. Sometimes I’m a very meticulous gardener–carefully documenting what, when, where, how I’m planting. Other times I get impulsive and whimsical, planting this and that here and there and thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to make a note of this, I’ll remember what I did.” And then of course I inevitably forget and as seeds start sprouting I find myself staring quizzically at the leaf shapes trying to discern what these plants are. This year I’ve had a couple instances of this, including with these squash. I’m almost positive I planted the “Rond de Nice” variety. But as far as I know these squash are always green. Yes, most green squash will mature to orange but these are starting out that way. Any thoughts on this out there? Is there an orange “Rond de Nice” or is it something else?

Anyway, back to cooking…I started with my typical stuffed zucchini formula (saute onions with the squash interior then add bread crumbs, grated parmesan, herbs and eggs) but because the size of these squash made a larger portion, I decided to make it more of a hearty main course by also adding a little of my homemade breakfast sausage which I had in the freezer from this past March. Then I roasted them for about 40 minutes.

I thought the results were very tasty and the presentation looked cute too. The only thing I didn’t like was that unlike zucchini, the skin on these was a little too tough and strong-tasting to eat. But there was still plenty to enjoy with just the filling. Now if only I could identify what squash these actually are!

corn on the 4th of july

When I was little I remember my father (who grew up in Ohio) saying corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July." But once I started growing my own corn I realized that unless he was talking about the knee height of a giant, that saying certainly didn't match my experience.

Case in point, today my corn is eight feet high! Granted, we have a long growing season here in California, but corn shoots up so fast I don't know how late you'd have to plant for it to be only knee high by this date. (Can anyone comment on this old adage?)

In my garden this week the corn tassels emerged followed by the first beginnings of a few ears of corn. It's always so exciting to see the tall grassy stalks suddenly transformed by the protruding ears. And I love seeing the beautiful corn silk in the sun.

Last year, I harvested a small crop of corn in the middle of August. This year, I'm growing about twice as much and I think it the harvest will be earlier. Looking forward to it! But in the meantime, today I'm celebrating my independence from factory farming by enjoying the rest of all my homegrown produce!

garden grab bag

I usually try to write about single topics here but since I've fallen way behind in documenting what's happening in the garden, this post is going to be a bit of a catch-all (though by no means comprehensive!) In my printed gardening journals this is when I would just scribble a list of disconnected notes without much description.

As shown in the photo above, my walnut tree is covered with nuts. I actually don't like walnuts (the tree was here long before I was) so I usually just let the squirrels enjoy the bounty. But I do appreciate so many other aspects of the tree–it's visual beauty throughout the seasons (even in winter), the shade it provides in the heat of summer, and the food it offers to the woodpeckers who frequent it. There's something about this tree that draws me to it and almost every day I have a moment where I just stand and stare up into its branches.

At the beginning of last month we harvested the very last of our spring carrots. This was actually one of the kids' gardening projects. I always get a "kaleidoscope" seed mix of red, purple, yellow and orange carrots for them to plant. They aren't necessarily the sweetest or best tasting carrots I've ever had, but the kids love being surprised by what color is going to come out of the ground. And they do look so pretty cut up in a salad together. (Unless of course it's a freak carrot like the one we picked in April!)

Most of our summer crops are going full tilt now, and I'm getting almost frightened by the "Little Shop of Horrors"-like pumpkin plant that has grown out of the garden and across the patio. This is the second year the kids are trying their luck at growing giant
(Dill's Atlantic) pumpkins. This variety supposedly can
produce up to 800 lb. pumpkins. Yikes! You could take Cinderella to the ball in one of those.

Last year we had some relatively big pumpkins (in the 50 lb range) but lost a few right at the end to rot and squirrels. Hopefully we'll do better this year. There's no scale reference in these photos, so please note that each of these leaves is 22" across! Scary!


And while we're seeing the last of the spring crops (though we're still eating peas like crazy) and enjoying the peaking summer crops, it's comforting to see the start of some of our late summer and fall crops, like kale. For years I really only planted a summer garden, but I feel so much more in sync with the cycles of nature when I grow food year round. Which reminds me, I better get some broccoli planted soon!


quail in the garden

A large part of my enjoyment in the garden comes from watching and listening to its animal life. I can sit for long periods watching squirrels eating seeds out of my sunflowers or just listening to the sound of a woodpecker boring holes in the walnut tree. Though with the exception of my chickens (who I realize I haven't said much about lately) and the occasional lizard, I don't usually stop to photograph or write about my animal observations. I guess because animal-watching tends to be a very quiet "in the moment" kind of meditation for me.

My kids are also really into animal identification and observation. Last summer I made them "animal logs" for tallying what they could find in our yard. Our garden is fenced but right outside it's commonplace to see deer, hare, and coyotes.  Inside the yard there are squirrels, lizards and a wide variety of birds. One of my favorites to watch are the quails. There is a male-female couple who I've been observing for quite awhile. They have a very touching and protective relationship and go everywhere together; I've never seen one without the other very close by.

One of the first things I learned from watching them was that the plume on their heads is actually six individual feathers. It surprised me that it was always six and not a variable amount. When I'm gardening they are sociable companions and I like listening to their chattering pips. I also love to watch them take their "dust baths" by burrowing into the dirt and ruffling their feathers just like the chickens do. I'm not sure why it's so entertaining, but this–and their high speed run–just make me laugh.

Unfortunately the one downside of the quail is that they love to eat my young seedlings (arugula is one of their favorites) so I've had to use netting to keep them out of some areas. But now that we've worked out our boundaries, we are coexisting quite nicely. I'm glad to be growing food for them and having their company in return.

Update 7 July 09: About a week afer writing this I spied the whole quail brood with lots of tiny new chicks! They are extremely cute but unfortunately I haven't been able to get near enough to take a decent photo.

the summer squash glut begins

I can't believe it's only been two weeks since my first zucchini harvest and already I'm starting to have that panicky "I can't find enough ways to cook squash" feeling. After so many years of growing summer squash, I don't know why I'm still amazed at how fast and furiously those plants produce. By fall I will have run through a crazy number of recipes for them (including a surprisingly wonderful chocolate zucchini cake) until I can't even look at another squash. But for now I'm still happily enjoying the typical savory dishes.

Last night I made a delicious zucchini and potato gratin (with the Yukon Golds I harvested at the end of last month). The recipe is from one of the food blogs I read regularly, 101 Cookbooks. Besides being a great way to showcase my freshly picked squash, the recipe also includes a tasty and versatile parsley-oregano sauce. I made a double portion of just the sauce so I could have more on hand. Today I drizzled it over an open faced tuna sandwich for lunch and then also added some to a white bean and red pepper "hummus" that I made this evening.

Any other favorite summer squash recipes out there?

happy accidents

Recently a blogger who I enjoy reading (Hank Shaw of Hunter Gardener Angler Cook) wrote a post about success and failure in the garden. It's something all gardeners, no matter how experienced, can relate to. Every season there's some crop that does amazingly well right next to something else that's a complete disaster. Whether it's because of the weather, pests, or simply "operator error" it seems that no one is immune from the fate of nature.

This year I've already had my share of disappointments and things not going as planned. A big part of this was due to my wheat-growing experiment which dramatically delayed the planting of most of my summer crops. That caused a domino effect–in order to not fall too far behind I started some seeds (like my beans) inside. Unfortunately they got so mature and root bound before the wheat was done I ended up giving them away to my friend Amy for her garden.

Then I started another batch which didn't germinate well. When I finally was able to harvest the wheat, I planted the new scrawnier bean seedlings but in a few days they were completely decimated by pests (not sure what yet, but my current guess is earwigs.)

Beans have got to be one of the most foolproof crops to grow in the garden (usually my kids are the ones to plant them!) so it's hard to believe that I'm now nursing half-dead plants and hoping for the best. (Also set out beer traps tonight to see if it's earwigs or not.)

But for every mind-boggling disaster there are also many gifts. Sometimes they even come together. Another mishap this season was my zinnias. Again, one of the easiest flowers you can possibly grow but it just goes to show–no matter how experienced you are you can't get cocky with Mother Nature. I started a whole flat of these inside but for some reason none of the seeds germinated (I have no idea why.) By the time I accepted the failure it was really too late to start over, so I resigned myself to not having my annual zinnia patch this year.

Then this past weekend I was out in the garden weeding my gravel pathways (which are getting filled with thistles and other unwanted plants) when I noticed some small familiar leaf shapes among them–was it? Could it be? Yes, zinnias! They had obviously self-sowed from last year. The more I looked, the more I found. I was able to uproot and successfully transplant 32 zinnias from the gravel to the flower beds. Hurrah!

Another happy accident is the photo at the top. All winter I had what I thought was an enormous weed growing right by my front door. I kept letting it grow, partially because I was too lazy to deal with it and also because I was curious to see exactly how big it would get and what it would turn into. Being much more of a vegetable gardener than a floral expert, I had no idea this "weed" was a volunteer Hollyhock! Imagine my surprise and delight when it burst forth with these tall stalks of beautiful yellow flowers. It looks stunning against my brown house and seems like it was intentionally planted. Many thanks to the bird or the breeze that carried the seed.

Of course (as always) I can't help but take the lessons learned in the garden as life lessons as well. I've recently had to deal with some seriously unpleasant "weeds" in my personal life. But who knows, with time maybe these too will turn into beautiful flowers. Or like the zinnias that failed only to have a second chance by seeds from the past. During dark times it's good to remember that we never know what gifts life has yet to give us.

the purslane patch

Last February my friend Carla wrote a post on her blog Local Forage about the amazing nutritional benefits of purslane. I love to forage for wild edibles like this but I also like growing new things in the garden. So last spring I ordered purslane seeds online (I found them at Sand Mountain Herbs and Territorial Seed) and planted them in my lettuce beds. I ended up with a vigorous crop for most of the summer and was happy to share a big bag of it with Carla (which we ended up eating as an impromptu picnic salad during a show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.)

Since then I've learned why this plant grows wild; it's really a very hardy weed. This year I didn't sow a single seed and it's now growing vigorously all over my yard. At this point I have so much I haven't quite known what to do with it all. Even though purslane is a tasty (and very nutritious) plant, there's only so much I can eat or share with friends. But today (in an incredibly delayed thought process) it finally dawned on me that I should feed it to the chickens. Doh!

A couple months ago I wrote about starting my "poultry garden" with several plants that would be beneficial for the chickens. I followed this up a few weeks later by also planting rue. I'm not sure why the purslane never crossed my mind. It will be a healthy treat for the pullets now but once they start laying it should be even more beneficial. It's not only the richest source of Omega-3 fatty acids of any green,
leafy vegetable but it's also high in magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and iron. That's got to result in better tasting eggs! 

I tossed an armfull in the run this morning and the girls devoured it. They've been decimating my chard so this is good news all the way around. Hooray! Apparently purslane was Gandhi's favorite food, and now that it's performing so many useful functions in my garden I'm really starting to understand why.